Tuesday, May 3, 2011

May 3: Howlin' Wolf, "Killing Floor"

Artist: Howlin' Wolf
Song: "Killing Floor"
Album: Killing Floor (single)
Year: 1964

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though for whatever reason, many people try to argue otherwise, when one studies the history of recorded music, there is simply no way to deny that the roots of every genre at some point lead back to the blues.  There are those who wish to believe that genres like rock and roll somehow spontaneously appeared overnight, but it is in this genre where the link is the most clear, and it is also where some of the most obvious "musical robberies" have occurred.  While in a majority of cases, when an artist "borrows" a line or a progression from another, credit is given, and yet throughout the 1960's and 1970's, there were a number of massively successful bands that attempted to present classic blues numbers as their own, and few bluesmen became more obvious influences on the world of rock and roll than one finds in the songs of the great Howlin' Wolf.  Through his close collaborations with Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf is responsible for many of the greatest blues songs in history, and in both his playing as well as his vocals, there has simply never been a similar performer.  Due to his completely distinctive sound and massive influence, it is almost impossible to cite a single song as his finest moment, and yet one can quickly learn just why he stands so iconic by hearing Howlin' Wolf's unforgettable 1964 single, "Killing Floor."

Within moments of "Killing Floor" beginning, one cannot help but hear the similarities to Led Zeppelin's "The Lemon Song," and this is because the latter is a complete rip-off of the former.  In both the progression and lyrical content, Zeppelin attempted to pass the song off as an original, and after a legal battle, proper credit was finally given.  However, while the progression is the same, the tempo and mood of the Howlin' Wolf original simply knows no peer.  In many ways, the song represents the epitome of the Chicago style of blues music, and the core of the sound revolves around the guitar of Hubert Sumlin.  There is a uniquely loose feel to his playing, and both his style, as well as the progression he plays, has been re-worked and copied countless times in the decades that have passed.  This sound is perfectly complimented by a rhythmic acoustic guitar from none other than Buddy Guy, and it is within his playing on "Killing Floor" that one is able to link the blues to the rockabilliy sound.  Yet the key aspect to separating the sound here from other blues artists lies within the "bite" that comes from the dual saxophones of Arnold Rogers and Donald Hankins.  The bright punctuations that they give each musical line is unlike anything else from the era, and it works in brilliant harmony with the percussive work of drummer Sam Lay.  Rounded out by the piano of Lafayette Lake, it is the way in which all of the performers move as a single unit that makes the song so distinctive, and once one hears "Killing Floor," it is impossible to deny its influence on nearly every act that followed.

However, while one cannot overlook the massive impact the musical arrangement had in the years since, it is also impossible to discuss any work of Howlin' Wolf without speaking of his completely distinctive and absolutely mesmerizing voice.  While others have attempted to mimic the sound in some way, there has never been another artist that had as natural and raw a growl as one finds in Howlin' Wolf, and it rarely sounded better than it does on "Killing Floor."  Though he spends most of the song working in the middle section of the vocal scale, he is able to push his voice to wherever the music commands, and there is a natural, soulful tone in his voice that sets it far apart from nearly every other blues artist.  The growl adds a massive sense of authenticity to his singing, and yet the pained tone of the lyrics seem to play a great contrast to the fast-paced, almost cheery sound which the band plays.  However, this juxtaposition of sounds and mood manages to work perfectly, and there are few blues numbers that are as completely enveloping as "Killing Floor."  Furthermore, the lyrical content of the song is as universal a theme as one will find anywhere, and there has rarely been another song that plays on the "evil woman" theme as perfectly as one finds here.  The pain and frustration that Howlin' Wolf conveys is clearly heartfelt and personal, and while many have tried, no other version comes even remotely close to the original.

In the years that followed Howlin' Wolf's release of "Killing Floor," the song was re-recorded, often under different titles, by everyone from The Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix to Electric Flag, as well as the previously mentioned version from Led Zeppelin.  While each group placed a unique spin on the song, none were able to capture the attitude of Wolf's original, and while he himself had a number of other legendary singles, "Killing Floor" remains in its own category.  Perhaps due to the stunning way in which the downtrodden lyrics and vocals seem to clash with the fast-paced music, there is simply no way to properly understand the genius of "Killing Floor" without experiencing it firsthand.  Furthermore, "Killing Floor" represents Howlin' Wolf at his finest, as the song is one of the few "hit" singles for him that was not originally penned by Willie Dixon.  However, regardless of the circumstances behind the song, once one hears "Killing Floor," it is impossible to forget it, and it is even more difficult to hear any of the later re-workings of the song as anything more than a cheap rip-off.  There is no question that this recording is far superior to the others, as the attitude and tone remain completely unrivaled to this day.  Representing the true roots of rock music, as well as the sheer power of the Chicago blues style, there is simply no other song in history worthy of being mentioned alongside Howlin' Wolf's monumental 1964 single, "Killing Floor."

No comments: