Keith Richards remembers the first time he heard the blues, because it hit him pretty hard. He recalled the moment in his foreword to Robert Gordon’s “Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters”:
“I heard Muddy through Mick Jagger. I met him on a train around 1961. He had a Chuck Berry record and “The Best of Muddy Waters”. I was going to mug the guy for Chuck Berry because I wasn’t familiar with Muddy. We started talking, went round his house, and he played me Muddy and I said “Wow. Again.” And about ten hours later, I was still going “Okay, again.”
Pete Townsend remembers the effect that The Blues had on him – but for slightly different reasons: “The mainstay of (my) collection was Jimmy Reed…there was something absolutely unforgettable about the music, especially when you listened to several albums in a series, a little stoned.” **
Eric Clapton talks about the blues, as you might expect, with awe: “it’s very difficult to explain the effect the first blues record I heard had on me except to say I recognised it immediately. This was the feeling I had… When I first heard Big Bill Broonzy. I saw a clip of him on TV playing in a nightclub lot by the light of a single bulb. The tune he was playing was a song called “Hey Hey” and it knocked me out. When I first heard Big Bill and later Robert Johnson I became convinced that all rock n roll…had sprung from this root.”***
How about you? As Jarvis Cocker once put it, Do You Remember The First Time?
Me? Hmmm. I wish I also had a cool back story; perhaps meeting a friend on a train carrying John Lee Hooker records. But then I think these stories only happen to blues guitar heroes. The first time I heard John Lee Hooker was in 1992 when “Boom Boom” was used to sell Lee jeans. Yes, I bought a pair, but it isn’t a hugely entertaining anecdote.
The first song I heard with “blues” in it was either that 1982 Mississippi Delta classic “The Story of the Blues” by The Mighty Wah or possibly that bit in David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” where he sang “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues” in an expensive suit whilst someone behind him nuked Australia. I had no idea what any of that meant exactly * but there was a nice guitar solo in it which, as it turned out, was played by Stevie Ray Vaughan…
But the first time I actually heard the blues? *Thinks* ….does Status Quo count…?
The reason for Richards’, Townsend’s’ and Clapton’s enthusiasm, I suspect, was because at the start of 1960 Most Music Was Rubbish. Elvis had been in the army since 1958, Chuck Berry was in jail, Jerry Lee Lewis had found God – who was more of a Cliff Richard fan even in those days – and Buddy Holly was dead. We were left with dreary crooner Frankie Avalon and rhyming slang target Paul Anka.
Given the option between the Soundtrack to South Pacific (the best selling record of both 1959 and 1960) and Muddy Waters – well, it’s not even an contest. Rock was still an unknown concept and pop was struggling to gain a foothold. Indeed, in the years 1956-1966, soundtracks to musicals were the best selling LPs eight times, interrupted only by Elvis (once) and The Beatles (twice).
Fast forward to the eighties, and it is clear that the blues was never going to have the same meteorite-from-the-sky impact on UK teenagers that it did twenty five years earlier. Times had moved on. By 1985 not only had The Rolling Stones updated the blues with their RnB, but so had Led Zeppelin. Then Aerosmith updated both Led Zep and The Stones…and…well, you get the picture.
I did borrow a blues compilation tape from a friend with “Dust My Broom” and “Bright Lights, Big City” on it, amongst others. I liked it, but as a curiosity. It sounded very… old. This was in the days of “big” eighties production, where the sound had to be bigger than both the singer’s shoulder pads and eye shadow.
I persevered, but it was almost like that line of Steve Martin’s in “The Jerk”, when he discovers he was left on their doorstep as a baby and the African American family that raised him are not his birth parents (“You mean I’m going to stay this colour?” he asks incredulously).
“You want to come in and sing some blues?” his mum asks. “No thanks” replies Martin “There’s something about those songs. They depress me.”
So the way I got to enjoy blues music was through a newer generation of blues musicians covering the old songs and coming up with their own. Once that happened, there was no stopping me, and it became easier to dig a little deeper. I’m going to talk about those guys for a little while, culminating in a visit to the 100 Club in Oxford Street, London to see one of them play a show at the end of January.
Don’t change that dial…
- * Perhaps the producer of the video was a big cricket fan: Australia regained the Ashes in 1983.
- ** source: “Who I Am” by PeteTownsend
- *** source: “Eric Clapton: The Autobiography” by Eric Clapton. Incidentally, there was a documentary on BBC4 recently about Broonzy where that clip was replayed: it’s exactly as Clapton describes it and is quite magical. Ronnie Wood is effusive in his praise of Broonzy also in his bio.