Roll Over, Beethoven

Chuck Berry, besides all of his other notable achievements, wrote the unifying mission statement of rock’n’roll. Or as close to one as anyone’s ever gotten. He announced the arrival of a new culture, a new generational movement. I hate it when writers resort to those awful words, but, really, he “Changed The World Forever.” (Duh-duh-duh-DUHM!) Popular music and culture have mutated into unrecognizable shapes since Chuck Berry’s day, but the purpose of youth culture is still to shake off the old status quo. The spirit of making the old guard roll over in their graves doesn’t change with the generations. Chuck Berry himself is in his grave now, and he may well be tossing and turning over what the A$AP crew’s up to. But I’d like to think he’s at least getting a little chuckle, looking back at his legacy and the culture he helped create.

Rock and Roll Music

The Beatles recorded quite a few covers early in their career, and it always felt like it was a bit beneath them. Those guys could write mega-hits in their sleep, sometimes literally. The Beatles doing other people’s material is like Rene Redzepi busting open a box of Easy Mac. Even when the original writer is a luminary such as Chuck Berry. I’m in no way comparing the quality of Chuck Berry’s songwriting to a boxed macaroni product. If Chuck Berry’ music was a food item, it would be something deceptively simple and invigorating, like a perfectly grilled steak. However, master songwriters don’t need to lean on material that’s not exactly up to their own level of sophistication. The Beatles in 1966 were way past writing three chord rock songs about the joys of rocking, as was Chuck Berry himself. None of which really detracts much from the basic fun of a basic song about dancing, just as most us never stop enjoying Easy Mac.

 

No Particular Place to Go

This is a relic of another time. Sure, of course Chuck Berry’s DNA is in nearly every strand of popular music. That basically can’t be overstated. But this song belongs to its time, a time when pop music could encompass nothing deeper than the innocent, inherently adolescent and particularly American joys of cruising down the open road and cuddling with your sweetheart. This was in 1964, and Berry’s acolytes were already hard at work breaking those thematic limitations wide open. Soon rock music would become a respectable art form, and songs about riding around in cars would come to seem hopelessly inane. But to view it in context, there’s a reason so many of Berry’s songs appear lyrically shallow and confined to dumb topics like cars and dating. Chuck Berry was one of the most popular black artists of his time, and he achieved that by not sounding too black. He helped integrate the market with hit songs that charted outside the ‘race music’ demographic, and it was partly because on the radio, he sounded white. And it still holds true today that if a black artist wants real mainstream popularity, they have to scrub their work clean of any uncomfortable references to the true reality of their lives, leaving them with not much to sing about except cars and dating. While the censorship is less explicitly pronounced now, we still see that politically outspoken artists experience harsh backlash; witness the hordes who rushed in to call Beyonce the N-word on Twitter because she chose to perform a socially conscious song at the Superbowl instead of an inane one. So what we see in Chuck Berry’s performance isn’t really the lightheartedness of a more innocent time. We see an artist forced to work within very narrow confines of acceptability.

Maybellene

Chuck Berry is a huge fan of ladies’ makeup products, and that’s why he wrote a song shilling for the Maybellene cosmetic company. The end. No. Chuck Berry was such a huge fan of Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys that he just had to rip off their song Ida Red. Because if there’s one problem with American pop culture, it’s black people always stealing ideas from men who wear cowboy hats. *sarcasm* Actually, it’s a little bit of both. Berry was inspired by Wills’ tune. He often covered it in concert, and even wanted to record his own version, until Chess Records’ Leonard Chess dismissed it as ‘too rural’. It was Chess who had the idea to market “a hillbilly song sung by a black man.” Thus Berry’s signature sound was born; designed to crib from the blues for black appeal, and ‘hillbilly’ country for white appeal. And, yes, he totally lifted the name Maybellene from the cosmetics manufacturer, if you were wondering which came first.

Johnny B. Goode

This song is so classic it’s like one of those primordial sea creatures that every branch of life evolved from. Only with rock’n’roll and the evolution only took a few years. People – a lot of ’em – have built entire careers out of mimicking Chuck Berry’s riffs. Then younger people mimicked those people, and then the next generation mimicked them, to the point where half of them don’t even know what they’re mimicking anymore. How many young ‘uns don’t even realize that the basic structure of a rock’n’roll song hasn’t just always existed in the ether, that it came from somewhere and that somewhere was Chuck Berry’s noggin? Meanwhile, old Chuck keeps a’rockin’ and he’s outlived a fair number of his acolytes. It’s unfortunate that apparently the legend is not a very nice guy in real life, so much so, that even his Number One Fan Keith Richards can’t pen a blurb for Rolling Stone magazine without lamenting what an asshole the dude turned out to be. Bummer. The old perv got busted for having surveillance cameras in the ladies’ room of his restaurant, for Pete’s sake! Not that being a creep in real life should discourage anyone from enjoying his music or anything, but if that makes you somewhat lose respect for Chuck Berry, I don’t blame you. For myself, in this particular instance, I honestly prefer listening to Peter Tosh’s version of Johnny B. Goode.

Around And Around

In 1964, the Stones come to deflower the youth of America. Here we see vintage concert footage along with a typical inane interview. In the days before stars hired camera crews to record every sneeze for posterity, few performances were filmed. TV appearances have survived, showing bands with unplugged equipment lip synching in front of a lurid set. Unfortunately raw concert footage is more rare, so we have to imagine the full force of the fierce young Stones. This is a nice look at the early days. Mick looks adorable and sexy. He would be about 21 here, Keith probably not even that yet. Near the beginning, a fan says that the Stones have more sex appeal than the Beatles. That was the perception. Ironically, it was the Beatles  who were the depraved drug fiends, while the Stones were good middle class mummy’s boys who’d never been abroad. The Beatles were more working class, and they’d done their notorius stint in Hamburg, where they learned about speed, whores and existentialism.

This is a song by Chuck Berry. Berry’s catalogue was mined hard by the Rolling Stones.  Their version is extemely faithfull to the original. Keith Richards for one, put a lot of effort into emulating Berry, and the influence was never  lost. I put the Stones version first not because it’s better, but because it’s the Stones. When Mick Jagger was busy debating whether or not 25 was too old to rock’n’roll, Chuck Berry was out there playing his songs just as he always had (except those times when he was in jail), and he’s never stopped rocking. Chuck Berry will rock until the day he dies.