Review: Bo Diddley - Go Bo Diddley (1959)
Tracks: 1) Crackin’ Up; 2) I’m Sorry; 3) Bo’s Guitar; 4) Willie And Lillie; 5) You Don’t Love Me (You Don’t Care); 6) Say Man; 7) The Great Grandfather; 8) Oh Yea; 9) Don’t Let It Go; 10) Little Girl; 11) Dearest Darling; 12) The Clock Strikes Twelve.
One might argue about whether Bo Diddley truly deserves his title of «Originator» to the exclusion of other worthy rock’n’roll heroes of the 1950s, but I do not think it is arguable that most of the man’s «originating» can already be found compiled on his first, self-titled LP. The unwritten artistic laws of that decade clearly stated that there was literally no way in Heaven or Hell he would be able to push the boundaries of pop music even further on any of his subsequent records; and like a respectable, law-abiding citizen of the rock’n’roll district, Bo complied. Not that Go Bo Diddley, his second and probably second best LP of original material, should be described as «scraping the barrel». Its bulk, consisting of new singles that Bo released from late 1958 to mid-1959, unquestionably shows him trying out some new styles and directions — but the problem is that most of those new styles are not essentially his, and adapting them to the already established persona of Bo Diddley is a risky business that sometimes pays off, and sometimes... pays through the nose.
Although, unlike Bo Diddley, this record actually had four LP-only tracks that were not to be found on previously issued singles, it still makes sense to reshuffle the tracklist to reflect proper chronology. Once we dispense with ‘Dearest Darling’, the B-side to 1958’s ‘Hush Your Mouth’ which had already been included on Bo Diddley and probably crept its way here through sheer publishing mistake, the next single is ‘Willie And Lillie’ from October of the same year — a sad tale of a lady leaving her gent for love of the devil’s music ("Willie and Lillie used to live on a hill / Wasn’t for rock’n’roll Lillie be there still") with a happy ending of her coming back once the gent makes the conversion as well after "Willie’s mama bought him a hi-fi, his own". While it does show that Bo has a way with introducing Mother Goose to the pleasures of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, musically it does not amount to much other than a slowed down, slightly relaxed remake of ‘Hey Bo Diddley’ and the like. (Somewhat more interesting was the B-side, ‘Bo Meets The Monster’, which put a spoof of contemporary horror movies atop a riff adapted from Larry Williams’ ‘Bony Moronie’ and crowned it all with the first appearance of the pick-scraping technique that we all know from ‘Roadrunner’. For some reason, it was not included on the LP, though).
1959 opened with what was probably Bo’s weakest move up to that point — ʽI’m Sorryʼ transparently proves that doo-wop, of all things, does not agree with Bo’s personality. Not only is the production, perhaps intentionally lo-fi-stylized to echo the early Fifties, downright awful, with near-parodic back vocals rising out of the imaginary coal mines, but Bo Diddley as a soulful doo-wop crooner simply cannot be taken seriously. If I want to listen to the Cardinals, I’ll go straight to the source; the addition of Bo’s usual heavy reverb to the doo-wop guitar riff is hardly sufficient to sway my interest. For some barely explicable reason, the single did return the man to the R&B charts, for the first time ever since 1955’s ‘Pretty Thing’ — something I can only explain by a fit of sentimental nostalgia. The B-side, ‘Oh Yeah’, was far more Bo Diddleyesque in nature, but that’s not saying much, since the song is essentially a call-back to Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’, which was itself a call-back to Bo’s ‘I’m A Man’, which was itself a call-back to Muddy’s ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, and it’s all about as exciting as watching your favorite TV show slowly decline into repetition and self-parody with each new season.
By May 1959, things seem to pick up a little with the release of ‘Crackin’ Up’, which was not too musically innovative, either, based on an old Afro-Cuban-style riff by Jody Williams which Bo had already exploited on ‘Love Is Strange’ (written for Mickey & Sylvia) and which had also served as the basis for Buddy Holly’s ‘Words Of Love’. But the riff does get a new coat of paint for this song, with tremolo and reverb effects giving it an oddly «oceanic» aura, and the song’s harsher, crispier sound, paired with its funny Man’s Lib agenda ("I do your laundry and your cookin’ too / What for a woman can a man like me do?"), makes it a blast if played in tandem with either ‘Love Is Strange’ or ‘Words Of Love’ — it’s like an inverted version of the latter’s love-serenade atmosphere. (At the risk of incurring the wrath of Bo’s defenders, I’ll still go ahead and say that the genuinely crispiest version of that riff was played on Paul McCartney’s Snova V SSSR album in 1988 — the man spared no expense back then to introduce us Russians to the sonic potential of Fifties’ rock’n’roll. The Rolling Stones also did a fine job with the song, both back in their early days and later, when they revived it in Black And Blue-style for the 1976 tour, as captured on the Love You Live album — Mick Jagger is definitely a finer candidate to sing the song than Paul, who, I imagine, would be only too glad to do Linda’s laundry and cookin’ back in 1988).
‘Crackin’ Up’ was fine, but its B-side, ʽThe Great Grandfatherʼ, was probably more surprising: here, Bo steps up to take on something really archaic — ye olde working song — and this is a style which he tackles with far more conviction and spirit than doo-wop. Perhaps his moans and groans that bookend the verses are not nearly as authentic as, say, Leadbelly’s, but at least he makes up for that with plenty of animalistic intensity. Interestingly, this is the first song in Bo’s catalog to feature almost no guitar (except for the dissonant, choppy, crude instrumental break): the melody is carried entirely by the minimalistic rhythm section, with Otis Spann adding a quiet, sadly rollicking piano part in the background. If you look hard at the lyrics, it is difficult to take the song seriously — it is more of a parody on the Old Frontier Settler stereotype ("when the times got hard and the redskins smart / said his prayers with the shotgun cocked") with special focus on the importance of sowing one’s oats ("twenty-one children, came to be blessed... the great grand-pappy was a busy man"); but if you don’t look too hard, you might just get a vision of Mr. Bo humming it somewhere in a ditch, breaking rocks like there was no tomorrow. A strange and funny guy he was, Mr. Bo.
The single was another small hit, keeping Bo’s presence active on the charts, but his hugest win for 1959 did not come until the end of the year, already after the release of the LP, when one of its new songs was singled out for solo release — this was ʽSay Manʼ, on which Bo and his maracas shaker Jerome Green trade off silly jokes and friendly mutual insults to a samba beat. This was yet another first — a mixture of time-honored «African-American comedy», going back to the Dozens game, and new-fangled R&B that all the white kids around the world must have been really thrilled to hear. (That said, the actual jokes are really dumb; they should have hired some of Louis Jordan’s songwriters instead. Bo says that the producers took out all the dirtiest bits, though, which is... just sad). Tame and dated as it feels now, ‘Say Man’ is often called a spiritual predecessor to rap music, and it certainly was the first recording of its kind — whether that’s a good or a bad thing is not for me to decide, but I guess the general public was quite thrilled, as the single rose to #20 on the general pop charts, an achievement Bo Diddley would never be able to top.
Musically, I would say, it is the B-side that takes precedence: ʽThe Clock Strikes Twelveʼ starts out deceptively as yet another variation on the ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ theme, before turning into a slow instrumental 12-bar blues jam with Bo playing the violin — it’s safe to say that Heifetz or Menuhin probably would not be impressed by his technique, but for a few moments out there, I am ashamed — or thrilled? — to say that I could not actually understand if it really was a violin, or if it was some trickily produced inventive part blown by Little Walter on his harmonica. With more of that quirky Otis Spann piano and Bo going from bowing to pizzicato and back, in a way, the jam has more of a roll-over-Beethoven vibe than Chuck Berry ever offered, but, of course, in the long run it’s still more of an escape-from-routine-boredom thing for Bo than a revolutionary and influential musical creation.
The remaining four LP-only tracks, predictably, deserve only passable mention. ʽLittle Girlʼ seems to intrude on the turf of New Orleanian barroom players from Professor Longhair to Fats Domino, and just as he is not much of a doo-wop singer, Bo does not quite master the sort of nonchalant drunken swagger that it takes to make these things loveable, so just give it a quick listen and go back to the real thing instead (why should one subject oneself to repeated listens of Bo Diddley trying to sound like Fats Domino? at least Fats Domino never tried to make you listen to him sounding like Bo Diddley). ʽYou Don’t Love Meʼ is the ever-on-the-watchout Bo stealing the carpet from under the feet of Slim Harpo — a variation on ʽGot Love If You Want Itʼ which, in terms of sharpness, energy, and professionalism, destroys the original completely, yet it still did not help Bo expropriate the original (UK bands like the Kinks and the Yardbirds still got stuck covering Slim Harpo). ‘Don’t Let It Go’ is just another variation on the never-ending ‘Diddley Daddy’ / ‘Say Boss Man’ / ‘Willie And Lillie’ pattern, a fact subtly acknowledged in the mantra-form chorus ("hold on to what you got but don’t let go!").
Best of the four is another instrumental, ‘Bo’s Guitar’, which combines a variation on the Diddley beat with shards of twangy surf-style melodies — supposedly, Bo the Omnivorous must have kept one ear open to Duane Eddy’s recent hits — and then goes into proto-noise-rock territory, with the man trying to extract as much sonic diversity from his instrument as was technically possible for 1959. There wasn’t a lot of things yet that were technically possible, but I can imagine that this was the kind of music to inspire young Pete Townshends and Jimi Hendrixes all around the globe: the very idea that you can just fool around with the guitar any way you please while your rhythm section does all the disciplined hard work.
Looking back on all these descriptions, I feel like maybe I ought to take back the review’s opening phrase, yet in the end I think I shall still stick with it. One reason is that Bo does seem to bite off a bit more than he can actually chew — best proof of that being the failed doo-wop experiment of ‘I’m Sorry’ and the unconvincing New Orleanian stylizations of ‘Little Girl’ — and the other is that this time around, new ideas creep in more subtly, rather than bursting in on a here’s-Johnny! note. In fact, most of his actual innovations in 1959 are on the verbal side, from the Mother Goose influence on ‘Willie And Lillie’ to the monster-movie stuff of ‘Bo Meets The Monster’ to the spoken insult game of ‘Say Man’; and those which are not, like the violin on ‘Clock Strikes Twelve’ and the chunks of noise on ‘Bo’s Guitar’, take a while to sink in as genuine examples of musical experimentation — whereas the melodic dependence on riffs and patterns already introduced in 1955-1958 is nearly always obvious right off the bat. Still, compared to many, many of his peers who couldn’t put out more than 3–4 completely original songs without spending the rest of their career re-writing them in inferior versions, Bo Diddley’s sophomore record is a relative triumph: one of the best rock’n’roll collections of 1959, the year that the lucky star alignment was lost and staying true to the exciting spirit of rock’n’roll became a heavy chore for most of its practitioners. Not good old Bo, though. You don’t get this guy turning into a black Bobby Darin just because being wild and crazy temporarily went out of fashion after «the day the music died».