[3 April 2006]
You don’t have to strain very hard to think of reasons to hate the Guess Who: the stupid, derivative name; the band’s ubiquity on classic-rock radio; its appearance at a Nixon inaugural; the terminal blandness of the band members (it’s no accident that they were photographed in the shadows for the cover of this best-of collection—but I can’t even venture as guess as to why they are standing in about a foot of floodwater); the fact that it spawned Bachman-Turner Overdrive and gave retreader Lenny Kravitz a hit with a cover of its most famous song. In the early 1990s, before grunge swept this kind of ‘corporate rock’ away, you could be sure to hear the Guess Who blasting out from frat parties, along with the Steve Miller Band and Bad Company.
But it was only after the fact that the Guess Who’s music became generic. The group, surely the biggest to ever make it out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, thrived in the waning days of AM radio, providing concise, pretension-free music that served as an antidote to the prog rock and art rock that was just beginning to emerge in the early 1970s. This collection of the band’s surprisingly durable hits, a reissue (with three bonus tracks) of the one originally released by RCA in 1971, is not only nostalgic (the one I had on eight-track as a kid) but also much more concise than later collections such as the two-disc Track Record or the three-disc Ultimate Collection. The album showcases singer Burton Cummings’s powerful (albeit at times maudlin) vocals and Randy Bachman’s uncanny talent for invigorating elemental rock riffs, without exhausting us or revealing too much of their limitations.
While it’s easy to slot the band in the same post-British Invasion, vaguely rootsy freedom-rock niche as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Steppenwolf, they first broke big in the States as purveyors of slightly off-kilter ballads that played like cornpone adaptations of the Zombies: “These Eyes”, “Laughing” and “Undun” each in their own way echo the crafty changes and harmonies of “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There” while adding the touch of aggrieved pleading that was Cummings’s specialty. The way he belts out “Are you laughing at me?” in the fade of “Laughing”” or “But it was too late!” at the end of each verse of “Undun” are clinching moments that distract you just long enough to make you feel like there’s really something at stake for the singer, that real emotion has been ventured. With its string and horn arrangements orchestrated for maximum melodrama, “These Eyes” is achingly and memorably earnest, climaxing with the spill of words in the chorus—“These eyes have seen a lot of love but they’re never going to see another one like I had with you.”
After their initial hits, the Guess Who took a turn toward the anthemic. “American Woman” (presented here in the abbreviated version, which cuts the acoustic-blues “I said A, I said M” intro) takes Zeppelin-style riffing, some snarling reactionary attitude and a brilliantly minimal fuzz guitar solo and makes it into a iconic rock statement, one that captures the contradictions that animate much of the genre: the misogyny that masks an underlying masochism, the rebellion that has already half petered out in exasperation, the thundering denunciation of the very audience it chases after, the spirit of refusal that nevertheless plays like an affirmation. It seems like a protest song, but it’s rejection of American values is so vague that Americans could eagerly make it a number-one single. The Guess Who adopted the late 1960s spirit of protest and generalized it to the point of harmlessness, so that anyone could feel comfortable joining in, no matter how unformed or indifferent their politics were.
“No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” perfects the pseudo-protest strategy. Employing the “Day in the Life” song-within-a-song structure, it layers two strum-along confections on top of each another so that the lyrics can achieve a kind of point-counterpoint profundity. After an ambivalent evocation of a druggy scene (“A smoke filled room in a corner basement/ The situation must be right/ A bag of goodies and a bottle of wine/ We’re gonna get it on right tonight”) the song sets the “lonely feeling deep inside” against a reprimand to someone (Chaka? Jocko?), who “hasn’t got the faith or the guts to leave” a relationship, giving a good sense of the mental gridlock failing friendships can provoke. Yet these lyrics are delivered as though they are fist-pumping declarations of independence rather than acknowledgements of paralysis and despair. It’s as though the band has decided that the fact they’ll be getting “no sugar tonight” is simply inevitable and they may as well celebrate it with a string of scat syllables and power chords.
In this respect, the Guess Who remains oddly uplifting. You may never think you need to hear a Guess Who song, but they often come as some relief when they crop up on the radio or in the supermarket Muzak mix. Their best songs can still perform the conjuring trick of calling forth satisfying pop from unlikely elements, managing to stifle those worrying or interrogating parts of our brains for long enough to let easy comfort creep in. But listening to the Guess Who isn’t ever going to win you points for collector creativity or musical insight, so their songs have no one (outside of Canada anyway) invested in their preservation. When the oldies stations that make them a staple now start to vanish, who will be left to play “Share the Land”?