“Thee Mad Dogs, thee Engleeshmen and Joe Cockair….”
Crookes lad Joe Cocker was always more comfortable interpreting others songs rather than composing his own originals. None of his hits have been self penned and most casual fans would struggle to name one song that Cocker has written (I know I do). That said Cocker has always been able to choose his material well, covering works by Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in his prime. If these cover versions weren’t always an improvement on the originals (despite several attempts he has never managed to top a Randy Newman original), they were at least different enough for Cocker to put his own unique stamp on it. On occassion though Cocker got it unarguably right, so much so that his versions of “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “Honky Tonk Women” are definitive.
As good as Cocker could be in the studio, his strength has always been in live performance, so much so that he was one of the undisputed highlights of The Woodstock Festival. In that respect Mad Dogs and Englishmen is the definitive Joe Cocker album, capturing him quickly after his first flush of success at a time when he was genuinely huge concert draw in America. Circumstances beyond his control had resulted in Cocker being forced into an insane touring schedule which lasted eight weeks and took in just about every major city in America. The trouble was he had no band at the time, something pretty vital when it comes to live performance. It was Leon Russell that came to Cocker’s rescue, offering to form a loose touring band to accompany Cocker through the eight week jaunt. Instead of the usual guitar / bass / drums / piano line up that Cocker probably expected, Russell amassed a huge band which included no less than three drummers, two percussionists and a ten piece choir and this massive extended family went on the road.
The huge size of the band results in a gospel-blues-rock hybrid, which is both groovesome and exciting while simultaeneously being a little unwieldly. Egos got in the way as well, with Leon Russell trying to usurp Cocker as the star of the show. It’s a minor miracle that Mad Dogs & Englishmen turned out as good as it did. Storming versions of “Cry Me A River”, “Girl From The North Country” and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” are among the highlights, though when the band starts winding up the gig with “Space Captain” and “The Letter” they manage to eclipse much of what has gone before.
Of course, this being the early 70s there are moments of questionable indulgence, such as the over-long “Blue Medley” and a whole lot of soloing for the sake of soloing and various members of the band battling for supremacy through the chaos. When the band do manage to pull in the same direction, such as the glorious rave-ups of “Give Peace A Chance” and “Delta Lady”, it’s a thing of wonder.
This tour was blighted by the entire band over-indulging in the rock and roll lifestyle and it left a lot of destruction in its wake. Cocker would spend much of the next decade recovering. In recent years though, the gospel rock of The Mad Dogs & Englishmen band has influenced the likes of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (particularly their Abbatoir Blues album) and a number of other acts.
Though no one new it at the time, Mad Dogs & Englishmen pretty much invented big-band rock.