Monday, 26 May 2014

True blues

The White Stripes certainly have a lot to answer for. Thanks to them, I woke up to the delights of the blues, yet another genre of music for me to indulge myself in. It’s not that I ever disliked the blues before, more that it never really drew me in. My first proper encounters with blues music came in my mid-teens. As well as finding out Fleetwood Mac were once an awesome blues band, my college mate Nils Horley would play loads of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and BB King in his bedsit when I called round to visit.

For a while I thought I really liked blues, but only Jimi and Zep stuck with me and I became largely disinterested in the rest of it over time. The White Stripes really awakened my senses, as I’ve already explained and one of the things that I became fascinated in was the origins of the music they played. While the blues I had been exposed to seemed rather corporate and to a large extent sanitised, the White Stripes showed me how raw and emotional the blues could be – and as I found out, that was exactly how it was meant to be.

Shortly after moving to Wales, I guy who worked in the same aisle as me in the large, soulless open-plan office we occupied would lend me lots of blues CDs which allowed me to develop a deeper appreciation for the genre. I found myself enjoying the early pre-WW2 artists in particular, although the electric pioneers in the post-war years also intrigued me. I began to explore and discover some wonderful music, and my journey into the blues continues to this day.

A starting point really has to be Robert Johnson. I suppose you could call Johnson the ultimate bluesman. An itinerant musician with an eye for the ladies (not just an eye, as it turned out…), his life is steeped in legend. The old tale of ‘selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for being able to play guitar’ is probably the most told story in rock and roll folklore. His subsequent mysterious death, seemingly of poisoning, likely administered by a jealous husband, at the age of 27 has become the template for the rock and roll death[1]. In just two studio sessions (in November 1936 and June 1937) he accrued a small collection of recordings – just the 29 songs – yet remains arguably the singular most influential figure in rock & roll before the 1950s.

Every single one of Johnson's songs has been covered multiple times across many spectrums of popular music. Only last year Nick Cave mentioned him in the lyrics to Higgs Boson Blues (from his remarkable and brilliant album ‘Push The Sky Away’), a song which incidentally also refers to Miley Cyrus both as herself and Hannah Montana!

  I came upon a crossroad, the night was hot and black
  I see Robert Johnson with a ten dollar guitar strapped to his back
  Lookin' for a tune
  Well here comes Lucifer with his canon law
  And a hundred black babies runnin' from his genocidal jaw
  He got the real killer groove
  Robert Johnson and the devil man, don't know who's gonna rip off who

Cave in fact is most certainly one of many great products of Robert Johnson’s legacy. He’s rooted in the blues both musically and, in terms of dark imagery and storytelling, lyrically too. But even before Johnson there were successful blues musicians making a living from their music. One of the most notable was Blind Lemon Jefferson, who became one of the very first successful solo recording artists. Jefferson employed a unique playing style coupled with his distinctive high-pitched voice. He recorded in the region of 100 tracks between 1926 and 1929 and reportedly earned enough money to buy a car and employ chauffeurs. The good old blues myths and legends pervade in Jefferson’s story too though, particularly around his death. Like Johnson, there is the ‘jealous husband poisoning’ theory, also one of him being mugged. The most likely is a heart attack[2], though of course, this isn’t quite as good a fable as your typical rock and roll death.

While we’re talking about distinctive performers, we really should consider Son House, who I think was perhaps the biggest influence on a certain Jack White. Son House was a former preacher and his vocal style often mirrored the frenzied passion of his sermons, not unlike the one adopted by White at his furious best. He had also developed a completely unique slide-guitar technique. Originally active in the 30s and 40s, Son House was rediscovered in the 60s and spent ten years touring and recording, including a remarkable Peel Session, despite increasing bouts of illness. He retired in 1974 from ill health and died of cancer in 1988 aged 86. Son House’s influence is undisputed; he is reputed to have taught Robert Johnson, while everyone from Gary Moore to Depeche Mode has covered or reinterpreted his music.

As the blues evolved, new stars and influential characters emerged. Among the most remarkable were Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Waters in particular is regarded as possibly the biggest influence on modern blues, especially in the UK with artists like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton among his biggest fans as well as Angus Young of AC/DC. I also adore Muddy Waters. His voice warms me, his style relaxes me; I even like the look of the guy! He looked charming, humourous and self-assured. One of my favourite recordings of all time (to feature in a forthcoming 20 Songs… post) is a live take of Got My Mojo Workin’ which Muddy performed with an all-star backing band featuring Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf.

Now there’s another name that cannot be overlooked by even the most casual of blues listeners. Howlin’ Wolf was yet another of those unique performers who became a massive influence on future musicians. As well as the Stones who were huge fans, PJ Harvey has cited the Wolfman as an inspiration, claiming that his single Back Door Man “terrified” her as a child. Once again, the legend and mystique that grew up around these characters adds to the appeal for me. I love the romance and charm of these stories as well as the music itself.

Such a tradition continued with the likes of Captain Beefheart – the story of the recording of ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is every bit as bizarre as the selling one’s soul at the crossroads tale – and Seasick Steve with his yarns of leaving home at 15, living a nomadic existence and being ripped off by a music store owner who sold him a guitar with just 3 strings on it. Then of course the White Stripes’ brother-sister myth… it’s like the blues of the early 20th Century just refuses to die.

And now? Well, the mad, bad and dangerous sound of Left Lane Cruiser keeps blues alive with a smile on its face, while Hell's Kitchen from Switzerland (of all places) add an interesting experimental twist on the genre that the purists may baulk at, but that I find intriguing. Even now, a hundred years on, it just keeps on keeping on with new faces, new stories and new tunes – but the same old blues.

[1] Since Johnson, significant members of the so-called ’27 Club’ include: Brian Jones (Rolling Stones), Alan Wilson (Canned Heat), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ron McKernon (Grateful Dead), Dave Alexander (Stooges), Pete Ham (Badfinger), Chris Bell (Big Star), Pete DeFreitas (Echo & The Bunnymen), Kurt Cobain, Kristen Pfaff (Hole), Richie Edwards (Manic Street Preachers)*, Jeremy Ward (The Mars Volta) and Amy Winehouse.
* Went missing aged 27, presumed dead.
[2] Depending on the version you believe most, he may have died during a blizzard, or after being attacked by a dog.