Music – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival 1968.jpg

Concord Music Group, based in Beverly Hills, recently issued a 6-CD box set of the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival, which is a remastered version of the same package that came out in 2001. Not having heard the first collection, I’m in no position to make a definitive judgment on whether the new one is superior. But I have sufficient faith in recording engineers and modern technology to believe that this is, in fact, the case.

Even better, the appearance of the remastered set provides this writer with an ideal reason, or excuse, to discuss the band and its scope of work. Having been born in 1956, I was able to closely follow Creedence, which flourished between 1968 and 1972. This meant a lot to a budding rock fan/historian.

I don’t recall what I was doing the second Sunday evening in February 1964, but it wasn’t watching the Ed Sullivan Show. I didn’t see “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” until 1968. When Dylan went electric, I didn’t even know he’d been acoustic. And by the time I learned that three members of the Rolling Stones had urinated on a gas station wall, the band was staying in luxury hotels.
In the case of CCR, however, I could stand alongside Baby Boomers born in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Finally, I didn’t have to envy their first-person accounts of hearing some brilliant song or album at the time of its release.

By 1968, when Creedence started producing hits, the British Invasion had become the British occupation. Many of the performers who had arrived in the U.S. in 1964–65 were not only still popular with American fans—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, Dusty Springfield—but they also were arguably releasing their best work ever. They were joined in the latter half of the decade by massively popular Brits such as Cream, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, the repositioned Moody Blues, Ten Years After, and the new Yardbirds, which became Led Zeppelin.
Even during the height of the Vietnam War, when displays of patriotism were despised by a segment of the rock audience, there was some resentment that the British thoroughly dominated the genre. After all, the USA had invented rock and roll back in the 1950s.

From 1969 to 1972, the three greatest years in the history of album rock, Creedence Clearwater Revival was the lone all-American entrant on my “best of” list, which included Derek and the Dominoes, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and the Who. Jimi Hendrix would have qualified, but he only lived halfway through the period; the same for Janis Joplin.
But even in its own country, Creedence was an anomaly. The band’s roots were in the Bay Area, a region not known for producing Creedence’s style of straight ahead rock and roll. At that time, Northern California rock was primarily identified with bands that had started out in 1966 and 1967: the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and others whose names today can be learned from hard-to-find, coveted handbills featuring wild hues and funky fonts.

Then and now, these groups are known for extended musical jams, fondness for LSD, and disdain for standard pop commercialism. With the exception of the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” both from the summer of 1967, the S.F.-based bands did not release many memorable Top 40 hits. Excluding Deadheads, how many rock listeners can name a song by the Grateful Dead other than “Casey Jones,” “Sugar Magnolia,” or “US Blues”?

CRR, on the other hand, placed nine singles in the Top 10 and had seven gold albums. “Proud Mary” is one of the most familiar songs in the history of rock and roll. The band’s leader and primary songwriter, John Fogerty, is one of the most familiar native-born Americans in the history of rock and roll since the late 1960s, just a notch below Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Brian Wilson. In California, the single most important state in the development of post-1964 American rock, CCR joins the Beach Boys, Byrds, and Doors as the most influential and successful artists during the past 45–50 years.

The proof is in this box set, which includes studio, and in many cases, live versions of the Creedence songs that even the most casual listener would expect to hear. It would be a waste, however, to go through this definitive collection for the simple sake of reliving the hits, as if it were the CD equivalent of a “Creedence weekend” on an oldies radio station.

Sure, the major reasons for the band’s success are still relevant: Fogerty’s endearingly nasal vocals; an uncanny ability to come up with the perfect opening guitar riff – strummed or finger- picked – for a particular song; and a fiercely committed rhythm section, which could keep even a sober crowd on the dance floor all night long.

But listen closely to all the songs in this set, and, among many things, you’ll hear evidence that CCR could be creative borrowers. “Sinister Purpose,” for example, features a guitar line at midpoint that sounds just like the famous opening to Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.” The single “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” begins with a fast change of chords on an acoustic guitar that is reminiscent of the Earls’ 1962 hit “Remember Then.” “Wrote a Song for Everyone” from 1969 sounds as if it were written and performed by the Band; then again, many groups emulated the Band during this time, including the Rolling Stones on “Sway” (1971).

CCR also had no hesitation in repeating its own ideas; the opening riff of “It Came Out of the Sky” sounds so much like “Green River,” I had to quickly check the CD sleeve to make sure it was not, in fact, “Green River.”

Yet, what’s most revealing and, from the perspective of rock and roll history, valuable about this collection, are not the songs performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival but the 25 recorded by Tommy Fogerty and the Blue Velvets and the Golliwogs. You will find them on the CD labeled “Disc 1: 1961–67 Pre-Creedence.”

Unlike the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, which in their earliest days were strictly cover bands, the pre-CCR groups performed original songs from the outset. John Fogerty and his older brother, Tom, who died in 1990, began composing while they were attending high school in their hometown of El Cerrito. (John formed a group in junior high with Doug Clifford and Stu Cook, the other two members of CCR.)

The early efforts do not match the better Creedence songs, but that’s no surprise and beside the point. Forget about CCR and instead listen to how with each number the group is approximating the sound of some other person or group popular at the time. For the Fogerty brothers, Top 40 radio was a kind of rock and roll conservatory.

I had fun keeping a list of which well-known performer influenced a particular song. “Come On Baby,” which opens the CD, has a steady, rockin’ beat that reminded me of Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready.” With a title like “Have You Ever Been Lonely,” could song #3 be anything but an attempt to sound like Roy Orbison?

The fourth and final number from Tommy Fogerty and the Blue Velvets, “Bonita,” is surprisingly similar to “Come On, Let’s Go” by Ritchie Valens. It wasn’t often that non-Latino groups were influenced by Valens, even though in his brief life, he recorded some of the best songs of any rock and roll performer in 1958–59.

By the middle of 1964, Tommy Fogerty and the Blue Velvets had turned into the Golliwogs, a name imposed without the band members’ knowledge by one of the owners of their label, Fantasy Records. A silly title, to be sure, but this was the height of the British Invasion, and desperate American record executives did desperate things to keep current. You can imagine the Fantasy guy saying: “Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Zombies . . . I’ve got it! They’ll be the Golliwogs!”
The rest of CD# 1 features Golliwogs’ originals. Along with the sounds of American rock and roll artists from the 1950s and early 1960s, the group beginning in 1965 emulated the sounds of British pop. The Rolling Stones were a greater influence on these new efforts than were the Beatles; “You Better be Careful” features echo and a sneering, Mick Jagger-like vocal, while the wonderfully-titled “You Better Get It Before It Gets You” evokes the gospel-like, white rhythm and blues texture of the Stones’ “Time is On My Side.”

From Tommy Fogerty and the Blue Velvets through the first few years of the Golliwogs, it would have been an exaggeration to speak of a bona fide Bay Area music scene, recognized around the country. That changed drastically in 1966, and it was here that the Fogerty brothers, Clifford and Cook, stopped chasing the latest trends. Though steeped in the blues, the new San Francisco sound was too far removed from mainstream tastes to captivate four guys still hoping to become the biggest band in the world.

The breakthrough occurred in early 1968, after the Golliwogs had adopted the name Creedence Clearwater Revival. Though Tom and John Fogerty had been writing for years, it was not an original composition that truly launched CCR but a cover of “Susie Q,” a song written and recorded by a rockabilly performer named Dale Hawkins in 1957.

Like the Stones’ version of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” and the Beatles’ rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love,” the CCR “Susie Q” is a brilliant recasting of the original. Though Hawkins’ recording is perfectly fine, Creedence turns “Susie Q” into one of the greatest pure rock and roll songs in history.

It opens with a distant, funky beat from Doug Clifford, which, like a fast-moving truck cutting through the dark night on a lonely highway, becomes ever louder and closer in a matter of seconds. At that point, the drums are joined by the electric twang of the opening guitar riff, Cook’s subtle slides along the bass, and the unmistakable vocals of John Fogerty, which for the next four years would define the sound of American rock and roll.

After 8 minutes and 40 seconds, the song doesn’t so much end as calmly depart; the last thing we hear is that same Clifford beat. Contrary to much of the stuff coming out of San Francisco in 1967–68, which has been memorialized in video clips of spinning, swirling hippies trying and failing to keep in time with the music, CCR’s “Susie Q” was a record you really could dance to.
“Susie Q” is the fourth song on the second disc of this collection; the next-to-last is “Proud Mary.” The following four CDs include the hit singles—studio and live versions—album cuts and the lengthy cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” one of the few songs over the last half century to feature three extraordinary interpretations.

After Creedence stopped making hit records, American rock entered a languid phase, until Bruce Springsteen released the “Born to Run” album in 1975. Forty years later, no performer or group from the United States has come close to matching the stature of either of those two.