Listen to this track by Akron Ohio blues-rock twosome The Black Keys. It’s “Tighten Up”, a single as taken from their 2010 album Brothers.
The single was twinned with another hit in “Howlin’ For You”, hearkening back to the days of the double A-side. Both songs evoke the spirit of one of the band’s greatest influences, that being Howlin’ Wolf. Even the album design mirrored Wolf’s 1969 album The Howlin’ Wolf Album on which the self-referential words “This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either”. Even if that statement about his view of his own record was true, it showed that the blues was changing by the latter years of Wolf’s career, mixing with rock music and psychedelia.
Even if this song hearkens back to what Wolf helped to establish – echoey and subterranean blues that is coloured with an edge of desperation and menace – it also demonstrates that the form is not stagnant by the 21st century, either. It still had plenty of space to grow, with The Black Keys certainly playing their part to get the music back on mainstream radio and on video screens too. With this, another aspect comes to the fore; that this is not mere musical curation of sounds from days gone by. It’s a part of a living tradition that also has a place in the pop charts. Read more
Here’s a clip of Howlin’Wolf performing his 1961 single, “Backdoor Man”, famously covered by the Doors.
The 1950s and early 60s is widely known as a repressed era, full of images of uniform suburbs, grey-flannel suits, and Father-knows-best morality too. Yet, in the blues world, there were all kinds of contrasting forces that work against this type of generalization. In this world, backdoor men, cuckolded husbands, and married women sneaking around were the main players in these musical love triangles of raw sexuality. This filtered down into rock n’ roll too, of course. But Howlin’ Wolf’s reading of this Willie Dixon-penned tune is downright evil – well, evil in a good way.
In music coming out of urban centers like Chicago, the world is portrayed (and often was) a rough place, with danger and sex (sometimes just dangerous sex…) lurking around every corner, hand in hand with the high possibility of violent death. The braggadocio in the blues in the sexual sense – of backdoor men, hoochie coochie men, king bees buzzin’ around your hive, and other examples – was a firm basis upon which the same kinds of sentiments are now expressed in hip hop.
This song, and others like it, were sort of anti-love songs. This is not about gushy feelings. This is about physicality, carnality, and one-upmanship. Who would have thought that the era which produced Pat Boone, also featured Howlin’ Wolf who would go on to inspire the Rolling Stones (who insisted Wolf join them on their 1965 TV appearance on British program “Ready Steady Go“…), the Doors, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and many others who took the mantle of sexual conquistador in rock music into the decades to come.