| Hillel Italie |
ROCK n’ roll was more than a new kind of music, but a new story to tell, one for kids with transistor radios in their hands and money in their pockets, beginning to raise questions their parents never had the luxury to ask.
Along with James Dean and JD Salinger and a handful of others in the 1950s, Chuck Berry, who was 90 when he died Saturday at his suburban St Louis home, helped define the modern teenager. While Elvis Presley gave rock n’ roll its libidinous, hip-shaking image, Berry was the auteur, setting the narrative for a generation no longer weighed down by hardship or war. Well before the rise of Bob Dylan, Berry wedded social commentary to the beat and rush of popular music.
“He was singing good lyrics, and intelligent lyrics, in the ‘50s when other people were singing, ‘Oh, baby, I love you so’,” John Lennon once observed.
“Classic rock” begins with Chuck Berry. His core repertoire was some three dozen songs, but his influence was incalculable, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to virtually garage band or arena act that called itself rock ‘n roll.
In his late 20s before his first major hit, Berry crafted lyrics that spoke to young people of the day and remained fresh decades later. “Sweet Little Sixteen” captured rock ‘n’ roll fandom, an early and innocent ode to the young girls later known as “groupies”.
“School Day” told of the sing-song trials of the classroom (“American history and practical math; you’re studying hard, hoping to pass …”) and the liberation of rock ‘n’ roll once the day’s final bell rang.
“Roll Over Beethoven” was an anthem to rock’s history-making power, while “Rock and Roll Music” was a guidebook for all bands that followed (“It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it”). “Back in the USA” was a black man’s straight-faced tribute to his country, at a time there was no guarantee Berry would be served at the drive-ins and corner cafes he was celebrating.
“Everything I wrote about wasn’t about me, but about the people listening,” he once said.
“Johnny B Goode”, the tale of a guitar-playing country boy whose mother tells him he’ll be a star, was Berry’s signature song, the archetypal narrative for would-be rockers and among the most ecstatic recordings in the music’s history. Berry can hardly contain himself as the words hurry out (“Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans/Way back up in the woods among the evergreens”) and the downpour of guitar, drums and keyboards amplifies every call of “Go, Johnny Go!”
The song was inspired in part by Johnnie Johnson, the boogie-woogie piano man who collaborated on many Berry hits, but the story could have easily been Berry’s, Presley’s or countless others’. Commercial calculation made the song universal: Berry had meant to call Johnny a “coloured boy:, but changed “coloured” to “country,” enabling not only radio play, but musicians of any colour to imagine themselves as stars.
“Chances are you have talent,” Berry later wrote of the song. “But will the name and the light come to you? No! You have to go!”
Johnny B Goode could only have been a guitarist. The guitar was rock ‘n’ roll’s signature instrument and Berry the first guitar hero. His clarion sound, a melting pot of country flash and rhythm ‘n blues drive, turned on at least a generation of musicians, among them the Stones’ Keith Richards, who once acknowledged he had “lifted every lick” from Berry; the Beatles’ George Harrison; Bruce Springsteen; and the Who’s Pete Townshend.
When NASA launched the unmanned Voyager I in 1977, an album was stored on the craft that would explain music on Earth to extraterrestrials. The one rock song included was “Johnny B Goode”.
Country, pop and rock artistes have recorded Berry songs, including the Beatles (“Roll Over Beethoven”), Emmylou Harris (“You Never Can Tell”), Buck Owens (“Johnny B Goode”) and AC/DC (“School Days”). The Rolling Stones’ first single was a cover of Berry’s “Come On” and they went on to perform and record “Around and Around,” ‘’Let it Rock” and others. Berry riffs pop up in countless songs, from the Stones’ ravenous “Brown Sugar” to the Eagles’ mellow country-rock ballad “Peaceful Easy Feeling”.
Some stars covered him too well. The Beach Boys borrowed the melody of “Sweet Little Sixteen” for their surf anthem “Surfin’ USA” without initially crediting Berry. The Beatles’ “Come Together”, written by Lennon, was close enough to Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” to inspire a lawsuit by music publisher Morris Levy.