Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Top 10 Greatest Chuck Berry Songs.

A week ago today, the great Chuck Berry passed away. He was one of the most influential icons of the music, as well as its first great singer-songwriter.

Of the scores of classics that would flow from his pen & guitar, these are the ten greatest.

10. "Too Much Monkey Business," Single A-Side, 1956; #4 R&B.

If rock & roll long has been the outlet of "awkward teenage blues," it was Chuck Berry who first made it that way. Although he was a married man in his early 30s by the time he was a major star, he could think like a teenager, & turn the woes of adolescence into poetry. "Too Much Monkey Business" was his breakthrough in doing so, articulating the every day trials of going to school, the monotony of low-paying jobs, the annoyances of billings & payments, the frustrations in pursuit of romance. He also filled the allegedly simple music with more words than anyone could cram into a verse until a Bob Dylan plugged in nearly a decade later. Before Dylan turned to folk, you know the young teenage rocker from Duluth was studying songs like this one.

9. "You Never Can Tell," Single A-Side, 1964; #14 Pop / #14 R&B / #23 UK.

The Lost Generation for the Rock & Roll Generation, as a couple of ex-pat Americans get married in France, swapping New Orleans for Orleans. The details of teenage life were still intact--the hi-fi phono, the coolerator with TV dinners & ginger ale--but this was also a signal of a changing of the guards, finding the young characters growing up & getting married; appropriately, it was released the year The Beatles invaded America, as rock was transitioning from its first to second generation. It also had a structure closer to a folk song than Berry's usual blues-based fare. Perhaps this is why it sounded as fresh in 1964 as it did in the famous twist contest scene in Pulp Fiction some 30 years later--its sheer timelessness.

8. "Sweet Little Sixteen," Single A-Side, 1958; #2 Pop / #1 R&B / #16 UK.

Three years before James Brown hopped onboard the "Night Train," Chuck Berry was using rock music to unite the country by calling out cities until they became one big dance party, all centered around a sweet little sixteen-year-old rock and roll super fan. The idea was too irresistible not to lift, & so Brian Wilson used it as the template of surf rock's national anthem, "Surfin' U.S.A.," replacing the cities with beaches & adding six-part harmony. Never one to miss a trick, Berry sued him over it & currently holds a songwriting co-credit. Yet Wilson is not one to hold a grudge--after Berry's death this week, he said that it was Berry who taught him how to write a rock & roll song.

7. "School Days," Single A-Side, 1957; #3 Pop / #1 R&B / #24 UK.

If "Too Much Monkey Business" found Chuck Berry first articulating the language of youth, "School Days" found him perfecting it. Built upon a now-classic call-&-response blues structure (which Berry would use for another major hit in the following decade, "No Particular Place To Go"), "School Days" was two songs in one: A lament of life in the classroom, followed by the freedom of the after-school juke joint. The escape to freedom was reinforced with lines like "As soon as three o'clock rolls around/You finally lay your burden down," shrewdly borrowing a phrase from the old spiritual "Down By The Riverside." But the finest lines come at the end, & they rank among the most iconic in all of rock phraseology: "Hail, hail rock & roll/Deliver me from the days of old!" With "School Days," these words were a self-fulfilling prophecy.

6. "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Single B-Side, 1956.

The party line is that rock didn't get political until the mid-'60s, when Bob Dylan brought the consciousness of folk into the music. But "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" shoots this narrative down. In the midst of the Civil Rights struggle, Berry wrote one of rock's slyest protest songs, & pulling off the rare feat of making it both funny & sexy. While the deeper layer of social commentary might have missed many of his white listeners, his African-American fans knew the song was code for a brown-skinned handsome man. Why else would the central character get "arrested on charges of unemployment"? Best of all was the final verse, which seemingly paid tribute to Jackie Robinson, winning the game like the brown-eyed handsome American hero he was.

5. "Promised Land," Single A-Side, 1964; #41 Pop / #41 R&B / #26 UK.

"This is the map, as 'The Poor Boy' sets out from Norfolk, Virginia, to discover the country: a journey that moves from poverty to wealth, from a bus to a plane setting down at LAX. All pop music that takes America as a subject—whether winding toward tragedy or toward an even sweeter harmony—runs off this mountain. Written when Berry was in prison; he needed an atlas to get the geography right, and when he requested one from the prison library, word went out that he was plotting an escape—which, of course, he was." -- Greil Marcus, "Promised Land: Thirty Records About America," Rolling Stone, May 28, 1998.

I got nothing to add, except, perhaps, I love his evocation of the old slave spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" at the end.

4. "Rock & Roll Music," Single A-Side, 1957; #8 Pop / #6 R&B.

The first great rock and roll song about rock and roll songs. In just two-and-a-half minutes, Berry characteristically covers A LOT of ground: He disses symphonies, clarifies his stance on modern jazz, and overlooks tangos; he praises the backbeat of the drums, the wailing saxophone, & the rocking piano; he goes across the tracks, way down South, a spiritual jubilee, & a honky-tonk jamboree; he dances, he gets shook up, he drinks home-brew from a wooden cup with a bunch of hillbillies. It all adds up to a sound that, like the sax player mentioned in the song, blows like a hurricane. No wonder The Beatles loved this song--& eventually turned it into one of their finest classic rock covers.

3. "Roll Over Beethoven," Single A-Side, 1956; #29 Pop / #2 R&B.

A changing of the guards. As a record, it was pioneering rock & roll, but as a message, it was pure punk rock. For centuries, great music meant Bach, Mozart, & Beethoven, but with everything else in the post-WWII era, music demanded to get bigger, louder, & more modern. More than any other song, "Roll Over Beethoven" extended the new generation's middle finger to the old generation's aesthetics, righteously declaring their own new music would unseat the old. & most astonishingly, it did--at least, as much as a new music can. Rock has taken over classical--&/or all other refined musics--as the mainstream default for listeners of all ages & generations. It was Chuck Berry who was more than just a leader of the new sound, but a modern arts visionary. Tell Tchaikovsky the news, indeed. 

2. "Maybellene," Single A-Side, 1955; #5 Pop / #1 R&B.

"Maybellene" is one of those records that simply changed everything. While Elvis gets credit for being the "hillbilly cat" who stepped into the blues with "That's All Right" in 1954, his song was a regional hit that never made it to the national charts, & is much better-known today. However, Berry's first record, "Maybellene," was one of the biggest hits of his career, & found that it was just as revolutionary for an African-American man to discover country. Built around the one-two country stomp of "Ida Red," Berry appears to have taken the refrain of a love song & wed it to the verse of a car-race song. While it shouldn't work--is Maybellene a car? A girl in his car? A girl in the other car? Someone else entirely?--it does, & all but single-handedly establishes the subject-matter of the car & the sound of the guitar as central to rock & roll music. When "Maybellene" came out, the piano & saxophone were still rivaling the guitar as its signature instrument. After "Maybellene," & the future Chuck Berry hits it enabled, the guitar was enshrined at rock & roll's core.

1. "Johnny B. Goode," Single A-Side, 1958; #8 Pop / #2 R&B.

"The gateway from freedom, I was led to understand, was somewhere 'close to New Orleans' where most Africans were sorted through and sold," Berry wrote in his 1987 autobiography. "I'd been told my great grandfather lived 'way back up in the woods among the evergreens' in a log cabin. I revived the era with a story about a 'colored boy name [sic] Johnny B. Goode.' My first thought was to make his life follow as my own had come along, but I thought it would seem biased to white fans to say 'colored boy' and changed it to 'country boy.' As it turned out, my name was in lights and it is a fact that 'Johnny B. Goode' is most instrumental in causing it to B."

Chuck Berry's signature triumph is a recasting of The American Dream as a rock & roll fantasy, going to the deepest origin of American slavery and using a guitar as the gateway to the sweetest freedom. It is also, not coincidentally, his finest guitar playing; though countless Chuck Berry songs begin with a guitar intro, none drive it home like this one, such that the double (!) guitar solo in the middle feels like a homecoming followed by a victory lap. & while many of his original recordings sound almost loose & sluggish to modern ears raised on the tightness of The Beatles & Rolling Stones covers that helped to familiarize these songs for the last 50 years, "Johnny B. Goode" is an exception--it is a tight, rocking performance that never gets old, often covered but never improved upon.

It is not only Chuck Berry's greatest song, but the greatest rock & roll record of them all.

No comments:

Post a Comment