Perfect Sound Forever

Muddy Waters

His most hated, misunderstood album
by Tim Shannon
(December 2006)

Muddy Waters is obviously one of the most recognized and influential blues artists of this century. When his name is mentioned phrases like "slide guitar" and "electric Chicago blues" are associated with it, but what about "wah-wah" and "psychedelic"? For a small period in history, Muddy Waters' image became one of a psychedelic icon and if there weren't records still around from then, most people would doubt it had ever happened. The sixties were a strange time for music and musicians- none felt stranger than musicians from the previous decade trying to stay afloat then. Many times in music, established artists will try to expand upon their work and take a chance with something different. They should at least be praised and encouraged when they try to experiment with their sound. If music were condemned to always following a strict guideline of rules, it would be pretty boring. Music should be allowed to grow and explore new territories because everyone can agree that it's not exciting if it's always predictable.

We've already heard the story of Muddy's rise from a Mississippi planation to a Chicago blues legend but that only took his career so far, at least in his chosen style of music. Eventually, bands that were influenced by Muddy like the Rolling Stones (named after one of his songs), Animals, Yardbirds, Cream and Hendrix became big, raising Muddy's profile but not getting him the same level of success his descendants were having. Marshall Chess, son of the president of the label who worked at the company had the idea to try something different by putting Muddy's music into a psychedelic setting to appeal to a younger audience. After discussing the project with Muddy, he went for it. He wasn't forced into it as some have been led to believe.

Marshall Chess assembled in his words "the hottest, most avant garde rock guys in Chicago" for the album sessions consisting of Pete Cosey (lead guitar, later with Miles Davis) Phil Upchurch and Roland Faulkner (rhythm guitar), Louis Satterfield (bass) Gene Barge (tenor sax), Charles Stepney (organs) and Morris Jennings (drums). Since Muddy wasn't as accustomed to this style, he only contributed vocals, but he still played an essential part in this recording. Electric Mud (1968) was mostly recorded in live takes with few overdubs and that off-the-cuff live feel that's captured on it makes it stronger. On the opener, "I Just Want To Make Love to You," pounding drums and Cosey firing out raw screaming guitar grabs your ear with Muddy's confident singing pushing the music along. The solo on this song is nothing short of phenomenal. The guitar starts playing some distorted melodic notes then morphs into this gigantic screeching feedback riff becoming louder and wilder then continues to morph from a tearing solo until it reaches this intense mind-bending groove that sounds on the brink of collapse. At this point, the guitar cuts out, leaving you breathless, with just drums and Muddy's voice building up back to the verse, then with an out-of-your-mind guitar and organ playing off each other to the end. The next song, "Hoochie Coochie Man," begins with an incoming guitar sound and has the opposite feel of the last track. Muddy's vocals seemingly come out of the speakers at you as alternating lines come from the left and then right, giving the listener a disorienting acid-like effect. A liquidy sounding guitar that washes over like a wave accompanies the verse and changes into an expressive wah-wah lead on the chorus. There's a great, fun cover of "Let's Spend The Night Together" which the Stones must have taken as a huge compliment, having their idol cover one of their songs. Muddy and the band turn it, around making it appear like he wrote it with a big mean sounding back melody, soulful distorted guitar lines and Muddy's commanding voice sounding the way he might have sung in a club in Chicago. "She's Alright" has a trippy beginning with bass notes fluttering up then swaying back down to open up to smash your head against the wall along with crashing cymbals matched by a dirty guitar that has real spirit to it. The song makes great use of cross-overs with a screeching guitar bouncing back and forth between speakers and then somehow transforms and ends with a pleasant distorted instrumental version of "My Girl." Original material was also written for this record like "Tom Cat" and "Herbert Harper's Free Press News," with the latter as a vaguely topical song about the sixties with lines like "world is moving much too fast" and "where ya gonna run to, where ya gonna hide" and a fuzzed out guitar that parallels the confusion and outrage of the lyrics. "The Same Thing" closes Electric Mud with a slow heavy blues feel to it and a stretched out, aching guitar on top.

When Electric Mud was released, it was a huge success, selling 150,000 in the first six weeks. It was also the best selling Muddy Waters record at Chess ever, entering Billboard's Top 200 Chart. It was a triumph of a record that updated his sound and put him elbow to elbow with the bands that had influenced him. The record broke down restrictions of genres with its inventiveness and ability to re-arrange songs and have them come out as something radically different. Unfortunately, narrow-minded blues purists across the board denounced it as atrocious, offensive and a big "sell out." There's a direct similarity between this and what happened to Bob Dylan a few years earlier when he decided to go electric, making his folk-purist fans angry that he was "selling out" to rock and roll. Since Muddy is primarily a blues artist, overviews of his career would be written by a number of blues historians who would automatically dismiss this record for years to come.

But not everyone hated the album. Pete Cosey was later told by Hendrix's valet that before he would perform live, he'd listen to "Herbert Harper" for inspiration. In the '70's, when Marshall Chess went to visit the Rolling Stones rehearsal space, he saw a poster on the wall for the Electric Mud album. Led Zeppelin's bassist John Paul Jones cites Electric Mud as the inspiration for the basic riff behind "Black Dog." Marshall Chess also notes "the English accepted it; they are more eccentric." Strangely enough, rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy has emerged over the years as the biggest supporter of the record, stating "To me, it's a brilliant record. I've played it a thousand times." Chuck D also explained part of the intent of the record saying "It took me a while to warm up to traditional blues, but what struck me right away was the Electric Mud thing." Based on the success of Electric Mud, another blues musician on Chess, Howlin Wolf, was forced into recording a psych record. This Is Howlin Wolf's New Album (subtitled And He Doesn't Like It) (1969) isn't as good as Electric Mud although it did yield a minor hit with a psyched out version of "Evil." Chubby Checker even released a psych record (Chequered (1971)) that sounds better than you'd expect, though it only came out in England.

Over the years, Muddy has famously criticized EM, but around the time of its release, he seemed to have a different attitude. Blues fans claim he always hated it but the following proves otherwise. Six months after EM, the same line-up reassembled and recorded a sequel called After The Rain (1969) that still has distortion on it but isn't as overtly psychedelic. If Muddy hadn't liked EM, he would have had enough say at Chess to dismiss a follow-up, but instead he went along with it. In fact, Pete Cosey says "I'll never forget as soon as I walked into the studio for the follow-up and Muddy saw me he threw his arms around me and said ‘Hey, how you doing, boy, play some of that stuff you played on the last album." After The Rain's songs alternate between Chicago blues and distorted guitar tracks. There's a marked difference on After The Rain with Paul Oscher (harmonica) and Otis Spann (piano) from Muddy's old band joining in and Muddy playing lead guitar on several tracks. On the Chicago blues tracks, more prominent bass and drums put the music into a rock setting, but it's Muddy's slide guitar playing that highlights them. Muddy really let's loose with some striking, tenseful slide work on tracks like "Honey Bee," "Rollin and Tumblin" and "Blues and Trouble" that just send a chill through your bones. On the other side of the album, the guitar on "Ramblin Mind" lashes and cries out in dense fuzz while on "Bottom of the Sea," the fuzzy leads seem to hang in the air along with an innovative bowed bass and harmonious organ in the background (the bowed bass is also used on the record on "I am The Blues").

By the time After The Rain came out, the blues critics created enough of a backlash that it started affecting sales. Muddy must have realized that the records were upsetting his blues fanbase which had been loyal to him for over twenty years. Perhaps he feared he'd lose them forever if he stayed in this direction and that the young fanbase he had now might not stick with him as long. It wasn't until 1970 and after a more normal electric blues record (Fathers and Sons) that Muddy started talking badly about Electric Mud and then only mildly at first. Muddy released some great records in the rest of his lifetime, but he never experimented much with his music again.

In the years following Electric Mud and Muddy's Death in 1983 from heart failure , the record itself started building a cult around it, comprised of acid rock fans, record collectors and curious people. By 1996, the resurgence of popularity in the record matched with its scarcity led it to being reissued in a deluxe edition by Chess with new line notes by Mark Humphrey and Marshall Chess. Despite all the bad press Electric Mud received, Marshall Chess never stopped claiming it was a brilliant, misunderstood record.

In 2003, The Blues, a PBS-TV series produced by famed director Martin Scorsese, traced the roots of the blues from Africa to modern day society, showing how it inspired other generations of musicians. While in production, Marshall Chess got an e-mail from Chuck D saying that he heard he was doing a film that connected the blues to hip hop and that he wanted to be part of it. Chess was happy to hear Chuck D say "Electric Mud was one of his favorite, most influential albums and that all the early hip hop guys were inspired by it," affirming a connection he thought had happened. In the episode titled Godfathers and Sons, the focus is on the Chicago blues, Chess records and the effect of Electric Mud on Public Enemy, with Chuck D coming to Chicago, led on a historic blues tour by Chess. There, Chuck D's feverant appreciation of EM got him to reassemble the musicians from the sessions to perform material from it for the upcoming 20th Anniversary Chicago Blues Festival. In keeping with the experimental vein of the record, Chuck D added a turntablist (Juice) and a rapper (Kyle Jason) to the band, re-naming the group the Electric Mudcats. Having the material played at a blues festival showed how the album had finally come full circle, from being hated to being respected and enjoyed.

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