The American musician, who died aged 90 this week, sold a seductive vision of Americaby John McTernan / March 24, 2017 / Leave a comment
There I was, a teenage Scot on a pilgrimage to Rough Trade records in Ladbroke Grove in west London, when something new and unusual started to play. “Back in the USA” said the Boston accent, “by Chuck Berry as done by The Modern Lovers.” It was the legendary Jonathan Richman who had formed The Modern Lovers and had his first album produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, only to see it languish in unreleased because the oil crisis had driven up the price of vinyl. “Pretty good, isn’t it,” said Rough Trade owner Geoff Travis—who was behind the counter. I agreed and became a lifelong Modern Lovers fan—something I have never regretted.
But the genius was Chuck Berry’s. The pure poetry of rock’n’roll, from listing place names:
New York, Los Angeles
Oh how I yearn for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
God I long to be at my home back in old St Lou
To the evocation of American life:
Looking hard for a drive-in
Searching for a corner café
Where the hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and the jukebox jumping with records back in the USA
If US soft power won the world, it was as much because of this picture—and actuality—of life, as it was anything else.
There is no doubt that the first US songwriter who should have won the Nobel Prize was Chuck Berry, not Bob Dylan. But with songs it is never just the lyrics—it is the music too. Once you have heard a Chuck Berry song then you remember the guitar riffs forever. They perfectly match the rhythm of the lyrics. It’s why—and how—he created pop music. As John Lennon once said, if rock ’n’ roll had another name it would be “Chuck Berry.” Elvis Presley’s hips and Little Richard’s pumping piano (and Jerry Lee Lewis’s too) were iconic—but the duck-walk defined modern music because, in the end, it was about the electric guitar and the noise it made. And the sheer exhilaration—watch Berry in 1958 playing “Roll Over Beethoven” and you see a man who knows he has invented the modern world and loves it.