Classic Rock



The Pusher Written by Hoyt Axton

‘I’ve seen a lot of people walking around with tombstones in their eyes, but the pusher don’t careifyou live or if you die…’

Those haunting words are forever linked to the opening scene of the 1969 classic film Easy

Rider: sun-scorched desert, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda on their chopper motorcycle­s, on the lam with the loot from a cocaine deal. And roiling beneath the action, Steppenwol­f’s cover of Hoyt Axton’s The Pusher.

Coming out of the West Coast folk scene of the late 1950s, Axton first made his mark with Greenback Dollar, a hit for The Kingston Trio. By the early 60s he was a regular performer at LA clubs like The Ash Grove and The Troubadour. That’s where Steppenwol­f singer John Kay heard him sing The Pusher, a song Axton wrote after one of his friends died from an overdose. “The Pusher

brought down the house every time he played it,” Kay said.

Although The Pusher wasn’t the first song played on the radio to have obvious drug references, it was the first to include ‘God damn’ - as in ‘God damn the pusher man.’

Hoyt Axton went on to have a long, successful career, writing such hits as Joy To The World for Three Dog Night, Never Been To Spain for Elvis Presley and The No No Song for Ringo Starr. He died of a heart attack in 1999.

Crossroad Blues Written by Robert Johnson

No other word gets at the mystique of the blues like ‘Crossroads.’ It’s a metaphor for a life in the balance, and the location of that enduring origin story of how Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for musical genius.

Even without that myth, Johnson’s life has been veiled in mystery and speculatio­n. Born in Mississipp­i in 1911, he recorded 29 sides during three recording sessions in 1936 and 1937.

Those songs, and two photograph­s, are all that remains. In 1938 he was murdered, purportedl­y by a jealous husband who poisoned his glass of whisky. Johnson was 27, the founding member of that morbid ‘27 club’ that would later include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

One of his best-known songs, Crossroad Blues,

capture’s Johnson’s raw sorcery. The driving, scratchy slide guitar, the tendon-taut vocals, the bare-wire emotion. It’s two minutes and 40 seconds that once heard can never be forgotten.

Although Johnson’s songs have been covered by Cream, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and many more, there is something about the originals that defies interpreta­tion. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons said: “As many times as a Robert Johnson number has been covered, no one has yet recaptured what guitar players would refer to as that internal DNA of Robert Johnson. This was just one guy. Meat on metal on wood. But what he came with was fierce.”

Hoochie Coochie Man Written by Willie Dixon

Like so many blues standards, I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man began, in 1954, as a one-two between Willie Dixon (who wrote it) and Muddy Waters (who supplied the velveteen vocal). Yet the relaxed push-and-pull of this Chess Records benchmark perhaps belied Dixon’s desperatio­n. Although pushing 40, the songwriter was at that point a marginal backroom figure at the Chicago label, and having scored a minor hit with the previous year’s Muddy-fronted Mad Love (IWant You To Love Me), he was looking to earn owner Leonard Chess’s trust with this sequel.

“If Muddy likes it, give it to him,” the boss man is reported to have said, and Dixon duly gave the bluesman the hard sell, repeatedly visiting Waters at club shows to help him iron out Hoochie Coochie Man’s stop-start arrangemen­t, and massage a lyric pitched somewhere between a classic blues brag and a spooky southern gothic (“This lady is a witch,” Dixon wrote in his autobiogra­phy, I Am The Blues, of the “gypsy woman” who predicts the unborn narrator’s sexual exploits to come).

Dixon got his breakthrou­gh – and Waters the biggest hit of his career – and 70 years later it’s impossible to imagine the genre without it including this cornerston­e.

Oh Well Written by Peter Green

“It represents my two extremes,” Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green said of this eightminut­e epic. “As wild as I can be, and my first sort of semi-classical attempt.”

In 1969, Green pushed for Oh Well’s release as a single, despite its unorthodox form. And he wanted the moody, flamencofl­avored back half to be the A-side of the 45, the “wild” bluesy section the B-side. The band’s label disagreed. Green’s bandmates Mick Fleetwood and John McVie went even further, betting him eight pounds apiece that the single would flop, regardless of what the

A-side was. It was a bet they lost.

A hit on both sides of the Atlantic, Oh Well became a featured part of the band’s live set, though the instrument­al section soon got dropped. Even 25 years later, that rankled

Green. “The best bit was Part 2, the Spanish guitar break,” he told Mojo in 1996, “I used to hate playing that one [live] because we played the part that wasn’t as good. I wanted a bit of moody guitar playing; they wanted the bit that was easy to do, that everyone knew.”

Green’s dismissal of Oh Well didn’t prevent it from becoming a rock perennial, and also the only Fleetwood Mac song to be performed by every incarnatio­n of the band, with guitarists from Bob Welch to Lindsey Buckingham to Mike Campbell tackling Green’s not so “easy” gordian knot of a riff.

Key To The Highway Written by Charles Segar, William Broonzy

Although he took the credit, Chicago piano man Charlie Segar’s 1940 recording of Key To The Highway for the Vocalion label was a crosspolli­nation of a thousand existing song shards, rather than a strictly ‘original’ compositio­n (Big Bill Broonzy, who tackled it next, reasoned that “practicall­y all of blues is just a little change... you take one song and make fifty out of it”).

Whatever its provenance, Key To The Highway

struck a pan-generation­al chord among touring musicians who could relate to the sweet sorrow of parting (in almost all its forms, the lyric finds the itinerant narrator pleading for ‘one more kiss’

from his lover, in the knowledge that he ‘won’t be back no more’).

Harp king Little Walter scored a hit with his all-star cover in 1958, but the bluesman who worked the song hardest was Eric Clapton. In 1970, producer Tom Dowd scrambled to roll tape as Clapton and Duane Allman jammed it to nine-plus minutes during sessions for the Derek And The Dominos album Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. Clapton later revisited the song at his 1973 Rainbow Concert, when guesting on Johnnie Johnson’s Johnnie B. Bad

album of 1991, and on his own 2000 doublehead­er alongside BB, Riding With The King.

Awful Dream(s) Written by Sam ‘Lightnin’’ Hopkins, Clarence Lewis & C. Morgan Robinson

Asked to define the blues, Lightnin’ Hopkins once said: “The blues is a feeling. It’s something worrying people. Your wife quits you. Your girlfriend quits you. Or maybe you want to go to a party and you don’t have sufficient clothes. You sit home and worry. You got the blues, man. It’s not no jive. You ever hear of a person going up on a building and jumping off and breaking their own legs? You know what they got? The blues three times!”

The rhythm of that discursive answer, with its black humour and existentia­l perspectiv­e, found its way into all of Lightnin’s songs.

Born Samuel Hopkins in Texas in 1911 (or 1912), he learned to play and sing at an early

age, travelling on the road with a blues singer named Texas Alexander. Hopkins made his first recordings in 1946, already experiment­ing with the distorted, amplified roar that would become a hallmark of his style.

A kind of blues philosophe­r, his subject matter ranged from the personal to the global. Recorded in 1962, around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Awful Dream(s) conveys the dread of living in the long shadow of the atomic bomb. And typical of his style, the song meanders across bar lines, with his guitar dropping commentary licks around his intimate, chilling vocal.

Born Under A Bad Sign Written by William Bell & Booker T. Jones

By 1966, Albert King had gone five long years without a hit, and Stax Records seemed unlikely to reverse his fortunes (when the singer made his pitch to join the roster, label co-founder Estelle Axton told him: “We’re doing R&B, not blues”).

Laundromat Blues got King’s foot in the door, but the bluesman’s great rebirth might never have happened without a late-night writing session between Stax artist William Bell (who had a UK Top 10 hit with Private Number in 1968) and fabled keyboard man Booker T. Jones (leader of the label’s crack-squad house band The M.G.’s).

“William walked in and said: ‘We need to write a song by tomorrow for Albert King’,” recalled Jones. “I remember coming up with the riff, then William put his thinking cap on, and the next thing I know he sang: ‘Born under a bad sign…’”

As the title track of King’s 1967 masterpiec­e,

Born Under A Bad Sign was the ultimate hardtimes lament (‘If it wasn’t for bad luck’, runs the classic line, ‘you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all’). But ironically, thanks to its rock stylings, the song gave the formidable bluesman a crossover hit (today it’s nudging 53 million streams on Spotify). As Jones once said: “Eric Clapton is still trying to play like that!”

Papa Was A Rolling Stone Written by Barrett Strong & Norman Whitfield

At the end of the 1960s, Motown songwritin­g duo Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong began pushing beyond the label’s love-song boundaries with such socially conscious epics as Ball Of Confusion and Runaway Child, Running Wild. The pinnacle of their long-form experiment­s, Papa Was A Rolling Stone, began as a 12-minute instrument­al by Whitfield.

“Norman wanted lyrics that were fun, not serious,” Strong told the Wall Street Journal.

“But I didn’t hear the music the way he did.

At the end of the track you can hear a clearly overwrough­t Hart proclaimin­g to no one in particular: “God, that was fuck-ing-bad-ass shit!”

“Yeah,” Slash ponders. “We left that on there because it gives you some insight into how unbelievab­ly physical her performanc­e was and how much blood and sweat went into that take.”

Perhaps the most counter-intuitive guest on the album – and singing the most obscure song is Iggy Pop. How did the Godfather of Punk get to make his debut as a blues singer?

“Johnny [Griparic, bass player] read somewhere that Iggy had always wanted to do a blues thing and had just never had the chance to do it. I’d obviously worked with Iggy a lot over the years. So I called him up and I said: ‘Is there a song that you would particular­ly like to do?’ And without even missing a beat he said Awful Dream by Lightnin’ Hopkins. So I listened to the original, and it almost sounds like an out-take. Nobody’s playing the same thing at the same time, but it’s just got this really greasy, cool vibe. The lyrics are great. I never actually learned it. It was almost impossible to learn off that version.

“Iggy came down to my studio in LA and we just sat on a couple of stools and played it live and he just belted it out. We get towards the end of the song, and I’m hearing this sound. And I’m thinking: ‘What the fuck is that?’ And it’s Iggy mimicking a harmonica. And it was just such a cool moment. I could tell that it meant a lot to Iggy to sing that song. Not to do it for me or anything else, but to do it for himself. So I thought it was a really cool capture of a moment in time.”

As a guitar hero who doesn’t sing, Slash is a member of a respectabl­e club that includes Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen and Ritchie Blackmore among its more celebrated members. But has he ever wanted or tried to be a singer himself?

“There was a moment in time when I couldn’t find singers, that I spent probably a good six months or eight months as the singer of a threepiece. And I did it. But it’s not my thing. I don’t have the personalit­y for it. I just don’t have that kind of outspoken, kind of… where I want to emote verbally to people. It’s just not in me.”

Do you think singers have a different mind-set from guitarists?

“It’s a good question. In my experience, all the singers that I know are way more... The way to communicat­e your feelings and all that in a song, and to be able to have eye contact and to be able to perform and to be able to do that is something unworldly to me. I can’t conceive of going out and doing that. So there’s something in a singer’s personalit­y and their make-up that makes it possible for them to be able to express

“Iggy had always wanted to do a blues thing and had just never had the chance to do it.”

Something about the bass line spoke to me. It was the sound of someone confused about something and trying to make sense of it.”

Barrett’s approach took the form of a ghetto child asking his mother about his late father. “She rationalis­es the father’s bad behavior and blames it on his nature, even though they’re left with nothing,” Strong said. “It’s about hopelessne­ss and hope.”

The original version, by The Undisputed Truth, peaked at No.63 in early 1972. Later that year, The Temptation­s – initially reluctant to tackle yet another of Whitfield and Strong’s lengthy funk workouts - took it to No.1 (the single was a sixminute edit), racking up three Grammys, including Best R&B Song.

A masterpiec­e of production as much as compositio­n, Papa’s smoulderin­g knit of bass, hi-hat, wah-wah guitar and shivery strings lends the Temptation­s’ trademark vocal hand-offs extra poignancy. “Norman had the capacity to bring out everybody’s talent instead of just one singer at a time,” Temptation­s bass vocalist Melvin Franklin said.

Killing Floor Written by Chester Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf

“The blues is problems,” the legendary Howlin’ Wolf told Crawdaddy in 1966. “If you don’t have problems today, you have them tomorrow.”

Born Chester Burnett, he brought the Delta blues of his native Mississipp­i and a deep feeling for those everyday problems to Chess Records in Chicago in the early 1950s, becoming one of that city’s titans of electric blues, alongside Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. A man of massive frame, with a feral voice, Burnett chose the perfect stage name in Howlin’ Wolf. And no song better represents his raw, powerful style than Killing Floor.

Set against an upbeat blues progressio­n, the lyric uses the area of a slaughterh­ouse where animals are killed as a metaphor for a relationsh­ip gone bad. As Wolf’s longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin said: “Down on the killing floor – that means a woman has you down, she went out of her way to try to kill you.” And even though the singer gets away in the song, part of him is still there on the killing floor, wishing she had finished the job.

Like several Howlin’ Wolf classics - Spoonful and Smokestack Lightning among them - Killing Floor has been covered by many artists, including Albert King and Jimi Hendrix. It also provided the DNA for Led Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song, so much so that the band gave Wolf a co-writing credit.

themselves in that way. Guitar players by and large hide behind their guitar. I know I do. So yeah, they’re very different animals.”

What Slash really likes doing is hanging with musicians and playing shows. And to promote Orgy Of The Damned he has announced a US Blues Festival tour beginning in July. Each date will be a multi-act, one-day festival, with performers hand-picked by Slash and his management, including the Warren Haynes Band, Keb’ ’Mo, Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram, Robert Randolph, Samantha Fish, Eric Gales, ZZ Ward, Jackie

Venson and Larkin Poe. Slash has called it the S.E.R.P.E.N.T. Tour – an acronym that stands for Solidarity, Engagement, Restore, Peace, Equality N’ Tolerance.

“I think it’s that time where I want to do something where it’s trying to bring people together and trying to eliminate some of the difference­s and some of the walls and shit that’s going on between people. Cos we’re in a really fucking questionab­le period. A lot of people are being marginalis­ed. And I only see it getting worse, the way things are going. I wanted to try and contribute in some way and help some of the people that have been unfortunat­e as we’ve been going down this path. Racial equality is something that I think is being, y’know, questioned here. So I wanted to do something that brought people together, because this has been… especially in the US, a really divisive period. Obviously I’m mixed race, right, so I’ve seen it from both sides.”

Accordingl­y, Slash has announced that a percentage of the profits from the tour will be going to several activist-group charities including the Equal Justice Initiative and the Know Your

Rights Camp, among others. Will there be anything left to pay all the bands?

“There will hopefully be enough money to pay the artists [laughs]. I have to pay them. But the rest of will be going to these different charitable groups.”

After the S.E.R.P.E.N.T. tour, plans are in hand to record a new Conspirato­rs album. Guns N’ Roses currently have no plans to tour, although Slash says that a new GN’R record has been “on the books for a while and should start coming together”.

“This blues album was a big outlet for me to be able to do something that I love to do. I love what I do in Guns N’ Roses. I love what I do with the Conspirato­rs and anything else that I do. I’m a hard-rock guy at heart. That’s where I come from. But this kind of blues guitar playing for me has always been the basis for everything. So I always find myself jamming it with people I don’t know in bars and cities where I just happen to be able to get the opportunit­y to sit in or whatever. So looking ahead, I’m hoping that I get to do this kind of festival thing maybe every year. And then I’ll probably want to put out another blues record - probably of originals at this point - but we’ll see what happens.”

It all seems so effortless.

“Well it’s not that it’s effortless, it’s just it’s fun, you know?”

Orgy Of The Damned is out on May 17 via Gibson Records.

Living For The City Written by Stevie Wonder

In an interview with saxophonis­t and Stevie Wonder band member David Sanborn, he said: “Making records for Motown in the sixties for Stevie was like being part of the old studio system in Hollywood. But by the early seventies he became more like the young maverick directors, Scorsese and Coppola, taking over.”

It’s an apt comparison, especially with Living For The City, which unfolds like a gritty sevenminut­e movie, tackling social class and racial injustice. The song follows a young man from his ‘hard time Mississipp­i’ upbringing to New York City. He arrives with hopes of employment and better life, but through a ‘wrong place, wrong time’ moment is arrested in a drug bust, then sentenced to 10 years in prison. Is there a more brutal moment in music than the cell door slamming with the policeman’s racial slur?

As with many of the songs on his trio of classic 70s albums – Talking Book, Innervisio­ns and Fulfilling­ness’ First Finale – Wonder played all the instrument­s.

Living For The City was a US No.1 and won a Grammy for Best R&B Song.

“I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in this song,” Wonder said. “I was able to show the hurt and the anger.”

“I’m a hard-rock guy at heart. But this kind of blues guitar playing for me has always been the basis for everything.”

Stormy Monday Written by T-Bone Walker

Call It Stormy Monday But Tuesday Is Just As Bad

– to give the original 1947 release its full title – wasn’t Aaron Thibeaux Walker’s first major contributi­on to the genre (the Texan guitarist had already pricked up ears in the Les Hite Orchestra with 1940’s highly influentia­l T-Bone Blues). Yet this pioneering example of electric blues represente­d revolution at every level, from Walker’s unpreceden­ted touch on the incoming instrument, to his stripped-back band format, which encouraged kids around the world to plug in and try their luck (no brass section required).

To Walker’s frustratio­n, that unwieldy song title (chosen to set it apart) came back to bite him, with musicians including Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland shortening it to Stormy Monday Blues for their own renditions, and royalties often finding their way to the authors of a 1942 jazz hit with the same title.

Yet while he suffered financiall­y, Walker’s legacy was inestimabl­e – without his bestknown hit, A-list acolytes such as BB King, Chuck Berry, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Albert King and Lowell Fulson might never have taken up the electric guitar. “The first line, the first thrilling notes, the first sound of his guitar, and the attitude in his voice,” BB once said. “It was riveting.”

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 ?? ?? Guests participat­ing in the Orgy include (from top) Steven Tyler on harmonica, and Gary Clark Jr. and Paul Rodgers on vocals.
Guests participat­ing in the Orgy include (from top) Steven Tyler on harmonica, and Gary Clark Jr. and Paul Rodgers on vocals.
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 ?? ?? Iggy Pop: “I could tell that it meant a lot to Iggy to sing that song [Lightnin’ Hopkins’s Awful Dream],” Slash says.
Iggy Pop: “I could tell that it meant a lot to Iggy to sing that song [Lightnin’ Hopkins’s Awful Dream],” Slash says.
 ?? ?? Chris Robinson: “Two amazingly perfect fucking takes, with harmonica live, on the same mic,” Slash marvels.
Chris Robinson: “Two amazingly perfect fucking takes, with harmonica live, on the same mic,” Slash marvels.
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 ?? ?? Moving on: Slash says his next blues album will be originals rather than covers.
Moving on: Slash says his next blues album will be originals rather than covers.
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