Howlin’ Wolf, man… he’s the guts of America spilling out on the floor, that’s all.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Don Van Vliet says it’s almost impossible to find a white drummer who can play a real shuffle. That’s always been his toughest problem when he’s put together a band. Too bad he couldn’t have used Charlie Watts. Not only does Watts play a great shuffle on this album, he plays a great elegant shuffle. The real British blues again.
Charlie and Bill (Wyman) are the rhythm section for one of America’s roughest bluesmen. Wyman doesn’t play Chicago style; his bass still has that same Rolling Stones rrrr0000mmmmmm to it, that undercurrent of intentional menace, the long-stretched-out notes that slide right into one another. Watts is never busy, never mindless, never bashing, always finding the spots in the music that need a little more voice, playing mostly off Clapton and occasionally taking a mysterious cue from the Wolf himself. And since this isn’t a Chicago session, since Watts is a star too, there are those moments when even he steps out and takes over the record.
But now Clapton and Wolf are rocking out on “Do the Do” and I can’t very well pass that up. Time and again Eric cuts loose until he finally spins off into a fade all by himself, and you have to go back to his earliest sides with John Mayall to match the fire of his performance. There is no need to mourn the Clapton who cut “Done Somebody Wrong” with the Yardbirds when he can still play like this.
Wolf knows it’s all there behind him and he’s off on his own as well, deeply into the song, all dark suggestion, all threat, all promise, and no contradiction:
Well I know I got a babe
And I know her love is true
But you ain’t seen nothing
till you see her
See her do the do
Do the do…
Wolf does all the singing on this album. It’s been clear for a long time that the English could play the blues a whole lot better than they could sing them; mostly they’re bluesmen once removed, at guitar’s length, as it were. If their playing replaced feeling with technique, the technique could move you on its own terms. Instead of despair there was flash, instead of a refusal to betray the black experience in America there was a refusal to betray a cult of music that had grown up in England. It was a sort of magical quest for money, fame, and the lost chord that they all heard in their Robert Johnson records and sometime almost found on their own (listen to Clapton play “All Your Love” on the first Mayall LP). They were purists, these musicians (on the first Cream LP, you can read of Eric, “formerly a rustic”), and they formed bands and no matter what they played it came out some kind of rock and roll and that meant it came out pop. They got famous, rich; their jeans turned to leather and patches were replaced by sequins. Roaches were dropped on their Mississippi 78s by unsuspecting groupies who didn’t know Elmore James from James Taylor but buzzed for days if Eric got his hair cut.
They got what they wanted but they lost what they had, as Little Richard would put it.
Finally everyone made fun of these English cats because they turned their traditionalism into a sideshow. The idea seemed to be that if they really cared, they’d make records like Jo-Ann Kelly, whose LP is so authentic it has reprocessed surface noise added on so it sounds just like a Son House side.
But the hell with it. This record is great. Wolf doesn’t just growl and let it pass, picking up his check and accommodating the whites the way he had to when Mr. Chess dragged him into the studio and forced him to record Electric Wolf. This record has the best of both worlds: Wolf’s classic roar and the flash of the English style, the blues as music and fame instead of a way of life. It’d sound ridiculous if a conventional sermon about blues truth was tacked onto this LP, because that’s so far from what’s on it (at least in terms of the way that phrase is usually taken). This album is driven by exuberance, not pain, a hard-rocking session of good blues, good humor, and good times. Wolf is on top of it all, singing off the band occasionally, because they hit a groove he can dig.
Wolf’s strongest music has never seemed to grow from the terror that powered Johnson, or the wasted sense of fate that gives Muddy Waters’ early sides their beauty. There is a threat in Wolf’s music, to be sure, but it is not something that threatens him but something he uses to threaten you. Whenever Robert Johnson sang a bragging song, something rose out of his blues and dragged him down. Wolf, the Back Door Man in one, is always in control. There is murder in his early sides and on the new version of “Wang Dang Doodle” that ends this album, but murder or not, the essence of his kind of violence is that he gets away with it.
Wolf does not rely much on personal calamity the way B.B. King does; Wolf is too’ agressive, too tough, and too loud to fit into the blues-singer box writers and promoters have built for the “real” blues. The whole current promotion of blues has been based around B.B. King, after all, who’s been willing to play to white audiences and get standing ovations for second-rate shows. White audiences now want to hear what B.B. has to say, but then, what he’s telling them is no longer very hard to take. It is a liberal situation, with whites in the audience patronizing (in a dual sense) the suffering of blacks. But listen to Wolf growling “Going Down Slow,” a magnificent song written by St. Louis Jimmy and the toughest affirmation of everything whites want to rehabilitate out of the black man in America:
Man, you know I have enjoyed
things that kings and queens will never have
In fact, that kings and queens can never get
And they don’t
even know about ’em
And good times?
Mmmmm — mmmmmm
I have had my fun
If I never get well no more I have had my fun
If I never get well no more Oh, my health is fading
Oh yes, I’m goin’ down slow
It’s that line, “And they don’t even know about ’em” that’s the killer. Four hundred years of life in this country hasn’t broken that kind of superiority, it’s created it. Wolf’s performance of this song is a confrontation between white and black that will never be assimilated, and that confrontation is at the heart of the white man’s fear of the black man. And so, at his very strongest, is Wolf.
The new album is admittedly not quite on that level, but we are still dealing with an unregenerate bluesman, who unlike B.B. King would not name Frank Sinatra as one of his favorite singers. It makes sense for King—at times he is pretty close to a white nightclub singer. It would hardly make sense for Wolf, if only because he doesn’t have the voice for it. But he doesn’t have the blues for it either. Listen to “Wang-Dang Doodle“:
Tell ole Automatic Slim
Tell ole Razor-Totin’ Jim
Tell ole Butcher-Knife Totin’ Anne
Tell ole Fast-Talkin’ Fanny
We gonna pitch a ball
Down at the union hall
Gonna romp and tromp
Gonna fuss and fight till daylight
Now that is truly inspired. Willie Dixon wrote it, but in a way Wolf must get some of the credit just for the way it jumps off a page, because it must have been written for Wolf, in an attempt to create a song that would embody everything he was capable of doing and everything that no one else could do as well. Maybe Janis could have carried it in her scuffling days; I’ll bet Mick still could, with Keith behind him. But B.B. King would sound ridiculous.
When Wolf originally recorded this song, on his Howlin’ Wolf LP, the one with the rocking chair on the cover (Chess LP 1469; “Going Down Slow” is on there too), he cut it fast and loose and loud, with a guitarist who put down a solo that Robbie Roberston later played right into the astounding version of “Who Do You Love” that was cut by the old Hawks (best heard on Arkansas Rockpile, Ronnie Hawkins, English Roulette RCP 10003). But this time, “Wang-Dang Doodle” comes slow and scary, no longer just a romp (if it ever was “just” a romp), but full of menace, with an ominous feel for a new, serious kind of violence:
When the fish-scent fills the air
There’ll be snuff juice everywhere
You have to hear Wolf sing those lines to have any idea of how frightening they can sound. “WE GONNA!,” he shouts, “WE GONNA!”
We gonna break down
all the windows
We gonna kick down
all the doors
It only works because Wolf and the band understand each other so well. Their flash is molded to his roar and his menace, and what comes out is something new.
This session does not have a bad cut. The beauty of it is that none of it seems contrived, forced, or self-conscious. “Do the Do,” as recorded here, will probably stand as one of Wolf’s finest recordings ever, as well as one of Clapton’s best, and Watts’ best. Its irresistible syncopation is as exciting as the double-harp rave-up on the MCS’s great “Sister Anne,” and it is English. English as hell. Chicago session men would never play the way Clapton does, so formally, so geometrically, so loud. A Chicago drummer wouldn’t fool around with the beat the way Watts does, elaborating on everything Clapton says, pushing the written music past itself.
Wolf must have felt it. He gets deeper and deeper into the song, and “Do the Do” becomes an incantation that spreads an amazing carnality across the technical brilliance of the band. In a way, the band’s impulses are foreign to Wolf’s, but he is singing with such strength because their music is vital on its own terms.
There is very little that is mannered on this record, and little that we have really heard before from these men. It is a great English blues album, maybe the best; it is a great Howlin’ Wolf album, not the best, but one that will stand up and that is nothing near a gimmick in spite of itself.
Lots of people will hear Wolf for the first time on this record, because the Englishmen are on it. But this time they deserve to be on it. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the album is that it doesn’t sound as if Wolf was used. This is one encounter between black and white that leaves little, if any, guilt in its wake. Unlike Fats Is Back, this is not a package job; unlike Fathers and Sons, it is not a session that ultimately makes you nervous; and unlike Don Nix’s shameful exploitation of Furry Lewis, it doesn’t make you want to burn the vinyl. Far from it. I just hope Wolf got a good piece of the bread. He’s 61 years old and he’s carrying his years like a king, and I think Clapton, Watts, Wyman, Winwood, and the rest of the men who played on this record can be proud to think that they might have something to do with that.
Creem, September 1971