Chuck Berry…The Wilderness Years

This morning stuck in traffic with only Britain’s most popular radio presenter Chris Evans for company I was treated to the latest recording by Chuck Berry.‘Bad Boys’ has got it all, a catchy tune, Chuck’s best two guitar licks and surprisingly good singing. All this is not surprising really, recording technology has reached the point where it can do almost anything apart from bring the artist back from the dead. I’m sure there’s been a lot of postproduction work but it doesn’t really detract from the fact that this recording was by an 89 year old man and it sounds pretty good.

It all began in 1952 in St Louis when a local bandleader found himself in a dilemma on New Year’s Eve. Johnnie Johnson’s saxophone player had suffered a stroke and in desperation he turned to an unknown guitarist and singer who, by virtue of not being that good, was the only musician without a gig that night.

The rest is history, Berry soon outgrew the band and moved to Chicago. The is a suspicion that he learned/stole a lot from his old bandleader and strangely, for a guitarist, a lot of his songs are in jazz keys like Bb. Johnson himself later claimed he had co-written a lot of Berry’s hits and took out legal action. Unfortunately Johnson had not only left this several decades but had been drunk for the intervening years and the matter was thrown out of court.

If you haven’t got some sort of greatest hits compilation really you need to re-examine your life, it’s an essential purchase. I’ve got ‘The Great 28,’ it’s highly recommended and it’s all you need.

By the 60’s it was all over creatively for Berry, apart from ‘Nadine’ he had little memorable material left, he had influenced everyone, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stones, The Beach Boys, Marty McFly, there were very few bands who hadn’t tried their hand at a Berry number. For a period he had it all, fantastic lyrics, a great guitar style and an absolutely incendiary stage act.

It appeared by the 60’s that the muse had left him. He was still a great performer but his career became increasing money orientated. Berry seldom had a regular band, it reached the point where he would arrive in a city with his guitar, walk on stage and launch into a song. His backing band would be recruited locally and often the first time they would see Berry was coincided with that of the audience. Not surprisingly performances were pretty shambolic especially if the band hadn’t worked out that Berry liked to play in Bb.

In his 1986 documentary ‘Hail Hail ! Rock and Roll’ long-time fan Keith Richards organised a tribute star studded concert for Berry’s 60th birthday. Richards was to experience the whole force of the Berry persona. In one scene he is suggesting that Berry might want to change his guitar tone to something that might sound just a bit better, Richards is met with a blank refusal ‘That’s the way I sound’. After the concert Berry charged Richards for using his equipment.

For much of his 60’s and 70’s output it sounds that not only has Berry refused to change his guitar tone but he’s also refused to tune it as well. Most of his records are just over 30 minutes long and are a combination of hack writing and blues covers. There are two exceptions to this, his 1964 collaboration with Bo Diddley ’Two Great Guitars’ goes into serious trance territory for two extended instrumentals. ‘Concerto in B.Goode’ from 1969 is even crazier, ignore the hack work on the first side, side two is were Berry meets Hallogallo by Neu and ‘In a Silent Way’ by Miles Davis in a horrific mashup. Several performances are crudely cut together where Berry jams over one chord for some 13 minutes.

The 70s featured Berry in some serious psychedelic shirts and increasingly large mutton chop sideburns churning out sloppy versions of his old hits. It was, of course, the period of his greatest hit which almost overnight negated the rest of his career namely ‘My Ding a Ling’.

I had assumed that this was a toss off song that he’d made the mistake of recording live but in fact it is a proper song by Dave Bartholomew who wrote with Fats Domino among others and is currently first in line to be the first rock and roller to reach a century (he’s 98). Berry had recorded the song as ‘My Tambourine’ initially but the ding-a-ling version made its debut on a live album where he was backed by, of all people, The Steve Miller Band in San Francisco.

The hit version comes from an album he recorded in London. Howling Wolf had set the president for recording with the new generation of white British Artists and had met with some commercial and critical success. Berry wasn’t going to pay for the likes of Eric Clapton but cut some studio sides with some unknown session musicians and a couple of members of The Faces who were yet to hit the big time. Side two was live and recorded at the Lanchester Arts Festival in Coventry. The band on this occasion included two members of the Average White Band and Nic Potter taking a break from Van Der Graff Generator. Far from infusing a funk/prog vibe the band are just keeping up and sound no better and no worse than any of his other pick up bands. Also on the bill that day were Slade and Noddy Holder can he heard singing along apparently (I can’t hear him but there’s a limit to the number of times I’m going to listen to this). The original My-ding-a-ling lasted over 11 minutes and was edited down for the single, listening to it again after several years I can’t help but admire Berry’s showmanship. By the time the band have finished (at different times) playing Johnny B Goode the audience are eating out of his hand and won’t let the band go, one of the festival organisers has to take the mike and explain that the show has already over run and they need to clear the hall so Pink Floyd (!!!) can set up, this seems to have little effect on calming the audience.

And, of course ‘ My ding-a-ling’ became the biggest hit ever for Berry and for many people this is the only song for which he is known which is a travesty when you consider the quality of his early material.

Berry hadn’t a lot more to offer artistically there were three more 70’s albums and then nothing until ‘Bad Boys’. It’s likely that his yet unreleased record will be an attempt to rehabilitate him either by bringing in a stellar cast of stars like John Lee Hookers ‘The Healer’ and/or re-evaluating his work as in the Rick Rubin/ Johnny Cash recordings. It’s unlikely Berry would be an easy person to mold for a new generation but now he’s not around to express an opinion and studio technology has improved there is every chance that his next record could be his best for nearly 60 years.

Believe it or not I am a huge fan of Berry, presumably he means nothing to the average 20 year old today but when I was in my teens he was still a huge influence, you can even hear his licks on Sex Pistols records for Rods sake. If you really want to know about Berry just listen to ‘The Great 28’. But sometimes it’s more interesting to look at an artist’s failures as much as their successes as Jung observed ‘there is gold in the dark’, for me a creative person is interesting whether they are turning ideas into lead or gold. Expecting an artist to be a genius all the time is like expecting politicians to be kind people or Santa to be real. Berry was a flawed human but he wrote Johnny B Goode.

Never mind Johnny B Goode though it’s a song I could go without ever hearing again and not be disappointed, he has at least 27 other songs just as good. Here is the real gold, Berry kicking out the old and bringing in the new, and things would never be the same again.

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