Sunday, 30 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 75. Moanin' in the Moonlight

Top 102 Albums. No 75. 
Moanin' in the Moonlight - Howlin' Wolf

"Ah, oh, smokestack lightning
Shinin', just like gold
Why don't ya hear me cryin'?"

This was Howlin' Wolf's first album and it collects some of the stupendous singles he recorded for Chess Records in the fifties. These ain't no re-recordings but the genuine article. A fragment of the one true chord. Although these records somewhat define the Chicago Blues sound it is worth noting that the first two songs were not recorded by the Chess brothers but by Mr Sam Philips in the Sun Recording Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Wolf already had twenty years of playing behind him. And here's what Sam thought - (or so Wikipedia says) - "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.'" You can't have a halfway decent record collection without the (Burnette) name in the credits of a number of songs. He's been imitated, borrowed from and lionised by so many there's no point trying to list them.  Here's That Petrol Emotion's paean to this extraordinary bluesman.

Wolf was a big man and he had a big voice. This size comes across on record. There's often an edge of threat in these songs "I wore my 44 so long that it made my shoulder sore, well I done made my shoulder sore""Well I'm so mad this morning I don't know where in the world to go". But there's much more, forbearance and suffering, love and betrayal, the drudgery of day to day life, sexual tension, poverty, and that all pervading sense that life can be an Evil thing. As the man says "You better watch your happy home".

This is the sound of rock music being invented. It has been said that How Many More Years is the first record to include a distorted power chord. And Wolf links this back to the early country blues, having been taught to play guitar by Charley Patton and harmonica by Sonny Boy Williamson and played with Son House and Robert Johnson amoung others. His band included, at various times Willie Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Junior Parker, Otis Spann, Matt 'Guitar' Murphy, Willie Dixon, Ike Turner, Buddy Guy .....

I also thought of playing this because I mentioned Talk About the Passion being a great song referencing the Crucifixion. Wolf uses the imagery of the crucifixion on one song here, I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline).  Over a shuffling beat and an insistent bass Wolf intones a series of epigrammatic lines which loosely pertain to "the troublingest woman I have ever seen". When he finishes with the line "you've been gone too long" the echo that's been set up leaves me, anyhow, thinking Wolf is evoking a world abandoned by God, a world in which, to go back to an earlier song "evil's going on".

I could go on and on about this album and listen to it for longer still. It's an album that never wears out and is which makes up a large portion of the DNA of rock music. And he's not a hard luck story. Wolf was successful financially and even returned to college to learn accounting to better enable him to look after business. He even paid for health insurance for his band. He sure watched his own happy home.

Once again, this list of albums is not ordered, and is not an attempt to fix what's 'best'. It's hard to say any album is better than this. Although his next one runs it close.


  1. Big and dirty sound; intense, unsubtle, rowdy and irresistible.
    This just leaps out at you...
    Tom Waits sold his soul @1980 and Wolf took all of his small change.

  2. Another record I'm very happy to own, but I probably prefer Wolf's "the rocking chair album" for its compilation of hits. "Evil," "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)," "Smokestack Lightning," any other song where the guy goes from growling to that eerie falsetto--man, what a powerful and one of a kind voice! Am now curious to see if you have any country blues coming up on your playlists (I have two or three choices that would prob. make my own list, but I'll keep quite till I see what you have in mind yourself).