I: The Title Track
Living in a houseboat is just one of those goals of mine that I probably won’t ever get to accomplish. Listening to “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is probably the closest I’ll ever come.
It’s one of the greatest songs of all time, right? Like if you don’t like it, you’re probably a pretty uptight and non-joyful person. What would be the point of disliking such a simple, joyful song? Nobody’s going to think you’re cool for not liking “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. They’re just going to think there’s something sort of broken inside you, and they’ll feel pity that you are unable to appreciate such a simple pleasure. It’s for everybody, from fans of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” to fans of Emperor’s “I Am the Black Wizards”. (I’m a fan of both, so maybe they’re bad examples.)
It reminds me a little bit of one of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s top shelf tracks, and I don’t just mean sonically, although there is a slight resemblance. What I really mean is, doesn’t it kind of feel like John Fogerty didn’t write “Proud Mary”? It feels more like “Proud Mary” always existed, and Fogerty tapped into the geist and discovered it, or it was born with the United States, and dictated to him in a dream by the ghost of Mark Twain, or something. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is just about on that level.
It’s also just one of the towering achievements of ’60s music, one of the (legitimate) reasons the decade still looms so large in music history. It sits up there with Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and “Okee from Muskogee” in terms of its significance as a cultural shorthand for its time period. And it’s innovative too: by merging folk-rock and soul, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” basically invents Bill Withers’ whole career.
Any time someone writes about The Dock of the Bay (the album), they tend to focus on the context of the its release, how “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was supposed to be the starting point for a new phase of Otis Redding’s career. It was a great, forward-thinking song, but its merger of hippie-friendly folk and soul was also potentially a very fertile marketing strategy to expand Redding’s audience; following his famous 1967 performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, dude was making serious inroads with the acid rock crowd. And although “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” might not seem super psychedelic on the surface, a lot of the psychedelic rock of the time had roots in the folk-rock boom of 1965-66. (For example, see how quickly The Byrds went from Bob Dylan covers to the drug references and John Coltrane-aping guitar solo of “Eight Miles High,” or the fact that members of The Grateful Dead had roots in jug bands and bluegrass.) And even as Redding looks back to the sounds of a couple years before, the laid back vibes and acoustic rhythm guitar on “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” also anticipate the pastoral shift in countercultural tastes that would occur around 1970 when Crosby, Stills and Nash blew up and brought the singer-songwriters of the ’70s with them. It also helps that “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is set in San Fransisco, which was hippie (and houseboat) central.
The coup-de-grace for Redding should have been The Dock of the Bay (the album), which, had he not died, likely would have traveled further down the chill folk-soul road its title track paved, and turned Redding into a pan-demographic star.
II: The Rest of the Stuff
I didn’t want to waste that many words on context, but I think it’s important to note that The Dock of the Bay (the album), as it was released, isn’t the tonally unified thing it could have been; instead, it’s a collection of odds-and-ends compiled by Steve Cropper, Redding’s guitarist and often songwriting partner. The songs date back as far as 1965, I think. So it opens with the absolute cutting edge and then goes backward. In a fashion that’s more early ’60s than late ’60s, The Dock of the Bay is an album that anchors one dynamite single with some other material that was lying around from other sessions; everything after “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is just extra. But the album is still regarded as a classic because Cropper was pretty discerning in the stuff he added to the tracklist. It was stuff that deserved release on a full-length, and stuff that showed different sides of Otis Redding well.
So how do I feel the rest of the tracklist? For me, the main draw here is the drums. I can’t confirm because Wikipedia doesn’t offer detailed personnel information on the album, but I’m fairly certain most of the drums on the album are played by Al Jackson, Jr., who was the drummer for Stax Records’ house band Booker T. and the MGs, and who is also, it should be noted, a fucking gem in the recorded history of the drum set. (Aside: Jackson also supplied the deeeeeep backbeats on most of the songs on Al Green’s 1972 album I’m Still In Love With You, which is possibly my favorite album to practice along to.)
My favorite drum moment on the album is the groove on “Let Me Come On Home,” where you’ve got this snare pounding on all four beats that sort of serves as an anchor for the band. It’s the kind of beat that got used on a lot of Motown songs too, but the Stax band (aka the MG’s) play with more grit. What I especially like about it is the way the drummer still wallops the two and the four way more than one and three (even though he’s hitting on all four), creating kind of an ambiguous feel to the beat.
The snap of the drum groove on “Tramp”is probably the only thing I really like about the song, which is otherwise a clear throwaway. “Tramp” and “The Huckle Buck” are both weird nonsense songs, but I have a lot more appreciation for “The Huckle Buck,” the way it degenerates into almost sub-verbal grunting.
“The Glory of Love” should be the weakest thing here: for the first minute and half of its brief runtime, it’s a bald-faced retread of “Try a Little Tenderness”. The drummer even mimics the two-bars early-entrance of the drums on “…Tenderness”. But then the song lurches into a weird, polyrhythmic groove and redeems itself completely, feeling more like a true sequel than a mere retread.
The only song I think comes close to the title track in quality of composition is “Don’t Mess With Cupid”; on the album’s other standouts it’s often Redding’s monster voice and personality, and the tight band, which elevate the material. “Don’t Mess With Cupid,” on the other hand, has a great hook and a nice little guitar intro. It’s a pop song.
To the credit of its compiler Cropper, I think the albums a whole plays better than the sum of its parts. It showcases and celebrates the facets Redding’s talent, and in that way even its flaws become endearing for the complete portrait of the man they help paint.
Verdict: Redding absolutely wails, and Jackson Jr. (I think) keeps the band in the pocket. Steve Cropper doesn’t really shred, but he is a great guitarist, and he supplies some tasty licks.