Little Richard: Here’s Little Richard
Number 988 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Here’s another record distinctly tied to my childhood. Dad may not have admired Little Richard as much as Jerry “The Killer” Lee-Lewis, but he played the guy’s records consistently.
Of all the 50’s rock n roll my dad introduced me to as a child, Little Richard was especially fascinating to me. I can’t help suspecting that my as yet untapped gay identity responded to Richard’s unusual sexuality. His lightning rod flamboyance and outrageous stage manner. He was strong, crazy, lithe and filled with the threat of violence like a lioness.
Listening to these songs now, it’s the energy that strikes me as phenomenal. His voice is a complete beast – guttural and ecstatic like a preacher losing his mind at the pulpit. Even if you’ve never seen Richard in action you’d be hard pressed not to imagine this man writhing and convulsing and flailing around on stage. Could this guy really have played the piano properly while doing that?
It’s also hard not to think about his homosexuality in the context of today. These songs are all about girls, girls, girls. Back then he was living a heterosexual life, a product of his time, but I wonder how he felt deep down about singing these songs. How does he feel about having sung them today? How did he get away with rocking that eye liner and that hair? It’s freakin’ awesome when you think about it. Liberace was so ridiculously in your face, but Little Richard had style and panache.
Records like this help me understand why rock n’ roll won’t die, and why generations of musicians have appropriated its sound well into the 21st century. The urgency, the fire, and the craziness have transcended time in an era where we chew things up and spit them out at the speed of sound. I realise I haven’t actually described what this record sounds like, so to speak. But whatever. Go listen to it for your self.
The Crickets: The “Chirping” Crickets
Number 994, of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Here’s another artist that was played a lot around my childhood home, although the name Buddy Holly was more familiar than his band “The Crickets”. I hadn’t heard any of these songs properly in years, but on listening to them recently I was immediately struck by how unusual Buddy Holly was, and still is, in the canon of rock and pop music.
These are tight pop songs. Succinct and no frills. But that’s not to say they aren’t intricate or interesting.
Holly’s voice is the first thing that grabs me. It’s varied and textured. His fallback is a just-in-tune swoon, limited in range but comfortingly familiar. He accessorises this with with a growl, the sound of his voice accumulating enough energy to reach the notes he’s striving for. Then there’s the vocal squeaks, sudden falsettos and hiccups that create tension in his performance. You may laugh, but I’m reminded of Michael Jackson.
I’m also struck by the guitar work. They’re spikey and anxious. Listen to a track like Not Fade Away and tell me the interplay between tribal rhythms and jangly fret-work doesn’t anticipate post-punk by some 30 years. Meanwhile, faster tracks like Tell me How and Rock me my Baby were an obvious influence on the likes of The Ramones. The Crickets were way ahead of their time.
Ultimately, though, Buddy Holly sounds innocent. He was only 21 when he wrote these songs. It was the late fifties and this sounds like an episode of Happy Days, where even the ballads have a bright and sunny vibe. Everything’s a metaphor for losing one’s virginity. Poor Buddy just wants to convince his girl to let him become a man. I’d normally scoff at this sort of stuff, but Buddy is also an endearing nerd. His black rimmed glasses have come to signify that, even if his look has been co-opted by Hipsters everywhere. And there’s something incredibly cool about nerds who know how to rock, isn’t there? We might not have had Weezer or Elvis Costello if Buddy Holly hadn’t done the nerd thing first.
Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley RCA (1956)
Number 1000, of 1001 albums you must listen to before you die.
It’s kind of funny that Elvis has come up so early in this exercise. We have a lot of history. My Dad has been obsessed with Elvis since his teens so The King’s records sound-tracked a huge chunk of my formative years Maybe that’s why I spent so long rebelling against 50s rock n’ roll. I despised Elvis a little more every time Dad embarrassed the shit out of me in front of friends, by ripping Metallica’s Master of Puppets off the turntable and forcing us to listen to some ‘real’ rock n’ roll’.
I guess with age comes acceptance. The influence of Elvis is as undeniable as The Clash appropriating the cover of this record in both a sly nod to music history, and as a symbol of their desire to smash-up the past. I can hear Jailhouse Rock, and Hound Dog in pretty much any music that involves driving, distorted guitars. And what’s more, both those tracks rock. Hard.
Is this self titled debut a good record? Not really. Apparently it’s a collection of odds and ends recorded in the years leading up to its release. And, it shows. Whilst it has all the colours of Elvis’ world – country, blues, gospel and some attempts at rock n’ roll – you can’t help feeling that he’s finding his feet here. Blue Suede Shoes is a great tune watered down by his Memphis roots, sounding far more Country than Rock n’ Roll. I Love You Because drips with cheese. And, his version of Tutti Frutti has none of Little Richards’ deranged sex appeal.
On the other hand, the sparse and haunting version of Blue Moon is fantastic. Did he ever explore this sound further? He should have. I’m Counting on You is a gorgeous ballad built around some lush vocal harmonies. And, Money Honey is a slinky beast that hints at the pelvis-swinging sex god that Elvis was to become.
I have a feeling Elvis is going to pop up at least a few more times on this journey, and I’m unsure whether I’ll like those records more than this one. Our baggage is heavy. What I missed most on this record was the snarl that’s present in his vocals on later hits like the aforementioned Hound Dog. He sounded dangerous mid-way through his career. This early on, he sounds like any other teen heart-throb.