Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pre-Creedence: The First Decade by Alec Palao

This article appears in the liner notes/booklet found in the Creedence Clearwater Revival box set. It is rather long, but gives a detailed account of how CCR formed and what influenced their musical direction. Everything you ever wanted to know about early Creedence you shall now know.

Ultimately, what makes the pre-Creedence story so fascinating is the end result. The band never lost sight of their roots, and it was natural they would revisit the path they had so resolutely and painstakingly beaten. If the canceled 1967 single "Tell Me" is a virtual blueprint of classic CCR rhythm, then the sound's genesis goes all the way back to 1965's rocking "You Got Nothin' on Me," as energetic and exciting a performance as "Travelin' Band" or "Sweet Hitch-Hiker."

This wasn't always quite so obvious. As you may recall, Creedence threw a promotional party at their Berkeley headquarters in December of 1970, in the hope that, after four platinum long-players and countless gold singles, the invited audience of critics would finally begin to take them seriously. If the AM-friendly rootsiness of Creedence's classic run of 45s wasn't convincing enough to the hipper-than-thou late 1960s rock literati, then their formative yeas as the Blue Velvets and Golliwogs must have seemed--at the time--total anathema. It didn't help that the band, still smarting from the years of struggle, disparaged most of their pre-fame catalog. And so, the party line became that the early recordings were forgettable, that the risible image the Golliwogs sported extended to their recorded efforts, and that it was all week, derivative fluff.

There is, however, a different perspective. If nothing else, the fortitude of a band that took ten years to make it deserves some objectivity. And what an unbiased look at and listen to the first decade of Creedence leaves you with is the feeling that the legacy of the Blue Velvets and Golliwogs has been done a tremendous disservice over the years. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in Creedence's pre-fame pedigree.

One can forgive them the naiveté of the Orchestra releases or the likably blatant Anglicisms of the first couple of Fantasy singles, for there is little there that is any different than what thousands of similarly-situated teenage outfits were doing. But the triumvirate of “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Fight Fire” and “Walking on the Water” would be jewels in the crown of any mid-1960s rock band, whether they were destined for fame or not. The band’s 1965/66 sessions now sound better than ever, soaked with the same wide-eyed punk enthusiasm as the best grass-roots rock of the period.

Inasmuch as this story of a band’s growth and search for a style, the music that John, Tom, Stu and Doug made throughout their teething period is infused with the genuine unsophisticated spirit of lowest-common-denominator, truly democratic, red-blooded rock and roll. The same spirit that made Creedence Clearwater Revival the most honest American band of their time.

El Cerrito is a small town, situated to the east of San Francisco, nestled between San Pablo and Richmond to the north, and Berkeley and Albany to the south. If it’s a quiet, largely residential area now, you can bet it was even quieter 40 years ago, an all-American suburb with bars, burger joints, barbershops, and boys clubs. Yet El Cerrito’s position, smack dab in the heart of the cultural melting pot that is the San Francisco Bay Area, makes it inevitable that any youngster growing up there in the tumultuous late 1950s would get exposed to the sights and sounds of the Bay Area’s musical mix, whether it was R&B from Oakland, rock and pop from San Francisco, folk from Berkeley, or country from the San Jaoquin Valley.

Stu Cook: “You could hear everything on the radio, depending on what time of day you tuned in, from R&B during the day on KWBR to a dose of country at night on KRAK from Sacramento. There was a real wide cross section of music in the Bay Area.”

Doug Clifford: “We listened to the stations in Oakland just as much as we did the pop stations from San Francisco. Jumpin’ George Oxford and Don Barksdale. KWBR played Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker, all the great music that came out of the womb. I was very young but right there, just mesmerized. It would be part of my life.”

The four future members of Creedence were all independently inspired to play music by what they heard on the radio. As the eldest among them, Tom Fogerty was the first to be bitten by the rock ‘n’ roll bug. He joined his first group, the Playboys, in 1958 as a vocalist, while attending St. Mary’s in Berkeley. By the time he graduated in 1959, Tom was singing with what he considered a much better outfit, Spider Webb & the Insects.

Meanwhile, the younger John Fogerty had formed a combo with two pals from Portola Junior High, Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. The Lineup featured John on guitar, Doug on drums, and Stu on piano, and they called themselves the Blue Velvets. Stu was classically trained, while John and Doug had taught themselves. Cook: “Basically the raw idea behind anyone getting into music was to get girls. Music was a good way to get into the social scene. We were just an instrumental trio--Johnny & the Hurricanes, Link Wray, the Wailers’ ‘Tall Cool One.’ I played piano and I mainly had to pound--my hands were bloody!”

The Blue Velvets’ first gig was a Portola school dance, and despite rudimentary equipment (Doug played a worn-out snare balanced on a flowerpot stand) they practiced hard. Clifford: “We started rehearsing in my garage but there was no piano there and John’s beat-up piano was in the key of X, real out of tune, so it was tough for Stu. Our early gigs were basically parties and youth club type deals. We got to play Alameda and Sacramento county fairs through the El Cerrito Boys Club.” The group was young but they drew inspiration from local rockers like Richmond’s precocious Benn Joe Zeppa, or the Bay Area’s one bona fide national pop star, Bobby Freeman.

Tom Fogerty was more serious about success. That summer he had journeyed to Los Angeles with the Insects and was nominally entertained by the Del-Fi label. The combo taped a Fogerty original entitled “Lyda Jane” but no release eventuated and the singer returned to the Bay Area, disillusioned. In the meantime, the Blue Velvets had made their first, unaccredited, appearance on disc, providing accompaniment to Richmond vocalist, James Powell on the ballad “Beverly Angel,” released on Joe Jaros’ Christy label in 1960.

The Blue Velvets also began to play the frats in Berkeley, for $20 each and all the beer they could drink. With the demise of Spider Webb & the Insects after the Del-Fi debacle, Tom began to take his younger brother’s group more seriously, using them on further demos such as “Baby Doll” and “Sandy Lou,” and occasionally showing up at their gigs. Clifford: “Tom would sit in with us, sing about five songs and split, and all the girls would go goo-goo. He could do the Valens stuff, his ‘La Bamba’ was as good as Ritchie’s. And he used to sing the shit out of ‘Do You Wanna Dance.’”

The upshot was that when Tom finally got a solo record deal in the summer of 1961 with Wayne Farlow’s Orchestra label, he put in place a verbal agreement that the Blue Velvets be his backing band. It was the beginning of eight years of hard work, with lots of discouragement to come, but already the determination among the four young men to make it was established. Clifford: “[The Orchestra period] was great because it gave us a place to work on our craft at a time when there really weren’t too many opportunities, especially for guys like us.”

For Orchestra, the group now officially became Tommy Fogerty & the Blue Velvets. Farlow had an interest in recording and apparently owned several studios around the Bay Area, including one out by the Oakland airport. Cook: “There is no bass per se on the Blue Velvets records. John would tune the guitar down and play on the lower strings.” The first release in October was a pair of Tom originals, “Come on Baby” and “Oh My Love.” Both tunes are about as basic as rock/pop gets, and probably sounded slightly anachronistic for the time, in that they exhibit the wide-eyed fervor of vintage rock that was temporarily submerged in the era of Bobbies, Frankies and other teen stereotypes.

Clifford: “We tried to get Casey Kasem at KEWB to play the record, with a ‘local guys’ angle, and he was like, “I don’t know, you’ll have to get play somewhere else first.’” However, Kasem’s awareness of the group meant that their next single was added to the Oakland Top 40 station’s play list. “Have You Ever Been Lonely” was a better-produced record and marked the debut of John Fogerty as a writer (the rocking flip, “Bonita,” was penned by both Tom and John). The playing was confident but the record did not sell. “’Bonita’ was cool,” remembers Clifford, “It had kind of a snappy, almost Latin thing going on. We were hopelessly optimistic, so it was certainly disappointing when the singles weren’t successful. Besides, Orchestra probably would have gone belly up if they’d had a hit.” A frustrated Tom decided to wait out the option on the contract, principally because of the parochial nature of the label.

(The astute Creedence-o-phile will notice the omission on this set of the much-rumored third Orchestra single “Now You’re Not Mine” / “Yes You Did,” listed in a myriad discographies. While the record no doubt exists, a confirmed copy has yet to see the light of day.)

It was now the fall of 1962 and John, Doug and Stu were in their senior year at El Cerrito High, where they remained the local sock-hop fixture. Cook: “It’s funny, we were the only band in junior high, we were the only band in high school. We were the only kids we knew who were playing.” “That worked out great for us,” boasts Clifford. “We were the kings. There was a band on every block after the Beatles hit, but before then, we were the only guys.”

The local bands that were around tended to be older, such as the house bands at the local dances, backing visiting R&B and pop acts. Cook: “The Untouchables were great, they used to play out the Auction Hall in San Pablo. There was a market in the San Pablo/Richmond area because the Hispanic population really liked R&B, so the bigger bands, the kind that could do James Brown, etc., were popular.” While still primarily instrumental, the Blue Velvets were getting bluesier themselves on a diet of R&B instrumentals like “Honky Tonk,” “Green Onions” and the like. Clifford: “We did some Ventures stuff, and we liked the Beach Boys, but surfing music wasn’t for us.”

The Blue Velvets graduated in 1963. John was developing as a guitarist, and after having made further demos with the group at local studios like Bob DeSousa’s Sierra Sound and Ray Dobard’s Music City, found himself being hired as an occasional sideman on any number of sessions. It was to prove invaluable experience. Stu had meanwhile moved from piano to bass. Tom had taken a job as a lineman with Pacific Gas & Electric, but nevertheless put all his energies into working with the band.

By now it was the beginning of 1964, and America had been hit with the British Invasion. With their basic understanding of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, the Blue Velvets could appreciate what the Beatles were doing, and they adjusted their repertoire accordingly. Clifford: “The Beatles were inspiring and they changed our focus, which was great. I was gonna be teaching history in high school and coaching football, Stu was gonna be a lawyer, John was gonna be a musician in a bar somewhere and Tom was gonna continue his career with PG&E. The timing couldn’t have been any better.”

The band also decided to rename themselves in a more contemporary fashion. Thus they formally became a quartet as the Visions. Tom acted as the leader of the band. Both he and John were now writing regularly, adapting ideas from the sounds they heard on the radio. Tom was scouting for another label with which to sign, but he now realized that to achieve any kind of sustained success, the Visions would have to find a label that had a national presence. Lo and behold, one was on their doorstep: Fantasy Records.

Fantasy had been formed by brothers Max and Sol Weiss in the late 1940s as an extension to their San Francisco plastics business. During the next decade the label built up an impressive catalog of West Coast jazz, in addition to chronicling the nascent North Beach beat movement. The label did, however, score an unexpected pop smash with Vince Geraldo’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” in 1963. Because a home-grown hit of this kind something of an anomaly in the Bay Area, it drew media interest, resulting in a three-part TV documentary on KQED, Anatomy of a Hit, first broadcast in March 1964. Legend has it that Tom and the band saw the program, and decided to approach Fantasy with some self-composed piano instrumentals. Max Weiss was more impressed with the fact that they had had prior releases, and he thought they might be better attempting their own vocal material. Clifford: “Max said, ‘Don’t you guys have any songs with words?’ We’d wanted to have a hit, and we became really convinced it had to be an instrumental.” Cook continues: “Tom went over to the office in the lower Mission and got us on Fantasy. We were still underage, so he was the only guy who signed the contract.”

Watching Anatomy 40 years later, one has to wonder if the band knew what they were letting themselves in for. Weiss appears in a Cossack hat, spouting off-the-wall theories on what constitutes a hit record while idly toying with a Webley pistol. Max was the king of the put-on, an endearing trait frequently misunderstood by the musicians he dealt with. Fantasy’s successes, such as “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” occurred in spite of, not because of, the Weiss brothers’ unorthodox efforts. Much of the day-to-day business was handled by Saul Zaentz, who kept relations favorable with the distributors and DJs. At the time, Fantasy’s tiny pop-oriented roster included solo acts like discotheque crooner Chauncy Huff and East Bay contemporaries of the Visions like Hayward’s Tommy & the Hustlers, acts that were often brought to Fantasy by outside producers. However, with the onslaught of the British Invasion, and no doubt eyeing the burgeoning success of rival S.F. indie Autumn, Weiss put out a call to groups to come and audition for Fantasy, at the makeshift studio he and sol had created at the back of the warehouse on Treat Avenue.

It was in this funky and frankly primitive environment that the band would hone their craft over the next three years. The group’s first session resulted in “Don’t Tell Me No Lies” and “Little Girl (Does Your Mama Know).” While Sol was technically a better engineer, Max manned the board for rock sessions and in his typical seat-of-the-pants fashion captured two good performances. The uptempo “Lies” bears an obvious Mersey influence, yet its suspended chords and smooth vocal arrangement hint at more than slavish imitation. And the ballad “Little Girl,” sung by Tom in Beach Boys fashion, has a distinct charm all its own. In perhaps another stylistic nod toward the Beatles, the Fogerty brothers had christened themselves Rann Wild (Tom) and Toby Green (John) for songwriting purposes.

The tracks being in the can, the group heard nothing from Fantasy for a couple of months. Stu and Doug began attending San Jose State together; Tom was married to his first wife, Gail, by now, with the responsibility of a young son; and so there followed an interim period where John and Doug moonlighted with other combos. Tom Fanning and Mike Byrne were architecture students at UC-Berkeley acquainted with Fogerty, and they invited John to join them for a club residency in Portland that summer. Fanning played rhythm, Byrne electric piano, and most significantly, John began to sing. Fanning recalls, “John was great to work with, and it was a chance for him to find his voice and polish his skills, which he did.” Regrouping back in Berkeley, John brought in Doug on drums and the four-piece combo played out as the Apostles, appearing regularly at the popular fraternity drinking establishment The Monkey Inn on Shattuck Avenue.

“We were essentially a cover band,” asserts Fanning. “’Louie Louie,’ ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ Summertime,’ etc. At the time, I never had a sense of John’s ‘plan,’ though I’m sure he had one. I think he clearly realized that most artists had to work hard and pay their dues before getting to the payoff. But I always figured that he was going to be loyal to his blood and buds. We were ‘college men,’ we had options and a professional future. They had their music and their shard history and their hopes and dreams of making it in the music business.” Clifford recalls that “The Apostles were just us four guys, and the bass was like the Blue Velvets, the left hand on the piano. But John didn’t sing at that point, it was Mike and Tome. And Mike was tone-deaf so it was always interesting!”

Late in the year, the Visions got word that their Fantasy single was to be released. It was reason enough for the quartet to reconvene, but their excitement turned to horror when they discovered that Max Weiss had changed their name to “The Golliwogs.” In trying to come up with a unique name with a British flavor, Max’s concept went over the heads of most people, and instead became a handicap that took the group a long time to get over. As Saul Zaentz points out, “Max put it on the record, and so it became a Max joke that someone else had to live with it, because it was not going to be taken seriously by the people the group wanted to be taken seriously by.” Adds Cook ruefully, “He may as well have called us the Pickaninnies.”

With remarkable fortitude, the band accepted it, largely because they appreciated Weiss’s faith in their abilities. The arrival of fresh-faced youngster Paul Rose as an unofficial A&R man at Fantasy in latte 1964 meant the company had a better conduit to the younger rock acts. “The Golliwogs were already there,” remembers Rose. “At that time Tom was the singer and the songs were mostly soft. John was basically the guitar player and stayed somewhat out of the way, though he’d chip in his share. Stu and Doug were like a twosome, and John and Tom were a twosome. The thing that was notable at the time was that they were one of the few groups that could actually sing.”

By the beginning of 1965, the Golliwogs were ready to make another record. Utilizing Fantasy’s new three-track machine, they came out with a considerably louder and noisier side in “You Came Walking.” The song featured 12-string, harmonica, piano and over-dubbed bass, with a lively drum track from Doug, and searing guitar from John on the dynamic break. “Where You Been” was again a homage to the Beach Boys but with some bluesy licks and--unusual for the time--fuzz guitar in the background. Significantly, it was the last song Tom Fogerty would sing lead on. Clifford: “John’s first fuzzbox was made in high school. He took a basic electronics class and built one from a schematic. He had it housed inside a Quaker Oats cardboard container! Stu’s original bass was the Fender, and later of course in Creedence he picked up the Rickenbacker 4001; that was the Beatles influence.” “Tom and John played Ricks too,” adds Cook, “John a ¾ model, Tom a 355. We used Fender Showmans and Bassmans for amplification.”

Such equipment was partly bankrolled by Fantasy, who maintained a good relationship with the band. Saul Zaentz was also able to appreciate the potential of the group, and expressed his enthusiasm to the Fogertys in particular. The two brothers would hang around the company’s offices, and in fact, John ended up as a shipping clerk, sealing albums.

A new single was prepared in the early summer. Whereas the first two Fantasy 45s were overtly melodic, this third release was a balls-out rocker, and a more realistic portrayal of the kind of music the Golliwogs performed onstage. “You Got Nothin’ on Me” is a great Chuck Berry-influenced rave, while “You Can’t Be True” features harp and a stinging acoustic slide played by John, with Doug’s drums solidly pumping the track along. For a while suburban rock & roll group in 1965, the cut was downright funky, and it affords an early glimpse at John’s emerging root-oriented mindset. Interestingly, the group thought enough of “You Can’t Be True” to re-record it two years later, with more or less the same arrangement. At the same session they laid down another Beatle-ish original, the snappy “I Only Met You Just an Hour Ago,” but wisely decided to go with the grittier material.

With the huge groundswell of teenage groups in the Bay Area, Paul Rose had begun to reconnoiter the local dances in search of suitable acts, and suggested to Max that Fantasy start a subsidiary for their more rock-oriented releases. Thus the Scorpio label (named for Rose’s birth sign) was formed, and it was upon that imprint that the next Golliwogs single, “Brown-Eyed Girl,” appeared. “This was really the first record by John,” states Rose. “The whole sound was different. Now we really got into more involved sessions, where we over-dubbed John on everything. We’d use Doug and Stu on the basic tracks but didn’t record Tom’s instrument at all, he would just sing. John also played organ and occasionally bass on some of those sessions too. So Doug was sometimes the only other musician.”

“Brown-Eyed Girl” was a passionate performance that, while doffing its hat to the influence of the British, was recognizably the group’s own. John’s voice had acquired a tremendous authority and the record marked the start of his creative ascendancy within the group. The equally strong flipside, “You Better Be Careful,” appropriated the haunting style of the Zombies, with moody production to match. Encouragingly, the record quickly became a regional hit, selling over 10,000 copies, largely thanks to heavy radio play across the state.

With their already considerable experience, and the bonus of a genuine radio hit under their belts, the Golliwogs’ visibility in the overpopulated suburban rock scene was assured. In the South Bay in particular, heavy exposure on AM powerhouse KLIV got the group headline jobs at such teen spots as the Brass Rail and the Continental. In January of 1966, the group had also signed a management contract with Fantasy. Rose: “We decided to try and get them jobs in places where they could be seen. The reason why we ran them into the Central Valley was because we could get the records played at all the stations there. They went over well live, playing pretty much like Creedence did later. Not a lot of stage presence, but they sounded good, and John loved to hit that fuzztone. John was doing things with an edge, songs like ‘Fannie Mae’ or ‘In the Midnight Hour,’ more soul-oriented material.” “I don’t recall playing our early singles live,” comments Clifford, “though we would play our ‘hit.’ We did the popular songs like ‘Gloria’ and ‘Satisfaction’ that were on the jukebox, to keep our audience.”

By the time 1966 rolled around the Golliwogs were gaining a reputation from the teenage Bay Area, and Max Weiss felt they needed to further differentiate themselves from the teenage milieu. Cook: “Max decided to get us these uniforms. He dressed us up in green suede vests, white shirts with little purple teardrop paisleys, the most ugly plaid pants, and then bought us these white wig-type hats. In his insanity, he thought this would be cute.” According to Rose, “The real story behind the wigs was that the band said we gotta have outfits, but we can’t afford them. So Max said okay, and we all hopped in the car and went over to Cost Plus on Fisherman’s Wharf, where we found these white women’s hats. Hey, a different look!”

In an era when the visual gimmick was important in pop, and where bands dyed their hair green, wore Revolution-era costumes or shaved their heads in order to get noticed, the outfits perhaps seemed appropriate, but Weiss’s sense of the bizarre did not endear him to the band. Cook: “We were kids, suffering from ‘El Cerrito syndrome,’ meaning, what do we know, these people are in the business! So we went along with it.” Ironically, the image did not jell with the burst of creativity the band was experiencing. Fired up by the relative success of “Brown-Eyed Girl,” the Fogertys’ writing was going from strength to strength, and while the group already had a strong, raunchy sound in place, they experimented with then-popular styles. Hence the torrid folk-rock of “She Was Mine,” or the groovy Motown cop that is “Gonna Hang Around.”

One of the strongest new tunes was to become the next single. “Fight Fire” stands on its own as one of the Golliwogs’ finest moments: a frantic teen rock record, perhaps their best in that mode, and certainly above-average compared to many of their contemporaries. Clifford agrees: “’Fight Fire’ was one of my favorites, because it was a driving thing. I remember I had taped the maraca to my drumstick, so my hand was on fire!” Adds Paul Rose, “I thought ‘Fight Fire’ was incredible. Now they’ll go a step above ‘Brown-Eyed Girl,’ so we were really excited. We had all the enthusiasm in the world, but nothing happened.”

Backed by the jaunty pop of “Fragile Child,” “Fight Fire” may have failed to match the sales of the previous single but it still garnered healthy airplay action. Left in the can from the February sessions was “Try Try Try,” in hindsight a minor gem, reviving as it does the Kinks-ish accented rhythm of “You Better Be Careful,” with another strong vocal arrangement. Clifford: “Max insisted on originals which was good, so Tom and John did a lot of writing together in those days. But then John got busy at home, and it was kinda interesting to see that transition as he took over. We were proud of all of those songs, and I think each one got a little bit better. It was like climbing a ladder.”

Nineteen-sixty-six was proving to be a busy year for the band, as Cook recalls: “We got most of our work based on ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ and ‘Fight Fire.’ Those were the songs that got us double scale at teen clubs. So we commuted to gigs all over the state. Sacramento, Stockton, Turlock, Modesto, Clear Lake, Santa Rosa. Marysville/Yuba City was about as far north as we got, Hanford to the south, Merced to the east. We toured the Valley countless times--it was a great market. Kids had nothing else to do there because it was too far to go to San Francisco or Los Angeles. Paul Rose had some sort of in at military bases so we also played the teen clubs at Mather and McClellan [AFBs].”

Despite the proliferation of out-of-town dates, the Golliwogs were still not earning enough to live on. In fact, Doug had dropped out of school that summer to work but continued to live with Stu in the South Bay, the pair stoically driving up to El Cerrito in Doug’s old Volkswagen bus to pick up John and Tom and head out to the far-flung Valley gigs. In comparison to the Anglophilic “Fight Fire” period, the band’s originals were getting closer to the rootsy R&B they preferred to play live. An untitled instrumental from this period shows the band copping a Memphis groove while the rousing late 1966 outtake, “Little Tina,” is musically a harbinger of things to come. The band was developing in a way that, in hindsight, possibly placed them ahead of their contemporaries.

No greater example of this was their next single, the astonishing “Walking on the Water,” which was recorded in August of 1966. Melodically, it was audacious, and despite an odd structure, instantly memorable, yet the track sounded like nobody else. It became another turntable hit--after some adjustment, as Paul Rose explains: “Again that song was basically all John, singing and playing--electric piano, fuzztone, echoplex, etc. I asked him where the other verses were, and he said that was it. I told him it wasn’t fitting what was happening on radio. So John repeated the verse somewhat begrudgingly to fill the space. He was always mad at me for making him do that!”

The whole band turned in a sterling performance, but more than anything else, “Walking on the Water” was a clear indication that John Fogerty was guiding the group. The song itself was a collaboration with Tom, but John dominated the record, via his blistering lead guitar and anguished vocal, which underscored the cryptic subject matter. Clifford: “Tom and John were Catholic, so that was the lyrical inspiration. I always liked ‘Walking’ because it had interesting things going on in it, especially for me.” The record’s flipside was also experimental, in that it gave a new twist to the Southern soul style with which the group was enamored. “You Better Get It Before It Gets You” begins in an Otis Redding/Sam Cooke gospel soul mode, before changing gears and picking up in speed with the introduction of the fuzz halfway through.

Cook: “We played in Hanford once and they must have really gotten tired of looking at our outfits, because they unscrewed the footlights and threw ‘em at us. We had done hundreds of gigs dressed like that, so when we got rid of that stuff there was a celebration. We had to prove we were better than our costumes. I think the audiences probably thought it was weird until we began to play. Because when we started playing, we immediately connected.”

“It was like the Wild West at those gigs out in the Valley,” recalls Clifford with a shudder. “All of a sudden there was some success, we got told that we needed to perform, so we were like guys in the Army: ‘Okay boys, take that hill! Yessir, sergeant major!’ You may come back with one arm or no left foot but you did it, that’s how it was in those days. Max was smart enough to know that the money was in rock & roll, and he wasn’t above it. So for that I give him credit: he helped our career, he gave us a vehicle and a place to record. And we liked Max, he was a great guy, but he was just too off-center.”

The new year saw the Golliwogs at a crossroads. John and Doug had received their draft notices and therefore bided their time in the reserves. This enforced a necessary hiatus for the first few months of 1967, during which time the alternative rock scene in San Francisco exploded nationally. “We were aware of the San Francisco scene,” observes Cook, “so for us it was like a dual existence. One night wearing a fuzzy hat and being sort of a dork, and then the next going to the ballrooms and being wild and crazy. I used to go see the Airplane all the time. Moby Grape was a great group. Doug and I hung out a bit in the Haight, but I don’t think Tom and John ever did.”

In May the band laid down tracks for what would have been their fourth Scorpio single. Though the tune itself was fairly innocuous, sonically “Tell Me” was remarkable approximation of the style that Creedence was to take to the top of the charts: bouncy rhythm, chugging guitars and the first inflections of the bayou in John’s voice. Oddly “Tell Me,” backed by the second version of “You Can’t Be True,” was never released commercially. According to Rose, “We printed a hundred test copies and took it around to key stations like KLIV, to get a feel for what they thought of it. Basically everybody said it was not something they were gonna rush to play, so it didn’t come out.”

When John and Doug finally escaped from the reserves, the group resolved to knuckle down and make a serious go of the band. Doug and Stu rented a funky two-bedroom on three and a half acres in the El Sobrante hills, dubbed The Shire, where the band woodshed that summer. Cook: “We had people coming up to us asking, can’t you play ‘Purple Haze’ or ‘Sunshine of Your Love?’ That started to make us feel really old, because we were still doing the R&B gems that we grew up with. We didn’t play ‘Purple Haze,’ we played ‘Walking the Dog.’ It was this weird little time and we were not marching to the same drummer, which turned out to be for out benefit.”

By now the band was dressing in a subdued mod fashion, with Stu even bold enough to sport a fashionable mustache. The chance to make a clean break came sooner than they imagined: in the late summer of 1967, circumstances beyond their control saw the Weiss brothers forced to sell Fantasy. Encouraged by the label’s distributors, Saul Zaentz formed a consortium of buyers who pooled their funds and managed to buy the company. Thankfully, Zaentz, who had remained friendly with the Golliwogs and was well aware of their potential was happy to keep them on board.

Cook: “The sale of Fantasy was a good time to break with the past. Soul loaned us money to buy John a new amp. We quit whatever else we were doing and focused full-time on trying to make it. I sold my car to finance the band, Tom left PG&E and gook his retirement. His first wife thought we were crazy. The idea was to show our strong points and play down our weak ones, and to make a real strong move to get something going.”

It having been six months since the last session and well over a year since the last release, the group requested that their next single be taped at the more professional Coast Recorders facility on Bush Street in San Francisco, rather than the outmoded Treat Avenue studio. The sonic improvement alone was tangible evidence of rekindled enthusiasm. “Porterville,” a harrowing tale of a small-town prejudice composed by John during his sojourn in boot camp was another left-field shot with some sprightly lead guitar. And “Call It Pretending” had an infectious, undeniably commercial groove that this time lightly mimicked the writing of Holland-Dozier-Holland. The song was originally credited to all four members under the alias “T. Spicebush Swallowtail” (a reference to the butterflies that populated The Shire courtesy of amateur entomologist Doug). Clifford: “I loved ‘Porterville’ because it was sort of spooky and there’s a two-part harmony that I do with John. And Tom had started playing guitar again.”

More than anything, the group knew now was the time to dispense with what they considered the biggest obstacle to success: their name. By late 1967, a moniker like the Golliwogs was hopelessly outdated. Saul Zaentz encouraged the group to change it and so they brainstormed for a more contemporary-sounding handle, reworking Tom’s suggestion of “Credence Nuball & Ruby” into “Creedence,” and adding John’s “Clearwater Revival.” The new name was suggestive of the band’s rebirth, coupled with the respect they showed for the past. Clifford: “It was the era of wacky names, but there was actually a method to the madness, because in the entertainment listings of the San Francisco Chronicle, your name would be in bold-face type, so the longer the name, the more space you got.” “Porterville” was thus hastily recalled and reissued as the final single on Scorpio with the new byline, Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Clifford: "[At the time of the sale] we were actually really happy because we had confidence in Saul, so it was a rekindled opportunity. We just started concentrating on what we felt comfortable with musically. It was a pretty big decision and I think it took a lot of courage to do it, certainly then, in the fledgling years of acid rock. All the other bands were like, you guys are square! We were the Boy Scouts of rock ‘n’ roll, for sure.” Zaentz: “They were playing Deno & Carlo’s in San Francisco for pass-the-hat, playing the same songs they would record on their first album. You immediately got that this was honest music. They were a good group with good songs and you never go wrong with quality. But the things that you believe in, you do them, you don’t care what anyone says and that’s what happened with Creedence. With all these hip, finger-poppin’ guys scouting the clubs in town--no one wanted them. I never got over that."

Instead, on January 5, 1968 the band re-signed with Fantasy and a fortnight later entered Coast for their first session as Creedence. Significantly, the two songs they elected to record that day were both covers from their live set: an early version of “Before You Accuse Me” that was eventually scrapped, and “Susie Q.” According to Cook, “It was my idea to resurrect ‘Susie Q.’ We were playing a gig at this club in Sacramento, five sets a night for a week. I suggested we get up and play ‘Susie Q’ for half an hour and everybody went along with it.” The band may have developed the song as a jam, but John took the track over in the studio, adding dissonant chording, electronic effects and a separate choral section (recorded as “June Moon”) which was dropped in at different points during the track’s eight-minute duration. His lengthy guitar solos had a ragged psychedelic flavor that perfectly complemented the tune, but the meat of the recording was its insistent, hypnotic groove.

Impressed by the results, Zaentz green-lighted a full album which was completed in a couple of further sessions that February. In the meantime, the group made further inroads to the San Francisco scene. Cook: “We’d originally taken the tape of ‘Susie Q’ to KMPX in San Francisco, who went on strike. We supported them by playing on a loading dock down across from the station. So when they moved over to KSAN Metromedia they started playing it. ‘Hey, this is good, but who are these guys?’”

Clifford: “We were ready. We played the free shows at Muir Beach in Marin, that was really a scene. All the hippies certainly loved us. We thought some of that psychedelic stuff was cool, that little flavor if you will. We put that out there, on the first record, but it was tasty.” With underground airplay building, Fantasy finally issued Creedence Clearwater Revival in July 1968 and a two-part edit of “Susie Q” on a single, followed swiftly by a further single of “I Put a Spell on You.” By late September “Susie Q” was in the Billboard Top 20 and CCR was on its way.

Whether they enjoyed the experience or not, Creedence’s first decade made them what they were. It was an apprenticeship that few in rock’s annals have endured: the ultimate payment of dues, but with correspondingly fabulous reward. And Creedence survived the journey for the same reason that they embarked upon it: the unswervingly innocent belief, shared by the quartet members, that if they worked hard enough, they could achieve their dream.

Clifford: “I consider ourselves a garage band to this day; we were the most successful garage band in the world. I say that with all humility, because we’re not great players. We were all weaned on the same records as young guys, and we played together, and we had this dream that someday we were gonna make it. One time we were in my backyard, playing basketball after a rehearsal, and I grabbed the ball and said, ‘You know, someday we’re gonna make a hundred bucks a night--each!’ We continued to say that throughout our career, even when we were going into Madison Square Garden. It’s those old things that you hang onto, it’s all part of that dream.”

Cook: "A basic rock & roll band is all we ever were. We never had any pretenses about being anything but just guys who grew up together loving the same music and putting our heart into it. There was no producer, no Svengali; we just kinda grew and worked together, supported and encouraged each other. We were like a family. Music is the kind of business that the only way that you’re guaranteed never to make it, is if you quit. It’s not your field if you’re gonna give up. But if you hang in there like we did, for ten years but always believing, you finally get a break--and we were there to get a break. Doug’s little joke about the hundred bucks, that was gonna be success to us. To the extent, we made it bigger than our wildest dreams."

2 comments:

  1. What a story...Great to read all this when they started to play music.
    Would you be so kind to put a new link for the music please......JohnC.

    ReplyDelete