(Pictured: Klook’s Kleek which was a jazz and rhythm n’ blues club at the Railway Hotel, West Hampstead, North West London. Anybody who was anybody played there in the early days of British blues.)
A while back I wrote about the so-called British Invasion, the sudden influx of British bands to America starting with the Beatles in 1964. There were really two distinct parallel tracks to this “invasion” – the pop-oriented bands (Beatles, Kinks, Hollies, Zombies, etc.) and the blues-oriented ones (Stones, Cream, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, etc.)
Some people like my sister were drawn only to the pop side of things while some, like me, dug both. At first I wasn’t even aware of the blues side but once I caught up with it I did so with a vengeance. While British blues pioneers like Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies were the first to really popularize blues (or R&B as they called it) in England, their music never really translated across the pond. But they did inspire many of the bands who did.
Arguably the first British blues that had an impact on these shores was the Rolling Stones England’s Newest Hit Makers album released in May 1964. (The Beatles debut album Introducing … The Beatles was released in January 1964.) In addition to Chuck Berry and Motown songs they covered Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed tunes.
But as good as the Stones (and Animals, Them) were, their blues/R&B sound was still pretty traditional. Great, but traditional. Still more blues-oriented I think than rock oriented.
It took a 1966 John Mayall album called Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton to really kick British blues up to another level. Not only was – and is – this a great album but the combination of Clapton’s blues virtuosity along with his discovery of the Les Paul/Marshall amp combo made every guitarist re-think how and what they played.*
This post is not a history per se and I’ve already recounted some of the story behind the Mayall album in another post. But suffice it to say that that the early British blues guys did more to revitalize that genre in England and the States (at least), which in a few short years led blues and blues-influenced music to be the most predominant form of rock in the late 60’s and early 70’s. (Sweet spot from ’68 to ’71-’72, peaking around 1969.)
Wikipedia says that “British blues entered a rapid decline at the end of 1960s. Surviving bands and musicians tended to move into other expanding areas of rock music.” I’m inclined to both agree and disagree with that statement. Clearly bands like Jethro Tull lost patience with the limited format and yes, prog-rock started to thrive.
But I’d maintain that British blues-rock was thriving at least through the mid-70’s, roughly until punk came along. Hell, Robin Trower didn’t release the highly popular and influential Bridge of Sighs until 1974 for just one example.
Anyway, enough historical background. Let’s get to some tunes and some bands.
Foghat was formed in 1971 after guitarist/vocalist Dave Peverett, bassist Tony Stevens and drummer Roger Earl split Savoy Brown. Not quite sure what precipitated this, quite possibly a desire to go towards a heavier Zep-inspired rock sound. (Look for Savoy Brown in Part 2.)
Foghat released their eponymous debut album in 1972. Added to the band was lead/slide guitarist Rod Price. (Andy Fairweather Low and Dave Edmunds are also listed as additional musicians.)
I spent far too much time listening to this album and in particular the kickoff song, Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love To You.” This blues style, this taking old blues songs and kicking them up to 11 was exactly where I lived for quite some time. I fucking hung a sign out and camped there. This stuff is why I play guitar. You want to hear “Michael Row the Boat Ashore?” Go for it. This, for me, is the shit:
Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac were one of the very first posts I ever did back when literally nobody (including me) was reading this blog. I said my piece there about that great band. In that post I briefly mentioned the late Danny Kirwan who joined the band in time for their 1969 album Then Play On. (Which, BTW, was also Green’s last with Mac before, alas, he went to that same place in his head Syd Barrett disappeared to.)
You should try to get your hands on a copy of the band’s great 1970 Live in Boston album, recorded at the (sadly) now-defunct Boston Tea Party. Alas, only Vol. 3 of the album is on Spotify and so I’ll give you two live versions of Kirwan’s great “Like it This Way,” one (YouTube) from the Tea Party and the Spotify one from Men of the World: The Early Years. Both are great and I love the guitar interplay.
I’ve posted before about Ten Years After not only at Woodstock but especially in regards to their great 1968 live album Undead. (Recorded, as it happens, at Klook’s Kleek.) In 1969 they released the album Ssssh. What I like about TYA – and about British blues bands in general – is how they could subtly combine blues with a jazzy feel.
Check out their version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” Let’s just say the schoolgirl is 18, the guy is 20 and leave it at that:
We all know the Yardbirds, yes? Beck, Page, Clapton. I wrote about them in this post. Check that out. Come back here. I’ll wait.
Ok, so anyway, in 1968, post-Yardbirds, Jeff Beck released his first solo album Truth.** (I never got around to doing a post on this so the link points to fellow blogger CB’s take on this album.) The incredible band included Rod Stewart on vocals, Ronnie Wood on bass and Micky Waller on drums. (John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins, Aynsley Dunbar and Jimmy Page also appear.)
I’ve always loved their minimalist approach to the tune “Let Me Love You.” (Accredited to Jeffrey Rod.) Beck doesn’t really blues rhythm guitar on this, there’s no keyboards so Woody holds the whole thing together with his terrific bass playing. Just a great blues song with inventive guitar (what else is new?) from Beck:
For those who think Jethro Tull are (were?) a hard-rock band (won a Grammy in that genre), or make only album-length (Thick as a Brick) opuses, know that they very much started life as a blues band. Or better yet, as Melody Maker had it, “a blues ensemble ‘influenced by jazz music.”
This song, “A New Day Yesterday,” is from their second album Stand Up. Guitarist Mick Abrahams had already departed the band as he wanted to continue in a blues vein while leader Ian Anderson had other ideas. (Abrahams went on to form Blodwyn Pig who we’ll get to in Part 2.)
I love this song and its repetitive lick is killer. Learn this on the guitar and even your grandmother will go, “Whoa! Dude.” (The Spotify link is a Steven Wilson remix so apparently he’s a fan.)
I would argue that the apotheosis of all this madness was Cream wherein you had three virtuosic players just jamming away for all their lives were worth. Not everything they did was blues per so but a fair amount of it was.
Cream lasted only a few years but pretty much blew everybody’s fucking mind. I have maintained that while Cream were not jazz, they opened up my ears as much as anything else to long, free-form playing which opened my mind up to jazz.
Here they are from their 1969 Goodbye (they burned out fast) album cranking out bluesman Skip James’s “I’m So Glad.”
*Note – clearly Hendrix was a major blues player and incredibly influential. But this post’s focus is on British blues. And despite lists I’ve seen of greatest British blues albums that include Jimi’s debut, Hendrix – though discovered in England – was American. And hey if the Brits claim Hendrix, I claim Zep for America.
**Per Wikipedia, “Tom Scholz of Boston has listed it as his favorite album, stating, “I knew Jeff Beck’s Truth album inside out.” Now, I liked Boston but boy you’d never knew he had any blues influence whatsoever.
Stay tuned for part II and the inevitable Spotify list. This one’s killer!
Sources: Wikipedia, band websites.