It was a benefit at the Fillmore West for KPFA, the Conscience and Culture radio station of Berkeley, and the place was filled much beyond the legal capacity. The bill was mixed; several eminent bores and some bands as talented as Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, a rising group that has succeeded in capturing the essence of country music.
But the crowd had come, virtually to a man, to see Creedence Clearwater. It was an overwhelmingly suburban audience, and from the remarks hovering in the air that was rank with sweat and deodorant-derivatives, most people had never heard of KPFA and would be scarcely impressed with it even if it was explained. “But, it’s a vital part of the liberal-academic community, I tell you.” So the clean-cuts and bouffants waited through several hours of barbiturate-rock. Only the light show and the passage of joints differentiated this show from 1960-Friday-Night-At-The-Boys’-Club.
When Creedence did come on, there was no stopping the audience. If you didn’t manage to force your way to a point where you could barely see, you would have had no way of knowing whether Creedence was there or if their records were being played.
In all probability, there is no other rock group that can play its material so letter-perfect, exactly-like-the-record as Creedence. Even John Fogerty’s harp solo on “Keep On Chooglin'” was note for note.
The crowd lived it, although spontaneity was as lacking in the crowd as in the band. Except for the dedication of “Bad Moon Rising” to R. Milhous Nixon, it was entirely predictable. As far as Fillmore groups go, it was more a demonstration than a performance. But, the crowd nearly became dangerous when Creedence refused to do an encore, and left in a bad mood.
Still, it was beautiful.
Song after song was clear, distinct and memorable. Lack of spontaneity can also be translated as lack of waste, and in the case of Creedence, it’s the latter that’s appropriate. They play songs. Period.
Creedence is simply not an improvising group (neither were the Beatles) and their approach is as successful as it is unusual. At this writing, they are the biggest draw in American rock. Their style and talents have also afforded them complete mastery of the AM radio. They think and play in terms of singles.
“A single means you’ve got to get it across in a very few minutes. You don’t have twenty minutes on each side of an LP. All it really means is you’ve got to think a little harder about what you’re doing. We learned from the singles market not to put a bunch of padding on your album. Each song’s got to go someplace.” So says John Fogerty, the heart and brains behind Creedence Clearwater.
There are those who feel that to write for the AM radio is a sign of either decadence or lack of talent. Fogerty:
“Most of this is a built-in uptightness … ‘Singles is what I dug when I was little, therefore I have to change now. I’ve grown up, I don’t like top-40’ … which is dumb. Why not change top-40?”
This attitude and goal characterizes the Creedence-Fogerty position. They have chosen to play to the popular audience at as high a level as possible. They are open and aboveground. No group that comes to mind has relied less on funk, esoterica, cultism, charisma or extravaganza and made it work so well, so successfully and so artfully. And this seems due to the talent and vision of John Fogerty and to the fact that Creedence has been together, playing rock, for ten years.
John Fogerty, as singer, lead guitar and songwriter, melds the band; Creedence’s style must, therefore, be largely his style, just as the Byrds’ style is that of Roger McGuinn. Fogerty’s singing is utterly distinctive, his guitar playing is expressive and unadorned, and his songwriting is rarely matched.
Fogerty’s voice has ferocious power and an edge on it that can cut through the worst static on the cheapest car radio. He growls and shouts and scats. His range is not great, but neither is Mick Jagger’s.
“When I first started singing, I really couldn’t imitate anyone, because I didn’t sound like anybody. The first song I really sang a lot with the band was ‘Hully-Gully.’ It happened to be in the right range for me and it sounded all right…. It was physically impossible for me to sound like a lot of the people I dug.” He especially liked Little Richard and Howling Wolf, and slight ghosts of both can be detected in his style.
His guitar work isn’t innovative; rather it’s very solid and frequently beautiful. It complements and accompanies his singing and seems to spring from the same source and sound. “My favorite guitar player … and I only based it on two records I had … was Carl Perkins. Also Scotty Moore. Low boogie line stuff.” Those elements are all present in John’s guitar playing, but it’s difficult to hear any particular source. After ten years, it’s Creedence Clearwater.
As Creedence must have come a long way in their first eight years, they have come an equal distance since their first record. All too frequently, a group surfaces with an excellent album that proves to be the consummation of their talents and thereafter goes downhill. Parital proof that Creedence is no flash in the pan, as too many rock sophisticates tend to think, is that their albums have improved with each subsequent release. Willy And The Poor Boys is the best one yet.
Folk saying to the contrary, you can tell it’s a good record just from the cover. The picture of the group standing around in front of Duck Kee’s market in grungy West Oakland replete with gut-bucket bass, washboard, ol’ git’ar an’ mouf harp. Couple teeny little black kids standing around.
The picture was, in fact, shot about a block from the Fantasy studios. While the shooting was going on, they were fooling around on the jug-band instruments. They played something they liked, went back to Fantasy, cut it, and put it on the album. It appears as “Poorboy Shuffle” and while it won’t eclipse Gus Cannon and the Jug Stompers, it is pleasant and might even turn on some kid enough to pursue some real jug band music.
The rest of the album is in the basic Clearwater mode, but with considerably more variation and imagination than Creedence has previously produced. There are probably six hit singles on the album; when Fogerty says, “We try to fill our albums with as many hits as possible,” he means it.
“Down On The Corner” and “Fortunate Son”; you know those. Two of the other cuts are fully as powerful, and with regard to content, probably the most interesting things Creedence has done. Fogerty regards rock as being 80 per cent sound and beat; the other 20 per cent is worth playing around with. At this point, he feels no need to confine himself to love and its many distorted forms as subject matter.
The first two albums had no songs that could be construed as even slightly political. Green River had a couple of quasi-social songs. Willy has three songs of political impact, the most obvious being “Fortunate Son.” Yet Fogerty denied that he was a more political person than he had been. “They put too much weight on political references in songs. They think a song will save the world. That’s absurd.” Yet, at the same time he passionately believed that a song could have a message. This curious paradox can be resolved by listening to “It Came Out Of The Sky,” which is message and comment without moralizing. It is also a very funny song, as funny as Dylan at his best. That’s aside from being just a great rock song.
Fogerty’s lyrics are usually difficult to distinguish—”A lot of the fun of rock is trying to figure out what he said”—but these are worth it.
The song is worth repeating in its entirety:
Well, it came out of the sky, landed just a little south of Moline.
Jody got out of the tractor, couldn’t believe what he seen;
Laid on the ground and shook for fearin’ for his life;
Then he ran all the way to town screamin’ It Came Out Of The Sky.
Well, the crowd gathered round and the scientists said it was marsh gas;
Spiro came and made a speech about raisin’ the Mars tax;
Vatican said, “Well, the Lord has come”;
Hollywood rushed out an epic film;
Ronnie the Popular said it was a Communist plot.
The newspapers came and made Jody a national hero;
Walter and David said put him on a network TV show;
White House said put the thing in the Pool Room;
Vatican said, “No, it belongs to Rome.”
Jody said it’s mine but you can have it for 17 million.
Comment would be superfluous. Yet, it shows at what Fogerty is superb—compression. He’s managed to get three worlds of paranoia into one short, entertaining, musical song. If he fails to take the subject very seriously, well, to steal a quote, “it’s too serious not to be taken humorously.”
“Don’t Look Now, It Ain’t You Or Me,” despite what was said before, is a song that both questions and moralizes. “Who takes the coal from the mines? / Who takes the salt from the earth? / Who makes the promise you don’t have to keep? / Don’t look now, it ain’t you or me.”
Why does that matter?
“Why does that matter? That’s exactly why I wrote the song. We’re all so ethnic now, with our long hair and shit. But, when it comes to doing the real crap that civilization needs to keep it going . . . who’s going to be the garbage collector? None of us will. Most of us will say, ‘That’s beneath me, I ain’t gonna do that job.'”
OK, it’s a pretty straight point of view and one that can be used (and is used) against us all. But, it’s one that is important, and it’s to Fogerty’s credit that he attempts to deal with it. His vision is broader than that of most rock lyricists. The song is simple and probably the m