Magazine April 17, 2017, Issue

Founding Rocker

Chuck Berry (Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty)
We all live in Chuck Berry’s world

Western cultural history can be divided into two eras: b.c.b. and a.c.b. For those of us raised in the a.c.b. era (after Chuck Berry), the old world can never come into focus. It appears as through a lens whose edges are softly vignetted. It can be neither experienced nor understood. The July 1955 release of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” did more than define rock ’n’ roll: It changed Western culture.

On The Mike Douglas Show in 1972, John Lennon met Chuck Berry for the first time. When Douglas asked Berry whether the latter had invented rock ’n’ roll, Lennon quickly interjected, “I’ll answer for him. He did.” Music historians might scoff at the assertion that Berry invented the genre, noting that Ike Turner, Bill Haley, Big Joe Turner, and many others were banging out jump blues, boogie-woogie, and rockabilly in the early ’50s (and even the late ’40s). But Lennon understood what Chuck Berry had created with “Maybellene.” Although some of that earlier music might have been called “rock ’n’ roll” at the time, each kind remained a distinct ingredient until Chuck Berry blended them together.

As Lennon put it, “If you tried to give rock ’n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”

Within weeks of the release of “Maybellene,” Elvis Presley was covering the song in his live shows. Bill Haley, who had scored big hits with his rockabilly numbers “Crazy Man, Crazy” and “Rock around the Clock” in 1953 and 1954, all but vanished from the top of the charts after Berry broke through. Haley’s fusion of swing and country was polished and unthreatening. There was no masculine, sensual growl in his guitar. Rock gets that from the electrified fingertips of Chuck Berry.

A look at the b.c.b.-era charts illustrates this perfectly. The No. 1 Billboard hit of 1954, Kitty Kallen’s “Little Things Mean a Lot,” is a violin-streaked waltz that sounds as though it were written for a Disney princess movie but didn’t quite make the cut. That year’s top-ten hits were all soft, safe, and breezily innocent. Not a song on the list has a hint of testosterone.

“Maybellene” was different. No one had ever recorded a song quite like it. Not Bill Haley. Not Elvis. Not even the great Muddy Waters. The country tune “Ida Red,” on which it was based, shows only how innovative Berry’s creation was. The distinctive voice, the aggressive guitar, the driving rhythm, the “motorvatin’” tempo, the bent double notes all combined to form something unheard before.

For the next five years, Chuck Berry pioneered a sound. The Berry creations “Thirty Days,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “Little Queenie,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Carol,” and Berry’s masterpiece, “Johnny B. Goode,” form the foundation of a.c.b.-era music.

The Elvis phenomenon deserves its place in cultural history, but to get a sense of why the King of Rock ’n’ Roll could never be considered its father, imagine Back to the Future’s climactic school-dance scene ending with an Elvis song. Any Elvis song. It doesn’t work. “We didn’t have an alternative,” producer Bob Gale said of Michael J. Fox’s performance of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

In the 60 years since Berry’s breakthrough, the term “rock ’n’ roll” has become antiquated. It’s now just “rock.” Bill Haley’s swing is gone. Muddy Waters’s blues are nurtured by “roots rock” bands but otherwise appear only in hints and echoes. Elvis is remembered as a lounge act. What remains is Chuck Berry’s aggression, screaming guitar, raw sensuality, and outsider ethos.

When Berry bent his electrified double notes, he vibrated the world’s raw, animal id. Elvis made R&B acceptable to white audiences, but it was Berry who brought white kids to black shows. It was Berry who opened millions of white teenagers’ bedrooms to black LP records, who turned rockabilly into rock ’n’ roll by killing the jazz out of it and teaching it how to rock in the way metalheads in the 1970s would instinctively understand. It was fast, electric, raw, edgy, even a little dangerous.

Five months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, a highly intelligent, well-spoken black ex-con (armed robbery) was reaching the souls of white, middle-class teenagers. Two of Berry’s first three songs are about racing cars (one in pursuit of a woman, one outrunning the law). The third is about sending his wayward woman to prison. As the civil-rights movement was getting started, Berry was doing more than making it acceptable to listen to black music. He was mainstreaming racial mixing, lawbreaking, and nonconformity.

In 1956, he released a song (“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”) about white women running off with dark-skinned men. White kids in America — and, soon, across the Atlantic — were taking social cues from this larger-than-life black man who was standing defiantly and proudly against convention. “I have found no happiness in any association that has been linked with regulations and custom,” Berry wrote in his autobiography. “In other words, conformity is not the fragrance found in my fantasies.”

That attitude was unmistakable, and the kids were paying attention. Berry “was writing good lyrics and intelligent lyrics in the 1950s when people were singing ‘Oh baby, I love you so,’” Lennon said in that Mike Douglas Show interview. “It was people like him that influenced our generation to try and make sense out of the songs rather than just sing ‘Do wah diddy.’”

Berry’s poetically articulated rebelliousness was soon vibrating teens all over the West. On October 17, 1961, 18-year-old Mick Jagger stood on the Dartford Station platform waiting for a train into London. In his arms were two records, The Best of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry’s Rockin’ at the Hops. A childhood friend, 17-year-old Keith Richards, saw the records and struck up a conversation. A year later, they were rehearsing Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters songs as the Rolling Stones. Their bad-boy image, which came to define the rock ’n’ roll counterculture, was not original to them. It came, like their blues-based guitar rock, from Chuck Berry.

The Stones covered 13 Chuck Berry songs. Their first single was a cover of “Come On.” The Beach Boys stole “Sweet Little Sixteen” so blatantly they had to give Berry songwriting credit on “Surfin’ USA.” Buddy Holly and Elvis covered him. So did AC/DC and the Sex Pistols. Hard rock was invented in 1964 when the Kinks released “You Really Got Me.” It was the last song on side one of their debut album. The opening track was a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Beautiful Delilah.” Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, covered Berry’s “Monkey Business” with his first band, the 101ers.

Berry’s sound was so far ahead of its time that his own band wasn’t sure what to do with it. The great blues bassist Willie Dixon was a producer and session musician at Chess Records when Berry arrived. He found himself stuck playing a traditional walking bass line on “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s out of place, reluctantly tethering the song to the old blues of the b.c.b. era. But what was Dixon to do? There was no blueprint. Like the Starlighters, the fictional band that found itself backing Marty McFly’s “Johnny B. Goode” in Back to the Future, you just had to find the right key, watch for the changes, and hope to keep up.

Without Chuck Berry’s breakthrough sound, there could have been no Rolling Stones, no Beatles, no Kinks, no Beach Boys. Without the Beach Boys, there would have been no Ramones. Without the Kinks and the Rolling Stones, no hard rock. Berry gave a yawping but undefined new musical spirit its form. Before Chuck Berry, there was R&B, country swing, blues, jump blues, jazz, rockabilly, and boogie-woogie. After Chuck Berry, there was rock ’n’ roll. And the sound Berry shaped had immense consequences.

In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom writes of the Stones’ Mick Jagger, “He was the hero and the model for countless young persons in universities as well as elsewhere. I discovered that students who boasted of having no heroes secretly had a passion to be like Mick Jagger, to live his life, have his fame.”

The electrification of the id at a young age doomed students to an impoverished spiritual and intellectual life, Bloom believed: “Rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied.”

Whether rock is so malign an influence is a debate for another day, but it’s hard to deny that the creation of premature ecstasy is rock’s effect. Rock produces this rush before maturity, creating a demand for ever greater stimulation. It creates a state of extended adolescence in which the search for satisfaction becomes a more powerful motivating force than the future rewards of adhering to social norms. We grow up seeking to be cool, aloof, and regularly stimulated. That does not preclude the pursuit of honor and truth, as Bloom believed, but it does precede it. For many, it diverts what might have become an impulse to higher pursuits.

A culture influenced by rock is fundamentally different — more individualistic, more pleasure-centered, more rebellious — from what prevailed before 1955. Obviously, the culture was already shifting before Berry recorded “Maybellene” that May. Playboy magazine was first published in 1953. Rebel without a Cause was released in October 1955. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was published that year, too; Peyton Place the following year. But nothing was as explosive as the music Chuck Berry put out in the years 1955–59.

Today, rock as a genre has faded, replaced by hip-hop and pop. But the culture it created is dominant. We live in the lyrical and spiritual universe of the Chuck Berry song. More than any other figure, it was Berry who, in his phrasing, delivered us from the days of old.

– Mr. Cline is a writer in New Hampshire. He co-hosts the alternative-rock podcast and radio show Suburban Underground.

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