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(Credit: Heinrich Klaffs)

Music

'Bayou Country', the album that announced Creedence Clearwater Revival

Even in 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival were anachronistic. Psychedelia had only just recently fallen out of favour, and in its place came roots music from the likes of The Band, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and even The Beatles. But this version of roots music was recalling classic gospel and country styles of the past, not 1950s rock and roll or hard-driving rhythm and blues. That was well-trod territory for white bands in the early and mid-1960s, and was largely discarded once the summer of love truly took hold. What new spin could these southern boys possibly bring to the genre?

Well, CCR were always good at confounding expectations. For one, they weren’t southern boys: despite singing about Bayou Country on their latest release, the four band members were born and bred Californians. San Francisco was the epicentre for the boom of psychedelic rock, so it was fitting for a band like CCR, in their flannel shirts and bumpkin-like attitudes, to feel out of place as they tried to make a name for themselves.

What most people didn’t know was that CCR weren’t just channelling the sounds of the past: they had been playing it for a decade. Under a couple of different names, including The Blue Velvets, Vision, and most regrettably The Golliwogs, the members of CCR had been busting out good old fashioned rock and roll since they were teenagers in 1959. After years of middling success and a brief stint in the Army, John Fogerty took the reins, and he wanted to sing lead, play lead guitar, write the songs, and produce their records. Luckily for them, it was around this time that their record label, Fantasy Records, would shift their focus to album-oriented rock and gave CCR the platform that they needed to reach a global audience.

Mostly a singles band up to that point, the group’s self-titled debut in 1968 consisted of cover songs and trace remnants of the psychedelic scene that proceeded them. Fogerty decided to double down on the swamp rock that the band were flirting with on their first album: hoodoo, riverboats, and old school slang like “chooglin”. In the process, he assumed the full control he was looking for, at the expense of his band members. CCR experienced unprecedented success, but they also only existed for five years due to the stress and strain that Fogerty implemented, which had its roots as early as Bayou Country.

“In making the second album, Bayou Country, we had a real confrontation,” Fogerty explained to Rolling Stone in 1993. “Everybody wanted to sing, write, make up their own arrangements, whatever, right? This was after ten years of struggling. Now we had the spotlight. Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. ‘Suzie Q’ was as big as we’d ever seen. Of course, it really wasn’t that big… I didn’t want to go back to the carwash”.

Perhaps what made Fogerty so confident in his abilities to lead the band forward came from a song he had only just recently written. Containing all the themes and recognisable southern iconography that CCR had their signature, ‘Proud Mary’ was emblematic of the direction that Fogerty was pushing the group towards. It made for a perfect single, but even those sessions showed how deep the divisions in power were at the very beginning.

“We went into RCA in Hollywood, Studio A, to record Bayou Country in October,” Fogerty told Uncut in 2012. “We had the music for ‘Proud Mary’ recorded, and I knew what I wanted the backgrounds to sound like. I showed the other guys how to sing the backgrounds, having remembered what we’d sounded like on ‘Porterville’, which was very ragged, not melodious… And I heard our tape back, and I just went, ‘Nahhh, that’s not gonna work.’ So we had a big fight over that… We literally coulda broke up right there”.

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Instead, Fogerty got the control he desired, penning all six original songs on Bayou Country. ‘Graveyard Train’ showed off the band’s bluesy roots mixed in with a liberal amount of swampy country shuffle. ‘Bootleg’ was a loose acoustic rocker, complete with the band’s signature drive. Those two tracks, plus the twelve-bar blues strut ‘Penthouse Pauper’ were the reinforcements that solidified Fogerty’s vision for what the band should play at all times. But if it wasn’t for the other half of Bayou Country, CCR likely would have continued to languish.

First off was the album opener ‘Born on the Bayou’, the shout-along soul-influenced song that established the myth of CCR. Swamps, American holidays, cajun queens, and mystical references to African witchcraft were the foundations of the band’s new identity, and with each subsequent song of their career, Fogerty would do his best to replicate that same magic. It’s appropriate that Little Richard would later cover the song, seeing as the band did their own interpretation of ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ to start the second side of the record. While not the greatest cover in the world, it solidified Fogerty’s high-energy rock bona fides, which he would later perfect on ‘Travelin’ Band’.

It’s on the final two songs, however, that CCR truly begins to take flight. ‘Proud Mary’ has the kind of melodic power that pulled together all the ridiculous posturing that the group were attempting and made them sound authentic. Fogerty’s southern accent and tales of a childhood in the bayou weren’t real, but one listen to ‘Proud Mary’ could fool anyone into thinking it was legitimate. Followed by the band’s standard set closer, ‘Keep On Chooglin’, which let the band stretch out and jam to their heart’s content, there was a positively infectious southern sprawl that emanated from Bayou Country that appealed to a generation looking to “get back to the land”.

Speaking of which, Bayou Country came at the perfect time to elevate CCR. Although ‘Proud Mary’ would be the first in Creedence’s run of singles getting stuck at number two, it represented the band’s biggest success up to that point and set the stage for Bayou Country to infiltrate the top 10 of Billboard‘s album charts. Rather than sit back and enjoy their success, Fogerty continued to push the band forward, beginning recording on their follow up only two months after Bayou Country. That’s because CCR had a deadline they wanted to sync up with: Woodstock.

Even though they performed to a mostly asleep crowd early in the morning, CCR’s Woodstock performance nevertheless catapulted the band into superstar territory. The band’s new album, Green River, hit number one in America, but this success only convinced Fogerty to keep working. Despite the rest of the band being exhausted, Fogerty insisted that the band have a third album released in 1969. Willy and the Poor Boys was another success, but between constant touring, recording, and Fogerty’s autocratic leaderships, CCR were ill-prepared to enter the 1970s.

It had all seemed so simple of Bayou Country. CCR owned 1969 like no other band did, and from the very beginning too. When it was released in early January of that year, Bayou Country signalled Creedence Clearwater Revival as the forerunners of what would take over popular rock music in the forthcoming decade, and it’s hard to image bands like Little Feat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would have sounded like had CCR not laid the foundation.

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