Uncool Rising: Why It’s OK to Listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival
Creedence Clearwater Revival

Cop: And was there anything of value in the car?

The Dude: Oh, uh, yeah, uh…a tape deck, some Creedence tapes…

The Big Lebowski

In a 1997 interview with Terry Gross for NPR’s Fresh Air, the late David Foster Wallace spoke of the disclosure of pleasurable experiences in the age of the “ironic voice” as an intimidating negotiation. He described the fear associated with talking “straight about anything that means anything that might sound cliché, might sound uncool, might sound unhip…. If the greatest sin in the past was obscenity or shock, the greatest sin now is appearing naïve or old-fashioned, so somebody can give you that extra-cool smile and devastate you with that one extraordinarily crafted line that puts a hole in your pretentious balloon.”

Music fans and critics alike are familiar with Wallace’s dilemma of coolness. The taste of the collective consciousness is always attaching itself to some new renaissance, knighting things that were once ridiculed while shunning past darlings with an arbitrary shrug of the shoulder. There’s pressure to stay ahead of the curve, to dwell on wardens of the old-guard only as ironic flirtations of kitsch, to search out dead-eyed authenticity in a medium that is, by its own construct, a fabrication of sound and style.

But all of that elitist taste-posturing, as Wallace insinuates, is nothing but counterproductive hot air and partisan bullshit, so I won’t let it ruin my enjoyment of Creedence Clearwater Revival — staple of classic-rock radio, formidable singles band, and yet the epitome of uncool in the eyes of some music separatists. The uncoolness of Creedence is, first and foremost, a result of its attachment to the classic-rock paradigm, a format that snobs attach to the lowest common denominator of rock appreciation because it reminds them of their small-town upbringing or their pre-enlightened days of scanning the radio dial for just another blast from the well-known past. Creedence also had one foot firmly entrenched in the jam-band aesthetic, a feared sub-species of classic rock that summons long-haired visions of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, mouths agape and eyes squashed shut, wailing long into the night.

Perhaps more than its inseparable tie to era and subsequent ubiquity within that era’s memorialized radio format (more on the band’s allegiance to jam heroics in a moment), Creedence Clearwater Revival is a deceptively simplified band, a humble confluence of two-by-fours in a land of ornate, overcomplicated construction. Its back-to-basics, swamp-bogged coupling of country and blues music, adorned with five-o-clock-shadowed guitars and John Fogerty’s equally gruff-faced vocals, is almost too plain to make a fuss about — not to mention too easy to single out for a fuss, since its music rings out from some radio station in every American city.

For some, the ol’ standby Chronicle compilation has all the Creedence you’ll ever need — all of the major singles and jukebox favorites in one tidy collection. For those who know better, Creedence was as strong an album band as a supplier of sure-fire singles. Creedence’s 40th anniverary is now marked by a new round of album reissues, which are meant to replace both the 20-bit remasters from 2000 and the “complete” 2001 box set. These new Fantasy discs sound as good as the 2000 editions — the guitars are scruffy and warm, the drums wonderfully buoyant, and Fogerty’s voice pops out like a rooster’s crow — but unlike previous reissues, each offers a handful of bonus tracks. The selection of live recordings, outtakes, and jam sessions are what you’d expect: sometimes rowdier, often looser, and rarely essential, so don’t let those sell you. Instead, let the sound of Creedence do the talking.

Like the Band, a group of (mostly) Canadians that emulated the mythos of the American South, Creedence Clearwater Revival is an idealization of a sound, not the reflection of one. (Indeed, to further complicate the band’s geographical bearings, Fogerty often sings in a rough-and-tumble Southern drawl spiked with the accents of East Coast urbanites: “I hoid it through the grapevine.”) The band’s members were not from the deep South, but from El Cerrito, California, about five miles north of Berkeley, where Fogerty, Doug Clifford, and Stu Cook went to high school in the early 1960s. At first, the band, then known as the Blue Velvets, played instrumentals and backed up Fogerty’s older brother, Tom. They later changed their name to the Golliwogs when Saul Zaentz signed them to Fantasy Records, an independent jazz label then based in Oakland that would score its biggest success with Creedence Clearwater Revival, which racked up 21 gold and platinum records within an 18-month period. After touring California for a few years, the band finally settled on its Creedence moniker and prepped its debut LP for release in July of 1968.

Creedence Clearwater Revival opens with an audacious cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” — the signature song of an idiosyncratic performer, no less. In the hands of other white rock ‘n’ rollers — say, any of the original British Invasion bands of the early-to-mid-’60s that cut their teeth performing anemic versions of American blues — “I Put a Spell on You” would have been unconvincing, a detoxified statement of physical and emotional obsession. But Creedence infuses the song with mystery and menace through Fogerty’s raw vocal and snarling lead guitar. It’s a tremendous track, made real by Creedence’s attention to the atmosphere and attitude of blues and R&B music, not mere adherence to their forms. Creedence Clearwater Revival also includes inspired covers of Dale Hawkins’s “Suzie Q” and Wilson Pickett’s “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)”, as well as Fogerty’s student-in-learning originals, like the Albert King rip “The Working Man” and the Howlin’ Wolf-esque “Gloomy”. At almost nine minutes, “Suzie Q” is the first epic jam in Creedence’s discography (there’s at least one six-plus-minute spell of guitar-fueled rockitude on each of the band’s first six albums, save Green River). Unlike the free-flowing improvisations of some of their contemporaries, however, Creedence’s jams aimed not to break into some kind of fabricated consciousness, but to reinforce an idea — a technique rooted in blues and fundamentals.

Released the year after the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn, as well as the debuts of progressive-psych bands from nearby San Francisco (the Grateful Dead) and Los Angeles (the Doors), Creedence Clearwater Revival is so reductive it’s anti-trend, a record that desires to reclaim the simple building blocks of rock ‘n’ roll. Bayou Country, released about six months later in January of 1969, is the requisite sophomore album made fast during relentless touring and hustling, yet it hones a more distinct identity out of the debut’s groundwork. The album’s opener, the taut and boggy “Born on the Bayou”, further entrenches the band into its self-made cross-geographical image of Americana. “Bootleg” reinforces that entrenchment with marble-mouthed style — it’s essentially a vehicle for Fogerty to mush vowels together while the band works on honing its groove.

Bayou Country also managed to elevate Creedence’s status as a compositional force. It was the start to an unprecedented streak of creative activity and commercial success that would yield four hit singles and three LPs by the end of the year. “Proud Mary”, the album’s hit single, not only went to #2 on the charts, but it validated the band and Fogerty as bona fide crossovers. In contrast to the blues and R&B covers the band had carried out in the past, “Proud Mary” was itself destined for the fakebooks of the future — a fact that was underlined when Ike and Tina Turner released an equally definitive cover of the song on their 1970 album, Workin’ Together.

With Green River, released in August of 1969, Fogerty’s songwriting became even sharper and more personal, transcending the bluesy vamps of the band’s first two records with country-soul nuggets like “Bad Moon Rising”, “Lodi”, and the title track. Clocking in at a little under half an hour, Green River is Creedence’s most succinct and song-based statement, devoid of rambling jams in favor of Fogerty’s burgeoning songcraft. Much like the Kinks’ The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968), Green River is a steadfast dismissal of progressive contemporary life. Its antiquated worldview, based in reminiscence and resistance, is yet another source of Creedence’s status as an uncool relic. Stuck between the childhood reflection of bullfrogs and rope swings in the title track and the huggermugger of fast-paced city life in “Commotion”, Creedence plays the unwavering role of traditionalist, reflecting the encroaching paranoia of soon-to-crumble hippy utopias (“Bad Moon Rising”) and bemoaning the dead-end grind of delivering any kind of entertainment (“Lodi”). Deeper cuts like “Tombstone Shadow” and “Sinister Purpose” also add to the record’s bad-turn boogie and old-world propagandizing.

Though it may not have been progressive, Green River nevertheless went gold; its singles, “Bad Moon Rising” and the title track, both hit #2 on the pop charts. These successes were but a fraction of the band’s domination of 1969, which ended with the release of Willy and the Poor Boys in November. Willy and the Poor Boys maintains the short-song premise of Green River, but it feels looser and less threatened: the brisk rocker “It Came Out of the Sky” is a funnier take on paranoia, UFOs, and communists; and the two Leadbelly covers, “Cotton Fields” and “The Midnight Special”, return the band, wiser and more tempered, to its roots. The #3 hit “Down on the Corner” offers another slice of regressivism by saluting street-corner bands of old, as well as instruments like the washboard and gut bass. And there’s political defeatism and 23rd-hour Paul Revereism in “Effigy”, a glacial jam that plays like a darkened reverse of earlier epics like “Suzie Q”.

Even more political is “Fortunate Son”, arguably Creedence’s greatest song, a white-hot, three-chord critique of American nationalism and the carte blanche of the privileged upper-class. With “Fortunate Son”, Fogerty cuts through the psychedelic mythmaking and allegorical pussyfooting of the late ’60s to present sober, Thoreauvian dissent that is perhaps now, 40 years later, even more relevant than it once was: “Some folks inherit star-spangled eyes / Ooh, they send you down to war / And when you ask them, ‘How much should we give?’ / Ooh, they only answer, ‘More! More!'” It was not unusual to politicize a pop song in the mid-to-late ’60s, as hits by everyone from Sam Cooke to Buffalo Springfield to the MC5 would attest, but perhaps no American rock band made a more visceral and accessible statement of sustainable opposition that hit #3 without a net of optimism and promise.

Creedence’s political narrative continues with “Ramble Tamble”, the seven-minute opening track of 1970’s Cosmo’s Factory, the band’s most sustained full-length studio effort and a masterful mix of the band’s multifaceted strengths. Part fundamental vamp and part state-of-the-unionizing, “Ramble Tamble” looks around and sees “mud in the water”, “actors in the White House”, and a “mortgage on my life”. Many thought the pulsating “Run Through the Jungle”, with its nightmarish intro and outro of feedback, to be about the Vietnam War, when in fact it was a more general caveat about the abundance of firearms in contemporary American society: “Two hundred million guns are fired / Satan cries, ‘Take aim!'” In the folkier “Who’ll Stop the Rain”, Fogerty addresses broader figures of U.S. government and policy with a sentiment that, while not exactly prescient, could be sung in a medley with “Fortunate Son” to the CEOs of the major corporations at the heart of the recent financial scandal: “Five-year plans and new deals / Wrapped in golden chains / And I wonder, still I wonder / Who’ll stop the rain”.

Cosmo’s Factory is not without depoliticized content. Rockers like “Travelin’ Band” and the great “Up Around the Bend”, with its supercharged guitar riff, give Fogerty a chance to scream and wail with nothing more than rock ‘n’ roll at stake. Likewise, covers of Sun Records-era rock ‘n’ roll boogies like the Roby Orbison/Jerry Lee Lewis number “Ooby Dooby” and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “My Baby Left Me” reignite Creedence’s obsession with old-fashionedness. The record’s tour de force, however, is the 11-minute tear through “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, Creedence’s greatest long-form jam piece and another link in their connection to gritty, heartfelt American R&B. (To ratchet up this connection, a few jam sessions featuring the band with Booker T. & the MGs are included as bonus tracks.) Creedence’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is the second-best recording of the song behind Marvin Gaye’s definitive performance, driven largely by the band’s deep, deep groove and Fogerty’s knotty guitar solos.

Tensions within the band had escalated during the recording of Cosmo’s Factory as Fogerty assumed more control over Creedence’s direction. Tom Fogerty finally quit during the making of Pendulum, which was released in December of 1970. Pendulum is the least-remembered album by the band’s original lineup, though its only single, “Hey Tonight” b/w “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”, managed to sneak into the Top 10, with the latter remaining one of the most covered songs in the Creedence catalog. It’s an unfairly maligned album, and therefore offers perhaps the most refreshing listening experience while reevaluating the band’s first six records. In many ways, Pendulum is Creedence’s most explicit stab at its own rock-R&B hybrid, with all its horns and Hammond organ usurping the guitars. Songs like “Sailor’s Lament” and “Molina” mine flannel-shirted Stax territory, while “Pagan Baby” boasts one of Fogerty’s most torn-up and unfettered vocal performances.

Even though it was the band’s penultimate album (its last, the weak Mardi Gras, was released shortly before the band called it quits in 1972), Pendulum feels like a final statement, its tone spry but weighty, with a song like “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” serving as the last will of a reflective mind. The record eschews that sort of reflection at its end, instead closing with “Rude Awakening #2”, a six-minute experimental piece of loops and effects that is conspicuously unlike anything else the band ever attempted — think “Revolution 9”, but not on such a grand musique concrete scale.

As a coda to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s six-album, 18-month run, “Rude Awakening #2”, its title fitting and intentions mysterious, is a bit dishonest — it attempts to sympathize with the progressive and ephemeral interests that the band had previously neutralized from its so-called bubble of uncoolness. Because while there is no shame in Creedence’s normalized swamp-funk chooglin’, in its flannel-and-jeans fashion and politics that are at once reactionary and liberally pragmatic, there is also no shame, as a fan, in lifting this music up and recognizing the greatness of a common thing — a thing that, wary of the cutting edge, is nonetheless confident in what it is, as it is. Too close to that cutting edge, too far away from exacting principles, and well, then you’re approaching something that’s truly uncool.

RATING 8 / 10