Graded on a Curve: Creedence
Clearwater Revival,
Cosmo’s Factory

During a recent crawl down Bourbon Street in New Orleans I heard a lot of mangy cover bands manhandle a lot of my favorite songs. Was I outraged? Hell no. I enjoyed every minute of it. There’s nothing I love more than listening to a band of barely competent rock ‘n’ roll discards–I’m a rock ‘n’ roll discard myself–butcher the classics. My only regret is I didn’t hear a single one of them do their honorable worst to Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Because I loves me some Creedence. During the psychedelic era, when just about everybody else was jamming away ad infinitum to songs about peace, love, and sundry other species of Aquarian bullshit, CCR’s John Fogerty was writing unfashionably short songs as tightly wound as Swiss clocks about dread and menace. He saw bad moons rising, wondered who was going to stop the rain, and warned that when you’re running through the jungle, it’s best not to look back. And unlike, say, the Velvet Underground, his songs were immensely radio friendly–they might as well have come equipped with payola. J. Fogerty is that rarest of all creatures, a natural-born hitmaker, and a hitmaker of such prolixity that Creedence fell into the habit of releasing double A Sides. You have to write a lot of damn good songs to be that cocky.

Creedence Clearwater Revival was, with the arguable exception of the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead, the premier American band of their era, and on 1970’s Cosmo’s Factory–the band’s fifth album in two years, amazingly enough–CCR hit their creative zenith. On it Fogerty makes writing great songs look dizzyingly simple; only 2 of its 11 songs fall short of indispensable, and they’re both covers. The rest of ‘em are stone cold classics, and they range from monumental covers (the 11-minute “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which is less a jam than a carefully structured exercise in locking down a groove) to a foray into friendly lysergic-country pastoralism (“Lookin’ Out My Back Door”) to a note-perfect Little Richard tribute (“Travelin’ Band”). And I could go on.

Robert Christgau praised Fogerty for his “artless concept of rock improvisation,” and Creedence’s frontman shows just how right Christgau is on CCR’s take on Motown stalwart “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which noodles not a whit but is in fact carefully arranged. The effect is nothing short of hypnotizing. CCR does the same on the great “Ramble Tamble,” which begins life as a rockabilly howler only to devolve into a lockstep psychedelic groove. Fogerty’s vocals are pure gravel, his guitar playing an exercise in economy. Fogerty was never one to let his freak flag fly; the only God he prayed to–and still does, presumably–is named Concision. And speaking of concision, “Run Through the Jungle” is a deceptively short and seamless groove on which the funk runneth over and the harmonica is a harbinger of utter terror. And it opens with a scrawl of feedback that exemplifies pure dread.

“Who’ll Stop the Rain” is a plea for sunlight, pure and simple; all Fogerty wants is shelter from the storm, but during that benighted period in American history his was a cry in vain. And the resignation in his voice lets you know he knows it. “Ooby Dooby” is a straight-up rockabilly bundle of joy on which Fogerty lets rip on guitar; the Bakersfield Sound-inspired “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” is a friendly howdy from a fella who likes to listen to Buck Owens while he’s tripping balls, and who intends to put off worrying until tomorrow. Fogerty was better than most at smelling the ozone in the air, but he wasn’t about a bit of acid escapism, and we’re all the richer for it.

“Up Around the Bend” is low-key anthemic and a joy forever; it boasts a simply incredible guitar riff and one of Fogerty’s most ebullient vocal performances. And I love the economical guitar solo–no show off, our John Fogerty–so much. “Long As I Can See the Light” is elegiac and hopeful and features some simply lovely electric piano–as well as a mellow sax solo–by Fogerty. And talk about soul! Fogerty’s singing is soulful right down to the series of ecstatic “Yeahs!” he serves up come song’s end. “Travelin’ Band” is a testimony to the primal, rawboned power of first generation rock ‘n’ roll–you practically have to check the credits to be sure it wasn’t written by one Richard Penniman. Fogerty’s vocal performance is Little Richard good, and boy can he scream. He’s almost as good a shrieker as Paul McCartney. Love the impossibly brief guitar solo too–Fogerty can do more in five seconds than many a flashier player can in a minute.

Which leaves us with “Before You Accuse Me” and “My Baby Left Me,” both of which are perfectly conceptualized if not utterly compelling covers. The latter comes close; it’s a rockabilly rave-up right down to its walking bass and shuffle drum, and all in all Creedence does the great Arthur Crudup proud. I love the guitar work and loosy-goosy piano on Creedence’s take on Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me,” but can’t help but think it does the plod instead of the shuffle; that said, it’s almost worth listening to for Fogerty’s jabbing, probing axe playing alone.

Like the Beatles, Fogerty succeeded by keeping his songs short; 6 of the 11 cuts on Cosmo’s Factory weigh in at less than three minutes, and only 2 of ‘em are longer than four minutes. And like the Beatles, Fogerty knew how to write a catchy tune that sinks it teeth into you and never lets go; listen to “Run Through the Jungle” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” once and they’ll be rattling around in your brainpan forever.

In my humble opinion, Creedence Clearwater Revival remains the best American rock ‘n’ roll band this side of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Velvet Underground. They were the hippie generation’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and like the late, great Mr. Petty they left behind a whole parcel of no-frills, machine-tooled rock’n’roll songs that will never grow tired, stale or old. Cosmo’s Factory in particular is jaw droppingly good–hell, it might as well be two great sides off a multi-volume compilation of Creedence’s greatest hits. Cosmo’s Factory is a monumental statement by a band at the height of its formidable powers–a band that, like the Grateful Dead and the Band during the same period, was writing songs that will stand forever as American Myths.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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  • http://www.anearful.blogspot.com/ Jeremy Shatan

    Everything you wrote here about CCR is 100% true. Cheers!

    • Michael Little

      I’m very glad you think so, my friend. Cheers indeed! And thanks for reading!

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