Tuesday, August 4, 2009

August 4: Jerry Lee Lewis, "Live At The Star Club, Hamburg"

Artist: Jerry Lee Lewis
Album: Live At The Star Club, Hamburg
Year: 1964
Label: Philips

For whatever reason, many people believe that the early rock and roll artists were more tame and restrained than those whom they influenced. While in some cases, this is true, the fact of the matter is, when many of these artists were left to their own devices, they rocked harder than even the loudest, most crazy bands in music history. Topping this list of amazingly intense performers is the man who was given the nickname of "The Killer," Jerry Lee Lewis. Known for hits like "Great Balls Of Fire," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On," and "High School Confidential," there are few artists who have had as much influence across the board as Lewis. However,once one experiences his 1964 live release, everything else he has ever recorded becomes quite pale in comparison. Truth be told, Live At The Star Club, Hamburg, may very well be the wildest, most intense live performance ever captured on record. Jerry Lee Lewis never slows down at any point, and it is all his backing band can do it simply keep up up with his pace. The record represents everything that makes rock and roll great, and leaves little doubt as to who the "true" King of rock and roll was in 1964. Words truly cannot describe the phenomenal performance captured on Live At The Star Club, Hamburg, and one must experience it first-hand to truly grasp its majesty.

On Live At The Star Club, Hamburg, Jerry Lee Lewis is simply on fire, coming out of the gates at a breakneck speed that even his backing band has trouble matching. Lewis plays with such intensity that the recording blows away the heaviest metal, the most untamed punk, and the hardest of rock; making them all seem beyond tame in comparison. Simply put, Live At The Star Club, Hamburg, represents the purest, most unrestrained example of everything it means to play rock and roll, and the record is an unrivaled classic. The power and emotion found on this record may be due to the reality that, in many ways, Jerry Lee Lewis was a man with nothing to lose. The fact of the matter is, by the time 1964 rolled around, Jerry Lee Lewis found himself at what was easily the lowest point of his career. The so-called scandal Lewis faced after marrying his teenage cousin was still in the minds of Americans, and Lewis had basically been blacklisted in the U.S. Though he had released a number of fantastic albums since the scandal, he had not had a legitimate hit single in well over six years. Furthermore, in 1964, not only those in the United States, but seemingly everyone in the world had fallen in love with four Englishmen who landed at J.F.K. airport on February 7 of that year. In a bit of irony, the Star Club happens to be where that band of Englishmen played countless early concerts. Furthermore, the show was actually part of a two week run that Lewis' opening band, The Nashville Teens, were playing at the club; and this recording happens to be the ONLY night that Lewis joined the band on stage. Though it was left off the initial release due to sound issues at the top of the song, later re-issues of the record include the evenings' final track, "Down The Line."

The Nashville Teens were a British based pop group who also served as the backing band for a handful of other musicians along with Jerry Lee Lewis. The group had a handful of hits in the years after this performance, including their version of "Tobacco Road" (on which some kid named Jimmy Page played guitar), as well as the hit, "Google Eye." Undoubtedly, the evening of April 5, 1964 presented their most daunting task ever, as Jerry Lee Lewis pushes their talents to their limits on each and every song. The man with the toughest job on Live At The Star Club, Hamburg, is easily drummer John Hanken. Throughout nearly the entire recording, Hanken is doing all he can to keep up with Lewis' blistering pace, and though some of his bandmates seem to fall behind here and there, Hanken never loses sight of Lewis, which is a testament to his amazing skill as a musician. Guitarists Johnny Allen and Pete Shannon mostly keep behind Lewis' sound, though they do take occasional solos, such as in the fills in "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and they are brilliant, simple solos. Ray Phillips' bass playing is equally fantastic, as he is able to find and keep the groove on each song, regardless of how much Lewis goes off. While The Nashville Teens hold their own as best they can, they are very much as much of a backing band as ever, as Lewis is so brilliant on the recording, that the other musicians almost become obsolete.

"The Killer" is simply on fire on Live At The Star Club, Hamburg, with his performance constantly teetering on the edge of chaos. He plays so hard that it often sounds as if he is going to destroy the piano, or at least send it flying off of the stage. Perhaps this is due to Lewis' frustrations at being overlooked as the true essence of rock and roll; but the reality is, after hearing this performance, there is no way anyone could make the case for any other artist. The album perfectly captures the sheer power that Lewis' live performances were known for, as he even scolds the band to "play that thing right, boy!" when they lag behind during "What'd I Say, Part 2." From the top of the set, Lewis plays like a man possessed, and the speed and energy never even slightly slow, as it is clear that the albums' only "ballad," "Your Cheatin' Heart" was simply part of the set that Lewis would have sooner passed over (or perhaps he just needs a minute to catch his breath). While Jerry Lee Lewis has one of the most unmistakable voices in music history, he sings with so much power and passion on Live At The Star Club, Hamburg, one wonders if he had any voice left the next day. Obviously having a blast on stage, Lewis even mixes in some new lyrics, singing a passage from "Turn On Your Love Light" during "What'd I Say." Presenting everything from Motown classics ("Money (That's What I Want)") to early rock classics, "Good Golly Miss Molly," Jerry Lee Lewis is nothing short of awe-inspiring on every moment of the forty minute set.

Truth be told, one would be hard pressed to find a more musically superior, more intense live performance than is captured on Live At The Star Club, Hamburg. Jerry Lee Lewis is absolutely phenomenal on every note of the album, and his performance cements his claim to the title of King of Rock and Roll. Proving that great rock music is more about talent, and emotion than volume and anger, the album truly embodies everything that makes rock and roll great, and the album perfectly captures both the amazing performance, as well as the electric mood in the club on that April evening of 1964. While The Nashville Teens, who had been Lewis' opening act during his European tour dates, play extremely well throughout the album, it is clear that they are pushing themselves to their limits to match Lewis' blistering pace. It is clear that as Lewis careens through each song, he is sometimes frustrated by the bands' attempts to keep up with him, but at the same time, one can sense an "evil" grin on his face, as he knows he is pushing the band to their breaking point. One could truly write forever about the jaw-dropping performance found on 1964's Live At The Star Club, Hamburg, but the reality is, until one experiences it for themselves, one simply cannot understand how extraordinary and life altering an album was created from Jerry Lee Lewis' legendary performance.

Standout tracks: "Mean Woman Blues," "Money (That's What I Want)," "What I'd Say Parts 1 & 2."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is an Excellent review! This really is the best Rock N Roll album ever! I have 2 vinyl albums of this and 4 different cd albums. Long live the king of rock n roll Jerry Lee Lewis.