Monday, 22 March 2010


(#80: 12 September 1970, 1 week)

Track listing: Ramble Tamble/Before You Accuse Me/Travelin’ Band/Ooby Dooby/Lookin’ Out My Back Door/Run Through The Jungle/Up Around The Bend/My Baby Left Me/Who’ll Stop The Rain/I Heard It Through The Grapevine/Long As I Can See The Light

If you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for looking at the cover of Cosmo’s Factory and mistaking it for a 1994 release on Drag City; the handwritten signs of casual import - “3RD GENERATION,” “BEWARE of DOG,” “LEAN, CLEAN AND BLUESY” – and the general air of slackerdom in the musicians strewn around the studio. But then drummer Doug Clifford is pedalling on his exercise bike and John Fogerty is looking expectantly at the camera as he is about to tackle Doug’s drumkit and get down to some hard, solid work.

And “hard, solid work” was a cornerstone of what Creedence were about; their “solidity” and exceptional work ethic – Cosmo’s was the fourth Creedence album to be released in the space of barely two years – attracted and retained an awful lot of followers who might otherwise have drifted away from what they felt rock had become. The obvious comparison – as Clifford’s grave drums and Fogerty’s quivering Fender Rhodes and homemade sax solo (almost Ayler-ish in its slightly exaggerated vibrato, if not in its tonality) on “Long As I Can See The Light” attest – is with The Band, but where the Canadians were generally viewed as romantic mystics, Creedence’s collars could not have been bluer. The quartet had history dating back to before the Beatles; nowhere do you listen to Creedence at their peak and imagine that you are listening to anything other than grown adults playing music.

Musically they were in some senses traditionalists, fundamentalists even, but they were not particularly interested in retrenchment; if anything, Fogerty’s bayou fantasias were merely a more homespun variant on the space/time-defying leaps preferred by his Bay Area contemporaries. Gigging around northern California from his teenage years, with a band which in the beginning was named The Blue Velvets and later, and to the regret of everyone involved, The Golliwogs, Fogerty was on an early treadmill and desperate to get off it; he invented a world in his mind, attached it to a basic, but learned, rock ‘n’ roll template and found that his moment had been waiting for him, like an impatient troop ship. He had been drafted but managed to serve his time in the Army Reserve, and by the time he was demobbed he was sternly anxious to make something happen.

Like The Band, Creedence played Woodstock but demurred from appearing in the movie or on the soundtrack album (Fogerty didn’t think their performance had been up to scratch); they were signed to Fantasy Records, a label as near to “indie” as anything at the time, although were later to regret its business practices, as the long, depressing list of subsequent legal actions makes clear; they made number two four times on the Billboard Hot 100 singles list without ever reaching number one, and many still regard these statistics with some suspicion (did Saul Zaentz have a beef with Billboard, or vice versa?). Unlike any of their Bay peers, however, Creedence prospered when all the rest – Airplane, Quicksilver etc. – seemed to have swallowed themselves up; Fogerty was keen to have Booker T and the MGs support them on tour and for a while the band seemed the only one capable of clearing a path in parallel with their strangely logical mirror image, Sly and the Family Stone; Fogerty’s white soul holler and general air of earthy commitment meant that Creedence, almost uniquely for a white band at the time, crossed over to the R&B charts. In addition, with the recent atomisation of the Beatles, audiences were keenly searching, or waiting, for answers, and Creedence were there, ready to give them direct reassurances via simple means. None of the moodily blue beating around specific bushes (although these too, as demonstrated in the previous entry, were hugely popular); Fogerty’s men spoke to the working man but the beauty about Creedence’s brief fire is that they were everyone’s group; the truck drivers, the waitresses, the troops, the students – none could find anything in their music that didn’t communicate with them, or stir up something deep and important within them. Even in Britain, where the band was mostly regarded as a rootsier variety of American “otherness,” they managed to speak to everyone, and even topped our singles lists in 1969 with the uncompromisingly apocalyptic “Bad Moon Rising.”

Cosmo’s Factory was pretty much their peak, and remains a key American record. Perhaps its biggest surprise, however, is how closely Fogerty’s high-pitched roar comes to Robert Plant at times; the nearly eight-minute-long “Ramble Tamble,” one of the album’s two big setpieces, begins with a typical 1970 rock stomp but quickly, and startlingly, reverts to a Sun Studios romp. There are still echoes of Plant in Fogerty’s multifocally echoed vocal – “Oooo…” – but the lyrics give the record’s first uncanny shadowing of Marvin Gaye: “There's garbage on the sidewalk/Highways in the back yard/Police on the corner/Mortgage on the car/MORTGAGE ON THE CAR.” Coupled with the song’s later references to “Actors in the White House,” a decade ahead of Reagan, and Fogerty’s virulently forlorn “MORTGAGE ON MY LIFE,” we are indeed very close to “Inner City Blues” territory here, and perhaps the most depressing thing about the words is that they could have been written last week.

The music, however, manages to go through a potted history of the fifteen years which rock ‘n’ roll had by then accumulated; after the second verse the tempo slackens and we go through Beat boom curlicues (with a nod to the Animals’ “Rising Sun”), modal psychedelia and a Cream-style rock-out before the song returns to Sun mode, although there is a brief period of violent vacillation between “now” and “yesterday”; the locomotive, however, slows down once more and brings the song to an end, Clifford’s ominously extended cymbal hiss like a rattlesnake about to bring the nation down.

The degree of stylistic and emotional wavering between 1970 and 1955 is underlined by Fogerty’s songs being interspersed with tributes to a not-too-distant past; “Before You Accuse Me” is the old Bo Diddley number – the original appears on Bo’s first album, still a startling bolt of futurism from 1958 – and Fogerty makes a fine job of telling the caught-out cheater protagonist’s story, although his abrupt guitar slashes are almost punk-like; this is no worshipful revisit. “Travelin’ Band,” the one which caused Little Richard on the Dick Cavett Show to freak out and re-proclaim his greatness, is a gloriously mean rocker; Fogerty, alone of practically any seventies musician until Gil Scott-Heron’s “Hello Sunday, Hello Road,” sings of his joy at being on the road, although his “gotta move”s do have a degree of slightly forced urgency and the references to “state militia” again indicate a far-from-safe present. In its streamlined attack – Fogerty’s climactic “WHOOOOO!!!”s sweeping straight into stinging solo guitar, eventually dueling with Clifford’s drums, and homemade horns – it travels a clear midway line between “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “I Wanna Be Sedated.” After that, we get a virtual Xerox of “Ooby Dooby,” Orbison’s first big hit, with more guitar/drums combustion and a strangely lonesome final “A-woo-a-doo-waah,” complete with Stu Cook’s slipping-out-the-back-door bass.

The bayou skiffle streak of “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” brings confusion and anger to a temporary end; as with the song which ends the record’s second side, Fogerty is home – that elusive place which virtually all of 1969 and 1970 has been trying to reach – and happy (his delighted exclamation of “Buck Owens!”). He’s hanging out, drawling a vague Orbison recall (“oon-dodoododoo”), sees tambourines and elephants – is he remembering, or just dreaming, Sgt Pepper? – celebrating and singing in the yard; in his sleevenote to the 40th anniversary CD reissue Christgau refers to this as Fogerty’s “dope” song (as opposed to the implied “acid” subtext of a lot of the others) but Fogerty has asserted that he wrote it for his then three-year-old son as a kind of joyful lullaby. His “Bother me tomorrow – today, I’ll buy no sorrows” is a declaration of quietly furious intent; trouble hasn’t vanished but it can be kept at bay, as long as he can stay happy; the song’s contours are so vivid – Clifford’s drums not coming in, and then only discreetly, into the song after the first bridge, with the song itself moving towards a semi-fumbled key change – brushes ticking like crickets - and finally a satisfied, fed slowdown – that you can see Fogerty’s house through its friendly fabrics.

Trouble abruptly reasserts itself, however; ominous low strings and abstract guitar noise – Sonny Sharrock tributes on a Creedence record? Is anything really straightforward? – sweeps us into the threatening two-step of “Run Through The Jungle.” Although lacking the instinctive prowl of a genuine swamp man like Tony Joe White or Dr John, this is pretty uncompromising stuff. “Two million guns are loaded,” growls Fogerty. “Satan says: TAKE AIM!” His dolefully descending, Cropper-influenced Sisyphus stone of a lead guitar line walks through the checkpoints of an urban hell – the Vietnam analogy is unavoidable, but this is 1970 America he’s describing in the first, objective instance – and the agonized harp solo puts the song in a place not that far removed from “Gimme Shelter.” Finally the song disappears in a haze of howls, feedback and bullets.

“Up Around The Bend” with its Big Star-anticipating opening of gladdened guitar (and midsong “September Gurls” handclaps), initially seems like a thunderous reassurance, but in fact Fogerty has given up the world as we know it for dead (“Leave the sinking ship behind”) and endeavours to lead us towards something new and better (“Where the neon turns to wood”); he’s asking for the creation of a new society from nothing save humanity, and the song virtually spells out a manifesto for Generation X; note the exclamatory guitar which meets Fogerty’s “big red tree” in the final verse. One of the album shots shows the four men, standing sternly in front of a “ROAD ENDS” sign; this is it, they are saying – you want to travel some more, you’re going to have to help us build.

But you can only build if you understand your roots; “My Baby Left Me” gets a dutifully unfaithful reading, with its clever intro of Cozy Cole paradiddles and walking bass, towards what can only be described as steam-powered punk, with a fadeout drenched in echo and tinged with reggae. The earnest acoustic guitar lines which begin “Who’ll Stop The Rain” clearly set the scene for R.E.M. and all who were to follow in their wake; there is a hint of the Searchers still in Fogerty’s searching vocal; at times he sounds wan, weary, hesitant, on the verge of being beaten (“tryin’ to keep warm”) – the song was ostensibly written about their experience at Woodstock, but the bigger picture can scarcely be excluded; not since “Come Next Spring” has this tale met a song which equates rain with war. Those important early folk club experiences evidently never left Fogerty’s mind.

Then into eleven minutes of “Grapevine”; Fogerty attacks the song’s uncertainty with a startling directness – he growls “FOWNDOWT!” as though munching monsters – while Clifford bashes his cymbal rhetorically at every “vine” and rumbles his tom-toms through the swampy central riff, churning with guitars and bass in a cauldron of pain. After the song is done with, the band takes off; Fogerty’s first guitar solo is mainly chordal and his second mostly careful single-note lines. Thereafter he moves towards whimpers, downward-cascading lines, alternating with clipped funk chords, going down ever more slowly. Clifford, meanwhile, gradually stokes the number up into a garage band rave-up with his cymbals – and his cowbell is one of the most expressive in all of rock. Fogerty, seemingly with minimal effort, subtly takes us through a panoply of blues guitar styles, from BB cries through to Buddy Guy vamps, while diverting into scratchy funk scrapes which seem to predicate 1979. The main riff reappears before the track vanishes under Clifford’s tick-tock, time-is-running-out needle, two minutes to midnight; the band has grasped Gaye and Whitfield’s underlying sense of imminent carnage and rumbled it down to a bone.

Finally, redemption of a sort; Fogerty has been singing about the necessity to “move” practically all the way through the record, but his “mo-o-o-ooo-oh-ove”s in “Long As I Can See The Light” are expressed with the exhausted resolution of a man who knows he is really not that far from home any more and will soon no longer have to move, as in dodging, or running (see also his feline “mmmmm” at the end of the second line of the song’s second verse). His “don’t have to worry no more” is mumbled as though through tears. But then he works himself up to an ending, with his two abrupt, defiant “WON’T!”s, then a “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” apex of three “YEAH!”s, finally letting it be (albeit far more successfully) with a final “WHOA, YEAH!.” “He may go out,” said Lena, “but he’s gonna come back.”

And so the notion of Creedence, and the perhaps overlapping notion of the Grand Unifying Theory of American Music, since virtually all of it is present in one form or another through Cosmo’s Factory, has to be looked at with some awe. It is a matter of documented fact that one of Kurt Cobain’s earliest bands specialised in Creedence covers and many of the pioneers of grunge and Gen X indie, though only toddlers at the time of this record, would have picked up on these songs instantly, from Dinosaur Jr to the Lemonheads, these songs being simple to learn and easy to play (the common love of flannel shirts is of course also a factor). But look through Nevermind or Surfer Rosa and you may find that these groups are singing about the same things; differently expressed for a different time, perhaps, but the thread still runs. Certainly the organic nature of Creedence’s music has in itself proved hugely influential; their nearest 2010 equivalents are perhaps Spoon, whose apparent surface of hard-working, conservative rock belies an unusual emotional and aesthetic complexity, all the easier to miss because it is done with no showboating. Listen, however, to the strain of country influences which weave their way past Creedence and towards another Californian band, Pavement; Malkmus & Co. have twisted and played with the shapes of Creedence’s music, making many strange and wonderful new variants, but the line of influence is palpable – they share, for instance, the uncommon ability to convey authority or intent by building blocks of drums alone. Usually viewed as a slightly regretful footnote to the sixties, I would claim that Cosmo’s Factory actually points the way towards that third generation which at the time had only just been born into existence.