You may think that this title indicates that I’m running out of clever and snappy epithets to wow you all with. Well, you’d be damn right. I think it’s not too much to say that John Peel never fell out of love with the blues, and by extension all the speeded up and slowed down versions of it that he came across over the years. Consequently, when a new generation rediscovered the energy and emotion inherent in that genre, he seized upon bands that attempted to recreate that smoky, brooding atmosphere that he adored in Howling Wolf, T-Bone Burnett, Muddy Waters and B. B. King.
The penchant for noisy, low-fi blues recreation reached its apex in the White Stripes, a band that featured more prominently than any other in his Record Box (the Fall were represented elsewhere). However, in the Indian summer of his radio years, John raved about the Akron, Ohio two-piece The Black Keys (a ‘black key’ apparently being someone who deosn’t fit in with the current scene): ‘grade A stuff’, he murmured when they played for him live at Peel Acres. The sound is quite unlike any other blues band: one thinks immediately of Zeppelin on first hearing, but the comparison is specious and is cudgelled into oblivion when hearing the scorching, atomic sound on their three Festive Fifty entries.
Have Love Will Travel (FF 2003 #34), from their LP Thickfreakness, set the tone for their somewhat ‘individual’ style: background noise, for example, is welcomed rather than expurgated. It gives the feeling of live performance, enhanced by what sounds like overdriven fuzzboxes and a biting edge to the drumming. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney had already decided that the extra guitarist and bassist they were thinking of employing (but who never turned up for the audition) wouldn’t add anything to their sound, considering no doubt they made enough of a racket as a duo.
Two Peel sessions (both included here) heightened their profile in the U.K.: after the first was broadcast, John somewhat timidly asked his production assistant Louise Kattenhorn if they could play at his house next time. His wish was granted, and the band took his front room apart with a blistering six-song set (JP coaxed an extra encore out of them), including a powerhouse rendition of the Stooges’ No Fun (a rare example of a non-original song). As JP put it: ‘At the start, the needle went into the red and stayed there, and that’s exactly how it should be’.
2004’s Rubber Factory produced the solidly crafted Girl Is On My Mind (FF 2004 #30), which gained exposure worldwide after being used in a Sony Ericsson ad, and 10 A.M. Automatic (FF 2004 #22), both of which point to an increasing maturity and compact power in their writing. Dan attributes their sound to ‘not trying to play the blues’:
I don’t think anything we do is traditional in any way. We’re kind of forward-thinking, I guess, although we like to keep it raw. Having half of the band not being much of a fan of blues helps to keep it a little bit different, too.
Their latest album came out in April (with Dan looking hairier than ever): it looks like the last chapter in their story wil be a long time in the writing. For now, enjoy the ’21st century soul’, as one blog called it, of their music, and see them live if you can (it says here).
Black Keys, First Peel Session
1. John Peel Jingle
2. Set You Free
3. Hard Row
4. No Trust
5. The Moan
Black Keys, Second Peel Session
2. I Cry Alone
4. Have Love Will Travel
5. No Fun
6. Them Eyes