I remember a night in 1980 walking in downtown Toronto, Ontario. I happened to look in the window of one of the city's really good independent record stores. Normally their window displayed the latest imports from England or efforts by local punk bands, so it came as some surprise to see a copy of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Willy And The Poor Boys featured prominently. One of the staff had stuck a label on the cover reading "The Original Only Band That Mattered", in an obvious challenge to The Clash's promotion of themselves as "The Only Band That Matters".
"Down On The Corner", one of the singles from Willy And The Poor Boys, was one of the first pop songs that stuck in my head as a kid, outside of The Beatles. So although as a good punk I was properly indignant by the slight towards The Clash, I was intrigued enough to later that night dig out my brother's copy of Willy and put it on the turntable. Listening to it for the first time as an adult, I was amazed by what I was hearing. It was rock and roll at its purest. Raw, unrefined, and stripped down to the essentials it was everything that punks claimed to aspire to, but only a few came close to achieving. Listening to Willy And The Poor Boys is to understand what rock and roll is.
It's been forty years since Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR) put out their first album, Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1968, and in honour of that anniversary Concord Music Group, through their Fantasy Record imprint, the band's original label, have reissued re-mastered version of their first six recordings. Aside from the two already mentioned that includes Bayou Country, Cosmo's Factory, Pendulum, and Green River. ( I have to admit to a little confusion because the Concord site says the reissues are in honour of the band's 40th anniversary but also lists their first album, Creedence Clearwater Revival as being released in 1967 – I guess forty just sounds better than forty-one.)
In spite of the success they had with hit singles like "Bad Moon Rising", "Proud Mary", "Lookin' Out My Backdoor", and "Who'll Stop The Rain", to name only a few, the band started to splinter in 1971 when John Fogerty's brother Tom left the band. They dissolved the next year. The years following the band's break up were nasty to say the least as Tom and John Fogerty spent years in court fighting each other over ownership of CCR's catalogue. It's interesting to note that only John has had a successful solo career while the best others have done is try to cash in on the CCR name by putting together a lame cover band playing the band's hits.
Of the albums being re-released the one I thought I was least familiar with was Green River and figured that would be a good one to check out. Well it turns out I wasn't quite as unfamiliar with its contents as I had thought. I might never have owned Green River but aside from knowing the title track, I knew two others quite well too. Perhaps you've heard of them; "Lodi" and "Bad Moon Rising"?
Well, I felt like a bit of an idiot after finding that out, but it still meant there were six songs on the disc I wasn't familiar with, as well as the five previously unreleased bonus tracks that had been included. Yet, it was hearing the songs that I did know in the context of an album instead of in the soundtrack of a movie ("Bad Moon Rising" shows up in American Werewolf In London), played by some cover band, or on the radio as a golden oldie that somehow had the most impact. Green River was released in 1969, just before that little get together in upstate New York called Woodstock, and a year after Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. Although many among us, myself included, have a romantic view of the Woodstock concert it really was the beginning of the end of an era.
A year earlier it looked like Bobby Kennedy was headed towards the White House and there was hope of revitalizing American society. He was trusted by everyone from members of the Black Panthers to New England blue bloods. If there was anyone who was going to be able to bridge the gap between the two it was him. He was promising to end the war in Vietnam, promote literacy, and find ways to deal with the grinding poverty of the inner cities and rural poor. What America got instead was Richard Nixon escalating the war in Vietnam and dealing with the poor by drafting them into the army and shipping them overseas as cannon fodder. Instead of spending money on the people of his country, he increased military spending.
"Hope you got your things together/Hope you are quite prepared to die/Looks like were in for nasty weather/One eye is taken for an eye" Fogerty rasps in "Bad Moon Rising", which doesn't sound nearly as cute or funny when its not the soundtrack to a werewolf movie. In fact, if you didn't know any better it sounds like John is predicting the end of the world with this song. Or how about in "Wrote A Song For Everyone" when he sings "Saw the people standin' thousand years in chains/Somebody said it's different now, look, it's just the same/Pharaoh's spin the message, round and round the truth./They could have saved a million people, how can I tell you?"
Not only doesn't he sound very optimistic about the way things have gone, he doesn't sound like he's got much faith in the future either. Then there's "Commotion" where "People keep a talking, they don't say a word/…Talk up in the White House, talk up to your door/So much going on I just can't hear". It sounds to me that forty years ago Fogerty knew what was going to be happening with the world in the future, as he's articulated pretty much what goes on today in this song. A lot of noise but no substance from anyone, especially our leaders. In fact, they seem to make a lot of noise just so nobody will notice what it is they're really doing.
There's precious little sweetness and light on this disc, and when you hear songs that you once thought you were familiar with in this context, boy do they take on a more potent meaning. Even the title song, "Green River", for all the beauty of nature and the carefree days of youth it evokes, has an aura of foreboding to it. "…you're going to find the world is smouldrin'/And if you get lost come on home to green river". Of course those were the days when there was still green rivers to go home to, and maybe there are some still, but I doubt there as plentiful as they were back in 1969 when Fogerty wrote this tune.
The five bonus tracks that are included on this disc are of two songs that were never finished, "Broken Spoke Shuffle" and "Glory Be", and three live cuts that were from the European tour in 1971 after Tom Fogerty had left the band. When I first heard the live cuts I hadn't realized they were minus a person, and was puzzled as to why the sound was so thin. I thought the mix was so off that they had lost one of the guitars. They're interesting to listen to because it makes you realize just how important that extra guitar was to the Creedence sound, and that without Tom they just weren't the same. It's no wonder the band only lasted another year.
Green River is more than just a great rock and roll album, although it's that too. Its a sophisticated and intelligent, if rather pessimistic, commentary on the time period it was written in. Musically and lyrically this release far outstrips most of its contemporaries for its realistic view of the world around them. While others might have been writing about ending the war or all you need is love, John Fogerty and CCR were singing about the darker truths that run like a current underneath the surface of our society. What's really incredible about Green River is that unlike many of its contemporaries this album is still relevant. CCR may not be the only band that matters, but the fact that they still matter is equally amazing.