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Monday, February 01, 2016

Odds & Sods #33

Cliff (1959)
***1/2

It's funny how the first LP from the first successful British rock 'n' roll star is a live one. What's even weirder is, despite being a live recording in the late '50s, the sound is pretty damn good. It helps that it's not a real live recording, in the sense that it wasn't recorded at a stadium or concert hall; it's closer to the live-in-the-studio sound of BBC sessions for mid-'60s British rockers, since it was, conveniently enough, recorded "live" in front of a small audience at Abbey Road studios. Well apparently the acoustics of that studio were always great, because ten years before the Beatles' album named after it, it produces a sound that's the cleanest you can get from a 1950s recording.

But good recording quality or not, it's just a fun album, where Cliff is ideally backed by the Shadows (then still known as the Drifters) as they run through 16 early rock 'n' roll hits (with a couple more having been recorded but not used for the album). The presence of the audience is only grating when it appears during songs – I suppose someone was there to control the screaming, though, since it's generally limited to being heard in between songs, and it doesn't have the "looped" feeling of fake live albums either – but otherwise the purpose of the live feel is to add to the energy of it, and it certainly helps a lot. I've read reviews criticizing Cliff's vocals, saying they caught him with a bad cold or something, but it adds some extra grittiness that, coupled with the solid playing of the Shadows/Drifters, makes for something as exciting as many of these songs' original editions, even if barely as revolutionary.

What's interesting is, with the scope of material selected, you get a pretty good idea of the British public's general impression of American rock 'n' roll. The focus seems to be on the white performers, which isn't necessarily an issue of closed-mindedness but rather one of persona: Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, all ladies' men in their own way, are clearly Cliff's biggest role models, sonically and visually – the album cover takes care of that one – and even in choice of material. One written by Vincent, one made famous from Lewis and a whoppin' three that Elvis had covered/were written for him in his mid-to-late '50s prime. Of course, he's no stranger to the more soft-spoken side of early rock 'n' roll: one of each of a Buddy Holly, a Roy Orbison, and a Ritchie Valens original, plus a song covered by Holly and two covered by the Everly Brothers. So, just by listing the more famous performers whose material Cliff tackles, you get a general idea of who he's going to emulate in some way, consciously or not, from song to song.

And therein lies one of the major charms of the album. It's sort of like a greatest hits of rock 'n' roll, without always opting for the obvious choices. Only four of them come off as fairly obvious choices, and unsurprisingly, these are not among my favorites. "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" is a fine closer, but as much as he tries, Cliff's roar is only cute compared to Jerry Lee's sexual deviant howl; "Ready Teddy" doesn't compare to Elvis' version, so it couldn't dare compare to Little Richard's; "Be-Bop-a-Lula" is fine enough, but it doesn't go for the slow, sly syncopation of Vincent's original, but the speedier, yet rhythmically more straightforward Everlys' cover; overall the most interesting of these is "That'll Be the Day", not because of Cliff's vocals, whose Holly-esque hiccups are decent, but nowhere near as goofily charming, but thanks to Hank Marvin's more pronounced guitar tone, all scraggly without any of Holly's country/rockabilly calculated approach. But then again, off the top of my head there are few Buddy Holly covers that truly surpass the originals, aside from in production, but that's a story for another time.

The songs that weren't done by any of the major American performers (not to my knowledge) are a bit better, since it allows Cliff to add a bit more of his own personality, in which case "Don't Bug Me Baby" ought to be considered a minor highlight, where you don't have to compare his gruff vocal to anyone in particular, so you just get to enjoy his bizarre emphasis on the word "bug" that often comes out as "bog". The only significance of the ballad "Danny (King Creole)" – nothing to do with the King Creole film or song that Elvis performed (in) – is that it has a nice calming effect in between the track preceding it and the finale, and as for "I Got a Feeling", it's not particularly memorable, but it's a fine enough boogie that maintains an adequate amount of the momentum of the preceding three tracks. That's what brings us to the real highlights, which belong to two categories: covers of lesser-known tunes from Cliff's biggest idols and the few songs that can be associated exclusively to either him or his backing band.

Of the latter, "original" group, I tend to prefer the two Drifters' instrumentals. They're really not different to the group's releases as the Shadows, and they're terrific, energetic mood pieces that break up the general "uniformity" of 45 minutes of early R&R. I like "Jet Black" the best, since the mood implied by the title, something a bit dark, is captured nicely by grumbly, clicking bass, fluid, Spanish-sounding leads and tricky drum patterns, although the vocal interjections of the title at the end of each repetition (in falsetto, tenor and bass, though not necessarily in that order) are goofier, but in a good, Coasters-esque way. "Driftin'", with its spaghetti Western theme vibe, is pretty good, too, of course, what with the atmospheric pedal steel backing, the steam train-like rhythm and the goofy, pseudo-ominous harmonies wailing out the title. Not that this album's rendition of Cliff's hit single "Move It" is poor, whether by comparison or on its own. In fact, despite the original studio version's reputation as being the first "great" British rock single, this live version beats it, with a revved-up rhythm making it far more energetic, Bruce Welch's insistently anchored chord making it far more hypnotic and Hank Marvin's delightful Chuck Berry-ish licks making it far more memorable.

As for Cliff's idols' lesser tracks as covered here, the weakest is probably the rendition of Elvis' "Too Much" (the original a-side to "Hound Dog"). It's still a good, lightweight shuffle that, like the original, pales in comparison to the surrounding, more rocking material. I could understand how someone might not find the rendition of the Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly-covered "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care", but I find that Cliff finds a good enough middle ground between the somewhat condescending sneer of Elvis' put-down and Buddy's somewhat ironic denunciation of her "squareness" when he himself could be considered square. One thing's for sure, though, is I don't think I'll be able to understand criticisms of his cover of Ritchie Valens' hit ballad "Donna" (well, I guess its being a hit disqualifies it as a lesser-known track, but how many people remember Valens' hits anyways?) Not only is it a touching tribute to the burgeoning star who, only a week earlier, died in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly (which might also explains the two covers of tunes he had done), it's simply a splendidly performed doo-wop song. The harmonies singing the "oh, Donna" refrain are stellar, Cliff's croon-ish lead vocals are far more traditionally accessible than Ritchie's thinner, frailer voice, and while Hank's guitar melodies aren't as nearly prominent as Valens' on the original, the tone he uses is a clear Abbey Road product. Doesn't it sound like the sound George Harrison would use for the Beatles' cover of Buddy Holly's "Words of Love"?

Nothing quite beats the first three rocking punch that the record/performance (I don't actually know if they were recorded in this order) starts off with, though. "Apron Strings", the b-side to the then unreleased "Living Doll" single, is the lesser of the three, but it's still a memorable boogie where Cliff alternates between energetic howling that crosses his three main vocal idols (Vincent, Presley and Lewis) and silly, fun, stuttered bass vocal parts reminiscent of two of them (just Vincent and Presley). The cover of Willie Dixon's "My Babe", done in a style bizarrely reminiscent of the Everly Brothers' version – bizarrely because it wouldn't be recorded and released for another five or six years – is even better, with both Welch's chord quasi-jackhammering and Marvin's lead riff forming a drone-ish sound, Meehan's drumming stuttering and Cliff's vocals gradually increasing in intensity. Yet the best track on the entire LP for me is this rendition of Roy Orbison rocker "Down the Line". Normally I prefer the man's ballads, but this one wins over because Cliff's vocal performance is the most rocking one in the entire set, especially the tense way he delivers the lines "We're gonna mo-ove o-on down the line/We gotta get that chick that's truly fine/Zip-a-me cool and zip-a-me long/Slippery cool and twice as long".

This is easily one of the better early rock 'n' roll live albums. Perhaps it doesn't quite reach the peaks of Jerry Lee Lewis' infamous Live at the Star Club, Hamburg album – though not that many albums do, granted – and it isn't great through and through, but at the very least, it's consistently entertaining in that early rock 'n' roll way, not to mention with better sound quality in spite of the girls' screaming and the fact that it's performed live. Plus, these versions of Cliff's first big hit and two of his backing band's instrumental singles definitely beat the originals in terms of energy, and there are a bunch of other highlights to be found on here, so it's an easy ***1/2 LP for me. If you're going to get something from the most official ancestor to anyone from the Beatles to the Hollies on the rockier side of things – by which I mean an early British rocker rather than the familiar American Elvis Presleys and Chuck Berrys of the world – this is a reasonable acquisition, and an obvious missing link between American rock 'n' roll and the official British Invasion (which Cliff missed for some obvious chronological reasons).

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