Man. After Stuart's Bob Dylan review I really need to step up my game. I can guarantee you that this will at least be a little bit longer than usual, if not necessarily better. It'll also be interesting because I'm tackling a genre of music I admittedly don't know much about and don't listen to often. Every time I do decide to give the blues a chance, though, it's always because this one song convinced me.
As you have seen, and will probably continue to see, this list of powerful music is largely created by tough, hardass people. Motorhead all came from rough neighborhoods and Ozzy himself was born and raised in Aston, Birmingham, which can generously be described as a humongous shit hole.
Albert King probably has all of these guys and all future musicians in terms of a tough upbringing beat, simply by nature of being a black man who grew up in Arkansas during the 1930's. He was one of 13 children and, being left handed, he learned to play the guitar upside down, with his thumb instead of a pick.
Congratulations, you're already not as cool as Albert King. He turned out to be one of the most prominent, influential blues guitarist of all time(though from what I understand, every blues guitarist was one of the most prominent and influential blues guitarist of all time). People say that it was his style of playing, his emotion or his minimalist approach to playing individual strings that made him special, and while all of that might have been a factor, this song is the only reason anybody remembers Albert King. Maybe it's not right that this is the case, but Christ if that isn't one fuck of a song to hang your reputation on.
Much like Cream's cover of "Crossroads" or, more hilariously, Quiet Riot's cover of "Cum On Feel the Noize"(sic), King took a song that was already well known (the song was originally by Tommy McClennan) and managed to smash it to bits and make sure that his was the only rendition of it that people would remember. Don't believe me? Look for an audio version of McClennan's version anywhere on the internet. Come back and keep reading when you give up. It turns out not to matter, though, because this song might as well have been written by King himself.
I’m not sure if there’s another song in rock history that makes the wrong side of the tracks seem so miserable and so completely awesome at the same time. Fuck punk or lo-fi: This is how you sound defiant. King makes his guitar talk, and not in the way that Peter Frampton or the no-name from Bon Jovi does. No, King’s axe swaggers, and if you have a problem with it, well, there are the horns and the bass, standing ready to kick your ass. Every instrument works together like a gang, surrounding the listener from all sides until they’re ready to relent. And then, of course, there’s Albert King himself.
King isn’t just singing a song here-he has lived through this, and he sounds as bitter as all hell about it. At 250 pounds and 6 feet, there’s no doubt that King could kick the shit out of you(maybe not everybody, but at the very least everybody who reads this blog), and it comes through in his music. He was 43 years old when this album came out, and even though it’s a cover, when he sings “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”, it’s not McClennan coming through. It’s King all the way, carrying almost half a decade of hard luck and bad times on his back.
A lot of the justification for the lyrics of hip hop is that it’s the “poetry of the streets”, that it tells stories that can’t come through in any other venue. I don’t disagree. But I think the problem with modern hip hop and rap, probably the problem for the last ten years, is that it’s generally been telling these stories without any sense of style or class. There’s sincerity to it, but by and large it’s all force without focus, and because of that I think that a lot of the points are lost. I think that this is worth bringing up because, by and large, blues and rap are/were used to convey the African American experience and both are cultural evolutions, or at the very least launching pads for further thought.
I say all this because Albert King, with this song, perfectly captured everything that had to be said at the time using the classic story of the bluesman, and not only did he do it with absolute sincerity and tact, he did it with all of the power of an avalanche. His guitar work seems to be the most celebrated thing about him, but I think it would be downright foolish to ignore, in this song and with his other work, his skill for vocalizing the real, crushing realities of a black man living at the time. He didn’t do it through particularly exquisite lyrics, and though the instruments helped accentuate the point, you can’t really use instruments to make a point(possibly you could use them to make a really abstract point, but that’s not what I’m talking about). He didn’t do it through “research”, and he didn’t do it through tremendous technical skill or really deep intellectual posturing. He mostly just did it through being Albert King.
Sometimes having lived through what you’re playing about is the only way to compellingly pull it off. And I think that King’s point of architecture is the simplest, and in many ways the most profound, so far. Sometimes, in order to make a really powerful piece of music, you have to let everything go and just be. “What the hell are you talking about”, you ask me?
I dunno. I think you would have had to have asked Albert King about that.