A deliberate alternate music history, Rock ‘N’ Roll 5-0 looks back five decades at some of the most notable, and notably overlooked, albums of the time. A break from the Beatles-Stones-Dylan feedback loop, this monthly series explores the less heralded, the disregarded, the ignored and the just-plain-great records deserving of reappraisal, exploration and celebration. From groundbreaking releases that stumped the normies to genuine gems rarely discussed in contemporary criticism, Rock N Roll 5-0 goes deep in the service of inclusivity, diversity and eclecticism. Pay attention; this is 1968.
The 50th anniversary series’ fourth installment addresses a noteworthy yet problematic attempt to bridge the sound of 1968’s rock revolution with one of its biggest forefathers. Maligned quite publicly by the legendary bluesman allegedly at its helm, this crossover record offers an unusual case study in the unwieldy power of artistic influence.
Rock is nothing without the blues. A perfect sound birthed from the culture of African American life at the turn of the 20th Century, it both laid the foundation and set the stage, giving so much of itself and, in line with its often doleful and tragic subject matter, receiving so little in return.
From pop powerhouses like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to psychedelic lords Cream and the Yardbirds, the blues provided the blueprint and the soul for so much music in the 1960s. Established artists like John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters were practically gods to this new generation of tunesmiths. Five decades later, Eric Clapton’s continued devotion to the form, for example, indicates a hardwired fandom or fetish for the black experience exemplified in song.
It was neither the first time white musicians would crib from black artistry nor would it be the last. This trend, or perhaps, virus, persists in American music even today, an unabashedly systematic and ostensibly appreciative appropriation by white artists of music conceived of and originated by non-whites. We see the likes of G-Eazy and Post Malone regularly roost in the upper reaches of the Billboard charts while rappers whose lives more closely match the roots and realities that made hip-hop happen struggle to be heard. So too was the case with black bluesmen, who found themselves marginalized and made niche while America and Britain made googly eyes at the shaggy young rockers conveniently copping their shit.
Even those who admired the blues and identified as fans had a challenging relationship at the time with these still-kicking singers and axemen. Folks like Keith Richards looked up to Waters and his ilk as heroes, with the Stones literally named for one of the veteran bluesman’s tunes—though good luck getting the man paid for that. Even with renewed interest in what he was doing, Waters still somehow managed to get dinged as being inauthentic or otherwise part of the problem. In an October 1968 column for Esquire, music critic Robert Christgau charged him with “clowning for the white audience” in a live setting, arguably the best way to make a buck at the time. In it, he appears to assign some blame to Waters, at least to some extent, for the watering down of blues by non-black artists, skewering Jeff Beck and John Mayall in the process.
At that point in time, Chess Records had been a staple of the blues industry making some risky pandering moves. Founded in Chicago in 1950 by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, the label served as Waters’ recording home, putting out singles at first and subsequently his albums. (After a brief stint in charge of Chess in 1969, Leonard’s son Marshall would go on to run Rolling Stones Records, an imprint primarily set up for solo releases from the namesake band’s members.) Though born in Mississippi, Waters had resided in Chicago since the 1940s, and his working relationship with Chess yielded the 1950s hits he’s come to be known for, including “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and “I’m Ready.” Together, the label and its star artist were a winning combo.
In the 1960s, rock n’ roll’s raging popularity off the proverbial backs of hard-livin’ bluesmen posed challenges to that arrangement. Chess tried a few different tacks to open their stable of talents to this new young audience and their wads of disposable income. In 1964, the label attempted to cash in on the folk rock trend with Waters’ Folk Singer, a fine album that brazenly featured nothing resembling the titular genre. A few years later, Chess tried again with Super Blues, a supergroup set showcasing Bo Diddley and Little Walter alongside Waters that sought to emphasize the rock bonafides inherent in amplified blues.
Then came Electric Mud. After years of trying to forcibly market Waters to rock listeners, this uncharacteristic 1968 Hail Mary pass of a record took things to the extreme. With psychedelic rock very much in vogue, the album attempted to reverse engineer the paradigm in the hopes of winning over the groovy generation. Cramming Waters into their Ter Mar Studios with The Rotary Connection, a backing band essentially of the label’s cynical design, the Chess brothers hoped they’d finally cracked this nut.
Amplification had long been a Waters trademark, so it seems understandable that, at least conceptually, his style could be codified into heavy rock. With trippy redos of classics “Hoochie Coochie Man” and ”I Just Want to Make Love to You” imbued with all the necessary psych tropes and trimmings, Electric Mud theoretically could have served both Waters’ maturing listenership and the burgeoning hippie scene. The resulting record, unfortunately, was a damn mess.
Waters sounds out of his element amid the psychedelic wah-wah cacophony polluting the studio, wailing and muttering pitifully over an overly loud rhythm section on “Hootchie Coochie Man.” He has no business being on “She’s Alright,” a freaky jam on which he seems absentee at best and detainee at worst. (The “My Girl” interpolation towards its end proves especially off-putting.) Structurally, the group’s “Let’s Spend The Night Together” has less to do with the Stones’ hit than with Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love.” Even by psych covers standards, it’s a rote meander at best.
Co-producer Charles Stepney’s arrangements simply didn’t suit Waters, whose distinctiveness becomes ever more eroded as the bloated band all but crowds him out. Electric Mud presents the studio as sunken place, where a man’s essence is subdued, where his talents end up stifled until he is rendered helpless. Waters clearly doesn’t belong here and, given his comments afterwards, he didn’t exactly want to. Never known to mince words, he let his distaste for the finished product be known, famously referring to the record as “dogshit” and bemoaning the presence of fuzzbox and other extraneous effects on these tracks. Critics like Pete Welding of Rolling Stone concurred.
The irony, of course, is that the record apparently sold well. Electric Mud marked Waters’ first appearance on the Billboard 200 album charts, with a peak at No. 127. Chess’ ploy seemed to have worked, though Waters later claimed that many of the copies sold were returned. The label foisted The Rotary Connection on Howlin’ Wolf for his 1969 album, its cover emblazoned with the words This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. He Doesn’t Like It. It didn’t sell like Waters’ did.
Setting aside the sales, the displeasure of blues purists and music critics seems further undermined by what came next. Electric Mud and its early 1969 follow-up After The Rain offered an inadvertent model for hard rockers to follow in the next decade. Even as the psych tropes faded from popularity, it’s that very same brand of amplified blues rock that characterizes so many of the 1970s proto-metal offerings. Once again, influence manifested as an act of widespread appropriation, a fundamental betrayal made even more stinging by Waters’ obvious unhappiness with the record’s release. An entire generation robbed him blind, and when he reluctantly attempted to regain some of it, he got robbed yet again.
Though both Electric Mud and After The Rain didn’t sit well with blues fans or critics, Waters managed to recover with the more appropriate Fathers And Sons. Released in August of 1969, this decidedly more traditional yet still collaborative affair included some of his existential progeny, namely Mike Bloomfeld and Paul Butterfield. The unsubtle cover art—a Sistine Chapel quality Black God presumably bestowing the blues on a fig leafed white dude in hip shades—juxtaposed with the album’s title leaves little ambiguity as to whose record this one is.