Rock Bottom Remainders band member Stephen King contributed to American Heritage magazine’s annual Overrated & Underrated survey in 1999 and weighed in on one of his great passions. In a short entry headed “Rock Band“, King took a paragraph to cut the Beatles down to size before making his case for Creedence Clearwater Revival as the Most Underrated group. “Dismissed as ‘just a singles band’ and ‘“Hee-Haw” meets Dale Hawkins’ at the time they were playing together,” King wrote, “Creedence […] created a series of raw and unforgettable rock songs. Some, like ‘Lookin’ Out My Back Door,’ were indeed country-tinged. Others, like ‘Fortunate Son,’ were flat-out protest songs. Almost all the stuff Creedence created between 1967 and 1970 was hot. In an era of psychedelic imagery and increasing long-windedness, this band preserved the basic rock philosophy: Keep it short, keep it loud, and make sure the audience can dance to it.”
King made a strong case for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s greatness. The band achieved $28 million in US record sales; their first-ballot induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame; and provided 50 years of continuous rotation across classic rock and oldies radio. We hear their music in movies, television, and at political rallies. Few musical acts have worked more profoundly into the public subconscious than Creedence Clearwater Revival. Fewer still have managed it following as short a heyday as their four-year assault on the charts. Most Underrated? At first blush, that seems like a hell of a hill to die on.
Yet, reading John Lingan’s biographical epic A Song For Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival, it’s easy to wonder if King was onto something. Lingan isn’t the first to take on the band’s saga of dogged ascendancy and acrimonious disintegration – the band was well-served by Hank Bordowitz’s comprehensive Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival (1998), not to mention bandleader John Fogerty’s own take Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music (2015), co-written with Jimmy McDonough. But neither of these efforts cement the band firmly in the top tier of the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon. More importantly, no one before Lingan has so effectively driven home the magnitude of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s achievement: crafting a plethora of songs that spoke to their era while standing apart from it so that their songs retain their urgency and relevance to this day.
Like covering one of the band’s pop standards, repeating Creedence Clearwater Revival’s twice-told tale presents a challenge of originality: some beats must be followed, verses must be sung, and yet a new version of the same old song is hardly worth a listen if it can’t offer a new spin. Tethered to the same storyline as his predecessors, lacking any significant new revelations or developments, Lingan has little choice but to retrace a narrative path familiar to many music fans.
John Fogerty, a talented and driven youngster from a broken working-class home in El Cerrito, California, finds kindred musical spirits in his high school classmates Stu Cook and Doug Clifford. After years of gestation, including band name changes and the addition of Fogerty’s older brother Tom on rhythm guitar, a four-piece combo emerges in the late 1960s, playing, in Lingan’s words, “deep-pocketed rock and roll as sharp as pressed pants” to rival the rising tide of bands “exploring feedback and chaos” across the bay in San Francisco. The group’s regional explosion quickly conflagrates into nationwide chart dominance, but even as they enjoy the success they’ve worked for years to achieve, resentments stemming from the younger Fogerty’s domineering leadership create tensions that gradually pull the band apart.
As a chronicler of events, Lingan rescues his work from being a mere retread through the lively fluidity of his prose. Here he is describing the swamp-rock well from which John Fogerty drew his musical and lyrical creations: “His mind was full of Bill Graham circuses and mass mourning, half-remembered old movies and thoroughly memorized 45s.” In the same space, discussing the early hit “Born on the Bayou”, he defends the authenticity of Fogerty’s borrowed musical persona:
John Fogerty wasn’t the first songwriter to make up a persona for himself, but he was the first to do so by conjuring a completely foreign atmosphere on his own— his vocal phrasing, his guitar tones, his production. James Brown showed you how hard he worked, whereas John reminisced about the place ‘he’ grew up, even though he had never set foot there. He could remember the bayou, the hound dog, the Fourth of July, all from the media he absorbed as a kid. And he re-created them with an undulating, heavy-tremolo guitar tone that felt somehow humid. […] There was nothing extraneous or extractable from Creedence’s sound or John’s songs at this point, nothing hidden. His strange invented South was convincing because his music didn’t strain to explain itself. He never seemed like an artist that was trying to put one over.
Foreshadowing the band’s breakup, he writes, “Their fans heard and saw a uniquely dialed-in group with uncanny musical communication and sympathy. They didn’t know about the bone-deep codependency, forged in childhood, that flowed underneath and threatened their future.”
Lingan brings more to his tale than just mastery of prose. Though he caps A Song For Everyone with a meticulous set of endnotes to corroborate every statement, for most of the text he opts for a straight narration, without citations. Freed from the formatting restrictions that see a biographer’s words acting as mere connecting tissue between long quoted passages, Lingan displays his flair for storytelling unencumbered. This stylistic choice adds an almost novelistic flavor to A Song For Everyone, as Lingan’s imagination enters the minds of his subjects, becoming less a biographer than an omniscient narrator.
When a teenage Stu Cook injures himself setting fire to a bundle of yard clippings at his house, an event that merits a single line in Bordowitz’s book becomes a harrowing vignette illustrating the bass player’s rebellion against his parents’ expectations. When drummer Doug Clifford locks horns with Fogerty over the latter’s autocratic dictates, readers can feel viscerally the anger and frustration that drives him to the brink of violence.
Vivid retellings of intra-band drama make a worthy addition to the Creedence Clearwater Revival canon. However, as he demonstrated in his previous book Homeplace (2018), Lingan’s natural talent lies in his wide-angle view of his subjects. From the outset of Homeplace, Lingan understands that the story that needs telling goes beyond the frame of his protagonists’ lives. Homeplace circles outward from its main focal point, the country music journeyman Jim McCoy, to become a fascinating exploration of McCoy’s Virginia home and a nuanced commentary on the state of small-town America 50 years after McCoy made his genre-changing discovery of Patsy Cline.
In the same way, A Song For Everyone pulls out from the Creedence Clearwater Revival story, bringing in points of view sourced directly from Vietnam vets, student activists, fellow artists, and blue-collar workers, many of whom can point directly to Creedence Clearwater Revival as a source of comfort or inspiration. Where other biographies pay lip service to these groups in sentence-long bites to establish context, Lingan has no compunction about setting Creedence Clearwater Revival aside for entire pages, painting peripheral characters in detail before circling back to connect them to the band’s story he came to tell. Thus, we see the specter of the draft hanging over young American men, the often violent pushback threatening student activists, and a dark cloud of racial and class discord, all serving as a massive human backdrop to the proceedings.
Amid this far more expansive view, Creedence Clearwater Revival, with its relatively tame internal dramas, appears as the eye of a hurricane, a source of calm amid a violent storm as the Baby Boom generation hurtles through its coming of age. Far from the simple band portrait it might have been in other hands, in Lingan’s writing A Song For Everyone becomes the sweeping landscape of a nation “quak[ing] in violence over its own values and direction”, a generation “fighting a battle between old ideas and new”, with these young rockers and their regular output of “feel-good tunes for feel-bad times” serving at key moments to unite its disparate groups for at least the three minutes it takes for one of those tunes to play on the radio.
One stands out among Lingan’s many astute musical observations about Creedence Clearwater Revival. Describing the single “Green River”, Lingan gets inside songwriter Fogerty’s mind: “He’d been somewhere and was thinking back on it, recalling it as a place to come back to when the world was on fire.” This passage popped into my head while driving near my current residence in rural England. Scanning the dial for relief after a particularly dire news update served up soundbites on a lingering pandemic, an ongoing war, governments mired in corruption, and a populace bitter in its divisions, I happened upon a deejay in mid-gush introducing her next offering.
“It doesn’t get better than this,” she said as a blistering guitar riff exploded into another Creedence Clearwater Revival classic, “Up Around the Bend”. For the ensuing two-and-a-half minutes, I pounded my steering wheel to the beat, feeling a surge of familiar joy even as it occurred to me that the world was burning once again. Heard in this context, with Lingan’s book-length tribute lurking in my memory, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s music makes a powerful case for itself and gives added resonance to Stephen King’s years-old assertion: for all the acclaim heaped on Creedence Clearwater Revival over the decades, now more than ever, they deserve at least a little bit more.