Once upon a time, in Memphis, Tennessee, there were a couple of brothers, Dorsey and Johnny Burnette. They grew up near Elvis and played the same jumbled Mississippi driftwood music: country, blues, boogie music that was like the covers of 1950s dime-store paperbacks and comic books, colorful and lurid.
The Alvin brothers were the early '80s equivalent of the Burnettes. Phil and Dave Alvin, who grew up in funky Downey, California, listened to blues, rockabilly, R&B, Mexican stuff coming from East L.A. to the north, and a dollop or two of Merle and Buck-flavored country to the far northeast. All of these earth-tone sounds were ground up, spiced, and stuffed into a sonic empanada called the Blasters.
Dave wrote the originals, Phil sang; the brothers did the guitar and harmonica playing, while Bill Bateman and John Bazz handled the drums and bass, respectively. On a semi-permanent basis were pianist Gene Taylor and sax players Steve Berlin and Lee Allen, who was Little Richard's sideman throughout the '50s and one of the band's primary mentors.
The more they played out, the hotter they got, and L.A.'s punks welcomed them into the world of X, the Adolescents, TSOL, the Circle Jerks, Black Flag and others. They cut a great first album, American Music, on Rollin' Rock (rereleased on HighTone), which was a black-and-white hand-held version of their next, more colorful, record on Slash/Warners, simply titled The Blasters.
People remember the band mostly for its dual-exhaust anthems from that first Slash release: "Marie Marie," "American Music," a cover of Little Willie John's "I'm Shakin'." But the Blasters were not mere rockabilly revivalists -- the Alvins' labor-organizer father gave them field lessons on privilege and poverty, which found its way into Dave's poetry on their second and third albums.
The magic fueled by the alchemical Alvins eventually soured because of good, old-fashioned sibling acrimony, not unlike the Kinks, the Everlys, and others. But for a few years and a handful of fantastic records -- documented by this two-CD compilation -- the Blasters were the very essence of high-octane Americana, and their music, like the Burnettes and the Everlys before them, sounds every bit as good now as it did then. Testament offers a reminder that while the punk scene imploded, and the pop-synth bands marched in their merry parade, the Blasters stayed true blue until they were blue in the face.
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