Live at the Star-Club, Hamburg
Words cannot describe -- cannot contain -- the performance captured on Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, an album that contains the very essence of rock & roll. When Jerry Lee Lewis performed the concert that became this album in the spring of 1964, his career was at its lowest point. Following his scandalous marriage to his teenage cousin, he was virtually blacklisted in the U.S., and by 1964 it had been six years since he had a real hit single, he was starting his recording career again with a new label, and, to make matters worse, America had fallen in love with the Beatles and the bands that followed in the British Invasion, leaving him exiled from the charts. Ironically, he wound up in the Beatles' old haunt of the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, in the spring of 1964, backed by the Nashville Teens, who still had yet to have a hit with "Tobacco Road" (which would scale the charts later that year). Lewis and the Nashville Teens had been touring throughout the group's native England for about a month, capped off by a stint at the Star Club, where the band played for two weeks, but was only joined by the Killer for one night, which was what was captured on this incendiary recording. Who knows why this was a night where everything exploded for Jerry Lee Lewis? It sounds like all of his rage at not being the accepted king of rock & roll surfaced that night, but that probably wasn't a conscious decision on his part -- maybe the stars were aligned right, or perhaps he just was in a particularly nasty mood. Or maybe this is the way he sounded on an average night in 1964.
In any case, Live at the Star Club is extraordinary -- the purest, hardest rock & roll ever committed to record. It starts with the Killer launching into "Mean Woman Blues" at a tempo far faster than the band is prepared for, and he never, ever lets go from that moment forward. He pounds the piano into submission, sings himself hoarse, berates the band ("What'd I Say, Pt. 2" has him yelling at a Nashville Teen to "play that thing right, boy!"), increases the tempo on each song, and joins in with the audience chanting his name. It's a crazed, unhinged performance, with the Nashville Teens running wild to follow his lead, and it's a great testament to the bandmembers that they nearly manage to keep up with him. One of the profound pleasures of this record is hearing the band try to run with Jerry Lee, which is exceeded only by the sheer dementia of the Killer's performance; he sounds possessed, hitting the keys so hard it sounds like they'll break, and rocking harder than anybody had before or since. Compared to this, thrash metal sounds tame, the Stooges sound constrained, hardcore punk seems neutered, and the Sex Pistols sound like wimps. Rock & roll is about the fire in the performance, and nothing sounds as fiery as this; nothing hits as hard or sounds as loud, either. It is no stretch to call this the greatest live album ever, nor is it a stretch to call it the greatest rock & roll album ever recorded. Even so, words can't describe the music here -- it truly has to be heard to be believed. [The Bear Family issue of Live at the Star Club includes one bonus track, a version of "Down the Line" that is marred by subpar fidelity, including Jerry Lee singing partially off mike -- it maintains the high quality of the rest of the record, but only fanatics need seek this edition out if they can easily obtain Rhino's domestic pressing.]