Jerry Lee Lewis | Live at the Star Club, Hamburg (April 1964)
Rock and Roll – 37:48
“I stuck with rock ‘n’ roll when the rest of them didn’t. I kept the ball rollin’ with that.”
Popular music is one which is best left to the young. At least, that’s the way it seems when it comes to the charts; youth dominates the hit parade. True, there are those that have achieved longevity; artists such as The Rolling Stones are still able to top the album chart in 2016. But the general rule has always seemed to be that the record buying public are more interested in hearing the voice of the young than the old. Perhaps it is because, by and large, those buying the records are barely out of their teens themselves – as has been said before, MTV’s target audience were never any older than their early 20s. When puberty is still a fairly recent memory, it’s unlikely you’ll want to hear anyone singing about those things which come with middle or old age (whether it’s worrying about the mortgage or bemoaning the NHS). Like attracts like and, therefore, the young buy records by the young.
It is certainly not a new phenomenon. Back in 1964, and still a few months shy of his 30th birthday, singer Jerry Lee Lewis was regarded as ‘past it’. Of course, age was only a part of it; his musical style was already being surpassed by the Mersey Beat crowd (despite trying to emulate their heroes, The Beatles had instead found themselves at the forefront of a whole new wave of musicians) and his personal life had been the subject of huge controversy (in 1958 he had married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra); as a result the Killer was now finding himself shunned by his once adoring public. A lesser man might have retreated into hiding to lick his wounds. Jerry Lee Lewis was anything but a lesser man.
Having finished a tour of Britain in April 1964, Lewis headed to Germany with Liverpudlian band The Nashville Teens. The group had been booked to play a residency at Hamburg’s Star Club, a highly popular venue for numerous singers and bands throughout the 1960s (among its most famous performances, it had played host to a series of pre-fame gigs by The Beatles in 1962). Although the Killer was not lined up to play, he managed to convince the management to let him perform for one night. And what a night it proved to be. The resulting live album is regarded by many music critics as not just the best but also the wildest live rock ‘n’ roll album ever recorded. Listening to the frenzied playing coming out of the speakers, it is easy to agree with them.
After a deceptively gentle few notes, the Killer is off with Mean Woman Blues. The piano is pounded with ferocity and verve, while Lewis screams his way through the number. It is a wall of noise that seems to perfectly encapsulate the rawness of his performance; he may have been out of the spotlight but he had clearly lost none of his ability to wow a crowd. Backed by an incessant beat, Lewis shows his skill on the piano as he forces it to keep up with his whirlwind playing. And for those doubting that he can keep up the energy for an entire set, he is about to prove them very wrong indeed.
High School Confidential gets the audience shouting in joy with a number that, if anything, moves along faster than the opener. This is followed by a terrific version of Money; the Nashville Teens, acting as Lewis’ backing band, show themselves equally capable of not just keeping up with the Killer but providing him with a great sound to fall back on – the guitar work of John Allen perfectly complements the sound of Lewis’ piano while Barry Jenkins’ drumming proves as wild as the singer. The blues sound of Matchbox allows everyone to briefly catch their breath – a much needed respite for listener as much as performer – before What I Say kicks in with some more fancy piano playing, leading up to the classic Great Balls of Fire. The song may have been played to death since its release more than 50 years ago, but hearing Jerry Lee playing it live shows it has lost none of its power.
Lewis screams his way through Good Golly Miss Molly, the intensity never letting up. By this stage, it seems as if the Nashville Teens are struggling to keep up with a man possessed, but it never matters. This is rock and roll at its most natural – energetic and raw. Lewis Boogie is a fun if forgettable number while his version of Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart shows that he was more than capable of turning his hand to other styles (even if the country genre doesn’t entirely sit well within the general feel of the set).
Things round off on a high with a trio of wonderful versions of rock ‘n’ roll standards: Hound Dog, Long Tall Sally and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. Hound Dog sounds better than Elvis; Long Tall Sally has all the force of Little Richard on steroids. Whole Lotta Shakin’ winds things up on a high – the musicians sound exhausted by this stage but their determination to keep pushing results in a stunning guitar solo that rings in the ears long after it finishes.
Jerry Lee Lewis may be one of a number of artists from the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll who is now more famous for a single song. But he was a man famous for his ego and his love of performing and Live at the Star Club shows it was a talent that he rightly cherished. With the exception of two slower numbers, the whole album whizzes past in a blur; but, if you can keep up with it, it is certainly worth it. The Killer shows he is worthy of the name with a killer live set from start to finish. The best rock ‘n’ roll album of all time? I’d say it was a more than fair description.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Live at the Star Club, Hamburg here:
Next time: Here are The Sonics by The Sonics