Fifty years ago this fall, one of the best American rock bands of all time broke up. While Creedence Clearwater Revival wasn’t exactly at their peak at the time — they had recently put out an LP that a Rolling Stone critic called “the worst album I have ever heard from a major rock band” — the California quartet did seem finished before their time. Just a few years prior, in 1969 and 1970, they had possibly the greatest years for any band in rock history, releasing a staggering five albums — all of them classics — and several Top 10 singles. Now, they were suddenly finished.
Except they weren’t. In spite of their short peak and relative lack of fame, CCR has endured as one of the sturdiest classic rock bands ever. More than any other group from their era, Creedence can claim to be “just about the music,” rather than some overblown mythology. Most listeners know very little about these guys, no matter how many times they’ve heard “Proud Mary” or “Bad Moon Rising.”
It seems, however, that their personal mythos might be growing: Last month, a book about the band, John Lingan’s A Song For Everyone, was published. Now, a new live album and accompanying documentary — narrated by (who else?) Jeff “The Dude” Bridges — Creedence Clearwater Revival – At The Royal Albert Hall, is due Friday. The album and film capture CCR during happier times on their European tour in the spring of 1970, when they were an exciting and stampeding live unit with a bevy of big hits harking to the early roots of rock ‘n’ roll. For those of us who never got to see Creedence in person, the live footage is a welcome and essential substitute.
Like a lot of Creedence fans, I wasn’t even alive during the band’s existence. But their music has been ubiquitous throughout my life regardless. What is it about CCR — who in many ways were anachronistic even in their own time — that seems so timeless? How can songs that appear to be so simple also be so replayable? And what does “choogle” mean anyway?
To answer these questions, I’m going to count down my favorite Creedence songs. Let’s chase down a hoodoo, roll down the river, and catch the bad moon rising. This isn’t woik, it’s a ramble tamble!
35. “Keep On Chooglin'” (1968)
In 1993, Bruce Springsteen walked on stage at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles and inducted what was left of Creedence Clearwater Revival into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame. Three of the guys were there: John Fogerty, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford. The fourth member, Tom, died of AIDS just over two years prior. And yet, because he wasn’t at the Century Plaza Hotel, he might have been the luckiest one on this night, given the toxicity that still brewed between the surviving members. Normally a happy occasion for a graying legacy act, the Rock Hall induction would subsequently be remembered as a nadir for CCR, signifying the acrimony and infighting that has long defined the great American band’s extended afterlife.
But for now, I’m not going to focus on that. Instead, I want to talk about Bruce’s speech.
He begins by reminiscing about his pre-rock star days as a guitar-slinging bar-band veteran in suburban New Jersey, circa 1970. He was working at the time at a club called the Pandemonium, situated on Route 35 outside of Asbury Park. The gig required five 50-minute sets per night, in which Bruce and the band set up on a U-shaped bar just three feet from the audience. In that crowd were people who might kick your ass if they didn’t like the length of your hair or the kind of music you played.
“The crowd was eclectic,” he says. “Rough kids just out of high school who hadn’t been snatched up by the draft yet. Truck drivers heading home south to the Jersey pines who weren’t gonna make it — not that night at least. And a mixture of college and working girls, women with bouffant hairdos, and a small, but steady hippie contingent. Tough crowd to please all at once!”
However, there was one song that was sure to get everybody dancing: “Proud Mary.”
Yes, I know — “Proud Mary” is perhaps the most tired standard in the bar-band canon. You can’t swing a corndog in the summer without hitting somebody covering this song at a low-rent county fair. Even Creedence fans are sick of it. But this, again, was 1970. The bar-band canon was still being written. And “Proud Mary” became a cliché because rollin’ down the river worked like goddamn gangbusters with people of all kinds.
“For three minutes and seven seconds of ‘Proud Mary,’ a very strained brotherhood would actually fill the room,” Bruce testifies. “It was simply a great song that everybody liked and it literally saved our asses on many occasions.”
For as long as I have been aware of CCR, their music has had the power to create “very strained brotherhoods.” When I first heard them on oldies radio as a grade-school kid in the mid-1980s, they appeared to be about as far removed from the mainstream pop world of Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna as John Fogerty was from the American South when he wrote “Proud Mary” around 15 years prior. And yet they kept popping up in unexpected places: Bruce played their music on the stadium-conquering Born In The U.S.A. tour. Pioneering funk-punks the Minutemen covered them on Double Nickels On The Dime. Sonic Youth name-checked them in an album title. The Beastie Boys sampled them on Licensed To Ill. In 2022, you can hear CCR in the current season of Stranger Things, the latest Richard Linklater film, and that terrible-looking Kevin James movie about former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton. Whether you have good taste or bad, on this we can all agree: Creedence rocks.
I think there are two explanations for this, one chin-stroke-y and the other as simple and powerful as John Fogerty’s finest songs. First, the chin-stroke-y explanation: CCR is the rare band — maybe the only band — that is able to seem progressive and conservative simultaneously. The worldview of John’s songs is egalitarian, anti-war, and pro-labor. But it is expressed in a language that is plainspoken and oriented toward small towns, working-class people, and one-horse taverns that only serve cheap domestic beer. CCR represent an archetype that is all but extinct in contemporary American life — common-sense liberal populism — as well as the classic (and also faded) ideal that this country stands for products that are good and reliable and universal and extremely well-made, like blue jeans and Hollywood westerns. “I’m not trying to polarize hippies against their parents,” John explained to Rolling Stone in 1970. “Because I think music, my concept of what music should be, shouldn’t do that. It should unite, as corny as that is.”
CCR’s music is mathematical but loose, “authentic” and also completely fabricated, resolutely unhip and cool as hell, rockist and poptimist, AM and FM, nostalgic while being embedded with an ancient biblical fear, doom-ridden but with an irresistible, good-time feel. They are tied inextricably to the Vietnam ’60s, and yet the songs do not date like virtually everything else from that era. Put another way: It’s not like you still hear Quicksilver Messenger Service songs in every corner of pop culture.
But how does that happen, exactly? Finally, the simple explanation: Choogle. To go the distance like Creedence, one must simply keep on chooglin’.
34. “Cross-Tie Walker” (1969)
One of my favorite bits from Lingan’s book is that when CCR rehearsed they would repeat the same mantra: “Creedence is like burgers.” Greasy, juicy, compact, accessible, immediately satisfying, impossible to get sick of — that’s the music of CCR.
But while a philosophical commitment to the monoculture is fine and good, a victory in the pop culture wars is rarely won with rhetoric alone. For CCR, the key to their undying universality is physical. It’s the choogle.
In “Keep On Chooglin,'” John offers a literal definition of this profound gibberish:
Maybe you don’t understand it
But if you’re a natural man
You got to ball and have a good time
And that’s what I call chooglin’
But choogle is also a vibe, a feeling created by Tom’s steady up and down stroke on the rhythm guitar, the locomotive chug of Doug’s drums and Stu’s bass, and the wild yelps that poured effortlessly from John. A sound that instantly loosens the neck and shoulders and shifts the hips to and fro, magically transforming even the worst dancers into swaggering shamans in the comfort of their homes, cars, and showers. You could just call it a groove, but choogle has the added element of infusing the funk with two or three shots of Pappy Van Winkle. It’s a groove plus a serious body buzz. That sensation that you might fall down at any moment, but won’t, because you’re too busy, well, chooglin’.
Look at me — I have once again relied upon words and in the process crowded out the choogle. It is meant to be experienced, not discussed. Choogle abounds on this list, of course, but this cut from 1969’s Green River is pretty much all choogle. Remove the choogle and you wouldn’t even have a song. Thankfully, the choogle is cemented solid into “Cross-Tie Walker.”
33. “Bootleg” (1968)
For John, the in-house perfectionist, achieving peak choogle was no accident. “We spent a lot of time looking at snare drums and going through bass strings and bass amps and all that,” he says in Hank Bordowitz’s band bio Bad Moon Rising. “The idea of fixing it in the mix is totally foreign to me. Same with singing. I’d go in there and probably do two takes, and that would be it.”
But the ability to knock it out in two takes requires more than just having the right snare drum or bass strings. Which brings me to another important aspect of CCR that is unique and probably won’t ever be replicated: They had played together for nearly a decade before they got famous. By the time the Beatles arrived in America, the guys in CCR had already been gigging at sock hops, boys clubs, and county fairs for five years. The Beatles had a similar backstory, but even their time in the wilderness pales next to Creedence. In this analogy, the Beatles wouldn’t have gotten big until they made Revolver.
This background gave CCR instant gravitas that a band their age would not have had otherwise. It’s hard to imagine, say, a bunch of modern-day Brooklynites who get famous on Bandcamp naming their rehearsal space “The Factory” without being ruthlessly mocked. But even with their questionable Northern California background, CCR already had unassailable credentials as rock lifers in their early 20s. Sure, they were hippies, but they were tough hippies.
When it was finally their chance to become stars, they were one of the most efficient units in rock history. They were also one of the best bargains — they worked so fast and cheap that their first three records were made for less than $2,000 each. CCR was made up of great musicians, but more than that they were great at playing with each other, because that was pretty much all they knew. They throbbed as a single-minded organism, which made it possible to rise and fall with the choogle in the subtlest of ways, as evidenced by this track. Hearing these four men play together is like listening to one person breathe.
32. “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (1970)
On this song, they breathed for a long time, going against their instincts to play short and sweet songs and instead jamming out on a Motown classic for more than 11 minutes. But even when they grew expansive, they did so in minimalist fashion, stretching out the choogle until it felt less like a punch and more like a hypnotic pulse. (I have no idea if Holger Czukay listened to Creedence, but he more or less pushed rhythmic choogle in a similar fashion the following year on Can’s Tago Mago.)
The other notable thing about “Grapevine” is that it’s the first notable instance on this list of the John Fogerty accent, in which “heard” becomes “hoid.” The origin of the John Fogerty accent has long been mysterious — other singers from his part of the country do not sing “work” like “woik” or “turn” like “toin.” Is this Cajun patois? Is he emulating an Australian man who has emigrated to Clarksdale, Mississippi? Is he just uncommonly fascinated by the “oi” sound? It’s impossible to understand, just like every other kind of genius. But it works.
31. “Porterville” (1968)
John’s first great original. It includes the four elements that all great rock ‘n’ roll records must have, as he explained to Rolling Stone in 1993. “First, foremost, it has a great title. No. 2, it has a great sound. No. 3, it should have a great song. In other words, something that really is valid and makes sense and, hopefully, you could sing without hearing the record. And No. 4, the best type of rock ‘n’ roll record has a great guitar lick in it.”
“Porterville” is a great title. It has a great sound. The song is great — John is stuck in a terrible little burg where everyone hates him because his dad is in prison, and he don’t care! And it has a great guitar lick on it. But he was just getting started.
30. “It Came Out Of The Sky” (1969)
This frisky Chuck Berry homage has an even better title and guitar lick. And the lyrics — a pre-Close Encounters narrative about people freaking out about an alien invasion — are slyly hilarious, including this shot at both the sitting vice president and current California governor (and future president):
Well, a crowd gathered ’round
And a scientist said it was marsh gas
Spiro came to make a speech
About raisin’ the Mars tax
Vatican said, “Woe, the Lord has come”
Hollywood rushed out an epic film
Ronnie the Populist said
It was a communist plot
John would sometimes write songs while lying in bed at night, starting with the bass and drum parts, the heart of the choogle. Other times, like a character in a Paul Schrader movie, he would gaze at a blank wall for hours.
“I would stare at it all night,” he later recalled. “There was nothing hanging on the wall, because I didn’t have any money for paintings. It was just a beige wall. It was a blank slate, a blank canvas. But it was also exciting. I could go anywhere and do anything, because I was a writer. I was conjuring that place deep in my soul that was me.”
Often, he would venture into an imagined American past, “before computers and machinery complicated everything, when things were calm and relaxed,” he says in Bad Moon Rising. When he did write about the present, it came out sounding like “Commotion,” a prototypical CCR rave-up with an undertow of dread about how those very computers and machinery were making modern life more and more difficult to comprehend. If Thom Yorke had listened to Sun Sessions era Elvis instead of Aphex Twin, Kid A would have sounded like this song.
28. “Walking On The Water” (1968)
While John was busy staring at walls and writing rock classics, his older brother Tom felt stifled. For a time in the early days of the band, Tom was the master Fogerty — he sang better, played better, and was better looking. But as John’s talent as a songwriter, singer, and producer became impossible to deny, Tom was reduced to “merely” being an excellent rhythm guitar player. This song is one of his only co-writes on a CCR album, though he later claimed that he wrote the whole thing. But what really sells it is Tom’s slashing guitar part, which hits like Bernard Hermann’s Psycho shower scene score, the sound of a guy working out his sibling rivalry resentment musically.
27. “Tombstone Shadow” (1969)
In 1976 — four years after CCR’s breakup — their label Fantasy issued Chronicle: The 20 Greatest Hits, possibly the greatest “greatest hits” album in rock history. In short order, it became the only Creedence album everybody bought. Back when dive bars had CD jukeboxes, it was against the law to not stock Chronicle.
If people are aware of CCR at all, they likely know those 20 songs by heart. The upside of this is that Chronicle is a perfect LP. More than any specific studio record, it makes the case that CCR is one of the four or five best American rock bands of all time.
The downside is that those studio records are still pretty great, and Chronicle overshadows them to an unfair degree. For example, this blazing blues-rocker from Green River did not make the greatest hits record, and it absolutely deserves to be heard. Am I saying it should have been on Chronicle? No, compared to the singles, this is relative filler. But it is magnificent filler.
26. “Feelin’ Blue” (1969)
CCR completists are no doubt chomping at the bit to point out that “Tombstone Shadow” was included on Chronicle, Vol. 2, issued in 1986. But this song, a slinky rocker with heavy tremolo guitar and some smoking playing from Doug and Stu, didn’t make either volume, and it’s even better than “Tombstone Shadow.” What I’m saying is: Listen to CCR’s studio albums!
25. “Someday Never Comes” (1972)
Creedence heads can debate over which album is best. (Consensus points to three main heavy hitters: Green River, Willy And The Poor Boys, and Cosmo’s Factory.) But there is no dispute over which one is worst: Mardi Gras. Jon Landau called it “the worst album I have ever heard from a major rock band” in his Rolling Stone review, which is doubly incredible given that CCR was on the magazine’s cover just two years prior. (Also: Had Jon Landau not heard any Moody Blues records by 1972?)
The lore of Mardi Gras is that Doug and Stu demanded to write and sing one-third of the record each. (Tom had departed at this point.) Doug and Stu, however, have countered this by claiming that John made them write and sing a third of the record each, in order to intentionally humiliate them. I have a hard time believing that John would deliberately tank the CCR brand (which he more than anyone else was responsible for building) just to spite his rhythm section. But if he did do that, then Mardi Gras could be classified as a Larry David-esque success. It’s a real spite record — the Doug and Stu songs are uniformly terrible, evidencing little of the musical invention, lyrical specificity, or knack for world-building that John could seem to conjure up so effortlessly. (John later said of the album, rather cryptically, “I had a pretty good idea that the album would be dreadful.”)
As for John’s songs, while they aren’t quite up to his usual standards, they’re still strong, and when paired next to callow fare like “Tearin’ Up The Country” and “What Are You Gonna Do” they sound like the second coming of Buck Owens. In “Someday Never Comes,” he lets the melancholy behind the backstage machinations peek through. In the song, a kid is told by his father that one day he’ll understand the world. But for John, a man who spent years making his rock star dreams come true only to see them turn to dust in short order, someday never comes.
24. “Pagan Baby” (1970)
What’s weird about Mardi Gras is that the album before it, Pendulum, sounds like a new beginning. After the meat-and-potatoes approach of the first five records, this album has … horns! And John plays tons of keyboards! It has a serious pop-soul vibe! In a vacuum, it feels like a pivot for a whole new Creedence in the ’70s. (It’s CCR’s Summerteeth.) In the style of the other CCR record from 1970, Cosmo’s Factory, the album opens with the hardest rocking number, the surly boogie workout “Pagan Baby,” in which John and Tom engage in one of their best (and final) guitar duels.
23. “Travelin’ Band (1970)
A recent New Yorker article asked, “How can a band as beloved as CCR still seem underappreciated?” Whether something is actually “underappreciated” always comes down to the eye of the beholder. What is the proper level of appreciation? And whose appreciation are we talking about, exactly? This is, after all, a band with the power to form “very strained brotherhoods.” If it’s an exaggeration to say that everybody loves Creedence, it feels accurate to say that they are, at least, almost unanimously appreciated.
With CCR, I don’t think “underappreciated” is the right term. It’s more like this band is under-mythologized. The cult of personality that exists around so many rock stars of the 1960s does not exist around John Fogerty. He does not have a cool nickname like “The Lizard King,” and you don’t see him immortalized on blacklight posters like Jimi Hendrix or Jerry Garcia. And his bandmates are not instantly recognizable by their first names like John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The appreciation of this band is musical, not mythic. Creedence, to this day, is still burgers.
But this bug with CCR is also a feature. Being under-mythologized is the point. If you love CCR, it’s part of what makes them lovable. Being under-mythologized was the result of how the band carried themselves, and how they were presented in songs like “Travelin’ Band,” in which the world’s most popular American band of the late ’60s and early ’70s carries on as yet another hard-touring act just trying to please audiences from coast to coast.
22. “Midnight Special” (1969)
The best critic to write about Creedence, Ellen Willis, saw this chronic humility at the core of CCR as limiting in terms of the band taking on a greater significance.
“A serious rock star aspired not only to entertain the public but to alter its consciousness and so in some sense affect history,” she writes in the 1980 edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. “By the end of the sixties, the fragmentation of the audience that had coalesced around the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan had made that aspiration increasingly unrealistic. Creedence remained the one band capable of uniting that audience and therefore penetrating — and transforming — its fantasies. But it didn’t happen. Creedence never crossed the line from best-selling rock band to cultural icon. And that failure seemed directly attributable to Fogerty’s peculiar virtues.”
In other words: You can love burgers, just like most people love burgers, but loving burgers doesn’t mean anything. And for rock critics, at least, this has reduced CCR’s standing somewhat over the years. A telling comparison is with The Band, who operated in a similar lane of backwoods traditionalist rock during CCR’s peak. Like Fogerty, Robbie Robertson wrote about an imagined American South that he did not know first hand, but with a more self-conscious literary bent that had limited pop radio appeal.
The Band, predictably, were not nearly as successful on the charts as CCR, but they were more acclaimed, which — as Fogerty later admitted — was troubling to Creedence’s leader. “To be really honest, I’d say I was a bit envious,” he told Rolling Stone in 1993. “Here I was, a competitive guy trying to make my band the biggest thing in the world, and here these guys [are getting attention] just ’cause they’re from New York or Woodstock or Big Pink or Bob Dylan or whatever.”
As a lover of both bands who came to them decades after they broke up, it does seem strange that CCR and The Band did not hang together. Fogerty and Robertson are like two guys who work in the same office, sit in adjoining cubicles, and they’re coincidentally both serious Civil War buffs. And yet they never become pals, because they’re also pursuing the same middle management promotion.
I like to imagine that, in an alternate universe, The Band invited John to the The Last Waltz and that they played this song together. Because Fogerty deserved to be there, with Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, and even the Jewish Elvis himself, Neil Diamond.
21. “Suzie Q” (Live At Woodstock version) (1969)
Of course, if John had been invited to The Last Waltz, it’s possible that he would have asked to be edited out, just as he demanded that CCR be cut out of the Woodstock film on the grounds that his band did not perform up to their usual standards.
This is the most egregious example of Fogerty under-mythologizing his band, because CCR’s Woodstock set (finally issued in 2020 as Live At Woodstock) absolutely blazes. With all due respect to the very good At The Royal Albert Hall, the Woodstock record stands as the definitive live CCR document. What puts it over is the extra edge of anger that’s apparent in the performance — even if the Grateful Dead’s glitch-filled preceding set hadn’t pushed CCR start time back several hours, it’s likely Fogerty would have had a hair up his flannel-covered ass over being surrounded by so much self-indulgent stupidity. Whatever it is, CCR plays a little bit harder and little bit louder, culminating with this hellacious rendition of their first hit single, which jams out for nearly 11 minutes but feels like a punk rock gob of spit.
Here was CCR again personifying opposing forces simultaneously — they played some of the finest music at Woodstock while also repudiating (in a musical sense) much of what happened there that weekend.
Please enjoy this clip of Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd road-tripping and listening to Creedence in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Truly one of the most accurate depictions of listening to CCR ever captured on film.
20. “Hey Tonight” (1970)
Much has been made of the over-use of CCR songs in Vietnam movies, though a lot of that has to do with Robert Zemeckis using “Fortunate Son” in Forrest Gump, the film with the most notoriously on-the-nose soundtrack of all time. But 16 years before that, CCR also popped up in 1978’s Who’ll Stop The Rain, one of the earliest ‘Nam movies, in which Nick Nolte plays an ill-fated merchant marine-turned-drug smuggler who runs around shooting guns at DEA agents while blasting “Hey Tonight” over P.A. speakers at his secret compound. It’s about 1/1000th as well known as Forrest Gump, and 1,000 times better.
19. “Don’t Look Now (It Ain’t You Or Me)” (1969)
John Lingan’s recent CCR book opens with a vignette from the Royal Albert Hall concert. After the band is received as conquering heroes, it’s assumed that they’ll go out and play an encore. But John refuses to go back out. The audience cheers and stomps their feet for a half hour and he still won’t budge.
In the book, this is meant to illustrate John’s irrational — and possibly psychotic — intractability. He does seem like a bit of a jerk, I guess. But as a long-time skeptic of encores, I also found this gesture … kinda awesome? John Fogerty kept Paul McCartney trapped in his private box at the Royal Albert Hall because he didn’t want to engage in a shallow show business ritual. This is what they call “committing to the bit.”
It is, at least, another sign that he was an early punk, which future punks the Minutemen recognized when they put this protest song about blue collar indignation toward rich S.O.B.s on Double Nickels On The Dime.
18. “Long As I Can See The Light” (1970)
In the book, the guy most annoyed by Fogerty’s “no encores” policy is Doug Clifford, who spoke to Lingan along with Stu Cook. (Fogerty sat out that encore performance as well.) But Clifford was also a punk. When I learned to play drums, my teacher played this song and told me to study it, because the drums are very easy to pick out and very easy to replicate. At the least the part is easy to replicate. Clifford’s feel — particularly the way he rides the hi-hat — is untouchable.
17. “Sweet Hitch-Hiker” (1972)
One of the things that undid CCR was the pressure that John put on himself to write so many great songs in quick succession. His insane pace in 1969 and 1970 make those historically great years for any rock band, but it hardwired burnout into Creedence’s DNA. Nevertheless, I do find it funny that he managed to put a song as good as “Sweet Hitch-Hiker” on CCR’s “spite” album Mardi Gras. Didn’t he have some actual garbage to dump on this trash heap?
It’s possible that he thought he was writing a lesser version of “Hey Tonight,” but I actually think this song is slightly better. It’s a nice throwback to perhaps the last time in pop culture when you could write a song about picking up a sexy girl on the highway without it seeming like a first-person narrative about a sociopath.
16. “Wrote A Song For Everyone” (1969)
On the early Creedence albums, John made a conscious decision to avoid writing love songs. He thought there were already too many of them; songs about chasin’ hoodoos, on the other hand, were far less common. But with this tune, he broke his own rule. Though “Wrote A Song For Everyone” is really about how being in Creedence was more important than his personal life in 1969. And it shows that even when he was on top of the world, he was kind of a miserable guy, which has been a key component of his public persona ever since.
15. “Up Around The Bend” (1970)
“Wrote A Song For Everyone” is on side 1 of Green River, which rivals side 2 of Willy And The Poor Boys as the best ever Creedence LP side. But in terms of an overall album, my personal favorite is Cosmo’s Factory. It is true that this record isn’t as consistent as the other two CCR world-beaters — every track is either an all-time classic that’s been played a billion times on the radio or a bluesy cover. But the classics are unrivaled and the bluesy covers are tasty. (Also, this cover is truly majestic in its sheer half-assedness.)
“Up Around The Bend” is one of the “all-time classic that’s been played a billion times on the radio” songs on Cosmo’s Factory. Starting with that opening guitar lick, it is pure and uncut road trip porn. If you are between the ages of 16 and 21 and this song comes on while you are in a car with your friends, you will have a coming-of-age moment within 24 hours.
14. “I Put A Spell On You” (1968)
Deciding to cover a Screaming Jay Hawkins would be a shocking display of over-confident arrogance for any other 22-year-old white guy on the planet besides John Fogerty. That’s because John was smart enough to know that he can’t out-scream Screaming Jay. Though John’s scream is excellent, he only tries to achieve about 65 percent of Screaming Jay’s scream. The rest goes into his guitar, which grinds with Tom’s rhythm to a nerve-shredding crescendo at the end of every verse.
13. “Proud Mary” (1969)
Every time I do one of these lists, there is at least one undeniably great song that I rank too low because I’ve heard it so many times, and I wish to never hear again. For this list, “Proud Mary” is that song.
12. “Fortunate Son” (1969)
Here’s another song that I might be underrating because I’ve heard it so much. I also suspect that “Fortunate Son” would hit differently if I had ever been drafted in the ’60s, and knew that the kids of rich people would not have to similarly risk getting their legs blown off. But the fact is that I was born in 1977, and whenever I hear this song I think about the time that it was used in a blue jeans commercial. And that can’t help but dilute the impact. That said — Doug and Stu absolutely cook on this.
11. “Down On The Corner” (1969)
In the lyric, John spins a Robbie Robertson-esque tale of street urchins busking for nickels out in front of the courthouse. But musically, it points forward — this one is for all the people who know that it’s time to get ill. I’ve seen the rhythm of this song described as calypso, and I’m going to assume that the person who said that is a calypso expert because to my ears “Down On The Corner” seems like a foundational text of what jam-band fans would classify as “cow funk” three decades later.
10. “Who’ll Stop The Rain” (1970)
Ellen Willis once astutely observed that the recurrence of rain imagery in CCR songs is an expression of Fogerty’s fatalism, as “weather, after all, is something you can’t do anything about.” But maybe he was just a realist, given the turn the country had taken by the time this song was released as a single in January 1970. In the end, of course, he was just a musician who was exceptionally talented at writing happy-sounding songs about failure. In “Who’ll Stop The Rain,” he links the idealism of Woodstock Nation to past activism falling short.
9. “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” (1970)
In this rain song, John is a passive observer to the demise of his own band, right before Tom decided to leave. “That song is really about the impending breakup of Creedence,” Fogerty confirmed years later. “The imagery is, you can have a bright, beautiful, sunny day and it can be raining at the same time.”
It is the most beautiful song in the Creedence catalog, with its delicate folk-rock arrangement and muted organ fills. (It is virtually choogle free.) Though the sadness is enhanced by what happened later, when John was unwilling to reform with his bandmates due to the protracted legal battle with the head of their record label, Saul Zaentz. Even when Tom was dying, and he expressed a final wish for Creedence to play together again — if only in his living room — John refused. Later, John claimed that among the final words Tom ever uttered to him was, “Saul Zaentz is my best friend.”
8. “Green River” (1969)
This is not how CCR was supposed to end. They fought for so long in the trenches of no-name Northern California clubs to ascend to the mountaintop, and for what? To be chewed up and spat out by the music business in just a few short years? Here was a band that should have continued on for decades as a reliable favorite that plays sheds and arenas from coast to coast as cool old bearded dudes. Instead, they became a living embodiment of one of John’s fatalist parables about the promise and pitfalls of the American dream.
Which brings us back to the Century Plaza Hotel in L.A., where the guys stand at the precipice of the Rock Hall with their dirty laundry on full display. After an awkward and pained acceptance speech — John was pissed that Doug and Stu had allegedly taken out a recent five-figure payout from Zaentz in exchange for their share of his songwriting rights — he refused to perform with his bandmates on stage, opting instead to play CCR hits with Bruce Springsteen and Robbie Robertson.
One of the songs they played that night was “Green River,” Fogerty’s warmest song about the pleasures and possibilities of childhood. In this context, however, it is incongruous with the current state of CCR. Even with the best band money can buy — including a rhythm section composed of drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Don Was — the magic isn’t there. The choogle has gone missing. You cannot hear the bullfrog calling you. It’s been replaced by the sound of millionaires schmoozing on a cruise ship.
Why did it have to be this way? And why does it seem like it didn’t have to be?
7. “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” (1970)
I’m suddenly depressed. So, I guess I’ll put on what I often play when I’m depressed, one of the most irrepressible feel-good songs ever committed to tape. Just thinking about this song makes me want to close my laptop, grab a beer from the fridge, and stare at grass and trees and birds for about 76 hours.
6. “Run Through The Jungle” (1970)
Since I’m pairing this song with “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” it’s clear that we have finally entered the Lebowski zone of this list. But whereas the good-time toe-tapping of “Lookin'” is an invitation to happily pound on the roof of your car while being pursued by nefarious characters, “Jungle” is among the witchiest tunes in the Creedence catalog. In fact, you’ll be hearing a lot of witchy Creedence from here on out. I’m a strongly pro-witchy Creedence.
“Run Through The Jungle” is interpreted as a Vietnam song, but it doesn’t reference the war specifically. It’s really about all forms of apocalypse (personal and political) and the paths — illuminated by Stu’s impossibly deep bassline — we must traverse to survive them.
5. “Effigy” (1969)
CCR’s mastery of a specific mood — in which the nuances of light and dark are perfectly balanced to create a feeling I can only describe as “foreboding fun” — is another essential ingredient to their longevity. Unimaginative filmmakers use their music to signify the ’60s, but CCR songs in reality lend themselves to being endlessly reinvented as prescient depictions of the present, in the manner of Bible verses or Shakespeare references.
This quality really comes to the fore during the cataclysmic closer from Willy And The Poor Boys, in which John envisions Nixon’s silent majority rising up and storming the capital. Of course, “storming the capital” also has obvious contemporary relevance, which in a weird way is kind of reassuring. When you hear the world falling apart in a song that is more than 50 years old, it makes you feel a modicum of hope over how the world still manages to hang together.
4. “Born On The Bayou” (1968)
A key song in John’s early development as a songwriter. It was the one that made him realize that there could be an entire Creedence-verse rooted in the earthy underbelly of America, with an instantly identifiable setting and colorful cast of characters. He apparently hit upon the riff during a soundcheck at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, stroking a shimmering lick on an E7 chord. The other guys swiftly locked in, and “Bayou” coalesced into its embryonic form with typical telepathic efficiency. It was sinister and slithering, but also inviting and intoxicating — the very flavor of “foreboding fun.” But the venue’s stage manager didn’t recognize what was happening in front of him — he pulled the plug and slagged the band for “not going anywhere anyhow.”
‘Not going anywhere?” John spat back. “Give me a year, pal.’”
3. “Bad Moon Rising” (1969)
What that guy at the Avalon didn’t appreciate is that Creedence was hitting upon something eternal. One thousand years from now, when America no longer exists, scholars will study the songs of CCR and conclude the following about our people:
1) We were endlessly pessimistic about the future, and expected to die at any moment.
2) In the face of that fear we chose to distract ourselves by enjoying some good-ass entertainment and over the long haul that … seemed to work for the most part?
3) In the end, Americans loved to stare into the abyss while dancing at the edge of it. That’s what “Bad Moon Rising” sounds like.
2. “Lodi” (1969)
After all of these songs-slash-parables about existential crises afflicting mankind throughout the ages, I must say that “Lodi” is the one that rips my heart out. It strikes me as the most realistic — and saddest — song about being a failed musician ever written. The storytelling is so economical and yet gives you everything you need to understand the guy in the song. He had dreams, he tried, he fell short, and now he wants to go home. As a music critic, I take this verse personally: “The man from the magazine / Said I was on my way / Somewhere I lost connections / I ran out of songs to play.” John — as a person who might have indulged at some point in empty media hype over a hard-luck band I loved — I consider myself owned.
This song also makes me wonder if John Fogerty was fundamentally unequipped for success. Failure was one of his great muses; he wrote from the perspective of the loser as well as anybody in rock history. Even when CCR was ascendent as superstars, he was drawn to romanticizing his ignoble past as a nobody. It was only once he had everything he ever wanted that he lost his way.
1. “Ramble Tamble” (1970)
Not the most famous CCR song. (That’s “Proud Mary.”) Nor the most perfect. (That’s “Bad Moon Rising.”) And it’s not the one that’s been streamed the most. (That’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain,” followed by “Fortunate Son.”) I’m guessing most people don’t know it, which will make it seem like an odd choice for No. 1 Creedence song.
But it is the correct choice. Because “Ramble Tamble” is the most rockin’ song of all time. The opening section is pure early rock ‘n’ roll energy. Then you slide into the middle jam, which builds in intensity from easy-going choogle to full-on “Sister Ray” fireworks. It’s like a pocket history of rock music from the middle ’50s to the late ’60s. It gives you everything you could possibly want from a CCR song, or a song by anybody.
It’s longer than the typical Creedence tune, but it doesn’t feel long. It feels perfect. And elemental. Like something that wasn’t actually written but was dug up out of the Earth after being placed there by a higher power. So many of these songs feel like that. I can’t imagine the world that existed before Creedence. And I don’t want to.