By Gary Cordwell
Rock and Roll’s Mount Rushmore has but one face carved upon it, that of Chuck Berry, whose death, at the age of 90, was announced yesterday. He was THE founding father, the architect, the poet, the guitar hero. Anyone who has strapped on an electric guitar and tried to tell a story since owes him a debt to a greater or lesser degree. He was, IS, the ground zero of rock.
Born in 1926 into middle class semi affluence, Berry divided his time between music and young offenders institutions. The sharp teen quickly began developing his own sound, taking the boogie woogie riffs of Johnnie Johnson, his legendary pianist, and wrapping them in chrome, bubblegum and wet dreams to create a driving, electric youthful sound. A bastard offspring of blues, country and pop which had a whiff of danger and rebellion that appealed to what was the first generation of “teenagers”. Never exactly an angel, Berry was convicted in 1962 of transporting a 14 year old girl across state lines for immoral purposes. He emerged from prison 2 years later a changed man – harder. Ruthless and distant. Luckily for him, at that time a new generation of Brits were discovering his music.
This generation of British teens fell in love with Berry’s descriptions of a completely alien world. A world of jeans, girls, milkshakes, jukeboxes and “coffee coloured Cadillacs”. They quit their skiffle groups, bought, stole or made electric guitars and plugged in and things were never quite the same. Berry’s influence cannot be overstated, Clapton, Page, Beck, The Beach Boys, Dr. Feelgood, The Who, The Sex Pistols, AC/DC, The Grateful Dead, Bowie, Bolan, The Clash, The Doors…it goes on, the list of fans is endless. Mssrs Lennon and Richards in particular deserve singling out. “If you tried to give rock and roll another name”, said Lennon, “you might call it Chuck Berry”, and pretty much everything Keef has played since picking up a guitar channels Berry. Even once they had graduated from the Ealing blues club to Madison Square Gardens they were still playing ‘Carol’.
His guitar attack and showmanship were a direct influence on Hendrix but it is his dexterity with words that should not be ignored. He was an artist. A poet, able to write a novel in 2 lines, to paint and create a world so vividly and people it so masterfully that a generation wanted to live there. Yes, Dylan won the Nobel prize for literature but he’d be the first to admit that Chuck came first. The rapid-fire, streetwise wordplay of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ gave birth to a thousand streets poets. Listen to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, ‘Travelling Band’ and ‘Blinded By The Light’ and realise where that earth shaking lyricism came from.
Berry’s concerts became the stuff of legend. Tired of being ripped off by “the Man” he insisted on being paid, literally, as he walked offstage. In cash. The venue also had to supply a backing band which resulted in incredibly variable gig quality, maybe the band would be good, maybe it would be a third rate pub band dragged from the local boozer, standing terrified in Berrys presence, waiting for him to launch into the first song…and wondering what it would be. Sometimes Berry lucked out, Bruce Springsteen often recalls the day he and his fledgling E-Street Band nervously backed the great man.
Tributes began flooding in almost immediately. “One of my big lights has gone out” said Keith Richards, while Alice Cooper added, “all of us in rock have now lost our father”. Springsteen mourned the loss of a giant and described him as “the greatest pure rock ‘n roll writer who ever lived”. Affection was across the board, Berry was never a target for any particular movement because it was obvious that he was the real thing. He was rock and roll. Where do we go from here?
Composer. Musician. Poet.
“Roll over Beethoven…”
RIP Chuck Berry