Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Chuck Berry cover versions are the best of their kind - here's my Top Ten

What’s always driven Chuck Berry fans mad is his apparent lack of regard for his own music. Dave Edmunds was once approached to produce a new album for the legend, but refused on the grounds that he didn’t want to waste his time on someone who seemed happy to slaughter his own classics live on stage. (The way Berry ignored the fact there were no guitar breaks on the recording of "Let It Rock" really annoyed Edmunds.) 

 Somewhere along the line, our Chuck decided that he was a vaudeville entertainer rather than the composer and performer of some of the greatest and most influential records of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era. (In the “Musical Taste” page at the top of this blog, I nominate him as my favourite all-time Rock ‘n’ Roll artist.) Unfortunately, his belief that duck-walks, tenth-rate pick-up bands and sloppy guitar-playing were a suitable way to treat his stupendous legacy was no doubt strengthened by the fact that his worst record, the truly abysmal “My Ding-a-Ling”, became his only British Number One in 1970 (given its quality, a more fitting position would have been Number Twos).

But if Chuck wasn’t that respectful towards his own stuff, a whole host of 1960s rockers – especially here in the UK - were only too happy to keep the flame alive. Although Berry often seemed convinced that he was somehow being ripped off by all these young white boys, they were in fact adding lustre to a legend that its creator seemed happy to let fall into ruin.

Berry’s songs have produced more truly great cover versions than any other rock artist. Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis covers almost invariably sound so pathetic in comparison to the originals as to make the process seems pointless. No one is ever going to do a version of “Great Balls of Fire” or “Keep a Knocking” that won’t have us begging them to stop after four bars. But there’s something about Berry’s songs that brings the best out of many of those who’ve been influenced by them.

It may partly be because his voice – while undeniably great - is lighter and less “black” or Southern than other rock ‘n’ roll giants of that era (no wonder many American radio stations at the time assumed he was white). His diction is astonishly clear, his voice sounds like that of a young man, and the lyrics are often written from the perspective of a teenager. The likes of Bo Diddley and Carl Perkins always sounded like men – Berry’s age is indistinct, and his persona is less threatening, less adult. White kids can sing “The Promised Land” without sounding silly: a nineteen-year old from Twickenham singing “Smokestack Lightnin’” or "I'm a Man" is always going to sound faintly silly.

The true engine of Berry’s records is, of course, his guitar-playing – and it’s not that hard to replicate. In fact his whole sound, complete with Johnny Johnson’s , tinkly piano, isn’t that hard to simulate (which is why, I presume, Berry has been able to spend most of his career on tour being backed by rubbish bands without the audience running him out of town).

For whatever reason, many performers can take a Berry song and invest it with their own personality. The best Berry interpreters, to this day, are the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards in particular) and Dave Edmunds – two propulsively rhythmic guitar players. Here are my top ten Berry covers, in no particular order – except that I’ll start with my two favourites:

Johnnie Allan’s Cajun version of “Promised Land” is the best of all the studio covers. I know this is sacrilegious, but I think it’s better than the original:

The Rolling Stones version of “Little Queenie” from their 1970 live album is wonderful – as Mick Jagger remarks later on, “Charlie’s good tonight, inne?”

The best studio cover of “Little Queenie” is Jerry Lee Lewis’s: inevitably, he makes it sound entiurely his own.

Elvis did a slew of Berry covers – my favourite is “Memphis, Tennessee”

“Route 66” isn’t a Chuck Berry song, but his version is the one The Stones covered on their first album.

Handclaps are also the order of the day in The Beatles’ version of “Roll Over Beethoven” off the With the Beatles LP.

Buddy Holly’s rockabilly take on “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is simply a delight.

Hard to say which is Dave Edmunds’s finest homage to Berry – but it’s probably the version of the slightly obscure “Oh What a Thrill” he cut as part of Rockpile.. I’m also very fond of his take on very obscure “Dear Dad”.

I've always had a soft spot for two-hit wonders The Steve Gibbons Band's 1977 version of "Tulane".

Finally, Emmy-Lou Harris and her Hot Band did a lovely “You Never Can Tell” – nice to hear a convincing Country Rock take for once.

Of course, where some have succeeded, many have failed. Dismally. Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, AC/DC and the Grateful Dead – even John Lennon doing “Sweet Little Sixteen” on His Rock ‘n’ Roll album – have got it terribly, dreadfully wrong.

But I’d prefer to end on a positive note, with some examples of artists who’ve pulled off the feat of writing in the Berry style without embarrassing themselves.

First, there’s Bob Seger’s classic “Get Out of Denver” – pastiche, homage, rip-off, who knows? The important thing is, it’s great. 

Famously, the Beach Boys were successfully sued by Berry for ripping off “Sweet Little Sixteen” with “Surfin’ USA”. But “Fun, Fun, Fun” owes almost as much to Berry, musically – although he wouldn’t have including the harmony wee-ooing at the end, obviously. 

Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” has always struck me as owing something to “You Never Can Tell”. 

I’ll end with an oddity - “Big Berry (Boss Man Guitar)” - an early and rather peculiar Berry tribute by Big Daddy G. Doesn’t sound much like Chuck Berry, apart from some of the guitar riffs, but it has wormed its way into my subconscious,


  1. Sir Chucklesworth Berry17 November 2011 at 16:18

    It is a matter of some regret to me that I;ve never been covered by that master of the form Rolf Harris who I know you admire...his versions of Stairway to heaven, Bohemian Rhapsody, Walk On The Wild Side and his version of the Divinyls I Touch Myself - are far superior to the originals

  2. You are spot on about Johnnie Allan. The clunky interplay between the Cajun style accordion and the rock and roll band just adds to the charm.

    So nice to hear that Sir Chucklesworth is getting on with his life, going forward, after his hole in the motel bathroom wall misunderstanding with US law enforcement. Lucky it wasn't Kent State militia. As to Rolf, all I can say is"Doom dumma yip yip, sham shoola Dum alum, anthrax a dolola shoola" doesn't fit too well with "Maybellene." See previous Rolf-related posts.

  3. I know this is going to be hard to believe, Sir Chucklesworth, but when I first heard the Rolf Harris version of "Stairway to Heaven" in the early 1990s, I had never knowingly heard the original. I had been so appalled by the vogue for Led Zeppelin's second album (with the deeply dreary "Whole Lotta Love" on it) that I'd always subsequently avoided them like the plague. I'm embarrassed to admit that I now rather like them. Now that I know and love "Stairway to Heaven" (I used to able to play the guitar parts) I appreciate just how funny the Rolf Harris version was. As so often with Rolf - sheer genuis! (And thanks for mentioning his other covers - I was unaware of them.)

  4. As for Johnnie Allan, Ex-KCS, I was so fond of the single I went out and bought the LP on which it appeared - "Louisiana Swamp Fox" - usually a very bad move! But not this time. It contained terrific versions of "Ju Ju Man", "I Knew the Bride" and a lovely song called "South to Louisiana". I still treasure the LP. Allan's real name was John Allen Guillot. He has two books to his name - a history of South louisiana music and a biography of a Cajun musician. No dope, evidently.

  5. Yes, Chuck was one of the greats. I remember seeing a documentary about him and Keith Richards and Keef' was terrified throughout. I wish I could find it. I hesitate to intrude into the arcane world of your dialogues about popular music [flying Gibsons etc], but why do you never mention one of the great bands - Sam the Sham and the Pharaos ["Wooly Bully"] who were inspired by that great British act - Wilson Keppel and Betty?

  6. I'm sorry! You quite like Led Zeppelin, after all the ridicule you poured on them at the time? I'm now looking forward to your Picketywitch retrospective.

  7. SDG, poor old Keith Richards was in charge of putting together the 60th birthday Chuck Berry concert which forms the centrepiece of Taylor Hackford's documentary, "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll". The worst altercation between the two (well, it consists of Berry behaving like a five-year old and Keith Richards being adult) can be seen here:
    Shame that someone as talented as Berry - no matter how seedy his myriad peccadilloes - should have allowed himself to be eaten up with resentment against the white kids who massively boosted his moribund career and never stopped giving him the credit for their early success. There's a great morality tale in the Chuck Berry story - and it'll make a great film when he finally pops his clogs. I expect God's keeping Berry alive so He won't have to listen to him whingeing about what a lousy life he had! (Sorry, Sir Chucklesworth - I adore your music, but you really aren't a very admirable person.)

  8. Yes, yes, I know, EX-KCS - but hobgoblins and little minds etc. I really loathed that second album and got absolutely sick of everyone playing it all the time. And, at the time, their music sounded lumpy and crude - and what they did to old rock 'n' roll standards ons tage was borderline criminal. I only eventually got into them when I heard their early version of Joan Baez's "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" and liked the folk influence. I subsequently discovered that III and IV were ten times as good as II. I still find Roger Plant's ferret-down-his-trousers eunuch shrieking voice hard to take in anything but small doses, but I've come to admire Jimmy Page's guitar playing (especially now I know he played guitar on Them"s classic "Baby Please Don't Go") - and John Bonham may have been an alcoholic oaf, but I've grown fond of his drum sound. Basically, the more folky they were, the better: the pure cock-rock stuff is still tedious.