[10 January 2014]
Considering the down-home, Southern Rock that Creedence Clearwater Revival performed throughout their meteoric career (albeit, Southern Rock performed by a Northern California band), it is quite surprising to pop in the first disc of the band’s 2013 Boxed Set and hear something as wildly different as a very clean, early 1960s do-wop song that would have fit perfectly in any scene from American Graffiti. This is, of course, because this new boxed set is both sequential and remarkably thorough. The entire 25-track first disc contains absolutely no “CCR” songs whatsoever, instead focusing on the band’s two previous incarnations, Tommy Fogerty & the Blue Velvets and The Golliwogs.
This highlights not only the remarkable thoroughness of the boxed set, but also demonstrates beautifully the evolution of the band (which maintained its same quintet of members, regardless of the name, for almost all of the band’s existence) from the smooth rock band fronted by Tom Fogerty to the raw and progressively anti-progressive band ultimately controlled by Tom’s younger brother John Fogerty (whose name became synonymous with Creedence Clearwater Revival). That poppy ‘50s-style rock slowly but assertively morphs into the sound we most closely associate with CCR before the final song on that first “Pre-Creedence” disc.
In addition to the complete Blue Velvets and Golliwogs recording, the boxed set also includes the entirety of every album that CCR ever released from 1968’s self-titled debut to their somewhat infamous final studio album, Mardi Gras (on which the band pressed on as a trio, without Tom Fogerty), and beyond into the band’s two live albums. While the recordings presented here are chronologically presented, which is a refreshing change from the odds-and-sods approach that some boxed set producers take, the albums are occasionally broken up in order to facilitate six discs, especially when much of the fifth disc consists of live tracks, as does the entirety of the sixth disc.
Unfortunately, there is hardly any notation whatsoever to explain which song is from which album or when each album begins or ends. This is noteworthy as there are no less than five track listings for this release, including one completely unnecessary alphabetical listing. Each disc is identified only by number. There is a brief “originally released as…” listing after each album concludes in one of the five track listings (located in the very middle of the booklet) along with identification of the occasional rarity single and live track). Nor is there any listing of the individual tracks within the otherwise thorough essays that cover each album in the included seventy-six page booklet. The book does include many other excellent essays and histories on the band, plus more black & white and color pictures than one could shake a stick at. Images of singles, albums, tickets and memorabilia are also included in this thorough booklet (although a table of contents or index for quick access is not).
That said, while it can be something of a quick shift when one album ends and another begins, the music itself is overall fantastic and a credit to J.C. Fogerty’s iconoclastic approach to rock and roll, being both down-home and envelope-pushing (again from a Northern Californian creating Southern Fried Roots Rock). Perhaps the nonstop presentation of these tracks, with no breaking for album branding is intentional on the part of Fantasy Records in order to create the unbounded and evolutionary immersive experience that this is. John Fogerty’s voice becomes stronger by the third disc, allowing his unmistakable vocals to hit strange and unique heights, just as his guitar becomes more experimental and traditional (often at the same time).
To put CCR in a bit more perspective, the band was a contemporary of the Beatles and the Who and quit (while still ahead) just as Pink Floyd was coming into their psychedelic own. When the Beatles were experimenting with psychedelia, Creedence was pushing more toward a swampy, acoustic guitar and harmonica sound with references to Louisiana, catfish, Blues and the Mississippi River. While The Who was crafting proto-rock operas (even before Tommy) and concept albums, Creedence was crafting shorter, Country and Blues infused songs with few long jams (1970’s seven-plus-minute “Ramble Tamble” being a notable exception). While Pink Floyd was describing “Neptune” and “Titan” and opting to “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, Creedence was more concerned with “Cotton Fields”, what’s happening “Down on the Corner” and what one might see when “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”. Notable exceptions to these rules are found on disc five’s “45 Revolutions Per Minute, pt 1” and “pt 2”, which are as strange and trippy as anything the Beatles ever did and seem to be complete misfits in the CCR catalogue.
That’s not to say that Creedence Clearwater Revival was stuck in the bayou mud by any means. This boxed set shows a lyrical and musical complexity on the part of J.C. Fogerty and a worldly awareness, even if this was decidedly viewed through the Southern Fried sunglasses the band crafted. Even Vietnam War protest song “Fortunate Son” comes off as a passionate and poetic lament of a simple man unable to avoid fighting in a war he doesn’t believe in. Similarly, while the band always embraced cover songs, the Fogertys (along with drummer Doug Clifford and bassist Stu Cook) both embraced the original versions in rhythm and speed, but put the undeniably CCR sound all over each remake.
Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” is given a faithful rendition, with the almost surreal country voice of the younger Fogerty taking this blues song into a fun rock and roll area. Conversely, Marvin Gaye’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine”, originally a three and a quarter minute single, is transformed into an over eleven minute, reverb-heavy song that uses the original as a skeleton around which to build CCR’s darker, stranger version. The final product feels almost more like a suite of takes on Gaye’s original version as opposed to a cover song in itself. Compare this sprawling track to its album Cosmo’s Factory‘s best known singles and you will find that none of “Travelin’ Band”, “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” or “Who’ll Stop the Rain” make it far beyond the two and a half minute mark.
Once the chronological set reaches the point of Tom Fogerty’s departure, the collection takes a strange turn. With the remaining Fogerty contributing only a third of the songs to Mardi Gras, forcing Cook and Clifford to contribute their own compositions and vocals, the last studio album feels scattershot and not quite of the quality that one has been progressively led to expect as the full six-disc set unfolds. Without noting where this began or ended, the audience might wonder what exactly happened.
After a collection of rarities and erstwhile bonus tracks, the live recordings begin. These recordings are similarly lacking in division, especially when the live tracks pick up midway through disc five. These recordings present the entirety of the 1980 live album entitled The Concert, then, strangely, reach back to the 1973 Live in Europe release, followed by a scattering of additional live tracks.
All of these make for a great listen, if a somewhat confusing ordering. This is unless the listener happens to note that The Concert is taken from the band’s January 31, 1970 performance in Oakland, California, which predates Live in Europe‘s collection of tracks from the later Mardi Gras tour. Live in Europe does not receive its own mention in the boxed set’s booklet, even to decry or explain what fans have speculated for years, that the album wasn’t truly live, but rehearsals with canned applause dubbed in.
If this Creedence Clearwater Revival Box Set strikes a familiar chord with many listeners, this is because this 2013 release with the black cover and stenciled band logo is entirely a re-release of the 2001 boxed set with the branded band members gracing the wood-grain cover. There are no new tracks included, nor are there any additional extras aside from the cool new album cover.
In short, the collection is a treat for Creedence Clearwater Revival fans, although many of these same fans are likely to have bought this same collection 12 years before this 2013 release. The collection includes every studio and live album the band has released along with bonus tracks and the songs of the two precursor bands that CCR evolved from. The evolution is fascinating and the music is almost entirely excellent, but a bit more accessibility and liner explanation (an issue that might have been corrected in the last 12 years), along with a few demos and rarities might have made this very good collection almost peerless.