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“Muddy Waters? – Where’s that?”

In among blogging up as much of a storm as I could manage during the last few months, I’ve also been ploughing my way through a book, which I’ve had cause to mention here several times before, but do not apologise at all for mentioning yet again: Peter Hall’s magnificently blockbusting Cities in Civilization.

It is full of delights beyond numbering. Recently I enjoyed a thrill of patriotic pleasure when I got to the end of the chapter dealing with the birth of Rock and Roll (“The Soul of the Delta”).

The Story So Far: Rock and Roll has arisen, in Memphis, as a creative collision, fertilised by the newly active music radio, between Delta Blues and Country and Western. But the New York Los Angeles Axis of Evil (bland pop with no mention of Black People) is fighting back and threatens to submerge R+R in a tsunami of upbeat but basically middle-class woolly cardigans and Christmas albums. But, riding to the rescue, yes, it’s the British Cavalry:

Understood or not, these British groups left no doubt about their debt. Indeed, they went out of their way to record it. When the Beatles first came to America they told everyone they wanted to see Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley; one reporter asked: ‘Muddy Waters … Where’s that?’ Paul McCartney laughed and said, ‘Don’t you know who your own famous people are here?’ Eric Clapton quoted Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Bib Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, and Blind Boy Fuller, but above all B. B. King; Muddy Waters was discovered by white America only after the Rolling Stones took their name from one of his tunes. John Lee Hooker understood when he said: ‘It may seem corny to you, but this is true: the groups from England really started the blues rolling and getting bigger among the kids – the White kids. At one time, fifteen years back, the blues was just among the blacks – the old Black people. And this uprise started in England by the Beatles, Animals, Rolling Stones, it started everybody to digging the blues’.

I guess most Americans who care about such things knew this story already, but I didn’t realise this until now. I just thought, you know, the Brits went to America and sold a lot of tickets and a lot of records and got drunk and drugged and had a good time, playing essentially the same kind of stuff as their US rivals. That they played such an important part in the nurturing (if not the birth) of Rock and Roll, I did not know.

It’s a frightening thought that, world impactwise, this is probably about the last truly interesting thing that Britain has done. Are there any other more recent Big Things that have originated in or even been partly done in (like Rock and Roll) this little land of ours? I’d love to be told, but fear that the comments won’t add up to much. (And before Rock and Roll, you have to go back to Bomber Command.)

Our current popsters – and I know I sound like an old fart here but there you are, I am an old fart – are an embarrassment, not just musically to my Rolling Stones trained ear, but also commercially. I’m told that Britpop is doing no business at all in America. Right?

I thought Robbie Williams made a promising start, and I loved his performance of “I Hope I’m Old Before I Die” on Top of the Pops about a decade ago, but his latest single is, I think, as exciting as cold washing up water. I further understand that some Idiot Old Record Company has just paid him 4 billion quid for his next fifty albums. I believe that They Will Regret This.

On the other hand, I bought a DVD of the Rolling Stones recent “Zimmer Frame Tour” (no, the “Bridges to Babylon Tour 97-98”, which is but a blink of an eye ago in Rolling Stones time) and there was a new track on it which I hadn’t heard before, in among the old classics, called “Flip The Switch”, which I thought was great.

Have a nice weekend.

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8 comments to “Muddy Waters? – Where’s that?”

  • Tom Bosworth (Milwaukee)

    Well, I am rather fond of that big wrinkled shark in the tank of formalin. Better him than me.

  • Wow, Brian. I guess you’re on to a story.

    When Elvis Presley’s first record played on the air in Mississippi, people called the radio station to find out why (or whether) it was playing a black man’s music. It was bemusing to most, because they dug it so hot, but almost nobody had a clue what he’d unleashed.

    Personally, I chart the history of rock & roll in America around three essential signposts: Elvis (he kicked the market doors down), Bob Dylan (he fused the music with its first considerable intellectual content), and Jimi Hendrix (he took the eletric guitar straight to its utmost limits in a time when nobody else had a clue where they were).

    In America, the first of these events was crucial for the reason given, but it remains an important fact that things played quite differently in your country. In my country, people generally went from Elvis & Jerry Lee Lewis to Little Richard & Chuck Berry. The way the British rockers generally describe it, things went quite the other way in racial terms, and a lot more deeply, to boot. They knew all the black cats, many of whom remained obscure here for a decade or more after the British Invasion.

    In many ways, it was a slow awakening in America, precisely because the Brits clouded the history with their blinding appearance on the scene. Those guys were burning something they’d discovered, that was also quite obscure in its own homeland, and remained so until consumers got a lot more hip to what they were listening to. That’s when it began to dawn on them.

    And I’ll tell you something: if you’re an “old fart”, then I’m worse. I can’t stand “our current popstars”, because they don’t know rock, and that’s because they don’t know blues. What I’m hearing is folky major scales turned up loud and not a shred of soul. There isn’t a seventh-note in the lot, and nothing blue about it.

    If you think that a commerical failure of British pop stars is bad, then I’m here to tell you that the success of American pop stars is downright horrifying.

    It’s The Endarkenment. I’m tellin’ ya.

  • Steve Sandvik

    The British are also largely responsible for the heavy metal sound–depending on who you ask, Deep Purple or Black Sabbath are usually credited with making it a sort of distinct genre, although Dave Davies of the Kinks probably deserves as much credit as anyone for intentionally shredding his amplifier cones to add extra distortion.

    Whether you consider heavy metal to be an accomplishment, now, that’s another question entirely.

    Oh, and there’s punk…well, exactly.

  • Hale Adams

    Oh, yeah. We Americans owe you British big time. As recently as 1962 (the year I was born), Bobby Vinton was topping the charts with songs like “Blue Velvet”. *SHUDDER* I’m so glad the British Invasion happened when it did– having a sister 10 years older than I was meant growing up to the sounds of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Mamas and the Papas, et al, instead of maudlin dreck about how beautiful one’s lover looks in her casket, dressed in all that blue velvet…… Gaaaak!!

  • Eamon Brennan

    I was listening to Virgin last night in the car and Bob Geldof was on the air extolling the virtues of Mick Jagger as social commentator.

    When you think about it, songs like Mothers little helper, Play With Fire, Can’t Always Get What You Want and even Satisfaction are extraordinaryly trenchant observations on their time. Themes of depression, alienation and simple boredom with ones life run right through all of their early work. All this at a time when the Beatles were singing, I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

    The man is a genius.

    Eamon

  • Kurt Riley, Mick's protege

    I think music now sucks. My band is like the next Rolling Stones, and we’re starting up now, but if enough bands don’t get together and start the British Invasion all over again, music is going straight to hell.

    By the way, the blues are God’s gift to rock n’ roll, rock n’ roll is God’s gift to man, and I’m the next Mick Jagger.

    Have a nice day, and remember, it can happen if we try hard enough. They did it in the 60’s.

  • Kurt Riley, Mick's protege

    I think music now sucks. My band is like the next Rolling Stones, and we’re starting up now, but if enough bands don’t get together and start the British Invasion all over again, music is going straight to hell.

    By the way, the blues are God’s gift to rock n’ roll, rock n’ roll is God’s gift to man, and I’m the next Mick Jagger.

    Have a nice day, and remember, it can happen if we try hard enough. They did it in the 60’s.