Few songs can evoke the pathos of an era more effectively than Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son. John Fogerty’s anti-war/anti-establishment anthem teleports the listener straight back to 1968 with its opening bar of booming bass and drum. Hearing it is enough to conjure visions of Bell UH-1 Hueys soaring over landscapes on fire with napalm. The song has been featured in numerous movies, television shows, and video games centered on the Vietnam War. It has been featured so often, in fact, that a 2018 episode of Family Guy spoofs the use of the song by giving a character PTSD as a result of hearing it so often.
Now, a new documentary on CCR (Travelin’ Band: Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Albert Hall) is currently available on Netflix. It centers around the band’s speedy late 60’s rise from a struggling California rock n’ roll band to global superstardom by 1969. The centerpiece is a 1970 concert played at London’s Royal Albert Hall, at the height of the band’s popularity, and in the wake of the shocking breakup of The Beatles. Jeff Bridges narrates the proceedings and explains how the band was poised to fill the void left by the lads from Liverpool upon their demise.
While that sentiment is perhaps a bit overblown, as the band would never quite reach the ground-breaking levels of musical experimentation or popularity of The Beatles, the short documentary is nevertheless an illuminating account of the rapid rise of Credence Clearwater Revival from local California rockers to one of the most era-defining groups in American musical history.
It is conventional wisdom that CCR eventually fell apart in 1972 due in large part to the songwriting burden shouldered almost solely by John Fogerty, as well as “artistic control” and business issues revolving around the band and its success. The personal riffs this all caused between John and the other three members of the band (including John’s older brother, Tom, on rhythm guitar) would prove to be insurmountable.
The documentary does not touch at all on those aspects of the band’s history, other than to obliquely refer to some tension around the too-slow pace of the other three band members’ ability to progress musically on their instruments. Netflix’s Travelin’ Band is an exploration of the group’s rise and zenith rather than a chronicle of its fall.
The build-up to the Royal Albert Hall show is more intriguing than the rock show itself. We learn that CCR was the first major act signed to headline Woodstock, that it took a couple of cover songs to really kickstart the band’s rise, and that John Fogerty wrote some of his most iconic songs — about the American south — without ever having set foot in the region.
The Royal Albert Hall show itself lays bare the band’s lack of complex sonic texture and breadth of songwriting skill. They undoubtedly wrote and performed some absolute rock n’ roll classics, but never really progressed beyond a relatively simplistic formula (with the exception of a few songs), in which John’s lyrics and vocal style carried most of the weight. The music itself was your standard 50s and 60s rock and blues, and never moved much beyond that.
Related: RIP Charlie Watts: The 5 best uses of The Rolling Stones’ music in TV and movies
This all comes across in the concert, as it feels a bit of a rushed affair, and the viewer can’t help but feel an urge to hear Fogerty change up his singing voice for some variety. The band, meanwhile, cruises through its setlist in workman-like fashion, never engaging with the audience beyond an occasional “thank you” before launching into their next song. Some of those songs are era-defining staples of American rock music. However, this reviewer found himself yearning for that next level, something beyond what took them to the top.
Sadly, the band would fall apart four years after hitting it big, and would thus never take those next evolutionary steps with their music.
CCR would never evolve their sound or grow as a band in the same way that The Beatles did in their own short career, despite the documentary’s framing. CCR did not have the songwriting genius of Lennon/McCartney, and it lacked the contributions of an equivalent of Harrison and Ringo. All of that being said, check out the Netflix documentary if you want to see an iconic American rock band in its prime, showing us just why they shone so bright for that far too brief period of time.
Bruce Peterson says
True. It’s a mistake to frame CCR as a band trying to fill the void left by The Beatles (a void not even the Stones could fill). Further agreed, this one live concert in England is not the best reflection of CCR’s genius. I think a better discussion of CCR would be one that explored how CCR drew on Americana to simultaneously critique and celebrate America while evading the wrath of the ideological puritans in American who scorned the Beach Boys (apparently only the English were nuanced enough to appreciate CCR and the Beach Boys at the same time). The discussion would also contrast CCR’s approach with the other San Francisco bands of the time who packaged themselves successfully as social revolutionaries sympathetic to the overthrow of the American government and of American society as a whole. Those are discussions that I think would better explain why CCR has a legitimate claim to being the best American band of the sixties and the third best band of the sixties overall.
Ian D Staples says
Excellent and fair review of the documentary. Although I think their live sound is better than you give them credit for