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The top selling album in the US in 2018 (excluding soundtracks) was Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods. This was his first album since The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2, which came out back in 2013. This might be about how long it takes for a popular artist to produce an album these days, but it wasn’t always like that.
In January 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival, lead by John Fogerty, released their second LP, Bayou Country. In August that year, they released their third LP, Green River. And, in November, they released Willy and the Poor Boys, their fourth LP.
Musicians recorded more back then. The Beatles averaged about two albums a year. The Rolling Stones released 11 albums in their first decade. In the two years between August 1964 and August 1966, Bob Dylan released four LPs, transitioning from solo guy with a guitar and harmonica on Another Side of Bob Dylan to the electric poet of Blonde on Blonde. Clearly, quantity and quality need not be mutually exclusive.
The same was true of CCR fifty years ago this year. Each of those three albums is a classic. Bayou Country contains ‘Born on the Bayou’ and ‘Proud Mary’ (done better by Tina Turner), Green River contains the title track, ‘Bad Moon Rising’, and ‘Lodi’, and Willy and the Poor Boys has ‘Down on the Corner’, ‘Fortunate Son’, and a version of ‘Midnight Special’ that stands comparison with Leadbelly’s. That year, CCR had three Top Ten albums and four hit singles (charting at No. 2, No. 2, No. 2, and No. 3) with three additional charting B-sides. On November 16, 1969, they appeared on Ed Sullivan, the pinnacle of most careers back then.
CCR were a great band, clearly. Indeed, they were America’s greatest rock n’ roll band.
Britain’s greatest band, The Beatles, for example, started off playing covers of American artists like Buddy Holly and The Chiffons. But there was always an element of British music hall to everything they did. They performed numbers from musicals in live shows and recordings early on and this came to the fore on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles could only have come from Britain.
And, in the same way, CCR could only have come from the US. On their six classic LPs – their 1968 debut, the three from ’69, and Cosmo’s Factory and Pendulum from 1970 – they drew on every idiom of American folk music. Influences from blues, country, bluegrass, rock n’ roll, gospel, soul, spiritual, cajun, all went into CCR’s uniquely American musical brew. They couldn’t have come from any other country on earth.
This is all the more striking given that CCR emerged from San Francisco at the height of ‘Flower Power’. As their citation in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of fame puts it,
Creedence Clearwater Revival, which disbanded in 1972, were progressive and anachronistic at the same time. An unapologetic throwback to the golden era of rock and roll, they broke ranks with their peers on the progressive, psychedelic San Francisco scene. Their approach was basic and uncompromising, holding true to the band members’ working-class origins. The term ‘roots rock’ had not yet been invented when Creedence came along, but in essence, they defined it, drawing inspiration from the likes of Little Richard, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and the artisans of soul at Motown and Stax. In so doing, Creedence Clearwater Revival became the standard bearers and foremost celebrants of homegrown American music.
While their peers, like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, were exploring the far reaches of consciousness (or something), CCR were scouring the cotton fields of Mississippi, the back roads of Appalachia, the swamps of Louisiana, the motor factories of Detroit, the honky tonks of Nashville, and the smoky clubs of Chicago.
“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long”, as someone once said. It was just 29 months from the release of CCR’s first LP to the release of their last good one, after which they broke up in acrimony. But, in those 29 months, they left a musical legacy that few could touch in 29 years.
John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.