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George Thorogood: badass to the bone

George Thorogood makes a quick break from the “Rock Party,” as he goes it alone for the first time.
 George Thorogood in 2017. Publicity photo.

George Thorogood in 2017. Publicity photo.

By Ray Chelstowski

This summerGeorge Thorogood released his 16th studio album, “Party of One,” and his first back with Rounder Records. The album also establishes a first for “Lonesome George” in that it’s his first solo record without his legendary backing band, The Destroyers. Produced by longtime collaborator Jim Gaines, the record charts a historical walk through of the artists who have helped shape his career and whose music provides the underpinning to the cannon of one of rock’s most respected musicians.

Goldmine had the chance to speak with George about this record, the acts he admires most and his thoughts on rock ‘n’ roll’s historic past and uncertain future. With wit and an expansive understanding of rock’s rich history our conversation covered a good amount of ground and introduced us to his theories on everything from why we love electric guitar to something he calls “pulling off the trick.”

GOLDMINE: So I played a bunch of tracks from the new album for staffers in the office here and every one of us had the same impression almost immediately — we all said “it sure sounds like George is having a lot of fun.” What were you looking to accomplish with “Party Of One”? Was there any album that was the inspiration or sort of your guidepost for the record?

George Thorogood: When I started in the early ‘70s that was my “mo” do that first and then maybe later on move on to getting a rock band together like everybody else does — doing stuff on acoustic guitar, a solo album like Springsteen, and various others. But we kinda jump-started into the band thing and put the solo record on hold for a while. Rounder Records was very keen to do that, so was I. As you know we went our separate ways for a while and then when we got back together with them. We said, well, we think this is the time to do this. I also wanted to document the songs that I was doing at the time and include some that I had never recorded. And as we went along I said, let’s try to get one song at least from every artist that really meant something to me when I was just starting to learn the guitar, putting my solo act together — and lo and behold it kinda presented itself one song after another. We found a Johnny Cash song. We found a Hank Williams song. We even found a Dylan song. Those people as just as big an influence on me as say Robert Johnson, or John Lee Hooker, Hound Dog Taylor. So when we went in that direction that’s when it did become fun. Because I have been banging on Hooker, and Bo Didley, Chuck Berry and my own songs for so long that that’s where some of the fun came.

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GM: You revisit one of your biggest and earliest hit songs, “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” Why this song and not “Move It On Over,” or even one of you less known earlier tracks like “Ride On Josephine” from your brilliant debut?

GT: Initially, I wasn’t going to do it but I heard a recording of it. I didn’t know who it was. It was on the radio and I was really knocked out by it. I had some friends say “That’s you playing!” I said “It is? Good gosh, we gotta get a hold of that thing!” It took us a while to run it down. I have played this song so many times that its second nature to me almost. So when we heard it, we said let’s use that version.

GM: What was the one song that just didn’t make the final cut but was the hardest one to let go.

GT: We tried to work on a Beatles song because the Beatles influenced everybody as well. So we tried to work on that one from the “Let It Be” album where John Lennon plays slide guitar and George Harrison sings and plays acoustic guitar, “For You Blue.” It was impossible to do. We tried and tried it and I’m more of a gruff, gutbucket-type singer and The Beatles are the greatest singers in the world. Only The Beatles can do The Beatles.

GM: In looking at your entire catalog and there are a few guys like Elmore James and Willie Dixon who you have paid a lot tribute to and both get attention on this record. But there is no one who you have covered as extensively as Chuck Berry. I think almost every album of yours but a small handful has had at least one of his songs on it. How do you think of his influence on your music and his passing this year?

GT: Well, he’s an influence on everybody’s music. Let me just set the record straight on that. Usually when we were making a record, especially the second record we were nuts about a song called “It Wasn’t Me.” And every time we’d make a record we would be two or three songs short, everybody is. So we knew how to play this Chuck Berry song. So 30 years later were looking at 10, 12 Chuck Berry songs, which is pretty much overkill. And I’m a flat picker, I don’t really play Chuck Berry very good. I can squeeze by on a couple songs because I can play the rhythm guitar okay. When it comes to the solos that Chuck played and everything it’s not my strength. I’m more of a rhythm player.

GM: You have worked with Jim Gaines before and his history with the blues is well documented. But what specifically about Jim Gaines made him the perfect the guy for this project?

GT: He’s very deep. You can sit down and he’ll completely understand what Bo Diddley’s all about. And then he’ll turn around and completely understand what a top rock classic is all about like “Rock’n Me” by Steve Miller. And you can turn around and do a Hank Williams or Stonewall Jackson song which is his roots from when he was a kid. So he’s very aware and that’s why he’s in such demand. He could probably go out there and produce an outstanding country record. He could produce a rock record. Blues. He did Santana, he’s worked with Cyndi Lauper, Stevie Ray (Vaughan) ... so he’s very good. He’s very passive aggressive. He pushes you in a very gentle way. Pushes me in a gentle way, and I’m not easy to push. I’m not stubborn but I am very cautious about my limitations and Jim’s very good at convincing me, “No, you can do this. This sounds really great!” This is what a good producer does.

GM: When Springsteen took “Nebraska” on the road with the entire band songs like “Atlantic City” took on an entirely new dimension. How do you think these songs will translate live and do you see The Destroyers mixing any of them up from the studio version?

GT: Well, some of those songs I was doing before I put the band together: “Bourbon Scotch, Beer,” “Boogie Chillen,” “Pictures From Life’s Other Side.” There are tunes in there I was doing and then I adapted them to a band just as blues people like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. They were banging away playing alone and then when the ‘50s came they picked up an electric guitar and played the same songs. They just played them on electric. As far as taking these acoustic songs and putting them in a band show that’s highly unlikely that’ll happen. I’m not sure that I want it to happen. I just want the record to stand on its own.

GM: With so much tradition in the space that you operate in, do you find it hard to create new, original music while still staying true to the genre? Staying authentic?

GT: The way I keep it going is pretty obvious. This is all I’ve been doing since 1970. That’s the way I play. Now my focus from day one was to listen to Robert Johnson, and listen to John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley and those people and then play it and have a passion for it. But the ultimate thing is I looked at artists like The Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf, or J. Geils or Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller... who I idolize. Billy Gibbons. Those who pulled the trick off. I call it ‘pulling the trick off.’ It means you studied the blues, you played that and you got a rock band together, and then you came out with rock hits. Now that’s the ultimate goal. Steve Miller did it with “Rock‘n Me” after he started out as The Steve Miller Blues Band. Billy F. Gibbons started out loving Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley — still does — but he ended up with “Legs” and “La Grange” and became a superstar. Eric Clapton loves Robert Johnson but he came up with “Sunshine Of Your Love” and “Layla.” So I was not unlike those artists.

GM: Can you speak for a moment to the state of guitar in modern music — sadly it is not a prominent instrument these days. Will it come back? Do you see it as a cycle we are just going through or is lead guitar gone for good?

GT: It might come back. That cycle could come back. But I doubt that it will because once Chuck Berry stepped up there with Bo Diddley, the two most important guitarists in the world because they learned blues and turned it into rock ‘n’ roll. They were the two first guys to do that and got on the Ed Sullivan show and American Bandstand and that’s when the world took notice. Out of the woodwork then came Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards, and Peter Townshend, and on and on. And Elvin Bishop and Ry Cooder, Jimmy Page — people like that. But what they have done pretty much covered it. They discovered the blues. They turned me onto the blues and turned me onto early rock ‘n’ roll. So in a sense it’s been done. What people want is what hasn’t been done. When I came on the scene I was that kid. Everybody seemed to beat me to the punch because I was younger than everybody else. I wanted to do what Steppenwolf did but they did it. I wanted to do what Led Zeppelin did but they did it. Then I wanted to do what Billy F. Gibbons did and he did it. So I was like “What’s left?” So I had to find certain songs like “Ride On Josephine,” “Bourbon, Scotch, Beer,” “Cocaine Blues” — those songs were pretty obscure. They were pretty much unknown until we came along. So I thought, well, that’s my ticket. Find some songs at least that people are unaware of. That’s gonna be your ticket to the big party. For it to come around, who knows. Maybe someone will get ahold of Django Reinhardt and take it electric and make it fantastic. But I think the bulk of it has been done, unless they put a few extra strings on the guitar.

GM: Given our fascination with the electric guitar, who knows?

GT: Here’s my theory on that. The guitar, especially the electric guitar really came into prominence in the ‘50s and it skyrocketed in the ‘60s, especially the late-’60s. There were three machines that were created in the world. The motorcycle is the symbol of freedom. That’s what “Easy Rider” was all about. The acoustic guitar is the symbol of protest. But the electric guitar is the symbol of rebellion. It always has and it always will be. An electric guitar can be disturbing. It can be disturbing in a good way or in a different kind of way.

They tried to stop rock ‘n’ roll in the Eisenhower administration. That’s why Elvis went soft in the ‘60s. The Colonel didn’t want him to be a rebel anymore. That’s doesn’t work. We want to play it safe. Well, Jimmy Page and Frank Zappa did not play it safe. They went for it. So there’s a part of that that turns on guys because they want to be that and that turns on girls because they want to be with that. I think even Bob Dylan realized that when he saw “A Hard Day’s Night.” You know, he wanted to rock, he wanted to boogie, everybody does.