Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we explore Creedence Clearwater Revival’s improbable stardom with 1970’s Cosmo’s Factory.
The four hirsute, sheepish men of Creedence Clearwater Revival were greeted as conquerors when they arrived in London in April 1970. From humble beginnings in suburban San Francisco, the quartet had ascended, in barely a year, to the absolute height of late-’60s rock stardom. They’d headlined Woodstock, released an ongoing run of multi-platinum albums and singles, and in 1969, did what seemed impossible at the time: They outsold the Beatles.
They looked hale and healthy, too, muscular but bashful dudes in Army surplus jackets and flannel shirts. They lacked any real group personality or public image beyond tough-guy smiles and ubiquitous hits. Meanwhile, the Beatles were looking lurid. Since 1968, the rumors were all about heroin and bitter interpersonal squabbles. Just as Creedence arrived to begin their first European tour, Paul McCartney released advance copies of his first solo album to the media alongside a “self-interview” that referred to his “break with the Beatles.” There was suddenly no one left to outsell.
For those next two weeks in April, Creedence did what they always did: played an unchanging set for one adoring audience after another, then refused encores. (Their shows were so consistent that they famously released a “Live at the Royal Albert Hall” record that was actually recorded in Oakland). This was John Fogerty’s policy, one of an increasing number of rules that he’d created to match his total control over their group’s songs, production, and finances. His bandmates—drummer Doug “Cosmo” Clifford, bassist Stu Cook, and Fogerty’s brother Tom on rhythm guitar—went home to the Bay Area with wonderful memories of their self-taught bashing ringing out in opera houses. But they also remembered standing just offstage, thousands of new fawning converts screaming for more, and their leader expending all his clout just to deprive them of that worship for some meaningless personal code.
That was Creedence Clearwater Revival in spring and summer of 1970, as they finished and released their fifth album, Cosmo’s Factory. They had started playing music together in middle school and had been slugging their way through a music career for more than a decade in various iterations. There was the studio session backing an over-the-hill doo-wop singer, the years with Tom on lead vocals, the costumed jangly years as the Golliwogs. Having now achieved hard-won but revelatory success, they were still plagued by the same stubborn-garbage, masculine hardwiring that they’d been carrying since adolescence. They were all raw nerves and personal vendettas but were operating musically like one four-limbed brain.
You must remember: Literally and figuratively, they were brothers. When you hear one of those songs, you know the ones—in Vietnam movies, The Big Lebowski, classic rock radio, your uncle’s radio by the grill—you’re hearing bone-deep, childhood-borne closeness and codependency. They learned how to play instruments together, how to cultivate a discerning musical taste, how to give their music that elusive, ineffable “in-between” that their bluesman and R&B heroes had. They started with squaresville garage-band dance-party stuff, then slowly absorbed Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Bakersfield country, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Roy Orbison, Muddy Waters. John Fogerty grew into his role as bandleader while Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and Berry Gordy were developing instantly recognizable musical brands. They had sounds as distinctive as Sun or Chess, which Fogerty also revered for their spareness and guitar tones. This was hardly in step with the psychedelic music that Creedence’s Bay Area peers were developing, but Fogerty was resolute. He was developing an entire aesthetic vision and the whole responsibility for enacting it rested on his brother and his schoolmates.
Cosmo’s Factory begins with the purest expression of those varied inspirations and pressures that the band ever recorded. “Ramble Tamble” has somehow escaped the kind of classic-rock canonization of “Black Dog” or “Baba O’Riley” as an epic album opener, but it stands tall among them. It opens with a jaunty country-funk riff that sounds almost like James Brown once the band kicks in, then they instantly switch gears into roaring double-time rockabilly. Fogerty’s guitar and howling vocals are both treated with the same ghostly slap-back effect that he’d borrowed from Sun and Chess.
He shout-sings one of his signature apocalyptic scenes, full of images of junk and ruin, like “Bad Moon Rising” but furious. Then the band slows down, Fogerty’s sketch of “mud in the water…bugs in the sugar” comes to a halt and is replaced with a slowly building space-rock squall unlike anything that Creedence, typically so earthbound, ever recorded. Then they dissolve that and rebuild the rockabilly section, where Fogerty returns to his angry-preacher routine. He’d written about specters and new dawns before, but this was the first time that he’d conveyed the idea in music itself. “Ramble Tamble” sounds like a band fighting its way to find new horizons, new styles, all the way past language in the title.
Near the end of the record, the 11-minute take on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” reverses the opening song’s sense of adventurousness, turning Motown’s sophisticated dance song into a droning, claustrophobic blues. The rest of Cosmo’s Factory is a hodge-podge, which was typical of Creedence’s full-lengths. Between the extended tracks and a handful of previously released hits like “Travelin’ Band” and “Long as I Can See The Light,” they included lively but inessential covers like “Ooby Dooby” and “Before You Accuse Me.” It’s not a statement record or some kind of grand step forward in the band’s evolution. It’s just an unpretentious collection of songs, named for their little San Francisco practice space and featuring one of the least affected album covers of the classic rock era. Somehow, in 1970, the year of Kent State, the My Lai massacre trial, and Let It Be, no album spent longer at No. 1 in the U.S. Creedence broke up within two years.
Their roiling interpersonal difficulties explain the brevity of Creedence’s success, but what accounts for its intensity? How did a band so far apart from their peers and so untrendy become the most popular group in America—and during a time of so much unrest? Creedence never wrote a love song, barely ever used vocal harmony, never employed guest musicians, and had a strict (and mutually agreed-upon) policy against alcohol and drug use during music-making. They were not exactly the face of late-’60s youth culture, but they were its most consistent soundtrack.
Those earlier iterations of the band were all relatively square—“a garage band, a little band” is how John Fogerty described them. It was his twin obsessions with recording technology and old blues that opened the band to new vistas. Starting with “Born on the Bayou,” on 1969’s Bayou Country, Fogerty summoned a mythic rock’n’roll South lyrically as well as musically: his songs were as spare and tight as Stax, whose records, along with Wilson’s and Spector’s, he studied like a scholar. But his words could bend toward Uncle Remus or the Book of Revelations. On Cosmo’s Factory, “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” is the former and “Run Through the Jungle” is the latter. “Back Door” paints a children’s-book scene of dancing animals, while “Jungle,” a staple of Vietnam movies, depicts a literal army of Satan.
Fogerty didn’t write from one clear vision for America; instead, he tried different visions on like hats, singing passionately about lazy riverboat days as well as societal collapse. Another Cosmo’s Factory standout, “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” depicts a storm that lasts generations, leaving widespread sadness and confusion. Moments of great civil unrest tend to refocus our view of the past—we see previously overlooked steps to destruction with renewed clarity. The Vietnam era spawned many pop acts with a deep sense of history, from the Band’s Faulknerian evocations to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s epochal bluegrass love-letter, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? But none had John Fogerty’s monastic understanding of pop record structure or his clear-eyed obsession with instrument separation.
They had notable album tracks throughout their career, but Creedence were a singles band, where Fogerty’s fussy, learned vision was best-expressed and his sidemen showed themselves of highest musical sensitivity. Listen to the way they push and pull Fogerty throughout “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” following his solo as much as prodding it on. The simple gallop of “Ooby Dooby” is just marvelous from the first note, while “Long as I Can See the Light” stands as one of Creedence’s most powerful ballads and soulful, nuanced band performances. Clifford’s bass drum alone makes the song sound heartbreaking.
So it almost seems silly to ask why Creedence—and Cosmo’s Factory—were so popular as the country burned. They played ’70s rock with the emotional intensity of early R&B and the workaholic tightness of the Muscle Shoals or Dixie Flyers bands. They defined the early years of album rock, but their background was in the single format. For all their aww-shucks media personalities, their sound was flexible enough to be fun, angry, sorrowful, or worried. They were a band that could match the sweaty, crowded emotional tenor of America at war, and they could please anyone but themselves.
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