The Complete Recordings
Columbia Records, 1990
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/28/1997
Eric Clapton would have hated me back in 1990.
You see, that was the year that the ultimate collection of recordings from legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings, was released. Clapton has stated in many interviews - and even in the liner notes for this collection - that Johnson was the biggest influence on his music. But the first time I listened to it, I couldn't say I was impressed - thus I would have earned Clapton's disdain.
But recently, while strolling the Pierce Memorial Archives (where earplugs are more than a fashion statement, they're part of daily wear), I stumbled upon my copy of The Complete Recordings - on vinyl, no less. I don't know why I chose to dust it off again - but I'm sure glad I did.
Johnson's legend spread after his death in 1937 - some say that Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his gift of music. (I say this was impossible, as Bill Gates was not even... oh, never mind.) Johnson's output could not be called massive in any language - the whole remaining body of his work is 41 takes of 29 songs. But it is the quality of this music that is important - something that can be heard even through the primitive recording conditions that brought 78's to life.
I would dare to say that any classic rock fan has been touched in some fashion by Johnson's music. Clapton has covered him on many occasions, as have the Rolling Stones. But listening to Johnson on these three records, one has to admit he was a pioneer in the blues field.
The recordings feature only Johnson and his guitar - but the glorious noise they produce on the well-recorded tracks is amazing. Keith Richards said in the liner notes that he thought there were two guitarists the first time he heard Johnson's music - and it sometimes seems amazing that the six-string work is all coming from one man at one time.
And Johnson - despite taking traditional timing and metering and throwing them out the window - knew how to craft a blues masterpiece. Songs like "Sweet Home Chicago," "Come On In My Kitchen," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and "Cross Road Blues," despite being covered numerous times over the years in various incarnations, have never sounded as sweet as when their author performed them.
Sometimes, when listening to cuts like "Hellhound On My Trail," "Me And The Devil Blues" or "Cross Road Blues," one can't help but wonder about the stories regarding Johnson's unearthly deal. For someone so young, Johnson did seem fascinated by supernatural encounters and times of despair and decision regarding one's life. But when you think that everything is whiskey and tears, Johnson pulls out a song like "They're Red Hot," which is more jazz than blues, and is a wonderful change of pace.
I think that one thing which originally deterred me from The Complete Recordings was the fact that I kept hearing different versions of songs back to back. Seven years after I originally listened to it, I realize two things. First, it wasn't like there were eight different takes of the same song on one record; there are no more than two different takes of any song here. Second, and more importantly, each different take recealed something different about the track. Maybe it was taking the tuning up or down a half-step, maybe it was a little better production (or better diction), maybe Johnson's heart was more in that take. It is an interesting piece of history to listen to.
The only negative point I have with the album, ironically, is something which can't be controlled - and that is varying sound quality of the tracks. I know I should be thankful that many of these tracks have survived this long after Johnson's death. But there are a few tracks here which have very poor sound - possibly the reason why there was more than one take done on those songs. (Not all the cuts that appear twice suffer from this.) The fact is recording technology in 1997 is much different than what existed in 1936, when the bulk of these tracks were recorded. Had Johnson not been poisoned in 1937, I think he would have been able to reap the benefits of new recording technologies as they were born.
The Complete Recordings is not only a must-own for anyone who is a diehard blues enthusiast, it's a wonderful starting place for those who wish to discover why the blues is such a pure and powerful medium. It's a nice thing for rock music fans to hear, if only to discover how some of their favorite tracks started out. And, it is the Robert Johnson release to own.