Stalemate

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

First chord (Roman numeral I) -- say, E -- accompanied by vocal grimaces of a moderate sort:

You know you shook me, baby, you shook me all night long.
Change to the IV -- here, A -- generally accompanied by a diminished smirk, and perhaps some resigned shaking of the head:

You know you shook me, baby, you shook me all night ...
Back to the E, with a sudden bawling:
... looooong!/ You shook me ...

Up to the V, or dominant chord (B), with quick head-jerks and a spray of saliva:

... so hard, baby ...
Down to the A, with a long glance askance followed by an abrupt tossing back of the sweaty locks and the adoption of a bee-stung face:

Baby, baby, please come
-- return to the E, the singer with eyes closed, shoulders shaking
-- hoooooome!

And at the very end, the band brings it on home with a brief refrain that quickly runs through the whole sequence of chords again, throughout which the vocalist grows incontinent or sad, at his or her discretion.

You hear it throughout the Chess Records 50th Anniversary Series, on tracks like "The Red Rooster" by Howlin' Wolf, "Baby, What You Want Me to Do" by Etta James, "So Many Roads, So Many Trains" by Otis Rush, and just about everything by Buddy Guy. How it came about -- again, the sociologists can investigate. It's convenience that kept it going. The 12-bar offered a relatively simple predetermined structure over which musicians who need not even have met before, much less rehearsed together, could take turns improvising. The form was as reliable as an old soup bone, and easy to spice up with personal touches, usually through soloing or singing. The urge to solo is quite chronic among blues, jazz, and rock artists alike, showmanship being a reliable way to please a crowd as well as oneself.

Thus, for the past 70 years, and probably longer, the 12-bar has been inescapable -- at first a unique and powerful forum for a culture-shaking array of blues artists, then a social nicety for jam sessions, then a fallback for entertainers more worried about impressing people with displays of flurry-fingered guitar prowess than about song structure and composition. Among the Chess recordings, this last category is typified by the works of Guy -- a highly talented string-slinger, sure, but also a one-man Carnival Cruise Line among the showboats. Numbers like "Worried Mind" have extended intros serving no purpose but to gird his endless pentatonic doodles. And then Guy's oft-embarrassing and overembellished vocal lines come center stage. A lot of bluesmen and -women brought dignity and meaning to the simple words they sang. Guy adorns his lyrics with so many "uh-huh"s and "yeah"s that they smother the song like flocking does a Christmas tree.

Woman you must be stone-damn crazy, baby you goin' to lose your mind
Yesssss, I said baby you must be stone crazy, baby you goin' to lose your mind

Yessssss, I wanna know how could you treat me so dirty baby
You must think my little hearrrrrrt is made of iron.

Guy was a real old-school crowd-pleaser -- a quality that doesn't sit well with today's suspicious multitudes under the age of 30. For those who grew up on punk and the like, the 12-bar soup bone is a bland fossil indeed. (The Ramones used similar structures, but their whole shtick involved the lack of wherewithal to decorate them; and they certainly weren't trying to play blues.) Today, listeners sup on riffs, which differ from chord progressions in that they're thematic as opposed to supportive. There'll always be an audience for wank; but we're more likely to be impressed today by good riffs and variations in structure than all that flourish on top. And thanks largely to the rise of the power chord, younger listeners don't tend to distinguish chord progressions from the whole wont of riffs. (Ingenuous but brilliant older rockers started doing this, too: "Louie, Louie," "Wild Thing," and "Gloria" gain much from using those moldy old I-IV-V's as themes instead of backup.) As a result, those many tracks on the Chess Records series that use the 12-bar structure sound stale -- it is, after all, only one riff that the younger ear keeps hearing over and over, track after track.

But there's no denying that the electric blues had more going for it than structure. A few tunes on the 1947 to 1956 and 1957 to 1967 discs, as well as on those by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Jimmy Rogers, fare better for the modern ear. These are invariably either those songs that eschew the 12-bar format altogether -- often never changing chords or key at all -- or that are so instrumentally sparse that the whole cause of chordal structure is lost. Both of these simpler formats, by necessity, further the use of riffs: repetitive yet compelling melodies or chord sequences. It's a more basic technique, but it's got all the pluck and muscle of a Neanderthal conducting a symphony orchestra with a bludgeon. This is good. Here, when instrumental sounds aren't muddied with a lot of backup, they really breathe: Waters' shimmering electric slide and Rogers' slurred phrases almost serve more as a human voice than the guitarists' singing. Waters started with this sort of sparsity early in his career, on tunes like "I Can't Be Satisfied," "Long Distance Call," and "I Just Want to Make Love to You" -- a song with such a beautifully stark and quiet arrangement that when Little Walter finally comes in after a couple of choruses with his eerie, distorted harmonica, the drama and contrast still hint at the power that the British Invasion softies must have heard.

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