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Zharth's Music Log (Revisited)

Week 57: Reinterpreting The Blues


(Originally posted on July 30, 2012)

Preface: Rock 'n Roll gained a foothold in American culture in the 1950s, with artists like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley. By the 70s, album-oriented rock was firmly entrenched in the culture. But the 60s was known for the British invasion, where many a talented British artist picked up on American roots and rock music, reinterpreted it their own way, and then presented it fresh to new audiences. It's no secret that a large portion of rock n' roll was inspired by the American blues tradition; many of the elder statesman of classic rock have openly and proudly admitted their debt to the legends of the blues. Muddy Waters himself, who penned the song that gave The Rolling Stones their band name, once said, "the blues had a baby, and they called it rock n' roll." Let's explore some of the most well-known classic rock tracks that are based on a strong foundation in the blues, yet that demonstrate the talent and creativity that rock artists brought to the table, reinterpreting the blues and giving it a new life all its own.


Monday: Cream - Crossroads [Wheels of Fire, 1968]
Comments: With the release of Eric Clapton's album-long tribute to Robert Johnson, Me And Mr. Johnson, in 2004, Clapton's dedication to the legendary bluesman (who was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil) became recorded history. But all the way back in 1968, with the power trio supergroup Cream, Clapton recorded one of his most enduring hits: Robert Johnson's Cross Road Blues. You couldn't be faulted for not recognizing it as one of Johnson's songs; it was loud and it was heavy, and it was brimming with a rock n' roll energy that betrayed the haunting, acoustic quality of Johnson's recording. But it was an astoundingly successful - and unique - interpretation of a song from one who has become, quite possibly, the most inspiring and influential blues artist in history. Cream was also known for their rousing cover of Albert King's Born Under A Bad Sign, and Howlin' Wolf's Spoonful, which they developed into a long and impressive live jam centerpiece.

Tuesday: The Doors - Back Door Man [The Doors, 1967]
Comments: Hailing from the L.A. scene, Jim Morrison's talent as a lyrical poet didn't prevent him from covering a few blues songs with The Doors, and among other influences, the blues was definitely one of the ingredients that went into the melting pot that produced the band's unique sound. On their debut album, they recorded an immensely popular cover of Howlin' Wolf's Back Door Man, where Wolf's characteristic howlin' vocals (he didn't get that name for nothin') are substituted by Jim Morrison's impassioned ravings. The Doors also covered a song popularized by John Lee Hooker - Crawling King Snake - on their most blues-influenced album, L.A. Woman.

Wednesday: George Thorogood - One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer [George Thorogood and The Destroyers, 1977]
Comments: Speaking of John Lee Hooker, George Thorogood was an excellent match to cover Hooker's boogie style, while introducing a rather harder rockin' edge. Thorogood's popular hit One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer is actually a seamless amalgam of two blues songs, Hooker's House Rent Boogie, and the track's namesake, which was an even older song popularized by John Lee Hooker. One of George Thorogood's other really popular songs is Who Do You Love?, written and originally recorded by Bo Diddley, who was immensely influential among many burgeoning rock artists.

Thursday: Foghat - I Just Want To Make Love To You [Foghat, 1972]
Comments: This is another track you couldn't be faulted for not recognizing as the blues. Hearing Foghat's popular hits on the radio, you wouldn't think they were heavily influenced by the blues, but they were. But they had such a unique and driving sound, it's a perfect example of how a rock band can take the blues and turn it into something fierce. Case in point, one of their biggest hits, released on their debut album, was I Just Want To Make Love To You, which is one of many songs penned by Willie Dixon, and originally recorded by Muddy Waters. But Foghat totally makes it their own, far surpassing the original.

Friday: Led Zeppelin - Whole Lotta Love [Led Zeppelin II, 1969]
Comments: Led Zeppelin is one of those bands whose blues influences were pretty darn obvious. Or were they? The band has been criticized as frequently 'burying the lead' in terms of being less than straightforward about their sources of inspiration, but many of their songs, history has revealed, are heavily based in the blues. Among the more obvious ones (to the discerning listener) are The Lemon Song (Howlin' Wolf's Killing Floor, sneakily renamed, with some other influences peppered in), Bring It On Home (which combines an effective Sonny Boy Williamson imitation with a wholly original rock composition), Muddy Waters' You Shook Me and Otis Rush' I Can't Quit You Baby (both penned by Willie Dixon and recorded for Zeppelin's bluesy debut album), and a more or less straightforward (for Led Zeppelin) rock update of Robert Johnson's Traveling Riverside Blues.

But here I present you with one of the band's most popular songs from their entire catalog, which is cleverly based on another Willie Dixon-penned/Muddy Waters-recorded song, this one titled You Need Love. And though the arrangement borrows from another rock band's previous interpretation of the song (The Small Faces), Zeppelin adds enough of their own unique flair to make the song a rock n' roll tour de force. (For more information about Led Zeppelin's musical influences, see The Roots of Led Zeppelin Project)

Saturday: Ten Years After - Good Morning Little Schoolgirl [Ssssh, 1969]
Comments: Ten Years After were, lamentably, not as popular as they deserved. Perhaps because their songs often overreached, not infrequently on account of frontman Alvin Lee's frenetic and drawn out guitar solos (though one of the reasons I so love the band). But they had lots of excellent rock hits to their name, many of them blues-inspired (but most of them admirably original in content). Good Morning Little Schoolgirl is one perfect example of a fairly simple traditional blues song (by Sonny Boy Williamson), covered to less fanfare by many other bands, that in the hands of Ten Years After was transformed into a rock n' roll force of nature. The band did the same thing with another simple blues, Help Me, by the second bluesman to adopt the name Sonny Boy Williamson.

Sunday: Jimi Hendrix - Voodoo Child (Slight Return) [Electric Ladyland, 1968]
Comments: This is another track that, without the right listening experience, you might never have guessed was based on a blues tune. But on the album that it was released, there was another song with a similar title ("Voodoo Chile") that reveals the connection. That track is an extended jam that very obviously plays off of the Muddy Waters song Rollin' Stone. And where Voodoo Chile is an extended improvisation on that song, Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is a further distillation of the theme, transforming it into an almost entirely brand new song, which has the honor of being one of the fiercest guitar songs in rock history, by one of rock's most talented and influential guitarists of all time. But what remains underneath all of that innovation is the very simple riff from Muddy Waters' song, flipped on its head and turned up to eleven. This is what they mean when they say that rock n' roll was born from the blues.


Afterthought: Honorable mention goes to two songs that seem at best only vaguely related to the blues, but whose titles very conspicuously suggest two popular blues tracks, by two veteran bands of the classic rock era: AC/DC's You Shook Me All Night Long [Back In Black, 1980]; and Steppenwolf's Rock Me [At Your Birthday Party, 1969] (which recalls the song Rock Me Baby that B.B. King made popular).