The Best of Howlin’ Wolf (20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection)
(MCA/Chess) 24 June 2003 Available as import
PopMatters Music Editor
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Howlin’ Wolf. Yes, that’s his name and his picture on the cover. But this is not the bull cow moaning at midnight. This is what happens when the bull cow gets corralled by media mergers, sent through the mangling blades and shredders at the plant that cuts and chops anything down to size, and is served up with the styrofoam at a fast-food chain. Now the prospective customer might find the name or picture appealing on the budget-priced menu, and so takes a chance, but after the meal is dissatisfied: this just isn’t as juicy as it should be. In fact, this doesn’t even really taste like Howlin’ Wolf, this is more like tinned creamed puppy. And this is all the more frustrating because given the company’s tremendous hoard of material (and they’re dipping into the blues vaults for more releases as this is being written), their resources available for research and for the kind of studio time it takes for a good re-mastering job, this collection could have been—I was about to say great, but this is Millennium—so it could have been good. But it just doesn’t make it—not even to the first rung of the ladder. Like Howlin’ Wolf once said, “When you ain’t got no money, you got the blues.” Well, Universal has a lot of money, if you see what I mean, and so the consumer will have 20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection: The Best of Howlin’ Wolf. Which, as it finally ends up, is not really the blues, or even anything close like it, but the blahs.
But this is how some people “Do the Blues”, perfunctory and cheap and lacking real respect. And as they have a motherload in the vaults, and the same compiling, producing, and engineering staff on each and every blues release coming out of their high-speed factory, all I can do is suggest that people who are halfway serious consider going elsewhere. So go get Howlin’ Wolf, his “Rocking Chair” album, or go listen to His Best, Vol. 1 or Vol. 2.
Does a guy who gained a reputation recording the guitar music of John Williams and soundtrack music for disaster movies really have the gut or the ears for re-engineering blues or blues guitar? My answer is: I don’t think so. Does the head of A&R at Universal really care anything at all about any of this, or a guy named Howlin’ Wolf, busy as he is producing and compiling thousands of Millennium releases each year for everyone from Tom T. Hall to Al Jolson—other than putting his name on as producer and compiler (and probably collecting a few additional points of producer’s royalties)? Sad to say, I don’t think so in this instance, either.
If the reader is by now made to feel uncomfortable and is beginning to squirm, imagine hearing “Little Red Rooster” from the London Sessions. A phantasmagoria breathed into being by Norman Dayron, the infamous session upon initial release was greeted by the howls of blues fans. And hoots, noises made in disgust, and derisive laughter, and the thing was shunned by anyone with a lick of sense. The release acted as a catalyst, immediately bringing out the inherent blues snob living within even the most casual fan. On this track is the actual studio dialog (labeled on the track list here as “With Dialog”) wherein the Wolf tries to teach young Englishmen who had grown rich and famous for playing the “blews” some blues basics.
Like how to count a beat. After a disastrous first try, thankfully only a few bars long, with Eric Clapton’s shiny bright slide fluttering and flitting like a disabled butterfly about to hit the ground, Wolf stops short realizing they just aren’t anywhere near making it. Wolf says to himself in disbelief, “Aw, man—all he has to do is count it off” and pauses a good long time, maybe trying to figure out what to do to pull the band together. He proceeds to make it easier, and literally counts the beat “ that’s 1… 2… 3…”), points out the actual place where to make the change into that troublesome chord, and how to stop at the top.
Though Wolf is attempting to be gracious about his lesson, because he wants to get through the session and make a record with superstars, the listener far removed is feeling less so. In this embarrassing moment in history, we get to hear just how well it was the likes of Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts soon learned to play the “bah-lews”. And remember that Wyman and Watts had not only recorded this tune before, but had been performing this song with the Stones for quite some number of years by the time this attempt was made. The bass lines buzz and hum like the happiest little bee, and that piano player shoot the piano player. The truth is, the rock-stars are comfortable in their status and their castles, that is to say their studios, at home in Jolly Old, and they are more than willing to give the Wolf directions, saying “man” and “cool” way too much. Second time through, Clapton’s playing exactly the same.
At this point, during the last track, I felt like snapping this CD into bits with my own hands. I’d actually liked the CD up until this. Why waste precious space with tripe like this? They could’ve just stuck on both “How Many More Years” and “Forty-Four” in the six minutes allotted to this crud, and the release would have had a completely different feeling. It would have felt more like a proper representation of Howlin’ Wolf. Even with including some of his best songs (“Smokestack Lightning”, “Evil (Is Going On”), “The Natchez Burnin’”, “Sittin’ on Top of the World”, “Spoonful”, “Killin’ Floor”) with two that are OK and two dicey selections, it very nearly is. But it could have been more essentially Howlin’ Wolf without the reminder of the debacle known as the London Sessions, and, for those completely unfamiliar with this great blues man, a compilation that could have felt more like the beginning of a long acquaintance. Still, this is Howlin’ Wolf… and I mean him no disrespect.
So I can easily listen to 11 of the 12 songs, but I am really put off by the final cut, which is a failed experiment. But as this is the last thing anyone hears on the disc, of course it leaves a strong impression.
And wasting so much space on that last cut makes me hate the Millennium series. They seem arrogant here. In fact, I hate that Number 12 song so much that now I can even hate the art design on this CD. Using the joke picture of Howlin’ Wolf as the back cover just says the designer knows it might be a joke—Howlin’ Wolf in a beret like Thelonious Monk and holding a calabash pipe like Sherlock Holmes. I suspect the art design guy knows it might be a joke, but he doesn’t seem to really get it. Yes, Millennium series art design director who cranks out a hundred of these design modules per week to stay comfortable in silk trousers and a new Lexus… I mean, can you really tell me who’s the clown?
The Millennium series—I hope they fall down and hurt themselves. Wouldn’t it be kind of funny if the future came to regard the whole 20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection: The Best of… series as being this era’s equivalent of Wolf’s London Sessions?
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