July 9: Blues – four Jo(h)ns (Lee Hooker, Mayall, Spencer and Dr), BB King, Muddy Waters, The Yardbirds

Woke up this morning, checked out the news, I had to listen to seven albums in the style of the blues.

I said, I woke up this morning, now baby don’t you cry, it’s blues week on 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Dr John, ‘Gris Gris’

I selected this week’s albums knowing little about them, but my understanding of the Night Tripper was that he was a blues pianist, kind of like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (who isn’t on the list at all). This album, however, has little piano and bears only the dimmest resemblance to blues – or anything else. ‘Dance Kalimba Ya Boom’ has some Arabian flavourings, ‘Dance Fambeaux’ a 60s psychedelia workout with disembodied female vocals and church bell percussion, and ‘Croker Courtbullion’ engages a call-and-response flute/harpsichord/Moog section. This was John’s debut album, released on an Atlantic subsidary, so who knows what possessed him to adopt this persona and record this album (New Orleans voodoo loas perhaps). What a great gimmick, though, and what a great record. In it, you can see the origins of Tom Waits, Nick Cave and no doubt a million other swampy weirdos of his type.

John Lee Hooker, ‘The Healer’

Hooker’s only appearance on the list doesn’t get off to a promising start: the artwork is reminiscent of the poster for ‘The Human Centipede: First Sequence’, and the first song is an awful Santana collaboration driven mostly by cheap electric piano. Once Carlos and his mob are out of the way, though, the rest of the first half is mostly energetic electric blues, collaborating with Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos and others. The second half, where Hooker is mostly solo, is generally a bit more meandering and undistinguished. Tracks 2-6 are very good, though. This album was recorded when Hooker was 78, making him almost certainly the oldest performer on the list. It sold well enough to enable him to live in comfort for the rest of his life. Boom boom.

John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, ‘Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton’

Aside from a solo on the White Album, this is Eric Clapton’s first (but not last) appearance on the blog. Here, it’s 1966 and in the same year as ‘Blonde on Blonde’, ‘Revolver’ and ‘Good Vibrations’, four white English guys were trying to sound like a 50s Beale Street jam band. Although none of the tracks here exceed the five-minute mark, they contain plenty of my musical Room 101s: there’s a drum solo, loads of harmonica and a whole motorway of jams. My partner suggested this album’s credited artist would be better named “Boring Dude and the White Men”. Not, as you might have guessed, one I’ll be coming back to.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, ‘Now I Got Worry’

A lot of Johns and Jons this week, eh? Not the only album this week to have been released after punk broke (my heart) but the only one to acknowledge it, JSBX take some of the staples of blues – bottleneck slide, Bo Diddley riffs – and incorporate punkish raucousness, dub and DJ Shadow-ish cut-up sounds, then record everything on what sounds like a four-track Tascam. It’s thrillingly unpredictable and experimental, the rough production very effective on such loose, edgy music. If I have a gripe, it’s that there’s too many tracks, making it feel long: trimming four of its sixteen tracks out would have taken the running time under 40 minutes, but the dynamic impact would have been more effective.

BB King, ‘Live at the Regal’

Initially, I thought this album by the Blues Boy was too smooth – probably after the Blues Explosion – but I warmed to the album as it went on. Perhaps it’s the overjoyed audience, or the way the band play continuously, even as King introduces the next song with an instruction (to listen to the lyrics, for example) or an anecdote. The audience seem to get tired in the second set, as their reception is muted, and the album ends oddly abruptly without a big finale or a swelling ovation from the crowd. It’s easy to be charmed by this one.

Muddy Waters, ‘At Newport 1960’

Another live album, this starts with the endless, ickily-titled ‘I Got My Brand On You’, which isn’t a promising start. Muddy and his band seem to be on cruise control for the first few tracks, but please the audience by picking up the tempo on ‘Tiger in my Tank’ and ‘I Feel So Good’. Yes, a blues song called ‘I Feel So Good’. Taken out of context nearly sixty years after its recording, this album doesn’t seem like a particularly big deal, but it played an important part in popularising blues among a white European audience. Still, as a listener, I prefer Waters’ later album ‘Hard Again‘.

The Yardbirds, ‘The Yardbirds’

The Yardbirds had something of a revolving door when it came to lead guitarists: at this point, they were post-Clapton but pre-Jimmy Page. Stepping up to the plate, Jeff Beck, all white noise and Ravi Shankar influences. I was kind of expecting all the tracks to sound like mid-B-side instrumental 12-bar frittering ‘Jeff’s Boogie’. Instead, the band constantly keep me guessing, whether it’s tangential wanderings off the track on ‘Lost Woman’ and ‘The Nazz Are Blue’,  monastic vocal breaks, or the kitchen-sink percussive approach (guiro and wobble board both show up). As much as the band feel like they’re anchored to their blues-rock template, every track on this album threw up something unusual or unexpected. I’d recommend this one, and while all the credit can’t go to Beck here, I’m looking forward to hearing his solo record ‘Truth’ later on the list.

Next week: This week, we did blues, so next week, let’s have a look at some of the other colours on the list!

Progress update: 562 listened to (56%), 439 remain

August 12: Requests edition – The Byrds, Dandy Warhols, Grandmaster Flash, Queen, Ride, Scott Walker, Waterboys, Muddy Waters

This edition is mostly driven by requests via Facebook (aside from the Byrds and Waterboys) – thanks to those who requested.

The Byrds, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.

The 60s janglers were Bob Dylan’s protegees, as you can tell by the multiple songwriting credits on this album (including the title track, probably the Byrds’ best-known work). The band’s trademarks, at least at this point, were the distinctive sound of the 12-string guitar and their harmonies, which are showcased throughout. It does make the album sound very similar throughout, which makes me think there’s better Byrds albums to come, particularly when Gram Parsons shows up later. Still, at least it’s a very pleasant trademark sound. The album ends in an unlikely way, with a cover of ‘We’ll Meet Again’. It sounds exactly as you’d expect.

The Dandy Warhols, ‘Come Down’.

This was the occasional nudists and Brian Jonestown Massacre frenemies’ second attempt at a major label debut after Capitol rejected their first attempt for not having enough songs, resulting in a not-particularly-harmonious combination of stoner droners with power-pop interludes. At one point there are three or four space-rock numbers in a row, which are so slow that when ‘Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth’ comes along, it ironically feels like an injection of speed. The louche bohemians are better at the power-pop (‘Cool Like Kim Deal’, ‘Boys Better’, ‘Every Day Should Be A Holiday’), and of course it was this style which eventually made them millions in the form of Vodafone jingle ‘Bohemian Like You’.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, ‘The Message’.

Best known for the socially-conscious title track which closes the record, the Five (or Six I suppose) don’t seem entirely sure what their strengths are here, oscillating between party rap (the good opening tracks), electro experiments (‘Scorpio’) and abysmal ballads (most of Side 2). The Stevie Wonder tribute is especially bad: later hip-hop would pay tribute to Wonder by just sampling him (‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, er, ‘Wild Wild West’). Not enough fury, or enough Grandmaster Flash for that matter, since most of the songs were created by live musicians rather than from Flash’s turntables. You can’t argue with the title track though, a bona-fide classic from the early hip-hop era.

Queen, ‘Queen II’.

The album art (replicated memorably in the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ video) is probably more famous than anything on the album itself, which mostly takes place in a fantastical imaginary word called Rhye. Despite its grandiose lyrical conceit, the first half of the album feels like a standard rock album, but it completely loses the plot/massively improves with the ridiculous ‘Ogre Battle’, which is more akin to the preposterous operatic rock that would become the band’s trademark.

Ride, ‘Nowhere’.

Unusually for a shoegaze band, Ride were (yecch) all male, which is perhaps why their stuff on this album at least seems more boisterous and aggressive than My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, the Cocteaus etc, but at the cost of the twinkly beauty that often defines the latter trio, and results in some flat vocals that might have been better lower in the mix. The textures are fascinating though, and elevate the album above a lot of its peers, particularly the screeching noise breaks of ‘Dreams Burn Down’ and the piano/drum battle that closes ‘Paralysed’. This must have been wonderful at ear-splitting volume live. The album ends on a flat note with the dated ‘Vapour Trail’, which sounds like the weakest track but was nonetheless the single.

Scott Walker, ‘Scott 2’.

Noel Engel’s more recent albums have been unsettling wanderings in avant-garde, hanging out with drone merchants like Sunn 0))), which was an unpredictable transition for one of the Walker Brothers. Still, even in this early solo outing, there are clues even among the lush orchestration and baritone crooning: the peculiar, uncommercial lyrics of ‘Jackie’ (a Jacques Brel translation), the urgent, nervy ‘Next’ and the weird echoes and dirge breaks in ‘Plastic Palace People’. ‘Scott 4’ is his famous one but this is worth your time.

The Waterboys, ‘Fisherman’s Blues’.

I picked this one out due to a fleeting obsession with ‘The Whole of the Moon’, the band’s grandiose 80s tribute to Prince and CS Lewis, to which this album bears no resemblance. Here, the band take their cues from Irish folk music and Van Morrison. It starts off well with the first four songs, but a lot of interminable songs (three songs here are over seven minutes long) bog down the album until you’re waiting for it to end. The longest track here is called ‘And A Bang On The Ear’ – this is not how you have sex, Mike Scott!

Muddy Waters, ‘Hard Again’.

Recorded in 1977, at which point Muddy was already in his sixties, this sounds like an overjoyed comeback album. Even the producer can’t hide his delight, whooping excitedly through one-chord opener ‘Mannish Boy’. It’s a blues album, so it uses every standard woke-up-this-morning riff in the genre, but the high standards of production and the overall sense of inspired fun makes it a good listen. It makes it sound like you’re in a great Beale Street bar listening to the best band in town.

Next edition will be an If I Must edition featuring some of the albums I’ve not been looking forward to hearing. This will be more fun for you than for me.

Current progress: 252/1001 (25%), 749 albums remain.