[From this week's Cleveland Scene.]
George Thorogood is punk rock. "Yeah, right," you're thinking. How punk rock can you be if your biggest hit, "Bad to the Bone," was used in the movie Problem Child? Seriously, though, go back and listen to the music, especially the early records on Rounder. Thorogood and his Destroyers whipped up a mix of blues, rock 'n' roll and a dash of country that carried the same convulsive energy that L.A. bands like X and Social Distortion would harness a few years later.
Topping that red-hot groove were the frontman's sneering vocals and a slide-guitar sound that was like being whipped across the face with a car antenna. His version of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" carried an undercurrent of menace that the original only implied. When Thorogood sang in that gravelly voice about having a chimney made from a human skull, he was almost believable.
Of course, he's best known for "Bad to the Bone," but that song's muscular, bar-band swagger was matched, on the album of the same name, by a hardcore-speed take on the Isley Brothers' "Nobody But Me" and an equally aggressive sprint through Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place to Go." Had FM radio not picked up on him early, Thorogood might have spent the '80s playing clubs alongside the Blasters.
It's worth noting, of course, that contrary to criticism he's received over the years, not every Thorogood song sounds the same. Virtually every one of his albums features at least one curveball cover, be it Bob Dylan's "Wanted Man" on 1982's Bad to the Bone or Frank Zappa's "Trouble Every Day" on 1997's Rockin' My Life Away. But, in a recent interview, he accepts his reputation with a grin, saying, "You can't win. If you step outside your formula, they say, 'What the hell is he doing? He knows he can't sing.' If you don't change, they say, 'He never changes!' Not everybody is the Beatles, who could cut 'I'm Down' one day and the next day cut 'Eleanor Rigby.' Our band is a bar band. That's what we do."
As the years have rolled on, the tempos may have slowed down very slightly - from a sprint to a strut. But the raw muscle of his sound remains unchanged and possibly even harder than in the early years. This consistency and power has allowed Thorogood to stay out on the road, chunking out three-chord rave-ups without embarrassing himself. "I'm not really blues, but we're close enough that we have more longevity than, say, the Sex Pistols had," he says. "We're closer to the roots of it." Still, he's not planning to stay on the road forever. "Ain't gonna happen with me," he laughs. "By the time I'm 70, I'm gonna be over in Hawaii, under a palm tree."
In the meantime, he's happy working with his core group of backing musicians. The newest member of the Destroyers, saxophonist Buddy Leach, joined in 2003; Thorogood's bassist and drummer, Billy Blough and Jeff Simon, have been with him since 1977 and 1974, respectively. There's a simple reason for that: The boss' loyalty is quantifiable. "I question their sanity; they question my generosity," laughs Thorogood. "I had a band that worked with us, and the leader asked me, 'How do you keep the same people?' I told him, 'I respect them,' and I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together. I pay well."
He's hardly alone in this, of course, as he's quick to point out. "Tom Petty and the Stones have kept most of their original people. ZZ Top [have kept the same lineup], J. Geils had the same people right up to the end. And there's blues acts out there - right up to his death, Muddy Waters had the same piano player. B.B. King had the same guy - Sonny Freeman played drums with him for years. Fats Domino had the same band for centuries." This "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to band membership applies equally to performance.
"If we find something that works, we stick with it until people start throwing things at us," says Thorogood. "When the ticket prices are so high, and plus there's a recession - most of the people that come to see us are working-class people that might only get to one show a year. I can't be messin' around up there. The first time I saw the J. Geils Band, I thought, 'Wow, these guys have got it.' It was just a rapid-fire, straight-from-the-shoulder Little Richard/James Brown type of thing. When I go see a show, I don't want a lot of nonsense. I don't wanna hear your life story. And I don't like to give people time to think. They don't come the show to think. Once you've got the hammer down, keep it down."
Come to think of it, you know who else was big on keeping the hammer down from the first note of a set to the last? The Ramones.