CD Review: Swamp Dogg – Total Destruction to Your Mind / Rat On!
Lost soul classics lost no more
Industry veteran Jerry Williams, Jr. unleashed his alter ego on this 1970 masterpiece, spelling out his unconventional views in groove-heavy soul music. He makes good on the title’s brag with catchy, original songs that touch on environmental decay, social isolation, dystopian visions, racism and questions of paternity. Williams’ lyrics are often Zappa-like in their surface absurdity, but there’s a gripping observation or lament at each song’s heart. His voice has the pinched, keening sound of the Showmen’s General Norman Johnson, but with a rounded richness that suggests Jackie Wilson. Recorded at Capricorn Studios in Macon, GA, his band is soaked in the horns, low bass and guitar riffs of Southern soul, and touched by the propulsion of West Coast funk. It’s hard to imagine how this record (as well as the follow-up, Rat On!, an album better known for its cover than its content) has remained so obscure and hard to find. A two-fer on Swamp Dogg’s S.D.E.G label has been available off-and-on since 2000, but Alive’s digipack remaster should give this five-star gem the broader circulation it deserves. It’s a shame new liner notes weren’t included to provide the album’s history and context; the booklet does reproduce the song list, personnel credits, a few “relevant quotes,” and a short, typically absurd, autobiography. Analog fans will be happy to find both this and Rat On! are also being reissued on vinyl [1 2].
Swamp Dogg’s newly penned liner notes tell the story of his second album’s original sessions (under the title of “Right On”) at Florida’s TK Studios, with a backing band that included Betty Wright, Lonnie Mack, Al Kooper and a label worker (and future disco star) named Harry Wayne “KC” Casey. Apparently the results sounded awesome to the alcohol- and herb-fueled participants, but were not so easy on the ears of anyone else. The resulting tapes were shelved (though a single of the original “Straight From My Heart” was released with a B-side cover of Joe South’s “Don’t Throw Your Love to the Wind”), and a second run at the album was made at Quinvy Studios in Muscle Shoals. The latter sessions were released on Elektra in 1971 as Rat On! The Quinvy crew featured several legendary musicians, including bassist Robert Lee “Pops” Popwell and guitarist Jesse Willard “Pete” Carr, and Swamp Dogg’s soul sound, much like that on his debut, gave the players solid grooves to explore. His songs continued to mix outspoken views on race, sex, religion, war, relationships and social issues, couched in melodies whose sweetness sometimes obscures the deep twists and turns of his lyrics. Listened to in passing, Rat On! offers top-flight ‘70s southern soul, with deep bass and punchy horns. But listened to more carefully, the album reveals a daring songwriter who wasn’t afraid to tell it as he saw it, challenging society’s icons of freedom with “God Bless America For What?” and landing himself on Nixon’s enemies list. The album features soulful reworkings of the Bee Gees’ “Got to Get a Message to You” and Mickey Newbury’s “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” and though the original tunes aren’t nearly as absurd those on Total Destruction to Your Mind, their messages are just as powerful, and their grooves are just as deep.