Rock 'n' Roll Dictators: A Case Study

I've just finished John Fogerty's autobiography, Fortunate Son. Now, I'd say that Fogerty is one of my greatest musical heroes, but that's not quite accurate. It's his band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, that I adored as a young boy. Green River was the first album I ever owned, and I have fond memories of unwrapping the rest of their albums as Christmas and birthday presents in the early '70s.

But hold on a minute, you might say. Fogerty was CCR, was he not? Judging from his book, he'd have no trouble agreeing. After all, he wrote, produced, arranged and sang 97% of their material (100% if you discount their 1972 swan song Mardi Gras, about which more shortly). Additionally, all the instrumentation save for the rhythm guitar, bass and drums was played by him. This includes backing vocals on all but four songs ("Susie Q," "Porterville," "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "Sailor's Lament," according to the book). And if you believe Fogerty's claims, he wrote many of his bandmates' parts as well. All they did was execute them, to varying degrees of success in his estimation.

As I'm sure is obvious by now, Creedence Clearwater Revival is the textbook example of a rock 'n' roll dictatorship. The collective, such as it is, exists only to support the protagonist's vision. Assuming the dictator is as gifted as he thinks he is, all is copacetic until either (a) his vision falters or (b) the supporting cast mutinies. In the case of Creedence, both happened pretty much simultaneously.

Based strictly on the available evidence—CCR's music and the members' solo efforts—it's hard to argue with John Fogerty. Acquiescence to his bandmates' demands for equal time on Mardi Gras led Rolling Stone's Jon Landau to dub the album Fogerty's Revenge, and later in the same review, "the worst album I have ever heard from a major rock band." By this time, rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty had left, leaving bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford the sole beneficiaries of the fledgling Creedence democracy.

So: was CCR really John Fogerty, supported by three fair-to-middling hacks under his employ only because he needed a live band? To answer that, let's examine their subsequent solo careers. As far as I can tell, Stu Cook's entire oeuvre consists of his three songs on Mardi Gras. "Door to Door" is, I think, a rockin' and rather clever CCR knockoff, while "Take It Like a Friend" bubbles along in a funky, early '70s R&B vein, marred only by his unfortunate falsetto at the end. "Sail Away" is the only clunker here, a paint-by-numbers slice of Tex-Mex that goes nowhere and further exposes Stu's vocal limitations.

In addition to his three songs of fame on Mardi Gras, Doug Clifford released a solo album that same year, Cosmo, which even he says is "a terrible record." After hearing it on YouTube I can't disagree, though "Take a Train" struck me as a catchy number. Going back to Mardi Gras, Doug's "Tearin' Up the Country" is a chicken-pickin' trifle I could live without, and "What Are You Gonna Do" is redeemed only by the gospel backing in the choruses. "Need Someone to Hold," on the other hand, is hands down the best non-Fogerty Creedence tune—well played, written and sung.

As for Cook and Clifford's songwriting legacy, I'll just note that their tribute band, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, performs only Fogerty's material. Nor (aside from a Clifford co-write on a 1981 Tom Fogerty album) has the duo written anything else in the ensuing, oh, 45 years.

For a guy who was the first to leave and ostensibly had the most to gain by doing so, Tom Fogerty's self-titled 1972 debut album is pedestrian and sloppily recorded to boot. This was the best he could do after five years in little brother's shadow? Were you to place its top three songs—"The Legend of Alcatraz," "Lady of Fatima" and the non-album single "Goodbye Media Man"—on Mardi Gras alongside those of his erstwhile compatriots, they'd be distinguished only for their resemblance to a junior-league Creedence. In fairness, by the time of his fourth LP Myopia (1974), his songwriting and production skills had improved. Check out "What Did I Know," an amiable country-rocker, the Badfinger-like "Sweet Things to Come," and the homespun "There Was a Time." That said, Tom's best material isn't up to the lofty standards set by his brother in CCR.

As for little brother, his career has lasted the longest and produced the best music of the lot, though he too has recorded his share of duds, Eye of the Zombie and the unreleased Hoodoo among them. In fact, I'd argue that occasional flashes of brilliance aside, none of John's solo output comes anywhere close to matching CCR's five-album hot streak that extends from Bayou Country straight through to Pendulum.

All told, then, the evidence points to John Fogerty as the primary force behind Creedence Clearwater Revival, but not the only one. Despite his low opinion of the others' talents and ample data in support of same, the four of them possessed a certain chemistry entirely missing from their solo efforts, J.C. Fogerty's included. Simply put, the music these four made together is far superior to anything they've produced as individuals.

Now, back to Fortunate Son—not a review but a few observations. Beneath what an online reviewer aptly calls an "aw-shucks veneer" is one bitter man, despite his claims to the contrary. It's hard to say who he hates more: his ex-bandmates or Fantasy Records' head honcho Saul Zaentz. With the exception of brother Tom, who gets one compliment for every three barbs, John portrays the other two as selfish, whining ingrates with zero talent and even fewer creative ideas.

What's fascinating—and a strong, unspoken undercurrent throughout—is his utter bewilderment as to why the others demanded creative parity. What comes across is something like, "We were so successful, and we could have kept the band going for much longer if they'd just shut up and done what I said. I was the genius; they had nothing. Why did they go and ruin everything?" All true based on the evidence, but it completely ignores the psychological makeup of the average musician. As Fogerty ought to know, what drives most musicians is the pursuit of their artistic vision. "Musician" and "minion" aren't exactly overlapping temperaments. If you love following orders and taking direction, music is not the career path for you. What's most remarkable is that the others swallowed their pride for as long as they did, regardless of their creativity or lack of same.

Now that I've said my piece, let's revisit Mardi Gras one last time. It's not the worst album ever, though in John Fogerty's defence had the democratic CCR produced a follow-up, that one might have been. To put a pretty bow on a disheartening story, I've assembled a "complete" version of the album by inserting the three Tom Fogerty songs listed above. Call it The Other Fogerty's Revenge. And the verdict? They make the album neither better nor worse, just longer.

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