Diesel has always been one of Australia's finest blues-rock guitarists and vocalists. The one and only album by Johnny Diesel & The Injectors revealed a Hendrix-inspired, gutsy, high-energy performer who appreciated the subtleties as well as the extravagances of a century’s worth of blues and soul history. As Diesel and under his real name, Mark Lizotte, he's flirted with other styles since, but there have always been elements of blues and soul to his work.
The newly released Under The Influence is not strictly a blues album, but its selection of cover songs (along with three original guitar instrumentals) is certainly informed by this history. The album traces its lineage to a series of gigs at the Basement in Sydney. "We did a couple of nights there and the whole premise was I was going to pick three artists and then link those artists with my own songs, to show the influences, basically," Diesel says. Series two was expanded into a couple of shows up at his brother's Newcastle venue, Lizotte's. "Series one was Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Otis Redding. Series two was "Al Green, the three Kings – BB King, Freddie King and Albert King – and Bob Dylan. So it was a bit of songwriting influence, guitar influence, singing. I didn't want to just do guitar influences. I wanted to just encapsulate everything. I guess it's very 60s and 70s if you look at it like that, but those are the eras that I grew up fascinated with."
Not long after the shows there was talk about making an album incorporating many of the tracks played at the shows. "There's a bit of everything in there," Diesel says. "Even though I didn't do a Billy Gibbons/ZZ Top song, I think there are elements that hint towards that. There are all sorts of little tangents that happen through the record. Something like Link Wray to Hendrix to Neil Young's ‘Cinnamon Girl,’ that's the type of guitar playing that I really love."
Aside from the influence of Hendrix on Diesel's guitar playing, the voodoo child's songwriting itself was also a factor. "I think the songwriting was really fresh and really strong," Diesel says. "People will always marvel at his guitar playing but his songwriting was just incredible. The way he would fit concepts and ideas together. And they're really beautiful to play." In fact, the Under The Influence version of Jimi's ‘Spanish Castle Magic’ features horns, a big liberty but one which the artist felt was in the spirit of the inspiration's musical adventurousness. "Hendrix might have gone into that terrain, the period of superfunk mixed with rock. It's such a shame that Hendrix didn't get to hear Stevie Wonder's Innervisions. It would have blown his mind."
But the album isn't all guitar virtuosos in the technical sense. It features a cover of Link Wray's legendary "Rumble," a simple but aggressive classic from the mid 50s. "I hate to admit that that song's something I missed. I guess people know him as the really ferocious punkabilly jagged edge guy, but songs like ‘My Alberta’, which is like a Peter Greene ‘Albatross’ sort of vibe, really show that he had this really tender, liquid sort of mellow tone he could do as well. But that track to me, it's Malcolm Young! It's everyone that's ever hit a big power chord with teeth on it." In fact, those teeth were so razor-sharp that the song actually got banned back in the day – despite having no lyrics! "It's rebellion in audio! It's a bit like that Back To The Future scene when he does the Chuck Berry thing and they think he's evil."
The version of Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl" eschews that song's famous one-note guitar solo in favour of a solo that pays tribute to the original while adding melody and movement. It's an issue that anyone who has ever covered the song has struggled with: do you play that solo as recorded, or take it somewhere else? "That's the singing part of me," Diesel explains. "Even for guitar players who aren't singers there's often a singer inside them and they sing with their instrument. I've always had more of a singing approach, and if I was going to sing that solo, that's what I'd go for. The one-note thing is beautiful but I just wanted to take it a little bit up and swim around a bit. I'm sure there's someone somewhere that just went "Sacrilege! Burn him! Heretic!" But I just wanted to give these songs the royal treatment."
BY PETER HODGSON
Under The Influence is out now through Liberation. Diesel will play the Regent Theatre in Ballarat on Thursday September 22, The Palms at Crown on Friday September 23 and the Gateway Hotel in Geelong on Saturday September 24.