Nostalgia in rock'n'roll has reached epidemic proportions. For one thing, the delay between the "hit" by the original artist and the "golden oldie" imitation has shrunk to near-insignificance. For another, the growing list of old musicians with new albums adds to the sense of deja vu . Today's shelves contain new efforts by Donovan and Don McLean (very big names five years ago), Brian Hyland ("The Joker Went Wild," more than five years ago), and now Lonnie Donegan ("Rock Island Line" originally checked in 25 years ago).
Of all the new oldtimers, Donegan certainly merits attention, if not acclaim, for his current release, "Puttin' ON the Style" (United Artists, LA 827-H). After all, not everyone attempts a pop music comeback at 47; and not every former banjo player can lure the likes of Elton John, Leo Sayer, Ringo Starr, Rory Gallagher, Nicky Hopkins, Queen's Brian May, Bad Company's Mick Ralphs into his recording sessions. The major reason for all these heavyweights helping out the old man is that, once upon a time, Lonnie Donegan was a force.
Donegan was never the star here that he was in England, where he cranked out 22 consecutive "top-five" singles including that memorable American chartbuster, "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?" Before you laugh out loud at his audacity, please note that "Chewing Gum" was not typical of Donegan's music and became a hit after his popularity was already in decline.
The real Lonnie Donegan was the "King of Skiffle," a small but influential category of early rock that combined elements of blues, Dixieland, rockabilly and pure rock'n'roll. It later led to the development of borderline acts like Desmond Dekker and the Aces and Michael McGear and Scaffold (McGear is Paul McCartney's brother), but it also left its mark on the Beatles (whom, Donegan met in Liverpool in 1958), Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clark Five and many others involved in the first "British invasion" of America in 1964.
Donegan's own roots are in jazz and country. He rates his biggest influences as Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, and one listen to "Puttin' On, the Style" confirms this love for swing and country while adding a bluesy tinge.
All of the cuts here are remakes of some of Donegan's biggest British successes: "Have a Drink on Me," "Diggin' My Potatoes," "Lost John," "Drop Down Baby" and "Frankie and Johnny," which he learned on his first $2 guitar. The tunes are eclectic and interesting, if not particularly hitbound.
"Diggin' My Potatoes" rocks out better than any other tune on side one, and Donegan and his sextet -- including Elton John on piano and Brian May on guitar -- have a grand old time blowing through it at a break neck pace. Such energy makes the preceding "I Wanna Go Home," with a numbing string arrangement, that much more unbearable. The classic "Rock Island Line," slowed to a lilting conversation until near its end, suffers from a terminal case of too much chatter and not enough platter.
Side two is a bit more rewarding. "Nobody's Child" has a sort of gospel/country flavor, while "Frankie and Johnny" becomes a blazing blues number highlighted by Leo Sayer's harp. The album's title cut is saved by Sayer and Elton John's knockout ragtime piano break, but it suffers from Don egan's strained vocal. "Drop Down Baby" gets most of its guts from Rory Gallagher's stinging guitar and, though "Lost John" is redone adequately, it sounds dated.
The result is an album long on historical perspective and short on unique melody. Adding to the history and perspective, if not the melody, is producer Adam Faith -- a British rock legend himself and another major influence on many of the original British pop bands. Together, Faith and Don egan represent an era of music that once ruled Britannia's airwaves. Now, years later, it appears that the spirit is still willing, but the skills are not quite up to the task.