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It Came Out of the Sky: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’ at 50

Five decades after its release, CCR’s third 1969 album still sounds as urgent, relevant, and incendiary as the day it was released

Fantasy Records/Ringer illustration

“Bring a Nickel / Tap Your Feet”

A tableau: four long-haired undesirables busking outside a Chinese grocery on a chilly-looking Oakland street corner. A handful of local children regard the scene warily. The sign above the Duck Kee Market promises Beer • Wine • Frozen Food • Produce • Meat. Two of the band members are playing washboard and harmonica, and none of them look particularly handsome. Perhaps no album cover of any great classic-rock-era release is objectively less promising than the preposterous social-realist panorama of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 LP Willy and the Poor Boys, which turns 50 this month. The botched aesthetics of stardom aside—an area CCR never excelled in—it remains among the catchiest and headiest 35 minutes ever committed to tape. Many bands have attempted to place the American experiment and its pretenses of justice for all and meritocracy under cross-examination, but few have ever succeeded more trenchantly or with such prophetic results. To listen to Willy and the Poor Boys today is to experience a shorthand for the deep divisions driven by income inequality and cultural bias that figure so prominently into our current political and historical moment. Can’t judge a band by its cover.

Even by the standards of the 1960s, when big-ticket acts were expected to satiate their market with a seemingly endless torrent of recorded output and live appearances, 1969 was a prolific year for Creedence Clearwater Revival. First formed two years previous, but really the full-flowering of earlier bands the Blue Velvets and the Golliwogs, the Oakland-based quartet had suddenly gone from music biz strugglers to full-blown celebrities. After so long a wait, nothing was going to dissuade them from maximizing their moment. CCR released three brilliant albums in 1969, each with a tangible claim on genius. January’s Bayou Country yielded the classics “Born on the Bayou” and “Keep on Chooglin.” August’s Green River produced yet more canonical material: “Lodi,” “Bad Moon Rising,” and the title track. Even the Beatles at their vaulting creative heights never released three great records in a 12-month span. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s November release, Willy and the Poor Boys, managed that very trick.

Just how CCR arrived at their signature, seamless melding of soul, rock, and folk remains an ephemeral mystery worthy of one of John Fogerty’s sharply drawn but strangely gnomic compositions. Their best songs—and they had an astonishing number of songs that could be considered their best—groove in a manner unlike any other: simultaneously efficient and unhurried, often building entire worlds in three-minutes-and-under at a time when many of their peers would take twice as long to get half as far. There is a certain strangeness as well as to their persona: four working-class kids from Oakland who became so adept at channeling the majesty of Stax and Motown that their music was frequently mistaken as having been made by African American artists, just as had been the case when Elvis Presley emerged 15 years previous. Steeped in the early-rock and blues mythos of the deep South, they were also taken for Southerners, and understandably so. When Fogerty sang of being born on the Bayou, it was with a conviction few would think to doubt.

By the late ’60s market forces had already begun the unfortunate project of Balkanizing rock ’n’ roll into separate genres: “Rock” music was intended to appeal to largely white audiences, while African American artists were typically relegated to the R&B charts. For John Fogerty and CCR, this development violated everything they represented. The band essentially acted as a rearguard protectorate to the genre’s multiethnic traditions, loaning out “Proud Mary” to Ike & Tina Turner while borrowing Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and Norman Whitfield’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” all to spectacular effect.

Willy and the Poor Boys would be their most explicitly class-conscious album to date, and it would occur at a moment when the commonly held view of the “counterculture” was beginning to fracture down newly established fault lines.

“The Palace Door / Silent Majority / Weren’t Keeping Quiet / Anymore”

By November 1969, the seemingly endless and ultimately pointless gyrations of the Vietnam War were carrying on feverishly, although no one seemed certain as to why. That long and grinding conflict, and its attendant domestic unrest—so central to baby boomer self-conception—was certainly as tragic as it was farcical and ill-conceived. But opposition to the war and its relationship to the more bourgeois elements of the counterculture is frequently misremembered, to characterize the phenomenon generously.

From the United States’ initial interventions in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s and throughout its various escalations for the rest the decade, the conflict could be seen almost entirely through the lens of class. The poorest Americans were drafted into service and sent to fight the citizens of a long-suffering, largely impoverished nation that had made the mistake of bristling under French colonial rule. Polls showed that most college-educated Americans regarded the war with indifference or approval throughout most of the ’60s. To them, it was a Cold War proxy conflict 8,500 miles away, prosecuted by no one they knew for no reason anyone totally understood, and unlikely to make a dent in the rolling bacchanal that was the lives of the young and privileged in the 1960s. And then, in 1967, the demands of the war intensified and rules about the draft and college deferments changed accordingly.

The deferment system was created in 1951, in what the historian Bruce Gibney refers to as “explicit social engineering designed to ‘channel’ brighter students into more useful occupations.” For the college educated, deferments and exemptions nearly guaranteed that those engaged in postsecondary education would not be drafted. And then suddenly, it didn’t. Modifications to the draft in 1967 raised the maximum eligible age from 26 to 35 and ended previously issued deferments at the age of 24 or the completion of undergraduate studies. By the middle of 1968, college-educated citizens turned bitterly against the war. Voilà! A revolution in the streets.

For John Fogerty, a working-class kid with just a high school education, the threat of the draft was never an abstraction. Indeed, it became a reality: In 1966 his notice came, and he spent the majority of that year serving in the Army at Fort Bragg, Fort Knox, and Fort Lee. Luck was on his side and he never went overseas, but the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I experience stayed with him. There is much “protest music” associated with the Vietnam era—some of it thoroughly moving and some of it preachy and wretched. It would be a profound misnomer to characterize Creedence songs like “Fortunate Son” and “Effigy” as protest material. They were howls of existential terror, a terror of what had been narrowly avoided and a terror of what people just like him had been conscripted into. Even fantasias like the genially paranoid “It Came Out of the Sky” and the beatifically angry “Down on the Corner” felt like transmissions operating on a singular, sometimes menacing frequency. You could be friends with this music, and being its enemy carried some degree of danger.

The late Senator John McCain once observed: “Those who were better off economically did not carry out their obligations, so we forced the Hispanic, the ghetto black, and the Appalachian white to fight and die. That, to me, was the greatest crime and injustice of the Vietnam War.” McCain was selling short the injustices done to the Vietnamese people, but his point holds. American veterans of Vietnam weren’t Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They were Willy and the Poor Boys.

“Who Will Work the Fields With His Hands? / Who Will Put His Back to the Plough?”

By the late ’60s, Creedence could fill arenas nationwide and make staggering sums of money in the process: At the height of their popularity, guarantees reaching $50,000 a night became more frequent than not. CCR happily took full advantage of their demand and toured lucratively and extensively, with a peculiar caveat. At a time when it had become common for popular acts to extend their shows to epic lengths—Led Zeppelin concerts of the era had begun to run to three hours—Fogerty decided that Creedence should go the other way. For the 45 minutes the band was onstage, the music was tense and thrilling. But after 45 minutes the band was done. With very few exceptions, no matter the audience desire, there were no encores.

It’s a small point but an important one. Why would this most populist of popular bands dare court the critique that they were stingy with their rabid audience? The decision even caused some rancor within the group. Some members of the band believed, reasonably enough, that encores were a way of thanking the fans. Fogerty regarded them as phony under any circumstances. Neither was wrong, but Fogerty’s intractable stance said something crucial about the way CCR was always both old and new. By limiting show lengths to single concentrated outbursts of intensity, Creedence both honored the shock-and-awe, blink-and-you-miss-it character of early rock and the don’t-care-at-all-if-you-miss-it brevity of punk. Indeed, in 1969 only CCR’s Detroit-based counterparts the Stooges were so directly anticipating a less-is-more future. Fogerty’s draconian set times were never intended to cheat the consumer, and in fact the opposite held true: any second you weren’t fully present was a moment wasted.

In November 1969, American military personnel in Vietnam reached its highwater mark of 543,000. Engagement after senseless engagement proceeded in an endless cycle of meaningless behavior. Hamburger Hill, the Battle of Binh Ba, Operation Camden. This was war as the deep blues. Relegating millions to refugee status. Our time is ours and then it gets taken away. The poorboy shuffle. The midnight special. Every single way under the sun that they can think to screw you. Bill Clinton and a four-year deferment. Dick Cheney and five. It’s been three decades since any American president has been importuned with the ugly business of serving in a war. The most cynical demonstrations of jingoism aside, when you die on the battlefield there are no curtain calls and few elegant endings. No encores, as it were.

July 1970’s Cosmo’s Factory would be CCR’s next masterpiece, and also its last. After that, jealousies ran hot: over creative control, money, and notoriety.

“Who Is Burning? / Who Is Burning?”

A tableau: four unusual-looking men are crowded together on an album cover, their faces meant to recall the Beatles on Rubber Soul or the Stones on Aftermath. But because they are CCR the image is awkward at best and off-putting at worst: Stu Cook leaning in with his Groucho mustache. Doug Clifford to the right, bearded and pensive. The Fogerty brothers themselves, appearing as pissed off as they were with the record label and the booking agent and most of all each other. This is the cover of Pendulum, which came out in December 1970 and was their first good but not great record. It’s also the verifiable beginning of the end. Inevitably their awkward final LP, Mardi Gras, contained some amount of inspired music, but it was clear that the grand steamship was listing.

A nation-state reaches a point where every action it takes causes some kind of systemic disruption. At some juncture it becomes so colossal that it is simply too large to move without being injurious. Bands can be like this too. By the early 1970s even a consistent governor against rock excess like CCR had become an unmanageably gargantuan engine of commerce: smash hit after smash hit followed by sold-out show after sold-out show. Critical prestige for miles. Money in sacks. A winning streak made unsustainable by the very fact that with each victory the stakes and expectations became ever higher.

Willy and the Poor Boys has a claim on being the best Creedence LP, but at a minimum it was the last one when the band’s sense of mission was fully enjoined and the purpose seemed plain and righteous enough. The subterranean groove of “Feelin’ Blue” is as insinuating and louche as any rendered contemporaneously by the Velvets or MC5. “Fortunate Son” is as honest a distillation of class enmity and the covered-wagon medicine show of performative patriotism ever set to record. “Effigy” is just that: an accounting of everything lost in the fire. Before the too-large nation found its way into Vietnam. Before the too-large band began to crumble under its own weight.

If you listened to only classic rock radio today, you would think of Creedence as four-hit wonders, with a couple of well-worn tracks still in rotation, but without the acknowledgement that they are among the greatest bands this country has ever produced.

And yet CCR are everywhere: in the long-running fight songs of Sleater-Kinney or the grand, revolutionary spirit of Boots Riley and the Drive-by Truckers, or the wry and perceptive working-class anthems of Courtney Barnett. Proto-punks who took both the long view and the short one. True believers we can all look to in this flickering moment. There is hope to hold on to, and other chapters to be written. We don’t have to worry. As long as we can see the light.

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.