I remembered something Keith Richards said about the late George Harrison when Saleski and I discussed underrated and overlooked guitarists on the BCRadio Podcast.. Richards said, “The thing is, you've got your Jimi Hendrix, you've got your Eric Clapton, and then you've got guys who can play with bands.”
Richards was not being uncomplimentary of Clapton or Hendrix. He was pointing out a lot of the guitarists who are heralded as masters of the instrument tend to dominate any band they might be in, or they are solo artists. Guitarists who serve the song and serve the band tend to get overlooked. You won't hear Tom Johnston or Patrick Simmons mentioned among the so-called “Guitar Gods,” nor are the Doobie Brothers likely to be mentioned as part of the Rock and Roll Varsity Team. The Doobie Brothers aren't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite having recorded one of the coolest and single-most copied riffs of all time, “China Grove.” “Long Train Running” might not be in that same category, but it as least JV.
What stands in between The Doobie Brothers and a seat at the Big Boy Table? It has to be Michael McDonald, enemy of non-Viagra using men everywhere.
That is not entirely fair. it is a lot like the Classic Coke/New Coke debate. New Coke wasn't terrible, but it paled in comparison to the classic formula. If McDonald's pleasant hits were a discography on their own, they would hold up much better than they do when asked to stand next to “China Grove.” The early work of the band has balls. The McDonald-era has class. There is merit to both. In this debate, I'll take the balls over the sophistication.
The truth is, I don't know why acclaim has eluded The Doobie Brothers. The Lovin' Spoonful is in the Hall of Fame. They have two songs, and one of them sucks. “Summer in the City” is an all-time classic. “Do You Believe in Magic?” is horseshit. How many classic rock stations go 24 hours without playing one DB song? The format might not exist if not for songs like "Black Water" and "Listen to the Music." Add in the band's second act, the McDonald era, and that is one hell of a run.
So, what am I on about? I've been thinking about The Doobie Brothers' discography ever since Pico wrote his review of What Were Once Vices are Now Habits and my own review of Charlie Musselwhite's Delta Hardware. When that happens, it usually leads me to a music store (or online retailer). I already know I like the DBs. It was not a matter of if I would add any of their music to my collection, it was a matter of how much. I wasn't sure I was committed enough to start buying all their albums (well, at least the Johnston-era stuff), so I decided the best place to start was a compilation album. While that might sound easy, music fans know veteran bands will have been repackaged a million times and all greatest hits packages are not created equal. Where to begin?
Even I was amazed at the coincidental timing of The Very Best of The Doobie Brothers. That is the type of thing that never happens to me. It always happens after I've gone out and bought something that the souped up, expanded, remastered, fairy-dust sprinkled edition gets released. I caught a break this time.
The challenge with an anthology/best of/greatest hits package is to collect all of the vital cuts without weighing it down with the unnecessary. The Very Best of The Doobie Brothers comes close. Very Best is exactly what it says it is… and then some. This set spans two discs, clocking in at over two hours and 33 songs and covers the years 1972-2000. That might surprise some of you- well, at least the back end of that. Just as some people lost the Stones after Exile and Van Halen after Roth, I am sure some fans jumped ship when McDonald edged Johnston aside. Even if you are one of those folks who found an appreciation for both, you likely lost sight of them after "Real Love" or the reunion single, "The Doctor."
The good news is nothing vital missing, sort of. The one argument you could make as far as something being missing is the use of the single version rather than the album version of a few tracks. How big of a deal that is depends. The single version will, in most cases, be the one more familiar to casual listeners and these packages are usually more aimed at the casual than the dedicated. For me, I almost always prefer the full version to the edit. I might feel differently were this a single-disc collection and edits were used to include the most songs possible, but that is not the case.It is a small gripe and not everyone will agree with me if they even care at all, but once the decision was made to go to a second disc, album versions should have been included rather than the single version.
This becomes all the more evident when you get to the second disc of the set. Very Best is presented in three suites over the two discs. The Johnston era takes up the majority of the first disc. At the end of that disc we segue to the McDonald era, which runs through most of the second disc. The second disc ends with the reunion singles. These second two suites could have been trimmed slightly to make room for those album versions. Those second two suites could have been trimmed slightly to allow the first to go longer. Those second two suites could have been trimmed because they represent the weaker portions of this presentation. I don't object to the presence of McDonald's version of The Doobie Brothers despite the occasional dig I've taken at him. Like it or not, some of their biggest hits came from this era and ignoring that would be wrong. Besides, I do like some of those songs even if they do sound a bit more dated than some of their predecessors. "What a Fool Believes," "Minute By Minute," and "It Keeps You Running" should be here, and they are. I That is the strength of this set. It is all here and well sequenced.
The first 11 songs are the best and most fun of the set. "Listen To The Music," "Jesus Is Just Alright," "Rockin' Down The Highway," and "Long Train Runnin'" open the set, all of them remastered. That is one hell of an opening. Imagine that as the opening salvo at a concert. How many bands can fire off four like that and still have more coming? This was a point I was making to TheWifeToWhomI'mMarried the other night, against her will. The poor thing, she is constantly on the receiving end of my tedious dissertations on this band or the that. The woman really is a saint. While trying to make this point, I tried to convince her she knew more of these songs than she thought she did. I even attempted to sing "China Grove" to her. That was a mistake on so many levels. For starters, the riff to that song is the important part. There is also the fact that I am an awful singer. I deserved what happened next. While trying to sing the song, I tried to sing both the lead and the echo of the chorus.
"Talking 'bout the Chi- bout the China Grove, whooaa! Whoaaa, China Grove!"
"Vagina grove?" she asked.
I was floored. We are still laughing about this. Go ahead, sing the song in your head. I think she might be on to something. John Mayer might want to take notice. I think we have a sequel to that appalling, "Your Body is a Wonderland." Everyone says he is such a great guitarist. He knicks Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jim Hendrix every chance he gets. Why not knick a Doobie riff for "Vagina Grove?"
One of the great riffs in the history of rock, and I will never hear this song the same way again.