BO DIDDLEY/CHUCK BERRY: TWO GREAT GUITARS (1964)
1) Liverpool Drive; 2) Chuck's Beat; 3) When The Saints Go Marching In; 4) Bo's Beat; 5*) Fireball; 6*) Stay Sharp; 7*) Chuckwalk; 8*) Stinkey.
More of an historical curiosity here than an actual good album — but a terrific historical curiosity all the same. This was the first of several «star power» projects that Chess Records briefly toyed with in the Sixties, before realizing their commercial uselessness: getting Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry to play on the same record. Recorded in March 1964 at Tel Mar Studios, released later that year, the album is never remembered as a particular highlight for any of those guys; however, in some ways it is a rather unique artefact of the era. Even if you find it horrible, you won't ever forget how you found it horrible, that is for sure.
The original LP consisted of just four tracks: two short instrumentals, each provided by one of the two guitar heroes in their own trademark styles, and two long ones, symmetrically titled ʽChuck's Beatʼ and ʽBo's Beatʼ (since the latter is four minutes longer than the former, I used that as a feeble, but valid pretext to review the album under the Bo Diddley section). The long ones are fairly accurate with their titles — although both guitarists are quite active on both of them, trading solos between each other in a friendly competition, ʽChuck's Beatʼ has Bo «guesting» on a Chuck-led recording, set to the beat of ʽMemphis Tennesseeʼ, and ʽBo's Beatʼ sees Chuck returning the favor and trying to adapt his style to a typical Diddley beat number.
Both of the long jams sort of settle the long-standing debate of who was there first with a pop number running over ten minutes — Love, with their ʽRevelationʼ, or the Rolling Stones, with their ʽGoin' Homeʼ. Two years prior to that, here we have two already-veteran rockers, licking each other first for ten, then for fourteen minutes in a row — and their record company being perfectly happy to release the results commercially, in an age of two-minute pop songs.
The very fact is fascinating, even if the jams themselves are nothing to write home about: twenty-four minutes of Bo and Chuck emptying their bags of tricks, most of which we have already known for about five years. There might not have been even a single newly invented chord sequence over all this endless jamming and soloing. The whole experience makes it very easy to understand why, in their everyday life, these guys preferred to stick to short outbursts rather than lengthy jam pieces. Nevertheless, the experience is perversely fascinating — seeing them stretch out so bravely in those early, pre-jam band times. And it's kinda funny to try and imagine the stuff played out in their heads, too. Like when, at 7:24 into ʽChuck's Beatʼ, Berry breaks into his «goose-quacking» solo mode, and then... «oh shit, ain't that the third time already?.. better drop this, quickly, before they take notice...» Then, twenty-five seconds later: «Aw heck, I can't play anything else anyway, so why bother looking? A solo is a solo». And he restarts the goose-quack mode again, fourth time over.
In «compact» mode, the instrumentals make more sense: ʽLiverpool Driveʼ, with its three minutes, is just the right size for Chuck to deliver a short and sweet set of riffs and solos, and Bo's take on ʽWhen The Saints Go Marching Inʼ is a fine sample of «diddlifying» the classic New Orleanian atmosphere — putting the tribal beat back where it was originated. On the other hand, they lack the novelty factor of the jams: neither of the two is likely to ever take the place of ʽLittle Queenieʼ or ʽDiddley Daddyʼ in anyone's hearts, whereas the jams — these jams you will definitely be remembering years from now on, at least on a purely factual basis.
The CD release of the album threw on a few bonus tracks, probably released during the same session, and, judged on their own, they might actually be the best there is: ʽFireballʼ, as behooves any song called ʽFireballʼ (see Deep Purple), is fast and tense, based on a speedy boogie pickin' pattern, probably copped from the likes of Big Bill Broonzy; and ʽStinkeyʼ experiments with phasing a bit, creating a lively noisy environment against which sharper, more focused licks are played — the result is a great swampy feel, with well-bred, goal-oriented bullfrogs croaking out of the generally mucky, oozy depths.
Overall, a strange project indeed, but one that adds a somewhat interesting page in both histories of the «two great guitars». Supposedly, any prominent people in the jazz world, listening to this stuff back for some random reason back in 1964, would have scoffed at the poorness of the techniques and sparseness of ideas. They would be absolutely right, too. But everybody has to have a start somewhere — so, in a way, these simplistic sessions were paving the road to all the great achievements of rock-oriented jam bands, some of which were only a couple of years away from these humble beginnings. So, sort of a thumbs up for historical importance and general weirdness, but otherwise, only recommended for hardcore rockabilly collectors.