Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Once I owned just over a thousand LP records; a very eclectic mix of genres. In 2009 I gave away all of them bar the first 2 Dr Feelgood albums. I had basically stopped buying or listening to vinyl in the early Nineties when I started buying CD albums. I now own more CDs than I ever owned records. Most of the CDs are albums I never owned before in any format but there is a good selection of them that represent the digital versions of well-loved records, such as my Bob Dylan albums, the early Cheap Trick albums, the first four Dr Feelgood albums, Exile on Main Street or Bridge of Sighs, and a bunch of blues albums. Over the years I've replaced some important records with their CD equivalents because the music had meant something to me when I was much younger. Not all of my records are worth replacing but every now and then I come across a CD of a record I once owned and had not listened to in years and suddenly want to hear again.

Foghat's 1978 album Stone Blue is an example that illustrates my point.

Foghat was a not untypical example of the blues and boogie crossover band making it kind of big in the USA and perhaps Europe without making much of an impact on the UK even if the members of the band were Brit expats in the land where boogie was king.

If I understood the story correctly Foghat started out as a kind of Z Z Top clone where blues was an important and predominant element in the mix, then more or less allowed the boogie element to take over, as this was what the teenage male audience in the American Midwest really liked, while still at least paying lip service to the blues, with some hit albums, particularly Fool for the City and Foghat Live before the band slowly but surely descended into what the NME was prove to describe as mindless boogie hell.

Dave Peverett was the leader end he and bassist Tony Stevens (who was no longer with the band by the time Stone Blue was released) came from Savoy Brown, one of the premiers British exponents of blues rock, who also started as an almost purist blues band before discovering how much money could be made in the USA if one emphasised populist boogie over purist blues.

As a Gonzo style aside: some time during the early Nineties Tony Stevens visited Cape Town and played a pick up gig on a Saturday afternoon at a so-called action bar at the corner of Strand and Bree Streets. A guy called Richard Hyde, who I knew through mutual friends, knew the people who would be playing with Stevens and came to me to borrow my Casio "super Strat" style guitar as the guitarist with the band did not have his own ax.

Anyhow, long before, in 1978, I read a piece in Hit Parader magazine where the band was interviewed about the then forthcoming release of Stone Blue. Peverett and second guitarist Rod Price emphasised that the band was following something a path towards a more blues directed sound since having something of a hit with the Muddy Waters standard "Just Wanna Make Love To You" to which they added a bit of that old Foghat magic.

As I was into the blues and liked blues influence rock and R & B this sounded interesting to me though I did not quite rush out to buy Stone Blue. In fact, as was the case with so much of my record collection, I bought Stone Blue because it was on sale at a significantly reduced price at one of the record shops I frequented.

Well before I bought Stone Blue though, I bought I bought a copy of the 1974 single "That'll Be The Day / Wild Cherry" from the album Energised. Sygma Records in Stellenbosch had a back room with a couple of trestle tables with boxes of old, unsold seven singles and, though I was not in the habit of buying singles I did trawl through these boxes because, once again, the singles were cheap and because there were a few interesting things, such as "Telegram Sam," by T Rex, "Sally Can't Dance / Ennui" by Lou Reed, "Never before / When A Blind Man Cries" by Deep Purple, "Rocky Mountain Way" by Joe Walsh, "Cum On Feel The Noize" by Slade and some others.

Foghat's treatment of "That'll Be The Day", the big Buddy Holly hit, was to amp up the energy level and turn it into a hard rock cry of rage. It was a runaway locomotive of relentless boogie momentum and impressed the hell out of me.

Apart from the impact of "That'll Be The Day", a major factor that influenced my decision (I did not simply records because they were cheap) is that the album contains no less than 3 blues tunes I recognised, namely "Sweet Home Chicago", "It Hurts Me Too" and "Chevrolet." In also knew that Rod Price played slide guitar and I was a sucker for slide guitar. Lastly, there was no indication of any keyboard player; it was just 2 guitars, bass and drums. At the time I did not like keyboards on records, especially not prog rock keyboards, but also not even blues piano. These factors, combined with the low price, made me risk the purchase.

Stone Blue, was a pleasant surprise. It was blues rock of a high calibre, with not much, if at all, mindless boogie; at least not in the way I understood boogie. The songs had a lot of tunefulness to them as well. It was not just a bunch of guys making it up as they go along. Rock lyrics were not known for being very articulate or even original in concept and design as they tended to be no more than words for the singer to sing so he had something to do in between guitar solos. On this album the verse, chorus, verse bit worked out quite well and the set of songs was eminently listenable and thoroughly enjoyable. For all that I would not say that Stone Blue ever became a top favourite album and it did not make me want to buy any other Foghat product. Not that I ever came across many of their releases. I think the follow up to Stone Blues, being Boogie Motel in 1979, was around and I did see Fool For The City in record stores in the Transvaal, as it then was, but that was it. Foghat was probably seen as a very commercial property in South Africa.

So, now I've bought (at a discount price, natch, at the large Musica store in the V & A Waterfront) a Castle Music re-issue pack of Stone Blue and Boogie Motel (1979)
on 2 separate CDs with the artwork of the original albums and sleeve notes detailing some of the history of the band and these recordings. Makes me wonder whether there are similar re-issue pairings of any of the earlier albums. I had never heard Boogie Motel before; it was Stone Blue that interested me.

Stone Blue was released in 1978, during the heydays of the then very current and hip New Wave movement of bands that survived and fed on the punk explosion of 1976 and although boogified blues rock may still have been big business in the USA it was not fashionable amongst the movers and shakers of the rock press, particularly the NME, my style bible of the time. It just goes to show that New Wave, which had the attention of the rock press almost to the exclusion of anything that was not New Wave, was even then only one more genre among many and simply benefitted from the publicity that the media gave it but that this was also no more than another example of hype and that it was no guarantee of any degree of quality or longevity.

Foghat would probably not sound too much out of place in the contemporary musical landscape even if blues rock is no longer the big nosiness it once was. The White Stripes and The Black Keys, amongst others, in their own ways have been and are torchbearers of that tradition and it is probably trite but true that the blues will never really die even if the old school bluesmen do. Every generation of musicians will produce its fair share of blues aficionados who may try to replicate the old music or try to make something contemporary of it, but will nonetheless keep the tradition going. In South African we have the very good example of Pretty Blue Guns who use blues influences as an infusion into a rock sound.

It is always slightly strange listening to an old favourite record for the first time in many years. It could be easily 20 years or more since I last heard any of the tracks off Stone Blue.

The title track is essentially a paean to the ability of rock and roll to uplift the beaten down human spirit. The lyrics are modern blues takes on age old themes, there is pumping bass and lots of agile, melodic slide guitar, and the theme remains that rock and roll can redeem. This is so very Bruce Springsteen but not in the somewhat pompous, overblown fashion that is his trade mark, or was when he was young. Foghat make a very simple statement: when I am feeling blue listening to rock music makes me feel better. Maybe they meant something universal and life affirming but my feeling is that they are just stating an obvious truth. For people who like music, that music can soothe and relax and revive. Bruce Springsteen's life may have turned around from imminent terminal sojourn in loserville to becoming the voice of his generation and quite wealthy too, but not everyone who loves music will experience such a significant life change simply, merely and only because rock and roll is important to them.

The point is, though, even if rock critics probably do not rate Foghat all that highly on the philosophometer and would dismiss the band as common denominator boogie purveyors, the statement made in "Stone Blue" is in its own, simplified way every bit as deep and meaningful as anything Springsteen might have expressed in more wordy songs.

And "Stone Blue" rocks quite nicely too, thank you.

Next up is "Sweet Home Chicago", probably after "Dust My Broom" the most covered Robert Johnson song ever, a staple of all kinds of blues musicians over the years, as it is a call to arms for bluesmen everywhere, elevating the myth of the southside of Chicago where electric downhome blues was born and nurtured, and the tune has a signature riff that promises a thrill ride as soon as you hear it. Foghat do not exactly elevate the tune into something better than just an above average work out but they do it justice and it kicks ass. The track opens with a neat bit of acoustic bottleneck guitar, as if the boys were going to get unplugged years before the term became common parlance but at the turnaround the acoustic turn neatly segues into the fast paced electric boogie shuffle developed over the rest of the track. This song is a text book example of exactly why blues rock can be so great when it is done right. Shuffle rhythm, piercing slide, that same pumping bass and solid drumming, with a tune and energetic singing. What more can one ask for?

"Easy Money" and "Midnight Madness" are the first of the originals on the album and they lean towards the funky end of rock, with the blues element present in spirit rather than form. In each case the lyrics are workmanlike – bands like Foghat never pretended to have a new Dylan in their ranks – but workmanlike can be good too, as long as it is not cluelessly embarrassing. The music is not just mindless boogie either. The tunes have memorable choruses and Dave Peverett can actually sing and carry a tune.

The elements that make up the Foghat sound never vary from track to track but are implemented in subtly different ways to ring the changes. There is a great deal of musical intelligence at work here that rock critics who dislike the perceived boogie genre would not appreciate. The thing is that I have heard a good deal of crap heavy rock from the same era as Stone Blue and, believe, there is some truly stupidly dumb stuff out there. This is not it.

"It Hurts Me Too" is an Elmore James number with a big, almost pop, hook and calls for lots of slide guitar. Like, "Sweet Home Chicago" it is a number that one can almost not fuck up if you simply stick to the basics. Foghat bring energy and commitment and skill and make a great version of a great song. It is not a transcendent version; I would almost say that Foghat are not that inherently genial, and this is where the limits of workmanlike can be reached. It is a good version and one cannot ask for better.

"Chevrolet" which starts off with a bit of acapella and plays out with a flourish of acoustic bottleneck guitar, is the final blues songs on the album and the passion and energy remains high. Foghat may emphasise the rocking end of blues rock but they do not turn "Chevrolet" into a heavy blues tune, the way Led Zeppelin strung together "The Lemon Song" from a couple of blues standards.

"High On Love" and "Stay with Me" are the original songs on the second side of the record. The first of these songs fits in with the prevalent style of similar highly tooled, polished mid to late Seventies hard rock with a pop edge. I'm thinking of Kiss, Agents of Fortune era Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick and Foreigner but there were many others. Not quite metal, not quite straight ahead pop. Big hook, harmonies and blistering guitar solos. "Stay With Me" also has the acoustic intro bit that slowly builds into a big, soulful rock ballad with a plaintive chorus. This is a great album closer; it leaves you wanting to turn the record over and play it from the beginning again, or to put the CD player on endless repeat.

Stone Blue was never one of the top favourite rock albums in my LP collection. Revisiting it after such a long absence was a very pleasant surprise. Perhaps the digital remastering has improved the sonic impact of the album; perhaps it simply sounds fresh but damn, this stuff is good! When the band takes off, particularly behind Rod Price's melodic, soaring slide work, it does get the toes tapping and it does bring a joyful smile to the face. Not all rock needs to be either mindless or esoterically intellectualised. Good time rock and roll is often just what the doctor orders and this, on Stone Blue, is what Foghat delivers. And plenty of it.

And then there is Boogie Motel. I cannot remember whether I ever came across the LP version of this album back in the late Seventies or early Eighties but I must confess that the name of the album alone would have put me off buying it. The title does make the record sound like some species of particularly mindless, stupid and obsolescent (given that it was released in 1979) type of music made by the kind of out of time dinosaurs punk was supposed to have disposed for good.

It is a mark of a true artist that he or she does not want to repeat previous success (Neil Young is the poster boy for this attitude) and Foghat may have had exactly the same belief about how they should follow up on Stone Blue. The approach must have been to avoid repetition, to bring something new to the table and, most likely, on the evidence, to make music that would fit in commercially with the prevalent skinny tie mode yet remain recognisably Foghat. Boogie Motel, therefore, is not Stone Blue part two; sadly, in my view, it would have been a better album if it had been Stone Blue part two.

The Foghat of Boogie Motel is more or less a commercially inclined boogie band. They wanna rock and they wanna do it in a slick radio friendly way. The fatal flaw in this simple plan is that the song writing does not hold up and the glossy production sheen just dims the light without making it truly romantic. The lyrics are not great, the tunes are thin and the music is kinda stodgy. This is by the numbers anonymous hard rock and by no means a vital, energising set. In my book a lot of dumb rock and roll is just what the doctor ordered and the problem with this album is that it is not dumb rock; it is not even stupid rock; it is misguided rock. Worst of all, there is no single track, unlike, say, the storming, stick-in-your-mind memorable "Stone Blue" off the previous album. It is one of the classic opening tracks of all time and a deserved drive time classic.

This is what so many critics complained of when they dissed boogie: it is anodyne, anonymous, mediocre. Title track, hidden late on the second side of the LP, stands out a little, with stabs of brass, a killer slide solo and a jazzy fade out with some jamming on saxophone, giving an almost New Orleans feel to the bottom line boogie. The band go a tad nuts on a classic rave up on the last track, "Nervous Release", that starts with echoes of Z Z Top, rocks hard, goes into guitar solo overdrive, has a bit of drum solo and a parody of Robert Plant's echoed vocalisations on "Whole Lotta Love" before hitting the riff and then playing out as if it were the finale of a really hard rocking live set. The album ends on the kind of high it ought to have kicked off with but for all that "Nervous Release" is still not the barnstormer the band may have believed it to be and it does not make one want to return to the beginning of the album. Whatever stuff Foghat had when they recorded Stone Blue was gone by the recording of Boogie Motel.

If Boogie Motel had been the first Foghat album I ever heard, I would never have bothered to look any further. I guess I was fortunate that Stone Blue was my introduction to this band.

I notice from the CD inlay card that there is a whole reissue program of paired Foghat albums. This is something to look out for though I will probably not make a serious attempt to collect any of them but if any of them come up at reasonable prices I might take a flutter.

The truth is that journeymen rockers can be inspired on occasion and punch above their weight every now and then. On the whole, though, and over the length of a career, the brilliant moments tend to be just that. I would imagine that one could make a seriously great compilation of individual Foghat tracks. There would be much less reward in buying everything they released because the likelihood is that there would be too much Boogie Motel and too little Stone Blue.





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