We've still got the blues

It was the cornerstone of rock'n'roll, and it still has a vital place in today's music, says Andy Gill
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The Independent Culture

It used to be an accepted tenet of pop culture that all rock music could be traced back to the blues - to borrow the whiskery, old cliché, the blues had a baby and they called it rock'n'roll. This was accepted as an a priori fact of music history, recycled with minor variations over the past half-century. And in rock's original incarnation, it was undoubtedly true. In recent years, however, it's begun to look a little threadbare, one of those apparent commonplaces that quietly slips out of use as everyone realises it no longer applies.

It used to be an accepted tenet of pop culture that all rock music could be traced back to the blues - to borrow the whiskery, old cliché, the blues had a baby and they called it rock'n'roll. This was accepted as an a priori fact of music history, recycled with minor variations over the past half-century. And in rock's original incarnation, it was undoubtedly true. In recent years, however, it's begun to look a little threadbare, one of those apparent commonplaces that quietly slips out of use as everyone realises it no longer applies.

These days, with a few notable exceptions, you have to search pretty thoroughly to find the last skeletal vestiges of the blues poking through the accumulated layers of puppy-fat and clutter of piercings on pop's plump, satiated body. At times, it seems as if the form has more to do with the unnatural experiments of some fiendish cultural Frankenstein in a dust-free, sterile Swedish laboratory. What else could explain Britney Spears?

It's almost as if the blues became emotionally out-of-date, the deep core of pain which it bequeathed to pop having been replaced by the bland, anthemic melancholy of Coldplay and their ilk. It's a virus that has also seeped back into the blues itself, which for the most part has retreated into a Sunday lunchtime pub session sort of existence, in which bands of ageing musos hack out deracinated versions of standards bearing only the most tenuous relation to the blues.

To be fair, there are a few intrepid explorers still seeking out the hardcore emotional fix that only the blues can provide. The Kings Of Leon have souls of solid boogie, and the Blues Explosion have mined this dark vein deeper than most, for longer than most. But by far the most successful are The White Stripes, a band that has made a virtue out of anomaly, and no more so than in their adherence to the basic blues principles of raw experience, simplicity and emotional charge. Reviewing their Get Behind Me Satan alongside Coldplay's X & Y was like studying anthropological artefacts from different worlds, the vast, yawning abyss that separates them signalled by their contrasting titles: the one coldly analytical, the other desperately clawing its way out of hell.

As for the current clutch of young British bands, barely any seems bothered by the blues, opting instead for retreads of Goth (Kasabian), new wave (Kaiser Chiefs), Eighties indie (Libertines, Bloc Party) or psychedelic pop (Hal, British Sea Power). Virtually the only new, high-profile UK band that seems unashamedly infused with blues power is the 22-20s, whose raucous, galloping "Devil In Me" taps straight into the same motherlode that fed The Rolling Stones when they too were teenage lads.

Beneath this comparatively mainstream pop surface, however, the first stirrings of an underground blues scene can be detected. Based originally at the Windmill in Brixton, the Not The Same Old Blues Crap nightclub was started by Rupert Orton about 15 months ago to offer a platform for bands inspired by the visceral blues of Fat Possum label artists such as R L Burnside, T-Model Ford and the late Junior Kimbrough. Having despaired of ever finding suitable gigs for his own band, Orton decided to start a club himself. Taking the club name from Fat Possum's series of budget-price compilations, he put on shows by acts such as The Killer B's and Catweezel, and then jumped at the opportunity when the label contacted him enquiring if he'd care to promote T-Model Ford in the UK.

With a bona fide blues original involved, the scene has developed apace, moving its base to The Spitz, the classy arts venue in Hoxton, and acquiring the hip, new handle of "Punk Rock Blues".

"It's just a description, something that's easy to digest, rather than a category," explains Orton. "But the musicians involved take their influences directly from some of the delta blues musicians of the 1930s; they literally drag it straight up-to-date, right through punk rock."

Other influences on this new blues style include Tom Waits's more experimental stuff, and also perennial underground hero Captain Beefheart. Orton characterises the club as a diverse umbrella, covering what would normally be considered a wide range of genres, from the straight up-and-down punk of Clambake, to the more sophisticated styles of T-Model Ford, and The Immortal Lee County Killers.

"It's a broad church," he assures me, and such proves to be the case on the forthcoming album This Is Punk Rock Blues, a compilation of club favourites including the above-mentioned, along with the Soledad Brothers, Jawbone, Chicken Legs Weaver, Seasick Steve & The Level Devils, Petit Vodo and Gaffer Hexham - 18 tracks in which the sublime rubs shoulders with the ridiculous, and both profit from the proximity. One thing that's not much in evidence, however, is the emphasis on technique and virtuosity that sidetracked the Sixties' blues boom.

"We're absolutely against all of that," he says. "When it says Not The Same Old Blues Crap, it doesn't mean that we're against old blues - on the contrary - but it does mean we're against that old attitude that you have to be reverential, and be able to play Robert Johnson out-takes note perfect. We want to get that primal feeling that we got from listening to those records."

The audiences have been growing steadily, with a three-night Festival of Blues at The Spitz drawing more than a thousand punters, ranging in age from teens to granddads.

"We're not excluding anybody from this, it's totally inclusive," adds Orton. A good example was when T-Model Ford played: the guy is 85, and he was rocking that house for two-and-a-half hours! In the end, we had to take him off, because he just won't leave the stage. But at the front were all these kids who must have been 16 or 17, really going wild. They were literally shouting at us, 'You can't take him off the stage!', and we had to say, 'Look, he's 85, and he's playing the next five nights. He needs to get some sleep!'. There's someone who's three or four generations older, yet is directly communicating to a much younger audience. That's part of what we're about: we believe in the blues, and we believe in punk too, but we don't believe it's something that's elitist and stuck up on a pedestal."

Over in Oxford, Mississippi, however, things don't look quite so rosy to Matthew Johnson, who started Fat Possum Records in 1991 purely to record the great R L Burnside, the most potent of the old Mississippi hill-country bluesmen, who at the time had slipped off the music-biz radar.

"There was a sort of, quote/unquote, 'revival' going on then," says Johnson, "but everyone that I liked, locally, was not relevant to it, they weren't even getting recorded doing it. But it seemed a lot more imaginative than the shit that was going on before then, which was all real slick Chicago stuff - it was like, 'Who's the next Stevie Ray Vaughn?' kind of bullshit."

Sardonic and dyspeptic, his conversation liberally strewn with expletives, Johnson is the living embodiment of punk rock blues attitude. And he gives free rein to his cynicism regarding most aspects of the blues industry. He disdains the slick, affectless bar-band acts signed to labels such as Alligator; he can't see the point of Eric Clapton's recordings of Robert Johnson songs; he didn't see the Scorsese documentary series The Blues, but "heard they sucked!"; and he reckons that the blues might have some influence on modern pop, "but only by accident, coincidence and serendipity".

Originally, the Fat Possum roster was drawn from a small area of Mississippi, Johnson expanding his catchment area as circumstances dictated. "When I started, I recorded the people closest to my little house, and that was R L and Junior [Kimbrough]," he explains. "Then I had to branch out." The headstrong, charismatic Burnside remains Fat Possum's biggest-selling act, strongly supported in recent years by Solomon Burke - whose 2002 album Don't Give Up On Me featured covers of unreleased songs by Dylan, Costello, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison, Tom Waits and Mann & Weill - and The Black Keys, a promising white rock act.

"But RL was the anchor," Johnson confirms. "We had an anchor that wasn't very stable! He's had several albums that have done above 100,000, which is excellent. Kicked ass! The rest of them, we try and get them to around ten or so."

Not that the label's successes are allowed to establish any sense of financial security, Johnson ploughing the profits back into less commercial propositions, such as albums documenting the fife and drum blues tradition of the Mississippi hill country. "Well, on a commercial level, we felt that they would definitely lose money - so we felt we should do that," he chuckles. "Every once in a while something does well, and we make sure we fritter it all away!"

His devil-may-care attitude is perhaps linked to his general pessimism about the future of the blues, which he reckons is finished. "It's all dead," he states, bluntly. There's no circuit, nothing. All the kids these days want to listen to hip-hop, and they ran the old folks out of the clubs. Even when there was some disco banging around in the juke joints, the old folks could stay with that, but not the hip-hop."

For some fans, the most interesting development in the blues has been the re-establishment of the form's links with its African roots, primarily through the collaborations of musicologists such as Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and most recently Corey Harris, with the Malian "King of Desert Blues", Ali Farka Touré. Johnson, however, remains singularly, not to mention rudely, unimpressed. "He seems like a hack to me," he says disparagingly of Corey Harris, the anthropologically-trained young bluesman who presented the African Blues episode of Scorsese's series. "You look at my guys, they're sat down on stage, half-drunk, in something they were just mowing the yard in. It wasn't like my guys became interested in this cultural heritage at Princeton or Yale or wherever, they just did what they did. Junior and R L, they were, like, 65 years old, and they just rocked the fuck out of their guitars, because they wanted to, because they enjoyed it. It wasn't posturing, it wasn't coming up with a good name and a band and getting an agent, it was all so real."

Much of Johnson's bitterness and scepticism perhaps comes from the tragedy he has to cope with, dealing with old men with a lifetime of bad habits. He has now started signing white rock acts, a direction introduced back in the late Nineties when the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion backed Burnside on the extraordinary A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, and Blues Explosion offshoot 20 Miles released their eponymous debut on Fat Possum. Johnson has since issued Paul Westerberg's Grandpaboy project, and the first album by Cincinnati trio The Heartless Bastards, but his hopes rest mainly with The Black Keys, whose last album sold about 80,000. He still loves the blues, but with all the original old masters dead or dying off, he hears fewer and fewer exponents that excite him in the same way. There's not much chance of him being enthused about a new Punk Rock Blues scene, in the same way as Rupert Orton, and that's rather sad.

He does cheer up a little though, as he tells me about Black Snake Moan, a film about the blues starring Samuel L Jackson and Christina Ricci, which should feature plenty of Fat Possum music on the soundtrack. "It's about the only thing I've seen that looked remotely cool in years," he says. "Samuel Jackson's this blues guy that chains his nymphomaniac girlfriend to a radiator!" Sounds like a real Fat Possum kinda guy.