When the geniuses who are wasting their talents hacking elections get around to doing something beneficial for the human race, I hope they apply their noggins to figuring out the mystery of time travel. I have five stops on my itinerary:
- June 16, 1904, Dublin, Ireland, the day described in Ulysses by James Joyce, now celebrated as Bloomsday. I want to see all the sights and come up with my very own witty and obscene internal dialogue!
- Le Chabanais, Paris, 1943. I’d pose as a high-class hooker at the leading brothel in Paris, use my bondage skills on Nazi clients and deliver them bound-and-gagged to the underground! No Nazis in my pussy!
- Easter Sunday, 1967, Elysian Park, Los Angeles. That’s the place and time of the first love-in and I want to go for the championship trophy! They did give away trophies, didn’t they?
- May-June, 1981, Bonds International Casino, New York. The Clash played seventeen gigs at Bonds during that period and I want to see every fucking one!
- Mid-1950’s, 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, Chi-Town, the home of Chess Records. I’d crawl through the duct work and hide myself in the ceiling so I could watch Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Mr. Elias McDaniel create history.
I think I’d have the most fun with Mr. McDaniel, aka Bo Diddley. For one, he has a fabulous laugh, and many of his songs make me laugh. For another, his lyrics combine ludicrous hyperbole and blatant self-mythologizing, but even when he’s strutting his stuff, I get the sense that he didn’t take himself all that seriously. But most importantly, his sense of rhythm comes straight from his cojones, infusing his music with sexual power, and I love sexual power, no matter who’s dishing it out. In the liner notes for this collection, Don Snowdon emphatically validates my perception: “But make no mistake, Bo Diddley played body rock—his musical sights were set on the listener’s hips from the git-go.”
Humor, modesty and as horny as fuck. AND he had a square guitar designed specifically to avoid damaging his hyperactive private parts. Yeah, I could go for Bo Diddley.
“Bo Diddley” (March 2, 1955): Elias’ greatest claim to fame is the Bo Diddley beat, a clave rhythm that some count as “shave and a haircut—two bits” (seven eighth-notes and a rest) while others hear six eighth-notes, a rest and a quarter-note at the end of the run. I hear both, depending on how Bo is feeling it at the moment. Musical analysis aside, what sells the beat is the echo of Afro-Caribbean rhythms that naturally stimulate a rhythmic response in the nether regions, encouraging the listener to dance, shake some ass or engage in a little dry humping with a more adventurous dance partner. Bo was smart enough to make the Latin connection and milk it for all it was worth by taking the unusual step of making maracas master Jerome Green a regular in his recording sessions.
The Bo Diddley beat is prominent in this first song he recorded at Chess, with heavily-tremeloed guitar, maracas and Clifton James’ tom toms front-and-center. Bo doesn’t bother with note-picking in this piece, focusing entirely on the rhythmic potential of the guitar. The sound he manages to create through relatively primitive equipment is mesmerizing, and gives me the urge to jump onto the stage the next time I’m attending a rock concert so I can set fire to all those fucking pedal boards guitarists are enamored with these days. “Just play the fucking instrument, for fuck’s sake!” I’d scream as the security forces dragged me into the wings. Sorry, but in my never-humble opinion, technology is too often used to disguise a profound lack of musical talent. And no, I’m not an anti-technology Luddite, as my reviews of Radiohead, Devo and St. Vincent will conclusively prove. I’m just tired of lazy-ass musicians who don’t respect the craft.
This first song was his first and only #1 hit (on the R&B charts), and while we’re piling on the firsts, his first effort in transforming himself into a mythic figure. While speaking of himself in the third-person may seem pompous, pay attention to the lyrics—this is clearly a guy without the slightest tinge of pretentiousness:
Bo Diddley caught a nanny goat
To make his pretty baby a Sunday coat
Bo Diddley caught a bear cat
To make his pretty baby a Sunday hat
Not exactly like strolling into Bergdorf Goodman to shop for a designer mink stole.
“I’m a Man” (March 2, 1955): This all-time classic was the B-side to “Bo Diddley,” believe it or not. Bo Diddley could have retired after that single and still have become a legend.
If you’re accustomed to The Yardbirds’ treatment, you may get a little impatient with the slower tempo of the original, but I’d encourage you to get the fuck over it. The Yardbirds version is a classic rave-up where they use the structure of the original as takeoff point for the thrilling guitar-harmonica call-and-response that follows the verses, which in turn leads to the equally thrilling and positively furious high-voltage scratch-strummed build to the final collapse. Bo Diddley’s version is pure Chicago blues featuring a stellar performance on the harp courtesy of Billy Boy Arnold. It’s a piece of slow-burn foreplay from a man knows he can deliver the goods and is seriously feeling it from the base of his balls all the way up to the tip of his Johnson:
Now when I was a little boy
At the age of five
I had somethin’ in my pocket
Keep a lot of folks alive
At the age of five? Because I didn’t have a little brother, I knew nothing about little boy wee-wee sticks until I found that “erection is common among infants and toddlers” at newkidscenter.com. Here’s the scoop:
How to handle child erections. We all know that babies are curious, eager to learn more about themselves and the world. Child erections are part of his attempts to get to know his own body. Although they may make you feel embarrassed, it is important to handle these situations with utmost attentiveness and tact.
- You mustn’t make the boy feel ashamed, as if he is doing something dirty. Keep in mind that your behavior at these first stages will influence his sexual outlook and behavior in later years.
- Try not to panic and don’t let the boy get over-excited. You can put him in a cool bath and try to distract him until things return to normal.
What if your baby likes to play with his penis? If you notice that your baby boy likes touching and rubbing his penis, trying to get an erection, you don’t need to worry. This is a perfectly normal child’s behavior, says Anita Sethi, research scientist at the Child and Family Policy Center at New York University, quoted by “Parenting” magazine. She assures that the boy will outgrow this habit sooner or later.
I’ve never known a guy who outgrew that particular habit, and apparently, Bo Diddley took great pride in turning the habit into a discipline so he could parade his big bulge around town. Not only does this doctor-approved citation validate Bo’s early-stage braggadocio, but confirms the wisdom of my own approach to the sight of a male erection—I always handle those situations with utmost attentiveness and tact, because if I don’t, latent male insecurity will overtake the urge, leaving him with a deflated plaything and me with an empty toy box.
As the saying goes, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, and Bo clearly wanted the female members of the listening audience that he was available and certifiably reliable:
All you pretty women
Stand in line
I can make love to you baby
In an hour’s time
BTW on the “in an hour’s time” bit of “I’m a Man” – I always took that to mean not that the singer will take an hour to pleasure the listener, but that he will do so an hour from now (for an unspecified amount of time) – i.e. she’s just got to wait for him! That makes more sense of Muddy Waters’ version (“Mannish Boy”), which ups the ante on all of Bo Diddley’s boasts and changes the announcement to “five minutes’ time”! Bo likes to keep his woman waiting, but Muddy prefers to strike while the iron’s hot . . .
I agree completely. There’s no way that Muddy Watters would finish a fuck in five minutes—such an act would contradict his documented pride in his sturdy companion and leave the woman unsatisfied, which in turn would endanger his reputation (yes, guys, women tell other women everything about your fuck style, in exquisite and extensive detail). Muddy’s message indicates he also makes customer service a priority, reducing the wait to the minimum time necessary to brush his teeth and attend to his armpits. In contrast, Bo Diddley makes you wait a whole fucking hour, meaning that either he needs more time to prepare his body for the upcoming competition, or he’s fucking another broad. If he’s fucking another broad, he’s also keeping an eye on the clock so he can get to the next customer within the stated one-hour limit. Unacceptable! If I saw a guy checking his watch during a fuck, that watch would wind up as evidence against me, because the frozen watch face would tell the police the exact time I murdered the worthless SOB. Offering a waiting time of one hour can be a successful marketing strategy only if the waiting time is compensated by the greatest fuck in history, a continuous cascade of orgasms that would induce a heroin-level addiction to Bo Diddley, thus ensuring a return visit to the shop:
The line I shoot
Will never miss
The way I make love to ’em
They can’t resist
Gosh, I wish I could check Consumer Reports or a well-populated Yelp listing . . . Sorry, Bo, I think I’ll have to go with Muddy, as he doesn’t have any limits to the duration of a fuck, and I need a minimum of two hours to feel all is right with the world.
“You Don’t Love Me (You Don’t Care)” (March 2, 1955): Bo switches to picking during the opening passage of this Chicago blues number, more notable for the instrumental passages featuring Billy Boy Arnold’s energetic harp and Otis Spann’s extended piano solo. While Otis’ fingers dance over the keyboard, Billy Boy plays an extended note that I could swear was elongated guitar feedback until the need to breathe gives him away. The sound blends well with what Otis is laying down, as his style is both fluid and captivating—an excellent demonstration of why he’s considered the best Chicago blues piano player of them all.
“Diddley Daddy” (May 15, 1955): Oh, darn. Billy Boy called in sick today. Who else we got? Hey! Does anybody here know how to play the harmonica? Who the hell are you? Did you say Walter? Geez, what happened to you? Looks like someone landed a few good jabs on your puss. You sure you can play with that missing tooth? What the hell—let’s give it a shot.
A full stable of first-class musicians always seemed to be hanging out at Chess Records, and Bo Diddley wound up featuring many of them on his records. Willie Dixon played bass on “I’m a Man,” and here Little Walter takes a break from his work with Muddy Watters, pulls a harp out of his pocket and gives us a more than a few good licks, moving from an extended moan to a series of runs that occasionally mimic a hot blues cornet. The Moonglows provide the background vocals while Bo takes another opportunity to advertise his manhood, but in a very unexpected yet charming manner. Somebody kissed his baby last night, a kiss that was apparently unwanted and left the poor girl in tears. In recounting her story, she tells him “Say Bo Diddley, you know you’re a natural-born man,” and he responds, “I say I love you baby with all my heart/Please don’t never say we’ll part.” Emotional support is a much better response than hunting down the perpetrator and beating the living shit out of him.
“Pretty Thing” (July 14, 1955): The song that gave one of my favorite and unheralded British bands their name is a Willie Dixon number set to a shimmery Bo Diddley beat. The song is unusual because unlike many Bo Diddley beat songs that remain fixed on a single chord, Bo strays from the root in the instrumental passages, moving up to G, sliding down to F#, then a quick change to D5 before he returns to E. The lyrics are a rather conventional proposal of marriage complete with choir and the cliché “blushing bride,” but the tightly intertwined guitar, harmonica and rhythm keep you in your seat. “Pretty Thing” made it to #4 in the U. S. R&B charts, but would not be released in Britain for another eight years—just in time to fuel the British Invasion and give The Pretty Things their name.
“Bring It to Jerome” (July 14, 1955): Lester Davenport kicks this one off with a brief blast of harmonica, inspiring a long wail from Bo while Jerome Green provides what will morph into the response to Bo’s lines in the verses: “Bring it to Jerome.” What’s going on here is Jerome’s main squeeze has been seeking satisfaction elsewhere, and while Bo relates that mournful story in an aching, pleading voice, his maracas-playing pal keeps repeating “Bring it to Jerome.” The pairing seems to make little sense until Jerome takes over the lead vocal with one . . . no, two things on his mind:
All you pretty women
Bring it to my home
You don’t have to worry
I won’t do you no wrong
Look here pretty baby
This mess I won’t stand
All the other women
Say you got another man
Tsk, tsk. Mixing the need for nookie with the desire for revenge leaves everyone feeling used and abused. While this precursor of revenge porn is unlikely to end well, the song itself is exceptionally engaging, the single chord and steady rhythm mirroring Jerome’s firm intent to show that bitch a thing or two. Bo gets a chance to stretch his larynx and sing with greater range and intensity, a talent that he will put to exquisite use a few songs down the road.
“I’m Lookin’ for a Woman” (November 10, 1955): We now enter a period in Bo Diddley’s career where, according to Don Snowdon’s liner notes, “Surprisingly, Bo’s chart success stopped then for three years.” He lists those three years as 1957-1959, which may confuse readers who have been paying attention to the recording dates from the liner notes that you see here. Since recording dates never reflect release dates, I think the lack of chart success is better illustrated by noting that “Pretty Thing” was his last hit until “Say Man,” and then try to figure out what might have gone awry (commercially speaking). In this case, “I’m Looking for a Woman” features some of Bo’s best guitar work in this collection, a marvelously inventive combination of solid blues picking, tremendous bends and shimmery chords, but in the end, it’s a straight blues number without a strong hook or anything to make it stand out amidst the ample supply of Chicago blues releases during the period.
“Who Do You Love?” (May 24, 1956): The lack of commercial success of this classic number may surprise readers familiar with the popular versions by Quicksilver Messenger Service (who devoted an entire side of Happy Trails to the song) or George Thorogood and the Destroyers (with its relentless power chord attack). Wikipedia calls it “one of his most popular and enduring works.” Maybe so, but it was a certified commercial flop in 1956.
The reasons are obvious when you consider the lyrics in the context of the times. This was the Eisenhower era in America, an era defined by the color gray. Black artists were only just starting to break out of the R&B charts in the early years of rock, and the record shows they had a long, long way to go. While we think of songs like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Long Tall Sally” as classics, they really didn’t cause that much of a stir upon release in 1956: Berry peaked at #29 and Little Richard at #15. Pat Boone’s Wonder Bread rendition of “Tutti Frutti” crushed the Little Richard original, and his vapid version of “Long Tall Sally” almost exactly matched Little Richard’s not-quite-Top-10 chart performance. The Platters and other doo wop artists did relatively well, and Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” reached the Top 10 in late ’56—but except for Elvis’ breakthrough in the second half of that year, rock ‘n’ roll was still a relatively minor player in the music industry, with white guys driving the sales numbers.
While the culture had reluctantly expanded to tolerate rock ‘n’ roll, most songs by those classified as rock artists were rather tame concerning the major topic of interest of the targeted teenage audience: how to attract members of the opposite sex. Iggy Pop’s promise to “stick it deep inside” would have caused those boys to blush and their girls to faint. That kind of sexual honesty was far beyond the capabilities of a culture where most guys would have been thrilled to make out with the girl in those wonderfully humongous back seats and maybe have a brush with second base. While you can imagine a teenage boy crooning “Love Me Tender” to his adoring sweetheart as they floated down the tunnel of love, he wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what to do with Bo Diddley’s hyperbolic display of machismo:
I walk 47 miles of barbed wire
I use a cobra snake for a necktie
I got a brand new house on the roadside
Made from rattlesnake hide
I got a brand new chimney made on top
Made out of a human skull
Now come on take a walk with me Arlene
And tell me who do you love?
That explains the absence of crossover potential. What’s weird is that “Who Do You Love?” didn’t even make the R&B charts. Since much of the R&B audience consisted of either Southern blacks or those who had fled the South in WWII for better jobs up north, you’d think that at least some of those folks would have been delighted to hear a song loaded with New Orleans hoodoo imagery.
I rode around the town
Use a rattlesnake whip
Take it easy Arlene
Don’t give me no lip
The truth is that “Who Do You Love?” was more of an in-joke than a serious attempt to bust the charts. The guys who recorded at Chess Records were locked in fierce competition about whose dick was the longest, hardest and baddest of them all. Bo took his inspiration from Muddy Waters, who had recorded Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” a couple of years before: “I’m telling this chick . . . how bad I am, so she can go tell the cat she’s hanging with, ‘this dude is something else.’ That’s what it kinda meant, cat ridin’ rattlesnakes and kissin’ boa constrictors and stuff.”
O . . . kay . . .
As a satire of machismo, the song works. This guy is so full of bluster that you know he’s all talk and no action. It works musically as well, with Bo in his deeper he-man voice right on the border between talking and singing, letting Arlene know in no uncertain terms that he is one certified bad-ass. Interestingly, the two cover versions mentioned above play the song in the Bo Diddley beat, whereas Bo’s is pretty much non-stop backbeat drive. Maybe if he’d used the rhythm that made him famous, he might have cracked the Top 10.
Nah. Not in this era. “Who Do You Love?” was simply too much, too soon.
“Hey Bo Diddley” (February 8, 1957): I can understand why this one flopped: it’s the least interesting of the myth songs, featuring an incomprehensible story about a farm full of women and a tomboy outlier who visits the farm while armed to the teeth, makes a scene and splits. This is not the luxurious château where slaves-in-training are properly bathed, made up and summoned to serve their wealthy masters at a moment’s notice, it’s a fucking farm where you step in cow shit, pig shit and chicken shit, so even though there are women everywhere, no one could possibly get horny in such a foul environment—even a guy with a cobra snake for a necktie.
“Mona (a/k/a “I Need You Baby”) (February 8, 1957): Now we’re talkin’! The cover versions by The Stones, Quicksilver, Craig McLachlan and others simply can’t compete with the sheer passionate intensity of the original. Bo’s vocal quivers with desire, and his extended moans give me the best kind of shivers. The minimalistic arrangement of light drums, maracas and Bo on guitar clears enough space in the studio for Bo’s voice to shake the rafters while intensifying the deeply personal nature of his fantasy for the unattainable woman of his wet dreams. It is said that Bo’s heartthrob was 45-year old stripper, underscoring the point that the depth of his attraction had as much to do her unattainability as her physical assets. I don’t believe Bo ever wanted to consummate the relationship—the agonizing desire he feels for Mona is a pleasure unto itself, and there is always the fear that the reality will never live up to the fantasy. He wants to be close, but not that close:
Hey, Mona what I wanna do
Build my house next door to you
Can I see you sometime
We can talk just through the blind
Without the distance between the performer and her devoted audience of one, the whole thing would likely go pffft.
Incredibly, “Mona” was the B-side for “Hey Bo Diddley,” doomed to temporary oblivion. Since Buddy Holly found a use for the tune in “Not Fade Away,” I can’t complain too much.
“Before You Accuse Me” (August 15, 1957): Bo was a man of a thousand voices, and here he introduces his “victim voice,” a pleading cry reeking with a sense of injustice. After a nifty little opening riff, the band settles into a nice easy blues swing that eventually leads to a somewhat dissonant solo as Bo makes a game attempt at expanding his musical horizons. His efforts went for nought, however, as the single went absolutely nowhere. With his commercial appeal waning fast, he desperately needed to come up with something fresh and captivating—something that clicked with the audience in a New York second.
“Say Man” (January 29, 1958): Bo was probably open to trying anything at this point, so what the fuck—how about three minutes of barbershop bullshitting set to a Latin rhythm? Yeah, that’s the ticket! “Say Man” features Bo and Jerome trading insults centered around the mortal sin of ugliness—their own and the relative ugliness of their sweethearts. This kind of “shaming” may deeply offend the overly sensitive, humorless losers of our times who want to obliterate any signs of human discord and disagreeability, but I find the continuous parade of insults here an absolute and totally harmless hoot! My favorite passage combines a beautiful set-up with a devastating conclusion that doesn’t leave the victim feeling shamed, but ready to take it and dish it out with counteracting hyperbole:
Jerome: Ok; since you told me about my girl, I’m gonna tell you about yours. I was walking down the street with your girl.
Jerome: I took her home. For a drink, you know.
Bo: Took her home? (tone of concern)
Jerome: Yeh, jus’ for a drink.
Bo: Oh. (worried about what might come next)
Jerome: But that chick looked so ugly, she had to sneak up on the glass to get a drink of water. (Bo breaks into full-throated laughter)
Bo: You’ve got the nerve to call somebody ugly; why you so ugly the stork that brought you in the world oughta be arrested!
Jerome: That’s alright; my momma didn’t have to put a sheet on my head so sleep could slip up on me!
The conversation sounds natural and anything but scripted, and oh my, that laugh! I love the sheer joy in Bo Diddley’s laugh—it’s a laugh that makes you want to laugh along with him and feel the blessed healing power of laughter wash over you the same way it washes over him. And as strange as it may seem, “Say Man” turned out to be one of his biggest hits, climbing to #3 on the R&B charts and #2o on the white people pop charts, his highest ranking song ever. Kudos to Lafayette Leake for his distinctly light-hearted, playful piano-accompaniment.
“Dearest Darling” (January 29, 1958): Bo’s pleading again, but this one doesn’t work for me despite his energetic vocal because he invokes the lord as the agent that brought him and his dearest darling together. No, Bo, you did it! All by your lil’ ol’ lonesome!
“Crackin’ Up” (December, 1958): A lot of people don’t know that Bo wrote Ian & Sylvia’s monster hit, “Love Is Strange” (also recorded by Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Thunders and a host of others) because he wrote it using his first wife’s name as a pseudonym. Here he attempts to recreate the song using the same Jody Williams-style riff, with mixed success. The premise of the song is fundamentally flawed, for how could the guy who wrote “Who Do You Love?” submit to the basest form of humiliation?
I do your laundry and your cooking too
What more for a woman could a man like me do
You’re bugging me
Yeah, yeah, you’re crackin up
I don’t think she’s the one cracking up, Bo.
“The Story of Bo Diddley” (September, 1959): My favorite entry from the Bo Diddley mythology is based on an extraordinarily primitive, repetitive set of guitar chords that form the perfect background for a man who’s got a story to tell. Filled with his infectious laughter, Bo cleverly contrasts the mythic figure with the black dude who still has to pay tribute to the white man with all the power:
I was born one night about twelve o’clock (Ha-ha-ha)
I come in this world playin’ a gold guitar
My father was around stickin’ out his chest (Hee-hee)
A-now, mama this boy he gonna be a myth (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha)
Now, people came from miles around
Yeah, just to hear my little guitar sound
Now, some of ’em said I had what it takes
If I keep on practice I’d be famous one day (Ha-ha)
Woo, I’m a myth!
I’m a killer-diller
Early in the middle of the night
A car drove up with four headlights (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha)
Now, a man stepped out with a long cigar
He said, ‘Sign this line and I can make you a star’ (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha)
I said, ‘Now, what’s in it man, what’s in it for me?’
He says, play yo’ guitar son and wait an see’
Here I am! (heh-heh-heh,wheeee)
The girls liked me, they say, ‘It’s crazy, it sound nice, uh-huh’
There have been so many—too many—songs by rock stars about how they’ve been exploited by managers and studio heads, but most fall into the category of “the bitching of the rich and entitled.” “The Story of Bo Diddley” tells the real story—a kid dreams of becoming famous, fueled by parental expectations that he’s something special, thus creating a false bravado in the neophyte performer. The locals eat up his schtick and inflate the ego even further, setting up the inevitable deflation at the hands of the man who holds the long cigar and the keys to the kingdom. Most of the other “poor me, I’m a rock star” songs end there in a pathetic attempt to demonstrate the injustice of the system and its mistreatment of the artist. In Bo’s version, he accepts the humiliation as a simple fact of life then sings about the fabulous benefits that compensate for the loss of his special status: WOMEN! Sure beats working your ass off on the farm or playing for nickels on the snowy streets of Chicago. “The Story of Bo Diddley” is the story of a remarkably self-confident but also self-aware man who marveled at the absurdity of the system but realized that it was his best shot at having a life playing music and surrounding himself with admiring women. Is the system unfair? Yes. Does it devalue artistry? Absolutely. So what are you going to do about it? Go into victimization mode? Hey, dickhead—nobody forced you to sign the contract without reading it! There weren’t many opportunities in the 50’s for a black man to challenge any system, including the music business—Motown power was still years away. Bo made his deal with the devil and resolved to have some fun with it.
“Road Runner” (September, 1959): I have never grasped how this song could appeal to anyone, or why it was covered so extensively by Invasion bands like The Stones, Pretty Things, Zombies, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, and of course, The Animals. The road runner is such an unsexy, cute image, and personally, I always rooted for the coyote to feast on his irritating beepy ass.
“Pills” (May 2, 1961): Playing the role of victim once again, Bo officially relinquishes his status as a viable competitor in the biggest dick rivalry, allowing women to assume their rightful place in the dominant position. Here his plaintive voice is directed at the figure of a “rock and roll nurse,” a practiced dominatrix if there ever was one:
She gave me thrills from my toes
For legging ache
She gave me pills from her love
But a little too late
She gave me pills for my heart
To put me at ease
The rock and roll nurse
Shook me dead to my knees
And that’s where you belong!
Bo employs a rockabilly attack on the guitar with plenty of clean notes drenched in ample quantities of reverb. By the second chorus, he sounds like he’s on the edge of laughter, indicating that the rock and roll nurse is giving him the time of his life. The last verse where he complains to the doctor is a juke move, a pathetic attempt to convince the doc that he’s still the man with the rattlesnake whip. Nice try, Bo—now bend over and take it in the ass like a good boy!
While there’s something to be said for the quality of the original, one can hardly listen to this song without comparing it to The New York Dolls’ version . . . a performance we’ll explore . . . just a sec, let me check the schedule . . . wow! . . . next week!
“I Can Tell” (June 27, 1962): Bo goes full deep voice on “I Can Tell,” throwing in an Elvis-like accent for the hell of it. After the extraordinarily interesting lyrics and good sadistic fun of “Pills,” this feels like a downer unless you focus your attention on the crisp rhythm guitar attack. What’s more important about “I Can Tell” is its placement on the 1962 album Bo Diddley—the album that followed his successful U. K. tour with the Everly Brothers and Little Richard and cemented his status as a rock ‘n’ roll god with all those working class British boys looking for a more exciting life than the one awaiting them in the factories. If you listen to “I Can Tell” through their ears, you can completely understand their excitement.
“You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” (June 27, 1962): This Willie Dixon song is a sixteen-bar blues played at high speed that was also featured on Bo Diddley, making it a perfect target for The Yardbirds, who recorded it live for the Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds album back in 1963. While Bo’s version is high quality, The Yardbirds win the prize thanks to Eric Clapton’s manic rhythm picking, one of the early demonstrations of Clapton’s ability to integrate deep respect for blues foundations while exploring new pathways to bring the blues to a modern audience. Frankly, the song isn’t one of Willie Dixon’s best efforts, a string of comparatives that add up to the same message: appearances are deceiving. It made a small splash in the R&B and pop charts, but wasn’t distinctive enough to pierce the U. S. Top 20.
“Ooh Baby” (September 11, 1966): Bo should have shared the billing with The Cookies, who were temporarily rechristened the Bo-ettes because some of the girls performed with Ray Charles as the Raelettes. Their parallel background vocals—not quite call-and-response, reflecting the disjointed nature of the relationship described in the song—are soulful, languorous and intensely sexy, as if they’re stretched out on a leopard-covered chaise lounge in their most revealing lingerie. During the interplay, the girls hold firm with the single refrain, “Ooh, baby, I love you” while Bo is going crazy because he can’t figure out why a woman who says she loves him wants to leave him. Hello? Fish in the pond? Never heard of a good fuck followed by a better one? His last charting single completes the descent from mythic figure to second-best-in-the-sack . . . or, if you want to take the more enlightened view, it completes his ascent from macho bullshitter to humble, vulnerable human being.
There are few early rockers who had as much influence on the shaping of the genre as Bo Diddley. To borrow from the lingo of the period, Bo’s rock ‘n’ roll was an absolute blast, the sound of a modern pied piper seducing a generation of performers and fans with good-time rhythms validating the fundamental eroticism of great rock ‘n’ roll. I love the way Don Snowdon ends his liner notes, so instead of trying to compete with perfection, I’ll let Don have the last word here:
His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection stands as the definitive collection of the creative achievements of the performer, songwriter and sonic architect who greatly expanded the rhythmic dimension of early rock ‘n’ roll in fundamental, enduring ways.
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.