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Today, the road-rippin' Chuck Berry, emperor of electric guitar!
Hear 2 massive music players, one of Chuck and one of all his disciples from the 1950's to today!
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Chuck Berry's disciples: 1950s-2010s
Part 1: LET IT ROCK:
The Music of Chuck Berry
It was all new.
Sleek aerodynamic autos clacking down all that fresh freeway tarmac, silver bullets soaring you from city to city, idyllic neighborhoods where families could breathe in space and television, and the mystery world of airwaves whispering melodies in the night. The Depression was a sepia memory, the War a receding ache.
Everything was wide open in 1955.
Bo Diddley was the beat, but Chuck Berry was the rest.
He was the rhythm and the roll, the voice, the theater, the instrument, the speed. "If you're going to give Rock'n'Roll another name," John Lennon opined, "you might try Chuck Berry." The hard-charging riff into a stomping 4/4 beat, that comes from this man. The terse clang of a guitar (rock) with the rollicking laughter of piano (roll), that's Chuck.
The attitude, whether flush with adrenalin, joyful in youth, scornful of entanglement, celebratory of lust, outrunning the Man, or spinning cinematic fantasies, that's our hero. Though older, Chuck was careful to articulate the triumphs and tensions of the new post-War youth. Better yet, his rapier wordplay staccato-ing at a breakneck tear was rich, vibrant, eagle-eyed, and silver-tongued. He was haughty, hilarious, and horny. He was the brown-eyed handsome man and he was perfect.
His show and persona were absolute style: sharp suits, hair to die for, duck walks, wild kicks, and cocky ease. No rocker would exist without his granduer and theater. And the guitar, well, come on: the Riff, the rhythmic hum, the bristling leads, the fretboard as an arm a lover a battering ram a communal tuning fork a divining rod of the soul. And that clackclackclack roar straining the speedometer. Every king and queen in the 50's rock pantheon gave us great gifts, but Chuck had it all in one gleaming caddy.
He wanted it fast and free.
From a large St. Louis family, he dreamt big and wide. His early gigs fused bluesy boogie with hillbilly gallup and bluegrass flux. When he walked into Chess Studios with a homemade demo, his cover of Western Swing king Bob Will's "Ida Red" startled them. He retorqued it as "Maybelline" and hit the tar a star. Most bought a suit, car, and house. Chuck bought real estate and blueprinted a theme park. He opened a nightclub mixing the musics and the audience to the city's ire.
As his breakneck classics redefined Rock and empowered him, he was suddenly hit with a suspect charge that undid him; he'd once given a ride across state lines to a club greeter later busted for prostitution. That thin association was used to put him in prison for two years. Meanwhile Elvis was drafted by his neighbors, Buddy and Eddie died, Richard went God, and Jerry Lee redefined 'young love' badly. Rock'n'Roll got pulled over to the shoulder.
Chuck came back out in the early '60s embittered. But his influence was suddenly all around again in the British Invasion. He spun a new bluestreak that reflected the Beatles reflecting him. He rocked the hippies at the Fillmores, and rolled into the '70s on the '50s revival spurred by AMERICAN GRAFFITI and Glam and then Punk. He may never have matched that bracing blast-off, but migod what a fabulous ride he gave us!
Part 2: AROUND AND AROUND:
The Disciples of Chuck Berry
CHUCK BERRY: Disciples
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Chuck Berry is the throughline of Rock'n'Roll.
Ebby Hardy, Chuck Berry, Johnnie Johnson
Boogie was the secret spine of the Twentieth Century. It twined though Ragtime, Swing Jazz, Country Swing, acoustic and electric Blues, Honky Tonk and Hillbilly. It is the thread that sutured them all into Rock'n'Roll. That briskly walking bassline stairsteps through Bob Will's "Ida Red" until the guitar does that crucial lockstep kick that enflamed Chuck's heart. Then, the boogie woogie pound and ripple of his foil Johnny Johnson's piano routed his sound onto the road as they rode shotgun into the future.
His '50s peers were immediately peeling rubber in pursuit. Buddy Holly is singing Chuck's praise as much as his song, "Brown Eyed Handsome Man". And Carl Perkins, Ernest Tubb, Margaret Lewis, and Los Teen Tops (Mexico) are churning asphalt into ash behind him.
Those are his treads blazing through the Beach Boys' and Dick Dale's early '60s surf whorls and drag strips. Surf and Hot Rod bands woodshopped their chops on Berry covers before cascading waves and scorching raceways. At this point the interaction becomes intwined; with "Surfin' U.S.A.", Brian Wilson brought a harmony dimension to Chuck's riffs that will ripple through the tides to come ("Back In the U.S.S.R.", "Ca Plane Pour Moi").
The Beatles and their British Invasion flank existed because of Chuck, and they test-drove dozens of his songs. The royalties and exposure even brought Chuck back into the race again. Chuck's blues-base was the starting gate for purist bluesers like The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and The Pretty Things to expand the tracks. Jeff Beck of The Yardbirds paved his future path with his retread of "Guitar Boogie" as "Jeff's Boogie".
Dylan hotwired the cadence of "Too Much Monkey Business", which Chuck picked up from little girls skipping rope, to getaway from his folk box with the pumping "Subterranean Homesick Blues". This signature beat will ricochet through the future.
The combo of Berry fire, Beatles style, and Dylan snarl led to mid '60s Garage Rock, whose bands flushed the engines with fuzz. Blazing in late, the crazed and underrated Dean Carter kept '50s rock revved through his Garage stylings the entire 60's, such as covering "40 Days".
Late '60s Psychedelia seemed like a different model, a plastic fantastic funnycar assembled by Coltrane and Kesey, but Chuck still fueled the silver machine. What was Jimi Hendrix but the cosmic jetcar sparked by Chuck's airmobile? Just buckle tight and soar with the roar of his live staple, "Johnny B. Goode".
In the hangover from Psyche, when the MC5 and The Stooges wanted a return to brute essence, it was Chuck who was the vehicle; the former's "Back In the USA" cover rolls like a stroll through better days. This blunt, stripped-down approach -along with tours of the counterculture ballrooms and festivals by 50's Rock mentors like Berry, Diddley, and Thornton- led from nostalgia to a spin-around renaissance.
Psychedelia was a hydra, with rough corrosive rock as one head and expansive dynamics as another.
In the early '70s these heads morphed into Glam and Progressive Rock: Prog was all spectacle, sonic wizardry, ambition, a showboat; but Glam was an ironic glitz, tighter, all three-minute pop in a boogie chassy. Both are trails forged in Rock by Chuck.
T-Rex put a Glam kit on his "Little Queenie" and even quote it at the end of their breakthrough "Bang a Gong (Get It On)". Suzi Quatro jacked a rhinestone chevy with "Glycerine Queen", playing chicken with Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me". (The Runaways and Joan Jett are the collision.) The New York Dolls, whose butch tranny take on Chuck had inspired Glam, rip it up in their dragster "Personality Crisis".
Led Zeppelin grounded themselves in the basics with "Communication Breakdown" and "Rock'n'Roll". Movies like AMERICAN GRAFITTI and THAT'LL BE THE DAY (with Ringo), TV shows like "Happy Days", Broadway shows like "Grease", and boogie bands and cover songs stoked the flames. The terse, raw, careening riffs were a revelation and a transport for new youth, speaking to their lives and fantasies in a direct way that didn't "sound just like a symphony" like Prog.
Drop the coin right into the slot!
Soon a stripped-down mover called Pub Rock hit mid-'70s England, simply '50s Rock and R'n'B on new cylinders.
Eddie & the Hot Rods injected youth frustration into this mix with "Teenage Depression", and then Punk flooded it magnificently. In early rehearsals, Johnny plunged the Sex Pistols off a cliff trying to be good, in their wipeout of "Johnny B. Goode". It mutates into songs like "No Future", The Damned's "New Rose", and The Clash's "I'm So Bored With The U.S.A.". Under its ragged veneer, Punk was high-octane Rock'n'Roll grinding the guardrails and shredding the shiny off.
That "Too Much Monkey Business" staccato rattles back in again in Ultravox's "Satday Night In the City", jumps in the new Elvis, Costello's, "Pump It Up", and scats through The Police's "It's Alright For You".
Those retro reprobates, Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, hotwired Chuck's torch; in solo songs like "Crawling From the Wreckage" and "Maureen", and with their band Rockpile's "Oh What a Thrill". Meanwhile, back in the USA Bruce Springsteen prowled the byroads of the interior with "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)".
By the late '70s, the spectre of Johnny B. Goode flies full-bore past the flagman in Punk, stadium rock, Power Pop, and New Wave; Cheap Trick cruising the night when the "Clock Strikes Ten", Ohio expatriate Chrissie Hynde chauffeuring the coupe to England with The Pretenders' "Watching the Clothes", Nikki and The Corvettes clamping the clutch with the "Criminal Element".
Rhythm'n'Blues and Rock'n'Roll have always been the same music, but given different names specifically to separate people. By 1980, FM radio had programmed this segregation into mass minds simply by formatting: you could be played on Rock stations for sounding like Chuck Berry, but not for looking like him, and R'n'B stations played neither. It takes two dummies to complete a shared delusion. The BusBoys parodied this blinkered idiocy of dividing music and humans by skin and sound barriers with the acerbic "Johnny Soul'd Out".
The essence of "Johnny B. Goode" -furious riff, rapidfire rap, strutting singer, and guitar god- defined essential Rock'n'Roll for the ages. More so than any singer or song ever. Ever.
And on he careened, in every chunky riff, arrogant swagger, and rushing roar from Aerosmith to Guns'n'Roses, The Cramps to Demented Are Go, The BusBoys to The Bobbyteens, The Undertones to The Hives, George Jones to Heavy Trash, The Twangies (IndoRock) to Peter Tosh, Pussy Galore to The White Stripes, Joan Jett to The Kills, Robert Gordon to Guitar Wolf, Steve Miller to Gary Clark, Jr..
Flipping donuts brings you full circle.
Paul McCartney had convertabled "Back In the U.S.S.R." once, and told John to slow "Come Together" down so it wouldn't sound sooo much like Chuck (dig the "flattop grooving" lines copped from his "You Can't Catch Me"). In recent years he re-swung through the swamplands with the full-on Chuck amok of "Run Devil Run". And Swedish Nic Armstrong & the Thieves brought it all roundtrip with his cover of "I Want To Be Your Driver", a Beatles freak doing Chuck Berry doing The Beatles doing Chuck Berry!
Around and around, forever fast and free...
© Tym Stevens
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1950s PUNK: Sex, Thugs, and Rock'n'Roll!
BO DIDDLEY: The Rhythm King and His Disciples
BUDDY HOLLY: Rock's Everyman and His Disciples
LITTLE RICHARD: The Voice of Rock and His Disciples
JIMMY REED: The Groover of Rock, From Motown To Sesame Street