By Ira Robbins
Travelin’ Band: Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Albert Hall, now showing on Netflix, turns a much-needed spotlight on a band whose many hits are suffused deep and wide into the soil of American music, but one that has long been taken for granted, underrated even. Ironically, the bludgeoning familiarity of John Fogerty’s Creedence songbook has had, with time, the effect of obscuring the diversity and economy of his amazing creative run through the Woodstock era.
A willful lack of pretension can easily shroud the depth and scope of musical achievement; Creedence kept themselves proudly down-to-earth just as the rock world was becoming a land of garish giants. When they first rocked the Fillmore West in 1968, the quartet looked the part: long hair, street clothes, unfancy equipment, offering audiences nothing much that you’d call show business. Judging by the 1970 tour footage in the documentary, that approach seems natural and sincere. Amid a bit of forgivable hippie talk, the members approach Europe with the wide-eyed amazement of your average American tourists, albeit ones being ferried around in the lap of luxury. The first thing they did upon arriving in London? Ride a double-decker bus.
Success never changed Creedence: even after sharing the Bethel stage with the Who, Hendrix, Mountain, Santana and Sly (but foolishly declining to appear in the film or its soundtrack album), they remained resolutely plain, clinging to the rudimentary and unfancy, putting all their effort into keeping their songs brisk, tight, urgent and enthusiastic. (I’d love to see their sure-to-be-modest concert rider.) Fogerty was an incredibly accomplished creative force: he eschewed rock’s predilection for exaggeration and bombast and still came out on top.
His economical, wistful songwriting almost begs to be overlooked. As a lyricist, he could be direct, atmospheric and whimsically weird, a charming short story writer with a fanciful flair. (In “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” he lets fantasy (ahem) run free: “Tambourines and elephants are playin’ in the band / Won’t you take a ride on the flyin’ spoon?”). The band’s musical ingredients were elementary: a couple of clever verses, a repeated chorus, simple chord changes, a concise, well-formed riff to answer the vocals and a pungent solo or two, all delivered with mucho gusto as if the words really mattered.
Still, the script’s assertion that, in 1969, Fogerty was “considered one of America’s most politically significant songwriters” is something of an overstatement: with the authority of his past military service, “Fortunate Son” did carry a righteous class-conscious wallop in the era of anti-war marchers and hardhats, but the same album’s “Don’t Look Now (It Ain’t You or Me)” doesn’t convey any ideology at all, and the nut line of “Effigy” is the anodyne “silent majority weren’t keeping quiet anymore.” “Who’ll Stop the Rain” was taken to be about the bombing of Vietnam, but the song goes no further than allusion. In “Green River,” the rope hanging from the tree is not one to bear strange fruit, it’s part of a nostalgic memory of childhood vacations spent at a California swimming hole. Fogerty often made a point of identifying with working people in his songs, but that’s not exactly an explicit comment on the state of things.
In the film, as Ralph Gleason listens and nods sagely, Fogerty, cigarette in hand, offers a confusing description of his intentions: “I want people to know when I’m really saying something seriously and when I’m just being an entertainer. But it’s also important that I don’t appeal to basic motivations, and I don’t start, y’know, ‘Hey, all you hippies, join together and let’s smoke dope.’ … ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain’ and some of the others, too, but especially that one, I tried to stay away from, ‘Hey, he’s a left-wing radical crazy’ or ‘He’s a super Bircher [MAGA idiots of that time],’ because both sides can take it and use it as their own rallying cry. Same as ‘Fortunate Son,’ really.”
With simple electric tools, Creedence unselfconsciously built riveting, uplifting, enduring magic. The group’s common-touch embrace of Americana led it into acoustic territory, with equally winning effect: “Willy and the Poor Boys,” “Looking Out My Back Door,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” “Lodi.” And that became a doorway to country music: by the band’s gentle (other than the rousing, rocking finale, “Sweet Hitch-hiker”) 1972 swan song, Mardi Gras, Fogerty was already on his musical way to Bakersfield, slowing down to find a twang in his voice, a destination that he would fully reach on his solo debut, The Blue Ridge Rangers, a year later.
Fogerty was not infallible nor unpretentious. Bayou Country, the album that contains “Proud Mary,” also proffers the shapeless “Bootleg,” “Born on the Bayou” and “Keep on Chooglin’,” an elongated one-chord jam of dopey doggerel to ride the crowd-shaking boogie train, showed that he could get carried away with his own – what would have then been called “influences” but now would be damned as “appropriation” – self-invention as a mush-mouthed Southern prole. But give the man credit for a vivid imagination and the ability to find himself in unfamiliar settings. (Famously, he wrote “Proud Mary” long before he ever set eyes on the Mississippi River.) It would have been a great loss to American music had he not elected himself to that role, but it remains both the secret to, and the great mystery of, Creedence’s existence.
With commentary by bandmembers and wonderful archival footage, all narrated by Jeff Bridges, the film uses a breezy account of how Creedence came to be to lead into a good chunk of their mid-April 1970 performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall, with sound restored by (who else) Giles Martin. The first part doesn’t fully explain how a bunch of kids from northern California so effectively found their musical way to the swamps of Louisiana and other points south, but perhaps there’s not much more to it than growing up in thrall to Black music. (Unlike a lot of their contemporaries of similar mind, Creedence never found any reason to play straight-up blues.) What’s striking, however, are parallels to the Rolling Stones: a convincing embrace of Black music without clinical imitation, an unnatural made-up vocal style, an aversion to pronouncing “g”s at the ends of words, covering just the right old songs and revving it all up with youthful energy. (One big difference: Creedence were clean and well-mannered, with no taste for outrage or aggro. The Stones could never have done “Midnight Special.”) Onstage, playing faster than on record (rev it up a bit more than this and you’ve got primal punk rock), Fogerty — his body taut, bouncing like a runner preparing to steal a base, wearing the checked flannel shirt that would later be adopted by northwest bands, including one that coincidentally named itself for a different body of water than his “Green River” – sings with so much ferocious power than he is very nearly screaming.
For a band that was as big as a band got in those days, their concert presentation is disarmingly… nothing. The four of them on a small stage, a couple of Kustom amps and two guitars (but, incredibly, given the sound he got, no fuzzbox!) for Fogerty and an Ampeg stack for bassist Stu Cook (whose colorful period shirt is about the closest thing to stagecraft here), a modest kit for Cosmo Clifford, whose drumming can charitably be characterized likewise. And the superfluous big brother, Tom Fogerty, off to the side, down-strumming a handsome white
ES-335 Guild Starfire with the unwavering consistency (but nowhere near the impact) of Johnny Ramone. No backdrop, no lightshow, no running around. Fogerty says a few words here and there and faces the audience when he sings, but whenever he solos, he turns to face Clifford, sideways to the house. Eager-to-please, yes, but strictly on his own terms.
The other comparison that comes to mind is the Band, whose Canada-by-way-of-Arkansas blend of influences moved deep respect for Black artists into a deracinated rural American idiom rooted in a previous century. While the Band worked with Ronnie Hawkins, Creedence connected itself to the same family tree by diving headfirst into his cousin Dale Hawkins’ brief 1958 rockabilly number “Oh! Suzy-Q” and stretching it out to a hypnotic eight and a half minutes of feverish guitar wailing. In 1970, the Band sounded like what a city kid raised on blues, folk, bluegrass and old-timey music thought of the heartland; Creedence, who were anything but rustic (except on a few numbers that were intensely so), got near that same emotional feel, only in a louder rock context.
One popular online discussion topic in music groups is cover versions that are better than the originals: Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” is usually up there, and Ike and Tina’s version of Fogerty’s “Proud Mary.” But it would be equally hard to argue that Creedence didn’t make an indelible impression with their first-album renditions of “Suzie Q” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” and the eternal Gladys vs. Marvin “Grapevine” debate should at least include some consideration for Creedence’s version. For a group with a superlative songwriter, Creedence recorded a lot of covers, from “Midnight Special” and Leadbelly to Ray Charles’ “The Night Time Is the Right Time,” Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly” (one of the riveting concert highlights here), Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me,” Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou” and Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby.” (Not to suggest any untoward borrowing, but “Travelin’ Band” might as well have been a Chuck Berry number.)
There is, of course, much more to the Creedence story than what’s in the bio-pic section of the film, which stops the clock as the band retires backstage at the Albert Hall. Underused, underappreciated and unrecognized, Tom Fogerty left in a huff less than a year later; the remaining trio was no more settled and managed only one more studio album before calling it quits. The pernicious part played in the story by Fantasy Records is never mentioned, although a laughably pompous comment by one of the label’s founders, the man responsible for the pre-Creedence Golliwogs name (not Fogerty’s nemesis Saul Zaentz), is damning enough. Elusive as ever in rock chronicles, the transition that brings a band from its stumbling beginnings to its familiar sound (in this case, from polite British Invasion styling to the freewheeling, hypnotic swampery of “Suzie Q”) occurs out of sight.