Should you feel sad or celebrate when a musical icon of your youth is no more?
Here’s a list to celebrate. Seeing others’ lists of the Shakespeare of Rock’n’Roll’s top songs, I thought readers deserved something more definitive and (dare I say?) imaginative. So here are my personal 7 favourite Chuck Berry tracks.
“I-40 heading west” – 1979 hitch-hiking photo by Robert Pimm
7. Almost Grown (1959) – a paean to teenagerhood (curiously, the word for a teenager in Russian, Подросток, means “almost grown”). As so often with this most original singer-songwriter, the lyrics are exquisite as the restless teenager grows up – and settles down (“Now I really have a ball/So I don’t browse around at all”).
6. Brown Eyed Handsome Man (1956) has funny, not to say absurd lyrics about the sex-appeal of brown-eyed, handsome men – like Chuck Berry himself (“Milo Venus was a beautiful lass/She had the world in the palm of her hand/She lost both her arms in a wrestling match/To get a brown eyed handsome man”). Plus, as always, passionate guitar riffs.
5. Havana Moon (1956) tells a tragi-comic tale of a Cuban with a romantic engagement to be picked up from a beach by an American girl. “Me all alone with jug of rum/Me stand and wait for boat to come”. You can guess the rest. Wonderful stuff.
4. Mean Old World (1972) appeared on The London Chuck Berry Sessions album which, oddly, also featured several brilliant live tracks recorded in Coventry, including Reelin’ and Rockin’ – see below. Mean Old World is an exquisitely-produced version of T-Bone Walker’s 1942 blues classic. “Yeah, this is a mean old world, to try and live in all by yourself…” I can listen to this any number of times.
3. Back in the USA (1959), whose driving, irresistible beat surely inspired the Beatles’ Back in the USSR and whose lines “Oh well, oh well I feel so good today/We just touched ground on an international runway” so often sum up my mood – however unfashionable the theme of the song may be;
2. You Can’t Catch Me (1956), about a guy in a custom car out-running the police on the New Jersey Turnpike, with a reprise extolling the romantic nature of driving with music at night (“Flying on the beam, set on flight control/Radio tuned to rock and roll”) is a super summary of the appeal of US ’50s pop culture. When I hitch-hiked down the New Jersey Turnpike in 1979 during the US fuel crisis (the car I was in ran out of gas) I was humming this song. John Lennon did a wonderful cover in his 1975 album Rock’n’Roll. Unfortunately it seems not to be on Youtube.
Number 1: No particular place to go (1964) – the funniest lyrics of any rock song, with the goal of a romantic evening (reminiscent of the temporary good fortune which befalls Terry “The Toad” Fields when he picks up the glamorous Debbie in the movie American Graffiti) falling prey to a ghastly technological issue (“The night was young and the moon was bold/So we both decided to take a stroll/Can you imagine the way I felt/I couldn’t unfasten my safety belt”). Magic.
Other songs which deserve an honourable mention include Reelin’ and Rocking – a masterclass whose lyrics – particularly in the awesome 1972 live version at the Lanchester Arts Festival, a reminder of Berry’s longevity – are a reminder of what rock’n’roll is about in more ways than one; School Days (1957) – more fine rhythm and another evocative account of teenagerdom; Memphis Tennessee (1959), a favourite of mine from since I realised, aged eight, that the singer was not singing about the girlfriend he was missing but his six year-old daughter; one of Berry’s earliest (1955) and most evocative songs, Wee Wee Hours (“One little song/For a fading memory”); and Deep Feeling (1957) – a beautiful instrumental track.
Yeah, the deaths of music icons of my youth do make me wistful. I recall the first time I heard their songs, or when I used to listen to them. The way I (pitifully, perhaps, or innocently) seized on elements of their perceived lifestyle or attitude as desirable or inspirational. Or I remember the people I was with when I enjoyed those songs, who I’ve lost or who are gone.
Hey. Let’s celebrate the late great Chuck Berry.