The Meaning Behind “Howlin’ for You” by The Black Keys and How the Magic of Muscle Shoals Helped Produce a Modern Classic

The Black Keys’ “Howlin’ for You” is part of their 2010 album Brothers, which lifted the Akron, Ohio, garage rock duo out of the underground and into the mainstream.

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By the time The Black Keys began working with producer Danger Mouse on Attack & Release in 2008, they had exhausted the trad-blues limitations of two-person garage rock. The album wasn’t exactly a reinvention but a rejuvenation.

Still, Attack & Release sounded like a transition album. Danger Mouse added much-needed vivid textures, but the boys weren’t ready to leave the garage just yet. Until Brothers.

Brothers is a masterpiece, and “Howlin’ for You” is a swaggering album (and band) highlight.

Echoing Howlin’ Wolf

The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach is smitten with a woman on “Howlin’ for You,” while Patrick Carney’s Gary Glitter-inspired drum groove pushes him along. You’ve heard Glitter’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll (Part 2)” if you’ve spent time at a major sporting event. (It’s the one playing when “Seven Nation Army” isn’t.)

I must admit I can’t explain
Any of these thoughts racin’ through my brain
It’s true
But, baby, I’m howlin’ for you
There’s something wrong with this plot
The actors here have not got
A clue
Baby, I’m howlin’ for you

During the second verse, Auerbach uses a baseball reference as he’s close to striking out with this girl. The song’s groove has an old Chicago blues feel that echoes Howlin’ Wolf. The Black Keys land on a wordless hook singing, Da, da, da, da, da.

Mockingbird, can’t you see?
Little girl’s got a hold on me
Like glue
Baby, I’m howlin’ for you
Throw the ball to the stick
Swing and miss and a catcher’s mitt
Strike two
Baby, I’m howlin’ for you

More Bass

“Howlin’ for You” is the second single from Brothers. The duo produced their sixth album with Mark Neill; Danger Mouse produced “Tighten Up.”

Auerbach and Neill worked together on the singer’s first solo album, Keep It Hid (2009). Then Auerbach returned with Carney to Neill’s studio in La Mesa, California, to begin work on Brothers.

Auerbach’s slippery bass playing drives the album. He used Neill’s Rickenbacker bass on the recordings, and the album showcases some of Carney’s finest playing.

The Magic of Muscle Shoals

The band wanted to add Southern flavor to the recordings, and they discussed recording at Sun Studio or Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis. They also considered working at Robin Hood Studios in Tyler, Texas, before deciding on Muscle Shoals Sound in Sheffield, Alabama. Muscle Shoals is well-known for iconic albums by The Staple Singers, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among others.

But 30 years passed since Muscle Shoals Sound’s last album session, and all the legendary gear was long gone. So Neill booked the room and hauled his vintage recording equipment 2,000 miles from California to Alabama. The band essentially rented a building with a bathroom and air conditioning.

Neill said he instantly noticed the magic of the classic Muscle Shoals recordings during the makeshift sessions. The well-designed room emphasized Carney’s kick drum and Auerbach’s bass. Unlike previous Black Keys albums, the duo tracked drums and bass first instead of drums and guitar.

The band arranged songs on the spot, and Auerbach would nod in Carney’s direction when the song changed to the next part. Neill kept things simple with mono drums and limiting the sessions to 10 tracks per song—rare in an era of unlimited track counts inside Pro Tools.

Tchad Blake mixed Brothers and added modern processing to the album’s final version.

A Modern Classic

Brothers was a commercial breakthrough for The Black Keys. “Howlin’ for You” is certified Platinum, and the album reached 2x Platinum status in 2018. The Black Keys also won three Grammy Awards for Brothers, including Best Alternative Music Album.

Meanwhile, the album reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart. “Howlin’ for You” became a defining song for The Black Keys and is widely regarded as one of their best.

Though The Black Keys recorded Brothers using vintage gear—in a recording studio that had become a museum—the result is surprisingly hi-fi. The band had finally evolved outside the Flat Duo Jets- and White Stripes-type garage rock.

Rather than using vintage sounds to sound old, The Black Keys took old sounds and pushed them into the future.

Sexploitation Video

Chris Marrs Piliero directed the music video for “Howlin’ for You” using a parody of low-budget sexploitation films from the early 1970s. The video features Alexa Wolf, a “sexy assassin with a troubled past.”

The video acts like a movie premiere starring Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach as Las Teclas de Negro.

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Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for LOVE ROCKS NYC/God’s Love We Deliver

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