BO DIDDLEY: BO DIDDLEY (1958)
1) Bo Diddley; 2) I'm A Man; 3) Bring It To Jerome; 4) Before You Accuse Me; 5) Hey Bo Diddley; 6) Dearest Darling; 7) Hush Your Mouth; 8) Say Boss Man; 9) Diddley Daddy; 10) Diddy Wah Diddy; 11) Who Do You Love; 12) Pretty Thing.
I must say that I have never been a huge fan of the «Bo Diddley beat». When it comes to rocking the very foundations of my existence, Chuck Berry's riffs, Jerry Lee Lewis' piano assassinations, and Scottie Moore's rockabilly backing of Elvis' legend have always taken precedence over this somewhat rigid formula — essentially just an electrified rendering of a traditional Juba dance. At first, of course, it was a magnificent invention: ʽBo Diddleyʼ (the song), recorded in 1955, sounded like nothing else at the time. The numerous variations that followed, though, rarely, if ever, improved upon the original impression — so that even most of the British fans of Bo Diddley were usually quite content with covering just one of them (the Stones only did ʽMonaʼ; the Animals only did ʽPretty Thingʼ, and then wrote ʽThe Story Of Bo Diddleyʼ as a joke response).
What is much harder to realize — not until you decide to seriously immerse yourself in the man's creativity — is that there is much, much more to Bo Diddley than the proverbial, and occasionally tiresome «Diddley beat». For instance, this here «debut album», which is not really a proper album but rather just a collection of several of his A- and B-sides from 1955 to 1958, only has three out of twelve tunes following the D.b.: ʽBo Diddleyʼ, ʽHush Your Mouthʼ, and ʽPretty Thingʼ. Of the others, some could have had the D.b. (ʽHey Bo Diddleyʼ, for instance, predictably sung to the same vocal melody as ʽBo Diddleyʼ), but don't. Others are altogether quite removed from the formula, and follow different paths of inspiration — many of them, in my own view, far more inspirational than the D.b.
Like Chuck Berry, Bo was somewhat of an anomaly for Chicago's Chess Records, specializing in less explicitly dance-oriented electric bluesmen, from Muddy to Wolf to Little Walter to Buddy Guy. But they hooked onto him pretty hard all the same: rock'n'roll was becoming a household name, and these astute Chicago businessmen needed their own rock stars to stand the competition. Not that Bo couldn't or wouldn't do straightahead blues. There is at least one example on this record — ʽBefore You Accuse Meʼ, although even here Bo could not resist speeding up the tempo so that the final result looks like a cross between old-fashioned blues and new-fashioned boogie. (The 1970 cover version by Creedence is appropriately more sharp and polished, but the song still firmly belongs in 1957).
But Bo's biggest blues-based hit was anything but straightahead — ʽI'm A Manʼ takes Muddy's ʽHoochie Coochie Manʼ and basically just deconstructs it; it's as if Bo heard the song and said, "that first bar, man, that's the shit, do we really need anything else here?" As dumb as the decision sounds, in its own context it's a fine example of brutal genius, right out there vying for first place with ʽLouie Louieʼ and the like. The Who were the perfect band to cover this symbol of mythic-status virility; the Yardbirds, slight less so; too bad it was too slow for Mötörhead. Muddy actually retorted with his own ʽMannish Boyʼ, which was essentially the same song with slightly different lyrics — and maybe Muddy made a finer job with that one, because his singing captured the spirit better than Bo's, but Bo was there first — «The Originator» strikes again.
What else is there? Well, the idea of stringing the entire song on one chord, for instance, which, since we already mentioned Mötörhead, is the genuine precursor to the «jackhammer» method of headbanging. ʽHey Bo Diddleyʼ is done that way, but the more fabulous instance is ʽWho Do You Loveʼ, with its aggressive lead lines scattered along the road — and those beautiful lyrics: "I walk 47 miles of barbed wire, I use a cobra snake for a necktie... I got a brand new chimney made on top, made out of human skull..." Not a lot of black lyricists used that sort of voodooistic imagery as lightly as old Bo. But the gamble paid off — even The Doors covered the song during their live shows. (How does one get Jim Morrison inside a telephone booth? Write "cobra snake" and "human skull" on the walls).
And that still ain't all. There's ʽDiddley Daddyʼ, opening with one of the simplest, yet most elegant guitar figures of the decade — one which Billy Boy Arnold, present at the session, nixed from Bo and quickly inserted in his own ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ, and that is how all of us British Invasion fans know it (from the Yardbirds cover; ʽDiddley Daddyʼ itself evaded hit status in the UK, although the Stones and others did play it live). There's ʽDiddy Wah Diddyʼ, which takes a «dance-blues» pattern of Muddy's, adds a playful, poppy melody resolution, and makes for a great single that's bluesy, funny, catchy, and weird at the same time — an ideal fit for a young, teeth-cutting Captain Beefheart in 1966. And there is ʽSay Boss Manʼ, a lesser known tune that shows Bo perfectly at home with ʽJim Dandyʼ-style danceable R'n'B.
In short, Bo Diddley, like Jimmy Reed, was a sacrilegious blues renegade, which is why we love them both — except that Jimmy Reed was perfectly happy to find one basic formula and stick to it like glue until his last teeth fell out, whereas Bo, as this album shows, was a restless seeker: and in three years' time, he had found more than many bluesmen of the highest caliber had found in several decades. The Diddley beat was just one of these finds, and, as the first one and the one that made him a star, it was bound to become a repetitive trademark; but there is very little that is repetitive, monotonous, or just plain boring about Bo Diddley, an album where I myself knew most of the songs before hearing it. Thumbs up, totally.