Category Archives: Early Rock

Classic Music Review: The Great Twenty-Eight by Chuck Berry

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After I graduated from college and returned to my childhood home for the we-love you-but-please-get-your-ass-out-of-the-house-dear-daughter ritual, my dad, feeling sentimental as he watched me rip my Iggy Pop poster from the bedroom wall, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He told me I could help myself to any five LP’s from his vast vinyl collection.

“Only five?” I cried.

“I’ll leave the rest to you in my will,” he said, shaking his head at what a greedy little bitch of a daughter he had raised.

I dropped what I was doing and headed for the living room, where he kept his treasure on every available piece of shelf space. He had over a thousand LP’s and I’d heard each and every one during my formative years, with varying degrees of attention. Sighing at the sheer difficulty at the task ahead but somewhat inclined to take a trip down memory lane, I started with the A’s (The Allman Brothers) and worked my way to the Z’s (Frank Zappa).

I literally spent all day and night fingering through the collection, pulling out possibilities and playing emotional tug of war with myriad possibilities. Should I go for Super Session or East-West? Do I dare break up his Beatles’ collection? (I didn’t, but I am looking forward to the day he croaks so I can become a proud owner of the original Yesterday and Today cover.) Ogden’s Nut-Gone Flake? Face to Face? Wheels of Fire? Pleasures of the Harbor? Stand Back!? Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music? Sketches of Spain? The experience turned out to be harrowing, but finally, drenched with sweat, sentimentality and angst, I called him into the living room to announce my selections.

“The good news is I’m letting you keep Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge and The Grand Funk Railroad,” I smirked.

“No surprise there,” he laughed. “Show me what you got so I can get started on the grieving process.”

I pulled them out one by one. Having a Rave-Up with The Yardbirds elicited a groan. Surrealistic Pillow yielded a tender smile. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band earned a comment, “Thank God it’s not East-West.” The fourth, Judy Collins’ In My Life, caused him to tear up a bit. However, my fifth selection sparked a change in his visage from nostalgic to stern and led to an irresolvable dispute.

“Nope, not that one.”

“What? You said any five!”

“Not that one. It’s out of print. Pick something else.”

“You prick!” I replied.

“I can live with that. Now pick something else.”

I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of winning this argument, so I grabbed Live at Leeds and was gratified to elicit another groan. “Serves you right, you welcher,” I taunted.

The album in dispute was, of course, The Great Twenty-Eight by Chuck Berry. I knew that Chuck Berry: The Anthology had been released a few years before, but the attraction of good old-fashioned vinyl with that nice big album sleeve was too hard to resist. There were other compilations, but I didn’t want anything that had that fucking “My Ding-a-Ling” song on it. I wanted The Great Twenty-Eight in blessed analog format because I wanted to experience what John Lennon had heard as a kid while listening to a crackly radio in his room on Menlove Avenue. I wanted to feel the same kind of inspiration that you won’t find in the sound quality, but in the rhythm, in the singing style, in the now-classic guitar licks and in the devil-may-care energy of early rock.

It took me a couple of years to find a relatively pristine copy (in part because I had devoted a large part of that period of my life to sharpening my bisexual fucking skills), but my patience was rewarded. I’ve also forgiven my father for being an asshole about the whole thing, because if I had been in his place, I would have done the same thing.

I have empathy, people!

Much has been written about Chuck Berry’s contributions, and the general consensus is that he’s pretty much the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” His guitar stylings alone would have qualified him for legend status, and the list of guitarists he influenced is a mile long. More importantly, no other early composer made the ironic synergy between black blues and white hillbilly music work so seamlessly, giving early rock a crossover power that few genres have ever had. The Beatles and The Stones covered several of his compositions, and before the critics started labeling Brian Wilson a musical genius, he borrowed “Sweet Little Sixteen” as the musical base for “Surfin’ U. S. A.” (and was forced to turn over the copyright to the ARC Music Group, owners of Berry’s catalog). Of the early rockers who actually wrote most of their own songs (sorry, Elvis), only Little Richard and Buddy Holly can approach Chuck Berry’s lasting influence.

While his guitar work and his classic rock patterns were deeply influential, one of his strengths that is often ignored is his ability to write exceptionally compelling lyrics. Most early rock music consists pretty much of variations of “I love you, baby,” “You made a fool out of me, you bitch” or songs about dancing. Many of Chuck Berry’s songs contained vivid descriptions of life in concrete language in the context of great stories full of humor and narrative tension. While he frequently wrote songs designed to appeal to the white teenage market (that’s where the money was), he also wrote about the traditional subjects of love and sexual attraction from perspectives other than the malt shop, often adding discreet social commentary in the process.

Chuck also put out a few stinkers, and when he’d found a gimmick that tickled teenage fancy enough to pull them out of the back seats of their oversized automobiles and spend their allowances at the record shop, Chuck would milk it until the cow ran dry. He frequently re-purposed his own compositions, changing the lyrics and throwing in a musical variation or two. Hence “School Days” was refurbished with a new story line and became “No Particular Place to Go.”

The Great Twenty-Eight takes us through Chuck’s entire period with Chess, from 1955 to 1965, generally in chronological order. The only inexplicable absence is “You Never Can Tell,” which happens to be one of my favorite Chuck Berry songs, dammit! Astute researchers will note a significant time gap between the release of “Come On” in October 1961 and “Nadine” in February 1964. Chuck spent a good part of that time doing a stretch in prison on seriously trumped-up charges involving a 14-year old Native American girl. When he left prison, he found himself riding a new wave of popularity due to the dozens of covers by British Invasion bands . . . but we’re getting ahead of our story.

We begin our journey in July of 1955, the year when the Brooklyn Dodgers would finally win their first and only championship (they would not become the Fucking Dodgers until they moved to Los Angeles and were christened thus by fired-up San Franciscans). July was a big month that year, featuring the opening of Disneyland and no less than three significant events in popular music history that exposed the socio-cultural tensions in the United States during the post-McCarthy years of the Eisenhower administration: the national debut of The Lawrence Welk Show, the rise of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” to the top of the Billboard charts, and the first single released by Chuck Berry, a clever little ditty by the name of . . .

“Maybellene”: Based on an old Bob Wills fiddle tune and named after a tube of mascara, Berry’s first hit single (heavily influenced by Chess bossman Leonard Chess) was specifically designed to appeal to young, horny hot rodders. When Chess ordered Berry to update the lyrics to achieve that end, Berry exceeded all expectations by coming back with an attention-grabbing narrative filled with you-are-there imagery:

As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville
A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin’ about ninety-five
She’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side

When I hear the opening guitar lick, my 1990’s-programmed ear says shouts to the rest of my brain, “Is he using a distortion pedal?” The part attached to my vocal cords says, “No, silly, they wouldn’t be invented for years.” If you’ve ever seen today’s guitarists in live performances, you’ll see that they all have a huge rack of foot pedals to help them achieve various and sundry effects—few of which are as exciting as the tone Chuck Berry achieved with a relatively cheap amp using primitive recording technology.

“Maybellene” is hot and sassy, and must have seemed like the harbinger of the anti-Christ to all those Lawrence Welk fans who tuned in to hear the sweetly inoffensive Lennon Sisters and go gaga at the sight of a band surrounded by soap bubbles. The comparison to Bill Haley’s number is even more telling, as Bill Haley’s approach to rock was more “Let’s have some fun, kids” and Chuck Berry’s approach was more “Let’s do the deed, kids!” “Rock Around the Clock” is corny. “Maybellene” is hot. You could say that Bill Haley’s sound was the sound of “white people rock” and Chuck Berry’s was “black people rock,” and had you made that comment back in 1955, you would have been 100% correct. As rock continued to develop over the years, more white artists would begin to approach their work with the joy and abandon of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, effectively blurring the color line (Elvis and Buddy Holly being the original blurrers). Those who chose to remain forthright and uptight could look forward to twenty-seven-and-one-half fucking years of The Lawrence Welk Show.

“Thirty Days”: The musical twin of “Maybellene” with a similar guitar intro and the exact same rhythm, so the distinguishing features of this song are found in the lyrics. The thirty-day limit in the first verse is a warning to his woman that she’d better get her ass back home in thirty days. In the next two verses, however, the narrator resorts to the criminal justice system to attempt to get his woman back—an ironic step for a black man to take in the pre-civil rights era. Interestingly, Berry threatens to take his problem to the United Nations, beating Eddie Cochran to the punch by about three years.

“You Can’t Catch Me”: Another car song (again, when Chuck found a winning formula, he had a hard time letting it go), this one is noted primarily as the song that caused Berry’s music publisher to sue John Lennon for ripping off the “here come a flattop” line for “Come Together.” Despite the thematic repetition, Chuck’s vocal is strong and confident, the piano backing is pretty cool and the song moves exceptionally well.

“Too Much Monkey Business”: Chuck’s fifth single came out in 1956, the year that millions of boring Americans went to the polls to re-elect a boring president who was lucky enough to run against an even greater bore. While the masses proclaimed “We like Ike,” marveled at the wonders of American progress in the field of consumerism and delighted in their white shirt conformity, Chuck Berry argued that conformity was more of a threat to liberty than communism.

“Too Much Monkey Business” is the anti-Happy Days theme. Each verse is devoted to a link in the conformity chain (wage slavery, consumerism, marriage, education, bureaucracy, militarism and the job), and at the end of all but the first verse Chuck symbolically shakes his head in disgust with a growled “aah”:

Runnin’ to-and-fro, hard workin’ at the mill
Never fail in the mail, yeah, come a rotten bill
Too much monkey business, too much monkey business
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in

Salesman talkin’ to me, tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy now, go on and try, you can pay me next week, ahh!

In addition to an exceptionally fluid vocal performance, Chuck is seriously hot on the guitar, with a ripping opener, a frenetic, extended solo and some fabulous fills.

“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”: This was the flip side of “Too Much Monkey Business,” a pairing that has to make anyone’s top ten lists for the greatest singles in rock history. Inspired by a scene he personally witnessed in California where a Mexican man was hauled away by the cops while his woman shouted at them to let him go, Chuck subtly raises the terrifying specter of the non-white man’s attractiveness to white women while throwing in subtle digs at fundamentally oppressive and corrupt criminal justice system:

Arrested on charges of unemployment,
He was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
She said, “Free that brown-eyed man.
If you want your job you better free that brown-eyed man.”

In the USA, you’re certainly treated like a criminal when you’re out of a job, and as a guy who had already done a stretch in reform school for armed robbery, Chuck Berry had some experience with the inherent corruption in the American legal system.

“Roll Over Beethoven”: The revolution is now! Compared to the million or so covers of this song, the original shines with its testosterone-dripping vocal serving both as the conveyor of the anti-square lyrics and a vital component of the song’s driving rhythm. When the band starts driving the sucker home in the final chorus, Chuck sounds like he’s shaking with erotic delight. While concert music appeals to emotions and intellect, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten off listening to Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, and this celebration of the erotic foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, solidly grounded in the blues, is the perfect cure for any Puritan hang-ups or Catholic guilt hanging around the psyche.

“Havana Moon”: Chuck tries to go Latin on us and the result is massive disappointment. Look, if I wanted 1950’s Latin, I’d turn on I Love Lucy and hope that Ricky Ricardo does “Babalú” in his set at the Tropicana.

“School Days”: While it’s apparent that this song was aimed squarely at white teenagers of the time, “School Days” has turned out to be one of Chuck Berry’s most timeless compositions. When I reflect on my brief existence, I can think of no greater waste of time than the years I spent in an American high school, an environment characterized by lazy, tenured teachers, whitewashed textbooks, ludicrously rigid schedules and seriously confused adolescents. Chuck captures the ennui of the school day in tone and lyric, and though we didn’t have malt shops and jukeboxes in the 90’s, getting the fuck out of there at the end of the day definitely qualified as a “lay your burden down” experience after hours of repressing everything from sexual urges to native intelligence. It’s comforting to know that the teenagers of the 50’s had the same things on their minds that I always have on mine—sex and music:

Drop the coin right into the slot
You’re gotta hear somethin’ that’s really hot
With the one you love, you’re makin’ romance
All day long you been wantin’ to dance,
Feeling the music from head to toe
Round and round and round we go

“Rock and Roll Music”: Great song, but we’d have to wait another seven years for John Lennon to do this song justice. Chuck Berry’s vocal is surprisingly tame, especially when compared to Lennon’s let-it-the-fuck-out performance and Chuck’s own performance on “Roll Over Beethoven.”

“Baby Doll”: Another song for the high school crowd that falls far short of “School Days.” Apparently this was recorded during Chuck’s “Letter Sweater” phase.

“Reelin’ and Rockin’”: Chuck gets back in the groove with a driving, swing-your-partner-round-and-round number with a curious opening guitar bit that is reminiscent of the tones I hear in the Jeff Beck era of the Yardbirds. Great piano runs from either Johnny Johnson or Lafayette Leake—both are credited on the album One Dozen Berrys.

“Sweet Little Sixteen”: One of the classic singles of the era, “Sweet Little Sixteen” is loaded with socio-cultural ironies. Let’s just take the second variation of the chorus as an example:

‘Cause they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand
In Philadelphia P. A.

Though Chuck Berry appeared on American Bandstand, he sure as hell didn’t see any people of color in the teenage dance crowd. That’s because station WFIL banned black teenagers from the studio audience, a prohibition that led to brawls between black and white teenagers on the streets outside. The station was located in a West Philadelphia neighborhood that had already been a focal point of the struggle against racial discrimination in housing, as more African-Americans flocked to West Philly, developed vibrant neighborhoods and pissed off the white demographic. You can find an excellent socio-historical analysis of American Bandstand on Matthew F. Delmont’s website, The Nicest Kids in Town.

The last verse highlights the hypocrisy regarding the double standard and the strict gender expectations of the time:

Sweet little sixteen
She’s got the grown up blues
Tight dresses and lipstick
She’s sportin’ high heel shoes
Oh, but tomorrow morning
She’ll have to change her trend
And be sweet sixteen
And back in class again

The real girl is the one in tight dresses, lipstick and high-heel shoes; the repressed phony is the girl in high school. While most early feminists would run like hell from any honest discussion of female sexuality, here we have a vivid image of a girl wants to feel hot and look hot—and that doesn’t have anything to do with oppression or “learned behavior.” It’s fun to feel sexy, be sexy and look sexy! While this verse may very well reflect male fantasies, what the fuck is wrong with that? People think about sex! Early, late and often! Get over it!

It’s important to note that our little girl was very likely to be labeled a slut by the insecure males of the era, but we’ll cover that aspect of the male psyche when we explore Dion’s contributions to the topic. Cultural complexities aside, “Sweet Little Sixteen” is one hot song with an irresistible chorus and a superb use of stop-time techniques.

“Johnny B. Goode”: It’s just one classic after another with Chuck Berry, isn’t it? From the time Elvis first appeared on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show, young boys have seen the guitar as a powerful and complex symbol. Some saw it as a way to grab attention, others as a way to get girls, and a few others were fascinated by its musical and rhythmic potential. “The guitar is a miniature orchestra in itself,” said Beethoven, a very early recognition of the instrument’s unlimited potential. While the guitar had been used in jazz and classical music, and was a staple in country, folk and blues music, it was rock ‘n’ roll—with a huge assist from television—that turned the guitar into something more than accompaniment.

Although some of the early rockers pounded pianos (Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino), the piano could have never become the center of rock ‘n’ roll for several reasons. One, it was associated with the piano lessons many kids were forced to endure when they would have rather been outside playing baseball or throwing rocks in the pond. Two, in the 50’s, the piano was associated with squares like Liberace, and glam rock was years away. Three, you can’t hold a piano like you can hold a guitar—you can cradle a guitar in your hands like you’d cradle a lover. Last but not least, guitars were a lot cheaper and a lot more portable than a piano—you can’t take a piano to a beach party and you can’t pull it out of your trunk and serenade your honey when your more pedestrian attempts to get past second base have failed.

Think about it: can you imagine a video game called “Piano Hero?”

If it comes out, I want in on the royalties.

“Johnny B. Goode” established the archetype of the guitar hero, and appropriately, Chuck lets it rip in an energetic variation of the opening riff to “Roll Over Beethoven.” It’s a more than suitable introduction, because this is a song that starts with pedal to the floor and never lets up. The story of the poor boy (and his mama) discovering that his guitar playing could forge a path out of poverty and into stardom is a fairy tale that has come true for many successful rockers and still has power today, even with rock in decline. “Johnny B. Goode” is really an updated version of the Horatio Alger myth—and a helluva lot sexier.

“Around and Around”: Chuck varies the rhythm and dynamics in this number, similar in theme to “Rock and Roll Music.” While I appreciate the slight variation, I wish the instrumental passage had been more than a simple repetition of the background rhythm. The Stones and The Dead both got a lot more out of this sucker.

“Carol”: Not my favorite. The lyrics are unusually awkward, the story line confusing and the music is “meh.” Apparently neither Carol nor the narrator can dance, which makes for a less-than-compelling dance song.

“Beautiful Delilah”: A spunky little ripper with a fab opening riff and serious blue note bends on both chords and single notes, I rarely bother listening to the words when this song comes on. This song is about Chuck Berry, guitarist, and he steps up big time here.

As for the story, the girl in the center of the story is a more mature version of Sweet Little Sixteen, seriously focused on using her sexual power to bring the boys to their knees. She’s a precursor of Runaround Sue, and though Chuck doesn’t get as apoplectic as Dion does about a woman having multiple partners, he does comment that “Maybe she will settle down marry after a while.”

Fat chance, dickhead.

“Memphis, Tennessee”: A song that’s been covered by more people than you can count, this one doesn’t move my needle a bit. The discovery that Marie is a 6-year old kid is one of those corny, sentimental twists that often end Spielberg movies, and I hate Spielberg movies. Yeah, I know it’s sad when marriages break up and kids get hurt in the process, but this crosses the line into gross sentimentality without providing much in the way of insight.

“Sweet Little Rock and Roller”: Ditto for this one. The lyrics never come together into an interesting narrative and these stories of rock chicks dressed to the nines and ready for action are starting to get irritating. Move on, Chuck!

“Little Queenie”: Ah, that’s better. It’s still the hot girl theme, but here Chuck allows her to play a part in the classic seduction ritual that begins with the innocuous words, “Wanna dance?” Chuck slips into spoken word for the inner dialogue of the lusting male and nails the tone of delightfully evil intent as he plots his way into her pants:

Meanwhile, I was still thinkin’
If it’s a slow song, we’ll omit it
If it’s a rocker, then we’ll get it
And if it’s good, she’ll admit it
C’mon Queenie, let’s get with it

“Almost Grown”: Chuck Berry rarely used background singers, but when he did, he sure knew how to pick ‘em! Etta James with Harvey & the New Moonglows (who had just hired a young kid named Marvin Gaye) knock it out of the park with a soulful combination of call-and-response and scat vocals. Chuck also varied the formula by holding off on the guitar solo until the second instrumental passage, allowing the piano to provide the fills.

Chuck Berry’s radar was always focused on shifts in his audience demographic, so here he gives us the story about a guy who’s “done married and settled down.” Only a few years before, rockers were ripping up movie theaters, but the combination of Elvis going into the army and the multiple tragedies on The Day the Music Died sucked the life out of the party. The 50’s teen revolution was an adolescent revolution without purpose; the teens of the time didn’t give a shit about politics and never questioned consumerism, segregation or American foreign policy the way their younger sisters and brothers would in the mid-60’s. “Almost Grown” is a dismissal of “the silly things we did as teenagers,” opening the path that would allow this mini-generation to eventually color the entire era with the pastels of nostalgia and turn the Fonz into an inoffensive folk hero:

You know I’m still livin’ in town
But I done married and settled down
Now I really have a ball
So I don’t browse around at all

Don’t bother just leave us alone
Anyway we’re almost grown

“Back in the U. S. A.”: If it seems odd that a black man living most of his life under varying degrees of Jim Crow would write a song celebrating the virtues of the home of the brave, it must be pointed out that Chuck wrote this song after doing a tour in Australia, and this song compares his lifestyle to the primitive existence of the Australian Aborigines. In that context, the song mirrors the tone of the argument Martin Luther King adopted in the “I Have a Dream” speech, basically, “We believe in the same things you do.” While Dr. King was referring to the rights embedded in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Chuck Berry focused on less lofty benefits of the American experience:

Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A.

On that score, consider me as patriotic as Chuck. The French make lousy burgers and pay very little attention to rock ‘n’ roll.

“Let It Rock”: Chuck rips off his own “Johnny B. Goode” in a song about working on the railroad. Hey! Whatever happened to that ditty? “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live-long day . . .” And who was Dinah and why did she blow a horn? Was the horn some kind of sexual euphemism? What was going on in those Pullman cars anyway?

You can see that “Let It Rock” is one of those songs that encourages the mind to wander.

“Bye Bye Johnny”: Yecch. I hate sequels as much as I hate Spielberg movies. Chuck should have let us just imagine the poor kid making it big and moved on.

“I’m Talking About You”: Covered by The Stones, The Hollies and even Hot Tuna, the song lends itself to multiple variations because of its exceptionally strong groove. But what really knocks me out on this cut is Reggie Boyd’s bass. Jesus shit, could that fucker play! He proved to be a challenging person to research, but apparently he was a renowned Chicago jazz guitarist and teacher with exceptional knowledge of music theory and history and gave lessons to guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Rush. This is a bass part light years ahead of anything going on in rock during the 50’s.

“Come On”: Chuck’s last single before entering the slammer is one of my favorite Chuck Berry records. I love Martha Berry’s (Chuck’s sister) harmonies, the sax support and the lyrical depiction of the all-too common experience that one piece of bad news deserves another:

Everything is wrong since me and my baby parted
All day long I’m walkin’ ’cause I couldn’t get my car started
Laid off from job and I can’t afford to check it
I wish somebody’d come along and run into it and wreck it

“Come On” was the Rolling Stones’ first single, a version Mick Jagger correctly described as “shit.”

“Nadine (Is That You?)”: A free man once again, Chuck Berry took “Maybellene,” slowed it down a tad, parked the car and pursued his woman on foot and by taxi. Supported by smooth saxophone and a good steady groove, what makes this song one of Chuck Berry’s greatest are the remarkable lyrics and Chuck’s exceptional phrasing. The lyrics are full of fascinating similes (“She move around like a wave of summer breeze” and “I was movin’ through the traffic like a mounted cavalier”) and memorable imagery:

I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin’ toward a coffee-colored Cadillac
I was pushin’ through the crowd to get to where she’s at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat

Chuck also knows how to move a story forward without wasting words:

Downtown searching for ‘er, looking all around
Saw her getting in a yellow cab heading up town
I caught a loaded taxi, paid up everybody’s tab
Flipped a twenty dollar bill, told him ‘catch that yellow cab

Testifying to the strength of Chuck Berry’s lyrics, both Dylan and Springsteen adored the words to “Nadine.”

“No Particular Place to Go”: Obviously impatient to get back in the groove after wasting away in jail—and never a guy interested in reinventing the wheel—Chuck takes “School Days” and turns it into “No Particular Place to Go,” a song about sexual frustration triggered by a jammed seat belt. While I would look at such a challenge as an opportunity to test out a new form of bondage, Chuck instead drives home for a date with a cold shower. As on “Nadine,” Chuck’s vocal is strong, confident and nuanced. I love the way he dampens his vocal on the line “So I told her softly and sincere” and his tension-loaded staccato delivery on “Can you imagine the way I felt/I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt.” While the tune is beyond familiar, Chuck manages to make it work with his palpable energy and sense of humor.

“I Want to Be Your Driver”: This song closed out the album Chuck Berry in London, but really, they should have gone with “You Never Can Tell,” which truly qualifies as one of the great twenty-eight.

Chuck Berry’s music will never dazzle you with unexpected chord changes and thematic texture: it’s classic twelve-bar, three-chord blues with few variations. The music serves primarily as the foundation for the vocal and lead guitar performances. It sounds exceptionally tight and energetic because Chuck was an exceptional musician lucky enough to work at Chess Records in Chicago, where he could work with of the best musicians of the day: Willie Dixon, Johnnie Johnson, Lafayette Leake. Chuck is an energetic guitar player, but what he lacks in precision he more than compensates for with his sense of rhythm.

Though his music might be (and should be) relatively simple, Chuck Berry managed to accomplish something very few musical artists manage to achieve: he changed lives. When you sit down with The Great Twenty-Eight, the first sounds you hear are the lo-fi guitar coming out of a tube amp shoved back against the wall of the studio, all warm, fuzzy and sexy as Berry glides into “Maybellene,” delivering a spirited vocal with exquisite enunciation at just the right points. As the song proceeds to that primitive but exciting lead solo, imagine yourself a scruffy kid in far off England in the late 1950’s, stuck at the lower layers of the social strata with nothing to look forward to in the future but a dreary sameness, as your life path was determined for you long before you were born. If you were that kid, what you heard in Chuck Berry’s music was so much more than fantastic, kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll.

You heard the way out.

Classic Music Review: Greatest Hits by Dion & The Belmonts

dion

The Teen Idol Era of early rock ‘n’ roll was a fascinating period, but the fascination has little to do with the music.

Although Americans believe they invented the teen idol (and everything else), they were decades late to the party. While some identify Mozart as the first teen idol, that characterization is a Hollywood fiction arising from the release of Amadeus in 1984Franz Liszt is a far more credible candidate for the mantle of Original Teen Heartthrob, as Ken Russell and Roger Daltrey ventured to demonstrate in the film Lisztomaniawith seriously mixed success. Liszt’s mini-bio on Wikipedia describes his impact on the European ladies of the era in a less bizarre, more accessible manner:

After 1842, “Lisztomania” swept across Europe. The reception that Liszt enjoyed as a result can be described only as hysterical. Women fought over his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, which they ripped to shreds as souvenirs. This atmosphere was fuelled in great part by the artist’s mesmeric personality and stage presence. Many witnesses later testified that Liszt’s playing raised the mood of audiences to a level of mystical ecstasy.

Mystical ecstasy, my ass. Those broads went back to their mansions with soaked horsehair crinolines under their tepee-sized skirts.

While Liszt was a musical genius and one of the greatest pianists in history, it was his physicality that set all those buried clitorises aflutter. If you get the chance to visit the beautiful city of Budapest, take a stroll through Lizst Ferenc Square and look for his statue—you can’t miss it. On my first trip to the city, I happened to run into a group of America tourists who were also admiring Liszt in bronze. I remember one older gentleman with a Southern twang remarked, “Looks just like Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Bingo.

liszt-ferenc-square

Puritan America really didn’t join the party until the Roaring 20’s, when a peculiar-looking gent by the name of Rudy Vallee became something of a teen sensation. Possessing zero erotic energy himself, he had to rely on a prop to transform flappers into melted butter. That prop was the megaphone, which oozed with symbolic bisexuality: long enough to symbolize the phallus, with a hole wide enough to accommodate the whole fraternity.

Yes, I see sex in everything.

Fast forward to the 1940’s, when a skinny little Italian guy made bobby soxers swoon to his croon. The Frank Sinatra of the 40’s was a scrawny little runt, the kind of guy you’d push into the gutter if you ran into him on the street. Somehow his voice did the trick, which will give you some idea just how fucking horny all those broads waiting for Johnny to come marching home must have been.

The common thread that links the early American teenage hearthrobs—Vallee, Crosby, Sinatra—is that they are disgustingly clean and wholesome. They just stand there and sing. They don’t shake their fannies, they don’t growl their vocals, and they would certainly never utter any vocalization that approached a scream or even hinted at a moan.

So when Elvis burst onto the scene, all hell broke loose. Pandora’s Box flew wide open and the frightening power of repressed sexual energy flooded the airwaves. Many of the great early rockers were blatantly sexual, expressing libido in faintly salacious lyrics and raucous performances. The early recordings of Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis were recordings of men on fire. Teenagers reacted accordingly and started defying long-standing societal norms, smoking before they were “old enough,” hanging out with the “wrong crowd” and ripping up the seats in movie theaters.

Both parents and the powerful were deeply alarmed. They wanted their kids to have good, clean fun! They wanted their boys to expend their despicable animal instincts on the football field or in the boxing ring! They wanted their girls to shake pom-poms, keep their cherries unpunctured and wait for the wedding night! Oh, Lord, save us from these greasy-haired minions who threaten our American way of life!

And the Lord heard the cries of the people and gave them Pat Boone. Clean-living, neatly-trimmed, cashmere-clad, lily-white down to his white bucks Pat Boone. A man perfectly qualified to bleach any traces of degenerate Negro influence from rock ‘n’ roll.

And because the Lord’s divine powers included the ability to capitalize on the stupid and fearful, he decided to become fruitful and multiply, building a veritable assembly line of squeaky-clean teen idols throughout the late 50’s and early 60’s: Ricky Nelson, Johnny Tillotson, Bobby Darin, Paul Anka, Brian Hyland, Gene Pitney. Because the Lord tuned in faithfully to American Bandstand every week, he graced the city of Philadelphia with special consideration and gave us Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Frankie Avalon. These teen idols had one thing in common: they were absolutely safe. Most of them wanted to grow up and graduate to the Easy Listening channels and become the next Sinatra. Except for Ricky Nelson and Fabian, none of them were particularly good-looking. But the Lord is nothing if not thorough, so to neutralize Fabian’s attractiveness the Lord smote his throat and rendered him incapable of carrying a tune, then entered the body of the sleeping Ricky Nelson and gave him a special tonsillectomy that robbed poor Ricky of the ability to express anything resembling an emotion. The Lord also took pity on the daughters of Eve and gave them Connie Francis, Shelly Fabares and Annette Funicello, all of whom were willing to play the role of sweet, submissive girls completely dependent on male attention to provide them with any sense of identity.

Meanwhile, the Lord, working in the usual mysterious ways, managed to get Elvis drafted in to the Army, called on Little Richard to spread the gospel, used feminine wiles to get Jerry Lee Lewis to marry his teenage cousin, and cooked up some trumped-up charges that eventually earned Chuck Berry a stretch in prison. Having smitten the fuck out of all his enemies, the Lord could now rest and listen to the angelic, boring music provided by his creations. “Venus.” “Sealed with a Kiss.” “Splish, Splash.”

Holy fucking Jesus, the Lord has powerful bad taste!

Fortunately, it turned out that the Lord was less than omnipotent and a few talented originals managed to penetrate the AM airwaves: Roy Orbison, Del Shannon and Dion DiMucci. I’ve already reviewed Roy Orbison’s magnificent contributions to music and will get to Del Shannon in short order. I chose to do Dion first because of his obvious vocal talent and because out of all the teen idols of the era, he was by far the most sexy.

And the most sexist.

There are times I want to do delightfully nasty things with Dion and there are times I want to slap him silly, like he wanted to slap Little Diane. What’s remarkable about Dion is that even while he is mouthing the most sexist shit I’ve ever heard on record, I still enjoy listening to him sing. On all of the tracks in this collection—even the stinkers—he brings everything he’s got to his performance. That energy becomes problematic when he’s singing lyrics that barely rise above the level of Neanderthal in terms of his relations with the opposite sex: his commitment to the music is so strong he sounds like he means every word he’s singing. While I realize that Dion did not have complete control over song selection, and that he was performing in an era when the norms denied women both free will and independent thought, it pisses me off that he seemed to enjoy singing that crap. He even wrote some of it, so his hands are decidedly not clean.

I can partially forgive him because in a very difficult time, Dion was one of the few who kept the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll alive with his energy. I admire his willingness to actually bend the blue notes instead of treating them as another boring step in the melody, and I certainly respect his complete commitment to his craft. This 1999 collection from Germany’s Repertoire Records is wonderful in that includes all the major hits from the Belmonts era and Dion’s solo years, but absolutely dreadful in its failure to present the songs in anything approaching chronological order. Instead of following the CD’s track order, I’m going to evaluate the songs in their proper sequence.

1958

“I Wonder Why”: The Platters and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers brought doo-wop into mainstream white consciousness with their televised appearances in the mid-1950’s, and guys who couldn’t afford guitars embraced the genre with a passion, most notably in the Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York. Dion was one of those kids from the Bronx with a passion for doo-wop, and his vocal talent had already earned him a recording contract with a minor label. Unfortunately, the producers paired him with a group called The Timberlanes, who were more barbershop quartet than doo-wop. Frustrated with the shotgun marriage and firmly committed to his artistic vision, he pulled together some guys from his neighborhood and started working with them to sharpen their harmonies and timing. Since all four guys lived on or around Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, naming the group The Belmonts was both convenient and an act of neighborhood pride.

Nearly sixty years after its release, “I Wonder Why” remains a fabulous listening experience. Dion’s vocal arrangement is nothing short of brilliant, and the combination of youthful enthusiasm, exceptional harmonic layering and perfect timing is breathtaking. The repetitive drum part almost seems superfluous; the group’s sense of rhythm is so strong that I almost wish they had recorded the song with finger snaps and maybe a double bass deep in the background. The alternating verses of story and nonsense syllables keep the listener’s attention focused on music and rhythm, practically begging you to add your own vocal to the mix. “I Wonder Why” was Dion and the Belmonts’ first single, and lo and behold, it entered the Top 30, peaking at #22. Shoulda made the Top 10.

“No One Knows”: Opening with the chorus melody strummed on acoustic guitar, “No One Knows” is an unusual slow dance number in that it opts for heartbreak over puppy love. Dion approaches the song with suitable emotional restraint, capturing the broken-hearted hero’s confusion and embarrassment in relation to the break-up without crossing the line into the maudlin. The Belmonts are in deep background here, providing a soft and subtle foundation for one of Dion’s loveliest vocals. The song was co-written by then-budding songwriter Ernie Maresca, who would provide Dion with some of his most chauvinistic hits. I shall flog both men for those crimes later in this review; for this song, a few well-placed love taps with a riding crop will do.

1959

“A Teenager in Love”: Dion and the Belmonts broke into the Top 10 with a single that came close to perfection on multiple levels. The narrator’s story must have resonated with the majority of teens in the listening audience, who found it impossible to discuss sexual and emotional matters with parents or pals. Although they didn’t call it “teenage angst” in the 1950’s, “A Teenager in Love” is actually a purer and more direct expression of angst than the neurotic suicidal ramblings of the drama queen teens of the late 20th century. While the alleged psychological problems of 90’s teenagers seemed more complex due to a slew of new psychological disorders invented by drug companies to reassure often-absent parents that they were entirely within their rights to pump their kids full of dangerous drugs to make them behave, 50’s teenagers lived in a more conformist era and had more modest needs. They wanted to find a partner of the opposite sex, go to the malt shop or the burger joint, head over to the movie theater to catch a double feature, hold hands and make out . . . and maybe get to second base. When that didn’t work out as hoped, the emotional turmoil fueled by hormonal denial and the innate frustration of physiological development (periods, zits and gawkiness) made these teenagers very . . . well, sad. Just sad, okay? Don’t turn it into borderline depression or personality disorder or bipolar whatever-the-fuck—they were SAD, S-A-D, SAD! Dion’s gentle vocal and the Belmonts’ sweet and tender background vocals convey this sadness in a way that reassured teens everywhere that they were not alone when it came to disappointment in romance. “A Teenager in Love” is one of those rare iconic songs deserving of iconic status.

1960

“Where or When”: This is where (or when) Dion and the Belmonts finally mastered the slow dance number, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. This Rodgers & Hart number has been covered by nearly everyone in the music trade, from Vaughn Monroe to Mario Lanza to Dinah Shore to Duke Ellington to Art Tatum, but only Dion and the Belmonts’ version managed to crack the top ten. The intro combining the voices of the Belmonts with a saxophone is a killer opener, and the group nails the more complex chordal harmonies during the build while carefully managing the dynamics to achieve a beautifully satisfying conclusion. “Where or When” would prove to be the high point for Dion and the Belmonts, for whenever an artist of this era produced a major hit, the record company executives would insist that the artist reproduce the formula until the well ran dry.

“When You Wish Upon a Star”: Oh, for fuck’s sake. Walt Fucking Disney songs? You have to be fucking kidding me. It was pretty obvious by now that the group’s masters wanted to rid any traces of Negro influence from the group’s sound, so why not take it one step further and connect that sound to a guy who was a hero to white people everywhere? This rather obvious attempt on the part of Laurie Records to push Dion and the Belmonts toward the easy listening channels was a relative flop, peaking at #30. The only sort-of-redeeming feature of this turkey is that Brian Wilson borrowed parts of the melody for “Surfer Girl.” Guess it didn’t take much to earn genius status in the old days.

“In the Still of the Night”: This is probably not the song you associate with the song title, which is the soulful doo-wop rendition by The Five Satins. This rendition is the Cole Porter tune of the same name, a rather ponderous ditty that Ella Fitzgerald managed to turn into a halfway decent piece of music. The fact that it’s not a cover of the doo-wop classic tells you just how far Dion and the Belmonts strayed from their roots in only two years.

There were also other problems the group had to deal with in the momentous year of 1960. Dion had checked into rehab for heroin addiction early in the year, and the group had begun to bicker over finances, musical direction and just for the hell of it. It was pretty obvious that if Dion was going to continue to pursue a musical career, he’d have to do it on his own.

“Lonely Teenager”: Dion’s first single as a solo act reached #12 on the charts, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out why. The lyrics are irritatingly repetitive and astonishingly vague about why the teen ran away in the first place. We hear him struggle over the choice to go home or stay away, but he fails to describe the pluses and minuses of either choice—only the stray line, “I know I’d be alright/If I just stay out of sight” hints at parental abuse as the possible cause for his flight to freedom.

If vagueness were the only flaw in “Lonely Teenager,” it might have been an okay single, but who the fuck were those background singers? After extensive research, I could find no trace of their identities, only the mysteriously anonymous phrase, “backing group with a female lead.” They’re fortunate to remain anonymous, because this qualifies as one of the worst vocal backgrounds in history. The vocals drip with manufactured sadness for the poor baby teenager, which is irritating enough, but their worst crime is the use of the hard “r” when they elongate the ending syllable of the chorus: lonely teen-a-JURRRRRRR. It’s really annoying in contrast with the virtually unpronounced r’s in Dion’s Bronx accent—a fingernails on the chalkboard experience par excellence.

I have no idea why Dion’s handlers didn’t take a tip from Bobby Rydell and hire first-class background singers like Dee Dee Sharp, but apparently they learned from their nearly unforgivable mistake and got it right on the next go-round—-big time.

1961

“Runaround Sue”: After three follow-up singles that went absolutely nowhere, Dion called for a change of pace and expressed a desire for backing singers with a “rockier” sound. Enter The Del-Satins, who would continue to support Dion during his peak period—support that was largely uncredited. I don’t know whose decision it was to leave the Del-Satins languishing in undercover status, but it was a shitty thing to do. Harrumph!

Whether due to the energy of The Del-Satins or Dion’s need to rock the fuck out, “Runaround Sue” represented a major departure from his established vocal style. After a dose of old-style, sweet Dion in the morose opening lines, you hear him start to raise the temperature during the two doo-wop verses that follow. By the time the first verse rolls around, Dion is belting it out with an underlying growl that tells you the man has found both his voice and his libido. The classic Dion technique of adding an extra syllable to the end of a line (“I might miss her lips and the smile on her face-uh/The touch of her hair and this girl’s warm embrace-uh”) expresses an overflow of passion that is terribly exciting. Compared to most of the crap produced by white singers during the early 60’s, Dion’s vocal brims with fire and titillating sexuality. “Runaround Sue” is Dion’s liberation moment, when he finally began to reach his enormous potential.

Long time readers of this blog will likely assume that I might take some exception to the lyrics to “Runaround Sue,” particularly their depiction of a sexually-curious girl as a worthless slut. Hmm. Let me think about that.

No fucking shit I take exception to the lyrics! “Runaround Sue” is the ultimate expression of the ancient and stupid belief that it’s okay for men to sow their overrated oats but women have to wait for Prince Charming to get their rocks off. The narrator is a typical male whiner who can’t get over his childish belief that once he favors a lady with his attention, she becomes his personal property. Sue, who is obviously ten times more mature than this possessive little prick, tells him to bugger off. For that act alone, she serves as a role model to women everywhere who want to make their own choices and not depend upon the vagaries of the male penis for personal fulfillment. I have modeled my life after Runaround Sue, choosing to fuck whom I want when I want while being completely transparent about my motives and intent. Given all the variations in penis size, shape and behavior, it would be the height of hetero-female stupidity to hope to hit the great dick lottery on your wedding night. Women need to sample the goods as much as men do. Let’s all sow our oats in honor of Runaround Sue!

Unwittingly, Dion created one of the first heroes of the feminist movement.

“The Majestic”: Dance crazes dominated the early 60’s, and this piece was designed to give Dion some exposure to the dance crowd. The song is clunky, corny and beyond trite, and to his credit, Dion sounds rather awkward and uncomfortable about the whole thing. Released as an A-side, it kinda sorta disappeared due to a rather strong B-side . . . something called “The Wanderer.”

“The Wanderer”: If you thought I had issues with “Runaround Sue,” you can imagine my reaction to a song that celebrates the virtues of serial molesters. This guy is a total fucking L-O-S-E-R:

Oh well I’m the type of guy who will never settle down
Where pretty girls are, well, you know that I’m around
I kiss ’em and I love ’em ’cause to me they’re all the same
I hug ’em and I squeeze ’em they don’t even know my name

Whoa, dude! Women are all the same? Are we all standard-issue biological appliances? You just use us to open the door and shove things in and out, just like you manage your beer supply? And wait—are you telling me that you think you can put your filthy hands all over a woman’s body whenever when you feel like it, without even asking? Ever heard of boundaries, dude?

Later we learn that his sex addiction leads him to pursue women all over the country. Why would he waste all that gas when he believes all women are the same?

I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around
I’m never in one place I roam from town to town
And when I find myself a-fallin’ for some girl, yeah
I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world

Dion attempted to apologize in a way for this despicable prick, but even Wikipedia could see through that pathetic attempt at bullshit:

(Dion): At its roots, it’s more than meets the eye. “The Wanderer” is black music filtered through an Italian neighborhood that comes out with an attitude. It’s my perception of a lot of songs like “I’m A Man” by Bo Diddley or “Hoochie Coochie Man” by Muddy Waters. But you know, “The Wanderer” is really a sad song. A lot of guys don’t understand that. Bruce Springsteen was the only guy who accurately expressed what that song was about. It’s “I roam from town to town and go through life without a care, I’m as happy as a clown with my two fists of iron, but I’m going nowhere.” In the fifties, you didn’t get that dark. It sounds like a lot of fun but it’s about going nowhere.

However, on Maresca’s original demo of the song, the lyrics were “with my two fists of iron and my bottle of beer”, and the change to “with my two fists of iron but I’m going nowhere” in fact seems to have been at the record company’s insistence.

There are more flaws in his mea culpa. I don’t have a problem with songs like “I’m a Man” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” because those songs are about guys strutting their stuff. Both sexes have the inalienable right to strut stuff in pursuit of sexual nirvana. Those songs are simply invitations to try a better dick than the other guy’s; they’re expressions of classic macho bravado easily tamed by any woman with an ounce of confidence and self-respect. “The Wanderer” is a fucking jerk who has no self-control and deserves several swift kicks in the nuts before heading into long-term therapy.

Putting aside my distaste for the ethical failings of the song, “The Wanderer” is a first-class vocal performance with tremendous energy. Dion is seriously on his game here, the lovable bastard, and The Del-Satins are subtly outstanding. The sax solo in the bridge, played over The Del-Satins superb vocalizations, is one of the best musical interludes of the era.

1962

Lovers Who Wander”: Following nearly the exact same structure and melody of “Runaround Sue,” this song confirmed the basic assumption of record company executives everywhere: if you find the right formula, stick to it. Dion co-wrote the song with Ernie Maresca, so it’s obvious he bought into the formulaic dogma as well. Interestingly, I find his vocal on this song to be even stronger than his work on “Runaround Sue,” which tells you that a great performer has more leeway than the average busker when it comes to song selection.

“Little Diane”: Holy fuck, is that a kazoo? Why in the hell would they use a kazoo when they obviously had good saxophonists at their beck-and-call? That ridiculous instrument cancels any attempt to take this song about another lying slut seriously, but the lyrics show that the singer of “Runaround Sue” was now starting to lose all sense of emotional control:

Yeah, I wanna pack and leave and slap your face
Bad girls like you are a disgrace
A-way down deep inside I cry
Without you little Diane I’d die

I should drag you down ’cause you’re no good
You’re two-faced, your heart’s made of wood
A way down deep inside I cry
Without you little Diane I’d die

Dion wrote this one, so he has nowhere to hide. My read is that the narrator is in obvious denial of his desire to experience female domination, and deserves several serious whipping sessions to get his head and dick straight.

“Love Came to Me”: Dion gets back to his doo-wop roots in this easy, soulful number supported by The Del-Satins with their typical professionalism. Dion sounds particularly joyful on this piece, as if he’s just leaning his head back and enjoying the experience of singing. Dee-lighful!

“Ruby Baby”: Even changing record companies from Laurie to Columbia couldn’t end Dion’s hot streak. His sixth Top 10 hit in a row was a remake of a Drifters’ doo-wop number, and I’ll take Dion’s rendition any time. The arrangement is very clever, opening with strummed guitar supporting a pretty nimble guitar run before Dion enters the mix with the first two lines of the verse. With perfect timing, the bass vocalist enters with a descending oh-oh-oh-oh while Dion begins his melodic transition to the chord change on the third line, where percussion, Dion and Del-Satins come together as smoothly as a nice shot of Chambord. This Lieber-Stoller number is free of any insulting comments about the stronger sex, making it a completely satisfying experience.

“Sandy”: Dion understandably fell out of the Top 10 with a song that never decides what it wants to be. The song structure is awkward, with an unusual I-III-I-VII-V chorus stuck in the middle of C-Am-F-G verses. The lyrics are quite confusing: Dion jauntily dumps Sandy’s ass in the first verse; tells the story of dumping her to a third party in the next verse, while admitting “I’d crawl back if I could;” then proclaims his desperate need for her touch despite her unfaithfulness. In a very revealing line, Dion sings, “Oh, it’s worth this pain/I can’t explain.”

I can explain it, baby. Now be a good boy put this slave collar on. Mistress will come back to humiliate you later.

“This Little Girl”: Dion translates Taming of the Shrew for the less educated in a mid-tempo, relaxed doo-wop influenced piece. I find it fascinating that the men of early rock ‘n’ roll, up to and especially including John Lennon, were terrified of “being made a fool” by some girl and not embarrassed to admit it. They might have well as hung a sign around their neck reading “SUFFERING FROM CHRONIC INSECURITY—PLEASE HELP.” Nice song, but once again, Dion fell short of the Top 10.

“Be Careful of the Stones You Throw”: Dion’s dad was a country music aficionado and a huge fan of Hank Williams, bless his heart, so it isn’t all that surprising that his son would record one of Hank’s “Luke the Drifter” numbers written by an Arkansas miss by the name of Bonnie Dodd. Based on one of Jesus’ best lines, the story deals with the “bad girl on the block” (she drinks alcohol!) and how her gossipy neighbor refuses to let her play with her child . . . then one day the bad girl sacrifices her own life to save that mother’s child after the dumb kid ran into the street in front of a car. This listener hopes the mother was racked with searing, permanent guilt for the rest of her miserable existence. The almost holy feel of the song, intensified by spoken word intervals, was a major departure for Dion, but like nearly every other song he touched, he handled it like a pro.

“Donna the Prima Donna”: Hey, Dion’s new song just came out! I wonder what this one’s about? A girl with “roving eyes?” No kidding! Wow! How utterly fucking original of him!

While Dion continues to beat his metaphorically hairy chest in his never-changing role of the guy terrified of being played for a fool, “Donna the Prima Donna” does differ from the other slut songs in Dion’s catalogue in that he takes nearly sadistic pride in skewering her for her pretensions:

I remember the nights we dated,
Always acting sophisticated,
Talking about high society,
Then she tried to make a fool out of me . . .

She always wears charms, diamonds, pearls galore,
She buys them at the 5 & 10 cents
She wants to be just like Zsa Zsa Gabor,
Even though she’s the girl next door.

Gee, I kinda feel sorry for Donna. Most of the kids I knew had all kinds of pretensions about what they wanted to be someday; I think it’s part of the teenage experience to try on different personalities like one would try on costumes for Halloween. Better to let her figure it out for herself than suffer the pain of humiliation through behind-the-back whispers. Despite the return of the slut theme, the song returned Dion to the Top 10, so what the fuck do I know.

“Drip Drop”: This is a semi-novelty song in an era in love with novelty songs. I loathe them all. Another Drifters cover of a Leiber-Stoller composition, I can’t dispute the quality of Dion’s vocal, but I’m simply turned off by a song based solely on onomatopoeia.

“Drip Drop” would be Dion’s last trip to the Top 10 for five years: The British Invasion and his decision to explore the blues relegated Dion to temporary obscurity. During the period from 1964-1967, his most significant public exposure arose from his inclusion on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. In 1968 he found himself transformed by an intense religious experience and returned to rehab in another attempt to rid himself of heroin addiction. Fortunately, he hadn’t burned his bridges when he left Laurie for Columbia, and Laurie agreed to sign him to a contract under the condition that he record a song called “Abraham, Martin and John.”

“Abraham, Martin And John” Written by a guy whose only “credit” to his name was the ridiculous Royal Guardsmen hit, “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron,” “Abraham, Martin and John” put Dion back into the Top 10 and resuscitated his career. While I have serious issues with the helplessness implied in the cliché theme of “only the good die young,” I have no quarrel with Dion’s sensitive and sincere performance. He sounds great, imbuing the song with a hint of his R&B roots to give it a slight gospel feel.

Dion’s life did not end in 1968. Throughout much of the 70’s he wore the singer-songwriter mantle, and while his efforts did not translate into commercial success, he gained the respect of contemporaries like Pete Townsend for his album Born to Be with You. At the end of the decade he became a born-again Christian and sung about his evangelical beliefs through much of the 1980’s. After he agreed to perform his classic numbers at Radio City Music Hall in 1987, he drifted back into the rock scene, and continues to record and perform to this day.

Dion’s influence can hardly be underestimated. As Lou Reed noted in speech inducting Dion into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, “He has the chops, and he practically invented the attitude.” At a time when everyone else was following marching orders to lose the attitude, Dion kept the flame alive long enough for The Beatles to enter the picture and restore rock ‘n’ roll to its pre-eminent status as the music that never dies. For that, I can easily forgive all his early misogyny and embrace him as one of the greats of rock ‘n’ roll.

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