Happy 50th Anniversary to Muddy Waters’ fifth studio album Electric Mud, originally released October 5, 1968.
In October of 1968, Chess Records released the worst blues album in the brief but explosive history of the genre. Electric Mud was an abomination—a monstrous carbuncle on the ass of blues music. How could Marshall Chess, the son of label co-founder Leonard Chess, lower the bar in such a dramatic and unwelcome way? Was he pissing on the bones of a recently deceased art form for shits and giggles?
At least that’s what some people thought. But there’s more to it than that. There always is.
Chess Records was founded by Polish immigrants Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz (or Leonard and Phil Chess after a swift Americanization of names) alongside Evelyn Aron in Chicago in 1950. Taking over what had been known as Aristocrat Records gradually, they began to shape the label into a home for down home blues, R&B and a crazy new sound called rock & roll. In partnership with Sun Records founder Sam Phillips in Memphis, the label became home to the epochal record “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner and His Delta Cats, often revered as the first rock & roll record issued.
But the electric blues was its stock in trade as the ‘50s progressed and the roster of talent was mind-blowing. The list of great artists to adorn the label was long and illustrious: Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Little Walter and the bass playing, songwriting lynchpin Willie Dixon. The jewel in the crown though was the swaggering King of Chicago blues Muddy Waters, a man indelibly linked to the change in blues music from its acoustic down south early days to the electrified urban sound in the industrial cities of the north.
But the 1960s had been a tumultuous decade for blues music. That young upstart rock & roll had kicked down the doors, taken huge chunks of blues sensibility and reimagined them for a younger audience. The British invasion was fueled by the love of all things blues and Jimi Hendrix was an alumnus of the Chicago blues scene before he smashed the music world to smithereens.
Then there was the birth of mass produced, slickly written soul music from the motor city and beyond. Motown and other soul labels grew to take the lion’s share of black American dollars. Amongst the people who birthed it, the blues withered like an overripe peach. It became the music for the elders.
But that British invasion precipitated a rediscovery of blues music by white teenage audiences as they discovered the inspirations for their favorite white rock groups. Artists like Muddy Waters found new audiences not just on the folk music circuit in the U.S., but also across the pond in Europe. However, the artists effectively became heritage acts, peddling old product for an eager white audience.
Which brings us to Marshall Chess, the son of Leonard. Since being knee high to a grasshopper, he’d been dragged to every dive bar and juke joint in Chicago to prepare him for his apprenticeship and eventual leadership of the family brand. So at age 26 while knee deep in running the Cadet imprint, Marshall decided to do his bit to reinvigorate blues music and lay bare its influence on those blistering talents of rock & roll. He devised the idea to record Muddy Waters with his house band and turn the psychedelic up to eleven. Reverb heavy and as muddy in the mix as McKinley Morganfield himself, Electric Mud was released to a level of vitriol that befits someone robbing a grave.
The purists in particular loathed it. Taking a monumental blues man like Waters and diluting his sound to make it more palatable for those with narrow ears? It was music snobbery writ large. But a peek at the personnel on show and a generous dollop of hindsight shows it to be far from the worst blues album ever made. In fact, it sold an estimated 150,000 copies, very good numbers for a blues album at that time.
The band Marshall Chess put together for this metaphysical venture was immense. The distorted and freewheeling guitars came courtesy of Roland Faulkner (who had played with Lionel Hampton and Sarah Vaughan amongst others), Phil Upchurch (who would go on to play with Donny Hathaway, Michael Jackson and pretty much everyone of any note) and the legendary Pete Cosey who would play with Miles Davis throughout the ‘70s.
Bass came courtesy of Louis Satterfield (who, incidentally, taught Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire to play bass) and overseeing it all and playing organ was Charles Stepney. Fresh from his early successful work with Rotary Connection on Marshall’s Cadet label, he imbued proceedings with a raggedly fuzzed up homage to some of Waters’ most popular recordings.
At a slight eight tracks long, it consists of some classic Waters’ material (“I Just Want To Make Love To You,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Mannish Boy”) alongside a Rolling Stones cover (“Let’s Spend The Night Together”) and a couple of other Chess pieces. All of them sound as if they’ve been grabbed by the throat and shaken ‘til the pipes burst, while retaining the majesty of Waters’ voice. He was, in all but name, King of the Chicago Blues and here his voice sounds as imperious as ever—gritty, sexually charged and dominant.
Morris Jennings’ thudding backbeat dominates the early part of “I Just Want To Make Love To You” before Waters’ ferocious vocal comes in. Given the surfeit of guitar players, it is hardly surprising that barely half a second goes by without one of them shredding away incandescently. Its climax is a fucked up mélange of pounding drums, scintillating organ and fuzzed up guitar, far from the relative simplicity of the original 1954.
“I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” undergoes some kind of transubstantiation as it takes in free-jazz inspired flights of fancy and wah-wah pedals employed to maximum effect. Despite all that static around the song, Waters’ voice still commands all attention when he sings.
As a reminder of the cyclical nature of musical trends, Waters powers through a cover of the Rolling Stones classic “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” ad-libbing as he transforms the original impertinent young man’s request into a more obviously carnal adventure. This is for grown folks, make no mistake.
A seven-minute jam riffing on Waters’ 1953 version of a Delta classic (“Catfish Blues”), loses its fucked up mind somewhere along the way. Guitars wheel and sheer throughout the song before it segues into a stoned out and totally incongruous rendition of “My Girl” by The Temptations. “She’s All Right” is a strange but ultimately thrilling beast.
Standing out as markedly different form the rest of the album though is “Herbert Harper’s Free Press.” Whereas the rest of the songs are psyched up blues tracks, this is funky in a way that blues music seldom was at that time. The tale goes that Jimi Hendrix would listen to it before his own performances and it’s easy to see why—it blazes and rips with gusto.
Ultimately though, Electric Mud is more than a curio or some relic to be pulled off the shelf intermittently. Electric Mud is a gateway drug to the unfettered joys and heartbreaks of all of blues music. This was ably demonstrated in Marc Levin’s film Godfathers and Sons as part of Martin Scorsese’s The Blues devotional.
It told the tale of Electric Mud and its impact on Chuck D of Public Enemy. It had been his gateway to exploring the world of the blues and the very thing that the critics reviled, had lured him in. The reimagining and repackaging of the genre for younger ears steeped in the fuzz and genius of Hendrix worked its magic on Chuck D—surely that was a job well done?
Take Childish Gambino’s album Awaken My Love as another example of a gateway drug. Serious music heads bemoaned the Funkadelic-lite album, thinking it a pale imitation of a beloved movement. But to a Gambino fan who only knew his rap albums and numerous guest spots, there’s a fair chance (given its ubiquitous qualities) that it could blow their minds in the way George Clinton et. al blew others’. If one listener heard “Redbone” and sought out Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With You” as a result of reading a review making the similarities explicit, then how could that be a bad thing?
We all have our gateway drugs to musical worlds other than the ones we inhabit, and as a consequence, those albums divide opinion like few others. In reaching for a new audience, some always get left behind. For some blues enthusiasts Electric Mud was a step too far, but in daring to try something different Waters and Marshall Chess reached new ground for the blues and broadened the appeal of a genre badly in need of it.
Whether Waters liked the album or not (and there are conflicting reports about that) is debatable. But what is beyond question is that it helped his career in ways a straight up blues album would have never done.