Culture > Music

Music: Before the music died

Music | Popular music has gone from Fats Domino and Johnny Cash to Cradle of Filth

Issue: "Columbine: Teenage martyr," May 8, 1999

Recently, the promoters of the Milwaukee Metalfest-"North America's Premiere Heavy Metal Festival"-announced the bands for this year's edition of the weekend-long event: Morbid Angel, Cradle of Filth, Rotting Christ, Twin Obscenity, Impaler, Dying Fetus, Myself Am Hell, Internal Bleeding, Deaden, Jungle Rot, Immolation, Bludgeon to Death, and several dozen other graduates of the Dale Carnegie School of Nomenclature. It was enough to make one nostalgic for Marilyn Manson. Exactly when the blend of country, gospel, and rhythm-and-blues that once was rock 'n' roll turned ugly is hard to say, but one thing's for sure: It wasn't always. Those who want proof need only consult Fats Is Back and Johnny 99, two long-unavailable but recently reissued albums by rock- 'n' rollers who were there from the start. Fats Is Back is the comeback album that Fats Domino recorded for Warner Bros. in 1968. Coming as it did five years after his last top-40 hit and eight years after his last top-10, years during which rock 'n' roll had become thoroughly hippiefied, the album faced an uphill climb. (It eventually yielded a minor hit, Mr. Domino's version of the Beatles' "Lady Madonna.") Rather than adapt his rollicking, piano-based sound to current trends, Mr. Domino and his producer Richard Perry, who would go on to success with the Pointer Sisters and Leo Sayer, stuck with the patented Fats formula. Even with Beatles songs (the album also includes a version of "Lovely Rita"), the material was catchy and concise, the stuff not of revolution but of sock hops. Today, in the era of Morbid Angel and Cradle of Filth, Fats Is Back sounds positively quaint. The very titles of "So Swell When You're Well" and "Honest Papas Love Their Mamas Better" are cherishable anachronisms. The 30-minute album is cherishable for its form as well as for its content: Rock 'n' roll albums weren't always the metaphors for self-overindulgence that they've become in the age of the 80-minute CD. Equally cherishable-and, at 37 minutes, brief-is Johnny 99, the album that Johnny Cash recorded in 1983 at the commercial nadir of his career. Out of step with both rock and country fashion at the time of its release, it now seems to have foreshadowed American Recordings and Unchained, the albums that would rejuvenate Mr. Cash's career a decade later. Like them, Johnny 99 combines songs from eclectic sources, establishing a context in which the songs take on subtle but meaningful connotations. The Bruce Springsteen compositions-for instance, "Highway Patrolman" and the title cut-don't so much modernize the country and folk songs that surround them as turn into country and folk songs themselves. Unlike Mr. Cash's mid-'90s albums, Johnny 99 boasts no cameos by young scenemakers. Instead, a cast of backing musicians with credentials going back to Mr. Cash's days at Sun Records provides support that's as sober, spare, and effective as the singer's voice. The result? An album that speaks more loudly than the entire Milwaukee Metalfest roster put together.

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