CHRIS JOHNSTON finds the Delta, Darlinghurst and The Devil in the new album by Sydney duo The Fumes.
The original bluesmen were nowhere wanderers – that’s what was said of them – and this record by The Fumes is also drifting between two worlds. It’s about the trouble with living and how crazy things can get, which are all really old ideas from the blues, but it’s also got visions of urban streets at night now and rooftop parties with cigarette lights fading deal-or-no-deal into the dark.
Alan Lomax the musicologist was the guy who collected field recordings and wrote lots of stuff about the old-time blues (after the fact; in effect archiving its place in history). He said that in the American south in the 1920s and ?30s Negro bluesmen had an ?orphaned status?; unbelonging and alone, disenfranchised to the point of total aimlessness, the nowhere thing, ghosts, the Delta, Darlinghurst.
The famous blues Crossroads myth came out of this – the idea that the Devil has the best tunes and the bluesmen could get a taste of them by ritualistic deals at the Crossroads, selling their souls for better songs. They handed over their guitars and got them back with added Evil. And hence rock’n?roll was born.
Which brings us to The Fumes, a duo from Sydney. Sundancer* is their second album; they are guitarist/singer Steve Merry and drummer Joel Battersby. The record was produced by Jim Diamond from Detroit who has worked with the White Stripes. Part of this lies with them because the newest blues revival began in a way with the Stripes and went to the Black Keys and now the ragged glory of Dan Auerbach’s *Keep It Hid and The Mess Hall, yet another duo, so this is about reduction which means it is also about the quality of the emotions. A vulnerability and nakedness in the music. Or maybe just a confidence that the blues will handle it, that it is built tough and honest.
It must be about the fifth blues revival, which tells us something. The old bluesmen – Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House, all those names so beautiful and wise – were revived well after their Depression-era lifetimes. Skip James disappeared for 30 years and was found singing in hospital wards sometime in the ?50s. Johnson, the primary subject of that Crossroads myth, was rediscovered then too.
That’s where it all sprang from. John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac and Peter Green, Clapton, then Cream and Canned Heat a little later, the Woodstock era. Interesting that the Rolling Stones had just finished playing Robert Johnson’s ?Love In Vain? (from Let It Bleed) at Altamont in 1969 when the Hell’s Angels? knives came out. Canned Heat had played at Woodstock at dusk on the second day. There’s a song by them called Poor Moon which is just amazing and the band themselves took their name from an old Negro blues standard by Tommy Johnson called ?Canned Heat Blues?, about alcoholism. Tommy Johnson is crucial to this. No relation to Robert, but a contemporary and friend, Tommy was the one who actually talked about the Crossroads idea and selling your soul to the devil: according to the history books he told his brother he met a black spirit at a Mississippi crosssroads who tuned his guitar and handed it back with the rock.
“It’s about the trouble with living and how crazy things can get, which are all really old ideas from the blues, but it’s also got visions of urban streets at night now and rooftop parties with cigarette lights fading deal-or-no-deal into the dark.”
Ethnographers have since looked at notions of voodoo (or hoodoo) imported into the South from Haiti and then Africa as a big factor in the myth as well as the fact that junctions, crossings and becoming the devil’s servant are all central to many pre-Christian legends. The point being that you don’t get punished or live bad because of it. The Devil, or the spirit, or maybe it’s just the belief, simply transfers some attributes or powers to you, and on you go.
The Fumes know it. The record has some shadow and glare – some ?love songs and hate songs? according to Steve Merry – and it has some scuzzy, ashen Zeppelin/Wolfmother moments and a lovely broken-down piano ballad, but it comes screeching to the fabled Crossroads on the centrepiece song ?Cuddle Up The Devil?. It’s a magnificent re-casting of the ancient myths to do with hero and antihero, identities and roles, all mixed up and confused, together alone in the night at a juncture around which the shit goes down.
There’s plenty of sonic references to the blues elsewhere on Sundancer: the bottleneck guitars, the tunings, the 12-bar sequences. A song called ?High City Lights?, while totally urban and contemporary, is amazing and rumbles through a dark wastrel’s epic of dancing and love and probably drugs by the sound of it: a warning, almost. Do this with someone like her, the She-Devil, and be damned.
But ?Cuddle Up The Devil? is literal. A wanderer gets to a junction and meets the Devil who confesses some indiscretions. The wanderer, troubled and in ill-health, is intrigued and uses the opportunity to look into himself, seeing visions of the eternal and finding clarity about past mistakes. The song is raw as fuck. Incredible guitar riff. Drums massive and totally everything. Live and direct too; Merry’s unscripted chants and incantations between lines among the verses – his ?c’mon?, his ?yeah?, his ?ho? – tell us he’s real and human.
The Devil tells him about fate: ??coincidentally I just killed a man with an ol? stray bullet to the chest but don’t ask me why some men were just born to die.? The wanderer says he doesn’t trust him half as much as his cigarettes.
Yet it’s The Devil who personifies rock’n?roll. That’s the point of it all. That is the lesson we can learn from the blues nearly 100 years ago and from the Crossroads thing which never happened but which was so strong a belief that it did in certain people’s minds.
?I just spin this web for women and money,? the Devil says in The Fumes? song. ?Now you’re catchin? on quickly.?
Sundancer is out now through MGM Distribution.