Apologies for not posting this sooner. My two-year-old daughter went into daycare two weeks ago and apparently the first lesson they teach the youngins is how to turn into a human petri dish. Ye gods. From Sunday evening through Friday morning I had trouble forming coherent sentences. Damn punk kids, stay outta my immune system!
Anyway, in The Bo Diddley Legacy – Part 1 I discussed Bo’s origins, placing him on the sanctified church > R&B > rock ‘n’ roll continuum. For Part 2, I want to focus on his influence, but in a very specific fashion. Hell, I could write about Bo for a month and not exhaust angles, but if I did that my brain would explode and no one wants that, least of all me. So, I’m limiting my focus to the 1960s, when Bo’s chart presence began to diminish, but he still served as a primary influence to many of the decade’s most significant artists. Some you’d expect. Others … we’ll see.
Download full Bo Diddley playlist (Parts 1 & 2) as zip file (117 MB, all MP3s)
Total Time = 43:13
Maybe it’s because my hometown is Huntington Beach, CA — aka Surf City — but I’m beginning today’s post with surf music. SURF MUSIC?!?! That is correct. As it happens, one of the most ill-conceived albums in the Bo Diddley catalog is 1963’s, Surfin’ With Bo Diddley.
For one thing, Bo only played on 4 of 12 cuts and yet it was still advertised as a Diddley album. For another … well, it’s just not very good. But, I don’t think it failed because the concept was bad, I think it failed because the principals involved, including Bo, confused the image of surf culture with the reality of surf music. I admit, Bo Diddley juxtaposed against Gidget sounds ridiculous. However, if you just pay attention to the music you’ll find common ground.
Think about it. The distinctive sound of surf music — from its very beginnings in the late ’50s and early ’60s — are rolling, tom-heavy drums and reverby, pick-sliding guitars. You think Bo Diddley may have those elements in a few of his songs? Now, I’m not suggesting that Bo invented surf music, but I am suggesting he was an influence, and if we’re addressing his legacy, THAT’S part of the legacy. To wit:
FACT: Dick Dale’s sets from day one were peppered with Bo Diddley songs.
FACT: In 1962, Dick Dale released the first surf album, Surfer’s Choice. On that album is the song “Surfing Drums” — originally titled “Jungle Fever” and later titled “Tribal Thunder” — and it’s pretty clearly based on Bo’s “Hush Your Mouth.” Let’s put those two songs back-to-back and take a listen. And since we’re at the beach, I’ve included the one redeeming track from Surfin’ With Bo Diddley, “Surf, Sink Or Swim.” I could be wrong, but I think that’s longtime Chess session man, Gene Barge, on tenor sax.
Bo Diddley – Hush Your Mouth (1958)
Dick Dale – Surfing Drums (1962)
Bo Diddley – Surf, Sink Or Swim (1963)
FROM SURFERS TO MODS
I don’t know if it’s a little-known fact, but some people might be surprised to hear that Keith Moon was a surf music fanatic. Of course, anyone who’s heard The Who covering “Barbara Ann” or the four-part vocal harmony at the beginning of “A Quick One While He’s Away” might make The Beach Boys connection. But, that’s only surf music to a degree. What I’m talking about is the real deal stuff, like The Chantays, Ventures, and Surfaris, those instrumental bands who were the backbone of surf music.
The Who – The Ox (1965)
I bring this up here because one of The Who’s most visionary early tracks was “The Ox,” an instrumental from their 1965 My Generation LP loosely based on The Surfari’s 1963 single, “Waikiki Run.” I say “loosely” because while it sorta begins as a surf number, Townshend takes the song to war. His guitar — along with the bass-swoops of John Entwhistle, the titular “Ox” — explodes with menacing, apocalpyse. quality that presages Jeff Beck’s work on Roger The Engineer and the arrival in London of Jimi Hendrix (both 1966). However, if you actually listen to “Waikiki Run,” the one thing that jumps out at you is Moonie’s relatively faithful homage to Ron Wilson’s frenetic drum pattern. Keith Moon is one of rock’s great drummers, no doubt, but as I said about Bo in Part 1, he didn’t come from nowhere. If anything, “The Ox” is a reminder that surf music probably has a number of Ron Wilsons, barely remembered musicians who were primary influences to numerous better-known musicians.
Surfaris – Waikiki Run (1963)
Still, how do we get from the innocent charm of “Waikiki Run” to the incendiary menace of “The Ox?” I think a pair of Bo Diddley songs point the way. Over the course of his long career, Bo recorded a number of instrumentals in which his guitar work — generally percussive, driving, and effects-laden — was framed by a dense bed of polyrhythms. “Bo’s Guitar,” recorded in 1957-58, was one of his first and a quasi-template for “The Ox.”
Bo Diddley – Bo’s Guitar (1957-58)
The drumming on “Bo’s Guitar” isn’t nearly as frenzied as on “The Ox,” but in tandem with Jerome Green’s maracas, it pushes the beat with nearly equal force. The piano in each song also performs a nearly identical role. I’m not sure if “Bo’s” features Otis Spann or Lafayette Leake — both men were Chess session musicians during this period — but their tinkling, trebly runs are echoed by Who session man, Nicky Hopkins (actually, a formal co-writer of “The Ox”).
While Townshend’s individual brilliance took electric guitar playing to another level in the 1960s, you can hear that brilliance presaged in its own right throughout “Bo’s” (especially in the hiccups, stabs, and divebombs from 1:20-1:41). Clearly, “Bo’s Guitar” is a more casual performance — which is to say, that unlike “The Ox,” you don’t feel the need to strap guns to your body and fight the invading hordes — but I think it’s reasonable to say that Diddley’s percussive attack on the guitar anticipates some of Townshend’s own breakthroughs on the instrument. This assertion is punctuated by this live version of “Road Runner,” a song incidentally that was a regular part of early Who setlists.
Bo Diddley – Road Runner
August 18, 1965
Only 1:27, but that’s all you need to realize Bo’s talent for deconstructing the electric guitar, with some of the most vicious pick-slides this side of Hendrix. Gotta love the white boy on bass and The Duchess on second guitar (and not the other way around, which is FAR more commonplace in rock history). If racial and gender integration is a good thing — and I think it’s fair to say that it is — keep in mind that this predates Sly & The Family Stone by two years. The Duchess was a badass, serving as lead guitarist, treasurer, and cat woman until her departure in 1966.
RAVE-UPS, JAMS, AND WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT
“I was out to destroy the audience. I wanted to destroy ’em, just make the toughest dude in the crowd pat his foot. I’d find a groove to get ’em by watching feet, and once I got one guy moving, I’d start working on the dude sitting next to him.”
“Road Runner” hints at what rock music would become and not just the feedback-rich sonic assault so prevalent among guitarists in the mid-to-late ’60s. Unlike virtually all of Bo’s early rock ‘n’ roll contemporaries, Diddley shows weren’t about traditional songwriting prowess and melodious hit singles, they were about locking into a groove, hypnotizing the audience, and taking them to church. I’d say that only James Brown was as successful working a variation of this theme simultaneous to Bo, but I’d also argue that it wasn’t until the release of “Cold Sweat” in 1967 that JB wholly embraced this “primitive” aesthetic with the creation of funk.
But Bo was there first. His performances, like his records, were introducing a new generation of kids to the musical values of the sanctified church. Little did he know that in the hands of The Yardbirds circa 1965-66, low-end theory would evolve into 15-20 minute rave-ups that in turn influenced countless British bands of the era into extending (and experimenting with) their own songs. Sadly, no footage — to my knowledge — exists of these mythic jams and are only hinted at on albums like Five Live Yardbirds and Having A Rave-Up. But it is absolutely crucial to understand that these jams were not excuses for pointless, self-indulgent noodling.
As Robert Palmer explains in Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, “The rave-up (was) an improvisational strategy that found the whole band accelerating tempos in tandem, building up to a dynamic peak, then bringing the music down to a hypnotic, slowly simmering riff that would sooner or later begin building toward an explosion again.” Unlike so many jams of the ’60s and ’70s — if not now and forever — the principal aesthetic was to turn the entire band into a rhythm machine, with each instrument, even in a “solo,” playing a rhythmic support role.
We also see the rhythm machine philosophy at work in the catalogs of The Stooges and Velvet Underground. In the case of The Stooges, the superficial simplicity of the Bo Diddley sound was appealing because, quite frankly, they weren’t good enough to act like they were accomplished musicians. To their credit, they made their technical limitations work for them by slowing down the Bo Diddley Beat, adding heroic amounts of aggression and dissonance, and in so doing, helped invent the wounded animal known as punk rock.
As for VU, John Cale’s viola gets an inordinate amount of critical and historical attention — not undeservingly, mind you — but his classical contributions wouldn’t have meant nearly as much were his bandmates not, at heart, a lockdown R&B band. Unlike The Stooges, the Velvets could play, and not just the atonal, avant-rock material upon which much of their reputation rests — again, not undeservingly.
In fact, few non-guitarists, before or since, have better articulated the deceptively simple Bo Diddley sound than drummer, Moe Tucker. Like every drummer who played under Diddley’s command, Tucker emphasizes, to near exclusion, the floor tom and bass drum and keeps her “leads” to a bare minimum. The cymbal, if used at all, is barely tolerated. In a sense, the Diddley performance ethic of locking into the groove and destroying the audience sees its apotheosis in VU’s 17-minute epic, “Sister Ray.” With Tucker directing traffic, the band builds to a series of climaxes, ecstatically pushing forward in seeming chaos, driven by a primitive, trance-like pulse that abandons traditional song form altogether. The rhythm is all that matters and in that philosophical construct Bo Diddley and the Velvets are kin.
The following two Bo Diddley videos, in my opinion, perfectly embody his rhythm-at-all-costs philosophy. No melody, no solos, just a collective riding of the riff all the way to Groove City. Watch Bo Diddley smack some white kids upside the head with the rock ‘n’ roll stick.
Bo Diddley – Hey, Bo Diddley + Bo Diddley (1965)
Hollywood a Go-Go
Bo Diddley – Hey, Bo Diddley (1973)
Let The Good Times Roll (out of print movie)
THE BEAT & MEDLEYING WITH BO
Despite his litany of innovations, Bo Diddley’s legacy will always be that formidable beat. So, I’ve paid tribute to Bo in my own unique way. I’ve created a medley of 30 songs, a combination of tunes featuring the Bo Diddley Beat and other covers of Bo songs. I think it’s a right and proper homage and I hope you’ll agree. Get yer Bo on!
Medleying With Bo: A Bo Diddley Bouillabaise
Medleying With Bo: A Bo Diddley Bouillabaise
FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
In researching this article I’ve come across a few stories (and one website) that merit special mention. The Dave Alvin and John Moore bits were personal memorials about Bo written after his death. Of all the tributes to the man, I thought these two were the most thoughtful, touching, and meaningful. Really good stuff. The Iggy Pop piece was written in 2004 for a special edition of Rolling Stone, but it’s definitely worth another look. Say what you will about the Igster, I think he understood what Bo Diddley represented, and it wasn’t just the beat. Finally, all Bo fans owe it to themselves to visit David Blakey’s website, Bo Diddley – The Originator. Where I could only do a hit-and-run on the Diddley catalog, The Originator is a veritable Diddleypedia, digging deep into all phases of the man’s 50+ year career.
The Immortals – Bo Diddley by Iggy Pop (Stooges)
Bo Diddley – The Originator – The #1 Bo Diddley reference site