March 20, 2017
Released On January 10, 1977
Released By Blue Sky Records
I was flipping through the bins of one of my favorite local record stores when that beautiful Richard Avedon photo of Muddy Waters jumped out at me. I gazed at the cover portrait for an awkward amount of time before flipping it over to discover that Hard Again was produced Johnny Winter in 1977. OK, this should be interesting! Based on photo, producer, and the fact that I didn’t own any Muddy Waters records, I purchased the album without sampling it first.
First, a little backstory on Johnny Winter. If you don’t know this blues legend by name, you’ve definitely heard “Frankenstein” by his brother Edgar Winter. The song was first played with Johnny’s band and the two of them have played and recorded together throughout their careers. “Frankenstein” is the gateway into this world for a lot of people, and as a teenager I may have (definitely) bought the Wayne’s World 2 soundtrack because of this song. It’s really weird to say this now, but an interview with Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins B-Side “Tribute To Johnny” turned me onto his music. I even went to see Johnny play a tiny backwoods blues bar once. The experience was everything you might expect from an ageing-road-worn-blues-icon in a creepy dark club. I’d be happy to tell you all the details over shots of cheap tequila.
So with that in mind, I drop the needle. Instantly I’m transported to a room with hardwood floors and Muddy is sitting just a few feet in front of me. “Everything gonna be alright this mornin’.” The band kicks in and you hear Johnny testifying from the back of the room. “Yeaa!!” The record is raw and personal, and before “Mannish Boy” is even finished I’m hooked. It’s better than I could have imagined. I love hearing all of the room sounds on this record. Every scratch of a slide hitting metal strings. The bass drum beater forcefully hitting the head. Musicians shifting in their chairs. The harmonica player’s breath. Too often these elements are scrubbed clean, but for me they’re an essential part of the raw Muddy Waters sound.
It’s strange to think that The Hoochie Coochie Man ever needed a career revival. Without Muddy, The Rolling Stones, Rolling Stone magazine, and even “Like A Rolling Stone” might have all been called something else. His work is recognized in list like “500 Greatest Songs Of All Time” and “500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll” and countless people have covered his songs.
If you go back and listen to the original version of “Mannish Boy” from 1955, it features the classic slap back drum sound and the backup shouting almost sounds like a group of children. By the late ’60s, Chess Records tried to boost Muddy’s career with a dose of psychedelic sounds on Electric Mud; however, the results were more like a remix than a revival. His performance at The Last Waltz concert and a run of ’70s live records were arguably a catalyst for making Hard Again ten years later. Much like the Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash records, Hard Again was successful by stripping down the sound to get to the true feeling of music. Muddy Waters said it… you know the blues got a soul.
The father of modern Chicago blues making it even more modern in 1977.
You know when you hear a record that was released before you were born and you really want to know what it was like to hear the record when it was released? Not just hear it, but experience it at that time? What was the history of the artist and the producer, the cultural climate, the critical consensus and what real fans and record buyers thought? I kept returning to these questions when processing my first listen of Muddy Waters’ 1977 “comeback” LP Hard Again. I don’t have a lot of historical knowledge of Waters beyond the singles, and this was the first of his records that I heard all the way through, after PJ brought it home. Waters, in the last years of his career, worked with man who was in the early stages of his career, musician and producer Johnny Winter. What I immediately noticed was how authentic the music is, but also how amazing Winter’s production is — it sounds clear and bright, different from Waters’ early records, but also nothing like what I knew of guitar-shredder Winter. It made me want to know everything about Hard Again and the state of blues in the 1970s. I listened to Waters’ original versions of “Mannish Boy,” “I Want to Be Loved,” and “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” surprised to find myself preferring a few of the later versions. The “yeah’s” on “Mannish Boy” sound so much more feverish and necessary on Hard Again. I listened to Winter and other blues musicians of the time. I know this album revitalized Waters’ career, but it’s also a collaboration between artists who were able to reach amazing creative peaks together. I wish I could have heard Hard Again in 1977, and feel all the excitement of two brilliant musicians finding each other and making an electrifying record that allowed one of the oldest genres of American music sound modern and important again.
Despite the fact that this is Muddy Waters’ twelfth studio record, it’s every bit as fresh. Hard Again brought me out of my comfort zone in many ways, forcing me to look deeper into what the whole album is built on — free-form passion and exuberance. From the get-go, Waters is making a statement about himself in his vocal delivery on “Mannish Boy,” almost taunting the listener with a sentiment that confidently says, “I’m back, baby, and I’m still great.” This record was his first on the label Blue Sky, after formerly being signed to Chess Records. From the sound of it, they gave him free-reign to shine on this release. “The Blues Had A Baby…” is one of the most enjoyable tracks here. It rolls through itself with the kind of pure, unadulterated charm that’s so common in Waters’ work, and it sounds as though it was recorded live, only adding to how genuine this entire record is. From start to finish, Waters is a musical magician. “Deep Down In Florida” is another personal favorite of mine, with its slow and steady introduction that is equally warm and inviting to the listener. This is a track that will not only make you feel infinitely cool, but it will also cascade you down a soft river into a world that seems to only exist in the mind of Muddy Waters himself. It’s a pleasant trip, and I suggest you take the ride.
Growing up hearing the blues discussed the way it was discussed by establishment rock critics circa the late ’80s/early ’90s (when I was a teenager and coming into my own understanding of music beyond the Top 40), I always got the idea that Muddy Waters was a forerunner, someone who’d done his important work long before rock n’ roll ever existed and whose influence was felt on the genre from the very start. Imagine my surprised when I learned at a surprisingly late date (five years ago, maybe?) that Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man,” which was covered by the Yardbirds and which I always thought of as a rock n’ roll song, predated Waters’ signature “Mannish Boy” by a year (1955 vs 1956). At that point, I started to understand what I, at least for now, regard as the truth — that the electric blues out of Chicago has more of a parallel history to rock n’ roll than a forerunning history. And of course there’s a ton of bleed around the edges of both. For that reason, it only makes sense that, 25 or 30 years into his career, Muddy Waters was celebrating his signing to a new label by bashing out what can only be called a very heavy-rockin’ album featuring new recordings of a few signature tunes (including the aforementioned “Mannish Boy“) alongside a collection of powerful new material. That distinction between blues and rock n’ roll that would have made this seem weird to teenage me isn’t a very real distinction at all, and understanding that fact is a key to unlocking the excellence of Hard Again. I’m not usually very into the idea of an artist re-recording songs previously made famous in an earlier era — generally, the spontaneity that was a big part of its initial appeal is greatly diminished, or missing altogether. Waters, his then-current touring band, and producer/label-boss Johnny Winter manage to avoid that problem by recording this album in a loose, organic fashion that allows for the playful energy of Waters’ best work to shine through. Listen to those joyous background yelps on “Mannish Boy,” those extensive guitar and harmonica interplays on “Bus Driver,” that rollicking boogie rhythm on “Crosseyed Cat,” and really any random moment on any of these ten songs, and you’ll hear a bunch of seasoned musical veterans playing the hell out of some incredibly catchy electric blues tunes and rocking the party by doing so. That’s true no matter which side of that mythical blues/rock n’ roll divide those musicians come from.
Can music really sound like a city? Not just sound like other music made in that city, but somehow sound like the city itself? I was asking myself these kinds of questions while listening to the vinyl copy of Hard Again that fellow Off Your Radar-er Andrew Cothern gifted me a while back — Thank you, Andrew! — and I’m convinced the answer is yes. When I think of Chicago, I think heavy thoughts. Buildings. Steel. Streets. And that’s what I hear in Muddy Waters’ music. Each phrase of “Mannish Boy” feels like it’s wrenching one of those unimaginably weighty skyscrapers off its foundation, moving it a few feet, and dropping it with a booming thud. (“Ain’t that a man?”) In “Mannish Boy” and elsewhere, Johnny Winter spouts interjections like a construction worker yelling from one side of a skeletal structure to the other. And I hear the streets’ meanness in James Cotton’s harmonica tone — a distorted grind that binds all of these tracks together. I saw on Thursday that Cotton had died and found myself listening extra closely to his parts — how he oscillates between providing melodic accompaniment and adding powerful punctuation. You could make an argument that his harp acts as the voice of this album just as much as Waters’ does. Speaking of oscillation, I started wondering whether there’s a technical term for the practice of quickly going back and forth between two harmonica notes, as Cotton does so frequently on Hard Again. Turns out it’s called warbling. Maybe you already knew that, dear reader, but I didn’t. Now I do. Thank you, James Cotton.
With the help of famed producer Johnny Winter, Waters begun his post-Chess career with the biggest bang imaginable for a blues musician.
You know, seeing McKinley Morganfield’s extensive catalog, his establishment of fame (to the point that there’s surely at least one person who saw my initial reference to his given name and thought, ‘who?’), and the sheer weight that blues music puts forth when turned on and up, anything I have to say feels almost trivial. Yet, here we are and so here we go, perhaps with less need for introductory fanfare and more getting right to the point. Hard Again is near the back end of Muddy Waters’ studio album discography and wastes no time warming up. Opening track “Mannish Boy” is a straight up blues confessional/declaration, complete with classic five note hook, harmonica, heavy kick drum beat, and shouts of “Yeah!” validation that make the song sound like a pristine live recording. The 12-bar format struts across this album with a confidence rather than existing like a default of inspiration-less copy-paste. Waters’ sings with attitude, dynamic intensity, and abandon for concern of preciseness that gives these songs all their irresistibly inviting character. It’s impossible not to imagine a semi-noisy, neighborhood bar or venue, a vintage microphone, one spotlight, and a lot of closed eyes with tightened fists; none gripping in irritation mind you but in satisfaction of the performance, the hitting of those full bodied harmonica trills (“Crosseyed Cat“), bent blue notes, (“Little Girl“) and Waters’ own energetic hollers (“Jealous Hearted Man“). Lengthy and emotive solos, an easy to find groove, or anything else musical aside, even just titles of the tracks on Hard Again are memorable, playful, and amusing (“The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock And Roll, Pt. 2“). This is an album that needs no boost of favor but anytime it’s played, surely gets it anyway and in those times, we’re reminded, “That’s why he’s the father of Chicago blues.”
I want to talk about how much I enjoyed James Cotton’s harmonica on this album. It really hit me on “Jealous Hearted Man” when, at times, it sounded like a wailing electric guitar. There was even a part where he was doing what can only be described as “shredding.” It sounded exactly like a great metal guitar solo that you might hear on an early Metallica or Slayer album. And I just love it. It’s fuzzed out and super distorted and it sounds amazing. The harmonica was already a source of fascination to me — I don’t understand how you can reliably get the notes you want out of it. I know that the answer is “through lots of practice” but, as with all things that require a honed skill, it seems impossible to ever attain that skill. So the harmonica is my focus on this album, but the thing is, it’s such an amazing, solid album, made by people that clearly care about what they’re putting out, even if it was Waters’s twelfth album. Waters is into it, Johnny Winter is into it, and you know James Cotton is into it. Listen to that harmonica. You don’t get an instrument to sound like that by not caring about what you’re doing.
I’ve spent the past few days in Missouri, where blues is in no shortage. So it’s only fitting that I now get to listen to one of the greatest blues artists ever. There’s no doubt that Muddy Waters is the father of modern blues. A few seconds into “Mannish Boy” and you hear that distinct progression of notes that you hear in every single blues song. The production is bare and with no frills attached — it’s just the raw emotion of Mr. Waters and company. It is genuinely impossible to not be in a good mood while listening to Hard Again and it’s very clear that everyone involved with this record loved what they were doing. Loved this album from start to finish and I’m very glad I don’t have to go back to Missouri to get more blues.
Funny that this album came up right after I watched the Paula Scher episode of Abstract on Netflix. She was going through a stack of album covers she designed and when Hard Again flashed by, with its classic Richard Avedon photo, I thought, “What does that sound like again?” I knew it was from the period in the ’70s when white blues hotshot Johnny Winter took things in hand and helped Muddy rehab his career. But it had been years since I heard it. I’m not going to run down Muddy’s story here — suffice it to say that his legend was secure with or without this album. But it’s damned good, managing to ride the line of respecting the blues tradition (without being rote) while giving Muddy’s music a sonic upgrade. Part of the fascination of older blues recordings, like the ones Muddy did at Chess, is the overdriven microphones, buzzy amplifiers, and rattletrap drums, but Hard Again proves that those elements are not necessarily where the mystery and power come from. Need an example? Start at the top with “Mannish Boy,” the classic Bo Diddley co-write that opens the album. While it remains remarkably faithful to the original arrangement, even down to the screams in the background, it conjures up an edifice of sound just this side of overwhelming and Muddy sounds like he’s in the room with you. And so it goes throughout. There are no missteps on the album, no hints of those “re-recorded for stereo” nightmares, just the electric blues in all its glory. Well done, Johnny.
Waters once moved blues forward with his use of amplification and here, he moved it forward again by proving just how timeless the blues could sound.
For thirty years my grandpa worked in a steel mill, standing day after day in the heat of the plant. As he worked there, pushing pipes through the machines, calibrating and overseeing the line, he was adding a million tiny scratches from the metal, layers of calluses on the palms of his hands, the work seeping into and stiffening his joints. After he retired and moved back to the land his Creek mother had claimed for him, he became a farmer, putting those hands again to work nurturing watermelons and sweet potatoes and peanuts up out of the Alabama clay. At night, sitting on his front porch listening to cicadas and the yell of coyotes, he taught himself how to play. First it was a harmonica, but then came the guitar, the mandolin, and the banjo. After years of hard work to support his family, in the eve of his life he let loose, took the pleasure of his time at home and found joy in hymnals, bluegrass, and that old tear-stained country music. Muddy Waters could be found on his record player right along with Hank Williams and Chet Atkins. Listening again to this album, one I haven’t heard in more than a decade, I could smell again the heat of my childhood, feel again those cracked hands showing me how to peel the corn silk down, hear again the laugh that followed my cries every time I found a worm up there. Unbridled enthusiasm and joy is contained in the whoops and hollers of this album, that noodling guitar running wild over every track. Though I know it’s produced, the obvious excitement and happiness from the music makes it come across like a live session. While there are no surprises on this album, I found comfort in hearing that bluesy rock again, those riffs and beats that are classic for good reason.
Hard Again is a really interesting album, especially for a studio junkie like me. Of course we all know Muddy Waters as an incomparable legend from the glory days of the blues. We almost take his brilliance for granted, which was probably the entire point of this late-career project in the first place. What I find so intriguing though, is how do you re-create 1957 in a 1977 recording studio? The grooves are timeless. The stories are, well, timeless. But in 1977, the peak of the disco era, the waters were anything but muddy. Let’s look at “Mannish Boy” — standard blues riff and cadence, but it sounds remarkably more clear than most Waters recordings of note. Listen to the clarity of the drums; a subtle giveaway that we’re in 1977, not 1957. I’ve got to give major kudos to the producers of “I Can’t Be Satisified.” Pay close attention to the purposeful panning (placing the percussion in the left channel and the guitar to the right channel) to re-create the recording techniques of old. The reason that these newer recordings sound so much bigger and clearer is that by 1977 studio boards were equipped with enough tracks to mic, amp, and record each individual instrument on different tracks. In Waters’ heyday, this was simply impossible, so engineers of the time had to record the entire room in one take — creating the muddy, sometimes ambient effect of classic blues music. Ever notice that a lot of blues sounds like it was recorded live? Well, it kind of was — it’s usually one take, with all instruments recorded at once on the same track. Hard Again is a great example that it’s easy to make music dirty, but its awful hard to clean it up.
After giving Hard Again a few solid listens, I soon began to realize that I’m not sure how many Muddy Waters records I’ve actually sat down with. This seemed like a perfect launching pad to dive right in, especially when you consider that this was the first record that he had released since leaving his longstanding label, Chess Records. Finding solace with Johnny Winters, Waters feels alive and invigorated on practically every song. I think one could best describe “Bus Driver” as a blues lounge soundtrack that wouldn’t feel far out of sync with an evening spent in a balmy southern dive bar. While the lyrics are heartfelt and straightforward, the guitar playing is the true voice of every song. It lives and breathes with every plucked string. It is mesmerizing and understandable why a song like “Mannish Boy” has gone on to be celebrated for decades since its release. And another fun tidbit that I discovered was that Waters’ music has made frequent appearances in several Martin Scorsese films. Even if I haven’t had a chance to sit down with any of his traditional recordings, I do feel like there is literally no avoiding the fact that a legend like Waters will find a way into your life one way or another. And I wonder how many people are going to draw parallels to the passing of Chuck Berry falling on the same weekend as we recognize a grand achievement from Waters, another guitar legend to acclaim.
Chuck Berry, a man whose career is intertwined with Muddy Waters, died recently and opened up some weird discussions I saw on-line. Luckily, no one disparaged the quality of his work (which extends far past the iconic “Johnny B. Goode“), but the divide was more on celebrating his role as an originator and as a pioneer. Some stated that Berry had innovated a style that was just a natural progression of music at the time, while others were pointing to artists who predated Berry by a few months or years as the true originators. There’s truth to be found in each sentiment: someone else could have come along and innovated rock ‘n roll, and there were artists who were doing Berry’s style before him. But this does little to diminish the pioneer and originator status Berry has rightfully earned. It could have been someone else in Berry’s role, but it wouldn’t have been Berry. We wouldn’t have had “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” or “Maybellene” — we’d have other hits that could have been just as brilliant, though might have resonated differently with people. And that’s the key: the connection people had to Berry’s own flair and style. I bring this up — in a piece about Hard Again, a phenomenal late-career surge that my colleagues have shrewdly examined — because of the role Muddy Waters plays in music history, and the fear that people might say the same about his career and legacy. You can’t pick apart influence. Artists are influenced by what they’re influenced by. If they like artist B, but artist A was doing the same sound first — who are they going to cite as an inspiration? You can recognize the indirect connection to artist A, but still, it was artist B that resonated and sparked something inside. Discussing the career of Muddy Waters instantly shuts down the debate on Berry’s role as a pioneer… because you can make the same exact arguments for Waters as you can for Berry, yet they instantly seem petty and insignificant when looking at Waters’ reach. Who knows if someone else besides Waters would have made the trek to England at the exact time Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were coming of age? Where would Bob Dylan’s career be without “Like A Rolling Stone?” Would Back In Black be as legendary without the inclusion of “You Shook Me All Night Long?” Put someone different in the same role and you might get a similar sound, but who knows how history would unfold from that point onward. For Hard Again, it only proves how singularly important Waters himself was by making the blues sound just as vibrant and alive at a time when arena rock, punk, and disco were taking over the public consciousness. It proved that it wasn’t just a gritty sound or the association with Chess that drove him to legend status — it was his voice, his playing, and his infectious passion for music that endeared him to a generation of musicians and irrefutably changed the course of music history.
The Grind Date by De La Soul
Chosen By Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford