CARL PERKINS: DANCE ALBUM OF CARL PERKINS (1958)
1) Blue Suede Shoes; 2) Movie Magg; 3) Sure To Fall; 4) Gone, Gone, Gone; 5) Honey Don't; 6) Only You; 7) Tennessee; 8) Right String, Wrong Yo-Yo; 9) Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby; 10) Matchbox; 11) Your True Love; 12) Boppin' The Blues; 13*) All Mama's Children.
Carl Perkins' only «original» LP from his four-year tenure with Sun Records, like most LPs from that period, is really just a chaotic compilation of A-side, B-side, and outtake material. But even in this form, or, actually, because of this form, it still counts as one of the most impressive and fun-filled LPs from the rockabilly era. Influential, too — which other single LP from the era could boast a whole three songs to be officially covered by the Beatles?
The important thing about Carl Perkins is that, of all the notorious rockabilly people of the era, he was the one to most tightly preserve the «simple country boy» essence in his music. Bill Haley probably came close, but Haley didn't have much of an individual personality, and his backing band, The Comets, was at least as important as its frontman, blending a touch of country-western with a Louis Jordan-esque big-band jump-blues entertainment approach. Perkins, on the other hand, wrote his own songs (or radically reinvented traditional ones), sang his own melodies, played his own lead guitar, and, overall, made it so that we rarely ever remember anything about his sidemen during the recording sessions. Quick, name the bass player and the drummer on ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ without googling! Yeah, right. Not even Google can help that easily.
Thus, Carl is essentially a «loner», and in that status, gets the right to his own influences and no other's — and chief among those influences is The Grand Ole Opry, with Bill Monroe, Gene Autry, and Hank Williams as his major idols. The good news for those who, like me, feel a bit iffy when it comes to «pure» country music, is that Carl obviously preferred his country with a sharper edge, and if anything, his rockabilly style is a direct continuation of Hank's faster-paced, boogie-based material like ʽMove It On Overʼ. Although Carl's own spirit was never as tempestuous or torturous as Hank's (not a single Perkins song shows any signs of acute bitterness), he always had a thing for raw excitement, energy, speed, humor, good-natured irony — anything that would put a smile on your face and an itch in your feet.
Most importantly, Carl's «lonerism» is responsible for making ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ into one of the coolest songs of its era — and the lyrics had a lot to do with it: "Don't you step on MY blue suede shoes...", sung in a friendly enough tone but with a very clear hint of a threat. This is really where all the Gene Vincents of this world come from: the «rebels» were inspired by the individualistic cockiness of a plain, harmless, friendly «country bumpkin» who inadvertently tapped right into the spinal cord of his era. ʽRock Around The Clockʼ was a good enough count-off for the rock revolution, but it was a general fun party song. ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ takes us into one particular corner of that party, where one particularly self-consciously hip guy is busy protecting his own particular interests against the whole world, and backing them with sharp bluesy lead guitar licks that sound like a bunch of slaps in the face of whoever has been unlucky enough to step on the protagonist's lucky footwear.
There is a myth going around that Elvis «stole» the song from Carl while the latter was recuperating in the hospital after a car accident, and that this effectively put an end to Carl's career as a pop star. In reality, Carl never had the makings of a star, and the image of a «teen idol» would have probably never sat too well with him in the first place — he was, first and foremost, a songwriter and a guitar player — none of which, however, prevented ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ from going all the way to the top of the charts, while Presley's version (a classic in its own right, no doubt about that) stuck at No. 20 (admittedly, RCA people agreed to hold back the release until Carl's version lost its original freshness — see, there was a time when record industry people could occasionally show signs of gentlemanly conduct).
Already ʽBoppin' The Bluesʼ, the folow-up to ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ, did not chart as high (No. 7 was its peak) — and it wasn't Elvis that had anything to do with it, but rather the fact that the song was comparatively toothless in comparison, a fairly formulaic rockabilly creation describing the simple joys of rock'n'roll dancing with little challenge or defiance. In the hot, tense competitive air of early 1956, Carl soon lost the lead, and although the next three years would see him reeling between inspiration and repetition, the record-buying public pretty much wrote him off as a one-hit wonder and focused on Elvis instead. In addition, Carl loyally stuck with Sun Records through those years, meaning that he couldn't even begin to hope for the kind of promotion that Elvis got (on the positive side, Carl never got to have his own Colonel Parker).
It is a doggone shame, though, that such fate also prevented a great tune like ʽMatchboxʼ from charting — without the Beatles' support, it might have altogether sunk into oblivion, but really, few pop songs sounded as harshly serious and deep-reaching in 1957 as that particular reincarnation of an old, old, old blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. When those echoing, distant-thunder-like boogie chords start rattling around the room, it's as if you were being prepared for some important social statement, and, in a way, you are, since Carl preserves many of the original lyrics, infusing the song with a blues-based sense of outcast loneliness instead of the usual get-up-and-dance stuff. In a way, «socially conscious rock'n'roll music» starts somewhere around this bend, even if Carl himself probably never intended it to be this way.
On a personal note, I must say that ʽHoney Don'tʼ feels to me as one of the very few rock and pop songs by other artists that the Beatles did not manage to improve upon — and not because Ringo is a worse singer than Carl (he actually did a fine job to preserve the tune's humor), but because George Harrison never really got around to learning all the tricks in Carl's playing bag: as rough as the production is on the original, Perkins compensates for it with a series of improvised «muffled» licks that George did not even try to copy, playing in a «cleaner» style that left less room for rock'n'roll excitement. (On the other hand, George did get the upper hand on ʽEverybody's Trying To Be My Babyʼ by managing to raise the tension on the lengthy second instrumental break, whereas in Carl's version it pretty much stays the same throughout).
Of the twelve songs assembled here, only a couple are relative clunkers; ʽTennesseeʼ, in particular, sounds as silly as it is sincere, a heartfelt tribute to Carl's native state with a hillbillyish chorus and somewhat uncomfortable lyrics that, among other things, urge us to give credit to the fact that "they made the first atomic tomb in Tennessee" (a somewhat inaccurate reference to Oak Ridge, but even if it were accurate, I'm not sure I would want to boast about it even at the height of the Cold War). Pompous, vocally demanding ballads are also not one of Carl's fortes (ʽOnly Youʼ), but he can come up with a highly catchy homely, simple country ballad when he puts his heart into it — ʽSure To Fallʼ, with its melody almost completely based on serenading trills, is quite a beautiful little piece.
One of the most interesting things about comparing old rockabilly records from the mid-to-late 1950s is the relative proportion of their ingredients. Some veer closer to R&B, some to electric blues, some to «whitebread» pop, some are jazzier, some vaudevillian. From that point of view, Dance Album Of Carl Perkins is a curious mix of something very highly conservative with an explosive energy that is nevertheless kept under strict control, like a fire burning steady and brightly, but only within a rigidly set limit. Had all rock'n'roll looked like Carl Perkins in the 1950s, it would probably have taken us a much, much longer way to get where we are right now — but, on the other hand, maybe we wouldn't already be wondering where exactly is it possible to go from here. Ah well, enough speculation; here is the expectable thumbs up, and we will be moving on.