In 1988, ex-Faces and Jeff Beck Group singer Rod Stewart released his Out Of Order album, which was sort of hailed as a return to rock and roll form; he had a new guitar-slinging partner: former Duran Duran six-stringer Andy Taylor was filling the role once held by Ronnie Wood and Jeff Beck. Just like Stewart did in his ’70s glory days, he covered Dylan (“Forever Young”), he covered soul classics (Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness”) and had a few original guitar-driven “rockers” like “Lost In You.”
A year later, in 1989, the Rolling Stones released a comeback album of sorts; Steel Wheels was a strong effort with a number of radio hits, including “Sad Sad Sad” and “Mixed Emotions.” It’s a strong album, but it still sounds like a bunch of middle-aged millionaires with at least one eye on the charts.
And then, in 1990, the Black Crowes exploded, seemingly out of nowhere, reminding us what rock and roll sounded like… and that it was still alive and well. The first single “Jealous Again” was a bluesy, boozy stomper that sounded like a jam between the Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones and the Faces, and it set the tone for the rest of the album. It hit number 5 on the mainstream rock charts, but didn’t make a huge pop impact.
That would change with their second single: their ragged take on Otis Redding’s 1968 song, “Hard To Handle.” The original peaked at #51 on the pop charts, and covering it was an inspired choice; it’s a song that only true music aficionados would even be aware of. The choice was something that separated the Crowes — led by brothers Chris Robinson (vocals) and Rich Robinson (guitars) — from most bands of their generation. It certainly separated them from most of the bands who made an impact on the pop charts.
Yes, they were huge fans of the Stones, the Faces, Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. But they also loved tracing the roots of those bands, and they wanted you to share that passion. “Hard To Handle” wasn’t their only direct reference to classic R&B and blues; the album took its title from a classic blues song by Elmore James, which isn’t on the album (but which they have played live over the years). During an era when rock’s R&B roots were all but forgotten, this song topped the mainstream rock chart, was a top 40 hit, and was constantly on MTV.
R&B and blues wasn’t just something for the walls of the soon-to-be-built Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; it was something that was still exciting and still belonged on the pop charts. Like the Stones, Aerosmith and Zeppelin, they stood on the shoulders of giants, and like those bands, they added to the tradition with amazing songs: “She Talks To Angels” is a classic blues jam, and it would have been in the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s. And, again, it wasn’t just a museum piece: it was their second straight mainstream rock chart-topper and their second top 40 single. They didn’t just want to remind you that this music once existed; they made roots music relevant and undeniable again.
The deeper tracks on the album were just as good: “Sister Luck” and “Seeing Things” were also classic blues ballads that should have been hits (the band most likely didn’t want to be “the ballad band”). From the first notes of opener “Twice As Hard” to the final crash of “Stare It Cold,” there isn’t an ounce of fat on the album. The band didn’t just capture the sound of late ’60s/early ’70s rock, they also had the attitude.
They weren’t trying to fit into hard rock, metal, punk rock, alternative or any other subcategory of rock, but they had as much attitude (or more) and were as rebellious as nearly any band from those scenes; the Crowes even got kicked off of a tour opening for ZZ Top for badmouthing the tour’s sponsors, Miller Beer. In an early Rolling Stone interview, they not only mocked easy targets (“Night Ranger and f—ing Lover-boy [sic] and all those bands that ruined rock and roll”) but sacred cows like the Replacements (“The Replacements could have been the Faces, but Paul Westerberg was chickens—“). Singer Chris Robinson even said that their debut was better than R.E.M.’s (“I think my record’s much better than Murmur. We kick a– over that. We jam.”)
Of course, in later years, the Crowes evolved as all good bands do, and it seemed like they traded their Aerosmith and Humble Pie influences for the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. That yielded some great albums and songs. But it’s fitting that principal members Chris and Rich Robinson have reunited for a tour this summer to play the entire album, start to finish, along with some of their subsequent music. Over the years, they’ve opened for the Stones, Aerosmith and the Allmans; they’ve served as Jimmy Page’s backing band. They were upstarts paying tribute to the legends who ended up sharing stages with them. But with thirty years in the rearview mirror, Shake Your Money Maker holds up as an album that isn’t just a tribute to the classic albums of the ’60s and ’70s, but as an equal to them.