[17 November 2008]
Let’s get something out of the way: I’m not here to dwell on how important Bo Diddley was to the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, or how he was more than just a second-hand figure with a funky name caught in the glare of Chuck Berry’s marquee, because you already know that. If you don’t, then go get yourself edumacated first—preferably here, arguably the best assessment of Bo’s badass-ness that you’ll read in this lifetime.
Still, there are a few things you should know about Bo Diddley. First of all, the dude can eat nails and drink gunpowder soup—for real! Check out his 1956 single “I’m Bad” if you doubt this. Also: he wears a cobra snake for a necktie, as the narrative in “Who Do You Love?” attests, and that kind of information shouldn’t be taken lightly. Secondly, he was one of the first male rock ‘n’ rollers to include female musicians in his band (check out Peggy Jones’ guitar slinging on songs like “Mona” and “Say Boss Man”), and one of the first performers to set up his own home recording studio. I think it’s fair to say that he was definitely living one step ahead of the curve, which is the only way someone can live when Muddy Waters is stealing your songs and the Rolling Stones are stealing everything else.
Bo Diddley’s music, however, wasn’t simply ahead of its time. It looked back, to blues and to Africa (the “Bo Diddley beat”—sorta related to the ol’ shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits rhythm, but not exactly—is all about taking you back, culturally and musically), and looked forward, to the mutations of rock and pop that would grow and split off in later decades. (We can argue about whether or not a song like “Say Man” is proto-rap, but it is the undeniable archetype of the diss track, as I’m sure the Pharcyde’s “Ya Mama” would agree.) The “Bo Diddley beat” may not even be Bo’s own invention, but it became an iconic stylization nonetheless. Likewise, his carefree boasting is something that rock and hip-hop alike picked up on and clung to like a security blanket. The Tao of Bo is our collective Tao, the rhythms our rhythms, the attitude our attitude. It’s very easy to lose sight of an originator when you spend all day gazing at the things he helped create.
I’m getting off track here, talking about the history-book issues I said I wouldn’t dwell on. Let’s get down to practical matters, then: the new two-disc compilation Gold is the first collection of Bo’s prime Checker years to be released since his death in June of this year. It’s also the second best-of collection to be released in two years, following on the heels of 2007’s single-disc The Definitive Collection (which was really just a reissue of the 1997 comp His Best). That said, unless completism is your bag (in that case, look to Hip-O Select’s I’m a Man: The Chess Masters 1959-1960 and Road Runner: The Chess Masters 1959-1960, both recently released), Gold satisfies by delivering a compelling, if not quite comprehensive, portrait of Diddley’s music. On an essential level, it’s got those songs that belong in any rock ‘n’ roll collection (“Bo Diddley”, “Bring It to Jerome”, “Diddy Wah Diddy”, “Road Runner”), and its tracklist is fleshed out by the songs that take slightly wacko liberties with the Bo Diddley prototype (“Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger (a/k/a Gunslinger)”, “Pills”, “Ride on Josephine”, “Cadillac”). One could probably not find a better starting point for further exploration, or, in some cases, a better one-stop shop for all their most-played Bo Diddley needs.
When you listen to this stuff, you don’t think about Bo Diddley’s invention or influence, or whether or not he received due props during his lifetime. You just think about how damn good it is. This is simply some of the most enjoyable rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded in the 20th century, so elemental and yet so satisfying on every level: rhythms that appeal to your feet, vocals that speak to your smiling face, a most uncomplicated path to reach uncomplicated bliss. Chuck Berry may be the paramount rock ‘n’ roll composer, but Bo Diddley is the most fun—above all, know this.