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There are two ways to take this song if you want… literally or figuratively and each of them have something a little devious about them.

The first is the just take the lyrics at face value wherein an old guy is lusting after a young girl, except the old guy is played by a young guy simply acting old for the sake of the song.

In that context it may be a little troubling, but we’ve seen their I.D.’s and can assure you that it’s not illegal.

The other way however is more insidious and that’s to interpret it as this young artist callously mocking the blues, a style of music that to the rock ‘n’ roll generation was most definitely old people’s music.


Forty Five And Much Alive
In 1952 electric blues was having a commercial resurgence, the likes of which we hadn’t seen before, at least not in a measurable way as prior to the mid-1940’s there wasn’t a reliable outlet that charted the tastes of the black music audience.

When rock ‘n’ roll came along in 1947 blues were not exactly dead by any means, but certainly had taken a back seat to jazz and its various off-shoots over the past decade and a half. But with those styles now splitting into different camps, each with their own constituency – West Coast jazz, be-bop, pop-jazz vocals – ensuring none of them would capture a large enough segment of the listening audience to dominate, the field was wide open for rock ‘n’ roll to take over… which it by 1949 at the latest.

With its increasing focus on youth, plus the growing diversity of sounds within the field, it seemed unlikely that rock would relinquish its spot atop the R&B Charts any time soon, especially to something deemed somewhat passé like the blues.

But then the surge of independent labels that fueled rock’s rise began to focus on blues more as well, using the same methods of cornering the market by focusing on a genre the major labels largely ignored. Taking their cue from T-Bone Walker’s success, a new influx of electric guitar wielding singers like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker brought a fresher more exciting sound to what had been a field largely defined by either dusty country blues or more sophisticated cocktail blues or jump blues which were just as closely aligned with certain jazz elements as blues anyway.

By 1952 that movement had reached fruition and this year and next would be the heyday of that brand of blues commercially speaking with older listeners before rock ‘n’ roll’s reach started pulling in white kids to bolster the ranks of the African-American youth brigade like Marvin Phillips who were rock’s main demographic since the beginning.

Now that Phillips was actually a participant in the game himself, rather than a mere observer, it probably isn’t a surprise that with Old Man’s Blues he’s getting such a kick out of perversely showing why the side he chose was never in any doubt.

Maybe the underlying joke about the difference between the two genres would go over the heads of blues fans then – and now – but the inference was pretty hard to miss. Rock was a young man’s game and blues was seen as being for guys whose best days were well behind them even as they were futilely trying to convince you otherwise.

Let Me Warn You
All of that good-natured sniping we heartily approve of, even though I’m a blues lover myself. But there can be only one winner when it comes to controlling the narrative of music at a given time and since blues had made its impact a generation or two earlier and had already influenced so much of what followed, then there was no question that to conquer new frontiers it had to be rock ‘n’ roll which won out.

Clearly it had done so at this point even if the judges weren’t finished tabulating their scores just yet, since one way the blues had regained some momentum was to adopt some distinctly rock touches in pacing, instrumentation and attitude.

But as evidenced by the title, Marvin Phillips is sending up more of the traditional image of the music with Old Man’s Blues where the very things we just pointed to – pacing, instrumentation and attitude – are harkening back to an earlier era here.

That’s a good idea when it comes to selling the viewpoint about the blues being for a much more antiquated audience, but when it comes to making THIS record exciting or enjoyable beyond that, especially for rock fans, it doesn’t quite work as well.

The arrangement is slow, almost sluggish really, leaning heavily on the deeper tones of the piano’s bass keys and twitching stand-up bass that sounds like an animal in its final spasms before being devoured by a reptile in the desert somewhere.

Phillips’s morose vocal tones add to this image and while he’s singing in a way that breathes a little life into, already showcasing his trademark of doubling up on certain words for rhythmic effect, the lines he’s given himself are decidedly clunky in their flow, leaving it all up to his ability to craft funny scenes along the way.

We wish we could say this is where it earns its keep, but the only really humorous thing here is the fact that he gives their respective ages as 22 (her), young, sultry and desirable, while he’s playing a crotchety old geezer of… 45.

That IS funny (although I’m guessing it’s probably not nearly as funny if you ARE 45 or older), but I’m not even sure he meant it to get much of a laugh, as the main humor he’s trying to put across is how he’s still interested in some hanky panky in spite of his advanced age. Yet even here he’s hampered by not just the uptight morality laws of the day where he can’t delve into what this guy REALLY wants which goes unstated, but he’s also done in by having no idea that you sell the humor better when the lines the jokes are attached to actually rhyme.

Here they don’t rhyme at all which means all we get to see is how tired and out of step the song is. Maybe that was intentional as it suits the character he’s playing as well as matches the image of the blues he’s trying to put across, suggesting that it’s more than ready to be put out to pasture.


Call Me Up Sometime
Clearly the idea here, whichever way you choose to take it, be it mocking old people for lusting after younger girls who they have no chance of appealing to, or as a rebuke of a style of music that for many kids of this generation seemed hopelessly old fashioned, that’s where the ingenuity stops.

Either – or both – of those perspectives make for very solid foundations to use humor to make their point and to build a good song around it, but unfortunately Old Man’s Blues isn’t good because the music is dull, the humor is in short supply and the performance is under the impression that neither of those things is the case here.

But even though the record doesn’t live up to either premise laid out, the revelation in listening to this is realizing that the cockiness exhibited by this kid was genuine. Blues may be enjoying a commercial revival and it may even be the only serious threat when it came to rock’s quest to take over the world, but no matter how many hits it scored of late, for this generation it was merely a target of derision.

To the kids shaping rock ‘n’ roll there was just one possible outcome to this battle between old and young and in the timeless tradition of youth they were already shoveling dirt on the grave long before the body was even in the ground.


(Visit the Artist page of Marvin Phillips for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)