Stalemate

The Chess Records 50th anniversary reissues and the death of the blues

Once, I was puttering through some mediocre bass guitar at a party with a drummer who at least claimed to have spent time with Jodie Foster's Army. It was a fun if uninspired racket, until we were joined by a genial, silvering boomer in a blazer and cuff links. He strapped on a guitar and, hashing out an infamous lick, asked the drummer and me, "How 'bout we play 'Johnny B. Goode'? I can do it in any key if B's too hard." The drummer rolled her eyes and looked faintly queasy. I empathized. The very thought of playing or listening to Chuck Berry -- or, god forbid, anything even remotely related to a 12-bar blues -- not only triggered my apathy, but tickled my gag reflex.

Why are the blues treated with such sanctimony? Sure, there are blues songs with sheer power, and I guess without the blues we wouldn't have had the chance to listen to the Beatles or the Stones or, uh, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. But if unappreciative young rubes like punks and myself don't care much for the Chicago blues, it's hardly a scandal. Electric blues is, after all, just another form of popular music -- hardly sacred, whatever influence it exerted on rock. (And let's remember that the blues "influenced" rock in much the same way that loot influences a robber's wallet.) But to see the way a boomer's beady eyes light up when a blues lick comes within earshot is slightly weird. Rockumentaries feature dewy-eyed, aging members of the British Invasion recalling their coal-smudged English youth, when artists featured on Chess Records singles "spoke" to them from their turntables and radios. On any stage shared by graying rock stars, there will inevitably be a turgid blues jam at show's end, full of soulful, earnest wincing, and solos, solos, solos!

It's enough to discredit an entire genre of music. Particularly these days -- when alternative music is a starchy form of white bread indeed -- it's difficult to hear what the fuss was about. What can younger listeners make of a series like the Chess Records 50th anniversary sets just out on MCA, now that the innuendo and grit has been trumped by years of imitation, flatulence, posturing, and spit, all in the name of the blooze? How can a pop brat weaned on decades of simulacrum and knockoff begin to appreciate a thoroughly scavenged art form?

Those less attuned than even me to the music crafted 40 years ago will want to know that Chess was to the blues what Sub Pop was to grunge. (Whew! There's a cheap comparison.) A pair of white guys from Chicago, Leonard and Phil Chess, started the label and recorded a lot of the Southern emigres filling the streets of the South Side of Chicago. The lineup eventually included Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon. (The last, though lesser known, was the label's musical director, and every bit the songwriting master that many insist John Lennon or Smokey Robinson or Kurt Cobain was.) My sources tell me that along with Sam Philips in Memphis (who recorded Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and, oh yeah, Elvis Presley) and Ahmed Ertegun in New York (whose Atlantic recorded Ray Charles, the Drifters, and others), the Chess performers laid the foundation for the music that, over the ensuing 40 or 50 years, evolved steadily to the point of sheer perfection embodied in No Doubt.

Let's leave aside the fact that these multiple sets are just canny repackagings of MCA's original assemblings of the works of Chess' key artists some 10 years ago, and turn to the music. The various recordings in the series provide ample evidence why we're bored with what was once undeniably vital. The foundation of the blame, insofar as there really is any, may be stably mounted upon the collarbones of those 40- to 50-year-olds enjoying 12-bar blues jams. Certainly, there are other issues. Some punks deliberately tried to get the blues out of their music. This may have been racially inspired, or because of whites like the Rolling Stones and Clapton, who by the mid-'70s had discredited the music with their sloth and self-indulgence. Or it could simply be the sort of allergic reaction that kids have to anything their parents hold dear. I'll leave such questions to the sociologists. As fascinating as it all may be, there's a more readily available culprit. For the I-IV-V chord progression in the 12-bar blues structure has become without a doubt the most overused pop music cliche of the 20th century.

The anniversary retrospective boasts giants, including discs by Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Diddley, and Berry, all considered to be blues masters; Buddy Guy and Jimmy Rogers, two hotshit guitarists who recorded with the label; and blues belter Etta James. The series also includes two anthologies of other Chess recordings by various artists from the periods 1947-56 and 1957-67 -- closing at the year of my birth, by which time rock had pretty much scoured the blues down, awaiting only Led Zeppelin's final hose blasts. The world had already embraced not only the interminable boogie-woogie riffs of early rock, but the even-more-blues-imitative British Invasion version. And the 12-bar I-IV-V progression was used by all. Even listeners not well-versed in music know this progression by heart. Though what I'm talking about applies to the interaction of all instruments, most people recognize the 12-bar blues shape based on its vocal pattern and the singer's accompanying facial expressions. Here, for example, is a precis of "You Shook Me," written by Dixon, recorded originally by Waters, and later steamrollered by Led Zeppelin, as done by your typical blues performer:

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