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:

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.

Similarly compelling is John Lee Hooker's "Sugar Mama" (on the 1947 to 1956 disc), a loose-measured and sloppy-good interplay of single voice, single guitar, and tapping foot that recalls Delta blues -- the echoing, infinitely superior stuff that sounds little like today's popular music. Stalwart examples of the staying power of a good riff include "Smokestack Lightnin' " and "Spoonful" by Howlin' Wolf, as well as "Mannish Boy," by Waters. "Mannish Boy" 's riff never strays from its five-chop sequence of three chords -- and still, after all these years, is more instantly recognizable than most 12-bar blues songs. The "Mannish Boy" riff, which has itself been lifted ad infinitum by white folks trying to be heavy, remains a lyrically entertaining pastoral full of blossoming adolescent sexuality -- or at least that's what I think he's talking about when he says he's picking up his second cousin and a "John the Conqueroo."

Though the lesson here would seem to be that simplicity of arrangement beats canned structure, we all know this isn't true. Showboats always win, as demonstrated by blues vultures Led Zeppelin. Though they championed the cause of simplicity and good riffs (some of these stolen wholesale from Chess songwriters) -- recall that other five-chop, three-note sequence on "Whole Lotta Love" -- their approach, which subsequently informed all of hard rock and metal and hence a lot of that stuff we know as "alternative," has absolutely nothing to do with sparsity. Listen to Zep's cover of "You Shook Me" after three hours of authentic electric blues. Between Robert Plant's silly shrilling and John Bonham's headstrong drum approach, the younger listener realizes that Led Zep was nothing less than the detonation of blues by a crude corn bomb. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Plant's falsetto caterwaul remains entertaining no matter how silly it really is.) Even simplistic approach can become stilted and grandiose.

The later blues recordings in the Chess series suffer from a growing sophistication and emphasis on flaunting; the 1947 to 1956 disc is much better than the 1957 to 1967 compilation, and less given to reliance on 12-bar form. There's even evidence that the blues began to be influenced by its own poor reflection, like Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me," a direct steal from Booker T. & the MGs' "Green Onions." The later recordings are more prone to extended noodling, bland form, and needless embellishment (like the incessantly tinkling barrelhouse piano). Even Waters begins to sound dull and showy on 12-bar numbers like "Take the Bitter With the Sweet," though his '62 version of "You Shook Me" still beats Led Zep's ham-handing.

But never mind structural cliches and all this trouble over riffs -- the human elements of the Chess recordings remain affecting. Vocal imitation of a saxophone's brassy snarl on the part of both Etta James (on "Baby, What You Want Me to Do") and Koko Taylor (on "I Got What It Takes") accents the subject matter of the songs -- basically, as seems to be common among blues-singing women, "You fuck me," as opposed to the bluesman's "I'll fuck you." The tracks still raise hairs, if not other body parts.

Still, let's keep something in mind: Blues is done. The Chess Records reissues are best appreciated in a historical sense, not as a fresh and bright discovery. Whatever people who cling dearly to the form might claim, this genre of popular music has been thoroughly depleted. Explored, expanded upon, and, ultimately, exhausted. Even in Chicago, I'm told -- where Dixon and his Chess compatriots perfected the form -- the "scene" has been largely reduced to black folks playing "Sweet Home Chicago" (a Robert Johnson song about California) to uncomprehending frat boys, tourists, and misguided pilgrims on the North (or white) Side. And that's fine. All passe genres -- rockabilly, swing, funk, disco -- are given to retrofitting, even if only as an excuse for unimaginative youngsters to don costumes. It's only music, there to entertain and not to elevate. That's life -- forms come and go. We need new cliches. Fame is fleeting. Even Chuck Berry, who -- I'll readily concede -- invented something huge, has been reduced to no greater notoriety than his videotaped bedroom habits. (Or should I say bathroom?) There will always be people who appreciate "Johnny B. Goode" as a song and not a benchmark, as long as boomers are still alive. Blues may still play well as a tourist attraction, or even heavy the busker's hat, but as a wellspring, it's hacking up dust. Everything dies. Listening to the songs on these various compilations is the musical equivalent of marveling upon a beautiful tombstone -- proof, at least, that something was once alive.

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