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Monday, June 9, 2014

Carl Perkins: Born To Rock


1) Born To Rock; 2) Charlene; 3) The Rain Might Wash Your Love Away; 4) Hambone; 5) A Lifetime Last Night; 6) Cotton Top; 7) Baby, Please Answer Your Phone; 8) Till I Couldn't Stand No More; 9) Don't Let Go; 10) Love Makes Dreams Come True.

As the Eighties rolled about and rock music started to develop a historiographic tradition for the young 'uns, Carl Perkins was dutily enshrined, wrapped in plastic, and revered for his 1950s backlog, while at the same time politely prevented from putting out new material, lest the legend be soiled and tarnished by subpar additions. Admittedly, the man himself had little interest in catching up with the rest of the world, not to mention having to battle with personal problems, such as alcoholism, so it's not as if he had all that much to offer. In fact, most of his public pre­sence at the time was linked to his far more famous disciples — he worked on a Tug Of War song with Paul McCartney (ʽGet Itʼ was quite a fun little number), and then took part in a 1985 rock show with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Dave Edmunds (A Rockabilly Session, now available on DVD and quite a fun little concert).

Whatever albums he did release, though, were few and far in between; never charted; quickly went out of print; and more than often never went back in print again. Apparently, after the rather ridiculous 1978 «comeback» album he no longer stooped to recording collections of «golden oldies», aside from such oddities as 1996's Go Cat Go, which was really more of an all-star tri­bute to Carl than a proper Carl record; but it is not easy to ascertain what exactly he did record, given that most of his discographies are fairly messy, and some even contradictory.

Out of this mess, as one last cohesive nugget, I will fish out Born To Rock, a 1989 album that Universal Records actually released on CD, so you can find a digital equivalent somewhere out there if you put in a little effort. At that time, in the late Eighties, Carl did a little collaboration with The Judds (Naomi and Wynona, that weird country duo of mother and daughter where you couldn't really tell who was the mother and who the daughter), so, in retaliation for his services, he got their producer and bandleader to produce a new record all for himself. If you know what The Judds sound like — and you'd better not — you'll probably smell disaster in the air, but, for­tunately, Carl never let those other guys get the best of him, and thus, Born To Rock sounds no­thing like a typical Eighties' album.

If it doesn't quite sound like a typical Carl Perkins album, either, it is mainly because Carl does not play a lot of guitar on it, or, at least, a lot of lead guitar. I am not sure if this is due to health problems that he was going through at the time, or if it was a conscious decision on his part, but take heed, my friend: Born To Rock is a Carl Perkins album with very little Carl Perkins lead guitar on it (most of it found on the title track). He sings, he covers, he composes (a bit), but the days of jubilant six-string noises are mostly over.

But nevertheless, Born To Rock is a fun ride if you can get it. Carl Perkins can be boring when he simply re-records his old hits, or when he limits himself to generic country, yet whenever he puts his mind to the task of coming up with something a tad less predictable, his charm, humor, and subtlety always make it work. And work it does, particularly on the new songs co-written by Carl with his sons, Stan and Greg Perkins. The title track is in the man's classic rockabilly style, with anthemic, humorously self-aggrandizing lyrics to boot; ʽCharleneʼ is a re-write of some Chuck Berry number, accommodated to Carl's needs and riding on a simple, but effective pattern from piano player Bobby Ogden; and the two country ballads, although hampered somewhat by unnecessary backing vocals, still sound unusually heartfelt and «humanly» tender — perhaps be­cause they were freshly written by the Perkins family rather than borrowed from the usual Nash­ville conveyer belt. ʽLove Makes Dreams Come Trueʼ, in particular, is the kind of song that I usually cannot stand because of all the corn syrup, but Carl's vocal delivery indicates that he real­ly cared — it's one of those rare occasions on which he could rival Johnny Cash in terms of emo­tionality and direct human appeal, so to speak.

There are a few re-recordings of Carl's older obscurities as well (ʽHamboneʼ, ʽCotton Topʼ), and a couple new songs from outside songwriters that are relatively easy to forget, but on the whole, not a single tune here is unlistenable — if anything, the importance of Born To Rock is in show­ing that, until the very end, Perkins preserved a decent sense of taste, and, unlike many others, never allowed himself to be dragged into suspicious avenues. Synthesizers, drum machines, questionable technologies, pop-metal guitars, adult contemporary — forget about that. Cleaner production, sharper mixing, occasional straying away from the stereotypical rockabilly formula, that is allowed, but the man simply would not allow anybody to try and turn him into something he was not, and in the end, it paid off handsomely. Had he «sold out», he would probably not have actually sold many more records, but soiled his reputation. As it is, I am happy to say that I still have to hear a «bad» Carl Perkins album. Boring, yes, as the man pretty much let go of his songwriting skills past 1960 — but «bad», as in «embarrassingly» or «ridiculously» bad, never (well, Ol' Blue Suede Shoes comes close, perhaps, but still, even those re-recordings were «un­necessary» rather than «awful»). So take this last thumbs up as referring not just to Born To Rock as an album, but to Carl's mes­sy, obscure, and sometimes quite gratifying post-1960 career in general. Sometimes charisma and integrity may actually mean more than songwriting skills and dazzling musicianship — I'd say Carl is a prime example to illustrate that statement.

Check "Born To Rock" (CD) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. "but Carl's vocal delivery indicates that he real­ly cared"
    Plus the arrangement is, for country, unusually minimal. It's the overemotive approach that makes countryballads as unbearable as powerballads. A bit even more minimal and Love makes Dreams come True is not that different from When a Blind Man Cries. Totally enjoyable afaIc.