- 28 May 19
In celebration of the former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman's 74th birthday, we're revisiting Niall Stokes' review of Fogerty's classic solo album, Centerfield, originally published in Hot Press in 1985.
It's hard to believe that it's so long since John Fogerty's last album. In the intervening time-span, rumour and speculation flared intermittently about a new album in the making - yet Fogerty, one of rock'n'roll's most tantalisingly enigmatic recluses, remained silent.
At first, the longer the wait, the greater the anticipation became. Every time his name was mentioned in Hot Press circles, we speculated about a possible interview: it'd be a magnificent story. Tentative enquiries proved that it was a forlorn quest. Fogerty was (very) effectively incommunicado. Whenever we'd get together to give the turntable a hard time, his 1975 album would take its pride of place, centrefield. But inevitably, the prospect of hearing anything new, delivered in that fiercely elemental and gloriously unique vocal rasp, seemed more and more remote.
Thus, when it finally arrives, apparently out of nowhere, and without any pre-release build-up, you look at the clock and it's ten years fast...
That it still feels like an event will puzzle the uninitiated - presumably a substantial majority of the record-buying public in 1985. But Fogerty's legend endures only because he was responsible for some truly monumental music. As the leading light in Credence Clearwater Revival, Fogerty made maybe a dozen worldwide million-selling smash hits - a rich vein of inspiringly rootsy popular music, which even now stands the test of time with proud defiance. Yet even that intimidating legacy takes second place behind the blazing conviction and raw power of his second solo album (released in '75), a slab of hot rock'n'roll voodoo, which never-but-never flinches from its primal purpose. It's single-mindedness was appropriately captured in the title. No matter how many waves roll by John Fogerty remains an essential rock artefact...
In the event, Centerfield justifies the excitement of those for whom Fogerty's light shone bright, even through the dark, silent years. In 1985, when the world of pop music has opted for the lure of glitter, for the fake charms of false eyelashes and slick-professionalism, for the deceptive gloss of high-production-technology, a new John Fogerty record seems like a dangerous missile, explosive enough to shatter the prim and brittle mould. With some honourable exceptions, our pop idols are floating in a vacuum, a cocoon, adrift of roots. Their hold on the real world is tenuous, what they have to offer at best, nebulous. John Fogerty's music, in contrast, is hewn out of sinew and bone. It is bare-knuckle music that draws on the fundamental strengths of the American tradition, and rock'n'roll in particular. Like Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska in its hour, Centerfield is a timely return to basics.
But why ten years? The fact that Fogerty wrote, arranged, played and produced every last lick on Centerfield offers part explanation. To achieve that total control he had to come to grips with modern technology in terms of synths and syndrums and the extra possibilities these electronic marvels create. But beyond those time-consuming factors was one more crucial pre-requisite: before releasing another record, John Fogerty had to have something substantial to say. In the event Centerfield is an extraordinarily ambitious album, recounting both lyrically and musically one man's odyssey through rock'n'roll. It's a story of shattered illusions, of lost innocence, of broken dreams. Happily however, this is a point of renewal and the sense of unbridled exhilaration Fogerty feels in front of a microphone litters the album with soaring highs. When in the title track he proclaims "Put me in coach/ I'm ready to play today/ Look at me/ I can be/ Centerfield", there can be absolutely no doubt that it's a metaphorical statement about his new musical self-confidence. He's hitting home runs all the way.
There's a pre-rock'n'roll voodoo swamp superstitiousness in 'The Old Man Down The Road', a child's eye view of malevolence incarnate ("You got to hidey hide/ You got to jump and run away/ you got to hidey hidey hide/ The Old Man is down the road"). After that moody, atmospheric opening salvo, 'Rock'n'Roll Girls' comes as a blast of pure magic – the awakening of sexual consciousness represented in an anthem as infectiously global as Fogerty's earlier 'Rockin' All Over The World'. And what a murderously catchy chorus - it must be a hit single.
By 'Big Train (From Memphis)' the bug has bitten and Fogerty acknowledges Elvis Presley's impact on the fledgling rocker he himself was at the time of 'That's Alright Mama', and 'Mystery Train'. "Like no one before, he let out a roar/ And I just had to tag along/ Each night I went to bed/ With the sound in my head/ And the dream was a song/ Big Train from Memphis..."
When 'I Saw It On T.V.' takes you through John F. Kennedy's death, the rise of The Beatles, Vietnam and the massive disillusionment of the average American, in a musical idiom reminiscent of Neil Young and Don McLean, the grand design of Centerfield becomes impossible to ignore, its basic integrity impossible to fault. The album turns with 'Mr. Greed', a very deliberate early seventies hard rock polemic (with definite Metal leanings) against the rapaciousness of big business - with reference to the music industry, it undoubtedly pinpoints one key factor in Fogerty's withdrawal from the rock'n'roll frontline.
"Here in the darkness I'm running blind/ Been stumbling for all these years," Fogerty confesses in 'Searchlight' at the top of side two and the dense, foggy, lugubrious mood of the music amplifies the loss of bearings he experienced from the mid-seventies onwards.
But by 'Centerfield', he's regained his voice and confidence and it shows in the sparkling soundtrack. He barely loses intensity through 'I Can't Help Myself' - although riddled with self-doubt, he now realises that his comeback bid is too far gone to back out - or to want to. "The time is right to make a move," he asserts. "This is hard to take/ I can hardly wait/ I can't help myself."
And with 'Zanz Kant Danz' the die is cast. It's the album's most modern musical statement, but also Centerfield's most relaxed, mature and worldly-wise song lyrically. That it's beautifully crafted, warm and utterly memorable after just a couple of spins, says it all...
A necessarily brief track-by-track scan of such a rich album can only hope to convey a glimpse of its scope. The message of 'Zanz Kant Danz', and of Centerfield, is that John Fogerty is back – in control and capable of batting and catching better than the best.
On a gut level this is a shot of raw rock'n'roll hootchie-coo, capable of putting fire back in the blood – hard, energetic, exultant. Musically – a few questionable syndrum rolls aside – its a model of directness, skill, controlled power. And beyond that abundance of qualities, there's a tough critical intelligence at work, thematically and lyrically. With a couple of pieces of pure pop magic thrown in for good measure – certain hit singles if our radio programmers aren't too terminally soft in the head to playlist them top priority – this is essential listening.
Have a field day...