Sunday, December 10, 2006

Ethel the Frog's Guilty Pleasure

Johnny Winter (Blues-Rock Epiphany)
LP: The Progressive Blues Experiment (1969)



My friend Ted - a record company A&R guy - used to say that every music fan has at least one guilty pleasure stashed away in their record collection, a album or single so abominably uncool it's guaranteed to attract hoots of derision.

Ted’s secret shame was 70s whizz-kid Todd Rundgren. Not the early masterworks on which the Runt built his early reputation - Something, Anything and A Wizard, A True Star. We’re talking the spiritual prog-rock of Rundgren’s Initiation / Hermit of Pink Hollow period, and the woeful prog-anthem-fusion-rock of his Utopia project.

Ted told me he derived a perverse satisfaction from records like these. Sure, his friends thought they sucked, but that just made him like them all the more. They were indivisible elements of a masochistic teenage rite of passage, so overblown and bombastic that only a true fan - a bona fide fanatic - could remain immune to their excesses.

When I got to thinking about my own guilty pleasure, one choice stood out: the 1969 blues-rock classic The Progressive Blues Experiment, by “the whitest man ever to play the blues”, Texas albino guitar legend Johnny Winter.

In 1968, Johnny was playing in his first classic lineup with bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John Turner. They recorded The Progressive Blues Experiment (live, but with no audience) at the Vulcan Gas Company in Austin. In actuality it was a glorified demo intended to drum up some major label attention. Shortly thereafter, an article in Rolling Stone magazine helped generate a great deal of interest in the group, and, thanks to impresario Steve Paul (credited as, er, 'organic advisor' on one of Johnny's later albums), Johnny suddenly found himself on the verge of major label stardom, signed by CBS and hailed as the fastest, coolest guitar slinger in America.

Johnny’s major label debut Johnny Winter was released on CBS near the end of that year, with Progressive Blues coming out at the same time, causing not only some embarrassment for Johnny and CBS but also poor sales. Luckily CBS didn't lose faith in Johnny and his next album, Second Winter (a double album with, get this, only three sides!) went gold on the back of Johnny’s barnstorming appearance at the Woodstock festival.

The rest is history - Johnny went on to become the whitest, rockingest, most lightnin'-fingered axe hero around, a major concert draw and, after he’d conquered a career-threatening heroin addiction, the man behind Muddy Waters’ triumphant Grammy-winning comeback album Hard Again.

The funny thing is, The Progressive Blues Experiment is about ten thousand times better than Johnny’s major-label debut, exhibiting a raw vitality almost completely missing from the CBS album. From the get go, the excitement never lets up.

On the opening cut, a screaming high-octane version of blues standard Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Johnny and the boys are white hot, and Johnny’s licks have to be heard to be believed. You’ve barely had time to catch your breath when along comes Tribute to Muddy, a rootsy salutation to Johnny’s muse Muddy Waters (not too loosely-based, as it turns out, around Muddy’s own Catfish Blues).

Another highlight, Black Cat Bone is a hell-for-leather tour de force which showcases Johnny’s astounding electric slide technique, and It’s My Own Fault is an extended wig out version of the B.B. King classic only bettered by the incredible live version on 1971’s Johnny Winter And Live. You also get what are perhaps Johnny’s two best ever – and that’s saying something - National Steel acoustic slide performances on Bad Luck and Trouble and Broke Down Engine, as well as a funky take on Slim Harpo’s Got Love if you Want It, featuring a typically nimble yet endearingly sloppy Winter guitar solo. Oh, and Johnny sings the blues with that unique raspy Texan drawl and plays a mean harp and mandolin, too.

Long-revered among hard-core Winter devotees, The Progressive Blues Experiment has appeared in numerous incarnations over the years (I’ve owned FIVE different copies, on album, cassette, CD, even 8-track). The original features hilarious photos of Johnny with a pageboy hairdo, cape and medieval tunic which totally blow his cool guitar hero image. The first version of the album which I owned also carried some priceless sleeve notes which I’ve long since committed to memory:

“Winter is hot and heavy in his blues bag. Before the session there was Johnny and his guitar. During the session, Johnny became the guitar.”

Let's not forget the other classic albums Johnny recorded during his career. They include the aforementioned greatest EVER live rock-blues record Johnny Winter And Live (Stevie Ray WHO??) , as well as the 1977 classic, Nothin’ But the Blues (recorded with Muddy Waters' last, great, band) and 1978’s blistering White Hot and Blue.

But Progressive Blues has a special place in the hearts of Johnny's fans. Maybe it's because - artistic brilliance aside - it's a kind of mongrel, neither here nor there. It's live, but it isn't. It's an album, but it's really a demo. Johnny's cool, but by the same token he's an uglysonofagun.

Fellow Johnny Winter fans are hard to come by these days. They know they're not cool, and tend to keep a low profile, only coming out of the woodwork at one of Johnny’s increasingly rare live shows, where they can feel comfortable enough to let their hair down and whoop it up among their own kind.

My best buddy Ethel the Frog is the only other freak I know who loves Johnny like I do. When we first became aware of Johnny (during his legendary appearance on British TV's Old Grey Whistle Test show, now immortalized on BBC DVD), we each had a rock-blues epiphany, rushed out to buy Johnny's albums and solemnly inscribed his name on our school satchels, beside those of Status Quo and Rory Gallagher.

Johnny belongs to us, and The Progressive Blues Experiment is our private thing. We know we need to get a life, but we can still spend an entire evening passionately arguing about Johnny, while our twenty-five year standing disagreement on which is the album’s best track is still going strong. Is it Tribute to Muddy (Ethel's choice) or Black Cat Bone (mine)? Hard call.

It doesn’t matter who’s right. What’s important - aside from male bonding - is the primal experience of a record which feels like it was genetically programmed as part of your very being, where every vocal whoop (no one yells "Whooo!" like Johnny), every fumbled note, every cymbal crash is an absolute perfection, hard-wired into your brain, set to destroy.

For maniacs like us, reveling in our fandom, The Progressive Blues Experiment, every raw, electric, compelling second of it, is a guilty pleasure we’ll know we’ll never outgrow. It's only rock 'n' roll, but we sure do like it. All together now: "Whooooo!"

Progressive Blues web site (including those hilarious photos): http://www.yee.ch/winter/Disco/winter_disco_progressivebluesexperiment.html

Artist web site: http://www.johnnywinter.net/

Best fan site: http://www.yee.ch/winter/

3 comments:

Michael Mousehouse said...

Great review! Johnny is a genius and I've been fortunate to see him in live settings on several occasions. His health is failing these days and he usually plays sitting down, has to be led on stage due his failing eyesight. A great bluesman.

ETF said...

You're right! We could easily still argue about the best track on Progressive Blues - and probably will soon in Shangjhai. But on recenbt listening i have to say I still love Tribute to Muddy, it's still the number one track for me.

"Whooo!"

ETF

Shiffi Le Soy said...

The One and Only Ethel the Frog!

Well, we are honored, indeed!

You will never see the error of your ways will you? (Sigh, poor misguided boy.) Well, I'll work on you again when I get to Shanghai, maybe you'll finally see the light.

There's one thing we DO agree on, though but....

"WHHhhoooooooo!"