In 1976, blues rock group George Thorogood & The Destroyers released its self-titled debut album, featuring tracks written by Thorogood, and covers of classics by artists such as Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker (most notably “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” which is still a fan favorite at Thorogood concerts.) That album, which later received Gold certification in the U.S., put Thorogood and his band on the map and led to a tour in which the group opened for The Rolling Stones and received international attention. Though it’s nearly forty years since he first stepped foot on stage, George Thorogood’s career is still fueled by the burning passion for his craft and the unrelenting desire to succeed that he’s had since he started out.
Despite having sold over 15 million records, and having two of his 16 studio albums certified platinum, and six more with gold certification, Thorogood takes nothing for granted. He treats success as something that can disappear overnight if he gives anything less than perfection both on stage and off. Even his own talent is minimized in his eyes, never trusting that what he accomplished “last night” will be a sure thing at the next show.
At 62 years old, the Delaware native still keeps an aggressive touring schedule, whether it’s headlining his own shows backed by the Destroyers or joining other artists on tours and standalone shows.
In an exclusive interview in his trailer before a concert in London, Ontario where he was opening for the Steve Miller Band, Thorogood candidly expresses his own struggles as an artist and businessman, as well as some breaks that he’s gotten along the way.
A conversation with George Thorogood is an interesting experience. Between detailed baseball metaphors (unfortunately lost on me,) sudden transitions between first person, second person and third person linguistics and the occasional F-bomb, his sense of humor more often takes form at his own expense than anything else. He frequently quizzes his interviewers on music trivia and even asked permission to address me by my first name.
As he talks about his career, he seems uncomfortable–a refreshing trait–touting his accomplishments, despite how worthy they are of touting. He is more grateful for his success, than he is proud of it, a testament to his attitude towards those he works with, and the fans who have enabled his career to take the track that it has.
“The easiest part of my job is getting on stage and playing. I’m up there, and I’m so happy that all the hard work that carries me to the stage is behind me,” he says. “The work off stage is the toughest part.”
“For me, the party is on stage,” he says. “It’s over in 90 minutes and then it’s shower, meal and bus.”
That mentality is, perhaps, the reason that he is not associated with the ‘sex, drugs, rock and roll’ reputation that most of his contemporaries attained, Thorogood far preferring to focus on the latter of the three categories.
His father, now 98, advised him as a young man “Whenever you get a chance to get out of work, take it,” which dovetailed on advice Thorogood received from his late mother to “Always try to keep yourself in a horizontal position.”
“I’ve never underestimated the value of a good night’s sleep,” he adds. “Do you ever see what animals do when they’re not fucking or eating? They’re sleeping. That’s why they’ve got nine lives.”
From a career perspective, however, down time is nowhere on the rocker’s radar.
“As a working man, I will never relax. It’s just not in my nature. That’s just not me. I’m still under pressure in that if I don’t work good, they’ll fire me.”
Though overstated, his fear of getting the axe drives him to create a product in his performances and records that is tailored to the desires of his audience, not his own wishes as an artist. He strives to understand who his fans really are, and what they want when it comes down to entertainment.
“Before I left home on my last tour, I watched an advertisement for Batman and I thought to myself, ‘George, that’s your competition. That’s your competition this summer, right there.’ Do I look as good as Batman? Can I deliver like that?” he asks, rhetorically.
“The average person can do one thing a year. It’s expensive. Now you’re talking a ticket to see Thorogood is 75 or 80 bucks maybe; 150 bucks for the babysitter if you don’t bring the kids; 90 bucks to fill up the car; parking is another 20 bucks; maybe a couple of beers. You have a $300 evening right there, right off the bat.”
This rudimentary economic understanding of his target audience is humbling for Thorogood, but also forces him to assess his strengths–and weaknesses–as a performer.
“I can’t relax. I can’t go up there and be like Bob Dylan and be a mysterious guy, you know. I can’t lean on my catalogue in a way that a John Fogerty could,” he confesses. “I’m slugging it away. I take my queue from people who are really up there who are still hustling. People like McCartney, Tom Jones, Mick Jagger.”
Beyond being a fan of Paul McCartney’s music, Thorogood also admits to admiring the former Beatle’s attitude towards his work.
“He’s a fucking Beatle and he does everything. He has not changed his approach to show business since 1964. He gets all the PR done. He gets the right interviews–like we’re doing right now,” he says.
Through George Thorogood’s eyes, if someone as successful as Paul McCartney still invests time and energy for self-development and promoting shows and records, someone like George Thorogood has no right to not do the same. He admits that it isn’t always easy work, however.
“Those are the rules. I didn’t make them, but I have to play by them or I’m done,” he says. “If I don’t do a great show, they’ll go see somebody else.”
“They’ll go see Batman,” he says, chuckling.
Despite some criticism over the years for his frequent use of songs written and/or originally performed by other artists on his albums, Thorogood has nothing to prove to anyone but his fans, who like his original music as well as his covers. From Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” to John Lee Hooker’s “House Rent Boogie / One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” to Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?”, Thorogood has taken classics and made them his own as much as he’s produced brilliant originals like “Bad to the Bone” and “I Drink Alone.”
“Every song I’ve ever selected happened for a reason,” he states firmly. “I know what our fans will like. So I like to stick within my perimeter.”
“I have a limited range as a vocalist. I have a high energy style and a unique style of playing guitar. You can say ‘Well, Thorogood never takes any chances’ but it’s because I can’t afford to. Never venture into waters you can’t swim in.”
Despite an energetic and confident style of performance, Thorogood doesn’t take praise for granted.
“People will come up to me and tell me how great I am at everything. I have to say ‘Look, just because I’m good at what I do doesn’t mean I can do everything,’” he says. “Every day I have to try to create the new and improved George Thorogood. I compete with only George Thorogood. I’m going to be better than George Thorogood was last night. That’s the guy I compete with.”
“Never in my life would I think a superstar like this would even known I existed, let alone talk to me,” he says, recounting an encounter he once had with legendary singer-songwriter Lionel Richie. “When we met, we talked on the airplane and he told me how he once told Oprah Winfrey that he sometimes gets anxiety attacks before performing and has to sit down and have some decaffeinated tea to catch his breath before he performs. And Oprah told him, ‘Well, that’s bad.’ and he goes, ‘No, that’s good.’ I told him that often someone–a fan or crew member–will tell me they saw the show and say ‘You were really great last night.’ I go, ‘Yeah, but that was last night.’”
Evolving as an artist also involves keeping up with an evolving world, however. Perhaps more than any other industry, the music business is constantly changing. Since his first album, keeping up with those changes has been one of the most time consuming, but inevitably necessary, aspects of Thorogood’s work.
“Hank Aaron didn’t hit 700 homeruns and 3,000 hits because he didn’t make adjustments. There are new pitchers coming in all the time, and then there are pitchers who finally figure out a way to get him out. You make adjustments constantly. Constantly,” he says.
“We got in with our first album when FM radio was just ready to shut the door, it seemed. It was was on its way out and we got ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer’ in there just in time, and ‘Move It On Over.’ Then gone. What was the next thing? MTV, so I had to get in on that and make good songs as well as make my body look good for music videos and make songs that would work for MTV. Then what came along? Classic rock radio. Then the next thing was the casino theme. We were one of the first rock bands to perform in casinos. Everyone was saying ‘Wow, you’re really a maverick’ or ‘You’re so smart.’ The thing was, we couldn’t get anything else. I couldn’t fill the coliseums like KISS and the Stones did.”
On this tour, Thorogood found himself following David Wilcox and opening for the Steve Miller Band before a rain-soaked-but-still-fricking-excited crowd of 9,000. This isn’t the first time he’s toured with Steve Miller, a man whom he calls “the King of Classic Rock.” Even though George Thorogood & The Destroyers have headlined their own tours in the past, internationally, Thorogood doesn’t see it as a step down to be an opening act.
“Do you think for a minute that Pete Rose would mind an all-star game leading off when he knew Willie Mays was batting cleanup? Would you complain about being in a movie with Marlon Brando because you’re not the headliner? Who am I opening for? The Rolling Stones. Steve Miller.”
“It’s better to be a stooge in Heaven than a king in Hell,” Thorogood said.
Moments later, George Thorogood takes the stage before thousands of screaming fans. All of the insecurities he experiences that he so candidly revealed don’t hinder his ability to perform, however. From the very first note, it’s clear that every struggle, every challenge, and every ounce of self-applied pressure to succeed is the very fuel that powers him.