Each week, Sunday School takes a second look at a classic album worth revisiting years after its release. EMMIE staff handpick releases that shaped a genre, defined a generation or deserve recognition despite being left in the distance. Keep up with Sunday School for your weekly dose of dusted-off classics and throwbacks that merit a second spin.
Release Date: 1972
Standout Tracks: “Little Red Rooster”, “Bad News is Coming”
Good For: contemplating apocalypse, reading Qabbalah, imagining what you’d wear if you were in CCR
You might think of Bad News is Coming as giving life to the strange animal-human hybrids from the Island of Doctor Moreau, animating weird chimeras, beings that emanate from the strings of his Les Paul but enter a register of sound more akin to the human voice than the guitar.
From the first mournful notes of the album, the distortion-heavy sound of a cock crowing, we get the sense that the sun is rising on a distorted world: we’ve entered an uncanny plane of shadowy grotesques, a bizarro America, hellish and spectral, and Luther Allison is our Virgil through this post-Vietnam inferno. The song is “Little Red Rooster,” made famous by Howlin’ Wolf in 1961, and is one of the best songs on the album to showcase Allison’s guitar virtuosity and dramatic vocal skill. Allison’s menagerie includes barking dogs, howling hounds and general barnyard chaos. It’s both playful and dire. He ends the song in a desperate staccato solo before opening the next track, “Evil is Going On,” where he growls ‘something just ain’t right.’ This album is PARANOID (not literally, but there must have been something in the air) and that really speaks to Allison’s range, not only vocally — his iconic high-pitched scream punctuates the title track (a giant!) but retains its rich, butter-smooth timbre throughout the album — but in terms of tone, oscillating between sexual optimism and deep suspicion.
A little heaven and a little hell: we’re out here in the wasteland, so we may as well live a little. Opening with this homage to Howlin’ Wolf, with whom Allison jammed in the late ‘50s, demonstrates the album’s devotion to a careful curation of well-known standards and early blues tunes: palimpsests of blues history. Musically, you hear the indelible impact of that great voodoo king Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, especially in the title track. There are hints of delta blues, and whispers of straight ahead Chicago blues undergird some of the later songs, but Allison stitches them together into a violent, rock heavy collage that ranks him with Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin in ferocity and sound. While only three of the tracks on the album may be original, Allison’s arrangements are all his own. This shit bangs.
What is most striking about the album historically is Allison’s prescient insight which, by 1972, had already picked up on the tremors of imminent collapse resounding through the American empire of the early ‘70s. Alluding to the rousing cries of the rooster in the first song, the title track opens with Allison singing “I got the bad news this morning.” The two upbeat and entendre-rich songs that precede “Bad News is Coming” give way to a fully paranoid, if not quite fully realized prophecy, of impending horror. But the war was ending, people said; things are looking up – just think of the post-war economic boom of the ‘50s! Maybe it was growing up Black in Eisenhower’s America, or maybe Allison just saw things clearer than most everybody else, but the future was foreboding from where he was standing.
Luther, the reanimator.
Luther, the paranoid wizard of postmodern America.
Luther, prophet and demiurge.
“Listen” he urges us, beckoning the quick and the dead, drawing them close. And then, he speaks. Singing in abstract, his guitar matching his incantation syllable for syllable, verifying it, making it more than Word. Sound. Whining — moaning.
Exhausted, Allison excuses himself, but not before offering us one more chain of utterances, language spilling from a guitar like water from a rock, ecstatic, coming down off the mountain, his face aglow, uttering, what I’d immodestly call, holy writ and the foundations of a new creation.
But did we actually listen?
Luther Allison died in Madison in 1997, aged 57, at the top of his game, having never seen any clearer.