For a quarter of a century now, we've been hearing fabled stories about young rock 'n' rollers finding their inspiration in obscure blues songs. We've heard of Elvis Presley heading straight from his truck-driving job across the tracks in Memphis to go hear Big Joe Turner; of Bob Dylan finding a Little Rock blues station that would bounce off the ionosphere into his Minnesota bedroom; of Keith Richard and Mick Jagger cutting college classes to spin their newest imported Chess records; of Duane and Gregg Allman humbling themselves backstage when they finally met Muddy Waters.
Today we're hearing newer but no less familiar stories about the Inmates. George Thorogood, the Nighthawks and others of a new generation that is finding its inspiration in the same old place. It's not strange that the Inmates' debut album, "First Offence" (Polydor PD-1-6241), sounds a lot like the Rolling Stones' 1964 debut. Nor is it odd that George Thorogood's "Better Than the Rest" (MCA-3091) sounds a lot like Duane and Gregg Allman's first efforts before forming the Allman Brothers Band.
The story may be old but it still rings true. As long as the mainstream culture remains basically superficial, the frank sexuality and emotional intensity of blues records are going to hit naive teen-agers like a Muhammed Ali left hook. And as predictably as any good science experiment, those teen agers are going to try to duplicate that sound themselves. They'll never get it right.
They'll miss just enough to create a new music that makes that emotional intensity accessible to their peers. The Rolling Stones never got Slim Harpo's sound just right because they sensed the feel was more important and they could only get the feel right in their own dialect. The Inmates haven't done Arthur Conley's sound just right either, but they've got the feel.
The Inmates may not get as much of the feel as the Stones did on their debut, but they get a big chunk of it. The Inmates have already transcended the adolescent stage of convulsive emotion for emotion's sake. Like the Stones, the Inmates have learned to control their emotion without denying it. They can smile at their own predicaments; glow with a certain confidence.
This is clear on their first single "Dirty Water," a remake of the Standells' garage-punk song, a fluke 1966 hit. The original was bogged down by the totality of its teen-age crisis. The Inmates' Bill Hurley sounds truly frustrated by his girl friend's curfew, but also enjoys the dilemma. Peter Gunn's lusty guitar work implies better times are coming.
Every cut on the record has the swagger of those who can handle a full-throttle life. Don Covay's "Three Time Loser" is a tale of romantic failure, but Hurley sings not only the woe but the pleasure of having tried so hard. The tight rhythm section and the guitars of Gunn and Tony Olive never drag defeatedly but always push on optimistically.
The best songs on the album are the blues covers. Arthur Conley's "Love Got Me" is pumped up to a shouting frenzy with the help of the Rumour's horn section. Jimmy McCracklin's "The Walk" crackles with snap and style. Five of the 11 cuts are originals by Gunn (credited to P. Staines -- get it?). They are promising initial efforts, but not quite yet all the way there.
George Thorogood's two albums for Rounder Records -- the 1977 "George Thorogood and the Destroyers" and the 1978 "Move It On Over" -- are even better examples of blues-in-spired rock 'n' roll. He somehow combines emotional release and controlled style in the secret paradox of the blues. His slide guitar sound is so big that he alone equalizes the two guitar teams of the early Beatles and Rolling Stones.
Before he refined his skills to this level, however, Thorogood made an autition tape for MCA Records. MCA declined to release the record but bought the tapes as is customary. When Thorogood's talents blossomed on the two Rounder releases (and far outsold any other small label release of recent years), MCA dredged up the old tapes and released them without Thorogood's permission as "Better Than the Rest."
In a statement, Thorogood claimed: "I consider the performance on 'Better Than the Rest' to be obsolete and inferior to my present sound and records . . . The issuance of such material . . . is not only crass but is a trick on the people." The music is not as bad as Thorogood implies, nor is it as good as MCA's title implies. It sounds just like what it is: an immensely talented but musically immature Thorogood doing 10 blues covers. It can be enjoyed in the light of the other two albums, but should only be bought after those two.
Rounder didn't have a Thorogood release in 1979, but they did handle Peter Green's impressive comeback, "In the Skies" (Sail 0110). Before Fleetwood Mac found the California beach harmonies of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, they were a British blues band formed by Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood in 1967. Inspired by the blues like everyone else in this story, Green pursued the high ideal of blues guitarists Elmore James and Buddy Guy with fanatic tenacity.
He was getting closer and closer till suddenly in 1970, he gave it all up for religion. He disappeared from music for nine years till he reappeared with "In the Skies," sounding as if no time had elapsed at all.
Green picks right up where he left off. Paired with another gifted blues guitarist listed as "Snowy White," Green plays those long, lingering blues guitar phrases that seem to shiver as they hang in the air. "In the Skies" sounds more like Derek & the Diminoes than anything Eric Clapton has done recently.
The constant return of rock 'n' roll to the blues is not a cautious, conservative tendency, but an inspirational, conservationist move. As long as classic blues records can be found in collectors' bins at record stores, rock 'n' rollers with have undiluted reminders of their original impulses.