BO DIDDLEY: THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF ROCK'N'ROLL (1976)
1) Ride The Water (part 1); 2) Not Fade Away; 3) Kill My Body; 4) Drag On; 5) Ride The Water (part 2); 6) I'm A Man; 7) Hey! Bo Diddley; 8) Who Do You Love; 9) Bo Diddley's A Gunslinger; 10) I'm A Man.
A very strange record. Apparently, upon leaving Chess, Bo Diddley went into complete commercial retirement, as far as any toying with major labels was concerned. Yet, in 1976, he was still «invited» by a guy called Ron Terry to guest-star on a special RCA release — according to the title, supposed to celebrate «the 20th anniversary of rock'n'roll», but even if, out of general niceness, we decide to agree that rock'n'roll was indeed invented in 1956 and not one year earlier (or later), it is still not clear why (a) of all the early rock'n'rollers, the 20th anniversary of rock'n'roll should be primarily and exclusively associated with Bo Diddley; (b) why, instead of letting Bo Diddley himself mastermind the project, they made him sing a bunch of Ron Terry songs on Side A — and then let a bunch of other guys cover his material on Side B.
Never mind, we should probably blame it on the overall craziness of the mid-1970s — any time period that produces the likes of Lisztomania is bound to contain ten times as many «odd» projects as it contains «insane» ones. This is one of the curious oddities, and it is not even particularly bad: it is merely inadequate to its purpose, and it is the first album in Bo Diddley's discography which really, genuinely loses Bo Diddley as a bit player among the general ambience.
Speaking of ambience, you would be pressed real hard to find a better application for the «too many cooks» line than this album. The roster includes, among others, such names as Leslie West, Elvin Bishop, Joe Cocker, Roger McGuinn, Keith Moon, Albert Lee, and even Billy Joel (!). But instead of bringing them out, one by one, and making this into some sort of studio-based Last Waltz celebration, Ron Terry goes for broke and crams them all together — at least, that is how it is on the 16-minute jam that occupies all of Side B (supposedly, they are not all there at the same time on Side A).
The results are predictable: the jam is extravagantly overproduced, so much so that it is impossible to latch on to anything in particular. There seems to be a lot of enthusiasm and energy, but you can never really tell if it is really like that or if it is just because there are so many players and singers out there at the same time. And in the end, it's all just the same old Bo Diddley stuff — maybe Albert Lee's guitar makes it flow more smoothly and with many more flourishes than the original versions, but the question is whether these versions need this smooth flow. As far as I understand it, turning Bo Diddley songs into «academic-style blues-rock», even with superb players at the helm, kinda drop-kicks the initial purpose of these songs.
As for Ron Terry's songs on the first side, they are odd, too. He must have written them with Bo in mind, and particularly, with Bo's predilection for the sexy funky sounds of the decade. But these here are not so much straightahead funk grooves as creepily suggestive «swamp blues» with a funky undercurrent. ʽRide The Waterʼ, opening and closing Side A, would probably be better suited for the likes of a Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who could have, perhaps, given an appropriately spooky, joker-ish performance against these slow tempos, repetitive wah-wah chords, and minimalistic bass punches. Mr. Bo Diddley just ain't evil enough for the swamp — let alone for an attempt to take Buddy Holly's lightweight, amicable ʽNot Fade Awayʼ and infect it with the devilish swamp blues virus as well.
There is no reason to hunt for this curio, unless obsession has already gotten the better of you — but if you do come across it, a spin or two won't hurt. The «Bo Diddley jam» might actually work if you play it real loud without stopping, all the way through — who knows, at some point all the innumerable instruments and voices might eventually fall together, blow a hole in your soul and make you see the light. And the first side, well... this is the last time you get to hear a still relatively young Bo Diddley sing some original material — the next twenty years would be spent in occasional touring, serious relaxation, and some home studio recording sessions, but no official releases. So that might be reason enough to regard this disc as a little «farewell gift from the boys», and get acquainted with it as a little piece of history.