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Extended Analysis

Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs and Englishmen

By Published: September 10, 2004
Joe Cocker
Mad Dogs and Englishmen
A & M 6002
1970

Give me a ticket for an aeroplane, I ain't got time to take no fast train...

The first record album (long player, that is) I ever bought was Joe Cocker: With A Little Help From My Friends. I purchased this lovely for $2.69 at Osco Drug in the University Mall in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was early 1970. I was 12 years old. I had been hanging out with my cousin that summer. He was five years older than me and had more money and greater access to music. With him I heard Green River , American Woman , Led Zeppelin II , Sticky Fingers, Stand! , and yes, With a Little Help from My Friends , when they were just out of the shrink-wrap. I recall this very fondly and with a lot of excitement. The first live recording I purchased was the two-LP set, Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs and Englishmen. I was stunned by the big sound of that big band. I think I know how Cameron Crowe felt first hearing the Allman Brothers Band.

Joe Cocker is the finest white rhythm and blues singer ever. Widely parodied and generally made fun of because of his spastic stage presence, Cocker introduced legions of white, middle-class teenagers to the music of Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Otis Redding. At the same time, he is a supreme interpreter of other composers' songs. Joe Cocker has transformed the music of Randy Newman, Dave Mason, Gary Wright, and those are just a few. On Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Joe Cocker starts off with no less that the Rolling Stones ("Honky Tonk Women"), Leonard Cohen ("Bird on a Wire"), Dave Mason ("Feelin' Alright), and Kris Kristofferson ("Superstar") and that is just on the first LP of the set. Cocker's boggy Sheffield voice was always well suited for the Muscle Shoals/Atlantic—Memphis/Stax style of soul music. This is why "Let's go Get Stoned," "Drown in My Own Tears," and "I've Been Loving You Too Long" come off as supremely as they do.

The Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour was a hastily organized appendage to a longer tour Cocker was completing in 1970. April and November of 1969 saw the releases of With A Little Help From My Friends and Joe Cocker! respectively and Cocker had spent the time since in a grueling promotional tour. As legend would have it, Cocker arrived in Los Angeles in March of 1970 for some rest and relaxation and planning time to put together a new band. His management company had other plans for him. They let him in on a seven-week tour they have arranged for him, to commence in eight days. Leon Russell, seeing his old friend between a rock and a hard place, forms a band, becomes the musical director and directs this merry group toward the road. After four 10-plus hour rehearsals with his ten-person band, Cocker and Company record the single "The Letter/Space Captain" and hit the road, starting in Detroit.

The tour was also to be filmed and this present collection of performances was to serve as the soundtrack, recorded four shows into the tour at a packed Fillmore East on March 27th and 28th. The soundtrack includes songs from his first two recordings: "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," "Delta Lady," "Bird on a Wire," and "Feelin' Alright." But several stock standards were added. Cocker proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can interpret any music—Rock, R&B, Soul, Jazz, Folk, it is all here. There is an infectious air of joy and happiness in this music, substance-fueled and love maintained. This is BIG GOODTIME MUSIC. There are no highlights in this set. THEY ARE ALL HIGHLIGHTS.

This is loosely performed but never sloppy music. Because of the newness of the band and the short, concentrated rehearsal schedules, the Mad Dogs and Englishmen and a fresh and spontaneous character. Leon Russell looms as large as Cocker by playing his fat flinty brand of lead guitar and his Oklahoma dust bowl variety of gospel grand piano (the real thing, not one of those synthesized excuses. Bobby Keys (whose later tenor solo on the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" would make him rock deity) and Jim Price sound like a full horn section. Drummers Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon set the standard for other dual trap set bands such as the Allman Brothers Band and the Doobie Brothers. But, for all of the greatness and talent of this band, it is THAT voice that stuns. In his mid twenties at the time, Cocker had a voice as big, deep, and soulful as Guinness Stout and as sweet as fine Port.

Cocker is at his best on the Parkinson's nod inducing "Feelin' Alright" and "The Letter." These songs have an insistent drive that causes the listener to bob his/her head to the beat, often inducing whiplash. The Blues and slower tunes, such as "Let's Go Get Stoned," "Bird on a Wire" and "The Blue Medley" find Cocker at his most agonizingly sincere. "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window" rocks as does "Delta Lady." Where Cocker is the voice, Leon Russell is the vision. His piano style is so unique that like Neil Young's guitar playing or Cocker's voice; the listener could identify it a mile away. If there is a high point (and I have already said all of the songs are) it would have to be the Cocker/Russell duet on Bob Dylan's "Girl From The North Country." Cocker's mossy brogue meshes provocatively with Russell's Midwestern twang perfectly framing Dylan's love ode.

It is fortunate that the Mad Dogs and Englishmen did not survive for other recordings and tours, their music would have become old. This way, one may listen to this music 30 years later and still hear it fresh as if it had just been extracted from the LP shrink-wrap.


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