Sunday, March 19, 2017

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Willy and the Poor Boys (1969)

Creedence Clearwater Revival were the Beatles of American sixties rock bands, so it's appropriate that they would record an answer to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Willy and the Poor Boys is a concept album of a fictional skiffle-rock band of blue-collar guys playing on the streets for pennies and nickels, and the album takes on the form of a street-corner show.  But Creedence's LP could not be more different from the Beatles' masterpiece, with its proletarian, anti-elitist dig against the American class system, as evidenced by the cover.  Instead of dressing in fancy uniforms and playing to celebrities in a posh park, Willy and the Poor Boys appear performing in a rundown neighborhood in Oakland, California in front of a nondescript grocery store, their instruments including a washboard and a washtub bass, their show appreciated by only three black children - the forgotten people of America.  Band leader John Fogerty, as Willy, had no time playing to the cool kids or the "in" crowd. This is a record where the band members aren't asking themselves how it feels to be among the beautiful people. They're too busy speaking to and for the salt of the earth.  (Most of the music on this album isn't played on acoustic and homemade instruments, of course, so, as with Sgt. Pepper, a suspension of disbelief is required.)
Willy and the Poor Boys opens with an introduction to this fictional band with "Down On the Corner," a steady gritty rocker that celebrates the ease of making music from the most basic elements, with only a modest request for a nickel.  Then the group tears into a collection of straight rockers, blues numbers, a few traditional tunes, and some astute social commentary that made Fogerty and his bandmates (his brother Tom on rhythm guitar, bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford)  working-class heroes before John Lennon himself coined the phrase.  The emotional connection to Americana comes through in their spiritual, even soulful interpretations of Leadbelly's "Cotton Fields" and the traditional work ballad "The Midnight Special," simultaneously highlighting the dignity of work and disrespect for the worker.
John Fogerty's own laments more than capture the feel of these old standards; "Feelin' Blue" is a slow lament of a downtrodden soul, while "Don't Look Now" is a prayerful, muted paean to the working men who mine the coal and plow the land to support civilization.  But while their are many moments of levity here, such as the skiffle instrumental "Poorboy Shuffle" (in which Creedence play the instruments they are shown playing on the LP's cover), John Fogerty's best compositions on Willy and the Poor Boys cut and draw blood.  "It Came Out of the Sky," a tale of a farmer witnessing the landing of an unidentified flying object, bristles with growling guitars and heavy drums.  The song pointedly satirizes people's attempts to interpret the incident described and use it to their own advantage  and pitiless put-downs of the political and media elites.  (Then-Vice President Spiro Agnew and then-California governor Ronald Reagan are lampooned for their foolishness, and even Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid of CBS News don't escape ridicule.)
Fogerty's biggest slashes are what makes Willy and the Poor Boys a great album.  Thinly disguised as a standard anti-war song, "Fortunate Son" surges with metallic fury against a class system that sends the poorest young men to fight in Vietnam while the rich and powerful children stay home, including the San Francisco hippies in the Vietnam era that came from affluent families (the Fogerty brothers and their bandmates grew up in a blue-collar section of a Bay Area suburb).  Willy and the Poor Boys closes with "Effigy," a harrowing, terrifying guitar rocker that is the album's "A Day In the Life."  It chronicles a firestorm destroying everything in its path, representing the dissolution of America into a morass of violence, bigotry and revenge ("Silent majority weren't keepin' quiet anymore," Fogerty says, referring to the famous line Richard Nixon used to describe the disgruntled Middle America voters who supported him).  Both songs remain relevant today; Fogerty foresaw the common man lost in the ugliness of what America was becoming and railed like an Old Testament prophet as only a working-class rocker could.  "Effigy" doesn't end on a crashing chord like "A Day In the Life" does; long before it slowly fades out, the end has already come to pass.
I hope you have enjoyed the show.  

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