BILL HALEY: ROCK AROUND THE COUNTRY (1971)
1) Dance Around The Clock; 2) Games People Play; 3) A Little Piece At A Time; 4) I Wouldn't Have Missed It For The World; 5) Bony Moronie; 6) There's A New Moon Over My Shoulder; 7) Me And Bobby McGee; 8) How Many; 9) Who'll Stop The Rain; 10) Pink Eyed Pussycat; 11) Travelin' Band; 12) No Letter Today.
In late 1970, Bill and the band turned up in Nashville, where they went in the studio for a couple of days to cut the very last record that you can actually find talked about in even the most detailed account of Bill's career. Even so, Rock Around The Country, the last Haley album to have ever mattered in some way, has never been released on CD, aside from a few separate cuts that ended up on obscure collections; I am reviewing a shabby vinyl rip here, reveling around in the crackling and hissing like a vintage master.
Should it be released on CD? Well, it's not like Bill Haley, in 1970, could spearhead a revolution in country-rock. But it does indicate an intelligent change of sound that the band was able to undergo. With a solid mix of oldies (some of them well-seasoned chestnuts, like 'How Many' and 'There's A New Moon', some never tried before, like 'Bony Moronie') and contemporary material, and a thicker, denser sound that makes good use of most of Nashville's arsenal, Rock Around The Country shows that, had Haley been able to overcome his personal problems, the Comets might have become a more respectable institution, say, touring in support of Willie Nelson or something like that.
Not that I really like Haley's interpretation of 'Who'll Stop The Rain', which, just as it used to be fifteen years before, suffers from the usual problem: significant reduction of heat level compared to the original. Where Fogerty sang the song with an «optimistic-apocalyptic» fire in his throat, Bill sings it as if he were taking a pleasant stroll in the park. But then again, who knows, perhaps there's a time and a place for this mild take on the source material as well. (The other CCR number, 'Travelin' Band', is much weirder — taken at the fast tempo of the original, it is sung by Nick Masters in a hoarse, trebly voice that sounds not unlike Lemmy from Mötörhead. For a few seconds out there, I was afraid it was Mötörhead!).
On the other hand, Kristofferson's 'Me & Bobby McGee' is given a delicious treat, with Bill capturing the heart and soul of the tune to a tee. (Not that there's much to capture, but it's a good song all the same). And even if he takes the straightforward pain out of his rendition of Joe South's 'Games People Play', replacing it with frolicky catchiness, at least the thoughtful lyrics are left alone — and, when you take it all together, it turns out that the Comets were actually quite picky about the kind of contemporary material to take over. (Okay, so was Dolly Parton, who also covered 'Games People Play' the previous year — but it's not like anybody ever cared about what exactly Dolly Parton was singing, right?).
Considering that 'Bony Moronie' is still the same friendly pub-rocker Larry Williams wanted it to be, and that 'Pink Eyed Pussycat' features the gimmick of band members howling and whining like actual cats, and that there is only one generic country ballad on the entire album — I certainly vote for having it on CD, sooner or later. At the very least, it is unquestionably better than any studio album that Elvis released in the 1970s — very rooty-tooty and down-to-earth, with none of the overblown, out-distant Vegasy schmaltz from the King.
Unfortunately, it was also more or less the end of the road for Bill. Everything else that he'd cut until his untimely death from a brain tumor in 1981 was mostly rehashings and re-recordings, so much so that I cannot even find solid evidence for at least one more album that could, like Rock Around The Country, be thought of as a real LP. So this is probably the most fitting place for us to say goodbye, and go rip it up in other places. Thumbs up.