Monday, April 09, 2012

The Right Kind of Howler

So, inspired by the return of the Mig and his, er, fresh new venture called Gripper, I've decided to eject a post that's been bouncing around my cranium a few months now.

Despite, or perhaps because of, not living in a city any more, I spend a large portion of my otherwise inert disposable income on new vinyl records. Middle aged physical media fetishists are, after all, the record industry's Last Marks. And given I'm too old to be getting drunk in the many and varied central business districts I still visit on the course of my travels, I now tend to spend any spare hours visiting random record shops.

The cash outlay is about the same, and since I'm visiting these locations using public transport rather than taxis I usually just about end up ahead. Unless I'm really bored and in Asia and visit the electronics bazaars instead. Singapore's Funan mall has the world's slowest pizza hut, Hong Kong's Apliu has a dedicated valve amplifier stretch, and Bongkok's Pantip Plaza is brutally hard to get to using the elevated metro. All of these electronics temples are easier on the wallet, and probably, whatever Mike Daisey has said, easier on the conscience, than sex tourism.

Should you require death metal vinyl in Singapore, may I recommend Hell's Labyrinth, and should you be in need of sludge metal in Berlin, may I recommend Bis Aufs Messer (though BAM loses points for not, apparently, knowing where to get a coffee anywhere in Friedrichshain).

But my favourite random record shop experience so far has been at Vinyl Grove in the Hague. I'd been on a business trip across the Netherlands that would have been described as epic if only the Netherlands was a bit larger. As things stood, and thanks to some rather lax planning, I'd been zigzagging across the country by train rather than clustering meetings by town. I was, truth be told, knackered. Before heading over to the Denneweg for a moderately expensive, and moderately satisfying, dinner, I stopped by Vinyl Grove for a browse.

The owner was awesomely fun to chat to, though somewhat sceptical when I urged to him to play Thou's "Summit", while casual visitors browsed his shelves. He even gave me a beer, which therefore meant I was obliged to buy some of his stuff. I bought two albums released on Small stone records, mostly because the owner distributes the label in Europe. Lo Pan's "Salvador" is just a little too sleek for my tastes, but Acid King's "Early Years" is just magnificent.

The last purchase that evening was an impulse buy. Based mostly on the cover, and with the store owner's admonishment for me to not let it put me off at first, I bought This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. And it's this album I'd like to talk about today, because it's deeply misunderstood. The main reason it's misunderstood is that Howlin' Wolf disowned it. Not definitively, in the sense that he refused the royalty cheques (not that it sold massively, mind), or even refused any meretricious follow-ups (I'm looking at you, The London Sessions).

The album's backstory and frontstory are both rather fraught and complicated, and clouded by the racial politics surrounding the popularisation of the blues. Chess Records Scion Marshall Chess had a small hit with Muddy Waters' "Electric Mud" album, and decided to record an album with a similarly "psychedelic" slant with Howlin' Wolf. "Psychedelic" is one of the least helpful terms in all of music, as you'd expect from a genre that in its earliest iterations consisted of amped up blues rock. Having not listed to "Electric Mud" I can't speak for its degree of psychedelicity, but I've finally decided that "This Is…" is not a psychedelic album.

This is important, because you then need to approach the politics of the album differently. It would be easy to say that Marshall Chess foisted a bunch of white kid-friendly longhairs on Howlin' Wolf, and told him to put up while they wanked all over his musical legacy. There's a problem with this version of events even if you do ignore the psychedelic tag. As Wolf subsequently pointed out, and what made the record's sub-headline "He Didn't Like His Electric Guitar At First Either" particularly unfair, Wolf had been pretty comfortable with the use of electric guitars, though he did apparently tell a session guitarist on the album, Pete Cosey: "Why don't you take them wah-wahs and all that other shit and go throw it off in the lake — on your way to the barber shop?"

No, if you want to make an album a prime example of white entertainment executives desecrating black culture in search of record sales, you'll need to look elsewhere. Maybe "London Sessions". In fact, be horribly mean to it anyway, on principle. But "This Is…" is best understood as a funk album. I say this partly because Cosey ended up being central to Miles Davis' equally-maligned funk albums, and Julian Cope will explain why these albums are also very important. But I say it mostly because much of the album is VERY fruggable. Go on, play it next to James Brown's "The Payback" and see what I mean.

Marshall Chess did two things to make sure that his version of events of the run in with Wolf ended up being part of posterity. The first was to become executive music producer of the semi-fictionalised story of Chess, Cadillac Records, which doesn't cover l'affaire "This Is…", but does make sure that Howlin' Wolf is portrayed as a whip-smart commercially-minded auteur, in other words not the sort of guy, even in comparatively advanced years, to be anyone's stooge. The second was to bring together some rappers to record some blues covers. Chuck D's on record as saying he's a big fan. In this light, the real story of "This Is…" is not white-black artistic conflict but conflict between two different generations of black music.

The theory isn't perfect. The album has plenty of heavy metal fans. Soundgarden covered "Smokestack Lightning" as it appears on "This Is…", not that Allmusic worked this out (Allmusic doesn't get this on a couple of levels. It rates "This Is…" very poorly, without venturing any reasons). I don't think any simplistic analysis of the cast of the record, or even of Wolf's intentions, would help prove this theory of mine. I'm not even sure I should even be discussing the record in terms of race (call this post-Derbyshire caution.

The final problem with trying to reclaim "This Is…" is that the history of the blues has ended up in the hands of rich old white men. These cultural gate-keepers are as easily embarrassed by accusations of a lack of authenticity as the artists that exploited the blues. The sound of the album is close enough to the pop music that blues purists reject to make it very easy to throw the record under the bus.

The problem, then, is with the context, not the record. So here's why I like it: It annoys so many people that I'm prepared to overlook the fact is also seems to have annoyed its creator.


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