George Thorogood is famed for a punishing itinerary that matches his celebrated full throttle gigs. He shows no sign of relaxing the pace after 32 years of throaty, rocking blues. He has a new album ‘The Dirty Dozen’, which in true fashion delivers the archetypal GT brand of robust entertainment – there are six earthy new studio recordings paired with six classic fan favourites. The head of the Delaware Destroyers took time out before a recent gig in Kansas City to talk to about his career, his influences and his formula for success. We mixed in some pithy movie talk along the way.
Before we got to the nitty-gritty George had some words to say about Wales; he showed some surprising background knowledge about the spiritual home of BM…
I drove by Wales a couple of times. It’s the most beautiful spot on the planet. Tom Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Catherine Zeta Jones- there are some unique and talented people who come from Wales – although it’s connected to the British Isles, it’s a special place by itself and it’s produced some great writers too like Dylan Thomas – he actually died over here, in New York. There must be something in the water because some of you folks over there [in Wales] like to imbibe! (Laughs) I’d love to play there one day…..
….We sometimes have trouble with venues here George – some good ones have shut down or changed….
Ah well, if we can’t find anywhere we’ll just hang out on the street and play – we could do some busking.
We’ve heard that you’re back with Capitol / EMI for your new CD – what’s the story?
It’s a good story. We were making some recordings and had another label in mind, but it didn’t quite pan out. EMI / Capitol got to hear that we had some new songs, but not enough to make new record. They suggested that we pick some things off some past records, you know- the more obscure ones – and maybe we could put them all together. When they asked me what we should call it, I said “’The Dirty Dozen’ – I’ve been wanting to put out a record called that for years. They agreed the time was now, and that the title would reflect what we have – six new ones and six fan favourites. These are real die hard fan favourites mind you! It all fits together because in the movie “The Dirty Dozen’ there were some guys who were known stars, and some you’ve never heard of. That was the balance of the movie – guys like Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Clint Walker, Trini Lopez and my hero Lee Marvin playing alongside cats that nobody can name – that’s the kind of balance we were looking for in this record – famous and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar.
We’d like to ask you about this quote of yours – “My biggest thrill is when somebody says to a friend, ‘I’ve got George’s new CD and it’s just like the last one.”
(Laughs) Well I could say that once you have seen one Woody Allen movie, you’ve seen them all, but when you put them side by side they are all actually different – similar, but not the same. I sort of take my lead from that – if you were in the mood for Woody Allen any of those films would do, and if you were in the mood for George Thorogood then any of my records would do. I’m not as diverse an artist as Ray Charles for example, who does country, jazz, blues and rock – people like him and say, Sir Paul McCartney are really multi talented. Our thing is our thing, and I never really venture too far from that. We bang away at a few chords and get the most out of them that we can.
You also said that you have made a career out of being obvious…..
Well, I’m no Bob Dylan, that’s for sure. He’s a mysterious figure and people always want to know the meaning of the lyrics and to analyse the songs. Van Morrison too – if he wasn’t a singer he could have been one of the great poets – it all in there, tragedy, personality, passion and unpredictability – I think all the great artists have that. I guess I’m as predictable as a Lee Marvin movie. It’s what I do, and I make no bones about it – if it’s not your type of thing, you will go someplace else I guess.
That’s interesting – there are lots of artists who are blues-based but very experimental with other sounds – ‘Eclectic’ seems to be the fashion at present – what’s your stance?
Well if that happened to me, I’d just stop making records and we would just play live. We have found something that is suited to our ability and we’ve said ‘Hey this is right for us’. It’s no secret, and it may sound kind of droll, but it’s what we do. (Laughs)
And playing live is really your thing – One of your tags is The World‘s Greatest Bar Band
Well there are a few things that don’t go out of style and one of them is drinking – especially in Wales where you come from! (Laughs)
On a similar theme; lots of artists might be upset with this but I suspect maybe you won’t be –someone said ‘Listening to GT and D is like staying in a Holiday Inn. The quality is there, you know what to expect but there aren’t usually many surprises.’
…….and it’s affordable! There’s nothing wrong with that!
I recently read Tom Graves’ book about Robert Johnson and noticed that John P. Hammond features as he has a passionate interest in Johnson’s music. He’s also a great influence of yours’. We are interested to know how important Robert Johnson’s legend is to performers at your end of the R&B spectrum……..
I think his music has touched just about everyone. Indirectly or directly, it all comes back to him in the end. He was Muddy Waters’ influence and Muddy Waters was Bo Diddley’s influence and Bo Diddley was the Rolling Stones influence, and so he cascades through everyone’s music in some way. I am particularly absorbed by his music, but I don’t think anyone will ever be as absorbed by Robert Johnson’s music as John Hammond is – he has an overwhelming passion for it. Robert Johnson is the foundation of what it’s all about – you don’t need to go back any further than him really. He is the roots of the tree.
Talking of John Hammond – it has been said that listening to him was the definitive moment when you decided on a career in music rather than one in baseball – is that right?
Well I can clear that one up I guess. Baseball was always a hobby of mine and something I loved, but my real passion was performing music. I just didn’t really know which way I was headed. At the time I was listening to a lot of stuff like James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Bo Diddley and I was trying to figure out where I was going with this thing. Then I saw John Hammond and my mind was made up straight away – “That’s it right there” I thought, “………..that’s your ticket George, right there – this man John Hammond has just shown you the way”. I guess I found myself through him.
I had always had a passion for Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker and people like that – that was my kind of stuff, but it hadn’t come to the surface much because at the time everyone was into bands like Led Zeppelin, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and people like that. I was always the one in the corner saying “Yeah but I still like the Animals and The early Stones”. Everyone told me that Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker had just one chord and I said “Yeah – that’s what I like about them”. There was no fear about these people – I just wanted to get my guitar and go, go go like they did.
Help us with another urban myth George – the story that you and Jimmy Thackeray were playing in Georgetown, DC across the street from one another and during the same number “Madison Blues”, you went outside, crossed the road, swapped guitar leads and carried on fronting each other’s bands ? Did that really happen?
Yes it did! They were playing one side of the street in a place and we were playing in the venue opposite, and they were all jealous because all their wives and girlfriends were over watching us! (Laughs) That’s what the thing was about – I figured that if I wandered across the street all the ladies would follow me over……
It must have taken some planning – it was pretty clever…….
……….and pretty dangerous too! It was Friday night man, and there was traffic all over the place!
You said once that you were first setting your ambition to be an opener for the big acts – at what stage during your 30 plus years did it dawn on you that you were now a big act yourselves?
At the time of the first record, I was very naïve with regards to record sales. Even from early on, we were selling more than some of the people we were looking to open for, like John Hammond, Elvin Bishop, Canned Heat – our stuff was getting more attention than they were at that time. I got a real shock one day when I got a call about a date in New Jersey and I was asked how I felt about The Paul Butterfield Blues Band as an opening act for us! I said WHAT???? It made me think, and so I set off in a slightly different direction – I suggested that we may be a good opener for the J.Geils Band or The Stones and they said “Yeah, that would work”. If I open now I do it for someone like Steve Miller Band, ZZ Top or Carlos Santana. It took me a while to just work out where we stood in the natural order of things. But yeah, that was the original plan – we were just hoping to open for big bands and were happy with that – at least we were playing and we were doing it, and doing something we loved. I figured it was better than working in the car wash or something! Lots of bands have done it – The Stones have done it – they opened for Bo Diddley in Europe.
…..so is the success you’ve had a happy bonus?
It was a bonus, and a much unexpected curve which really took me by surprise. It took time to focus because it hadn’t all happened the way I was expecting, and to adjust, because here we were going to be headliners. Every now and then it’s still a fuzzy area for me.
Regarding your ambitions – In your early days I believe that you had some aspirations for some small acting parts on screen?
I just wanted to be in a movie! (Laughs) I had no plans to be an actor.
So no starring roles lined up anywhere?
Well ever since James Coburn passed way, I have been thinking Scorsese may be on the phone but nothing yet, so I’m gonna keep on rocking ! (Laughs)
You have an interesting and different cover of ‘Six Days on the Road’. It’s very different to the well known Taj Mahal version – you ‘Georged’ it up- what was that process like?
I just thought that nobody had done it with a slide guitar that I knew of among the many terrific versions that have been done of the song. Johnny Cash did one of the great ones in my opinion. Then I heard another version by John Kay of Steppenwolf on an album called ‘Forgotten Songs and Unsung Heroes’. I never forgot his or the Cash version so we decided to give it a shot with the slide in there. People may ask ‘What’s George doing singing country – he doesn’t have the voice for it, cackling away like that?’ but hey- truck drivers can’t sing! This isn’t George Jones or Marty Robbins singing this – it’s a trucker! I thought my voice was suited to it and I’m pleased with the way it came out.
Which is your favourite track on the album?
‘Run Myself Out Of Town’ – that’s my favourite – I have always loved that song from the moment I heard it. We worked real hard to give it the treatment, and I’m really looking forward to getting it into the show. It’s a different type of bouncy number. Also – I love what Buddy (sax player Buddy Leach) does on ‘Twenty Dollar Gig’ – it’s funny as hell.
You’re famous for your packed schedule George – how do you protect your voice during such a schedule?
I protect it by not doing too many interviews!
I guessed I walked into that one. Looking at your repertoire ‘Bad to the Bone’ is one your really known for – Do you ever get fed up with it?
No…you get certain tunes that people know, and it still tickles me that people like it so much. It’s a fan favourite, and that’s who we do the shows for after all – I still get off to the fact that they get off to what I do. I never get tired of it because a good tune is a good tune. I’m not a big country and western fan, but I’m a big fan of Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash because I love their songs and the same goes for Hank Williams. Even if you weren’t really into The Beatles, you can’t help loving their songs.
Kids are always a good sounding board for songs – if they sing something you’ve written you’re onto a winner, because they have no preconceived notions about things. They don’t sit there and say ‘Hey – he doesn’t play was well as Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters’ – they just like the song or they don’t and it’s a simple process for them. ‘Bad to the Bone’ is a well known now and I want to keep it well known! (Laughs)
And how is life in California?
I have fun wherever I go and I am just happy to be on the planet. Wherever I am, that’s OK with me.
Thanks for talking to Blues Matters! George
It’s been my pleasure – hope to see you soon.
BM Reviews THE DIRTY DOZEN George Thorogood & the Destroyers Capitol/EMI
If George Thorogood owned a restaurant, it would have sturdy tables and a fairly limited menu, featuring big portions of wholesome homemade food – nothing too surprising, but tasty and good value. This is 32oz steak territory, with no lace tablecloths or quail’s eggs in sight. Unworried that some may think his latest album sounds like his last, ‘The Dirty Dozen’ self explains: here are twelve raunchily unrelenting, driving R&B tracks – six brand new studio recordings and six “fan favourites” – all of which bear the clear George Thorogood And The Destroyers quality assurance mark. From the moment Willie Dixon’s ‘Tail Dragger’ strikes up, you know you’re not leaving until your belt is bursting around your belly. Another Dixon track, made famous by Howling Wolf – ‘Howlin’ for My Baby’ is perhaps the highlight among highlights, grabbing you by the throat and squeezing.
The Destroyers know exactly how to drape a perfect backcloth for Thorogood’s wailing slide, with Buddy Leach’s powerful sax featuring throughout with distinction. The gloriously unremitting ‘Let Me Pass’ has something of Love Sculpture’s ‘Sabre Dance’ and Canned Heat about it, but then just as you think the that the unswerving beat is subsiding during the first few bars of ‘Blue Highway’ and a gentle cruise is ahead, he drops her down a cog or two, hits the loud pedal and you are back in the overtaking lane. Rare, grilled monster rib eye with big, rough cut fries washed down with beer – and no serviettes allowed. This is earthy, raw, menacing and magnificent; turn up volume, open beer, enjoy. Richard Thomas
BAD TO THE BONE – George Thorogood’s R&B classic song
Many are familiar with George Thorogood, but many non R&B aficionados will be blissfully unaware as to why. They will repeat his name and shake their heads, but as soon as they hear those raunchy opening bars, furrowed brows break into wide beams, heads nod and they realize that they do know Delaware’s finest after all. Even the most casual and distracted consumer of modern pop culture could not have avoided ‘Bad to the Bone’ so widespread is its use as a backdrop for anything mean and moody. The song was based on traditional and antique blues licks and was allegedly penned as the ironical antithesis to his clean living adolescence. Its beauty lies in the simplicity of its message, and consequentially it appears in the sound track for films as disparate as ‘The Parent Trap’ and ‘Terminator 2 ‘Judgment Day’; it has advertised jeans and accompanied pitchers to the diamond and wrestlers to the ring ; it has been used to usher monster trucks into the arena, as a high octane background for video games ; in horror films by Stephen King and to serenade the luckless, hapless Al Bundy in ‘Married…With Children’. Such is the magic of an uncomplicated riff, a powerful vocal performance and the unadulterated promise of mischief. Other GT classics like Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love?’ and John Lee Hooker’s ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer’ are equally recognizable for R&B diehards but ‘Bad to the Bone’ is awarded regular gigs by producers and by those searching for something to enhance the ominous and despicable.
Thorogood himself probably did not anticipate such cult status when it was released unobtrusively on his self titled album in 1982. Since then it has been a regular source of royalties and enhances his punishing schedule and his reputation as one of the hardest working musicians. Many artists grow weary of the fan favourites that have made them famous, but he embraces and nurtures its popularity; he admits to being ‘tickled that people still like it’ and it remains a cornerstone of his live performances. It is a solid staple in compilations of every sort, and a standard for homespun blues rockers in bars all over the world. ‘On the day I was born, the nurses all gathered ’round They gazed in wide wonder, at the joy they had found The head nurse spoke up said ‘Leave this one alone’ She could tell right away, that I was bad to the bone.’ So a stuttering, naughty boy of a rock song was born. George the baby may have been shunned by the nurse, but George the songwriter has given us the essential accompaniment for those needing to express the depraved and lurid. ‘What I see I make my own I’m here to tell you pretty woman that I’m bad to the bone’ He has made it his own and shared it with millions. Bad to the bone maybe, but also classy to the core; it’s been very good for George Thorogood.