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.
Of course, the licks on “Rocket 88”—the first and one of the greatest rock songs ever—were played by Ike Turner, but all axe heroes descend from Chuck Berry. No heavy metal without him, perhaps no loss, but no Pistols either. And so many others. Just flicking through the Chuck Berry tunes on my iPhone when the news of his death came through I found covers by David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, The Flamin’ Groovies, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, 13th Floor Elevators and, of course, The Majestics—Scotland’s premier dance band from John Byrne’s “Tutti Frutti.”
The songs? All standards now. As well as those already mentioned—“Almost Grown,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Maybellene,” “Promised Land.” My favourite? A chaotic Sex Pistols cover of “Johnny B Goode” that morphs into “Roadrunner”—which is where we came in. If, as Robert Lowell says in “A Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will” then the true king of rock ’n’ roll survives every cover version of his work.