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Monday, May 19, 2014

Carl Perkins: On Top


1) Superfool; 2) I'm Gonna Set My Foot Down; 3) A Lion In The Jungle; 4) Baby, What You Want Me To Do; 5) Soul Beat; 6) Riverboat Annie; 7) Champaign, Illinois; 8) Power Of My Soul; 9) Brown Eyed Handsome Man; 10) C. C. Rider.

This is fun! In the wake of Elvis' «comeback» triumph in the late 1960s, record companies sud­denly decided that there may be some sort of market for the formerly out-of-fashion rockabilly veterans, after all, and few living rockabilly veterans were more out of fashion than Carl Perkins, so Carl Perkins was among the first ones to be given a chance to re-prove himself with a brand new LP. Titling it On Top was, perhaps, a bit of a stretch, but who knows? It might have helped it sell a few dozen more copies. Some people, as they walk into record stores, do feel themselves instinctively attracted to whatever seems to be «On Top», even if it really doesn't.

Top or bottom, though, the album is quite surprisingly good — and quite unpredictable, if you judge Carl's chances by the uneven and stylistically obsolete material he had been putting out for Columbia throughout the 1960s. The sound has been upgraded to match the times: you have elec­tric organs, fuzz effects, even wah-wah pedals, and, of course, the entire arsenal of late Sixties musical production to help Carl get along. But, much more importantly, On Top introduces sty­listic diversity and various modest elements of experimentation. In fact, apart from Carl's singing and some of his trademark guitar licks, the album is almost unrecognizable as coming from a «Perkins line of production» — and not at all in a bad way!

Original compositions here are few and far in between, but it does not matter: the idea here is not to prove that Carl Perkins can still dazzle the world with his songwriting, it is to prove that he can survive in the world of 1969, entertaining people by combining the usual fun Carl Perkins spirit with new forms of music-making. So he covers something like Chuck Berry's ʽBrown Eyed Handsome Manʼ, backed by a moody electric organ and playing a bunch of wah-wah solos, and it comes out all right — giving the song a gruffer, grumblier aura than the oh-so-happy original, but then, when you think of it, the lyrics of the song have always allowed for an «uncomfortable» interpretation of the message.

The true highlights of the album, however, are of a more recent origin. There is ʽChampaign, Il­linoisʼ, another wah-wah-driven blues-rocker, co-written by Carl with Bob Dylan during the lat­ter's Nashville phase; the hookline ("I certainly do enjoy / Champaign, Illinois") walks the line between silly, threatening, and phonetically irresistable, and may easily linger on in your head for weeks. There is Ronnie Self's obscure swamp-rocker ʽLion In The Jungleʼ, here adorned with an extra piano riff borrowed directly from the Beatles' ʽHey Bulldogʼ for extra «ferociousness», and sung by Carl in a delightfully insinuating tone. And then there is what could only be construed as Carl's own answer to Creedence's ʽProud Maryʼ — ʽRiverboat Annieʼ, which even uses some of the same chords, and packs every bit as much fun as the Fogerty song, though not as much of its stateliness and anthemic nature. ʽSuperfoolʼ, written by a friend of Carl's, is also a great rocker, once you get past its first-few-bars gimmick of incorporating the ʽEntry Of The Gladiatorsʼ theme into the organ accompaniment. And ʽPower Of My Soulʼ, an exercise in «minimalistic Memphis soul», as we might call it, is quite a touching number — much better, I'd say, than most of Carl's formulaic attempts at country balladeering throughout the decade.

All in all, these sharply restricted 25 minutes (and the people at Columbia are being generous!) are well worth your attention if you are at all interested in learning how all them 1950s rockers used to fare in the «past their prime» years, and why is it that we almost never know anything about those periods. Much of it has to do with non-musical reasons, such as lack of proper pro­motion and predictable prejudice — in all honesty, On Top, while nowhere near «cutting edge» for 1969, is still every bit as good as a whole swarm of second- and third-rate records by rock artists put out that year that we still remember. I mean, just off the top of my head, I'd take On Top any day over something like Steppenwolf's At Your Birthday Party or Mott The Hoople's self-titled debut. But who'd give it to me without my having to dig it out? Nobody. Which is why this particular thumbs up does really matter. Now you go and dig it out.

Check "On Top" (CD) on Amazon


  1. I am not sure how few people still remember Mott the Hoople's debut. I only know their most famous song and am not impressed. That might have been the general attitude since 1975, the year that I got interested in pop/rock.
    The same for Steppenwolf; their output has been forgotten too bar that one (excellent) song.

  2. Well we're not all philistines like youse MNb. Some of us have even read George's reviews before... a chosen few have even listened to the music.

  3. Great review, George. It fueled me with curiosity for the album.

  4. Interesting, I'll have to check it out. The same curse was shared by Link Wray: his early 70's record were all kinda great, with no trace of "Rumble" - and they all sunked miserably.

  5. Yeah, like that psychedelic record Chubby Checker put out around this time which he disowned - wrongfully, really, because the lead-off track at the least is pretty good.