The Black Keys Howlin’ For You
by Cole Waterman
It’s the summer of 2011 and The Black Keys’ lo-fi rock raver-cum-primal blues stomp “Howlin’ For You” has been on several Billboard charts for 20 weeks now, having peaked at the number three spot on the Alternative chart. Another of their ditties, “Tighten Up,” is in its 52nd week on the charts, having gone all the way to the top of the less confoundingly dubbed Rock chart. No small accomplishment by the band that heretofore has been critically lauded, but relegated to little more than cult underground status.
With this achievement in mind, it’s safe to say The Black Keys have effectively duped a substantial amount of the music-listening population. They have steadily risen in popularity over the past few years, to the point that they are nearly a household name (at least in houses occupied by people with good taste in music, ahem). By keeping their collective nose to the grindstone, they have deceived their unaware audience into thinking they are a rock band. Keep this on the down-low, but the secret truth of the matter is what they really are is…a blues band.
But everyone knows the blues have no capacity for mainstream appeal anymore. The antiquated genre is passé, far too niche and unfit for mass distribution. That’s a foregone conclusion. So obviously the Keys must have designed and schemed to masquerade as something with more marketability, right? Oddly enough, it appears as though the Keys are not complicit in this wildly successful con; rather, it seems their exponentially increasing fan base is propagating a mass delusion all on its own steam, kind of a grand-scale self-deception.
By all reliable accounts, the Keys have maintained their distinctive, dare I say "trademark," sound since their inception in the early 2000s. Yes, they’ve branched out, toyed with and expanded their basic bluesy template, but they have not compromised their musical vision, have not abused or misused their muse, so the argument that they plotted to do whatever they could to attain mass appeal simply does not hold water. To put it simply, the Keys did not follow the mainstream; rather, the mainstream came to them. They are one of those all-too-rare flukes of the music biz who are simply too good to not attain recognition beyond that of a cult act, in much the way Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was just too damn good not to get radio play, despite thumbing its nose at every pop convention of the era.
Though the two-man group—comprising singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney—had been flirting with the mainstream (damn, there I go again; the mainstream had been flirting with them is what I meant to say) for several years, it was their 2010 album Brothers that launched them into the stratosphere. Why this album as opposed to the five that preceded it? Well, it seems somewhat arbitrary, as its song-for-song quality is on par with at least three of their prior releases, but suffice to say the masses’ tastes are finicky and do suffer an average three-album handicap. One thing is certain—the album is their most ambitious so far, composed of a sprawling fifteen compositions. Coming in at the fourth track on the record is this paper’s topic, “Howlin’ For You.”
The song, while far from the finest in their oeuvre, or even on the album, is a perfect distillation of the Keys’ sound, exemplifying their inherent juxtapositions. The song showcases how they are carrying on the legacy of American blues music while avoiding being simple imitators by putting their own stamp on the genre they keep pumping blood through. Casting aside the fact the Keys are two white guys, the song proves they are the heirs to the blues throne, not pretenders to it.
The blues developed in rural black communities of the American Deep South, particularly in the Mississippi Delta in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The form’s earliest incarnations were limited to vocal performances in the form of field hollers and work songs, themselves adapted from traditional African music maintained by former slaves and their descendants. Over time, the music evolved to be largely based on the acoustic guitar and, at times, featured instruments such as piano and harmonica. In these formative years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the standard blues song structure took shape—twelve bars, a basic three chord pattern, and cathartic lyrics dealing with the downtrodden, misery-soaked side of life (Starr 101). In essence, the blues was the Southern blacks’ counterpart to the Appalachia whites’ “hillbilly” music. The earliest forms of each genre were most often played by solo performers finger-picking guitars, their songs informed by the artists’ personal experiences and regional folk tales handed down generationally.
Early blues pioneers such as Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly (arguably as much a folk performer as a bluesman), Son House, Skip James, and Robert Johnson were typically itinerant musicians, troubadours moving from town to town across the South. They did not write and perform their tunes with delusions of becoming affluent celebrities, but out of a need to exorcise their personal demons, to express the sorrow marring their lives. Hence, their lyrics often related tales of soured love, cheating lovers, murder, depression, racial injustice, sexuality, and the supernatural, the last one documenting the unique syncretism of lingering African beliefs and Christian theology (Starr 490). The music was not all doom and gloom, however; most bluesmen displayed a natural flare for language and poetics, their lyrics often peppered with metaphor, double entendre, and wordplay.
In time, the blues grew and adapted ever further. In the 1950s and ’60, artists such as Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), Willie Dixon, and Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett) migrated north to Chicago. In the Windy City, this later generation of bluesmen swapped their acoustic guitars for the electric variety and largely forsook solo performances for the backing of full bands. In going electric, the metamorphosed blues laid the foundation for what would emerge as rock music, or, to quote a late career song by the aforementioned Mr. Waters, “the blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.”
As a child of the Midwest, Auerbach grew up listening to his parents’ old blues records. “I fell in love with the blues as a kid, and that was it—the die was cast,” he said in a 2009 interview with Musicradar.com. In particular, Auerbach has said early bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell was a key influence on his learning how to play guitar. Latter day blues performer Junior Kimbrough also served as a benchmark for the Keys, evidenced by their recording an EP of his songs in 2006. Still, Auerbach is loathe to accept the blues label for his band, at times saying he would not describe their music as blues at all and that he and Carney are more influenced by hip-hop than blues (Parker). Auerbach’s (possibly tongue-in-cheek) disavowals of the blues’ effect on his band’s work is understandable, as what artist wants to be pigeonholed or typecast in a particular genre, especially one the majority of people believe to be outdated and irrelevant? (On second thought, maybe the Keys are participating in the blues-as-rock charade. Hmmmm.)
Ironically, The Black Keys’ other half, Carney, is not a fan of blues music. “Pat really does not like blues music, he's been tainted [by modern blues music],” Auerbach said in a 2011 interview with Musicradar.com. “I've slowly played him things that are interesting and he understands now that ‘blues’ is not a bad word.” Carney himself has said he grew up a fan of traditional hard rock of the 1970s and ‘80s, but that he and his eventual bandmate “bonded mostly over Wu-Tang samples and hooks of Stax Records and old soul records” (NPR.com). But rather than generating strife in the Keys’ sound, its members’ disparate musical backgrounds serve to complement one another. The synergy of Carney’s classic rock and soul rearing with Auerbach’s blues sensibilities keeps their overall sound challenging and fresh, something evident on “Howlin’ For You,” a perfect example of their congealed influences.
Despite Auerbach’s attempts at distancing his band from the blues, the links to that style permeate “Howlin’ For You.” So overt are the ties to the blues in that particular song that any claim to the contrary is patently absurd. The song is soaked to its very marrow in the torrid waters of the blues, at once channeling the genre’s mainstays and rebranding them with Carney’s more idiosyncratic flourishes.
The most obvious blues influence looming over the song is the hulking specter of Howlin’ Wolf, known for his carved-from-the-side-of-a-mountain stature, his particularly dark lyrical concerns, and his sonorous voice, which sounded a bit like crude oil and gravel fed through a meat grinder then broadcast via a megaphone. When it came to the Wolf, the mood of menace or eeriness was not simply limited to his songs; the man himself was a terrifying figure unequaled in the blues annals.
The very title of “Howlin’ For You” conjures up a link to the infamous blues barker. When considered in its entirety, the song could amount to an intentional homage, or sequel of sorts, to “Howlin’ For My Baby,” written by Willie Dixon but recorded by the Wolf for his 1962 eponymous album. While the Keys could have done a literal cover of a Wolf tune, it appears they chose to approach their tribute to him by employing more original methods, taking the basic premises of the Wolf’s own song and shaping it to their liking. In doing so, the Keys again followed the course of the blues tradition, as the earliest blues songs were bandied between performers—a lyric change here, a chord altered there—without concern for who actually penned it. (This little nugget is also worth mentioning, but more so in a parenthetical manner—the cover art of Brothers is itself a direct tribute to that of the Wolf’s 1969 album. Brothers’ cover features a black background with the statements, “This is an album by The Black Keys. The name of the album is Brothers.” The Wolf’s album art reads, “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.”)
The song is a basic twelve bar blues in strophic form—a continuous melody throughout with changing lyrics in each verse. The track opens with a punchy, tribal drum pattern hammered out with gusto by Carney, the texture of it at times reminiscent of handclaps; right out of the gate, the song hearkens back to African and work song rhythms. The beat is in a 4/4 time signature, the most common rhythm in blues music, according to the blues website 12bar.de. Come to think of it, the beat is faintly reminiscent of that found in Gary Glitter’s jock jam “Rock ‘n’ Roll (Part 2),” though the similarity is (hopefully) coincidental, rather than intentional (because, honestly, if you’re going to shamelessly rip off something, at least rip off something worthy of such thievery).
A few seconds in, a repetitive, fuzzy synthesizer line kicks in, the wild card augmenting the traditional blues form. Auerbach’s slinky guitar riff appears next, and for the duration of the song’s verses, it and the synthesizer trade off in field holler-esque call-and-response fashion. Meanwhile, Carney’s drumming continues unabated throughout, running as a steady flowing undercurrent keeping the whole piece afloat.
The lyrics are broken into four four-line stanzas, each divided by a two-line refrain. The song’s subject matter is nothing new in the blues or rock realm, it being about a man longing for his woman, comparing himself to a beast in heat. The imagery of an unhinged man howling in desperation and lust is directly in line with the blues trope or fixation on canids, a la Robert Johnson’s fabled hellhound, Howlin’ Wolf’s own stage name, and the like. Each verse is an unresolved single sentence completed by the chorus, the first two lines of which are always slightly different but rhyming with the consistent second line of “Baby, I’m howlin’ for you.” Overall, the lyrics are fairly minimalistic—another element connecting them to the blues—and though The Black Keys’ sound shares much in common with the recent records of Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Mark Lanegan, their lyrics could scarcely be mistaken for the likes of such luminaries. Still, there is some memorable whimsy contained in the lyrics, for example the third verse—“Mockingbird/can’t you see/the little girl’s/got a hold on me” and the following refrain, “Like glue/baby, I’m howlin’ for you.”
Auerbach’s vocals are somewhat distorted, sounding as if they’re sung through a tin can. As such, they do not overshadow or sound significantly above the rest of the mix; at times, they meld with the erratic synthesizer notes. The only time the vocals soar above the muddy sluggishness of the song is in the oft-recurring bridge, in which Auerbach harmonizes with a female singer in a series of “da-da-dat-dat-da-das,” the song’s catchiest moment and serving as its hook.
As is the case with virtually all Black Keys’ recordings, the song’s instrumentation is fairly basic—an electric guitar, drums, a synthesizer, and vocals. As stated above, the electric guitar and drums have been blues and rock staples since the mid 1950s. And vocals, well, being that they are mankind’s first instrument, charting the history of their use seems unnecessary. The synthesizer, though, didn’t become prominent in rock until about the late 1960s. Initially viewed as a gimmicky, shtick instrument, it increasingly gained acceptance (thanks, Pete Townshend) and is now all but ubiquitous in most contemporary acts’ arsenals. In the blues field, however, the synth is far from a common instrument. That being said, The Black Keys’ use of a synth is not entirely novel.
Avant-garde musician and perpetual conundrum Captain Beefheart was perhaps the first to introduce the synthesizer to the blues realm, albeit in his unholy concoction of blues-rock-jazz-surrealism, the instrument most prominently featured in his 1978 composition, “Bat Chain Puller.” As a progenitor of alternative (there’s that absurd term again! Don’t worry; we’ll get into the wheres and whatfors of that a bit down the line.) music, the good Cap’n has been recognized as another influence on the Keys, thus the synth’s inclusion on one of their songs is not as surprising as may have initially seemed. As it appears in “Howlin’ For You,” the synthesizer fills the role that would have otherwise been occupied by a piano in the instrumental interplay with Auerbach’s guitar riffs. The option to use a synthesizer where a piano would have sufficed showcases how the Keys weld blues hallmarks with more modern approaches. This sense of experimentation prevents their music from becoming predictable and dull, a pitfall so many other blues artists are prone to today.
Saying the song was mixed in a “muddy” fashion is not meant to be disparaging. If anything, it lends the song some charm, the recording and its mix themselves serving as conduits to the past, emulating as they do the garage rock primitivism of The Stooges and The Velvet Underground (OK, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, for if the quality of the mix was that lost in miasma, the Keys would be accused of attempting career suicide). Still, the bare-bones production value lends the song, and the album from which it stems, an air of authenticity that would have been absent had it the sleek, glossy production of a damn Katy Perry or Lady Gaga hit. Blues music it not meant to be innocuous and placid; it is to be gritty, raw, and organic, and anything that does not fit this bill is but an ersatz reproduction at best.
As indicated by Brothers’ liner notes, the song was produced by Mark Neill and recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The studio was made legendary in the early 1970s when several big name soul, rock, and country acts recorded there. By opting to record here instead of a studio in New York or Los Angeles, the Keys again tipped their hats to their musical forbearers, recording in a setting so saturated with the atmosphere of American roots music. “We made [Brothers] in a cinder-block building in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, with five microphones and a guitar amp and a drum set,” Carney said of their recording process, embellishing the austere nature of the experience just a tad (NPR.org). Auerbach has also commented on the minimalism of the album’s production, saying only one or two microphones were used to record the drums and that no song on the album is composed of more than twelve tracks (Parker). This latter bit is quite telling about the ways in which recording technology has changed in recent decades; by today’s standards, twelve tracks for one song is comparatively minimal to the low-end average of twenty-four, yet when seminal rock records by The Beatles or The Rolling Stones were made in the late 1960s, four to eight tracks per song was considered state of the art.
With recording and mixing complete, Brothers was distributed by New York City-based Nonesuch Records, a quote-unquote “indie” subsidiary of Warner Brothers Records. By appearing to be on an independent label, The Black Keys have cultivated a level of hipness among their followers, gained some street cred, if you will. At the same time, being on an indie label allows the band more freedom and creative control than they would likely find on a major counterpart. With the financial backing of a parent major label, however, the Keys’ finished products are able to achieve much wider distribution and greater promotion, such as playing on popular late night talk shows, Saturday Night Live, and the like. The very presence of “Howlin’ For You” on Billboard charts is a direct result of the band’s support at home. Likely contributing to the song’s position on the charts is its uproarious music video—the concept of it being a trailer for a mock grindhouse exploitation film—the existence of which would also not have been possible if the Keys were on a true independent label.
Another example of mind-blowing irony that cannot be ignored is the song’s position on the Alternative charts. Alt-er-na-tive. Alternative to what? Nickelback, Godsmack, and other cock-rockers? As discussed above, the song is a tweaked variation of basic blues, the most fundamental of rock’s sources. Thus, how can a blues-rock song be alternative to rock? It’s difficult to underplay the innate ridiculousness of not only the sub-genre’s name, but of The Black Keys’ inclusion under it, when in point of fact, the Keys are among the most traditions-based bands in existence today. “Alternative” music—and the even more infuriatingly vague “indie”—is to rock what autism is to psychology—a convenient, catch-all term, used more for describing what something is not, rather than what something is. Furthermore, how can a song be on both the Alternative and Rock charts? How can something be alternative to itself? What a paradox…
When seriously evaluated, is “Howlin’ For You” anything new? Yes and no. On the one hand, it is entirely the sum of the band’s myriad influences—traditional blues filtered through the lens of rock innovations. In this sense, it is nothing distinctive from what has been done since The Rolling Stones began covering Muddy Waters songs and dubbing them rock ‘n’ roll. On the other hand, it is the utterly unique way in which Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney bend, hammer, warp, and weld the raw elements of these influences into a cohesive entity that sets “Howlin’ For You” apart from the pack. It is this same spirit of challenging both themselves and their audience, pushing the boundaries of their own musical palate, that marks The Black Keys as the true carriers of the blues’ fire.
Works Cited: “12bar Blues Guitar.” 11 June 2011.
The Black Keys. Brothers. Nonesuch Records, Inc. 2010. CD.
Bosso, Joe. “The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach Talks Blues Power.” 9 March 2009. 8 June 2011.
National Public Radio. “The Fresh Air Interview: The Black Keys.” 31 January 2011. 8 June 2011.
Parker, Matthew. “The Black Keys on Brothers and the Blues.” 8 February 2011. 7 June 2011.
Starr, Larry and Christopher Waterman. American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3, 3rd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.