The Morlocks come raging out of their underground lair with beautiful bombast entitled The Morlocks Play Chess. Led by founder and vocalist Leighton Koizumi, this slightly obscure but seminal garage punk outfit from Los Angeles performs 12 classic blues tracks from the Chess Records catalogue.
Founded by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in 1950, Chess Records made Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Etta James household names. Songs like “I’m a Man,” “Backdoor Man,” “Boom Boom,” and “At Last” were heard around the world and directly inspired Rock and Roll progenitors like Keith Richards, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Frank Zappa. The importance of Chess Records to today’s music cannot be understated. The musicians that the label made famous created a legacy that no artist today can deny. Whether your name is B.o.B or Beiber or Bono, Chess Records is an integral part of your creative DNA.
Accepting this fact prepares you for The Morlocks kicking down your door and blasting your face off with their original take on these classic blues hits. Like all good punk rock arrangements, the method is simple and the playing is fast but accurate. Most importantly, the original ideas from the masters who composed these songs are not lost among the din of a thrashing rhythm section. Koizumi’s vocals are deftly melodic and pushed right up front in the mix, giving the whole record a classic punk rock feel, which matches the faux patina of the cover art. Although he cannot resist doing impressions during the Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker numbers, his growl and yowl are distinctly original and convincingly “the blues”. This is not surprising considering Koizumi’s 25 years of paying dues in dingy, crushed-velvet rock dungeons all over the world.
Adrenal glands start pumping during the first few notes of the introductory rave up on “I’m a Man.” The cardinal instruments of punk (guitar, bass, drums) are featured, along with some classic blues sounds. A distorted harmonica moans in sympathy with a machine gun snare while a tambourine shimmies around in back of the mix. Merging an old blues trick with punk rock sensibilities, the song’s outro goes into a double time gospel feel, but ultra-fast and short.
The Morlocks, I’m A Man
Thankfully, The Morlocks make “Who Do You Love?” cool again by presenting a hard rock version of this erstwhile Bo Diddley hit that has nothing to do with the George Thorogood. Advertisers can now rejoice at this new version of the tune to help them sell cars and beer. As a bonus, the singer quite possibly has a chimney on his roof adorned with human skulls. Note the punk rock maracas featured prominently here, a fitting tribute to Bo’s long time maraca man Jerome Green, one of the unsung heroes of early Rock and Roll.
The Morlocks, Who Do You Love?
“Sitting on Top of the World” is an old timey classic whose origins predate Chess Records by 30 years. The version made famous by Cream was based upon Howlin’ Wolf’s recording for Chess. Listen to how The Morlocks cleverly handle the tricky 6/8 feel of the chorus, splitting the syntax with two different rhythmic approaches between “sitting on top” and “of the world.”
The Morlocks, Sitting on Top of the World
The Morlocks salute the master who is most directly responsible for Rock and Roll by covering Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” As in most arts, it is much easier to go forward with reckless abandon than to methodically demonstrate the fundamentals. Punk rock is no exception and on this track, The Morlocks prove their considerable musicianship by playing slower and with a lighter touch infused with humor.
The Morlocks, You Never Can Tell
Many artists have gone back to the Chess catalog to either plunder or lionize. In fact, it’s how modern Rock and Roll got its start (see Levy v. Lennon). Still, The Morlocks Play Chess is a refreshingly heart-pounding addition to the ever-expanding category of modern bands paying tribute to the old masters.