Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Farewell, Chuck Berry - the rock 'n' roll giant who never seemed to understand just how great he was

Let's get the non-musical stuff out of the way first. Several commentators have bemoaned the general lack of fuss about Charles Edward Anderson Berry's passing at the age of 90, compared to the oodles of coverage devoted to David Bowie and Lou Reed, etc. Racism has been cited as a possible cause of what they claim was a lack of recognition while he was alive, and the muted reaction to his death. That's silly. First, you'd have to be in your late '50s to have been aware of Chuck Berry in his glory days - roughly, 1955-65. Most working journalists (especially in TV or radio), and most of their audience, simply aren't old enough to have experienced anything but the faint echoes of Berry's immense influence on popular music... 

...Second, he doesn't seem to have been a particularly nice man - leaving aside his spells in prison, and the reasons for them, and his seedy sexual peccadilloes, he seems to have been a prickly, somewhat paranoid loner who was hard to warm to. But being a bit dodgy and ornery doesn't preclude adulation, as long as you're loveable - and Chuck didn't ever give the impression of being loveable. 

Third - and most importantly - he doesn't seem to have appreciated his own musical achievements: in fact, he pretty much spent the last fifty years tarnishing his legacy by disrespecting his own music. It's almost fitting that his only British No.1 should have been a particularly annoying sing-along version of the Dave Bartholomew song, "My Ting-a-Ling". 
Like a lot (probably all) of the early black rock 'n' roll stars,  Berry was mercilessly ripped off. But so were all the white guys - Elvis, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins etc. The difference between them and Chuck was that he was a very clever man (just listen to his lyrics), who, after a few early setbacks, took charge of his own career, and his own money - after which his musical genius, and his understanding of what he had achieved, just shrivelled away.  He was neither lovable nor tragic - a lack of traits he shared with that other financially astute chap, Mick Jagger.

So cut out the maudlin victimhood narrative: Chuck Berry was too much his own man - too tough and too bright - to fit that particular part.
On the to the good stuff, i.e. the music. Some random observations:

1. While Berry went after performers who "borrowed" his music (including the Beach Boys and John Lennon), he was quick to credit his influences - Louis Jordan and Charlie Christian in particular.

2. Berry had three main musical modes. There was the fast, shouty jump blues number with a vast, stomping, dustbin-lid drum thunking down right on the beat (e.g. "Thirty Days", "Maybellene", "Rock and Roll Music", "Roll Over, Beethoven", "Baby Doll"). Next was my own favourite: the slightly slower, quieter number with less obvious percussion playing slightly behind the beat, a more prominent role for Johnnie Johnson's tinkly piano, and a greater dependence on Berry's classic rhythm guitar pattern driving the whole joyful, swaying, swinging engine along (e.g. "Little Queenie", "Johnny B. Goode", "Run Rudoph Run", "Let It Rock", "Oh Carol!",  "Nadine", "You Never Can Tell"). That body of work is right up there with Elvis Presley's Sun recordings as the best rock records of all time. Then comes the playful, sly, more experimental mode: these numbers tend to be more intimate, more sly, more playful, pared back, stopping and starting, loose as a goose - I'm thinking of "Memphis, Tennessee",  "Jo Jo Gunne", "Havana Moon",  "No Money Down", "Sweet Little Sixteen", "Too Much Monkey Business", "Round and Round" etc. I love Mode Three songs too.  It may (or may not) be significant that, in their early days, The Beatles favoured covers of Mode One numbers, while the Rolling Stones favoured Mode Two - and the Beach Boys wound up having to give Berry a writing credit for pinching a Mode Three song for "Surfin' USA".
3. Elvis Presley's and Chuck Berry's starts were pleasingly symmetrical - many white radio stations assumed the voice on Elvis's "That's All Right" was black, while many black radio stations assumed the voice on "Maybelline" was white.  With hindsight, the confusion isn't that surprising: both records combined white and black musical styles, albeit with entirely different results. Elvis - for my money - never really surpassed what he achieved with Bill Black, Scotty Moore and Sam Phillips on those early Sun sides: after creating the Rockabilly musical genre, he went full Rock 'n' Roll when he moved to RCA and became his own producer. Chuck Berry was only getting started with "Maybelline".

4. The other early rockers all "did" religion in one way or another. Berry's father was a Baptist deacon, but the son appears to have given up on faith altogether as an adult: the only reference to religion that I can think of in any of his songs is the early "Downbound Train" (the train is hurtling towards Hell) - it's a great number, but Berry didn't write it.  

5. The other early rockers are so Southern, if you'd cut them they'd probably have bled a mixture of moonshine whiskey and molasses. Certainly, Berry's home state, Missouri, was a slave state - but a quick check online suggests that's it's more Mid West than South, and Berry's home city, St. Louis, is considered the most Northern Southern city, having more in common with, say, Chicago than it does with Memphis. There was an interesting sequence in a rock 'n' roll documentary once which saw Berry chatting with Little Richard (Georgia) and Bo Diddley (Mississippi), and explaining to them the importance of not being robbed blind by record companies: they just wanted to talk about music. There's always been something distinctly Yankee about the abstemious (no-drink, no-drugs) Chuck. 

6. Berry's slightly wary, knowing, buttoned-up musical persona indicated a certain element of control-freakery. Whereas the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard drove their audiences into a frenzy by becoming frenzied themselves - practically speaking in tongues - Berry was always a "showman", a bit of a huckster,  always aware of what he was doing to the audience. In fact, it was his desire to be a showbiz "entertainer" that made him cheapen his music. Me, I adore the music, and couldn't give a toss about that sodding duck walk! I'm with Keith Richards on this issue: it's the music that matters - not all the hokey showbiz nonsense.

7. Berry's classic rhythm guitar style - the most influential in all pop music - should be easy enough to replicate. But trying to capture the sort of rhythmically propulsive effect Berry achieved on his own records is practically impossible. I'm not sure what it is - his technique, his amp settings, the way he holds the pick - but the driving rhythm and the timbre is almost impossible to replicate: many have tried, most have failed dismally. Even a guitar dunce like me can do a convincing Scotty Moore imitation, and a guitar genius like Jeff Beck can recreate the sound and feel of Cliff Gallup - but Chuck Berry tends to defeat duffers and maestros alike. The double stop solo stuff's a doddle - but the basic rhythm part remains elusive. How the hell did he do it? (In fact, the overall sound of those old 45s seems impossible to capture.)
8. We tend to forget that Berry had a great rock 'n' roll voice: clean and high, it could cut through just about anything, and his surprisingly clear enunciation meant you could always make out the generally excellent lyrics. His voice wasn't particularly versatile, and it wasn't built to convey deep emotion - but his songs were the perfect vehicle for it. 

9.  Berry's death leaves Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino as the three surviving undeniable greats of rock 'n' roll. I can understand how Chuck Berry managed to reach 90 - but how in the hell those three (especially The Killer and The Georgia Peach) have made it this far is an absolute mystery. Long may the trio continue to defy time and logic. 

10. Without Elvis, rock and roll wouldn't have conquered the planet. Without Chuck Berry, the British Invasion - the Beatles, the Stones, the Animals, Freddie & the Dreamers (actually, scrub that one) wouldn't have happened. I'm just not sure that Chuck Berry ever quite realised how unique, important and truly great he was. 
It would be impossible to sum up what Chuck Berry's music has meant to me over the fifty-odd years since my best friend and I discovered the joy of those orange and yellow Pye International R&B Series singles and EPs, and my friend bought the 1963 LP, Chuck Berry On Stage - the actual title of the album referred to by Rod Stewart when he wrote this following the announcement of the great man's death:  “It started with Chuck Berry. The first album I ever bought was Chuck’s Live at the Tivoli and I was never the same. He was more than a legend, he was a founding father. You can hear his influence in every rock ’n’ roll band from my generation on.” Chuck was actually Live in Prison when that LP was released - Chess simply dubbed the sound of an audience onto existing tracks, and my friend figured this out at the time - but we didn't care: every track was magic. 

Whatever else he was, Chuck Berry was undeniably the greatest rock and roll song-writer of his generation - probably the greatest there's ever been: certainly the wittiest.  I'll leave you with my favourite Berry track, the sublime "Run Rudolph Run":


  1. The best tribute to the Great Man that I have read so far. Thanks.

  2. A great post. I was waiting for your tribute. I agree with SDG and it just confirmed to me that you must write the book on 1950s rock and roll, half of which is already archived somewhere in the vaults of your blog. You won the Brexit argument, nothing to see here, stop fretting about the BBC and just get on with it.

    In one of my many unsuccessful attempts to get a band going, I once played with a bassist who was constantly rather a lot more than a fraction behind the beat. He just couldn't get it but he was persistent and had a decent amp. For financial reasons, Chuck's touring band was usually rapidly assembled on the cheap when he arrived in town and that is how several of the worst musicians ever to grace a stage ended up being able to say "Yeah, well, y'know, when I was in Chuck Berry's Band..."

    1. I rather fear my book-writin' days are behind me, ex-KCS - but thanks for the suggestion.

      I remember Bruce Springsteen telling a nice story about his high school band once backing Chuck Berry for free. At one point of during the 45-minute set (no encores, ever) Sir Chucklesworth turned to them and said, "Play for that money, boys!", which left Springsteen wondering, "What money?" In a nutshell.

  3. Agreed. By far the best piece or obituary I've read.
    When The Crickets Played The Apollo because the promoters assumed they were black, a lone female voice yelled mock-threateningly that they better sound like their record. They did.
    It sounds a trifle churlish but this could not always be said of Mr. Berry who often allowed the bottom line to take a bite out of his legacy where live performances were concerned.Mostly his backing bands were not up to it. Mind you Wembley in Aug. 1972 was pretty good.
    Fortunately his recordings were up to the mark and beyond.
    I was idly wondering what my top five would be. In no particular order:
    Memphis Tennessee, Havana Moon, You Never Can Tell, Go Go Go, Run Rudolph Run.

    1. Yes, he was good at Wembley - so were Bill Hayley and Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and I think Berry was helped by a dreadfully misjudged bout of over-the-top campery from Little Richard, who was evidently off his tits on some heavy-duty substances, and got booed by the assembled Teds for poncing around.

      Mine would be Run Rudoph Run, Little Queenie, Memphis Tennessee, Jo Jo Gunne and Johnny B. Goode - then Oh Carol!, Nadine, Downbound Train, Sweet Little Sixteen and Brown Eyed Handsome Man.

  4. I too remember Little Richard's Widow Twankey act at Wembley; an attempt to cut down his rival's time on stage? For me one of the really special things about Chuck Berry was the unsurpassed quality of his writing. He conjured up ' The Promised Land' particularly by recording proper names...a coolerator, a souped up Jitney, straddling that Greyhound, a Roebuck sale. ( very weirdly John Betjeman did something similar in ' Executive'!) Chuck had 'been to Yokohama' and missed the skyscrapers and freeways. He celebrated Americanism in a way The Kinks celebrated Englishness. (Enough intertextuality, Ed.)

  5. Can intertextuality be cured by prayer?

  6. How very dare you suggest that it is an illness. And we demand separate toilets!

    1. May I start by saying how proud The Grønmark Blog is to welcome a member of the oppressed Intertextual community to these humble precincts.

      The lyrics to "The Promised Land" are - in my opinion - the finest in all rock music:

      "We had motor trouble, it turned into a struggle,
      Half way 'cross Alabam',
      And that 'hound broke down and left us all stranded
      In downtown Birmingham."

      Trouble/struggle, hound/down/town - clever. Then there's the sense of headlong propulsion - "...rode him past Raleigh", "riding cross Mississippi", "midnight flyer", "through train ticket", "smoking into New Orleans", "rollin' cross the Georgia state". Then there's all the specifics that make the journey seem so real - "ninety miles out of Atlanta", "thirteen minutes", "Tidewater four ten O nine", "Workin' on a T-bone steak à la carte". Then there's the switch from active to passive mode when friends in New Orleans have to help him "get out of Louisiana" by practically throwing him onto a plane: "they bought me a silk suit, shoved luggage in my hand" - and his sense of exhilaration when he wakes up to discover that he's "high over Albuquerque, on a jet to the Promised Land", all ending in a couplet full of relief, triumph and hope: " Tell the folks back home this is the Promised Land callin'/ And the poor boy's on the line." Only Jerry Leiber came close to matching him - and, unlike Chuck Berry, all he had to worry about was writing the lyrics!

  7. A-? Scott, as Frank might have had it! And as a further treat we have the simply belting Cajun version by Johnnie Allan.

    1. I bet it would have been a straight A if I hadn't missed the double period when Frank covered Berry's poetic technique.

      We're in complete agreement regarding the merits of Johnnie Allan's superb version of "The Promised Land" - I once wrote, "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." Still my view, five years on. If you've got a few minutes to spare, I once came up with a list of the best covers of Berry songs - I think the links all work:

  8. Yes, the feel and flare of the Johnnie Allan version is great but when the drummer and accordion get out of sync at around 1.10 it just makes you appreciate Chuck's unfailing sense of time and rhythm.

    1. Your hearing (or sense of rhythm) must be a lot better than mine, because I can't detect a problem (and I had my right ear syringed yesterday morning, so there). Chuckles might very well always have been right on the beat - but didn't always play the right notes, as this unreleased version of "House of Blue Lights" demonstrates:
      Pity, because it could have been great. Just to prove I'm also a train-spotter, my favourite clunker on a released recording is the one at 2'24" on Smiley Lewis's "Blue Monday", when the lads were evidently starting to flag: