Graded on a Curve:
The Bobby Fuller Four,
I Fought the Law

Inspecting chart history proves otherwise, but due to the ubiquitous nature of that one song everybody remembers, Bobby Fuller is considered by many as a One Hit Wonder. Others view him as the true-blood ‘60s extension in art as well as life of fellow Texan Buddy Holly, which overlaps with the assessment by some that Fuller was maybe the last gasp of rock ‘n’ roll innocence before the ‘60s became The Sixties. But he was also just a passionate young guy with a boatload of talent for whom music was paramount, and nothing communicates that better than a listen to The Bobby Fuller Four’s 1966 LP, I Fought the Law.

The Bobby Fuller Four’s second and best long-player opens with what is probably my pick for the band’s greatest moment and certainly one of their leader’s finest compositions. It’s not the title track, for “I Fought the Law” was penned by Sonny Curtis of The Crickets, a group most famous for their backing of Buddy Holly (Curtis joined after Holly’s plane crash demise; the original appears on 1960’s In Style with the Crickets.)

The tune is “Let Her Dance,” a delicious slice of guitar and vocal harmony driven pop-rock and easily one of ’65’s best singles. Perfectly calibrated for airplay, its 2:32 flows with expertly layered simplicity. Once established, none of the song’s elements drift far in their roles; not Fuller’s lead singing of his wounded-heart love lyrics or the gorgeous chiming and jangling of his and Jim Reese’s guitars, not the beautiful but non-grandiose backing vocals, not Randy Fuller’s bass, and definitely not DeWayne Quirico’s drumming, which with subtle alterations follows the same pattern throughout.

Individually, none of these aspects are especially noteworthy. It’s in the assemblage and the ensuing vigor of the captured performance that greatness is attained. And over the years, playing “Let Her Dance” has turned many a head that had erroneously pegged Bobby Fuller as basically a slightly displaced rockabilly guy.

In truth, inspired roots-mining was indeed a large part of Fuller’s overall personality. To get a taste of this, one need only dip into Norton Records’ three volumes of pre-California Fuller recordings titled El Paso Rock. On the first set one will find “Keep on Dancing,” the decidedly more rocked-out Tex Mex flavored origin of what became, after significant alteration from Del-Fi Records’ Bob Keane, “Let Her Dance.”

It’s been said that Fuller hated the hit version of the song, and I’m not surprised (nor would I be stunned to discover it underrated by his more hardcore fans.) While he can be described as a prototype for the legion of rock traditionalists soon to come, inspecting Fuller’s career also reveals a musician who was motivated by a nearly constant self-dissatisfaction with the results of recordings and live gigs, a situation that could only have been amplified by the frequent compromises and calamities a struggling rock act faced in the mid-‘60s.

Bobby Fuller was no temperamental artiste; he wanted to sell some records, play well-attended shows that were appropriate to his music’s modest ambitions, and get fairly compensated for his efforts. In striving for these goals, his group’s first LP became a hot-rod themed radio station promotional vehicle titled KRLA King of the Wheels while they sandwiched live local TV and junior high-school dance appearances into their schedule as the house band at the Los Angeles club PJ’s and turned up in the last of the American International Pictures beach party flicks The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.

That’s a wild mix of ups and downs, and it’s a long way from El Paso, where Fuller had played a ton of gigs, recorded both in studios and through a basic home set-up and even put out 45s on his own Eastwood and Exeter labels. Fuller’s story paints him as an inexhaustible perfectionist who, right up to the point of his death by mysterious circumstances (officially a suicide, though no one close to him at the time believes it) could only hope to achieve his ever elusive aspirations through the daily rigors of a functioning rock unit.

Even though I Fought the Law recycles seven tracks from KRLA King of the Wheels, the LP, released after the title cut began its commercial climb to international success and #9 on the US Singles chart, is easily the better of the two. This is in part due to obvious reasons; Fuller was no grease monkey, and I Fought the Law benefits from a near-total lack of sound-effects laced entries such as “The Phantom Dragster” and “KRLA Top Eliminator.”

As the El Paso Rock volumes clarify, he was far more of a surf rock cat in his earlier days, though the ever-flowing fount of Holly-derived inspiration was always where his true musical heart was located. Before leaving with his band for LA, he recorded a version of “Not Fade Away” a year before The Rolling Stones did, and Buddy remained a constant aspect of his sound even as those around him often sought to deemphasize it.

This album’s second track “Julie,” a Chip Taylor composition, displays both sides of this scenario. Holly can be heard loud and clear, but the construction is also not anachronistic, with more than a hint of Brit Invasion awareness. It also fits pretty solidly into a rotation of singles from roughly comparable Cali names of the time like The Turtles and Beau Brummels.

But with “A New Shade of Blue” the group jump headfirst into an undisguised ‘50s-esque ballad, and while the impact of Holly is boldly apparent, it’s delivered with such care that the whole thing goes down like a charm. In the tune’s favor is a mix that emphasizes the simple but contextually flawless tandem of guitar and vocals, and it’s easy to envision a gymnasium full of slow-dancing young couples as the music unwinds.

That mental picture might not sync-up with 1966’s cutting-edge, but from the vantage point of 2014 it sounds just dandy, and since Fuller’s lasting relevance has next-to-nothing to do with broken ground and is instead almost wholly devoted to how he absorbed, distilled and embodied R&R’s unaffected beginnings, “A New Shade of Blue” strikes these ears as a prime feather in his creative cap.

“Only When I Dream” blends the Holly with a nice helping of The Everly Brothers and a major dose of guitar strum, enough in fact that it gathers a smidge of contemporary resonance (the track just might impress folks into the current horde of indie acts flaunting a ‘60s-pop bent.) And the emergence of Phil and Don makes utter sense given Fuller’s status at the time as a generally non-threatening rock ‘n’ roller, with the leader (and the band) often praised for their clean-cut politeness amongst the dawning of the longhaired and surly.

It’s surely true that those residing outside of the rock clubhouse in ’66 could handle and even appreciate the Tex Mex flavored mid-tempo of “You Kiss Me” better than they swallowed the formative motions of those revving-up for the late-‘60s big protest. But in the end it doesn’t matter, since Fuller wasn’t kowtowing to Squaresville but rather exploring a muse that scores of grown-ups just happened to deem as acceptable in the post-Dylan/Stones era. What does matter is that “You Kiss Me” connects as more than just album filler from a period lousy with groove padding.

This is not to suggest that Fuller was completely resistant to stepping outside his comfort zone. For example, “Little Annie Lou” finds the band grasping for the blue-eyed R&B zest that has become synonymous with the name Mitch Ryder. They do a more than adequate job, but at a flat two minutes in length, the song basically registers as a calculated (and very possibly Keane-instigated) attempt at broadening their stylistic range, an idea reinforced by its dual function as the flip to the “I Fought the Law” 45.

The brevity and uncharacteristic vibe of “Little Annie Lou” (plus its placement at the end of side one) causes it to linger as a something of an afterthought, a tune rapidly recorded and then essentially forgot about by the band, if not by listeners well-versed in their CD copies of Rhino’s one-stop shop The Best of the Bobby Fuller Four. However, those holding the vinyl edition of that set (and nothing else) might not know about it, since “Little Annie Lou” understandably didn’t make the comp’s initial cut.

“I Fought the Law” did, of course, and here it opens side two with all of its deceptively casual brilliance intact. Many who champion it without knowing much or anything else by Fuller often extol the track for being non-sophisto, but I can’t help but designate that attribute as a surface quality, for “I Fought the Law” is an exceptionally crafted song enhanced by highly intelligent production choices.

That assessment might not ring true to those who’ve heard it countless times while waiting in line to buy groceries, but please don’t feel insulted. The depth of its greatness didn’t really hit me the first 2,000 times it met my ear either. Really, the main reason “I Fought the Law” has become an oldies-station warhorse is due to its brilliance being implicitly absorbed rather than blatantly decreed. Well, that and its quick running time.

No doubt those short durations served the Four well during their existence, and while it’s hard to consider it a fault in the present, occasionally their stuff does fade out too fast, leaving me wanting more. That’s the case with “Another Sad and Lonely Night,” originally the b-side to “Let Her Dance,” a lively pop-rocker featuring crisp guitar, appealing lead vocals (with just a hint of rasp from Fuller) and more judiciously employed vocal harmonies. And interesting is how that Holly influence is basically undetectable.

And it’s not Buddy’s presence heard on “Saturday Night,” a repeat from KRLA King of the Wheels with heavily reverbed vocal touches and lyrics that openly reference drag racing, but instead Eddie Cochran. Along with “Little Annie Lou,” it’s the only cut on I Fought the Law that can be fairly described as filler, but its catchy beach party jangle-and-thump is so trim at 1:38 that it doesn’t noticeably weaken the LP’s heft, and Fuller’s Cochran approximation is so close and yet so loose that it’s hard not to dig it.

“Take My Word” shows that Fuller could pull-off some blatant Brit Invasion moves as well, though the results lean toward the safer, more harmony-focused (Hollies, Searchers) end of the spectrum. It does hold good rhythmic punch though, and the guitar solo keeps Fuller’s personality from getting submerged in any stabs for contempo variety. And the mid-‘60s Brit aura remains for “Fool of Love,” though it’s combined with enough of Holly’s disposition that it becomes one of I Fought the Law’s true gems.

The sentiments expressed are non-sappy and the playing steers far clear of the trite, with Fuller even whipping-off a succinct solo that foreshadows ‘80s indie pop. Jiminy. And closer “Never to be Forgotten” lends credence to the assertions that had Fuller lived, he wouldn’t have necessarily been doomed by the onslaught of psychedelia just around the corner.

With huge fuzz bass and dense, tangibly Spector-like production, “Never to be Forgotten” is distinct from anything else on the record while still retaining crucial ties to Fuller’s Tex Mex orientation. It’s worth noting that Spector sat in on piano with the Four during a live set, and furthermore that a few of the group’s later tunes, including the Motown-flavored “The Magic Touch” (another one Fuller apparently hated, though it was strong enough that some say Ahmet Ertegun came snooping around) and the garage-psych-inclined nugget “Baby My Heart” suggest the possibility of staying power.

Probably the closest relation to “Never to be Forgotten” on I Fought the Law is “Let Her Dance,” and the two songs bookend the LP to fine result. Those owning the Rhino comp already possess both of ‘em and most of what’s on this album, so if you’re satisfied with The Best of the Bobby Fuller Four, saving your greenbacks ain’t a bad idea.

But for those with shelves lacking anything by Fuller, this tidy and extremely listenable record was repressed a few years back by Mustang (the label Keane custom-built for the band) on 180gm vinyl that appears to still be easily available, and it would make for a terrific introduction. I Fought the Law doesn’t hold every worthwhile effort by The Bobby Fuller Four, but it does communicate the outfit’s essence circa 1966 with a concise bang and offers a full picture of their bandleader’s brimming passion and substantial talent.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 1/23/14

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  • John_Eppstein

    Bobby Fuller died by drinking gasoline. NOBODY commits suicide that way.

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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