Trying to find a secret to George Thorogood & The Destroyers’ success is like trying to figure out the plot to a Three Stooges episode.
“There is none,” Thorogood says in that familiar rasp. “I’m the Chevy, pizza, Budweiser of music. People can rely on that.”
His rattly, chainsaw-slide guitar and bad-dog growl make him instantly recognizable. His transformation of “Move It on Over” is a rock classic, a redraft to the point that most people forget it’s Hank Williams’ epitome of old-school country. Even his latest release, Greatest Hits: 30 Years of Rock, remained at the top of Billboard’s blues chart for nearly a year.
“I knew a long time ago the only formula I’m gonna find is one that’s very simple and that will never go out of style,” he says.
That formula consists of Thorogood clanging and clawing his way along a guitar neck. “I’m not a real educated player,” Thorogood says of his self-described primitive style. “I play very fast, very loud, up-tempo barroom boogie.”
The guitarist was surprised at his record topping the blues charts because he wasn’t expecting it. He compares it to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf being labeled as bluesmen. “Those guys rocked!” he yells. “I saw them live.”
Thorogood’s take is that when Muddy plugged his guitar into an amp, got himself a drummer, got off the plantation, and got that acoustic guitar out of the way he rocked the joint. He decided to follow his example: “I was an acoustic player getting nowhere. Then I got an electric guitar and a bass and a drum–and boom!”
But 30 years later, the group that Thorogood rates as his heroes aren’t the big-name bluesmen and rockers but a bunch of white guys out of Boston. “When actors talk, eventually it comes around to Brando. Musicians, eventually it comes down to the J. Geils Band,” Thorogood says.
J. Geils were a Massachusetts bar band in the early Stones tradition, but they came well-versed in an array of genres including soul and R&B. Frontman Peter Wolf was a trash-talking jive artist who talked, wrote and sang black. Jagger, Springsteen and Bowie regularly showed up backstage to take notes when the band performed. Thorogood remembers a show at JFK stadium in 1975 that featured Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac and Lynyrd Skynyrd. When it was over, 100,000 people came out chanting “J.Geils.” Five hours after opening the show, nobody could remember who had followed the headliner. Thorogood says he’s just carrying on their tradition.
“I’m just the poor man’s J. Geils. J. Geils broke up and we’re all that’s left,” figures Thorogood. “Whatya think I’m doing at nighttime? J. Geils, that’s all I’m doing.”
Like that band, Thorogood does his best work live. Though 30 Years captures the essence of Thorogood’s sound as well as anything he’s ever done, it still doesn’t do justice to a live show. Although he doesn’t swing from the rafters like he did 20 years ago, Thorogood can still whomp up enough excitement to tear the roof off a joint.
“I’m a live performer,” he says. “And the CDs are just calling cards for that. I do the albums for the live gig.”
But Thorogood doesn’t want to analyze his sound or his popularity too much.
“We kinda jumpstart the blues like the J. Geils Band used to,” the guitarist says. “There’s something working for us. Whatever it is, I’m not gonna question it.” x
George Thorogood plays the Carolina Theatre in Durham on Wednesday, March 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28-32.