“I destroyed all the outtakes. That’s why there aren’t all sorts of bonus tracks and things from Creedence,” John Fogerty tells me.
That certainly explains why, while there are an astonishing seven studio albums that were released during his iconic band Creedence Clearwater Revival’s brief existence from 1968-1972, and countless greatest hits compilations, there are no “lost songs” and just a handful of live releases.
That’s what makes Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Albert Hall all the more special. The live album, and Netflix documentary and concert film, both out this weekend, find the band that soundtracked the Vietnam War era, and whose songs have appeared in films from Blade to The Big Lebowski, in fiery form (a Super Deluxe Edition is out November 14). In fact, when Creedence stepped onto the stage of the venerable Royal Albert Hall, it was just four days after Paul McCartney had announced he was leaving the Beatles, making the California rockers arguably the biggest band in the world.
As The Dude himself, Jeff Bridges, narrates in the film, “In only 12 months the band had achieved five Top 10 singles and three Top 10 albums… They had appeared on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show and played to over a million people across America, including the hundreds of thousands gathered at Woodstock… Creedence were challenging the Beatles for the title of the biggest group in the world.”
Creedence’s “swamp rock” sound was, in fact, inescapable in the late 1960s. The singles “Proud Mary,” “Green River,” “Fortunate Son,” “Bad Moon Rising,” and “Down on the Corner” were global Top 10s. Moreover, by the end of 1969, in the wake of the release of “Fortunate Son,” Bridges notes, “John Fogerty was considered one of America’s most politically significant songwriters,” while Rolling Stone declared them to be the “Best American Band.”
Below, the band’s songwriter, singer, producer and all-around driving force, John Fogerty, who’s currently on tour playing a night chock full of Creedence and solo hits, remembers it all for The Daily Beast—from the band’s humble, Northern Cali origins and his early love of the blues and R&B, to conquering the world without a manager, major label or publicist, the band’s tumultuous heyday, and what it takes to write hits for the biggest band in the world.
I want to talk about the Royal Albert Hall film and the performance, but let’s talk a little about what got you there. Because what gets you to that point in Creedence’s career is the songwriting, the record production, the crafting of those hit records—all of which you were the driving force behind. A lot of things came together in a very short period of time. Talk about the trajectory that got you to the Royal Albert Hall.
Well, I believe I was pretty serious about it being a career quite early. I heard “My Baby Left Me” by Elvis Presley on a jukebox during a vacation when I was 10, and it was the guitar, particularly, and I just stood there and watched that, and I thought, I don’t know what that is, but that’s what I want to do. And I made up my mind right there. It really happened there. It was inescapable, was how I felt. I didn’t know exactly what my role would be. Then I started writing songs and in junior high and high school, I began to really play guitar and formed a band. But I also realized there was a bunch I didn’t know. We had a tape recorder, and I knew that what we were doing wasn’t as good as what they were doing. So, early on I was trying to figure out how to bridge that gap and get closer to what the records we were listening to were doing.
And you were really enthralled with R&B and Black musicians. What was it about that that spoke to you, as this white kid from Northern California, do you think?
I’m not sure. I don’t really know. I just knew that it was exciting to me, and intense. My parents would watch a show on television in about 1949 or so, called The Hoffman Hayride. It was a country TV show. But we had a wonderful R&B station called KWBR 1310. And that happens to be the radio station where I first heard “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and also where I first heard “Blue Suede Shoes.”
The Carl Perkins version or the Elvis version?
No, no—even then, I thought Elvis’s version was inferior. I thought it was way too much in a hurry. Way too frantic. But I was listening to that station pre-Elvis and pre-rock and roll, and I loved it. Fats Domino, Lowell Fulson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. I absolutely loved “Further on Up the Road.” But it was so much harder to glean information and learn things then, because there was no internet. So, what everyone takes for granted now, if there’s something you’re scratching your head about, in about three seconds, you can find the answer—or you may find several answers, and maybe one of them’s true. [laughs] And lots of the records I loved were so obscure, to try and learn them, to even find an actual nugget of information, was impossible. I learned so many things wrong. You had to make up your own mind of how things were. And maybe that helped, I guess.
You mentioned before we started that Stephen Foster was a formative influence, and yet, you developed a Faulkner-esque way with words, too. And then there’s this bayou-flavored singing, the Howlin’ Wolf influence. How does that all come together? Because very early on, that’s very fully formed. On that first Creedence record, it sounds like Creedence.
Well, yes. That’s what [first single] “Suzie Q” was all about. And also, “I Put a Spell on You,” on the first album. Those were better than anything I had written. But it was that experience that kicked me in the rear, and I thought, “John, you have to evolve.” I took stock of myself at the end of 1968, and one of the things I realized was the fact that “Suzie Q” was a Top 10 single in America, and that now we were noticed. It would have been almost better to have stayed unnoticed and have room and time to grow. But now, we were noticed, and we were in dire straits of becoming a one-hit wonder. And one-hit wonders never come back. It’s the kiss of death. That really scared me. And I thought, “You’ve got to get it together now, John.” That was the prod in the rear. Whatever it is I’d been fooling around with up to that point, now I had to make it work, because I was running out of time.
And that second album is such a huge leap.
So, it was really out of fear and necessity.
Absolutely right. I started to write every single day. Every night, I would sit and stare at a blank wall and try to imagine different scenarios. Something important had happened. I understood that when I was sitting in front of a blank piece of paper, I could make it go anywhere. I could do whatever I wanted. There were no rules. I could suddenly be writing about a riverboat in the middle of the Mississippi River, or a rocket ship, or about 200 years ago. It was a new awareness, or a different way of looking at it. I would sit there every night starting at about 9:30, with my wife and baby asleep, looking at the blank wall, because we couldn’t afford to put anything on the wall. It was this beige, kind of perfect canvas. And I just sat there sometimes till three or four in the morning just trying to imagine things and get a song out of it. That is absolutely how I wrote “Born on the Bayou.”
That’s such a huge leap forward for any artist or songwriter. You’ve got solitude, you’ve got focus, and that blank canvas, but you also talked before we started about writing about what you know. What did you know about the bayou? Where does that come from other than somewhere in your brain from the things you’ve read or imagined?
That’s exactly where it came from. And by the way, at that age, and in that state of mind, I wasn’t worried about any of that. Now, I’m too aware. Back then I used that trick of literature—that a blank page means I can do anything with it that I want to do. That permission was very freeing for me. So, when I ended up writing about in, let’s say, “Born on the Bayou,” that was a story and imagery that I was familiar with, but not by my own living there, but what I’d experienced in movies and in literature, and certainly from the records that I’d listened to going all the way back to being quite young, meaning all the R&B folks like Slim Harpo and Bo Diddley. Those records always conjured up imagery that was pretty close to “Born on the Bayou.” And so, those things just seemed really familiar to me.
“So, when I ended up writing about in, let’s say, “Born on the Bayou,” that was a story and imagery that I was familiar with, but not by my own living there, but what I’d experienced in movies and in literature, and certainly from the records that I’d listened to going all the way back to being quite young…”
Talk a little bit about your voice. Because on those CCR records, particularly the second record, it’s such a character of its own. Like you’ve said, you’re just a working-class kid who grew up in Northern California. Where does that voice come from?
Well, the germ of it really started in 1964. I went up to Portland with a couple of other musicians, and then met a couple more up there, with the idea of forming band. And I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, so I started recording our sets. It was probably four sets. And we would come home after the show, and we’d sit and drink beer and smoke cigarettes, listening to the performance. And I would use that as a way to go to school for my voice. Because I wanted to improve my voice. I didn’t really think it was anything remarkable. I just sounded like a guy singing. When somebody comes along, Little Richard or Wilson Pickett, or John Lennon or Paul McCartney, and you kind of go, “Wow. Listen to that.” You’re just a big fan. But I started pushing. And then the next night I’d be trying to make the sound coming out of my mouth sound more like the thing that was in my head that I wanted to sound like. And I was there for a month, so I got to really get that thing started, because it wasn’t natural at first. It was something I had to push myself to be able to do, simply because I thought that was the coolest way to sound.
I wanted to ask you about your guitar playing. Because much to the chagrin of the jam bands in your area—the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and so forth—you were playing the same riffs and solos pretty much every time. But as Keith Richards has said, a solo is gone in an instant, but a great riff will last forever. So, were those riffs already part of the songs that you were bringing into the band? Were they written into the songs?
Actually, even more to the point, most of the time I wrote the song after the lick happened. I was a big fan and a curator of licks. As Keith puts it so eloquently, I just knew that having a lick for your rock and roll record was the icing on the cake. It was the best possible thing you could have on an already great record. The licks made those songs for all time. It’s like “Day Tripper”—you can say the name of the song, and everybody hears the lick instantly in their head.
And that gets us to the Royal Albert Hall. Because as a live act, the band was really busy. You were touring constantly. You played Woodstock. I know that wasn’t a great experience for you, but it’s a great recording. People at the time were talking about you as the “American Beatles.” And you go over to Europe, where you’ve had massive success, but you haven’t been before, and you do a couple of dates there, and then you play the Royal Albert Hall. That had to be a really meaningful experience for you. What are your memories of that concert, and when you were watching the film, what did you remember about it?
Well, that we were all very much on the same team. And I remember being tired. And I remember that enormous pressure that I put on myself. I just wanted to excel. I mean, this was the place. It really was a very high mark to get to the Royal Albert Hall. Because the Beatles and Stones and others that had played there, it just seemed like a very exalted place in rock and roll history, even then. And I certainly wanted our band to be the best we could possibly be. I don’t remember any discord, particularly. I really don’t. I just know that I was driven. As a young man, especially in those times, I remember realizing that this was the big game I’d always wanted to get to play in, and I wanted to have everything go the right way.
And you’re arguably the biggest band in the world at the time. When you see that film now, are you able to appreciate it for the achievement it is?
Oh, I think that’s absolutely how I feel. I’m old enough and experienced enough. And by the way, when I look at myself answering some of the questions in the interviews, I’m a hillbilly. We were young! I mean, I thought I was pretty smart. But you don’t know what you think you know. But the performance was, I thought, very good. And also, it was during a whole period of time that we were that good all the time. We’d get our mindset kind of hyped up to where we were in an almost supernatural place to give our best performance. And also, by the way, at that point, any little mistake you might make on your instrument, or if you forget a word or something, that’s irrelevant. That doesn’t even matter. Really, the point is the level of energy of the performance, as far as I’m concerned.
I want to give people a little perspective, and I’d like to get your take on it. You achieved all of this even though you didn’t have a Colonel Parker or a Brian Epstein. You weren’t on EMI Records or RCA Records. You were on Fantasy, a very small independent label. You didn’t have a publicist. You didn’t have label support. But you did all this in that short span of time, and that was basically on the back of the songs. It was the hit songs, the songwriting and the production of those songs and your voice and that guitar that was coming out of the radio that captured people’s imaginations, especially with the Vietnam War going on.
Well, yeah. But when I took stock of myself at the end of ’68, after “Suzie Q” had been a novelty hit and I deduced that I was a one-hit wonder at that point, I certainly realized all those things were things that we were lacking. And I thought, “Well, you’re just going to have to do it with music.” And that was basically my own mission statement to myself. That’s why there were three albums that year. That’s why, without almost blinking, when a single came out, and was on the way down, here came a new single. The whole idea was because we didn’t have any of those other things, so I didn’t want to be away. I didn’t want to ever have to be in that place where the audience was forgetting about us. And if I took pride in something, I would say I was proud of the fact that I managed to accomplish that, at least for a short period of time.