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.
Last week was a drag. All the shit going down at the job was weighing me down, and even with my honey back in my arms again, I still felt antsy, anxious and out of sorts. After a fitful sleep, I awoke as usual to the sound of my iPhone at 5 a. m. and did my usual routine: grab the iPhone, check the blog, check Twitter, grab my cigarettes, go to the kitchen, make coffee, take a sip, light a cigarette and think about the day ahead. I checked my Reminders app to see if I had anything planned and my note read, “Connection.” At first, I didn’t know what the hell that meant, so I sipped some more coffee, took a few more drags and finally realized it was a reminder to listen to the new album by The Connection, which I’d downloaded the night before. “After work,” I promised myself, then went to the bathroom, peed, showered, gave my hair a few blasts of heat, wrapped it in a towel, grabbed my makeup kit and thought about the colors I’d wear that day as I walked over to the makeup table. After some hemming and hawing, I selected the complementary makeup, then gave my face a once-over in the mirror.
I looked like hell. Tired, droopy, blah. I was not happy. I looked down at my makeup kit and told it, “You can’t fix this face today.” I got up and went back to the kitchen, lit another cigarette and unlocked my iPhone. It opened to the Reminders app and the word “Connection.” “Fuck it,” I said. “Maybe it’s a sign.” I still had to wait for my hair to dry anyway, so I put my cigarette in my teeth, walked over to my little music corner, slipped on my headphones, woke my computer from its sleep, got settled, opened iTunes, found the playlist for Let It Rock and clicked the play icon. Wham! Geoff Palmer filled my ears with the most glorious guitar riff I’d heard in what seemed like centuries, riding the waves of an irresistible beat before settling down to rhythm chords. Then Brad Marino filled my ears with a lead vocal that shook me to the core as he belted out a set of beautiful, anti-conformist, fuck-it-all lyrics:
I don’t do dishes no more,
Well I just throw ’em away.
And I don’t answer my phone
‘Cause I got nothin’ to say.
Well, I don’t need no more friends,
‘Cause they just get in the way.
I don’t care about nothin’ at all
Except myself these days.
I’m on the wrong side of twenty-five,
Just tryin’ to stay alive,
All work and no play,
Another wasted day.
People always said it would be this way,
But I always said I’d never live to see the day.
I can’t even begin to describe the feelings of elation, joy, relief and excitement that came over me in waves . . . it was like the song set off a chain reaction of soul-level explosions urged on by The Connection’s relentless attack. I fucking cried! No shit! Then I listened to it again and this time I started giggling and dancing and shouting out the fragments of the chorus that I’d managed to master. I howled in ecstasy when they did the stutter-beat on the phrase “can’t calculate my wage” in the second verse, waking up my partner, who just popped her head into the room and smiled at me. When “Wrong Side of 25” finished, I paused the playback because I knew I had to go to work, but I wasn’t dreading it anymore . . . and I had something to look forward to that would help get me through it all: the rest of Let It Rock. And from time to time over the course of the day, a couplet from an old song my mother loved kept popping into my head, bringing a little smile to my now-recovered face:
Oh, gimme the beat, boys, and free my soul,
I wanna get lost in your rock n’ roll and drift away.
Dobie Gray understood. There is nothing like rock ‘n’ roll to clean out the stupid bullshit in your head and get you back in touch with who the fuck you are. Great rock ‘n’ roll has more healing, sensual and liberating power than any form of music I know, because the fundamental message of rock is “Goddamnit, let yourself go!” And there is no one—no one—on the scene today that does rock ‘n’ roll better than The Connection. Their music takes us back to the early days of rock innocence and exuberance when people like Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones and The Fab Four sang songs that affirmed the uncontaminated perceptions of youth that a.) sexual desire was nothing to be ashamed of and b.) the system is a joke, so don’t let it get you down. Even more importantly, Let It Rock is not just a trip down Nostalgia Lane. The Connection prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that rock still has its vibrance, its power and its relevance in the 21st century.
Boy, this post is already pretty long and I’ve only covered one song! I’d better get off my beautiful ass and get to work! The first thing you notice about Let It Rock is that The Connection have jacked up the power since New England’s Newest Hit Makers. That album featured the thinner sounds of British Invasion 60’s singles, while Let It Rock has a fuller, fatter sound. What’s cool is they manage to accomplish this transition without falling into the trap of overproduction and taking the life out of the music. It’s still great dance floor music, but with more oomph.
If you can pry your ears away from “Wrong Side of 25,” you’ll find that the rest of the album is chock full of rock ‘n’ roll delights that cover a wide range of styles in this most flexible medium. “She’s a Keeper” opens with that Rickenbacker-Vox guitar tone that characterized the pre-progressive years of the British Invasion, leading into a bouncy, power-driven melodic rocker that takes advantage of the full chord palette of the era, shifting between the majors and minors while never losing the flow. Touches of hand-clapping and harmony add to the flair, and Geoff Palmer continues playing the hot hand with a fabulous lead guitar solo. The coda with its vocal interplay between Brad and the fill vocals is certainly Beatle-esque, but the energy and commitment the band brings to this song raises it way, way above the crap from official Beatles imitators. The Connection take the conventions of the era and breathe new life into them—and hey, great melodic, harmonic rock never gets old.
So, that’s two killer songs to open the album, but fuck it—let’s make it three! “The Way Love Should Be” is another melodic rocker that features more great vocals, an exciting roll-filled drum part from Zack Sprague and a nifty little piano piece from Kris Rodgers, best known in these here parts for his work with the Fabulous Baker Boy (Kurt, that is). The chorus, with its call-and-response vocals off the classic rock mantra “come on” is to die for, and I love the way the song ends with the singers holding a steady note over changing complementary chords before rising to the closing “oooh,” much like the horribly underrated “It Won’t Be Long” that opened With the Beatles. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Wait, it does! Just when I thought it was time for the typical filler material found on most records these days, they give me “Crawling from the Wreckage (On a Saturday Night).” Well, bring it on, boys—this chick can take it! This is a no-bullshit, party-song rocker driven by solid bass from Bobby Davis and The Connection’s endless reserve of pure energy. This is one of those songs that confirm the wisdom of my decision to forgo undies and dress in skirts, a fashion choice that makes it very convenient for a girl to slide her fingers down to the G-spot and release a little sexual tension from time to time. Why let stress mess with the vibe? Goddamnit, let yourself go! And I did! Several times! Here, try it for yourself!
And damn if they don’t knock me on my ass again with the next song, “Nothing About Me.” If there’s one song that demonstrates the growth of The Connection since New England’s Newest Hit Makers, this is it. A mid-tempo song that flows like a gentle stream, the lyrics deal with the tension that emerges in a relationship where one party (in this case, the girl) assumes that after the initial excitement has worn off that the other party will settle for good old-fashioned convention, channeling sexual urges into the acquisition of material goods just like every other drone in the U. S. A. In this sense, the internal dialogue expressed in the chorus brilliantly describes the frustration of the person who senses repression lurking in the future: “She thinks she knows . . . she knows nothing about me.” That is a powerful and often painful revelation for someone longing for authenticity: it’s like the other person has stripped away all of your individuality and turned you into a frail stereotype ready to be packaged into one of the “Little Boxes” that Malvina Reynolds wrote about in the early 60’s. The arrangement on the song is subtle, complex and sensitive, with understated but effective drumming, splashes of piano (the opening run is stellar), bits of slide guitar and harmonica, and those always fabulous vocals. Going into the experience of Let It Rock, I was hoping that The Connection’s lyrics would measure up to the recent standard set by Sugar Stems, who proved that power pop can handle more complex stories without getting bogged down and burying the energy in abstraction. On “Nothing About Me,” the boys came through big-time.
Despite all the excitement so far, I have not lost touch with my acute critical sensibility, so I have to say that “Susan” didn’t quite hit the mark for me. A country-tinged tune with a catchy melody, I think I would have liked it more with a two-part Everly Brothers harmony and a less choppy rhythm. The band gets back into the groove pretty quickly with the straightforward rocker, “Thinking About Leaving.” Geoff Palmer’s lead is notable for not overplaying his hand, breaking up the listener’s expectations with sudden pauses in the flow of the solo that have the effect of increasing the listener’s interest. I also love Zack Sprague’s work on the ride cymbal, the kind of subtle touch that drives me wild.
Speaking of wild, my fingers go wandering south once again with the amazing “Girls in This Town,” where The Connection prove they can do R&B rock with the best of them, which in this case means The Rolling Stones. Of course, I’m referring to the real Rolling Stones of the days of Sticky Fingers and not whoever that motley group is on what, their fifth farewell tour? “Girls in This Town” actually sounds more like the style on Exile on Main Street, an album I don’t particularly care for because The Stones mucked up the recording process with too much heroin. The Connection don’t make that mistake: the vocals are clear, the mix balanced, the piano sharp, the Jagger-Richard-like harmonies in sync. Though I would have liked to hear a bit more growl and volume from the sax, the piece fucking works. The first shift into the chorus elicited another banshee howl from yours truly and triggered the telltale sign that a great rock number is on the air: involuntarily undulating hips. This is such a strong dance number that even the most self-conscious and awkward geeks on the planet will be forced to get up and boogie. Goddamnit, let yourself go!
“Haze” is a song that grew on me over my three pre-review passes through the album. The music reminded me of two quite disparate numbers: Eric Burdon’s “When I Was Young” and Penelope Houston’s “Secret Sign,” but “Haze” is more melodic and delivered with more tightness than either of those numbers. “Day by Day” is an energetic piece, to be sure, but doesn’t quite live up to the standard of hit-the-road outlaw songs established by Fastball in “The Way” and by the blessed Richard Thompson in “Shane and Dixie.” Much better is the harmonically rich “Not How It’s Going to Be,” where the percussion sometimes mirrors the sound of a ticking clock, supporting the lyrics that describe the wasting experience of waiting for someday to come. The quirky lead guitar riff adds spice and color to the mix, making this a very intriguing piece indeed. It’s followed by one of two cover songs on the album, The Rolling Stones’ “Connection,” featuring great harmonies and energy but somewhat diminished by overly busy drumming in a song that really calls for something more in the style of Charlie Watts.
“Melinda” is another fascinating song that demonstrates The Connection’s growth into new areas of musical expression. The lyrics present an artfully ambiguous slice-of-life story of a fragmented relationship and psychological decline:
Melinda had her second baby,
I haven’t seen the first—someday, maybe.
Well, if I make it into that part of town,
You know it’s kinda hard for me to get around . . . all right,
I write the songs, she sings along,
I write all of her favorite songs.
I thought I had it all together
Until the mood changed like the weather
Well, yes she used to be my kind of girl,
But now she lives in a whole ‘nother world.
We can’t tell if the guy is a jerk for abandoning this girl after knocking her up twice or if he’s a sensitive soul trying to relate to someone who has plummeted into melancholy and depression, making it difficult to connect except through the unconscious messages of music. The best part is that the tension remains unresolved, as do many uneasy situations in life. The music is fabulous, from Geoff’s licks to Bobby’s bass, and Brad delivers yet another first-rate lead vocal. The real test of a great lead singer is that even after a dozen songs you look forward to hearing his voice on the next track, and Brad Marino passes that test with flying colors.
The album sadly ends (“NO! NO!” she screamed.) with Chuck Berry plagiarizing Chuck Berry, dropping the chorus on “Johnny B. Goode” for a set of guitar riffs and retitling it as “Let It Rock.” The band nails this sucker, hitting all the right notes and driving that beat home to the finish line.
Whew! I’m exhausted! The good kind of after-a-great-fuck exhausted! Cigarette! Let’s play it again!
Even though I’ve entered a ton of words on the page, I don’t think I’ve even begun to describe what a revitalizing experience it is to listen to Let It Rock. When I was listening to Sigur Rós’ latest work a week or two ago in preparation for that review, there was something about the experience that I couldn’t find words for until now. You know what? I’m fucking sick to death of “dark” music. I’m tired of all the pseudo-intellectual, self-obsessed, let’s-crawl-into-our-assholes-and-die music that my generation buys in droves. The pretentiousness and artistic arrogance inherent in such music creates sheltered cul-de-sacs where self-absorbed people can pat themselves on the back for being intellectually superior and for having disconnected themselves from the pettiness of the real world. We live in a time where people are depressed because it’s fashionable to be depressed, so you can show everyone how fucking sensitive you are to the existential gloom that surrounds us.
Fuck that. I’ll assume I’ve only got one life to live and I intend to live the fuck out of it. Let me remind the dark forces of artistic pretense that many of the truly great artists who changed the course of music history (Louis Armstrong, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, to name a few) infused their music with a joy that lifts the listener’s spirit.
Let It Rock does just that. It is a glorious expression of the sheer joy of unabashed rock ‘n’ roll, the music that never dies.