Friday, June 1, 2012

When Lowell George was the future of rock 'n' roll

In December 1975, the NME put Little Feat’s Lowell George on its cover and proclaimed that, for the next 7 days at least, he was the future of rock ‘n’ roll. 

At the time Little Feat were riding high on the success of their recent release ‘The Last Record Album’. On critical praise alone, the band could justifiably claim to be world beaters. Their studio albums were all highly rated. 1974’s ‘Feats Don’t Fail Me Now’ had refined the musical template to include not just country-blues but funk and odd time signatures. But it was the bootleg release of a 1974 radio broadcast, entitled ‘Electrif Lycanthrope’ that sealed their reputation as the hottest band on the planet at that time.

The bootleg captured the full measure of Little Feat’s syncopated swamp funk and created such a buzz that, when the band appeared in Europe as part of the ‘Warner Brothers Music Show’ tour in 1975, they delivered a rousing performance that headliners The Doobie Brothers found it hard to follow.  They were at their most potent during this period; a tight rhythm unit led by three talented songwriters in George, keyboard player Bill Payne and guitarist Paul Barrere.

From the start, when Lowell George formed Little Feat in 1970, the band dynamic had been a powerful combination of forces, especially between Payne, George and drummer Richie Hayward. ‘Strawberry Flats’ on the first album is the sound of a band already in its stride, with Payne’s songwriting and piano work well to the fore. Lowell got most of the credit though, and rightly so because he fronted the band and it was his songs, such as Willin’, Sailing Shoes, Dixie Chicken and Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor  that got the radio play. As well as his distinctive songwriting, Lowell had a sweet soul voice and was arguably as good a bottleneck blues player as Ry Cooder or Duane Allman.
Pete Erskine's NME review of The Last Record Album said, "Little Feat are the only band in the world who retain a consistent grasp of the secret of creating inner tension within their music." Of Lowell George, he said, "the consistency (of songwriting) he's shown through four albums as Feat mentor must elevate him to a position as the genre's foremost writer."

The Last Record Album captures the band at a crucial point, where they were moving towards more polished and ever-so-slightly jazzy material, reflecting the growing influence of Bill Payne in the dynamic of Little Feat. At the time, no one really questioned that Lowell was the leader of the band. He still grabbed the glory in the NME's review, and the stand-out track on The Last Record Album is one of his songs, Long Distance Love. But the album was slicker and jazzier on the whole; it was evident that the group was more important than any one person. The NME’s review of  The Last Record Album acknowledged this in the headline "...two cheers for democracy". So this is really the point at which we see Little Feat firing on all cylinders in the studio. Erskine asserted that The Last Record Album was "momentous, because group democracy has lent new fervour to all elements of the band, while relieving some of the pressure on George."

The creative tension Erskine wrote about must have been hard to sustain though, because once Lowell George relinquished leadership of the band, the fruits of their collective creativity were a swiftly diminishing return. In 1976 and through into early 1978, the band consolidated their reputation with the studio album Time Loves A Hero and the excellent live double album Waiting For Columbus, augmented by the Tower Of Power horn section.

The quality tailed off though and the band lost momentum, pulled apart by musical differences between George and Payne, that were exacerbated by Lowell's drug intake. The Lowell George solo album, Thanks I'll Eat It Here was warmly received but contained only five songs out of 10 written by him, and four of those were co-writes. By the time of Little Feat's 1979 lacklustre release 'Down On The Farm', the band was over. It had been a rapid descent and very sad to see such a talented group fold, and then the ultimate tragedy of seeing their leader die. Lowell George was 34 - another victim of a cocaine-obsessed rock and roll lifestyle - his creative instincts having deserted him. But in that golden period from 1970 to 1975, George's songwriting "cut the best of his contemporaries' efforts to shreds," said Erskine and Long Distance Love represented "his personal apex". In 1975, for a short while at least, Lowell George was a contender.
 'Rock 'n' Roll Doctor' - from the session released as 'Electrif Lycanthrope' in 1974

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