After fruitlessly slogging around for almost a decade under various monikers, most famously the Golliwogs, California's rechristened Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR) finally found "overnight success" with this underrated debut album. As is often the case (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, for starters), CCR's debut album is easily their rawest and bluesiest, and though group leader John Fogerty had yet to emerge as the succinctly brilliant songwriter he would soon become, the band already had their very own uniquely powerful sound, the result of a powerful musical chemistry. The rest of the band was comprised of brother Tom (rhythm guitar), Doug Clifford (drums), and Stu Cook (bass), and though none of the band members were virtuoso musicians, the band’s deliciously dark and spooky swamp rock sound, which ironically evoked the Cajun wastelands of the southern Bayou regions, was decidedly different; can you name another band that actually sounds like CCR? Tracks such as the simple, straight ahead rock n’ roll of “The Working Man,” the soulful "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)" (a Wilson Pickett cover), the poppy-ish “Porterville,” and the gloomy (yep, you guessed it) “Gloomy” (the latter showcasing some psychedelic guitar that showed that the band wasn’t totally immune to the influence of The Beatles and the San Francisco bands) are all above average, each generally highlighted by John's technically imperfect but intense guitar playing, which is showcased on this album like it would rarely be again. Still, solid though those songs are, the band is at their best on the three epic efforts that make this album special. “I Put A Spell On You” and “Suzie Q” are exceptional covers (Dale Hawkins and Screaming Jay Hawkins, respectively; no relation) showcasing John’s primal singing and raw guitar, and his carefully constructed solos also highlight the absurdly overlooked John/Tom Fogerty original “Walk On The Water” (an inspiration for the Clash’s “London Calling?”). Although long acknowledged as a premiere songwriter, John Fogerty is rarely given enough credit for being a great guitarist and singer (his voice is absolutely otherworldly at times), and the dark and dirty voodoo blues of this often-fascinating debut album showcases these twin strengths more prominently than any of their more polished, diverse, and song-based later efforts. Note: The 8-plus minute “Suzie Q” was split into 2 singles; this is the only CCR album containing the superior full-length version. And did I mention that this utterly brilliant, incredibly powerful version of "I Put A Spell On You" is one of my all-time favorite cover songs?
Bayou Country (Fantasy ’69) Rating: A-
The first of an unprecedented three great (if admittedly short) albums in the single year of 1969, Bayou Country offers no great progression from the debut but instead continues the band’s rawer, blues-based early sound. In some ways, this is the CCR album that is often overlooked, which is strange given that it contains two all-time Creedence classics. “Born On The Bayou” has a classic mid-tempo chug going for it, but most of all it’s Fogerty’s intense vocals that’ll convince you that he was in fact born on a bayou (rather than California). If someone says "swamp rock" chances are good that this is the song I'll think of, while “Proud Mary” is arguably the ultimate Creedence song and was their first major hit. Later memorably transformed by Ike and Tina Turner, the song, which is almost certainly the best song ever about a riverboat and which is all but impossible not to sing along to, paved the way towards the more commercially oriented approach they would soon embrace in becoming arguably the greatest singles band America ever produced. Elsewhere, the band's sound, particularly John's guitar playing and singing (which is not to undersell the stellar contributions of one of rock n' roll's best rhythm sections), are more impressive than their melodies. For example, the low-key “Bootleg” kinda comes and goes and the sparse, spooky “Graveyard Train” is a slow, somewhat plodding blues that also doesn't have all that much going for it melody-wise. Of course, John's vocals mostly make up for it, as does his harmonica playing, which is prominently featured here and on “Keep On Chooglin’,” the album's other jam-based epic. Unlike “Graveyard Train,” which certainly has its moments but doesn't really warrant its 8:32 running time, “Keep On Chooglin’,” whose very title is an apt description of the band's groovy, mostly mid-tempo rhythms, earns every bluesy moment of its 7 minutes and 42 seconds. Rounding out the set list, Fogerty's raw, wailing guitar work on the bluesy “Penthouse Pauper” makes it a standout, and on the album's only cover song the band pays tribute to an important influence by updating Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly;” this energetic, more guitar-oriented version is very enjoyable and features some wonderfully wild and exciting guitar soloing. Anyway, after this album long songs would become increasingly uncommon, as concise, earthier songs (which, like The Band, were the polar opposite of what most other rock bands of their era were doing) and radio friendly melodies would soon be the order of the day, as would increasingly political lyrics (CCR are often considered one of the greatest “protest bands” ever for good reason). As such, there's something different and special about the band's first two studio albums, though I'd be the first to admit that John Fogerty started to really hit his stride as a songwriter on Green River.
Green River (Fantasy ’69) Rating: A
Though it’s especially short at a mere 29 minutes long (Fantasy, how about some 2-for-1 reissues?), Green River was probably the band’s most consistent classic yet, plus I love the way the cover photo perfectly captures the album’s contents. It begins with the quintessential Creedence cuts “Green River” and “Commotion,” two economical, hard-hitting riff rockers, while Fogerty’s lashing, scathing guitar also highlights “Tombstone Shadow” (on which brother Tom joins in for some exciting two-fisted jamming) and the aptly titled “Sinister Purpose.” Elsewhere, real creative growth is evidenced on cleaner, more accessible songs such as the ominous yet catchy sing along hit “Bad Moon Rising,” while classy mellow compositions like the world weary “Lodi” (a personal favorite that was later a minor hit for Tesla) and “Wrote A Song For Everyone” (which John oddly pronounces as “wrote a shong for everyone”) offer the type of universal sentiments and timeless melodies that’ll never age (in fact, it's not uncommon to hear about half of these songs on classic rock radio). Even “Cross-Tie Walker,” arguably the album’s weakest song, has a pleasantly laid-back groove, led by drummer Doug Clifford (whose drums also act as the lead instrument on “Bad Moon Rising”), while “The Night Time Is The Right Time” is another solid if overly familiar and at-times irritating cover. With concise 3-minute songs leaving little room for the band’s more indulgent tendencies (which could be quite enjoyable on the first two albums but which likely would’ve become worn out had the band continued in that vein), and with John Fogerty coming into his own as a consistently first-rate composer, Green River began in earnest the band’s peak period. Note: The aforementioned cover photo shows John way out in front of his fellow band mates, foreshadowing the bad feelings (the other three members felt like they were treated as replaceable hired hands as John’s dominance within the group began to grow) that would soon lead to the bands unamicable (to put it mildly) breakup.
Willy and the Poorboys (Fantasy ’69) Rating: A-
A really good but not quite great CCR album, Willy and the Poorboys is sometimes cited as the band’s best album, but I slightly prefer its two bookending albums. The two hits this time out are “Down On The Corner,” a fun, upbeat single that’s perfect for a block party, and “Fortunate Son,” a full bore political rant (the band’s lyrics having gotten more topical as of Green River) with a great Fogerty vocal (have I mentioned that he’s one of my favorite singers ever?) and without an ounce of fat. The band’s catchy, down home cover of the traditional “Midnight Special” is also a popular "classic rock" radio track, but the other songs here are less well-known, having escaped both radio attention and Chronicle. Still, just as good in their own low-key way are their country cover of Leadbelly’s “Cotton Fields” (whose nice harmonies make you feel right at home) and “Side O’ The Road,” a moody “Green Onions” styled instrumental that’s led by John’s hard-edged guitar. Elsewhere, “It Came Out Of The Sky” and “Don’t Look Now” boast good but not great rockabilly grooves (the former faster and harder rocking than the latter), while “Poorboy Shuffle” is merely a brief harp-led shuffle that segues right into “Feelin’ Blue,” showing that Creedence were conceiving albums rather than just singles (though they were still a great singles band above all else). “Feelin’ Blue” is an effectively moody but overly long and repetitive blues groover with more strange pronunciations ("Now I’m no shinner, but I ain't no shaint"), while “Effigy” is even more atypical due to its extended (6:31) duration (remember, CCR’s focus was now on concisely making their point and then moving on). A darkly intense, slow burning epic that ends the album, “Effigy” (later memorably covered by Uncle Tupelo) may seem slightly out of place on an album of mostly upbeat small town Southern tales, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as it carries its own seductive power that’s not inconsiderable.
Cosmo’s Factory (Fantasy ’70) Rating: A
Stephen King’s favorite album reads like a “greatest hits” compilation (seven of these songs ended up on Chronicle) rather than an album proper, and as such Cosmo’s Factory is probably the band’s best original studio recording. In fact, it could've been one of the best albums ever but for some curious cover choices; given how short some of their other albums are, CCR certainly had enough great material here to simply exclude the unexciting likes of Bo Diddley's “Before You Accuse Me” (which has been covered an awful lot for such a mediocre blues song) and Arthur Crudup's “My Baby Left Me” (good energy and performances but an average rock n' roll song), and, most egregiously, the silly novelty number “Ooby Dooby” (which at least has some good guitar playing going for it). Still, though these songs add little to the band’s legacy, the album's other 35 minutes are flat out fantastic, easily justifying the album's essential rating and classic status. “Ramble Tamble” immediately lets listeners know that the groove-based jams are back, and it's a great one (clocking in at 7:09) that can't be found on either Chronicle compilation. Even better is their throbbing cover version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” one of the all-time great covers that completely transforms the original classic(s) into an almost entirely different song; after eleven exhaustingly jam-packed minutes the song ends all too soon. Elsewhere, the concise hits come fast and furious, starting with “Travelin’ Band,” an obvious homage to Little Richard that's one of the band’s hardest and hookiest ‘50s-styled rockers. “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” is a simple pop song with country elements and an almost speak-sing vocal delivery from Fogerty, while “Up Around The Bend” is a hard charging, catchy, riff-based rocker (with vocal hooks all over the place) on which you can practically visualize the cavalry stampeding around the bend. On the brooding “Run Through The Jungle” (highlighted by John's raw vocal and blaring harp playing) the shadow of Vietnam is evident, making this an album of its time yet one that also transcends it (after all great music is timeless), while the evocative, melancholic “Who’ll Stop The Rain” (love the sorrowful guitar tone on this one) and “Long As I Can See The Light,” a keyboard and sax-led soul ballad with a particularly impassioned vocal, both sublimely show off the band in a reflective light (simply put, they’re two of the best CCR songs ever). All things considered, this was a hit-filled "pop" album with a rare depth, both lyrically (John remains one of rock n' rolls great straight shooters) and musically (an increased use of sax and soul elements make it stand out from previous efforts, plus the epic guitar jams are back big time), and though for all their brilliance Creedence never quite captured that "completely satisfying album" cigar, Cosmo’s Factory is the closest they ever came to achieving it.
Pendulum (Fantasy ’70) Rating: B+
This album sounds like the band had been listening to a lot of Stax Records, and it's no wonder given they had just been on tour with the legendary Stax house band, Booker T. & The M.G.'s. As such, the band adds horns, female backing vocals, and makes far more use of keyboards within what is a slightly slicker sound. The songwriting is also slightly less stellar than usual, but though "Pagan Baby" and "Born To Move" aren't great songs they are really good jams with some strong solo sections (guitar on the former, bass and keyboards on the latter). In the "enjoyable album tracks" category I'd nominate "Sailor's Lament," which is notable for its bright, melodic keyboards, catchy if somewhat annoying female backing vocals, and another sax solo, and "It's Just A Thought," a mellower effort most notable for its soulful keyboard melody and of course a typically fine Fogerty lead vocal, while the moody Hammond organ-led "(Wish I Could) Hideaway," which features a particularly intense Fogerty vocal (as well as a rare falsetto), is a real overlooked gem. As for the album's two best-known tracks, both are deserving of their classic status. "Hey Tonight" (a minor classic) delivers catchy sing along pop with a good mid-tempo groove, and "Have You Ever Seen The Rain" (a major classic that may very well be my favorite CCR song) is, like "Who'll Stop The Rain" before it, brilliantly dreamy and evocative; my old college roommate Kevin used to especially love it when the keyboards would ever-so-subtly kick in in the background (perhaps Fogerty should add the word "rain" to more of his song titles?). Elsewhere, aside from some more cool sax parts, "Chameleon" is Creedence at their most repetitive and generic, and "Molina" is a workmanlike Chuck Berry-styled boogie number that's enjoyable enough (in part due to yet another sax solo) but nothing that John probably couldn't write in his sleep. Worse yet, the album ends with an overly long instrumental, "Rude Awakening, #2," a disjointed psychedelic misfire that, though it has its moments, ends what should've been CCR's last studio album on a down note. Alas, things would only get worse; Tom quit the band after Pendulum and then, depending on whose side of the story you believe, John either consented to let the disenchanted duo of Doug and Stu write songs for their next album, Mardi Gras, or those guys stepped in when John was having trouble writing songs for what turned out to be a truly forgettable finale. Truthfully, the former scenario seems more likely to me, and the album does have a couple of fine songs (the hard rocking "Sweet Hitch-Hiker" and the wistful "Someday Never Comes," which may be CCR's most underrated great song; both are also available on Chronicle) amid much dross. It's regrettable that such a great band would end with such a whimper, so I prefer to consider the somewhat overlooked (though it is still a slight notch below their first five albums) Pendulum as the real final CCR album.
In Concert (Fantasy ’80) Rating: B
CCR were never really known as a great live band, and unfortunately this album lives up to that reputation. Don't get me wrong, the set list is as phenomenal as one would expect, and these renditions are as competent as you'd expect from a band of CCR's stature. However, these performances are rarely inspired, and in fact Fogerty's voice and guitar playing are notably not up for the task at times. I can't think of a single version here that surpasses the original; the best I can come up with is that the more rocking "Who'll Stop The Rain" is definitely different. That's the exception rather than the rule, though, as most of these versions play it close to the vest, with the band offering few surprises and taking little in the way of risks. So, given that these versions don't really add anything to the originals and are more likely to be obviously inferior (examples: "Born On The Bayou," "Proud Mary"), is there any reason for even a hardcore CCR fan to buy this album? Not really, because what this album has going for it is great songs, and 9 of these 14 songs also appear on Chronicle, in their definitive forms.
Chronicle (Fantasy ’76) Rating: A+
As previously mentioned, although CCR released some classic albums (heck, their first six albums range from very good to great, and each has at least one great song not included here), they were a singles band first and foremost. In fact, they were arguably Amercia’s greatest singles band ever, and since all of their (still classic) albums contain some filler, this classic singles compilation serves as a fine starting point for those who simply want to hear the band at their very best. Indeed, Chronicle chronicles most of their prime stuff, with but a few notable omissions, “Born On The Bayou” being the most blatant. I could go on and on about their many virtues: great songwriting courtesy of leader John Fogerty, impeccable band chemistry that produced a unique, instantly identifiable “swamp rock” sound that was musically anchored by an excellent rhythm section and John Fogerty’s economical guitar lines, plus soulful singing courtesy of Fogerty’s battered “Bayou” pipes. Given the quantity and quality of their recorded output it’s amazing to think that CCR were only together for a mere five years. So, even though I could quibble about the inclusion of the edited version of "Suzie Q" (all 11+ minutes of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" are present, though) or say that not enough songs were included from albums such as Bayou Country and Willie and the Poorboys, when all is said and done all that really matters is that this compilation contains some of the greatest rock n’ roll ever recorded.
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