Memory Motel: From Creedence to Costello - The Clover Chronicles
Country-rockers/pub-rock pioneers reissued
Because of their unique place in rock history, Clover seems destined to be labeled a sort of musical "missing link," which is a shame, because that kind of categorization ignores the musical muscle at the core of their early work. Luckily, there's a new twofer reissue combining the band's long out-of-print first and second albums to remind us that the Mill Valley, CA band was more than just a footnote.
Much (but still not quite enough) has been written about the British pub-rock scene that helped pave the way for punk, but although pub rock eventually encompassed acts that bore a proto-punk edge, like Eddie & The Hot Rods and Dr. Feelgood, the loosely codified genre began a million miles from the fast-and-loud "no future" crowd, with the likes of Brinsley Schwarz, the Nick Lowe-fronted band that did its best to be an English answer to CSNY and The Band in the early ‘70s. The world of the Brinsleys (and hence, pub rock as a whole) was inextricably intertwined with lower-profile U.S. groups like Eggs Over Easy, Berkeley-based country-rockers who wandered over to England around 1970 and quite literally blazed the trail for the pub-rock revolution, inaugurating the circuit of British bars that gave the style its name and providing a key musical influence to the Brinsleys and their ilk.
But at the same time, there was another Bay Area band specializing in country-flavored roots rock, who would end up in England a little later on and have an even more direct effect on both the Lowe family tree and the first flickerings of New Wave. Like Brinsley Schwarz and their U.K. pub-rock peers, Clover bore a Band-like, back-to-the-land rural-rock feel, and the Northern Californians did indeed share a communal home, in which they were photographed for the cover of their self-titled 1970 debut album.
It was Creedence Clearwater Revival themselves who alerted their label, Fantasy, to the merits of Clover, and the Berkeley label became the home for the latter's first two albums, possibly assuming they'd found the "next" Creedence. Though Clover didn't possess a world-beating songwriter on the level of John Fogerty, it's still not an entirely unreasonable assumption. Alongside the band's country/folk-rock tunes on the debut were funkier workouts like a twang-banging cover of Junior Walker's R&B smash "Shotgun," and a groove-heavy, R&B-slathered take on the trad spiritual "Wade in the Water," showing Clover's quiver to be full of as many sweaty, soulful projectiles as CCR's. And in the precocious John McFee they had a guitar hero who could easily hold his own alongside his Bay Area contemporaries and play a mean pedal steel as well. In fact, McFee would go on to play pedal steel on iconic ‘70s albums by Van Morrison, The Grateful Dead, and Steve Miller, among others.
Clover's follow-up album, 1971's Fourty-Niner, shows a tiny bit more polish in its arrangements and songwriting, with frontman Alex Call particularly coming into his own, but it's still an earthy enough outing that you can practically hear the dust blowing off the band's boots. The loopy, banjo- and fiddle-driven square-dance stomp "Chicken Butt" seems to be somewhat on the satirical side, but there's no shortage of post-Big Pink country-rocking cuts here. Still, "Mr. Moon" is a step ahead of its companions in terms of melodic sophistication. In fact, U.S. country darling Carlene Carter's 1978 debut album, produced by Brinsley Schwarz (not the whole band, just their guitarist/namesake) would not only include a cover of "Mr. Moon," it would lead off with Carter's version of "Love Is Gone," another Fourty-Niner tune (Schwarz would also bring most of Clover along for the sessions).
The second chapter of the Clover story came when singer/harmonica player Huey Lewis and keyboardist Sean Hopper joined the band in the mid-‘70s. They had a significant effect on the sound of the next two Clover albums, 1977's Love on the Wire and 1978's Unavailable (both produced by Mutt Lange), which were less twangy and more focused on a pop/rock approach. These were cut after the band made an Eggs Over Easy-esque move to England, where they were embraced by Nick Lowe and company, just as pub rock was giving way to punk and New Wave, and Lowe had hung up his Brinsley shingle for something of a more urgent nature. Lowe brought the band along (minus Lewis) to back Elvis Costello on the latter's 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, and Lewis got his licks in playing harp on Lowe's '79 album Labour of Lust. At the same time, Lowe's Rockpile bandmate Dave Edmunds recorded the unreleased Clover song "Bad Is Bad" on his Repeat When Necessary album. Clover had already disbanded by the time these latter two records were released though; the guys ended up going back to the States, where John McFee enjoyed a considerably higher degree of remuneration when he joined the Doobie Brothers, and Lewis and Hopper eventually did likewise by starting up Huey Lewis & The News. "Bad Is Bad" would provide a big posthumous payday for Clover when Huey and company recorded it for their multi-platinum 1983 blockbuster, Sports. Call would also have his day in the sun as the writer of Tommy Tutone's 1982 hit "867-5309 (Jenny)," among others.
With more than four decades of water under both the London and Golden Gate bridges, the Clover/Fourty-Niner reissue's arrival stands as a welcome reminder that, all their extracurricular U.K. connections aside, the Clover crew were feisty foot soldiers in the first-generation roots-rock realm.
|Wade in the Water|