The Shadows of Knight
Listen/Download – The Shadows of Knight – Oh Yeah
The tune I bring you today is a long (long) time fave, but very recent acquisition, which I was going to hold off on for a while, but something chaotic (thunderstorms, wild children) made me push it directly to the front of the line, so that we might all revel in it.
If there’s anyone who claims to have been part of the garage punk revival in the 80s – and I mean the real garage punk, that being page boys, Beatle boots and Back from the Grave, not the Pitchfork-christened ‘garage’ of so many uber-sucky lo-fi alt/indie crapfests of the nineties and the oughts – and claims to have no knowledge of the Shadows of Knight, they are either lying or losing their mind.
You can trace the roots of the revival to a place but a few short years after the real thing (to be honest the body wasn’t really cold yet) when Lenny Kaye whipped the OG ‘Nuggets’ on the world, and the new world of ‘oldies’ radio was playing the relics of that barely bygone era that had scraped the charts.
One such record, maybe even the greatest example thereof, for a wide variety of reasons, was ‘Gloria’ by the Shadows of Knight.
No matter that the original version by Them, (featuring a powerfully angry little spud by the name of Van Morrison, soon to trade in his nasty, Belfast attitude for a great, big, steamy bowl of hippie granola and a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar the Tentmaker ) is a sonic blast the likes of which seldom makes it out of a recording studio as any kind of coherent statement. Despite its undeniable, monolithic greatness, outside of a very few isolated, very hip markets, Van and the boys did not get the hit.
That honor went to Chitown’s snotty, jangly, blueswailing Shadows of Knight.
As a partisan of the original, Irish ‘Gloria’, it took me a long time to appreciate the Shadows of Knight hit. Where Van and the boys attack the tune with laser focus and a certain pint-sized, Gaelic swagger, the Shadows kind of wade into the tune with a peculiar kind of blasé, aloof menace like a pack of juvenile delinquents staring down the neighborhood from a street corner they have no real intention of leaving.
The band has long been quoted as saying that what they were doing was retaking the ground captured by the British, who had sauntered in, taken the electrified Chicago blues precious few Americans (especially whitey) were paying attention to and re-electrified it.
The Shadows of Knight sound really was a distorted echo of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, and in a lot of ways the finest example of that particular phenomenon. This is not to say that they made the best garage punk of their time, because any garage punk head worth their salt will tell you that lots of people did it better, angrier, sharper and meaner.
However, if you agree that the basic formulation of the garage thing is
Bo Diddley (plus) Eel Pie Island (minus) kidney pie (multiplied by) John Wayne on a grain alcohol bender
then the Shadows of Knight are right there on the blackboard.
That said, despite the fact that it put them on the charts, ‘Gloria’ was hardly their finest moment. The group recorded two Lps for Dunwich, both of which include brilliant, punky stuff, especially ‘I’m Gonna Make You Mine’ which pretty much makes my hair stand on end.
However, the song I bring you today, from their first album, is a stone killer, and a direct link to their reprocessed roots.
It’s important to note that the Shadows of Knight’s version of ‘Oh Yeah’ bears a striking resemblance to one recorded a few years before, in the UK by a group called The Others. Whether or not the SoK heard this 45 I don’t know, but the sound is awfully close.
The aforementioned Mr. Diddley is without a doubt the most important Chess’n’Checker ancestor of the garage punks, with the beat that bears his name, as well as a general bad-assery (musical and personal) that makes him an important role model across the punk spectrum.
The Shadows of Knight version of Bo’s ‘Oh Yeah’ is important for two reasons.
First, and foremost, it kicks ass, recasting Big Bad Bo for a new era.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, it strips away the layer of quasi-minstrel show diction that honkies like Mick Jagger used to slather on their ‘interpretations’ of Chicago material like so much ‘Bruce Willis Brand Barbecue Sauce’.
No matter how off-key Jim Sohns is here (that intro is particularly ear splitting), he sounds like an American teenager singing Bo Diddley, as opposed to Jagger, who often sounded like a Saville Row Al Jolson he was laying it on so thick, and the band, while not exactly raving it up a la the Yardbirds, does manage to update the sound of the city nicely.
Not to get too meta here, but there are so many cultural layers at work here, so many racial switchbacks and sharp turns involved where the music travelled overseas, and then back again in a few short years that it gets confusing when you try to focus.
Does Mick Jagger, or Phil May sound more convincing delivering the hoodoo loverman pronouncements of Messrs Waters, Burnett and McDaniel because they really were closer to the heart of the matter, or just because they were more devoted (talented) mimics?
One of the reasons US garage punk is so endearing more than 40 years on is because of the charm of a bunch of high schoolish kids attempting, and not quite succeeding, to sound like a British art-school kid trying to sound like a black man with a process and the weight of the world on his shoulders. There’s so much actual remove between the real world problems that Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley put into their songs, and the ‘my old man won’t increase my allowance or lend me the car’-isms of the white punks that it makes the mind reel. That a whole oozing layer of British art school angst connects the two makes the whole deal impossibly complicated.
Sure, I dig the Stones, and the Pretty Things and all of their contemporaries. Hell, without the Yardbirds I might never have found my way to Billy Boy Arnold, but I am inclined to pick these things apart (some day I’m gonna lay out my anti-Led Zeppelin lecture in great detail) so when a record like the Shadows of Knight doing Bo Diddley makes it into the line-up, you’ll have to excuse me if I take it as an opportunity to grouse.
And if you REALLY want to hear the blues ripped up and scotch taped back together, get yourself a copy of this 45 and flip it over. But that’s a story for another day.
See you later in the week.