First published in New Society, February 1988.
Re-published in David Widgery, Preserving Disorder, Pluto Press, London 1989, pp.62-68.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.
Chuck Berry, well what more can you say?
“If you tried to give Rock ’n’ Roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’,” said John Lennon. It is a truism which contains a good deal of truth. Berry was the poet of commodities, the man who did most to take black musical forms into the fast lane of Cadillacs and TVs and to what he calls “transistor-radio teenagers”.
Not only could he rhyme “windowsill” with “dream De Ville”, but, over the airways, his precisely enunciated voice could pass as white (arriving at a Knoxville gig, the promoter told him, “It’s a country dance and we had no idea that Maybellene was recorded by a niggra man”). Although not an outstanding guitarist, his sound is the most imitated in music. And he brought to his stage act the vaudeville traditions still strong in 1950s black music: the salacious lyric variations, sharp stage moves, sheer boogie and humour. So if anyone embodied what were to become the 1960s rock values, it was him.
It is no surprise that he had such an influence in Britain as the most potentially commercial of the Chess Records artists (Jagger and Richards are said to have met on the Dartford suburban BR train by clocking each other’s Chuck Berry albums and the Stones’ first single, Come On, was a Berry cover). Even the Sex Pistols owe a good deal to Uncle Chuck. And in a dozen pubs tonight, bands will be blasting through the wonderful chord sequences of Johnny B. Goode and the joint will come alive.
The arrival of a coffee-table autobiography does not, however, establish Berry as a seditionary. There are some lovely details: the verse about Venus de Milo in Brown Eyed Handsome Man is derived from Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs and Berry’s Baptist father denounced his son’s early amorous activities with the injunction, “Never turn this garage into a bordello,” which describes exactly what most Berry songs do.
Berry notes Charlie Christian as an important early influence on his guitar phrasing, which fills a missing musicological link; he adores John Lennon and is cheerfully iconoclastic about sex and his “excessive desire to continue melting the ice of American hypocrisy regarding behaviour and beliefs that are now ‘in the closet’ and only surface in court, crime or comical conversation.” But, perhaps understandably, he cannot see quite why R and B, the music of the black American urban working class, made such a stir in the rest of the world.
For what we tend to forget is that, even by the early 1960s, black music was segregated in the United States and hard to obtain in Britain. Keith Richards had to write off to the Chicago offices of Chess Records to get his supplies and the Beatles were getting their Ronettes and Orielles albums from seamen in dockside pubs. And the long struggle of the civil rights movement was far from won: when I travelled on a 99-day $99 Greyhound bus trip through the deep south in the mid-1960s, it was as segregated as South Africa is now. And Britain was still a much more dozy, dreary male-dominated place. Only if one makes the effort to think oneself back into that greyness is it possible to understand why just hearing Route 66, Nadine and No Particular Place to Go was so exotic and exciting.
I have spent a deplorably large part of my life listening to music in dives. But I will never, ever, forget the impact of seeing Cyril Davies and his Allstars steaming into Smoke Stack Lighting in the Ricky Tick Club in Windsor, the first R and B I’d ever heard live. Davies was a panel beater from Walthamstow who, alongside the sorely missed Alexis Korner, was a founder of British R and B and a Chicago purist. He humped over his mouth-harp, spat his lyrics and drove his band like a galley master. The noise was phenomenal, a humping, thundering blast.
Davies, who died tragically young of leukaemia, was a true fanatic. And we loved him for it. Behind him sat various apprentices juddering along in his wake, doing respectful imitations of Chicago Southside-as-glimpsed-at-Croydon. These hopefuls were mainly Thames Valley art students who have subsequently become rock millionaires or OD’d. But then they were people just like us with spots and girl trouble (we didn’t know any). Long John Baldry sat in the front row of tubular steel chairs with a bowler hat reading The Times and, to our bafflement, eyeing up the boys.
It seemed at the time unbearably exciting, even though the hail would be used by the scouts the following night. Looking back it was unbearably male. Not in the sweaty-jockstraps or scouting-forever sense, rather in an utterly rebellious delinquent footloose, sexually boastful way. Really, we were spotty virgins skipping homework, but the music made us 150 Hootchie Cootchie Men.
For it is no accident that the wave of male rebelliousness, which started in the 1960s, identified with the music of Chicago in the 1930s, an equally male-dominated musical era. If a woman had got up and sung Careless Love to a piano, we would have sent her along to the Gang Show. Blues was men. Women blues singers were contemptibly respectable and English, penned creatures like Beryl Marsden and Ottilie Patterson.
It was not even fashionable to take an interest in the all-women singing groups that the markedly less musically chauvinist Beatles were absorbing. And, as Simon Frith and Howard Home have so astutely documented in their recent book, Art into Pop, this was going on in a hundred other such clubs. And out of it came the British pop and rock music of the 1960s and 1970s which was to conquer the world (including the white American world who had found the R and B originals too raw for their well-manicured ears). Bob Brunning’s underestimated study, Blues: the British Connection, will stagger even the most knowledgeable music lover in documenting quite the scale of influence that a handful of bands and musicians had on a whole generation.
Part of the intensity of the identification was about adolescence, simply the train-spotting syndrome: young men’s passion for inventing areas of ritualised expertise suitable for complicated, pointless conflict. The classroom expert with his underarm LP sleeves turned outward, topping off conversations with musical facts carefully learnt and casually imparted, the fax-and-info-kid who has mastered personnel lists, the bitter musical debates about sell-outs, has-beens and curios, all these collectors of the rare are senior lecturers in a self-created faculty.
So, being interested in something rigorous and esoteric fitted quite well with the intensely meritocratic ambiance of secondary education in the 1960s.
The school I attended was one of that dying breed, the grammar- school-with-pretensions. It was the last Grammar School Show, an educational version of Hancock’s Half-Hour where a rather seedy group of teachers, who clearly felt themselves destined for higher things, attempted to bully some culture into a group of roughs who were much more interested in motor bikes and the Bert Weedon Guitar Tutor and “getting off with birds” – as we described our largely imaginary sexual efforts.
The staff attempted to provide airs for their graceless pupils and had inherited an honours board in oak and gilt (although only a handful ever made it to university), a school song in cod-Latin (which had a couplet about the school’s lofty position over the railway sidings) and a panelled headmaster’s study (where the head would beat you with a strap and show you his holiday slides of the Parthenon on successive days).
The masters had bicycles and wore mysterious gowns on speech day, but for all the imitation-public schoolery it was still run on exams, intimidation and competition, while we remained dumb and as insolent as was possible. The rising spirits of suburban beatnikery engaged with the philosophy of sadism-as-character-building. Apart from engraving CND signs on our desklids and hurling a can of The Seventh Seal, which the film society had borrowed from Contemporary Films, down the said railway siding, our most effective mode of resistance was to become the ultimate pariah-boffin, the Sixth Form Jazz Fan.
Our form of schoolboy one-upmanship took the form of erudite conversations about Miles Davis’s mutes, the Loverman sessions and who exactly played fourth trumpet in the various Ellington sections. And listening, mesmerised, to Just Jazz and Jazz Club’s eerie, invisible clapping and effortlessly witty introduction with the same absolute attention afforded to Hancock’s Half-Hour, the other main alternative to homework. The BBC deliberately cancelled and rearranged its meagre jazz ration in order to confound schoolboy listeners who were forced to track down some of the obscurer US Forces wavelengths advertised in Melody Maker’s radio jazz column.
Jazz was a euphemism for adultness and the excuse for sorties in London to gain entry to Ronnie Scott’s Club (then a tatty basement in Gerrard Street) or gawp at the great Duke Ellington Band as it surged through the Hammersmith Odeon. There he was, the real Paul Gonsalves, asleep as was promised, and Johnny Hodges just like on the record. The afternoon the late Tubby Hayes sat in at five minutes’ notice and read his way through the entire Ellington book produced raptures of musical patriotism.
Under protest, we would even go to the soul and blues packages at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon. The bluesman used to sit down with heavy spectacles not present in the photos in our jazz and blues textbooks. But jazz became a somewhat unrewarding passion, always just out of tune on the radio, or on a new record you could not afford or in expensive clubs full of older men knowing what to do and doormen asking your age. Worst of all, there was no dancing (except to “Trad” which we despised like the musical Savanarolas we were). So you could neither take nor find girls.
Which is why we ended up skipping our A-level Tudor constitutional history and going in a battered blue van to an R and B club in Windsor called the Ricky Tick and run by John Mayall, who used to live in a tree until it was declared unsanitary by Windsor rural district council. And where I fell for a music which, a quarter of a century later, I am still entirely happy to listen to John’s son Gaz playing in a dive in Soho. I now also love the minor operas of Verdi, Orlando Gibbons and Irish traditional music. But R and B remains the root: passionate, sexy and highly political. So thank you, Chuck. And roll over Beethoven.
Last updated on 26.7.2001