As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coup de Ville
90 years aint too bad.
Chuck Berry and I got off to a bad start, as a kid my exposure to him was through bad cover versions of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and an old single my mum had in her collection. I remember feeling a bit excited putting it on and then being assailed by one of the worst songs I had ever heard, hell even aged 9 I could tell that ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ was an execrable festering boil of a tune*, it isn’t often I find myself agreeing with Mary Whitehouse but she was right this time, it should have been banned. But we got there in the end, Chuck and I, via Back To the Future, AC/DC’s ‘School Days’ and the Stones’ ‘Come On’, I bought a (coughs in an embarrassed fashion) CD and was exposed to the full glory of Chuck.
She’s 9 years old and sweet as she can be
All dressed up like a downtown Christmas tree
Dancin’ and hummin’ a rock-roll melody
I inherited Motorvatin’ from my brother in ’98 and I regularly take it out just go reelin’ and rockin’ and ridin’ on the coattails of this genius. If you only knew Chuck Berry’s music through all the covers and echoes of it in others’ work then this is like going from monochrome into colour. The music is just so damned exciting, it pulses and blazes along with all those new rhythms, this is music that was birthed under neon, music that was designed to buzz along with the sound of beautiful 50s automobiles as an update on all those clattering slow train blues that had gone before. That guitar does ring out like a bell, just cue up the opening bars of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and it’s there, (my) ding-a-ling clean and clear.
Blonde haired good looks, tryin’ to get me hooked
Want me to marry, get a home, settle down, write a book!
Too much monkey business, too much monkey business
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in
Obviously a compilation like Motorvatin’ is a pretty one-dimensional affair, a rockin’ dance-up party. Even more than his great playing and showmanship what sets Chuck Berry on top of the rock and roll throne for me were his lyrics. Bob Dylan, a man who knows a thing or two about putting words to music I’m told, called Chuck ‘the Shakespeare of rock and roll’. Each and every song tells a story here, whether it’s Little Queenie being ‘too cute to be a minute over seventeen’, the exhilarating pursuit of ‘Maybelline’**, the nice young couple in ‘You Never Can Tell’, the sheer infectious wordy joy of ‘Roll over Beethoven’, the railway men of ‘Let It Rock’, or the boy done good blast of ‘Johnny B Goode’. Every freaking one of these 22 tracks has something great and/or clever in the words, you can hear the whole concept of teenagers being invented right here. It’s remarkable.
Milo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match
To get brown eyed handsome man
She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man
Let’s do some favourites here. First up, the brilliant tale of coitus automobile-uptus that is ‘No Particular Place To Go’ and the excitement of just driving around with a special someone, Chuck leans in tells her how he feels and all of a sudden they’re ‘Cuddlin’ more and drivin’ slow / With no particular place to go’, except you know just where Chuck wants to go. When a jammed seatbelt foils all his dishonourable intentions you feel for him as much as you’re amused by him, ‘All the way home I held a grudge / For the safety belt that wouldn’t budge’.
Next up, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, a wonderful tune and a genius whiplash-fast delivery from Berry. Just you dare try to tell me that this track isn’t about white women’s attraction to black men! This is a sly, sly, funny song – as well as pleasing the daughters and wives of the professionals, it takes a brown eyed handsome man to win the baseball / complete a (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) home run too. How do you think this went down in 1956? miscegenation could get you a lynching back in the wrong place, this is a perfect answer.
But best of all is the tune that I always used to skip for being far too slow and down when I first owned it. I knew nothing. ‘Memphis’^ is a stone cold slice of genius and the song that Berry most deserves to be remembered for, but won’t. It is the saddest, subtlest song I own, but you don’t realise it at first because you don’t quite understand who the narrator is and what his circumstances are. You assume he’s just chasing a romantic liaison, right up until the reveal in the last verse, which always pierces like a stiletto …
Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good-bye
With hurry- home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee
… and then it’s gone, just leaving you to process it. That phrase ‘hurry-home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye’, wow! Beatles, Dylan, Stones none of them ever came up with a phrase half as beautiful and poetic – you get that image of the little girl and everything that led to that point so completely and irrevocably from that. Total heartbreak in 2:13.
I feel a bit inadequate, how can you even begin to scratch the surface of all that is great and groovy here? you can’t and neither does Motorvatin’, which has pretty much all you want on it from the Chess years. There was a lot more to Chuck Berry though, some great blues and some really off-the-wall goodies to be found elsewhere in his catalogue. This is music that transcends it all, slap it on and we can all be living our own American Graffiti fantasies. I get a lot of fun spotting where he started to plagiarise himself, mining that formula for all it was worth but still making great records out of it, the returns not diminishing at all because it was just so damned good to start with.
90 years ain’t too bad at all.
Howling, bye, bye, bye, bye
Bye, bye, bye, bye
Bye bye Johnny
Good bye Johnny B. Goode.
PS. Not that he ever gets any credit on compilations like this but Chuck’s rhythmic sound is at least half Johnnie Johnson’s creation, you only have to hear ‘Sweet Sixteen’ once to hear the truth of that.
Okay so he’s miming here but what an awesome mover he was!
PPPS. My mother-in-law saw him play in Liverpool in the mid 60’s, under the impression he was a country and western artist and hated every minute of it, apparently.
*although, through Nic Potter, the song provides an insanely unlikely link to Van der Graaf Generator.
**years ago I worked with a guy who had a cat called Maybelline; how cool was he?!
^Motorvatin’ calles it ‘Memphis’ I prefer it as ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ – it seems pretty random as to which title was used when.