It’s the winter of 1956, and a boy who is going to change the world, who’d be the last person in the world to think that he would, lies in bed in the north of England, unable to sleep, and not wanting to.
He’s excited in a way he’s never been excited before. The excitement does not have to do with girls, though this young man, all of fifteen-years-old, has gained considerable experience in that area already.
He’s had a rough go of it. His mother did not want him. He’s being raised by his aunt, who is firm, but loving. The boy’s mother is still in his life and they’ve gotten closer, but as friends, more like a bigger sister and younger brother than parent and child.
The boy is angry, but he is not as angry as he will become in less than two years, when his mother is struck by the vehicle of an off-duty policeman and killed, and the boy loses her a second time.
Even as a mid-teen, he feels as though he’s different than everyone. A decade later, in Spain, he’ll start a song about what that is like for him, whether he’s crazy or a genius. His schoolmasters during this period of his life might nod in regards to the former—the boy hounds them with his roué wit and his practical jokes—and would laugh themselves sideways over any suggestion of the latter. That kid? No way, no how.
He can’t put a name to his feelings. The inability to do so binds him in a human knot doused with water and made tighter. He yearns for a freedom he doesn’t know how to express. He’s not sure what it looks like. How he can get it. If he ever will. But he’s starting to learn what it sounds like. And it’s not just the greatest thrill of his life. It’s the greatest thrill, in his mind, that anyone, ever, could have.
The thrill comes in the night, when the boy is supposed to be sleeping. It comes via a radio and a faint signal that crackles on the nightstand at his ear. The sound might as well be piped in from some faraway, magic kingdom, but the kingdom, rather than being situated in another world, or under the clouds of a carmine-colored planet, or a Shangri-La of the Himalayas, initially found footing and an audience in the American South and Middle West.
In the summer before, there was a man named Chuck Berry, who the boy first thought was white, with his song “Maybelline.” The number was about a car, but Berry made his vehicular means of conveyance sound like the ultimate lover of lovers; sexy and smart, kittenish but also a lioness. Her chrome skin was beautiful, and when she got that rain water under her hood, the boy had some devilish thoughts pass through his brain about hoods and slickness, and female anatomy.
Years from now he’d say that he liked this music because it was about fucking, but he knew he was taking the piss, as the English say, having a laugh, because this music couldn’t be cheapened. It meant too damn much.
Berry’s guitar was a greasy, tongue of fire. Polished, loud, distorted, and articulate all at once, it gave voice to what the boy was unable to express on his own, despite his doodles, his readings, the poems he wrote. This rhythm, these blues. The drive of the music. It put its shoulder into you, knocked you back a few feet. The boy gripped his bedsheets, tighter and tighter.
But now there was something else. The rhythm came in waves that were more intense. They could have chipped away the coast of England itself. The blues were darker. They were true to life as the boy thought he knew life with his pain, his alienation.
In a couple of summers, at a village church party, he will meet a buddy—a cool young fellow with a truckload of confidence—who lost his mother as well. These rhythms, these blues, will make them more than friends, more than brothers. They will be partners but more than partners. In another country, where symbols of oppression from the last World War linger, they’ll play music that is not their own, which they would do anything to be able to make on their on, in their own way. They’ll play for drunken sailors and women who have just been with the drunken sailors who fall in love with their rhythm and blues like the boy in the bed in the north of England is already in love with what he hears.
He loved Chuck Berry, yes, but now, on this winter night, he is hearing God. That’s how he looked at it. At first he thought God was a black man from south of the Mason-Dixon line, and would realize later that he was white. Black, white, it was all being mixed up in the boy’s head.
The boy did not need to be God himself, but he would try, and eventually, when his time with the partner was no more, he’d even sing a song about God and what he believed in and what he did not. But from the start, and until the end, on a city street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he believed in the rhythm and the blues, with head, heart, soul.
And it did not matter that his firm but loving aunt told the boy that the guitar he was forever playing as a result of what he heard was well and fine, but he’d never get anywhere with it, nor make a living. For the boy who was going to change the world listened to the young man from Tupelo, Mississippi sing “Heartbreak Hotel” and it all made sense. He had heard and received the word, and the word, in its rhythm and in its blues, was everything.
It is June 1964, and five unkempt, anything but well-dressed skinny white kids from London, England, have come to Chicago, home of their heroes. The men they worship. The men they want to be. The men they look up to. The men who are so big to these boys that they all but block out the sun.
Following on from some young men from Liverpool, the Southerners have had a degree of success with their own music. They don’t do a lot of writing yet. Their focus is on covering the songs of their heroes, the gods. They’re not ready to write as composers themselves, because they’re still figuring it out. More learning about the world has to be done. Their heroes help them in that learning. Take them beyond the range of their own experiences, in addition to teaching them the chords, the licks, the arrangements, the riffs.
The band’s first album came out that spring, laden with rhythm and blues. The singer tried to sound Black, but it was cool. There was no nattering about cultural appropriation. The sound, in a way, was old, in that a version existed, thanks to those American heroes, but there was something new about it as well. Call it a spin, a shine, a luster of yearning, of spurting forth into a differently shaded stratosphere.
The blond-haired boy who plays rhythm guitar and harmonica is the straight-up blues fan, the purist. He likes to take a beer bottle to his guitar and produce the glassy notes he’s studied from his record collection, where Jimmy Reed is king with his mush-mouthed vocals and glistening, liquefied guitar notes.
The rest of the guys dig that rhythm. The like the frantic pace. The surge and pound of the Black beat. They’re loud. English studios don’t know how to capture what it is this quintet is doing. They’re not the London Symphony Orchestra, that’s for sure, nor the stuff of the Light Programme on the BBC.
Urban legends about them swirl, like one of their number will only copulate after he has first put a Bo Diddley record on the turntable. But this is not a day for tall tales, as the band has arrived at a place that’s tantamount to the joint Mecca and Medina of their dreams: 2121 S. Michigan Avenue, and the Chess recording studio. Gods have cut discs here. They even see one of them, amazingly, in Willie Dixon—author of their all-time favorite, “Little Red Rooster”—helping to clean up a hallway, which blows their minds.
Their sound is massive, throbbing, and here they have a studio that can get that enormity and power down on tape. In less than a year, the sounds made on this day will be left behind. There will be a tune about not being able to get what one wants, with a riff that will resound like it is made of the full-throated shouts of a dozen horns, but will be made by the band’s other guitarist with the pock-marked cheeks, who is himself a human riff in part because of how well he’s learned from the men of Chess that have come here before him, and them.
But that is then, and this is now, and that future won’t happen without days like these, and performances set down for history that also change history.
The band play a version of “Around and Around,” written by that same poet laureate of rhythm and blues who did “Maybellene,” and it becomes the loudest R&B that anyone in England has heard, or presumably anyone anywhere. If the term “ear-splitting volume” had been invented for a single cut, this would be it. The music careens with the verve of freedom. It has the mystery and soul of the jungle, a walloping tribal beat, but it's also urbane and urban. The citified primeval. The joint is rocking. It is going round and round, like that spinning house that takes Dorothy to a land of color in The Wizard of Oz, but color, as people often perceive it—in skin tones—is not germane to these proceedings.
These early summer, fusillade drums boom with a resonance as if they’ve been set up in the bowels of the earth, where the acoustics are pitch-perfect, producing a sound of eternal echo. The beat is the size of a planet, but a nimble, swirling planet. The groove goes left, the groove goes right. It rains on down from overhead, it shakes the floorboards below.
“What the hell are these guys playing?” an onlooker may have asked. The clipped chicken-scratch of the guitars feels atomic in scope, and that guitar solo is a feral, blurred swipe of art brut rage and pluck, redefining musicianship in the very mounting of its attack. The blues of the postwar generation have come alive in a way that they haven’t before. These boys have truly nailed it for the first time.
It’s a hell of a day to be an English epigone on the south side of Chicago. It’s a banner day, too, for British rhythm and blues. The kind of day that one looks back on later, after a portion of the world has been changed, and connects the still-booming dots.
It is October, 1964, and the wildest band that anyone has witnessed in the flesh is playing a gig at the Railway Hotel and Lounge in Wealdstone, the London Borough of Harrow.
The group is operating under the impression that it is a dance combo. They play numbers like “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs, “I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (which they attempt no less than three times), Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, and “Pretty Thing” by Bo Diddley.
The singer—a sheet metal worker with a barrel chest and fists always ready to fly—is trying to sound as Black as possible. He’s not pretending otherwise. His normal singing voice isn’t like this, and it certainly won’t sound the same way in five years when he’s the Messianic figure front and center for a double album unlike anything that had been attempted in the history of recorded sound. That album will feature a number by Sonny Boy Williamson (Sonny Boy Williamson the second, that is, aka Rice Miller, from Tutwiler, Mississippi, author of the sublimely titled, “Fattening Frogs for Snakes”), whose music would have slotted naturally into the proceedings of this Tuesday night.
These blokes don’t even like each other, and yet they play their adrenalized brand of rhythm and blues to this small but enthusiastic throng of kids hopped up on pep pills, as a single beast with four heads.
The bassist summons forth lines from his instrument that could have been ripped from the playbook of the Stax house band. The guitarist chords like he wants to end a certain faction of society with the single, perfect, inspired triad that will deliver the death blow to artifice, to poses. He’s changing the vocabulary of his instrument, without yet knowing it. The revolution will come. Right now, it’s about dancing and sweat, volume-swelling chords, mods over rockers, sunglasses in the dark, shouting and shimmying, heavy metal thunder before there is heavy metal.
And then there is that drummer. He has no formal training. He’s already a huge drinker. On a different night, before he joined the band, he got sloshed, was fed up what he saw from the guy who’d been manning the skins, and asserted that he could do better, which he then proceeded to prove, splintering several drumsticks in the process and leaving his hands bleeding.
No one has ever approached the instrument as he has, and as he does here in the run-up to Halloween for these gyrating London youths with their amphetamines and their energy. His first love was surf music, but he’s a rhythm and blues guy now. They all are. That’s where they get their power, their ideas of what is possible, a better understanding of how the world works; and their future.
You can see it. You can feel it. You can hear it. You can all but touch it. It may even heal you.
This rhythm, these blues.