Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Where Do You Go From the Top?

Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Berkeley, California rock band, recently spent thirty thousand dollars on a party designed to attract attention. Since 1970 Creedence was the leading record-seller in the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, Canada, Israel, Switzerland, Norway, and El Salvador, this would appear a somewhat redundant exercise, albeit tax-deductible, but in fact it wasn't. For Creedence finds itself in a quandary as perplexing as it is enviable. Riveted onto the most inflexible hard-rock framework this side of the Stooges and Grand Funk Railroad--which is to say, a framework with just enough variety in the vocals and hook riffs to qualify for the second station of rock fixity--the band has turned off the kind of fan who exults every time he identifies a chord change, who assumes a hit single is a bad record, and who talks about rock rather than rock and roll. Worse still, Creedence has not infused its public--a category that subsumes a remarkable range of high-school students, truck-stoppers, heads, and miscellaneous--with the kind of ardor public idols are expected to expect. The trouble is, both failings are inextricable from the success they accompany, which is based on a fanatical devotion to the music of rock and roll.

The most reasonable complaint about Creedence's music is that it always sounds the same, excuse enough for the chord-change crowd to put it down. The Doors, a group of comparable importance (and structure), are often subjected to the same complaint, but there is a difference. Listen first to The Doors and Morrison Hotel, then to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Cosmo's Factory. To an outsider, all four records (excluding "The End" and "Alabama Song") probably sound pretty much the same. The rock devotee would probably argue that each pair shows a similar paucity of development. But the rock and roll fan, accustomed to taking his differentiation in small increments, perceives no sameness and no stasis. For Creedence, Cosmo's Factory is in a dozen tiny respects an elaboration. The most obvious change is in the songwriting, especially the lyrics, but there are others, e.g.: John Fogerty's singing has become surer and more subtle, the four musicians are more integral, the sound of the recording is fuller, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" apotheosizes "Suzie Q"'s artless concept of rock improvisation, and so forth. Morrison Hotel, on the other hand, represents a deterioration for the Doors, not in the work of Krieger, Manzarek, and Densmore--though they are victimized by a certain inevitable guilt by association--but in Jim Morrison's vocal presence. As he discovers his real affection for rock and roll music--one side of the album is called "Hard Rock Cafe"--he uncovers his ability to relate wholeheartedly to it. Suddenly, Morrison's timbre loses much of its former mystery with no gain in directness, his phrasing lacks wit, and the music, while competent enough, excites only those hung over on the persona he once managed to project with such ferocious intensity--those entranced by an afterimage, so to speak.

For although Morrison once made music that was good as music, music was never his specialty, and consequently it was never the strength of the group he defined. The Doors were film students, remember, and their deepest passion was communication, which Morrison called "politics." Only Robbie Krieger was a musician by commitment, and given a few bad breaks, the group might very well have disbanded as quickly as it succeeded. When their success became perfunctory, so did their music. Creedence, in contrast, played music for love for a decade before "Proud Mary."

Maybe this only proves the natural superiority of music to hype. In the end, it says here, devotion to craft--or art, if you insist--prevails. Even if that's true, though, it's worth remembering that we don't live in the end until the end comes. Without the loving hype of their musical predecessors, the Fogerty gang would still be Golliwogs, lucky to play for scale in Lodi and not knowing enough to sing about it. Anyway, Creedence hasn't really forsaken hype. It's merely replaced Elvis's pink Cadillac and the Beatles' paisley Rolls with a less showy model, something like a Land Rover. John Fogerty's flannel shirt is as apposite as all of Jimi Hendrix's pirate finery. As Fogerty is forever insisting, this is a bad time for media flash.

In practice, this means that Fogerty has no taste for public sexuality--that is, for sexiness. It is really the music of rock and roll that animates his devotion, and thus he calls into question all of our glib generalizations about the sexual purport of fifties rock. Fogerty possesses a classic (unique and yet tradition-defined) rock voice of the rough-edged variety. He goes sweet and smooth only occasionally, usually to communicate something very close to spirituality--listen to "Lookin' Out My Back Door" with that in mind--rather than the husky come-on of Presley or Morrison. His voice has much in common with John Lennon's, but unlike Lennon he has never written songs about women, love, romance. Fogerty derives from "Blue Suede Shoes," "School Days," and "Rip It Up" rather than "Don't Be Cruel," "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," and "Long Tall Sally." This is a significant and perhaps even neurotic limitation. He does sing about women--his first five albums contained nonoriginals like "I Put a Spell on You," "The Night Time Is the Right Time," "Good Golly Miss Molly," and "My Baby Left Me"--but almost never in his own words. Fogerty's compositions (two big exceptions: "Proud Mary" and "Lookin' Out My Back Door") fall into two approximate categories: choogling songs about rock and roll (forerunner: "Rip It Up") and songs of social and personal protest (forerunner, I insist: "Blue Suede Shoes"). Supposedly, there is no way to write an effective protest song; the genre is corny by definition. But Fogerty, the richest source closed to him, finds the way again and again, not just in famous successes like "Fortunate Son" and "Bad Moon Rising" but in minor pieces like "It Came Out of the Sky" and (a personal favorite) "Don't Look Now," which manages to encapsulate the class system in two minutes and eight seconds. The two categories come together in "Down on the Corner," which is about poor boys who choogle.

The energy implied by coinages like "choogle" and "ramble tamble" has more to do with vigor than with potency, more to do with simple activity than with sexuality. That distinction has its parallel in Fogerty's politics, which are less apocalyptic (and revolutionary) than activist (and liberal)--the politics of agape rather than the politics of eros. Don't underestimate the honest liberal: The Airplane sings up against the wall, but Creedence puts its royalties where its voice is and underwrites the Alcatraz Indians. Yet even amid such mature ambitions, temptation lurks. Creedence is tired of being just friends.

It was apparently John's subalterns (you remember Tom? Doug? Stu?), double bridesmaids, who felt this need most and pushed for the December bash in which journalists from everywhere were flown to Berkeley and housed and fed for a weekend. But it was strictly a flannel-shirt affair. Although the party was timed to coincide with the release of Creedence's sixth LP, Pendulum, there was none of the superliminal exposure that is the normal price of such gatherings. The sound system played classical music, unobtrusively. In return for several good meals and unlimited booze in the famous factory, the journalists had to sit through a one-hour television film on the group, screened specially at a downtown movie house, and a twenty-five-minute set comprising two new songs and "Grapevine" which left everyone shouting for an encore that did not materialize. The guests, feeling frustrated and misused, almost stripped the factory of posters and other movables before receiving their complimentary copies of Pendulum at the door. Concrete results included a bemused cover piece in Rolling Stone, respectful repayments from the rest of the music press, and queries from Time and Newsweek that never turned into stories.

Pendulum was instant platinum, of course. The reviews were kind. But there was no noticeable increase in excitement, and that was clearly anticipated for a double-fold album comprising ten John Fogerty originals, none initially released as singles and several representing a minor breakthrough toward sexual subjects. In another group such gestures would scarcely merit comment, but for Creedence they were grand indeed, and grander still was the music itself, including a saxophone solo and girlie choruses and lots of John Fogerty organ and even some audible overdubbing here and there. Unfortunately, richer does not mean better. Fogerty felt he had to go somewhere from all that economical guitar-playing and hard-rocking back-up, which is understandable, and that he should choose for his inspiration Booker T. Jones and a dollop of Terry Riley is typical of the fine taste in influences which his song selection has always demonstrated. In fact, the album's ambitions were so intelligent that kindness was almost mandatory. But the unaccompanied organ doodling that climaxed side one lacked even the somewhat specialized interest of Booker T. Jones and Terry Riley and didn't compare too well with Doug Ingle, either. Overlooking that brief abandonment of the music of rock and roll--plus "Molina" and "Pagan Baby," which are about women, though they can hardly be classified as songs of eros--there wasn't too much to say. Ho-hum, another brilliant Creedence album.

Then something positively bad happened: John Hallowell's Inside Creedence, an authorized biography by a former Life staffer with a penchant for amazement and inappropriate analogies. Bantam peddled it for a dollar, with merchandizing keyed to Pendulum--both were graced with the very same dumb cover photo. It wasn't just that it looked like a fan-book, thus supporting the teen image the group is uneasily trying to shake, but that it really was a fan-book. The music, after all, simultaneously transcends and elevates its image, as rock and roll always has. John Hallowell, however, lacks John Fogerty's genius for generous deception. If John (and Tom and Doug and Stu) is less than a demigod, you won't find out why from Inside Creedence. He is a humble leader and they his admiring but self-sufficient henchmen. Hallowell refuses to discuss drugs, and although he babbles about the group's sex appeal with all the jittery wistfulness of a man who wishes he were twenty-three again, he never explores concretely or analytically Fogerty's assertion that the group tries to "avoid the cliché uses of sex." Responsibility for this blunder must pass to the group's manager, whose name is John Fogerty. Although a silly book won't ruin Creedence, it does demonstrate how difficult the task of achieving a new level of seriousness without abandoning the old is going to be.

Fantasy released a single off of Pendulum after all, and it was the political side that sold, not the mid-Beatles rocker. Then, unexpectedly, John's older brother Tom, the rhythm guitarist, quit the group. He had just turned twenty-nine and felt touring separated him from his family, the release said; his number would be retired, and Creedence would perform as a trio. And, oh yes, he was planning a solo album. Soon little brother was spied hurrying back to the studio, and suddenly there was a sense of panic. That would make seven albums in less than three years. You demand experiments in your music? What is more experimental, in a culture that deifies change, than to stick around the place you know and love the best for so long? How long will such devotion be rewarded? I think John Fogerty has reached the place where he must run to stand still. I hope he makes it.

Village Voice, Feb. 1970
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

Carole King The Tull Perplex