Why Creedence Clearwater Revival Remains the Definitive Band of Its Era

With a new Netflix documentary concert film and a new biography on shelves, Creedence Clearwater Revival remains a towering pop culture monument, one that defined a generation.

Creedence Clearwater Revival CCR 1970 Doug Clifford Tom Fogerty Stu Cook John Fogerty in London, England
Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage via Getty Images

Creedence Clearwater Revival released their debut album in 1968, running through the jungle of evolving radio with a steady barrage of hits until their breakup in 1972. But the quartet had been jamming since meeting in middle school in 1959 in El Cerrito, California. They played all the local clubs, sock hops, and school dances as The Blue Velvets and signed to a record label as The Golliwogs, before changing the name and group dynamic. The newly published A Song for Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival from Hachette Books tells the full 13-year story, while putting the band into a larger historical perspective.

Songwriting lead guitarist, vocalist, and sometime sax player, John Fogerty, his late rhythm-guitar playing brother Tom Fogerty, bassist Stu Cook, and drummer Doug Clifford condensed rock and roll, soul, rhythm and blues, and country into a unique sonic blend which has become iconic rock. 

“I like Creedence Clearwater,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. “They make beautiful Clearwater music, they make good rock ‘n’ roll music.” You can hear that sound, live without overdubs, in the new documentary concert film, Travelin’ Band: Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Albert Hall, which is now streaming on Netflix.

Creedence Clearwater Revival came out of the San Francisco Bay area, but sounded like they were born on the bayou. That didn’t leave them in the political backwoods. As the Golliwogs, they’d played for people their own age who were being shipped off to fight in Vietnam. They also played for the protesters, sometimes going as far as putting up signs or getting caught watching marches from a window as they played small clubs, as John Lingan’s biography details.

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The author interviewed Cook and Clifford extensively. John Fogerty did not respond to the interview requests, but had already gone over the material in his 2015 autobiography Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music. Other sources include Craig Wener’s Up Around the Bend (1999), Hank Bordowitz’s Bad Moon Rising (1998), as well as unpublished memoirs of band associates. In conversation, Lingan also enthusiastically cites Zach Schonfeld’s Pitchfork piece, “How Creedence Clearwater Revival Became the Soundtrack to Every Vietnam Movie,” as almost mandatory reading.

Lingan also wrote Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk, about the stable of musicians groomed in West Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and its breakout country music star Patsy Cline. The musical historian pondered the perpetual motion of Creedence Clearwater Revival with Den of Geek, bringing more than a nickel’s worth of thoughts on why Willy, Blinky, Rooster, and Poor Boy still make you want to tap your feet.

Den of Geek: The description in your book made me reevaluate the song “A Song for Everyone.” Most people think just of his rasp, but tell me about Fogerty’s range?

John Lingan: John Fogerty had an unbelievable range as a singer, and as a songwriter and guitar player. I think of his range as a reflection of his influences, which were, foremost as a singer, black singers. I think he was really indebted to Little Richard and James Brown. That’s how he got the rasp and the howl that we think of. But he was also in thrall to his older brother who loved those vocal groups, doo wop groups.

“A Song for Everyone” is so important to that because it was one of the first times he really slowed the tempo down and wrote truly about himself, and approached a more delicate tone. It wasn’t about coming across as a Southerner or a Black singer or borrowing those fields. It was about really a different kind of expression. It is shown by his immediate post-Creedence project, the Blue Ridge Rangers.

He was also very much influenced by country music and singers there who clearly come out of a crooning type of background than a raspy howl like he was known for.

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Fogerty created his bayou backwoods persona. Your first book, Homeplace, talks about real Blue Ridge Mountain players. Does imitation make the music any less authentic? 

We can argue about that for decades. It depends on every player. I don’t think so. I think we have examples from all genres of players who do not come directly or “authentically” from the traditions that they enter into, and end up making incredible, meaningful contributions to those traditions.

We can go in all sorts of directions. We can say Duke Ellington, who grew up in poor Washington, D.C. and in a Black milieu, obviously created some of the greatest and most revered orchestrations in a mainstream orchestral sense that the United States has ever seen. Then we can say a young Jewish boy from Hibbing, Minnesota, can make some of the most meaningful contributions to folk and blues music that anyone did in the 20th century. That doesn’t even account for The British Invasion, what the Rolling Stones and the Beatles brought to their American influences and their audiences.

To me as a writer, and a music fan, I don’t really have any interest in discussions about authenticity. I have an interest in other people’s discussions about authenticity. There are so many ways for an artist to be authentic and so many different ways for an artist to impact the genre or the style that they operate in.

So many of the great artists break those barriers altogether. My first book was about Patsy Cline. When she became very famous, she had a very different voice than someone like Kitty Wells, a voice that was perhaps more built for opera or jazz. Now we take it for granted that Patsy Cline is a Mount Rushmore figure of female country singing. She was influenced primarily by jazz artists at the outset of her life. 

As a later-generation Creedence Clearwater Revival fan, do you think you’re looking for something else in the band than their contemporary fans were? 

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Undoubtedly. I obviously did not live through the ‘60s. My parents did. I inherited that music and some of the ideals, and cultural artifacts from that time. One of the reasons I was excited to write this book was going back to the idea that Creedence’s career did really start in the late ‘50s and stretched very nearly into the Watergate era. It was a chance to write about that whole decade as a person who did not live through it.

The ‘60s are a collection of moments, like on a bulletin board. You have “I have a dream” here and the moon landing here, and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and the JFK assassination. We have 100 different associations with that time. To really follow it, year by year, almost month by month, and really get a sense of what was happening, that was the challenge.

The fascinating thing was that all the great music that evolved in that time was created out of nothing. There was no infrastructure for the music business. There was no guidebook for how a band became famous. Bill Graham built a new infrastructure. Prior to that, it was teenybopper clubs, social halls, and state fairs. It was opening for larger bands.

Radio itself, as a medium, went through enormous changes. The hippie era came directly after very different kinds of earlier protest that had nothing to do with bell-bottoms or drug-taking. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement evolved on different time tables, but also influenced each other. It had to be told in this strict linear way to showcase that all these things came together at different times. It wasn’t all happening at once.

I really wanted to put people in the shoes of young folks who were 13 in 1958 and 26 and 1972 the best that I could. What did it feel like to age through those years in those times?

You imply Creedence has become “the Vietnam War band,” and you make a good case for it before you even bring up the movie soundtracks. Tell me about the band’s evolving relationship with the soldiers. 

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The entire Creedence body of work was released at the height of the Vietnam War, 1968 to 1972. There were other artists that, of course, were incredibly meaningful to soldiers over there. Some of them were just known by first names, whether it was Aretha or Marvin. But those artists were known quantities. There were a lot of soldiers, one of whom I profile in one of the chapters, who discovered Creedence while they were in Vietnam at the worst part of the war.

On top of that, Creedence was certainly thinking about it, because John and Doug had both served in the Reserves, and lived with the threat of service in Vietnam hanging over their heads. They addressed that, often obliquely, in their songs, but it felt very direct. A song like “Fortunate Sun” or “Run Through the Jungle” doesn’t mention Vietnam explicitly, but you have to imagine what an incredible gut punch that would register as to a person who was over there.

These are songs with very heavy lyrical overtones, but that can also fire a person up. There was a story I read about a group of soldiers playing “Bad Moon Rising” to prepare to go into battle. That’s the song with the lyric “hope you’re quite prepared to die.” With all respect to other artists at that time, I don’t think anyone was writing songs with that degree of directness. On top of that, they were a heavy rock band that wore their Black influences heavily as well.

As the Golliwogs, they played for soldiers who were being shipped out.

That’s an amazing detail, isn’t it? I couldn’t believe that when I heard it. The fact that they were in the Bay Area meant that there were tons of military installations nearby. And the fact that the war was starting up meant that there were tons of young men needing to be entertained, or perhaps needing to be distracted, right before they were shipped off to a war in Asia. Hundreds of thousands of young men went through the Bay Area bases on their way over there.

There were young men who saw the Golliwogs perform and then heard Creedence, and maybe didn’t even put it together that they were the same band doing those military shows in ‘65, ‘66. They were a different kind of group, and they obviously weren’t playing “Fortunate Son,” or the songs that made them famous. Just that continuity is an amazing thing. They just had so many different ways of developing a closeness and an identification with that era and with that conflict in particular. 

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You spoke with Clifford and Cook but not with Fogerty. Did that schism affect the interviews? 

The first thing to say is, no, I didn’t want it to. People who know Creedence, beyond the hit songs, have an idea of what happened to them after their breakup. It was one of the most acrimonious and prolonged, ill-feeling breakups in the history of rock and roll. By the time I got the idea approved by a publisher, I had made up my mind I didn’t want to get into that in any significant way. Primarily because I don’t think that’s the most interesting thing about them.

I spoke with Doug and Stu for 12 or 15 hours each over the course of a few months. You get progressively comfortable with the person. I definitely got a sense of the degree the two of them were at peace with things. The same is very true when you read anything from Fogerty. I don’t think any of the three of them, at this point in their lives, are sitting around huffing and puffing about the others.

For a bandleader with a great sense of rhythm, it comes across like Fogerty had a questionable sense of timing. How do you separate the destruction of childhood friendship from the tunnel vision of the working man’s rock and roller? 

Well, that’s the whole story, isn’t it? Trying to untie that knot. It’s hard not to make assumptions. From everything I’ve learned about him, from writing this book, my sense is that Fogerty was incredibly affected and formed by growing up relatively poor. He grew up as one of five brothers with a single mom. He grew up living in the basement that leaks during the wintertime. I think he recognized correctly from a very young age that he was an extraordinarily talented musician, and that was probably his best chance of transcending that lifestyle he’d been born into.

That brings a lot of pressure onto a guy. There’s a reason [Bruce] Springsteen identified so strongly with him. Springsteen comes right out and says in his autobiography that, at a certain point, after achieving an enormous amount of success, he had to stop and think: Why am I not enjoying myself? Why am I not having fun?

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It’s not for me to speak for him, but I think he took on an incredible amount of pressure and felt that it was his responsibility to do everything because he didn’t feel that he could depend on anybody else. He felt let down by people when they weren’t up to his standards and that’s understandable because he had remarkably high standards, and met them. The songs still sound incredible.

A Song for Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival is available at retailers and from Hachette Books. Travelin’ Band: Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Albert Hall is streaming on Netflix.