Waxing Lyrical #3: Chuck Berry
Rock ‘n’ roll existed long before Chuck Berry came to the scene. What this St. Louis native added to the mix was a new guitar style and an original blend of blues with country sounds. This alchemy became complete through lyrics that dealt with teenage concerns. His songs are snapshots of a changing society, lauding the novelties of the time without hiding the pitfalls.
Since the late Forties, a growing number of white teenagers had been listening to the R&B charts and buying records. It was the first rock ‘n’ roll underground hipster scene, but the potential of crossover success across racial lines was yet to be plundered. One major reason was the content of the music, which was directed to mature audiences. There were drinking songs, novelty songs, and sexy songs that ran the gamut from playful double entendre to plain smut. Some became scandal hits such as Sixty Minute Man (The Dominoes) and Work With Me Annie (The Royals), while others were underground best sellers like Drill Daddy Drill (Doris Ellis) and Keep On Churnin’ Till The Butter Comes (Wynonie Harris). Big Joe Turner had a big hit with Shake, Rattle And Roll in 1954, but Bill Haley and His Comets, a white group, made it a greater success on the pop charts after cleaning up its risqué lyrics.
Berry’s Maybellene, released in July 1955, was a game changer for black artists. The song took its origins from Ida Red, a traditional country song made famous by Bob Wills and Roy Acuff that Berry had been playing live for years. At Chess’ recording studio, it served as a springboard for improvisation. Little remained of the original song, its hoedown pace replaced by beefy rhythms.
The lyrics were something new. Artists had sung about cars before; Rocket 88, a number 1 R&B hit in 1951, was about a ride in style. Maybellene offered a new slant that targeted the teenage market: speed and the thrill of the chase. Read aloud without the music, the lyrics carry the song’s rhythm. They are colloquial, playful and laden with images that make each line resonate. Freedom as motion was a beguiling theme, which explains the song’s wide crossover success.
Society was changing. The rise of teenagers as a consumer group came about in the mid-fifties, and rock ‘n’ roll was there from the outset, before advertisers caught on and started to cater to young people as a group. Berry understood that it wasn’t all about buying stuff; it was actually about finding a place in a society with strict rules, and when that failed, going around those rules. He was defining what being young was all about.
Berry, who was by then married and in his late twenties, was an odd candidate for a generational spokesman. He just saw himself as an artist who’d found his niche. Few songs are as evocative of the teenage experience as School Days, No Particular Place To Go, and Almost Grown. Berry was relying on memories when he wrote them, but those experiences rang true for his audience.
For instance, he sympathizes with that kid in Little Queenie who watches a teenage goddess from the other side of the room, trying to muster the courage to ask for a dance. “I got the wiggles in my knees when she looked at me and sweetly smiled” - we’ve all been there.
Berry’s B-sides gave him an opportunity to stretch, with blues like Wee Wee Hours, instrumentals like Guitar Boogie, and odd subjects. The blues disclosed a mature side not heard on the A-sides. On that vein we have Down Bound Train, one of the strangest songs in Berry’s canon, about a sinner worrying over his destiny. What you seldom heard on his songbook are ballads. Rockers were his domain, and songs like Rock And Roll Music, Roll Over Beethoven, and Sweet Little Sixteen defined what this mongrel music was and appraised its power.
Berry’s in love with the modern world. He sings of jukeboxes, hamburger stands, big beat radio stations, and rocket-finned cars that go like a cool breeze. Yet this world demands a keen eye to sidestep modern-day annoyances such as traffic cops (You Can’t Catch Me) and predatory salesmen (No Money Down). Sometimes the traps are unavoidable; Too Much Monkey Business offers a wry take on life that predates Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Here, even love takes its toll on freedom: “Blond haired, good looking, trying to get me hooked / Want me to settle down; get a home, write a book”.
One major theme is travelling and the lure of the open road. His lyrics convey the sense of fresh possibilities that connects with people in all corners of the world. This constant movement, this kinetic flux, is a powerful force; it gives propulsion to the idea that you could leave your humble hamlet, travel to exciting cities like St. Louis, New York, or Chicago, and reinvent yourself. This is the subject of Promised Land; its poor boy makes a long journey from Charlotte, NC to Los Angeles, gaining experience through the obstacles found along the way.
Berry’s view is optimistic. Not even race can stand in the way for long. The Johnny B. Goodes of the world will find success if there’s talent and tenacity, no matter where they are born. Brown Eyed Handsome Man is more direct about racial pride, long before James Brown made it a major subject. Yet Berry wrote the song in such an open way that white artists such as Buddy Holly and Lyle Lovett have covered the song, and that’s a real kick.
Berry’s voice is distinctly American. A song like Living In The USA sounds like Walt Whitman with a backbeat: “Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café / Where hamburgers sizzle on a grill night and day”. Yet Berry’s never chauvinistic. He treats America as an ideal, a land of open possibilities that are there to mold and reshape. He sang with the conviction that this kind of paradise could be built any place on earth. This view would have an impact on sixties groups like The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Stones, whose songs took their grammar from Berry, along with the conviction that freedom and self-expression are as vital as water.
Berry has been his own worst enemy. Legal troubles aside, he’s been ornery when he should’ve been gracious, mercenary when artistic integrity should’ve prevailed. Even so, nothing can diminish his great contributions as a musical trailblazer. John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’”. Who can argue with that?8 June, 2012 - 06:04 — Angel Aguilar