A friend posted one of Burton Cummings facebook entires on my facebook timeline, which lead me to Burton’s facebook page. He posts all sorts of stuff on it and I’m kind of fascinated by the fact that he seems quite a bit like the guy I though he was from listening to the Guess Who. This reminded me of how fond I am of the early 70’s Guess Who records, and how important those records were to me.
One of of my college roommates was a Guess Who fan, (along with also being a guitar player) and in the fall of 1970, Frank taught me there was more to the band than just the AM radio hits. (Interestingly, 20 years later, I found myself in a band with the same guy, and we played the Guess Who tune “Bus Rider” as part of our repertoire.) He was quite happy that the band was going to survive the departure of Randy Bachman and was a major fan of the “Share the Land” record.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I had to sit down and listen to the whole thing (on late night over headphones) and found that it seamed to follow a a theme of adapting to life’s transitions. There was also an amazing variety of music on display: all seemingly produced by normal rock band instruments. The musicianship was uniformly high, starting with Burton’s own underrated piano playing. I wouldn’t say his piano dominates things, but it was rare to hear a piano mixed so audibly in this era. I loved the contrast between Greg Leskiw and Kurt Winter’s guitar tones and styles. (I also have always thought Kurt was WAY underrated as a guitarist) The Guess Who never beat you over the head with self indulgent instrumental wanking. If there was a solo it never seemed to be of the “damn, see how good I am” variety and always related to the tune. The tunes were great also: I really liked “Life in the Bloodstram”, “Sour Suite” and the title track.
This record had a couple of songs that probably seemed crazy to most people, the drinking song Fiddlin’, which I assumed to be an Irish drinking song and the tune “One Man Army”: I always wondered if this was a conscious attempt to perform a perfectly bad song. But I loved the record and it remains one of my favorites.
The next release, Rockin’ was even better. (I didn’t wait for this one to hit the cutout bins.)
One of my favorite tunes ever is the cheerfully bouncy tune that closes the Hi Rockers! medley (and the record): “Don’t You Want Me”. It’s preformed in a 50’s style with some of the most sinister lyrics ever laid down on vinyl: “I’ll kill your kid sister and I’ll murder your dad, I’ll rip the lashes out of your eye, I’ll Slaughter all your cattle and I’ll burn all your crops,if you’re dancin’ with another guy.” It also features great guitar solos by both Kurt Winter and Greg Leskiw.
Another favorite on that record was the tune “Running Bear”, It is a remake of the 1959-60 Johnny Preston hit Running Bear, and although many people probably heard it as an exercise in camp, The Guess Who play it straight till the very end, but what struck me was how the choruses just flat rocked. Cummings really belts it out on the last chorus in a way that sounds show-biz cheesy and passionate at the same time. Burton is always credited as having a great voice, but he’s also a great singer, which isn’t the same thing. On top of that he’s a great rock singer, one of the best in my estimation. His loving treatment of the tune reveals he’s a student of the genre, something he proved to me years later when he did a rendition of “Mack the Knife” at a solo concert I attended in the late 70’s. You can tell the man has his roots in 50’s rock and roll, and the Guess Who were one of the few bands from this era that could show those roots in a honest way.
The Guess Who tackle just about every style of rock that a stand up rock band might play on this record and show a mastery of and respect for the form few bands have managed: and they always sounded to me like they recorded practically live in the studio.
Which leads us to the “Live at the Paramount” record. For some reason, the revelation that the Guess Who were a great live band seemed to come as a shock to some people. The review below is typical.
By the time this record came out, being a Guess Who fan was a little like being a member of an exclusive club. I had managed to spread my enthusiasm for the band to a few friends, but by and large the “conventional wisdom” was they they were a “commercial” singles band and lumped in with bands like “Three Dog Night”.
Perhaps the lack of airplay on “serious” FM stations was a factor in this. Maybe the humor of tunes like “Fiddlin” and “One Man Army” was not only lost on the typical stoner/hippie listener who probably had to get up to move the tone arm to the next cut, but the 50’s elements of some of the tunes may have also interrupted the “flow”. They weren’t good records to put on the turntable and have conversation over in most cases.
Whatever the reason, the live record managed to show a side of the band that many assumed they didn’t have. “Running Back to Saskatoon” got some airplay in the US and the recording revealed the band in fine form, displaying a grasp of band dynamics few bands have managed. I’m not sure how much impact the Lester Bangs review had, but I noticed the band’s reputation among the general public in my age group seemed rehabilitated.
Maybe that’s just my perception. Reading the positive reviews gave me a sense of vindication and I’m sure I adopted an “I Told You So” attitude at the time. Actually, it’s my attitude right now, and if there’s any point to this post, it’s to get anyone who thinks of the Guess Who mainly in terms of the big 60’s hits to realize they have missed some great music. If you haven’t heard “So Long Bannatyne” or “Rockin'”, I recommend that you investigate them.