Guest Blogger Joe Gola: Chuck Berry – The Anthology

12 Jan

We welcome witty wordsmith, Joe Gola, back into the guest blogger hot seat.
I hope his pants catch fire . . .

—–

Talking about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll is a tricky business; one would like to be able to point to the song, the moment when the light bulb went off and the teenagers of a nation looked over what the radio had made and saw that it was good.  The truth is far more complex than that, of course; tracing things backwards one can see not so much a revolution as an evolution, with contributions coming from blues, bluegrass, swing, rockabilly and folk.  Even into the early 1950s one could still hear in the proto-rock music the echoes of what came before, the ingratiating big-band cheese, or the bluesy stomp, or the down-home cowboy twang, lurking just underneath.

Chuck Berry’s first single, “Maybelline,” released in 1955, was one of those rare moments when the slow creep of organic progress was replaced by a great leap of audacity.  After a two-second tickle of guitar we are irresponsibly launched into a syncopated gold-record groove, and what’s surprising and fascinating about the song—beyond the great rhythm and general excellence of the musicianship—is the aggressive, almost insolent minimalist intensity.  There’s no apology to parents or self-deprecatory cues that this is “just” dance music; there is, really, only the rhythm and nothing else.

Just to prove it was no fluke, his second single, “Thirty Days” (recorded on the same day as “Maybelline”), is, if anything, even tougher, faster, and more self-assured.  This rambunctious hard-driving music is not “roots of rock ‘n’ roll” but the real specimen, as fully formed and legitimate as anything that has come since.  It is also noteworthy in that the recording is dominated by Berry’s guitar, since at that time early rock ‘n’ roll was still more of an ensemble sound, with piano and saxophone having equal voice.  The raw electric power of Chuck Berry (and his Chess colleague Bo Diddley) changed that landscape forever.

The cross-cultural success of his early singles led Berry to soften his tone and widen his audience with a friendlier sock-hop sound—if your parents overheard they would know that it was only dance music and not an armed insurgence—but with each new release a growing cockiness can be heard, a musician’s understanding that he is on to something good.  Even if “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Oh Baby Doll” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” were squarely aimed at the kids, they are still killer rock songs.

Many artists might well have peaked with “Sweet Little Sixteen”; it’s a perfect pop record, a seeming culmination of everything that this good-time dance music was moving toward.  Berry’s masterpiece was still to come, however, and this is where he changes from being an entertainer to being a giant.  From the first notes, 1958’s “Johnny B. Goode” is like a lightning bolt that obliterates the past and sends us flying ass-first into the future.  There’s no cushion, no warning, no friendly “hey, kids, let’s dance!” introduction, there is only a sudden barrage of guitar that throws us into the groove before we are even properly prepared.  We’re suddenly back to the punk-rock rush of “Thirty Days,” where there is no time to breathe or think because our rocket car is only barely under control. What is the song’s message?

The message is simply this: you are either with us or behind us. 

The key thing here, though, the little thing that changed history, is that Berry’s guitar and voice have fully achieved the snarling superhuman self-assurance that would turn out to be the final ingredient in the rock ‘n’ roll stew.  This belief in the state of being bulletproof leads us directly to “Wild Thing,” “You Really Got Me,” “Satisfaction,” “Black Dog” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.”  And here’s the proof: even now, in the twenty-first century, “Johnny B. Goode” doesn’t sound like an antique.  Crank it up full volume for unsuspecting teenagers and their eyes will only widen and fail to roll.

Lots more great stuff followed, of course, and any Chess-era anthology you pick up will be chock-full of gems.  Two of my personal lesser-known favorites to look out for are the bouncy “Back in the U.S.A.” and the buzzsaw fun of the blistering “Thirty Days.”  There are some amazing live clips on YouTube as well, and it’s also worth tracking down the 1987 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll for a more in-depth look at the great man’s history and legacy.

Tell Tchaikovsky the news!

—–

Joe Gola is the author of The Satanic Bridegroom, a novel of lust, madness and submarines. His various crimes against the literary world are detailed at http://golarama.com

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