Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Growing up with Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry was never my favorite musician growing up. As I’ve written before, the first musical artist I really loved was the Beatles. As I’ve also written before, the first musical artist I really loved was actually the Monkees, but I’m a revisionist when it comes to this aspect of my history. But Berry’s music was always around: in my parents' music collection. Or Michael J. Fox’s homage to Berry in Back to the Future. Or listening to oldies stations, back when “oldies” meant late 1950s and 1960s – including generous portions of early rock ‘n’ roll. It is fair to say that I grew up on Chuck Berry.

In reality, only a handful of Berry songs were regularly played on oldies stations (“Rock and Roll Music,” “Maybellene,” “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go”, “School Days,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and of course “Johnny B. Goode”). Instead, I learned much of his output through the Beatles. The Beatles officially released covers of only two Berry songs during their time together: “Rock and Roll Music and “Roll Over Beethoven.” But they had many other songs of his in their repertoire. They recorded several of these in their many live sessions on the BBC between 1963 and 1965. Judging by these recordings, almost all included in two Live at the BBC releases, their setlists included more songs by Berry than by any other artist. I have fond memories of listening to Beatles’ programs on the weekends in my junior high and high school years, hearing many of these Berry songs for the first time, taping them (with other BBC recordings) long before Live at the BBC was released. In a very real sense, I grew up with Chuck Berry through the Beatles.

The Beatles, too, grew up with Chuck Berry: his songs clearly played an important role in their formative years. Their performances on BBC programs make for an interesting measuring stick against one of their musical idols. I’ve always preferred Beatles’ version of “Rock and Roll Music” to the original. For the simple fact that a song titled “Rock and Roll Music” should, quite simply, rock – unlike the Beatles’ version, Berry’s swings more than rocks (the Beach Boys’ hit cover a decade later, their “comeback” hit, also fails to rock). I also like the Beatles’ version of “Too Much Monkey Business” better – perhaps for the same reason, or perhaps simply because it was the first version I heard.

On the other hand, the Beatles do not do “Johnny B. Goode’s” seminal rock real justice. Then there is “Memphis, Tennessee”: a well-constructed song, and surprisingly tender for Berry and his usual teenage tales of school and jukeboxes and cars. The Beatles’ version fails to capture that tenderness as well as Berry – though not as badly as the recording I was most familiar with growing up, the hit version released a year later by Johnny Rivers, who turns it into a dance number.

Given the importance of Berry to the Beatles’ development – and given that he was still active (and producing hits) during his comeback in 1964 – it is surprising to note that the two apparently never met during the Beatles’ lifetime. John Lennon first met Berry only in February 1972, when Lennon and Yoko Ono co-hosted the Mike Douglas show for a week. It is fascinating to watch the footage of the two performing together, Lennon torn between performing for the camera and watching his musical hero.

The irony is that, at the time of this performance, Lennon was being sued for infringing the copyright of one of Berry’s songs. The tale is really unbelievable: When John Lennon wrote “Come Together” in 1969, he began it with a near-quote from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”: “Here come a flat-top, he was movin’ up with me”. In the early 1970s, Lennon was sued by Morris Levy, the notorious  “Godfather of the music industry”, who owned the publishing rights to “You Can’t Catch Me.” (Berry himself was not involved in the suit.) Levy and Lennon settled out of court in 1973, with Lennon agreeing to record three songs owned by Levy on his next album. Lennon’s oldies album Rock ‘n’ Roll was recorded in part to fulfill the terms of the settlement – until an increasingly unstable Phil Spector, the album’s producer, disappeared with the master tapes. As a result, Lennon’s next release was Walls and Bridges, which violated the terms of the agreement. Lennon explained the situation to an increasingly anxious Levy, and later gave him a rough mixes of the recordings (after resuming in New York without Spector). Levy proceeded to release the mixes as an album on his mail order label. Levy sued Lennon for breach; Lennon countersued for unauthorized use of his material and damaging his reputation. (In 1977, after Levy’s appeal was finally ruled on, Lennon prevailed.)

In an interview in September 1980, Lennon dismissed the importance of Berry’s influence on his song:

“Come Together” is me – writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in “Here comes old flat-top.” It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to “Here comes old iron face,” but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on earth. (interview with David Sheff, September 8, 1980; emphasis in original)

But Lennon appears often to have used others’ composition as a way to start writing songs. His borrowings appear regularly at the beginnings of songs: besides the opening words of “Come Together,” there’s the intro to “Revolution” (from Pee Wee Crayton’s “Do Unto Others”); and the opening lines of “Run for Your Life” (lifted from Elvis’s “Baby Let’s Play House”). As with these other songs, “Come Together” might never have been written (or might have been written quite differently) if not for this inspiration.

This was certainly not the only legal action involving Berry’s songs. Berry’s regular music publisher Arc Music (owned by Philip and Leonard Chess from Berry’s label Chess Records along with Gene and Harry Goodman, younger brothers of Benny) threatened to sue the Beach Boys along with their label Capitol Records in 1963 over their hit “Surfin’ USA.” The song consists of new lyrics to Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” including a list of beaches where Berry has a list of cities, down to the phrase “all over x” (not to mention that the guitar intro is taken directly from Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”). Here too there was a settlement, though this one wasn’t violated: the song was assigned to Berry’s publishing company, and Berry was eventually given a songwriting credit.

Like the Beatles, the Beach Boys were greatly influenced by Berry. There is the intro to “Fun, Fun, Fun,” based on Berry’s guitar intro to “Johnny B. Goode.” But here the irony is that this, perhaps Berry’s most famous riff, was actually lifted by Berry from Carl Hogan’s intro to Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman.” In interviews Berry made a point of singling out the importance of Hogan and Jordan in influencing his music. “If you can call it my music,” as Berry once said, before continuing, “but then there’s nothing new under the sun.”

Berry had his own influences, which he sometimes lifted. But he stole most often from himself. There was the intro to “Maybellene,” recycled in his very next single, “Thirty Days”; the identical guitar solos in “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Roll Over Beethoven”; the melody and instrumental track of his Christmas song “Run Rudolph Run” reused in “Little Queenie”; the two best-known hits of his 1964 comeback, “No Particular Place to Go” and “Nadine,” reusing the melodies of “School Day” and (a slowed down) “Maybellene.” When listening to Berry’s music it is Berry’s own licks and tunes we hear more than anyone else’s – Berry was really an original after all. Or, to put it another way, everyone grew up on Chuck Berry . . . even Chuck Berry.


Anonymous said...

I also like the Johhny Rivers recording of "Memphi" better than Chuck Berry's recording although I usually listen to Chuck Berry more often.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the glimpse into the past, as I grew up in the era of early Berry. He was ever-present on the old R&R stations in NY City; one voice among many. Your Berry-Lennon video reminded me of why I never cared for Lennon. He never had the voice for that kind of music.