Vinyl Testaments: Born to be Bad

“Vinyl Testaments” is a series of articles looking at forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise obscure record albums.

“Born to Be Bad” George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers (Billy Blough – Bass, Hank Carter – Saxophone, Vocals, Steve Chrismar – Guitar, Bill Plough – Bass, Jeff Simon – Drums)

Rounder, 1988

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He’s known as a cover artist. His biggest hits are split between originals—“If You Don’t Start Drinkin’,” “Haircut,” “Bad to the Bone”—and masterful covers—“One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” “Move It on Over,” “Madison Blues.” He’s never been truly high-profile, never a headline act like his nearest peer, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Look at that comparison a moment—Vaughan was a disciple of Hendrix, Thorogood of Chuck Berry (among many others). Both their careers benefitted from early endorsement by the Stones. Stevie drew a cult even before his death, in part no doubt because fans craved a new Hendrix. George has worked…and worked…touring, recording, playing wherever he could plug in for over 30 years without ever achieving Stevie’s stature. As guitarists both men are stellar at what they do. Comparing them is not so much unfair as pointless. Maybe George could go on Stevie’s cosmic flights; don’t know, don’t care. That’s not the territory he’s staked out. I do know he can work a groove that insists you get up and dance. As singers, both men are great guitarists. The emotion they coax from their repertoire has more to do with the material and their understanding of it than their technical ability as vocalists. So what about this album?

Shake Your Moneymaker—The Elmore James classic kicks the album off with the closest George gets to fancy production: an extreme pan bounces the opening riff from one ear to the other, and when the drums join in the listener feels right in the middle of the action. This is a great headphone album, something not necessarily common for the blues. It was recorded, mixed, and mastered digitally (I looked all over for that “DDD”) and it shows. You won’t hear these cuts so cleanly elsewhere, certainly not in any of their original recordings. George uses a full, joyous voice here that proves his love for what he’s doing and welcomes the listener to love it too. The band is as tight as years of gigs can make it and George is a bottomless well of riffs, lines, leads, and fills. The first song of the set, and it’s better than a lot of bands ever warm up to. No, this is not one of George’s splendid live collections, but every album feels carefully selected and sequenced, not like a concept but a statement, here’s where my head/the band/my career is at the moment.

You Talk Too Much—The first Thorogood original on the album and a frequent concert pick, this one shows a bit of the mild misogyny that George’s female fans seem not to mind. He’s such a lovable rascal. The guitar/sax riff that flows throughout the song is far from novel, but it’s the words that make the point here, with the singer doing his best to placate his girl before giving up the battle.

Highway 49—As classic a blues cut as you’ll find, the Howlin’ Wolf number here gets the slide guitar and raw vocal treatment it deserves. Leavin’ my troubles behind, drinkin’ the road away, and then what? Why, find my woman and start all over again. It’s the heart of the blues: the inescapability of misery, and how we all get through it. Almost swings, this one. The guitar leads are loose without ever being lazy or late. Makes you feel drunk even when you only want to be.

Born to be Bad—The title track and second original, an new example of the blues-brag that has existed as long as the music has. The singer satisfies women young and old, doesn’t follow authority, and will last in memory long after he’s gone. Proof that George has learned from Muddy and the Wolf and can put those lessons to use.

You Can’t Catch Me—A Chuck Berry racing song, just as vibrant and compelling as ever. So good John Lennon stole lyrics from it, but so good it works even better on its own, whole and reborn. The shuffling drumbeat and guitar interplay drive the song so that even when you know the outcome you listen for every turn of phrase and twist of the road.

I’m Ready—George has visited this Fats Domino chestnut more than once, and it’s always surprising because it falls just outside his expected comfort zone, but his treatment is always on track. Handclaps help establish the proper New Orleans rhythm and the beautiful piano line is moved, naturally, to guitar, where the decay makes it slightly less sharp than the keyboard version but just as riveting. The off-mike comments make the party atmosphere evident and the good-time spirit rolls.

Treat Her Right—The Roy Head soul number is another unexpected treat here. Was it chosen because the album was recorded in Memphis, home of Back Beat, which issued the original? Whatever the reason, Thorogood tears it up here, bringing in horns for the requisite sound and delivering the blue-eyed soul expertly. The dynamic extremes are lessened here, but George is always about the dance less than the art and the beat never falters.

I Really Like Girls—Yes, the Hank Jr. number was written by George. Which do I like better? Well, I like Billy Joel’s Shameless better than Garth Brooks’. George does his song the way he wrote it, the way he wanted it. It’s perfect. An almost-syncopated vocal delivery with the winks and grins in the right places and the band he was sure to have cut a demo with before Bocephus recorded it.

Smokestack Lightning—Wow, a second Howlin’ Wolf number. No wonder the guy was never a huge star, maybe. This is as close as we get to a slow song on the record, with George’s echo-drowned howls and loping rhythm guitar portraying another love affair going bad. The lead lines are just dirty enough, the feedback sparingly used, and a light touch on the sax make it a lonely-sounding track.

I’m Movin’ On—Hank Snow, the Singing Ranger, takes us home. An almost-boogie guitar intro—wait, is it a choogle?—and George’s southern voice tells us he’s had it with these triflin’ women and is leavin’ it all behind. The train’s whistle is simulated on guitar, eschewing the usual harmonica, and the vocal is right up front. No ambivalence here; let this rattler roll, I’m movin’ on. This has always been one of my favorite country songs and I was as happy to hear it again today as I was to see it on the track listing for this album 26 years ago.

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So that’s it—a set of ten songs running the gamut from blues to soul to country and back to blues, American music top to bottom, thoroughly up-tempo, and no deeper meaning…or is there? Like I said, Thorogood doesn’t much go for the concept album, but here there is a definite early-rock feel, maybe because of the Memphis connection, undercut by I’m Ready, but moreover there’s a love-stinks feel, that women and girls are ok, but mostly just for one thing and not for long. Women, can’t live with ‘em, can’t get out of ‘em as much as you put in. Better than the originals? No—no one, including George, would contend that any of his work surpasses the originals. That’s not even his intent, I would say. George is doing what most of his heroes can’t do themselves—sell these songs and get people into shows, dancing and having a good time. Most of his heroes are gone, of course, or old enough that the fire is starting to flicker. His peers are few and far between, literally—Buddy Guy is almost of the earlier generation, Jimmie Vaughan is Texas, not Chicago or Memphis, ZZ Top and the Stones have left this territory behind, and occasional full-on tribute albums (Paul Rodgers’ to Muddy Waters, Peter Green or Eric Clapton’s to Robert Johnson) don’t equate to the career Thorogood has carved out as an honest-to-Splitfoot bluesman. A man whose fan-favorite catalog rightly includes “One Bourbon,” “Move It on Over,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’”, and “The Sky is Crying”—the only slow number he did the night I saw him—he is a treasure, a great talent. You can’t go wrong with any of his work.

1 Comment

Filed under Rod Miller

One response to “Vinyl Testaments: Born to be Bad

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