Even at the height of their influence, Creedence Clearwater Revival resisted the worst temptations of their time. They dressed simply in worker flannel, sipped Pepsis before shows and avoided the slap that killed Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. But nothing could save John and Tom Fogerty, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford from each other.
In A song for everyoneJohn Lingan tells what is called “rock and roll’s saddest story”, following Creedence from their school days, to their meteoric rise in the late 1960s, to their acrimonious split. in the early 1970s. The book, however, is mostly superfluous after the 2015 release of frontman John Fogerty’s memoir wealthy son, which told everything a fan or other songwriter would want to know. Worse still, as is common among biographers today, Lingan spills a lot of moralizing ink. He measures Creedence’s success by its political effects, judging the group against currently fashionable beliefs about environment, gender, and race. What begins as historical context ends with a sort of reproach. The music happens in the margins.
Lingan breathlessly recounts how the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed by Congress in 1968, the same year CCR recorded “Green River.” He reproduces feminist writer Ellen Willis’ pablum on abortion rights the following year, then notes how the group released “Bad Moon Rising.” While Creedence wanted you to listen echoes of black artists like Little Richard in their work, Lingan wants you to know: The band has stolen this sound. He says they are “awkwardly in the grip of black culture” alongside other white musicians who would “own” black art, citing composer Steve Reich’s early hit “It’s Gonna Rain.” And as for the breakup, John Fogerty was stubborn, terribly stubborn, and couldn’t share the blame with his brother or his friends, no matter how talented they were.
Telling the story in this way not only drains the band of artistry, but deflates the personal drama. This avoids the real reason players quit: resentment.
Beginning the book with the band’s 1970 concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Lingan places himself firmly on one side of this split. (He did not interview John Fogerty, speaking instead with Clifford and Cook. Tom Fogerty died in 1990.) Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Eric Clapton were apparently in the audience, but earlier in the tour Fogerty had told the group they wouldn’t. make more reminders. Lingan places the reader backstage, hearing the chants of those present and seeing Fogerty deadpan as his bandmates plead to get out. For Lingan, the episode shows the tight leash Fogerty held on to everyone: he wrote all the songs, produced all the records, and recorded all the background vocals because he believed his bandmates couldn’t sing. Now he was snubbing his idols. And he didn’t seem to care.
Except Fogerty cared about the music. He sometimes belittled his bandmates in their studio (aptly named the Factory), but his knowledge really eclipsed theirs. He was demanding. While recording their cover of Lead Belly’s song “Cotton Fields”, Fogerty became so upset that Clifford couldn’t keep time on the drums that he kicked everyone out of the studio. He then cut all the last beats from the tape recording, then drove up to the angry drummer and threw the outtakes in his face. Fogerty recounts the episode in his memoir, saying he can still hear the drums being slow on the final track. Lingan does not mention it.
The rest of the group knew they were riding at the back of the pack. Fogerty’s quality control and professional approach to creating hit singles produced three platinum albums in one year. And because their songs weren’t overdriven by political events, they enjoyed a large fan base: a “remarkable range of high school students, truckers, chefs and miscellaneous”, as Voice of the village writes critic Robert Christgau. Bob Dylan and Elvis both picked “Proud Mary” as their favorite song from 1969. Even Joplin stumbles in the middle of the book. “I love you all,” she stammers, dead drunk. “You never play that stupid psychedelic shit.” The hippies loved Creedence, but the soldiers loved them. A squadron in Vietnam threw its music into the jungle at night when it launched attacks on Charlie, Fogerty shares in his memoir. “I’m not trying to polarize hippies against their parents,” Fogerty said. Music “should unite, no matter how cheesy. You know, everyone should be able to sit down and stomp their feet, or say, ‘Wow! That’s what it takes!'”
Creedence fed on the youthful energy of the counterculture, but they were never a protest band. It’s odd, then, that Lingan describes their most popular song, “Fortunate Son,” as a “hijacking of middle-class values, whether it’s quitting a good job or decrying the military.” In other passages he contradicts this reading. Unlike their rock ‘n’ roll peers, the four men were married by the time the band hit the charts in the late ’60s. Fogerty even became interested in aspects of military life when he served in the army reserve. In an interview with a leftist newspaper, he openly worried about the disappearance of “gender differences” in the workforce between men and women, admitted that he was “also a capitalist and spoke of songwriting as an expression of “what I see from the medium.”
As he writes about the breakup, Lingan reveals the band members’ jealousy of their leader. Things started falling apart when Tom took over. He lobbied for a paperback writer to profile the group. The embarrassing product, littered with garish descriptions, only further undermined Tom’s role, casting him as the older brother of a far more talented sibling. The realization stung. “Even in his own vanity project,” writes Lingan, “Tom’s worth was questioned.” Months later, he attempted another “lavish publicity stunt”: a reporter’s trip that made Clifford and Cook equally foolish, according to Lingan. After their penultimate album Pendulum broke, Tom left the band.
In the decades since their last album, the commercial failure Mardi Gras, Clifford and Cook claimed Fogerty set them up for a fall. He made them write their own music without any help. Lingan reflects on this narrative: “He could pull an all-in when it suited him. He could impose new regulations that didn’t make the group better, didn’t make it better, just changed the rules of the game.” But Fogerty remembers things differently. He was sold out, having been forced by the label contract to come up with an impossible number of songs. In his memoir, he writes that the couple only found out how bad their songs were on tour. Crowds found these songs laughable. When the group returned home, they broke up for good.
For Lingan, Creedence failed because Fogerty couldn’t collaborate. His book is a sort of response to wealthy son, who blamed the other band members for their selfishness. The reader can learn another lesson: even artists learn their limits.
A Song for Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival
by John Lingan
Hachette books, 384 pages, $32