Revisiting classic material is always a good way to get brownie points with the critics; if they liked the original classics, you can hardly go wrong with an updated cover. That is, if you do it in the right spirit. You can bet your ass Muddy did it in the right spirit. His music had always been raucous, shocking British audiences in the early sixties, but times had moved on; this was 1977. Heavy metal was a fully-established genre, punk was on the rise, Led Zeppelin were kings of the musical world. Compared to the likes of these, Muddy’s earlier records were about as raucous as the Carpenters. Hard Again needed to pack a punch; it packed a whole gang of brass knuckle-wielding thugs. It opens with a take on his classic song Mannish Boy; already a statement in attitude, this one turns it up to 11. The towering stop-shuffle beat persists for 5 whole minutes. One chord. HOWLING harmonica. And in the midst of this cacophony? Muddy oozing raw sexuality as casually as you like. ”The line I shoot/Will never miss/When I make love to a woman/She can’t resist” quoth Muddy, casually sneering the last line. “All you little girls/Sittin’ out at that line/I can make love to you, woman/In 5 minutes time” with the same ease as if he were asking for a cup of coffee at a restaurant. At one point, his line “ain’t that a man?” is followed by the backing musicians shouting “YEAH!” Yeah, you’re damn right it is.
His take on his other old material is no less impressive. The brief I Want to Be Loved ups the tempo and places Muddy at the forefront again. The original is somewhat subdued, quiet, with Muddy playing the fool unlucky in love, crying out “the touch of your hand, woman, drives me insane/But baby, I wants to be loved” like a teenager. Perhaps the years have hardened him, but no such trace of sensitivity is apparent here. That’s not how real men do business, is it? Here, he’s not so much asking as telling, not so much yearning as demanding. Baby, I want to be loved, so get over here now! The final revisited classic is the only fully acoustic song on the album and an unquestionable highlight; I Can’t Be Satisfied. Johnny Winter (who doubled as lead guitarist and producer) leads the proceedings with some truly inventive and wizardly guitar playing.
But of course, this wouldn’t be a true comeback if there wasn’t some fresh material, and the fresh material provided is truly stunning. From the playful and brilliantly named The Blues Had A Baby and They Named It Rock And Roll #2 (There is no #1) to the tale of the jealous hearted man, (Jealous Hearted Man) it’s all bursting with renewed energy and freshness. This is in no small part thanks to the enthusiasm and skill of his fellow musicians. Johnny Winter was an established blues guitarist and longtime Muddy Waters fan when he signed Muddy to his record label. The inventiveness of his playing and the casual studio chatter between them that bookends some tracks shows that Muddy really was in a perfect environment to record. Winter’s frequent solos are full of bite and perfectly compliment Muddy’s vocals. Furthermore, he was reunited with old friend and collaborator James Cotton on harmonica, whose towering presence overshadows much of this album. His harmonica usually has a prominent position in each track; usually leading the song and taking the odd solo. What’s so important about his sound is how unbelievably raw it is. I don’t know if it’s played through a wah-wah pedal or seriously distorted or just unbelievably loud, but it’s as raw as your face, stripped of skin and dipped in hydrochloric acid. Cotton’s sound is central to the rip-roaring stomp through Mannish Boy and his harmonica riffs lead I Want To Be Loved and Cross Eyed Cat, among many others. Truthfully, it’s so raw and harsh it can grind a little bit after a while, but boy is it effective. Final shout-out to Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, whose powerful drumming is central to the huge sonic presence on this album.
It is worth mentioning again about the casual nature of Hard Again. Perhaps it’s this that makes the album such a triumph, no pressure, no expectations, just a good-natured romp. This could also explain why his follow-ups I’m Ready and King Bee weren’t quite as inspired. But the relaxed nature of the music makes for a supremely enjoyable listen. Take the penultimate song Crosseyed Cat for example. It’s about a woman who Muddy has to leave because she keeps a cat who’s “too big to be a house cat/And too small to be a lion.” It’s all a bit of a laugh, really. He even updates the lyrics in Mannish Boy from “I’m a man, I made 21” to “way past 21.” He may have been getting on but he sure hadn’t lost any of his swagger or sense of humour. Comeback? “Don’t call it a comeback; I’ve been here for years.” (Thanks to LL Cool J for that one).
Words - Adam