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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bobby Fuller: KRLA King Of The Wheels

BOBBY FULLER: KRLA KING OF THE WHEELS (1965)

1) Never To Be Forgotten; 2) Another Sad And Lonely Night; 3) She's My Girl; 4) Take My Word; 5) Fool Of Love; 6) Let Her Dance; 7) King Of The Wheels; 8) The Lonely Dragster; 9) Little Annie Lou; 10) The Phantom Dragster; 11) Saturday Night; 12) KRLA Top Eliminator.

Unless you were there and paid attention, chances are that the only association that the words «Bobby Fuller» could kick up from the depths of your conscience should be "...I fought the law, and the LAW WON!", delivered in a very British rather than American accent by Joe Strummer circa 1979. The song was a hit for Bobby Fuller, but it wasn't even written by Bobby (credits go to Sonny Curtis of the Crickets), and it may convey a very, very wrong idea of Bobby Fuller — namely, that the man was some sort of long-forgotten proto-punk, anti-establishment hero, some kind of a Marlon-Brando-meets-James-Dean-tags-Gene-Vincent phenomenon to which it was only natural that Britain's greatest working-class-hero-band of the punk movement pay tribute, or something like that. At least, it did convey that idea to me, originally.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Bobby Fuller was a nice, clean, well-meaning all-American lad from El Paso, Texas, who, like so many others, caught the rock'n'roll bug from Elvis in his early teens and then developed a passion for electric guitar-based pop-rock. Without any «working class hero» ambitions whatsoever, he merely wished to be the next Buddy Holly — and then, when The Beach Boys and then The Beatles appeared on the scene, he also wished to be a Beach Boy and then a Beatle, too. Is that too much for a simple Texan guy to ask God for — just to be a Beach Boy and a Beatle at the same time?

Bobby's first recordings were made independently as early as 1961, when he was only 19 years old. He recorded with a revolving-door cast of personages, commonly dubbed as «The Bobby Fuller Four» (even though there may have been periods with larger or smaller numbers), the only other constant presence among which was his brother Randy Fuller on bass, and eventually gained a little notoriety after teaming up with Bob Keane's Del-Fi (later Mustang) Records. His first LP was, however, only released in late 1965, after some of the singles began getting serious airplay and slowly ascending up the charts.

Although some of these songs actually date from earlier sessions (circa 1964), and some of the originals had been written even earlier, it is quite clear already from the title that KRLA King Of The Wheels was, for the standards of late 1965, a «nostalgic-conservative» record. Bobby hardly ever shies away from promoting his influences on his sleeve, and the themes of the album are strictly limited to the classic surf-era recipé — Girls and Cars, not necessarily in that order of preference. And not the Girls of ʽGirlʼ fame or the Cars of ʽDrive My Carʼ fame, either (to be accurate, Rubber Soul had not yet been released, but it would probably have made no difference if it were): the emotional / verbal content of the songs is all about those stereotypical «teen sensa­tions». The Beach Boys were no longer writing songs about their little 409 or Little Deuce Coupe by the end of 1965, but Bobby Fuller was, and he was not ashamed.

Whatever. If you are a fan of innocent early-to-mid Sixties pop, there is no way that you will not appreciate at least the first two songs on here — ʽNever To Be Forgottenʼ is an Orbison-worthy little gem (although Bobby's vocals are nowhere near as special), showing how well acquainted the man was with Phil Spector's wall-of-sound technique, and ʽAnother Sad And Lonely Nightʼ seems far more influenced by the Merseybeat scene: more Billy J. Kramer than the Beatles, in that the sound is not very sharp and the hooks are not as piercing, but still friendly and catchy enough for the "another sad and lonely night, another sad and lonely day" hookline to get stuck in your head for no apparent reason.

The band's biggest success from this era was with ʽLet Her Danceʼ, a reworked version of Bob­by's earlier ʽKeep On Dancingʼ (a 1961 Buddy Holly-style composition) that Keane obviously suggested redoing in the style of the Beach Boys' «grand dance» numbers, most notably their recently released upgrade of ʽDo You Want To Danceʼ. Echo on the guitars, echo on the vocals, a bottle-tapping gimmick, heavy use of back vocals — reportedly, Bobby hated the final version, yet it is ultimately more gripping than the original, if only for the non-trivial vocal arrangements (the repetitive "let her dance, let her dance, let her dance, dance, dance..." echoey response that seems to bounce off the instruments in all directions). Almost shamelessly «second-hand», but melodically distinct enough to act as a loving little brother to ʽDo You Want To Danceʼ rather than just a useless rip-off.

Other cute imitations include ʽShe's My Girlʼ (with a ʽHelp Me Rhondaʼ-like key change from verse to chorus), ʽTake My Wordʼ (with handclaps coming straight from the Beatles' ʽI'll Get Youʼ), and ʽFool Of Loveʼ (also sounds as if the Beatles wrote this circa 1959 and donated it to any­one hungry enough to eat it up). The second side of the LP, however, is almost completely dedicated to the «Cars» side of the business, and since «Cars» are generally inferior to «Girls» as a major source of melodic creativity, this is where Bobby falls way too often on direct borrowing (stealing) — ʽKing Of The Wheelsʼ is really little more than a slightly sped up version of ʽLittle Deuce Coupeʼ, and ʽThe Phantom Dragsterʼ is merely an attempt to apply the Bo Diddley beat to the same thematical subject, but can this really work? I mean, «car songs» are supposed to bring on musical associations with car racing, and if I ever had to car-race to a Bo Diddley beat, I'd probably be throwing up most of the way.

A few of the songs on that side are instrumentals in the classic vein of The Ventures (ʽThe Lonely Dragsterʼ, ʽKRLA Top Eliminatorʼ), which gives you the chance to assess Bobby's skills as a guitar player — not bad at all compared with his surf-rock competitors, fluent and expressive, but not enough to push him over into the «greatness» range: the same bluesy chops had already been brought over to a new level by the likes of Clapton, anyway.

Still, on the strength of the simple-and-innocent pop hooks on Side A, the album as a whole qualifies for a mild thumbs up, I think — though not high enough to recommend anybody to search for the entire contents of this LP rather than head straight for a best-of compilation: the fact is that Bobby Fuller simply did not live long enough to show us whether he had a real album brewing inside his head or not.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review, I dig his style. Just as a note, the superior album is actually the follow up called I Fought the Law. It has many songs in common with this one, just omits the dreadful car ones.

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  2. For what it's worth, Bobby Fuller's version of "I Fought The Law" still shows up fairly often on "strictly oldies" radio stations. But the Clash's version (and the Dead Kennedy's Dan White themed parody) have yet to become canon here in the States.

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  3. The version of IFTL that gets played on oldies stations around here is one of the best - sounding singles of that Era just for its sheer power. The guitar sounds like something Tom Petty would play ten years later, and the drum track is the best - recorded of the decade--nobody got that close and clear again until Geoff Emerick's work with Ringo's kit on the latter Beatles albums. Really ahead of its time.

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