Ah-oh, smokestack lightnin,
Shinin, just like gold,
Why don’t ya hear me cryin?
Being an apprentice music geek back when I was 13 I used to have lots of fun exploring and taping my parents’ singles collection, some of them were good, some Godawful*, some brilliant. It’s where I first explored The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Mothers of Invention**, The Animals, Jimmy Reed and one from 1964 that just resonated for me, ‘Smokestack Lightnin”. There was just something about that mournful howl, that shuffling beat and that insistent guitar chime, that made it stay with me long after the charms of Manfred Mann and Unit 4+2 had faded. Enter the wolf.
Leaping into action I bought Howlin’ Wolf, a Chess Records anthology, 20 years later. Actually, I’m being a bit unfair on myself I borrowed a copy first from a friend of my dad’s for 5 years, or so before and liked it so much that I made sure I bought the same compilation on eBay later, when I eventually had to give it back. Actually, try buying a Howlin’ Wolf LP that isn’t a Greatest Hits / Anthology / Ultimate Collection it’s not easy, you have to really go looking for it. I’m no blues purist either and so apart from various folks on the Fat Possum label, I make do with a few compilations of the greats, after all these guys didn’t make albums in that later 1960’s sense of a long player being a single coherent piece of art.
Howlin’ Wolf has pretty much everything a casual thrill-seeker like me needs, all your golden greats like Smokestack Lightning, Spoonful, The Red Rooster, Killing Floor, Baby How Long and Tell Me. What I liked about this particular 24 track compilation is that there are a smattering of lesser known tracks to get your groove-on too as well, the likes of My Country Sugar Woman, Built For Comfort and Louise. All bases covered.
There are a few things I like about Howlin’ Wolf as a record, I love the cover picture of Mr Wolf the aviator, the fact that I somehow picked up a French version of this LP, the sleevenotes*^ by Peter Guralnick and the fact that when they list the personnel on each track they use phrases like ‘unknown additional musicians’ and ‘possibly’ about certain players; in these days of micromanagement I find that quite endearing. Also I love the fact that wolf stayed farming with his father until he was 40 years old.
The sleevenotes make the point that Howlin’ Wolf was an indifferent guitar player and a very basic harp player, but what he had was that voice. I’d never really thought of it quite that way before but it’s so true. He whispers, he cajoles, he moans and he, of course, howls – like no other before, or since. Just listen to the oldest recording here ‘Moanin’ At Midnight’ from 1951 and you can just hear him sounding like no-one else, right from that semi-hummed, semi-moaned intro onwards, you get that urgency right from the get-go, along with some wonderfully fuzzy guitar courtesy of Willie Johnson. The later ‘Moanin For My Baby’ benefits from louder, clearer production but that lusty, half-feral moan is right there for you, even if the track is a solid rip-off of ‘Smokestack …’.
I believe that I’ve heard very few songs in my life as good, or as meant as ‘Smokestack Lightnin” and ‘Spoonful’ and they pass the 1537 genius test easily: you couldn’t either add, or subtract anything from these songs to make them any better^ and they just sound like America to me, maybe a romanticized wide-open America. Just listen to the conviction and jagged edge in ‘Spoonful’ and forget every fifth rate Clapton/Cray recording of it you’ve ever heard, you can hear the craving. I love the earlier fuzzier tracks on this LP far more than the slightly later, more polished Chicago-style blues numbers that live here, not that any of it isn’t good, I just like my music raw. Possibly because it’s in these tracks that I can spy out the DNA of all my beloved hard rockers, as various lawsuits will attest Messrs Page and Plant were certainly listening in, at least.
Maybe I could just do with having a cold shower but spinning Howlin’ Wolf tonight, it’s the lust that stands out for me slinking through the speakers. Even leaving aside ‘Back Door Man’, there’s a pair of real curvaceous beauties I’ve got my eye on here. I’m still playing catch up on the eating front to make the song my own, but you gotta dig the generously proportioned charms of ‘Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy’,
Hoy! Hoy! I’m the boy
Three hundred pounds of heavenly joy
I’m so glad that you understand
Three hundred pounds of muscle and man
Which are second only to the check-out-the-bumpers charms of ‘Built For Comfort’,
Some folk built like this, some folk built like that
But the way I’m built, you shouldn’t call me fat
Because I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed
But I got everything all the good girls need
I think we can fall into the trap of viewing blues as safe, homogenized museum-piece music sometimes and it’s good to have a lascivious sweaty reminder of precisely why this ain’t so every now and then. Okay so later rockers took this up and ran with it, but it does the soul some good to have a drink straight from the source occasionally.
Howlin’ Wolf, all bases covered and unless you’re a blues-nut completest, probably all the Wolf you need. Le Loup c’est formidable! (as my LP probably says somewhere in the small print).
Whoa-oh, stop your train,
Let her, go for a ride.
Why don’t ya hear me cryin?
*Chuck Berry ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ anyone? (shudders), never mind various distasteful offences involving lavatories, Chuck should have done some serious time for that record.
**Big Leg Emma / Why Doncha’ Do Me Right – what a record!!
*^SLEEVENOTES! SLEEVENOTES! SLEEVENOTES! have I ever mentioned that I’m generally in favour of them?
^although a 3 minute disco breakdown interlude, complete with chants of ‘How low can you go?’ is always welcome.