Monday, 20 March 2017
An AAA Covers Tribute To Chuck Berry (Half A Dozen Berry's Plus One!)
So Chuck Berry is dead, after ninety years of rocking the world. The first practitioner of the young man's medium to truly die of 'old age' rather than in the more glamorous way of a plane crash or a drug overdose or any number of illnesses more usually associated with younger men. His music will live on - literally in the case of space vessel Voyager's copy of 'Johnny B Goode' which continues to float through space as an 'example' of Earth music placed on a special tough piece of vinyl designed for alien races to play and learn about our species. More earthbound in the case of the new album he'd just finished work on last month (and which isn't out yet but surely will be soon), breaking a silence of over thirty years. Few writers ever knew as much about humans as Chuck - certainly 1950s teenage Americans - and his witty observations of life around him inspired a whole host of British and American AAA bands to adapt his style. Though not an AAA member per se, this site would have been very different without his influence. As Keith Richards once said, if they ever needed another name for 'rock and roll' then 'Chuck Berry' was a name that would work just as well. Here are some of our favourites:
1) The Rolling Stones 'Carol' ('The Rolling Stones' 1964)
Though a Londoner through and through and even by the time of his band's first album something of a sex symbol, Mick Jagger really gets to grips with this tale of a boyfriend at risk of being dumped by his girlfriend if he doesn't learn to dance. No one learnt how to copy Chuck's choppy and distinctive chords quite as well as Keith Richards and he's in his element here too, driving the song along with a mournful cry. The Stones did many many Chuck covers in their lifetime (including debut single 'C'mon!' and Keith's festive single 'Run Rudolph Run') but never with as much class or passion as here.
2) The Beatles 'Memphis Tennessee' (Live At The BBC Volume One' 1993)
The Beatles tended to leave Chuck alone when it came ot their records, sensing that The Stones had got that part of the market cornered (a spirited run through 'Roll Over Beethoven' on 'With The Beatles' and a similar take on 'Rock and Roll Music' on 'Beatles For Sale' being the exceptions). But for their BBC radio sessions it was a different matter: Chuck was one of the few singer-songwriters John, Paul and George all adored equally and could re-learn quickly during rehearsals and they performed several classics: 'Too Much Monkey Business' 'Sweet Little Sixteen''Johnny B Goode'...However we've plumped with 'Memphis Tennessee', my candidate for Chuck's greatest song. This track includes everything: a classic snarling impatient guitar riff and a lyric that sounds as if its' just another 'break-up' teenage song until the twist at the end that reveals that 'Sweet Marie' is the narrator's six-year-old daughter his ex-wife won't let him see any more. Suddenly Memphis Tennessee seems so far away it may as well be on the moon.
3) The Hollies 'Too Much Monkey Business' ('In The Hollies Style' 1964)
This is Chuck's other classic, a real working class roots song where the narrator feels hemmed in at work, at school and by his girlfriend and family and the army trying to draft him. What could have been a real moan of a song ends up being one of the funniest songs in the AAA lexicon, ending up a fast-talking, almost rap prototype punctuated by a sharp funny chorus and another great guitar riff. The Hollies perform their version with gusto, just edging out their covers of 'memphis' from their first album and a revved up version of perhaps the world's first 'groupie' song 'Sweet Little Sixteen' from their third.
3) The Kinks 'Beautiful Delilah' ('The Kinks' 1964)
The Kinks dropped raucous rock and roll cover songs from their setlist early but still found room on their debut for two Berry songs, a rather wet-behind-the-ears 'Monkey Business' (odd given how close it is to a Kinks working class song!) and a wild erratic 'Beautiful Delilah' as sung by Dave Davies. The narrator is in love with the title character but has plenty of rivals and doesn't know whether to grin or feel sad when she finally falls for a boy who lets her down the way she let him down.
4) The Byrds 'Roll Over Beethoven' ('Live At The Royal Albert Hall' 1971)
You all thought I'd pick the famous fab four version didn't you?! But no: The Byrds' feisty, punky cover from late on in their career is much closer to the raw protest of the original and helps turn rock and roll into even more of an anthem (The Beatles, by contrast, play the song almost as jazz). It's odd hearing Roger McGuinn, usually the epitome of cool, let rip on such a wild, passionate song but he sings it very well. This was, perhaps strangely, the only Berry cover song The Byrds ever played.
5) Grateful Dead 'Around and Around' ('Steal Your Face' 1976)
The Dead, by contrast, did a whole great pile of them through all thirty years of their career and apart from 'Johnny B Goode' specialised in the more obscure Berry numbers (such as 'The Promised Land' - sadly they never did my other favourite Chuck song 'Let Me Sleep Woman' - perfect for an m.e. sufferer like me!) The best, though, is the slow burning groove of 'Around and Around', with music passing around the world with a 'crazy sound' which slotted in perfectly onto the Dead's songbook passing peace, love and music to their audiences. Bob Weir sounds especially good on these simple types of songs.
6) The Beach Boys 'School Days (Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell)' ('Keepin' The Summer Alive' 1980)
The Beach Boys might not have existed without Chuck Berry (or would at least have sounded a lot more like The Four Freshman) with breakthrough hit 'Surfin' USA' nicking wholesale the tune from 'Sweet Little Sixteen' (to the point where Berry's lawyers got involved!) Thereafter The Beach Boys stayed away as if trying to distance themselves from another court case but returned to the Berry schoolbook another three times: for a live performance of 'Johnny B Goode' in 1964, a dreadful 'Rock and Roll Music' in 1976 that rocks about as hard as a rocking chair and this forgotten little gem revived by Al Jardine late in the band's career. The band swing with more harmonies than Chuck's version and have fun returning to a 'classroom' setting for the first time in over a decade. The teacher don't know how mean she looks, but surely even she must enjoy this one!
7) Simon and Garfunkel 'Maybelline' ('The Concert In Central Park' 1982)
We conclude with Simon and Garfunkel getting into the spirit of their teenage days with this surprise cover from their legendary reunion concert, recorded 'back home' in Central Park a few blocks away from where both men grew up. The visit clearly inspired memories with Paul's teenage reminiscence song 'Kodochrome' being Maybelline's perfect dancing partner. Simon and Garfunkel never recorded another Berry song - even in their teenage days when his songs were brand new!
That's half-a-dozen plus-one Berrys from the AAA canon for you anyway dear readers - there are many more out there (how come none of 'our' guys ever covered 'No Particular Place To Go'?!) and a lot of Berry records to go through to find them - no doubt with a new re-issue series due sometime soon after the sad news. Happy hunting! Till then, we'll be back to normal tomorrow with our regular columns!