The London Bo Diddley Sessions

This one is haunted. Lurking in the grooves is the lost and long-forgotten rattlesnake buzz, the rhythm of dry seeds shaken in a gourd, the sound of black-dirt hoodoo. Though mostly overproduced funk and soul, the tracks here still throb with the echoes of Bo Diddley’s wild-man guitar - and the ghost of Jerome Green.

Bo Diddley first went into the studio in 1955. Eighteen years later he was still at it, grinding out product when the money was right. In ‘71, Howling Wolf had gone to London and made a record with half the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and other flickering luminaries. It sold well, so Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry had followed. This album is the fourth in the series, getting white boys to sit at the feet of great black men. Updated, shinier and slicker than his earlier tracks, this is still one-chord primal juju groove. Not really a collection of songs (that word never was right for Bo’s work - implying composition, beginnings, middles and ends), this is better described as nine slices of greasy fried musical fatback.

The greatest maracas-player in the history of American pop music, Jerome Green, died as Bo was flying to London for the sessions. So only the ghost of his sound made it onto the tapes. Though he hadn’t played with Bo for almost a decade, he’s still here, shaking and sputtering like an Afro-Carib tribal medicine man.

“Greatest maracas-player”? Does that seem absurd? Everything about Bo Diddley’s career is absurd, including playing a shag-carpet covered guitar. But that doesn’t take away one iota of greatness. The maracas are hardly a real instrument, more often something to give the chick singer that she can’t mess up too badly. Right? Wrong. Bo Diddley put a loud squalling guitar into the hands of his sexy female partners - first Lady Bo, then The Duchess - and he kept the maracas in the hands of a man, a real man. Their sound usually gets pushed to the back of the mix. On Bo Diddley’s early tracks, they’re up front, as important to the groove as the drums and Bo’s trademarked guitar beat (bam bam bam - pause - bam-bam!). The essence of cool, Jerome Green’s slinky hipster shake is there on ”I’m a Man,” “Diddley Daddy,” “Pretty Thing,” “Diddy Wah Diddy,” “I’m Bad,” and most crucial, on “Who Do You Love?” the strongest hunk of dirty folk magic ever to make the charts.

Not so much a song as a spell, this one makes no rational sense. Bo brags that he’s got a “tombstone hand and a graveyard mind.” He tells us he has a “brand new house on the roadside, made out of rattlesnake hide” and up on top is a chimney “made from a human skull.” He’s just 22 and he “don’t mind dying.” Then he demands of his girl “who do you love?” Or perhaps it’s not a question but a statement of his methods: “Hoodoo you, love.”

Two decades later, Chess Records paid his way to London, gathered up some faceless studio musicians and got the tape rolling. By far the standout cut is “Do the Robot” - a one-chord wah-wah workout. This isn’t the silly-ass 80s robot dance he’s conjuring up. It’s no herky-jerky spaz Star Wars robot, but something a lot closer to the original, like Maria from Metropolis, the sexiest, slinkiest most hyper-cool robot ever captured on film. This is the primitivo Bo Diddley robot - with a titanium bone through his nose and an outer space John the conkaroo making the mojo. Traditional deep south goofer dust was dirt collected in a graveyard under a full moon. But in ‘73, we needed a new kind of hoodoo, so the Apollo priests had brought back lunar goofer dust, powdered moon rock collected under a glowing full Earth. And Bo’s robot knows exactly what to do with it. “Makes no difference if you’re at home,” he growls over the churning funk, “you can do the robot all alone.” Doing this robot is a private rite, with the TV gleaming instead of black magic candles and the sound of this record blasting instead of Mississippi delta drums.

Jerome Green died, almost forgotten, in ‘73. But when we put on the headphones, he’s still here with us, like a rattlesnake buzzing inside our skulls. Bo kept at it for a few more years, the old man who passed on his loudmouth gut-bucket noise, the precursor of the harder, wilder troglodyte beat of American garage bands and then punk rock. But without the maracas, it just wasn’t the same.