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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Chuck Berry

yesterday i got in the mail my original copy of chuck's first lp "After school session!...

if anyone can take more of the credit for rock'n'roll its chuck berry.... more than little richard..yes, more than elvis....its impossible to say that if chuck had not come along there would be no rock'n'roll..but its hard to envision it having turned out quite the way it did... his influence on the british invasion is incalculable and it took the british invasion to restart rock'n'roll in the US after the tragic events of the late 1950s which threatened to kill rock'n'roll: little richard retiring from music to become a minister, chuck berry's career inevitably stalling as he went to jail, jerry lee lewis fading into ignominy after running off with his young cousin, elvis going to the army and coming back as a movie star with hardly a trace of his rock'n'roll self, and of course the day the music died when a plane crash took buddy holly (and big bopper and i think richie valens went too)...all these events plus an almost visceral reaction by society against the rebellion that rock'n'roll was believed to represent came close to extinguishing its flame before it even began!...but in the early 1960s the beatles and stones tapped into the music of the fathers of rock.. none more so than chuck and with that conquered america.. the beatles on the ed sullivan show wasn't about the beatles.. it was the triumph of rock'n'roll.....

no lesser man than john lennon said that rock'n'roll might as well have been called "chuck berry music"; lennon's "here comes old flat top" lyric from "come together" is taken from "you can't catch me".. lennon never disputed this fact and settled out of court with the owner of the publishing who unfortunately was not berry.. and the beatles were performing berry songs at least as early as may 1960 years before they had received a record contract.. the rolling stones meanwhile, even more so than the beatles, made a career of covering and recycling chuck berry riffs; the stones version of "little queenie" from the live lp "get yer ya-ya's out" is sex supreme!.....a young bruce springsteen in "hail hail rock and roll" tells a story - with the biggest grin i have ever seen- how one night him and some others got a call to come to a club (apparently this show was in college park, maryland) and back up chuck who played with pick up bands so as to maximize his take..of course bruce had never met chuck berry..probably never even seen a chuck berry show.... chuck was quite late and when he showed up a nervous bruce- excited, scared and above all overwhelmed at the idea of backing berry- asks "what are we going to play?".. chuck berry answers: "son , we're going to play some chuck berry songs"....i think there's a lot in those words: chuck berry very simply was saying they were going to play some rock'n'roll... bands like ac dc have chuck berry running through their blood...

its not just that the guitar licks chuck invented are the essence of rock'n'roll..yes, for example that lick from "johnny b goode"... its more than that... he gave rock'n'roll its attitude and language and vocabulary..its culture... he wrote songs about rock'n'roll... about being a teenager listening to rock'n'roll..about going to a rock'n'roll show...and above all about fun and about being excited about being alive... all this was new when chuck berry was writing about it in the mid 1950s.. there was no rock'n roll scene at the time.... chuck gave the emerging genre- soon to displace and eclipse jazz in popularity- its identity..look at some of the lyrics from "sweet little rock and roller" :

Should've seen her eyes when the band began to play
And the famous singers sang and barred away
When the stars performed, she screamed and yelled "Hooray!"

Ten thousand eyes were watching them leave the floor
Five thousand tongues were screaming "More! More!"
About 1500 waitin' outside the door


or "school days":

Soon as three o'clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Close up your books, get out of your seat

Down the halls and into the street
Up to the corner and 'round the bend
Right to the juke joint you go in

*Drop the coin right into the slot
You gotta hear something that's really hot

With the one you love you're makin' romance
All day long you been
Wantin' to dance
Feelin' the music from head to toe
'Round and 'round and 'round you go

(*Repeat)

Hail, hail rock'n'roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock'n'roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock rock rock'n'roll
The feelin' is there body and soul


chuck berry helped link rock'n'roll to youth culture in the 1950s..lines like the "hail hail rock'n'roll deliver me from the days of old" (quoted above) explicitly make clear the distinction chuck is forcing between rock'n'roll/youth and everything that came before it.. in an increasingly developed economy teenagers- for the first time a generation with part time jobs and more importantly disposable income- became the driving force for the ascendancy of rock'n'roll which eventually became synonymous with american culture....he did this by mutating essentially rockabilly blues riffs and adding a whole world- largely of his creation- of lyrics about youth culture (cars for example: see "no money down") to come up with rock'n'roll....

joe perry - aerosmith's guitarist- wrote a nice piece about chuck berry in a special issue of rolling stone released last year focusing on the 50 greatest rock'n'roll artists... its not important who came in first or second.. but i think joe perry while clearly not a writer largely hits the nail on the head when he tries to convey what it is that chuck berry means... i recommend this article which can be found at the link here

and lest it seem like i am speaking about a dead man let me make clear.. chuck berry is still rock'n'rollin it up... he usually plays once a month at the duck room at blueberry hill in st louis...go check him out.. i know i should..link is here

he is of course, and so appropriately, the first inductee into the rock and roll hall of fame...a few years ago he received the kennedy center lifetime achievement award- the highest honor this country bestows for contributions to american culture- of which he is highly highly deserving.. he is a national treasure.

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