Creedence Clearwater Revival – Box (review)

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Box  (Concord / Fantasy)  review

Okay, here’s a challenge: name any American band that’s released at least seven albums.

I’ll take CCR.

But, no matter who you choose, you’ll have a difficult time beating my choice.  No band captured the spirit of the “everyman” better than Creedence Clearwater Revival.

At their best, their music was raw, direct and to the point – usually clocking in at barely two minutes, never overstaying their welcome.  And, because the group used very little fancy instrumentation or studio trickery, their songs have a timeless quality – not tied down to the tumultuous times they were recorded in.  Even today, it still sounds like Creedence music.  Then, consider they accomplished all of this in only four years.  A new box set, simply titled Creedence, chronicles the band’s entire career.

It took the guys awhile to hone their sound.  Amazingly, they played together for around a decade before achieving success.  Disc one explores this “pre-CCR” history of the band.  Starting in 1961 as Tommy Fogerty and the Blue Velvets, the first few tracks are fairly standard, early rock n’ roll.  Tom was not a particularly gifted singer, but it is interesting to see how far the band progressed.  The group went with an odd name change in 1964 to the Golliwogs, and their music began to solidify, with younger brother John taking over on lead vocals about midway through the disc.  But, it still took him awhile to find his unique voice.  Listen to both versions of “You Can’t Be True” – the first take from 1965 just sort of lays there.  But, by the second version, two years later, he had begun to develop that Southern gritty drawl that would help the band hit paydirt a year later.  “Fight Fire” is the finest of the Golliwog singles (it’s been included on several Garage rock compilations) – a tough mix of jangly Byrds and brooding, Them-era Van Morrison attitude.

Two cover versions are the focus of their debut album – a swamped-up take on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” with Fogerty’s sandpaper vocals upfront; and an extended rendition of Dale Hawkins’ rockabilly number “Susie Q.” It is ironic that a band that perfected the two-minute pop single would begin their success with this bloated, eight-minute psychedelic freakout. It really makes its point about halfway through the song, but the band was still finding its way.  The real difference between this music and the early Golliwog material is that the rhythm section had learned how to lay back and groove.

Bayou Country was a huge step forward.  The leadoff track perfectly encapsulated the CCR mystique – they may have been a quartet of guys from Southern California, but “Born on the Bayou” sounded like nothing else on the radio – with echoed guitar and a loping tempo, the swamp oozed from the grooves.  “Bootleg,” with its insistent beat, was another fine early original.  And with “Proud Mary,” the band crafted a song for all-time:  a fantasy of steamboats and the promise of a simpler life, with the iconic “rolling, rolling on a river” chorus – it remains the band’s crowning achievement.

Green River begins a string of CCR albums that are solid from top to bottom.  The title track is another voodoo swamp number, yet it gets to the point far quicker than “Born on the Bayou,” and features a killer opening riff, while the blistering rocker, “Commotion” shows that the band had become very tight as an outfit.  “Bad Moon Rising” showed off the band’s true genius – the lyrics are ominous, yet it’s played with such vigor, that everyone sang along.  “Lodi” is a poignant perspective of life on the road as a musician.

Willy and the Poor Boys was another highpoint.  “Down on the Corner” somehow managed to capture the spirit of street music, without trading any of the CCR signature sound.  “It Came Out of the Sky” continued Fogerty’s fascination with the supernatural, while “Don’t Look Now” was classic rockabilly, with a biting Fogerty lyric.  “Fortunate Son” stands alone – a protest song that actually rocks instead of preaching.

Cosmos Factory is CCR’s most consistent album from start to finish.  Opening with the seven-minute “Ramble Tamble” shows just how far the band had come.  The song is long, yet it never seems that way.  Starting with a chugging beat and repetitive guitar line, the track breaks down in the middle for some fine Fogerty soloing which give off a hypnotic quality, before finishing with a frenetic ending.  The horn-laden “Travelin’ Band” was the wildest track the band ever laid to tape, while “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” was one of their most laid back.  “Up Around the Bend” featured an incredible lead line, while “Who’ll Stop the Rain” was one of the finest anti-war songs ever written.

Pendulum saw the band experimenting with different instrumentation – “Sailor’s Lament” features a honking sax, while the horns on “Chameleon” have a Stax feel to it. The band hadn’t totally abandoned their signature sound though – “Pagan Baby” was blistering hard rock that speeds to double time in the middle of the song, while “Hey Tonight” was another 2 1/2 minute masterpiece.  Then there’s the somber “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” which seemed to ably sum up the exhaustion from the previous decade.  Pendulum was the last record to feature the original CCR lineup, as Tom Fogerty exited, leaving the group a lean trio.

The band soldiered on, releasing the excellent “Sweet Hitch-Hiker,” their last great single.  Yet, Mardi Gras was a spotty swan song, with  bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford contributing three songs each.  But face it, Fogerty was CCR – none of the others’ songs even come close, and Cook and Clifford were not great singers either.  The pessimistic “Someday Never Comes” pretty much sums up the mood of the band’s demise, while a just-okay country version of Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou” shows where Fogerty would take things with his Blue Ridge Rangers solo project.

The studio albums are augmented by two live performances: The Concert (originally titled The Royal Albert Hall Concert until the compilers realized that it was actually recorded at the Oakland Coliseum!) from 1970, shows that the band could indeed pull off their material live.  Although decent, Live in Europe, from 1972, sorely misses the rhythm guitar of Tom Fogerty (although, John’s guitar has got an extremely nasty sound –  in a good way).

The set also comes with a booklet with several essays by noted rock scholars, but some of this seems redundant.  After all, CCR’s music speaks for itself, we already know its greatness.

The entire output of this monumental band has been distilled into a six-disc box set, housed in a miniature replica of a Kustom guitar amplifier.  This is fitting, since the band’s gift was delivering a large wallop in a small size.  The Creedence Clearwater Revival Box is an excellent way to own everything from this fantastic band.  —Tony Peters