CD: Jerry Lee Lewis, Last Man Standing


What can you do with Jerry Lee Lewis? It seems unlikely it's the first time this question has been raised. You imagine it was asked when he married his 13-year-old cousin in 1958, or when he shot his bass player in the chest, or when he arrived at Graceland with a loaded gun and announced he'd come to kill Elvis, or a year later when, informed of the King's death, he remarked: "I'm glad. Just another one outta the way. What the shit did Elvis do except take dope I couldn't git a-hold of?"

But in 2006, the question doesn't pertain to his aberrant behaviour - which, at 71, seems to have calmed down slightly - as to his music. Like most of his surviving rock'n'roll contemporaries, he currently seems a lost figure, cut adrift from popular taste. The 90s explosion of interest in back catalogues and musical history coincided with grunge and Britpop redrawing rock's sphere of influence to exclude anything that happened before 1964. The Roy Orbison and Elvis-obsessed Richard Hawley aside, hardly any young artist bears the direct influence of 50s rock'n'roll: a shame, because current music could use some of the raw, unmeditated power you hear on Great Balls of Fire or Long Tall Sally. There's a band in London called Vincent Vincent and the Villains attempting to start a rockabilly revival, but what they're doing seems arcane. They might as well be up there clog dancing.

Young artists' lack of interest in 50s rock'n'roll is underlined by Last Man Standing. Helmed by film producer, philanthropist and love rat Steve Bing, it boasts Jimmy Page, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, three Rolling Stones and a Beatle (albeit Ringo) among a supporting cast in which the only names not eligible, or nearly eligible, for a bus pass belong to dense rap-metaller Kid Rock and reactionary country singer Toby Keith.

As Lewis tears into Led Zeppelin's Rock and Roll, you wonder if the kids know what they're missing. Barely two minutes long, it is fabulously, breathlessly deranged: Lewis's vocal keeps distorting, as if the microphone can barely cope, as his remarkable piano-playing tussles with Page's slashing guitar. It's great, as is much of what follows - Springsteen's Pink Cadillac, Robbie Robertson's Twilight, John Fogerty's rumbustuous Travellin' Band. Neil Young turns up singing an old Jimmy Reed song for the specific purpose of demonstrating how ill-suited his voice is to singing Jimmy Reed songs, but his guitar solo stings. There's a lot of hokey cross-talk: "Mmm-hmm!", "You're right there, Jerry Lee!", presumably to emphasise what a loveable guy Lewis is. Making a loveable guy out of a drug-crazed, gun-toting, multiple bigamist and homophobe who Rolling Stone magazine once baldly accused of murdering his fourth wife would be a tall order under any circumstances. Here, it's further hampered by Lewis's voice. He sings like a man with a mouthful of walnuts, but that's nothing compared to the way he speaks, or rather doesn't. On this evidence, he communicates largely through a series of incomprehensible, threatening noises, like a cross between Boomhauer from King of the Hill and Mark E Smith.

Nevertheless, half an hour in, with the experience of hearing Lewis make Keith Richards sound relatively wholesome fresh in your ears, you think: so far, so good. But Last Man Standing spends much of its latter half reminding you it is a collaboration between a man who thought it would be a good idea to remake Get Carter with Sylvester Stallone, and a septugenarian who recently thought it would be a good idea to greet an interviewer by jumping up and down in his driveway clad only in a pair of bikini briefs, waving his arms and screaming at passing cars before triumphantly announcing, "Let him write about that!"

There are moments when the album seems to have degenerated into a contest between Bing and Lewis, each man challenging the other to demonstrate their lack of taste, like half-witted neighbours attempting to out-do each other with the hideousness of their Christmas decorations. A cover of the Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women gets things off to a flying start by inexplicably changing the tune, and thus being the worst cover of Honky Tonk Women ever recorded (worse than that found on a new-age instrumental CD by the erroneously-named Inspirations, worse even than the classical version the Hampton String Quartet released on their dispiritingly-titled album What if Mozart Wrote Born to be Wild?) Then Toby Keith shows up, bellowing about the star-spangled banner and how God has personally given his approval to everything America has ever done, news the families of the 7,000 Iraqi civilians killed in the last two months will doubtless be comforted to hear. After that, you may need to go and have a little lie down, but make sure you return for What Makes the Irish Heart Beat - featuring Don Henley in full-on Boys of Summer mode: boogie-woogie piano, lashings of Irish pipes and whistles, and a lot of 80s power-ballad ambience - lest you miss what is without doubt the most catastrophic four minutes of music released this year.

But if Last Man Standing had been perfect, it would hardly have captured the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis. Instead, it is hopelessly flawed, frequently inspired, blithely indifferent to good taste and decency, and howlingly mad: an album entirely befitting its creator.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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