Category Archives: Iconic Albums
History tells us that The Allman Brothers’ first two albums didn’t exactly set the world on fire. History didn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense to me, so I asked my trusty resource for all things 60’s and 70’s, my dear OLD dad. Since my work involves travel in six or seven different time zones, we set up a convenient time to Skype and did a digital interview of sorts while I took notes on my laptop.
“Where on earth are you?”
“BA. I’m only four hours off . . . I think.”
“Sounds about right. Looking forward to a midnight dinner?”
“No, I can’t wait that long. I grabbed an empanada to get me through the night. Let’s talk Allmans.”
“You’re doing Fillmore East?”
“First, then I’m skipping ahead to Brothers and Sisters. But I’ve been listening to all their albums and there are things I don’t understand.”
“Well, you know your dad has all the answers . . . ”
“You’re about a .280 hitter, but you’re the best I’ve got.”
“Thanks for the heartfelt endorsement.”
“Anytime. First, I want to understand why their first two albums didn’t do dick. What was it, Dad? Did people turn stupid towards the end of the 60’s? I don’t know how you can listen to those records and not get excited about that band. In terms of sheer musicianship, the first is easily one of the greatest debuts in music history and Idlewild South was just as strong—and even more diverse. There are songs on both albums you still hear today—“Midnight Rider,” “Revival,” “Whipping Post”—so, what the hell, Dad?
“First and foremost, The Allmans were perceived as a blues band and the market was flooded with blues bands. We had the British blues bands like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, we had blues rockers like Savoy Brown and Ten Years After and we had Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield in their various incarnations. Even bands like Big Brother who weren’t considered blues bands always threw a few blues numbers into the set list. I also think there was some prejudice operating then—they were from the Deep South, and the Deep South was considered seriously un-cool at the time.”
“That is so weird—nearly all the great early rockers—Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard—were southern boys. Were you hippies too stoned to remember that?”
“You should remember from our trip down south following the trail of the Freedom Riders that things had become pretty polarized with the civil rights movement, and that polarization extended to music. When you thought “south,” you pictured George Wallace at the schoolhouse door, Lester Maddox with his ax and Bull Connor with his dogs and firehoses—the ultimate pigs.”
“Hmm. So how did all you enlightened hippies get over your stereotypes?”
“I know you’ll hate to hear this, but I think Creedence had a lot to do with breaking down that barrier.”
“I’ve grown up, dad! I may not like John Fogerty’s raging ego and their music seems faux southern to me, but I get their impact. Bill Haley wasn’t that good, either, but I gave him his due.”
“And don’t forget The Band.” I could see him smirking on my laptop screen, delighting in rubbing my red spot with back-to-back mentions of two of my least favorite groups.
“Yes—but isn’t it curious that a band from El Cerrito, California and another band from Toronto had to teach Americans how to appreciate southern music?”
“When people are stuck, sometimes you have to take the back door approach.”
“I guess. Another thing that seems to be unique to your era—the Allmans hit it big with a live album. I can’t imagine that happening today.”
“Live albums were a lot more important back then. You never would have heard of Peter Frampton if it weren’t for live albums.”
“I wish I hadn’t. Why do you think they were more important? What killed them?”
“There was sort of a shared ethic among music fans back then—if you couldn’t make it on stage, you were shit. The stage was the real test, not the studio. For a while it looked like Grand Funk Railroad was going to be the next big thing, but when they went on tour, it was obvious they didn’t have the goods, and they never recovered from that, because word got around.”
“How did word get around without the Internet? You mean to tell me that people picked up their landline phones in Boston and warned the people in Denver to sell their Grand Funk tickets for whatever they could get?”
“You know, it’s kind of a mystery to me, too. It just sort of happened—someone you knew picked something up in one of the trade papers, or you ran into someone who just dropped into town, or a DJ would hear something from an old buddy DJ back in New York and pass the word over the air in San Francisco. Looking back, I don’t know how they got all those people to the March on Washington either—it was just word-of-mouth, reports in the black newspapers of the day and maybe some flyers handed out at churches. Maybe we exchanged information on the astral plane while we were sleeping. All I knew is that—well, when Tull came to play Berkeley, I remember really looking forward to it because they had a reputation as a great live band. What I don’t remember is where I heard that or how I knew it.”
“So what killed the live album?”
“You already know that. Music videos, for one. Concerts are too scripted today; they’re too predictable, too staged. There’s too much tech involved. The great live albums today are from less popular artists who do small venues—Richard Thompson is the prime example.”
“I was just thinking—Nirvana’s Unplugged was on Rolling Stone’s list of great live albums—and that was produced by MTV. Solid album, I don’t think it counts as a real live album.”
“I agree. The excitement of a great live album is it captures things you don’t expect, the things that didn’t happen in rehearsal and aren’t part of the script. You know that from the Bill Withers album—the way he let the crowd determine where to go with the song. And when you’re talking about At Fillmore East, you’re talking about an album that’s full of surprises. They’re creating in the moment—pretty exciting stuff.”
About six months ago I started looking for a live album to review. I’d done a few—Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, Swiss Movement, and Full House Live—but wanted to do more. My original thought was to do Live at Leeds, as I felt the need for another Who album in the catalog.
That proved to be problematic. I always prefer reviewing the original version of an album rather than the “deluxe edition” or the “enhanced version” because I want to capture what the artist intended at the time of creation. I ran into a problem with the original Live at Leeds, because a good chunk of it is devoted to snippets from Tommy embedded within a version of “My Generation,” and I can’t stand either of those overrated productions. I was excited about the 1995 remaster because there was enough material from The Who Sells Out to balance the Tommy shit. And hey, “Tattoo” sounded great, the live version of “Substitute” was off the charts—but it all turned out to be an illusion. For the remastered version, new vocal overdubs were recorded to “address occasional flaws in the original tapes or performances.”
That’s called cheating!
My next choice was At Fillmore East, and I was delighted to learn that The Allman Brothers insisted there would be no overdubs. “We didn’t want to go back and overdub anything, because then it wouldn’t have been a real live album,” remarked Gregg Allman in Alan Paul’s Allman Brothers bio, One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers.
Thank our lucky stars that The Allmans were men of integrity.
At Fillmore East is one of those albums you can hear nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine times and still pick up something new every time, whether it’s some remarkable cymbal work by Jaimoe, or subtle but incredibly effective rhythm guitar support from Dickey Betts or a pattern by Berry Oakley that may not have been flashy but serves as the glue that holds it all together. While it’s only natural that your attention is drawn to Gregg Allman’s always solid lead vocals or the wondrous sounds coming from Duane Allman’s guitar, those showpieces would have been far less effective had the band supporting the brothers had been second-rate musicians. Hardly “just a blues band,” the stylistic variations you hear on At Fillmore East encompass influences from jazz, blues, rock and country, all played with unusual intensity and commitment.
That commitment developed and solidified during their formative years, when they practiced around the clock, playing every gig they could get. While officially they had no leader in the traditional sense, Duane Allman modeled the behavior, values and group norms that would guide The Allmans through their rise, as described by those who contributed to the oral history in One Way Out:
- Work Your Ass Off: John Hammond Jr. recalled, “I asked Duane how he got so good and he said, ‘I took speed every day for three years and played every night all night.’ I think this was partly true and partly apocryphal but he really couldn’t get enough. He was just phenomenal.”
- Cut the Crap: Jaimoe said it best: “The whole thing was just about playing music— no agenda, no egos— and it was good.”
- Give It Your All: Butch Trucks summarized Duane Allman’s leadership style as follows: “Duane was capable of reaching inside people and pulling out the best. He made us all realize that music will never be great if everyone doesn’t give it all they have, and we all took on that attitude: Why bother to play if you’re not going all in?”
But even with all that commitment, even with their success in melding diverse musical influences into a compelling sound, and even with two excellent albums to their credit, The Allmans had been unable to gain much more than passing notice from the general public. According to Gregg Allman, the epiphany came after playing a series of shows in both Fillmores:
We realized that we got a better sound live and that we were a live band. We were not intentionally trying to buck the system, but keeping each song down to 3: 14 just didn’t work for us. We were going to do what the hell we were going to do and that was to experiment on and offstage. And we realized that the audience was a big part of what we did, which couldn’t be duplicated in a studio. A lightbulb finally went off; we needed to make a live album.
Paul, Alan. One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (p. 117). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
And boy, did they ever!
The festivities begin with “Statesboro Blues,” the old Blind Willie McTell number that turned Duane Allman into a slide guitar genius after hearing Jesse Ed Davis play the slide on Taj Mahal’s version. Here The Allmans raise the bar on the classic warm-up-the-crowd number, holding nothing back from the intro to the thrilling conclusion. Duane takes over the intro, electric ropes of sound flying off his fretboard, establishing the baseline theme while enhancing it at the same time through soaring bends and one crushing full chord to highlight the syncopation. The multi-faceted rhythm section is beautifully understated, giving Duane all the room he needs to fly. The intro is followed by two verses of absolutely delightful interplay between Gregg and Duane, Gregg delivering his lines with breezy confidence, and Duane responding with a series of remarkably varied fills that emphasize the playfulness of the piece. The verses melt into the solo, where we hear Duane’s bending talent on full display, hitting and sustaining blue notes that fall outside the typical quarter or half-step bends of the run-of-the-mill guitarist. “How the fuck did you do that?” I scream into the speaker as Duane lays out a flurry of notes and rhythms that seem humanly impossible. The next verse comes in stop-time format, an absolutely brilliant decision that re-focuses our attention away from Duane and prevents us from mourning over what we feel was a too-brief solo. Dickey Betts then enters for his solo, displaying his nice-and-easy touch within the blues scale while reinforcing the melodic aspects of the piece. Towards the end of his solo, Berry Oakley asserts himself with complementary runs, giving this passage a nice bottom boost. When Gregg Allman returns to the mike, the band eases up a bit for Gregg, who now takes center stage with a more impassioned vocal that stretches across his range, incorporating slight intrusions into falsetto as he pushes the limits of the melody. Now the drummers cue the band that it’s time to drive this baby home, and in response to the cymbal bashes and stepped-up intensity, Duane, Berry and Gregg let it all hang out, with full confidence that Butch and Jaimoe have their backs. In the end, this “warm-up” song becomes a performance that most bands would give anything to serve up as the closer, given its dramatic build and smashing ending. “Statesboro Blues” is a message to the audience—the brash confidence of that time-honored phrase, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
Next up is their version of Elmore James’ “Done Somebody Wrong.” It is very difficult for anyone to match Elmore James’ intensity, but The Allmans had a couple of things going for them. First, Duane Allman was a better guitar player than Elmore James, who kept his riffs pretty simple and relied on stuttering rhythm and primitive distortion to make his style unique. Second, Berry Oakley chose not to adopt the bass part of the original, which is just a reinforcement of the two-beat syncopated pattern. Instead, Berry chose to do a fluid run, giving The Allmans’ version more swing. You experience the effect most intensely when the band accelerates the song in the passage following the guitar harmony crescendo, where things really get hot. Another crucial choice was Gregg Allman’s decision to sing like Gregg Allman and not to attempt a pale imitation of Elmore James almost manic, sinful preacher vocal style. Gregg picks up the swing in the rhythm pretty quickly, varying his phrasing to suit tempo and rhythmic emphasis. And while The Allmans cut some of Thom Doucette’s harp solos from the final album mix, they kept this one because it fits so well with the feel of the song. In the end, The Allmans made “Done Somebody Wrong” their own, making comparisons to the very impressive original version completely meaningless. Both rock like a bitch in heat.
Doucette’s harp contributions did not make the cut on the mis-titled “Stormy Monday” (the T-Bone Walker original bears the ludicrously stretched “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)” on the record label). The Allmans’ version is loosely based on Bobby Blue Bland’s early-60’s version (called “Stormy Monday Blues”), a more soulful version with strong bass featuring Bobby’s inimitable command of phrasing and vocal dynamics. After the intensity of the two opening numbers, the relative stillness of “Stormy Monday” is surprisingly soothing, like a cool shower on a hot, humid day. At first, the band pretty much sticks to the original chord pattern of alternating 7th and 9th chords with minor 7th enhancements in the couplet that closes each verse, though they do depart from the pattern occasionally on the closing chord. Gregg Allman’s vocal is suitably subdued in the opening verses, as are the guitar fills, but there are subtle builds and disappearing drum rolls in the background that let the listener know the band has no intention of leaving this thing on simmer forever. Duane’s solo begins at about the three-and-a-half minute mark, sweet, subtle and gorgeously fluid in the first go-round that rises to a more pronounced and assertive attack in the second. This is the point where Dickey Betts tosses in some short but incredibly effective countering chords, Berry Oakley breaks out of the dominant bass pattern and Gregg starts warming up on the organ. Gregg’s solo is accompanied by more swing and syncopation in the beat, accentuating the jazz influence in the piece. Dickey Betts then enters with a solo that communicates a certain tenderness until he lets it rip in the second go-round, earning a well-deserved round of applause as he fades nicely into Gregg’s final turn at the mike. “Stormy Monday” is not an easy song—it combines a melancholy sweetness requiring a light touch with the discipline to take the emotional peaks just far enough an not an inch further—but The Allmans aced the test.
Side Two opens and closes with “You Don’t Love Me,” a cover of a Willie Cobbs song that hit #1 in Memphis back in 196o but failed to cross the Mason-Dixon line due to typical record company bullshit. However, many guitarists knew the song because of its memorable guitar riff, so it’s not surprising that The Allmans would rescue the piece from oblivion. In doing so, they kept the basic rhythmic shift in the verses but ratcheted up the speed from the somewhat laid-back tempo of Cobbs’ original. They also extended the length from two-and-a-half minutes to just a tad over nineteen, filling up the entire second side. Some critics have whined about the length of some of The Allmans’ extended jams, most notably the astonishingly arrogant self-styled Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau. Without quoting his often tortured English, Christgau’s basic argument was this: while Jerry Garcia and the Dead jam with a destination in mind, The Allmans never really go anywhere you don’t expect them to go.
While I’ve heard some Allman jams that didn’t quite work out (even they disliked their version of “Mountain Jam” on Eat a Peach), I’ve also heard some Dead jams that certainly qualify as mind-numbing experiences. That’s the nature of improvisation—sometimes your shtick works, sometimes it doesn’t. To apply the “pointless” label to all the jams on At Fillmore East sounds like the view of a man who already dismissed the band as inferior to Jerry Garcia and company before he put needle to vinyl.
“You Don’t Love Me” has a definite intent that evolves into a coherent structure that is as clear as a sunny day but is hardly “predictable.” The first third of the piece is designed to highlight the talents of each of the soloists—Duane, Gregg, Dickey and Doucette all get a chance to shine in between the renditions of the verses. That segment ends when Duane Allman wraps up a blistering solo with a held blue note while the band support diminishes to a fading drum roll. The nearly two-minute interval that follows is Duane Allman making love with his guitar in front of a hushed crowd—he fondles, he tries different moves as he probes for the sweet spot, then drives deep and deeper with a series of erotic wails before collapsing into a deep-note bend, the sound of a man spent after a great fuck. Once Duane fades, Dickey picks up the theme, at first supported only by cymbals. The drummers then begin to complement one another, increasing their intensity in sync with the faster picking on the guitar. This intense interplay continues for a minute until the band syncs to a new rhythmic variation with Berry Oakley entering the space. Dickey Betts follows his instincts and decides to add a touch of country to the piece, gradually bringing this segment to an end with a return to the essential blues flavor of the song and revealing unexpected speed and dexterity in a breathtaking blitz of picking. And just like magic, he takes the fade chord and guides the band back to the snappy rhythm of the song itself. The closing passage is humorously triumphant, as the band follows yet another delightful variant of the chord structure to a path that leads to a brief rendition of “Joy to the World” before wrapping things up with the triumphant finale. Pointless? Directionless? Bullshit! “You Don’t Love Me” is a first-rate improvisation that reveals both the strong unity of the band, each member’s remarkable individual talents and the spirit of good humor that marks any successful improvisation.
After four covers, it’s nice to hear three straight Allman compositions, all memorable contributions to music history. The Allmans separated themselves from the rest of the pack in many respects, but one of the most remarkable features of the band is the quality and quantity of instrumentals. This is important because it’s much harder to come up with a viable instrumental than a straight song—the music has to be that much stronger to compensate for the absence of lyrics. Dickey Betts understood the challenge inherent in instrumental composition:
Writing a good instrumental takes months, which makes them totally unlike a solo, though people often think a song with no vocals is just a bunch of solos put together. It’s a completely different process. Slow blues solos are just your heart coming out, but all the solos happen too fast to even think about. They’re the closest thing to Zen that I do. If I think about it, it’s gone. It’s ruined. If I’m stuck or I need a mental rest, I’ve got licks that I can hang there until I get my mind together to start something else, but it’s mostly instantaneous and instinctive. It’s like touching a hot stove; you don’t think you’re gonna jerk your hand back. You just do it. The instrumentals, on the other hand, are very studied. It’s called architecture, and for a good reason. It’s much like somebody designing a building. It’s meticulously constructed, and every aspect has its place. Writing a good one is very fulfilling, because you’ve transcended language and spoken to someone with a melody. My instrumentals try to create some of the basic feelings of human interaction, like anger and joy and love. Even instrumentals that are just for fun, like Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” talk to you.
Paul, Alan. One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (pp. 206-207). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
The first instrumental on At Fillmore East is “Hot ‘Lanta,” and the basic feelings this piece evokes are those you experience in a steamy night in the big city—excitement, tension, constant motion, a sense of intrigue mingled with a sense of danger—all the things that make Saturday night in the city a deliciously naughty adult experience. The use of the minor key accentuates the grittiness and dark side of the city, much like it does in The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” but the comparison ends there. “Hot ‘Lanta” is a more complex composition combining minor seventh and ninth chords with half-step moves more common to jazz than rock ‘n’ roll. The first passage establishes the theme with the paired guitars flying in beautiful unison over Gregg Allmans’ organ support, but what really stands out is Berry Oakley’s bass, a fascinating, continuous flurry of high-speed runs and melodic counterpoint that continues through all three solos until the drummers take over for a few minutes, trading complementary blows. After a restatement of the theme, the music shrinks to a whisper of distant rolls and sweet guitar that slowly build with the encouragement of Butch Trucks’ timpani into the ending crescendo. Think of “Hot ‘Lanta” is movie music at its best—with imagery so vivid you can do without the film.
Next is the unedited version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” that appears on the original album, not the edited version that appeared on the 1992 expanded edition and caused quite a controversy. I love the swells Dickey Betts plays during the introduction; the sound he creates reminds me of the Ondes Martenot used on several Radiohead songs. Comparing The Allmans to Radiohead may seem like an off-the-wall comparison, but that’s only if you buy into the belief that The Allmans were little more than a Southern roots band. Au contraire! We’ve already seen how they integrated influences from four major musical genres and how well they handled non-standard rhythms that are relatively rare in rock. In One Way Out, Dickey refers to The Allmans as a progressive rock band, a label we normally associate with bands like Pink Floyd, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, with the marriage of rock and classical music, and with adjectives like “overblown” and “pretentious.” Others have labeled The Allmans a “fusion” band, a label that has the advantage of greater accuracy but still falls short of capturing The Allmans’ essence. My point here is that when you listen to “Elizabeth Reed,” you’re listening to something unique, innovative and far beyond established rock boundaries of their time.
The swells eventually fade and the dominant theme emerges, expressed through a double lead alternating between melody, harmony and counterpoint; beneath the gorgeous lead guitars you’ll hear Berry Oakley punctuating the rhythm while adding a different counterpoint phrase to the mix. After a stunningly-well executed crescendo, the band shifts to a Latinesque tempo featuring the secondary theme, leading to a diminuendo that opens the floor to the soloists. Before exploring the solos, I have to give credit to Berry, Butch and Jaimoe—the rhythmic support of the solos is pure sustained energy channeled through stunning precision arising from the ability of those three musicians to listen intently to the cues served up by each soloist. Without those guys, the solos would have gone nowhere except in fruitless search of a foundation.
First up is Dickey Betts, who eases into his moment in the spotlight while the rhythm section gradually raises the intensity level; eventually he finds his sweet spot after a few superficially dissonant bends that are actually departures into modality. Once freed from the limitations of the scale, he soars to the heavens. Gregg Allman comes next and here I will confess that we pianists are absolute snobs and have a tendency to view organists as a lesser species, so when I tell you that Gregg Allman’s work on “Elizabeth Reed” is my favorite organ solo ever, it should impress the hell out of you. The man knew his instrument, its inherent limitations and its strengths. Those strengths are sustained rhythmic emphasis and thematic fills, and this solo is all strengths.
Now we arrive at the point where producer Tom Dowd attempted to substitute Duane Allman’s original solo with a “better” one from another Fillmore East performance in the 1992 edition. Dude! You produced one of the greatest live albums ever! The recording quality and performances are exceptional! Why fuck with that? I don’t have any issues with the original solo—it’s actually one of my favorite passages on the album because it highlights Duane’s picking ability, which like all of his other skills, is truly remarkable. He earns several “How the fuck did you do thats,” both in the opening passage and in the midtone segment where he stays low on the fretboard. When Duane goes Coltrane on us and gives us the guitar equivalent of “Giant Steps,” all you can do is soak it all in and let the waves of sound ride over every fiber of your soul.
Side four is devoted to twenty-three minutes of “Whipping Post,” making it the longest piece on the record. That’s a good thing. Whenever I listen to the five-minute studio version on the first album, I feel cheated.
Berry Oakley gets things moving with his famous overpowering bass line, delivered in 11/4 time. Gregg Allman had no idea he had written the intro in 11/4 time; the pattern just felt right. Without that “missing beat,” the pattern would have become tiresome in about four measures and the song would have lost all sense of momentum. The fact that the choice was intuitive rather than deliberate makes all the difference in the world—this is a song about existential pain, and it simply had to be more about the feel than the math.
My old piano teacher is probably spinning in his grave, but he needed the exercise.
The build to the first verse is simple and effective, a layered repetition of the main riff to communicate a sense of building existential anxiety. Gregg Allman’s vocal is more than heartfelt—it’s soul-felt. The pain of humiliation at the hands of a woman he naively but genuinely loved is more than he can bear as he realizes that both the woman and his friends have played him for a fool:
I’ve been run down and I’ve been lied to.
And I don’t know why, I let that mean woman make me a fool.
She took all my money, wrecks my new car.
Now she’s with one of my good time buddies,
They’re drinkin in some cross-town bar.
Sometimes I feel, sometimes I feel,
Like I been tied to the whippin’ post.
Tied to the whippin’ post, tied to the whippin’ post.
Good Lord, I feel like I’m dyin’.
This is far more than the injured pride of an arrogant male; this is sincere outrage about making yourself completely vulnerable to a person you love only have that person exploit your precious gift for selfish reasons. That woman is a LOWLIFE BITCH! Tie HER up to the whipping post and let me at her! And that whipping will be anything but the titillating kind for which I am renowned on two continents!
Please excuse my burst of empathy, but Gregg Allman went “all-in” on this vocal and if you can’t feel his pain, you’re either a robot or a very nasty person.
Duane takes off in high-speed flight, supported as always by The Allmans’ once-in-a-generation rhythm section and Dickey Betts’ raw rhythm guitar. Duane’s tone and intensity mirror the sting of the whip; it feels like a furious assault on body and soul. When he takes it down a notch for a few moments with a series of soulful bends, it feels like the blows have ended only to leave the victim writhing in pain. The even more furious finale to the solo reinforces the stings and the sense of having been overwhelmed by the pain and humiliation. Gregg’s rendition of the second verse is just as intense as the first, a stark refusal to deny the existential agony that burns in his soul. Dickey Betts steps in for his solo, opening with licks in the mid-range that express a sense of dark uncertainty as the survival instinct begins to kick in. Interestingly, what follows is a series of tentative riffs that move in and out of key, as if the man is half-heartedly looking for a way out of the darkness. When Dickey finally goes high, we return to consciousness of the pain and a sense of anxiety . . . perhaps there’s no way to escape the darkness. The agitated, high-speed riffs that follow reflect this frustration—the feeling the pain will never end.
What follows is a shift into something more like free jazz than blues rock for a minute or so before the band settles on a melancholy theme to provide a baseline for even more free-form improvisation. This is the most beautiful passage in the song, a melange of sweet guitar, spinning cymbals, drum roll punctuations and gorgeous, melodic bass. It collapses back to the urgent intensity of the main theme, highlighted by dissonant guitar harmonies at the ends of the phrase. A wild crescendo leads us to a false ending, a moment of silence before Gregg sings all but the last line of the chorus—a false ending within a false ending that opens the way for Dickey Betts to give us a truncated version of “Frère Jacques” (almost as if the injured party is seeking solace in childhood innocence) which in turn signals Duane to add his reflections. These reflections manifest in music akin to a raga, leading to an almost spiritual segment of sweet high bends—and then, suddenly, the siren-like attack of the main theme appears briefly, only to fade and allow Gregg to complete the circle and sing the last line of the chorus. In twenty-three minutes, our man has experience the sting of pain, the depths of depression, waves of anxiety, flashes of false hope—but in the end, the pain remains: “Good Lord, I feel like I’m dyin’.” Try to imagine “Whipping Post” with a happy ending where the woman comes back, apologizes for her cuntiness and all live happily ever after, and you’ll understand why the song had to end with the man still struggling from the trauma he has suffered. “Whipping Post” is one performance that deserves all the accolades it has received over the years, and is clearly one of the most memorable performances ever captured on record.
At Fillmore East captures one of the great American bands at their too-brief peak, and what The Allmans accomplished here cannot be understated. They were the first to synthesize the four main streams of American music—blues, jazz, rock and country—into a satisfying whole. When you listen to At Fillmore East, you hear the spiritual descendants of Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry and Jimmie Rodgers in the form of one deeply committed group of musicians.
The Allmans broke a lot of rules to get there, but you can’t make progress by sticking to the tried-and-true. The most important ethic shared by the band members was a spirit of defiance—not angry defiance, not adolescent defiance, but positive, creative defiance. This spirit manifested itself in the early decision to bring Jaimoe into the band in defiance of the segregational mindset and in rejecting the advice from industry pros concerning what they needed to do to make it to the top. One of the most fascinating passages in One Way Out features Dickey Betts and Butch Trucks talking about their refusal to sell out:
BETTS: We were just so naive. All we knew is that we had the best band that any of us had ever played in and were making the best music that we had ever made. That’s what we went with. Everyone in the industry was saying that we’d never make it, we’d never do anything, that Phil Walden should move us to New York or L.A. and acclimate us to the industry, that we had to get the idea of how a rock ’n’ roll band was supposed to present themselves.
TRUCKS: They thought a bunch of Southern guys just standing there playing extended musical jams was absurd. They wanted Gregg out from behind the organ, jumping around with a salami in his pants. They wanted us to act “like a rock band” and we just told them to fuck themselves. We were playing music for ourselves and for each other.
Paul, Alan. One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (p. 65). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
Vive le résistance!
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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.
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