Happy 35th Anniversary to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s second studio album Couldn’t Stand the Weather, originally released May 15, 1984.
There was nothing pop about blues singer-guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was a Jimi Hendrix-obsessed blues purist who always stayed true to his personal vision of the blues. David Bowie once quipped to Guitar Player magazine that Vaughan "considers [Led Zeppelin’s] Jimmy Page something of a modernist. The lad seems to have stopped at Albert Collins." Collins, himself a famous blues guitarist, was born some 20 years before Vaughan.
The idea of Bowie, a pop music icon, discussing Vaughan, a blues guitarist seemingly uninterested in modern music, sums up Vaughan's relationship to pop. He's there. Pop music can see Vaughan. Vaughan can see pop music. And yet Vaughan had no interest in bending to the will of the genre. But he's always there, like a Texan Zelig.
Even without Vaughan succumbing to the lure of pop music, his Couldn't Stand the Weather was popular. It hit number 31 on the Billboard 200 chart. The title track video was in MTV's rotation. Vaughan's guitar-driven blues rock, combining Hendrix funk with Albert King-inspired bends, was mainstream.
Vaughan's pop awareness is one of the many things that made his albums and performances so great. And make no mistake about it: whatever his personal musical tastes were, Vaughan was out there in the pop world. He opened for bands like Huey Lewis and the News, Men at Work, and the Moody Blues. He played on Heartbeat, actor Don Johnson's 1986 album. He recorded a scorching cover of "Taxman" for a Beatles' cover album produced by none other than Michael Jackson (the album was never completed and the track was eventually released on Vaughan's 1995 Greatest Hits). And, perhaps most famously, Vaughan played on Bowie's Let's Dance album, including the title track, bailing on the album tour two days before it was supposed to start, to focus on his own band.
Vaughan had the ability to appeal to pop audiences without compromising his music. His singles charted, but he never had a conventional pop hit. He never wrote, or at least never released, a crossover song. His music, against all odds, just managed to crossover.
Blues rock has, at times, sold records. The big ‘70s bands like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones are obvious examples. But the combination punches of punk, new wave, and metal relegated the genre to the mainstream music fringes. Blues rock became associated with long, pointless jams. It was considered dull and self-indulgent. But Vaughan was a generational blues guitarist. His talent was limitless, but he understood that a little guitar playing goes a long way. His studio albums never had endless, meandering jams. He maximized the impact of his solos, leaving the listener wanting more (see Figure 1).
Couldn't Stand the Weather is eight tracks, but only two can be considered long: "Tin Pan Alley," which is over nine minutes long, and his cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," which is just over eight. The other tracks are under five minutes. It's not Minutemen-level succinctness, but it's very manageable.
Vaughan also had a great ear for choosing blues covers, and giving them just the right amount of a rock & roll energy. On Couldn't Stand the Weather, he did it with "Cold Shot," a Michael Kindred/W. C. Clark tune. In Vaughan's hands, the song has a percussive guitar riff (not unlike "Pride and Joy" from his debut album, Texas Flood) with a springy, Hendrix-esque tone that slices through the mix. Double Trouble reinforces Vaughan's rhythm, but the truth of the matter is, he could carry the song on his own. His vocals are also wonderful, a low-key, weary whisper of a delivery, that makes you want to root for Vaughan. It's a cool song that sounds old-fashioned, but not old.
Vaughan was also a better-than-most-blues-guitar-geniuses songwriter. His songs were melodic and catchy, surfacing the best of modern electric blues. The title track is funky with rhythm guitar assistance from Vaughan's brother, Jimmie, a solid bluesman in his own right, best known at the time for his work with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Truth be told, the song is more rock than blues, but the solo is an epic blues storm, with Vaughan riffing wildly in a blunt show of force, before using some huge string bends to capture the song's melody in his solo, and then quickly returning to the scratchy rhythm, bringing the track home.
The "Couldn't Stand the Weather" vocals were recorded after Vaughan laid down his guitar parts, which meant, unlike many of his earlier songs, he had never played and sang the song simultaneously. This complicated things when he had to perform the song live, although he did eventually learn to do both. But it shows how Vaughan and producer John Hammond were going for strong vocal and guitar performances, rather than treating Vaughan's voice as an afterthought.
Couldn't Stand the Weather features two short instrumentals which are also amazingly listenable. Especially when you stop to consider that in 1984, rock guitar songs sans vocals could last for days. Vaughan treats the two pieces as deliberate compositions, rather than just jamming out. "Scuttle Buttin'," which opens the album, is high-speed country and "Stang's Swang" is jazz, even featuring saxophone (courtesy of Stan Harrison). It's a clever way to bookend the album, veering away from the genre for which he is known and showing his different sides. But the placement of the songs, as well as their content, show a sense of taste and an understanding of which sounds work well on a record. Vaughan picked tunes he liked, that spoke to his point-of-view, but that would also keep the album commercial.
Vaughan is known as a blues guitarist, but his sense of song and of mainstream sensibilities are underrated. While Bowie is correct that Vaughan had incredibly parochial personal blues tastes, he understood the music business and knew how to find opportunities to expand the minds of his audience, without driving them away. His work also brought the pop world around to his world view, with Vaughan’s playing and tone eventually becoming a pop touchstone. Long-time Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens told Guitar World he remembers producers citing Vaughan’s work on Let’s Dance when building guitar parts.
Couldn't Stand the Weather is by no means a pop record, but it's an amazing rock record that proudly brings some authentic blues work right in through its front door. It was able to crossover because of Vaughan's pure, sincere love of and belief in the blues. One has the feeling he treated his studio and live performances as missionary outings, teaching the secular rock world about the beauty of the blues religion (and the beauty of Hendrix; word was he included “Voodoo Chile” solely for younger fans unfamiliar with the 1960s legend). Vaughan understood mainstream music, but his passion was the blues. Couldn't Stand the Weather beautifully united the two, though.