The Creedence Clearwater Revival Revival

When Creedence Clearwater Revival broke up fifty years ago this fall, they were critically respected, hugely influential, and popular almost beyond belief. Billboard credits the band with nine Top Ten singles in just two and a half years, from early 1969 to the summer of ’71—an amazing stat, but one that still undercounts the band’s success. The fanciful twang of “Down on the Corner” and the blue-collar rage of “Fortunate Son” were each tremendously popular, but, because they were pressed on flip sides of the same 45, Billboard counted them as only one hit record. C.C.R. also has the most No. 2 hits—five—of any band that never scored a No. 1. In 1969, as John Lingan notes in his new book, “A Song for Everyone,” Creedence Clearwater Revival even reportedly achieved “something that no other group had done in America since 1964: They outsold the Beatles.”

Somehow, the sheer scope of what they accomplished has always seemed underappreciated. “Everyone has the most fucking respect for the Beatles,” C.C.R.’s drummer, Doug Clifford, complained to Hit Parader, adding, “Well, we’re the biggest American group.” Granted, Clifford’s comment reflects a sense of grievance that the band—consisting of Clifford, bassist Stu Cook; guitarist Tom Fogerty; and singer-guitarist-songwriter-producer John Fogerty, Tom’s younger brother—had nursed for years. They emerged from a transformative Bay Area music scene that included Sly and the Family Stone and Jefferson Airplane. But, because they performed notably sober and straight, and were all married—and especially because they favored two-to-three-minute-long pop gems, tightly rehearsed, rather than improvised jams—they were perceived as squares even in their own scene. Hip crowds at the Fillmore jokingly referred to them, Lingan writes, as “the Boy Scouts of Rock and Roll.” When the critic Ralph J. Gleason referred to the band as “an excellent example of the Third Generation of San Francisco bands,” they felt disrespected again: they’d been performing together in the area, first as the Blue Velvets, then as the Golliwogs, since the late fifties. Look closely at the cover of their 1970 album “Cosmo’s Factory,” and you’ll see an embittered, handmade motivational poster tacked up in their rehearsal space: “3rd GENERATION.”

But even admiring critics acknowledged that the public image of the band wasn’t equal to their greatness. “For all Creedence’s immense popularity, John Fogerty has never made it as a media hero, and the group has never crossed the line from best-selling rock band to cultural phenomenon,” Ellen Willis wrote in this magazine, in 1972. Willis attributed this partly to the fact that Fogerty projected “intelligence and moderation,” rather than, for instance, “freakiness, messianism, sex, violence.” (This was also, she noted, “probably the main reason I have come to prefer him to Mick Jagger,” and partly why C.C.R. had become her favorite rock-and-roll band.)

There were other reasons, too: “Proud Mary,” the first of the band’s several signature tunes, almost immediately became better known as Ike and Tina Turner’s signature tune. At Woodstock, C.C.R. took the stage between the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, but, after Fogerty deemed the experience unsatisfactory, they were left out of the subsequent concert film, and off its soundtrack. Fogerty’s bandmates were frequently put off by his imperiousness: he’d instituted a strict no-encores policy, for instance, which translated to less fun for audience and band alike. Tom Fogerty quit the band first, tired of “eternally strumming” rhythm guitar—as Lingan describes the situation—for a group he used to front. And, by the fall of 1972, exhausted from near-constant touring and a recording pace that produced seven albums in less than five years, Cook and Clifford had had enough, too. John Fogerty agreed with them. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” he told one of his bandmates, according to Lingan.

Creedence stopped, but Creedence’s music kept right on going; “Chronicle,” a greatest-hits collection released four years after the band pulled the plug, has today sold more than ten million copies. Meanwhile, C.C.R.’s songs—“Green River,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” “Born on the Bayou,” and “Bad Moon Rising,” among others—have gained generations of new fans through relentless soundtrack appearances. With just a sharp, swampy chord or two, Creedence’s music has effortlessly conjured what we think of as the sixties for viewers of “The Big Chill” and “The Big Lebowski,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Forrest Gump.” (The band’s portentous “Up Around the Bend” is deployed in the most recent season of “Stranger Things.”)

This has helped sustain the band’s popularity, but it has also had a way of fixing the music to a particular time and place. Noting the socially and politically volatile moment that inspired the Creedence songbook—that fraught stretch when the sixties dissolved into the seventies—critics have tended to characterize John Fogerty as a songwriter foretelling nothing but doom. Dave Marsh likened him to an Old Testament prophet; Willis heard a “fatalism best expressed in his repeated use of rain as a metaphor for social ills.” Such gloomy characterizations weren’t wrong, but Lingan explains much of C.C.R.’s appeal with a simple reminder: melody and groove matter, too. Fogerty’s lyrics were routinely cataclysmic, but they were always expressed via sunny, sing-along choruses and the band’s danceable, roots-forward rock and roll. Lingan calls it “feel-good tunes for feel-bad times.”

C.C.R.’s brief window as a working band coincided with the years in which rock music was busy splintering, innovating, into all sorts of new subgenres: progressive rock, psychedelic rock, country rock, glam rock, bubblegum, hard rock and heavy metal, funk, power pop, jam bands, and sensitive singer-songwriter types. Creedence’s backward-glancing approach may have seemed derivative; their chief heroes weren’t Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix but Little Richard, whose sound they swiped for “Travelin’ Band,” and Chuck Berry, whose comic storytelling Fogerty channelled for “It Came Out of the Sky.” But the truth is that, by retooling old-school rock and soul for a new era, they helped invent another new subgenre, one that is perhaps less-heralded but still thriving: roots-rock. A large swath of the artists we now term Americana might fairly look to Creedence as forebears.

And, though the band’s songs are often reduced to beloved signifiers of a storied long ago, the C.C.R. catalogue feels poised to be retconned for right-now needs. Take “Commotion,” in which Fogerty howls about how we’re all “Rushin’ to the treadmill, rushin’ to get home,”and think about our ongoing Great Resignation. Or “Tombstone Shadow.” “Every time I get some good news, ooh / There’s a shadow on my back,” Fogerty sings. It’s perfect for doom-scrolling Twitter, waiting for the next attack on democracy to trend. And there’s the famous trio of ominous weather songs: “Bad Moon Rising,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” and “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” Fogerty wrote all three of them right around the original Earth Day, and each one works weather metaphors almost too on-the-nose for the climate-change cataclysm at hand. “I hear hurricanes a-blowin’,” Fogerty sings, on “Bad Moon Rising.” And then: “Hope you are quite prepared to die.”

Doom and gloom indeed. But there’s always hope in a sad song that makes you want to sing along. There’s more hope still in a song that inspires you to join voices with other sufferers. Next month, “Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Albert Hall,” a previously unreleased live recording from 1970, will be issued, accompanied by “Travelin’ Band,” a documentary narrated by Jeff Bridges. Perhaps the time has even come when we can see C.C.R. for the innovators they were to begin with.

Last year, the singer Miko Marks and her band the Resurrectors—they get categorized as Americana but roots-rock works as well—closed their EP, “Race Records,” with a version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long as I Can See the Light.” They perform the half-century-old ballad with zero nostalgia. The situation and details are all very general but Marks’s tone is urgent. The road is dark. There’s trouble behind and she knows, we know, worse troubles lie ahead. She seems to lock eyes with ours—and we’re off, confident that together we will either make it back home or we will build a new one. “Long as I Can See the Light” has been beloved for a long time even as it seemed trapped in a specific past. These days, though, C.C.R.’s songbook can feel freshly freed—as if those old songs had been waiting for us all along to show up and need them again in present tense. ♦

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