Sunday, January 08, 2006

"The Promised Land"

Looking back through the 300-odd SongsWithoutWhich I've amassed here so far, I'm amazed I didn't get around to Chuck Berry two years ago. Similarly, I wrote just a couple of days ago about the Beatles and was trying to list five bands who've changed music forever. I'm going to have to revisit that list and expand it, oh, just a little.
Every time I hear Chuck Berry I'm reminded of the scene in "Back to the Future" where Michael J. Fox plays "Johnny B Goode" to a stunned high-school 1950s audience and Chuck Berry's cousin has an idea.... Perhaps Chuck had that sort of impact when he first arrived on the radio; I guess you had to be there. But he's a hugely under-appreciated influence on rock and roll music these days.
I could blog any one of twenty of his songs, but I like this the best - it's the alternative version of "Route 66", a road-song in which the names come thick and fast and conjure up images of silver Greyhound buses, propeller-driven airplanes and men who wore hats and dressed sharp: "We had motor trouble, it turned into a struggle/Half way 'cross Alabam'/And that hound broke down and left us all stranded/In downtown Birmingham/Right away I bought me a through train ticket/Right cross Mississippi clean/And I was on that midnight flyer out of Birmingham/Smoking into New Orleans."
The sound is sheer nostalgia as well: the opening riff is the entire history of rock and roll in three seconds, the honky-tonk piano pounds the chords with sheer abandon, and the guitar sounds just like guitars used to sound before the technicians discovered bass and sustain - tinny, twangy and infinitely precious.
Bear in mind this is a guy who was one of the very first to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who's had Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller play for him and who was voted 6th best guitarist of all time in 2003. Not bad for a guy who'd written his best stuff before 1959. Respect is due.


finnegan said...

Funny you should mention Route 66. I am amazed at all the amazing connections I've been stumbling into these past few blog days; this being one of the most blaring.

Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King and many others going all the way back to Robert Johnson and John Hurt (not the English actor obviously) should be regarded as the originators of the music we know as Rock and Roll.

Black musicians were segregated both socially and commercially, and the same sort of injustices apply today as back then. Witness the great God-like icon status that Elvis is today and recognize that it was the Blues and Black musicians where he learned all his tricks.

Anonymous said...

The best part is, you can still see Chuck perform once a month at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis. My wife and I were fortunate to see him and Johnnie Johnson jamming together not long before Johnnie died.

Cocaine Jesus said...

finn has said it all. blues gave birth to some many musical forms. jazz and r'n b and of course met with c& w and sired the bastard that we know and love and refer to as rock 'n roll. (white stations wouldn't call it r 'n b coz that was 'nigger' music) alan freed the dj invented the term and a beautiful cross bred child of black and white parents was born.
fuckin' excellent post bi g L.