"I am very proud of the fact that this album cover has been considered and nominated as one of the top ten 'Worst Album Covers' in the history of album covers. The left-handed accolade has helped this masterpiece to sell and avoid obscurity." Those are the opening words of Swamp Dogg's a.k.a. Jerry Williams Jr.'s liner notes to the Alive Records reissue of his second album, Rat On! (1971)
In reading his statement, the first thing I thought about was his great sense of humor, but he is also quite correct. I have been aware of Swamp Dogg for years, and the cover art of Rat On! is definitely one reason, but I had never had the opportunity to listen to him until now. With a name like Swamp Dogg, one might reasonably expect the music to sound kind of, well "swampy." I was thinking maybe Creedence or even a genuine Cajun such as Doug Kershaw.
There is not much "swamp" in Mr. Dogg's music though. This is fairly straight-forward Stax-ish early '70s R&B. I must say, ugly cover artwork or not, it is pretty great. Actually, referring back to those classic Stax albums of that era is a compliment, but it is not altogether accurate. On both Rat On!, and its predecessor Total Destruction To Your Mind (1970), there is a lot more going on than "just" rollicking rhythm and blues.
The legend that has developed over the years about Swamp Dogg was that he was some sort of musical idiot savant. I'm sorry, I did not come up with this, it is just something I had read (in a few sources). Allow me to apologize for such a terrible misperception, for it is as wrong as could be. My guess is that the people who described him that way took the cover art at face value, and never even listened to the music. Because once you do hear the music, you realize that this guy should have been a star. There is some fantastic stuff on these records.
The first indicator for me that there was way more going on with Swamp Dogg than "just" great R&B came with "Creeping Away," on Rat On!. I kept trying to place it, and finally I realized that part of it reminded me of "Up On Cripple Creek" by The Band. Not a direct cop mind you, more in that whole "Americana"-type feel that The Band did so well.
His cover of the Bee Gees' "Got To Get A Message To You" was what really sold me though. This guy knows his stuff, inside and out. If you did not recognize the lyrics, you would never know that the Brothers Gibb wrote this track. It is so funky, and the way he makes it is own is so perfect that the song just knocked my socks off.
Rat On! really is a lost classic, and one that was ridiculously overlooked in its time. Just to add to what I so enjoyed about this music, some of it also shares some qualities with that of what Van Morrison was doing at about the same time. Almost every Morrison fan I know can agree on one thing during his spotty career. He was at an absolute peak in the early '70s. Swamp Dogg uses horns very similarly to the way Van did on albums such as Moondance and Tupelo Honey. A couple of examples of this on Rat On! include "That Ain't My Wife," and his version of Mickey Newbury's "She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye."
To get an idea of just how fantastically eclectic Jerry Williams Jr. is, check out those cover artists again. The Bee Gees and Mickey Newbury! Those two do not easily sit side by side. Yet, here they do. Hearing those and his own originals done up in a sweet soul style, with horns and funky chicken-scratch guitars is sheer brilliance if you ask me.
As I mentioned earlier, Total Destruction To Your Mind was Swamp Dogg's debut album, and while the cover art is not quite as bad as that of Rat On!, it is right up there. The cover features a terrible picture of Mr. Dogg, apparently at home. He wearing a weird silver hat that sort of looks like a graduation mortar-board, a white t-shirt, shorts, socks, and Beatle-boots. He is sitting on a funky old couch, with his foot up on what appears to be an oil-drum/coffee-table.
Alright, so once again, the presentation is not exactly enticing. In the Alive reissue notes, the artist has included some quotes. The first one is almost identical to what was once said to Frank Zappa. In Swamp Dogg's case "A Very Big Man at Canyon Records" had this to say: "No commercial possibilities."
Just like Rat On! though, it is obvious that nobody actually listened to the album. Well, some did, because original copies of these albums sell for big bucks to collectors. But again, he has produced some phenomenal music. The previously mentioned Stax-influenced R&B sound is a lot more prevalent on Total Destruction than on Rat.
There are also some very impressive collaborations with one Gary "U.S." Bonds. He and Jerry Williams Jr. co-wrote three tracks on this album. They are "Dust Your Head Color Red," "Everything You'll Ever Need," and the closing "Mama's Baby, Daddy's Maybe." The songs are definite highlights of the set, but there is much more going on as well.
Actually, if forced to pick one, I would call the opening, title track my favorite. I love the powerful way this song blasts out, and the guitar solo in the middle just kicks ass. It reminds me of what I miss so much about Black music of the early '70s. I'm a white-boy who was just a child at the time, but I loved what I heard then, and love it still.
I guess it is something that I have repeated over and over in this review, but it is a fact. Both of these albums are excellent. The covers are ugly as hell, but you know, so what? I guess back then though, that was enough. Hell, I have read the original Rolling Stone review of Funkadelic's stone-classic Maggot Brain, and they hated it, mostly based on the cover art. So what chance did Jerry Williams Jr. have?
To lay my cards completely on the table, based on what I had heard about Swamp Dogg over the years, I had expected Rat On! and Total Destruction To Your Mind to be camp classics. The only thing that had me questioning this assumption was the fact that they were being reissued by Alive, who are a "no bullshit" label in my opinion. Rhino are very happy to release campy old albums, but I have never seen this from Alive. Now I know. They released these albums because they are truly great, nothing more, and nothing less.
To write a balanced review, I always try and find the "best" songs on a disc, and if there is a particularly "bad" one, I will point that out as well. There are ten songs on Rat On!, and twelve on Total Destruction To Your Mind. 22 tracks in all, and I swear there is not a single one that I would call a "dud." That is somewhat incredible when you consider the situation. Both albums appear to be basically homemade, without a penny of major-label funding as far as I can tell. To have maintained such a high level of quality through both is mighty impressive.
Swamp Dogg's sound is very much his own, but the reference points I have included are important for those who have never heard him before. If you have a taste for (what I consider at least) the best music of the early '70s you need this. There are very definite elements of Stax-Volt R&B, the Americana of groups like The Band, and the one of a kind "Celtic soul" of Van the Man in Swamp Dogg's music. And there are even some "swamp" sounds, most especially during "Sal-A-Faster."
These albums should have been re-released years ago, and I thank Alive for taking the plunge. There is no question in my mind that Swamp Dogg was/is a brilliant musician. Forget anything you have heard, and ignore the goofy artwork. This is some of the finest American music not only of its time, but of all time. I love both of these records.