It’s hard to pin down what I love in Berry’s recordings. They are bluesy, for sure, but in combination with an unsubtle pop sentimentality which generally wouldn’t be my thing. They also undeniably represent a commercialisation of black aesthetics. (Whitewashing, if you like.) But there’s more to it than that.
Today I’ll quickly discuss my three favourite aspects: powerful performances in the bluesman tradition; an incredible gift for songwriting; and his recasting of black church music’s utopian politics as an emancipatory youth culture.
Check out his entrance in this 1965 TV performance:
Berry casts doubt over even his bare engagement with the situation – exactly the attitude discussed by Questlove in that article on Black Cool I’m always linking. Now check the intro to this song:
Berry’s pompous and mannered crowd talk, “And in fact, a relished memory in my mind was”, his ambiguous attitude (between mockery and reverence) towards Beethoven and indeed to his audience, his switches between impassivity and completely over-the-top moves, all tie in to complex traditions of enactment of black identity for white audiences. As in the Louis Jordan video I discussed, the star opens a space for multiple simultaneous meanings, quite possibly up to and including bitter contempt. Both performers reference racially-stereotyped symbols (Beethoven and chicken), present themselves mock-stupidly (“I love chicken”, “I ask him to forgive us”), and have a manner that is apparently friendly and explanatory yet mystifying.
Berry lengthens “Roll Over Beethoven” with extra solos and choruses. The aesthetic of “doing it”, manifesting energy and rocking the crowd, is prioritised above content or thematic development. I love the risk-taking – he even forgets the proper end line “I wanna hear it again today” in the first verse. That attitude is rare now in pop and rock.
Berry restrains his wildest dancing and guitar work until the end of this, the third song in the set. That’s good showmanship, and also I think demonstrates one of Questlove’s elements of Black Cool: unleashing hidden power – which Berry embodies generally with his switches between grotesquerie and stillness, i.e. 2:16-2:36, and dance moves that take over some limbs while others remain still.
Moving on. Chuck Berry’s incredible lyrics can’t be appreciated without recognising their reliance on myths. Berry connected (among other things):
- the American dream of hard work, success and consumption,
- conventional boy-meets-girl romance (with mild objectification of female bodies “tight dresses and lipstick”, “lookin like the cover of a twenty-dollar magazine”)
- black music’s utopian politics (a phrase from Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic)
… into a rock’n’roll ideology of emancipated youth expressing itself and looking for romance in the countercultural forms of listening to records, going to dances and concerts, and driving fast cars.
Here’s a verse from the late-career hit “You Never Can Tell” (it comes in at 0:52), about a couple who marry real young but find happiness against the odds:
They had a hi-fi phono, boy, did they let it blast
700 little records, all rock and rhythm and jazz
But when the sun went down, the rapid tempo of the music fell
“C’est la vie,” say the old folks, “it goes to show you never can tell”
The theme of the first two lines is individualist freedom to shape a countercultural lifestyle via consumption (“700 records”) of new technology and rhythmic music. The third and fourth lines then frame this as conventionally romantic and part of a cycle of generations.
Notice the deft loading of emotion into evocative words: “hi-fi phono” is slightly mystical jargon conveying the thrill of powerful new technology, and is also a satisfying sound that Berry stylises with a dive on “phono” resembling an exclamation of appreciation like “damn” or a whistle.
“Let it blast” hints at unleashing hidden power, transforming everyday situations, while the pitch dive on “blast” has a timbral effect again imitating appreciation (the onomatopeic slang word “phwoarr” conveys something similar) very much like “reel and rock” here. “Little records” is an affectionate phrase – the affection of obsessive “rock, rhythm and jazz” fans. Groove music’s power is conveyed by those alliterative word sounds and a descending blues melisma on “jazz”.
The third line gets me every time I hear it. It makes great use of cliches, with strong overall feeling of relaxation and cooling. “But” evokes a quietening-down after “they let it blast”. The parallelism of “sun down” and “tempo fell” invite the listener to imagine what else might be lowering or calming – the mood of the party, perhaps? This implication of a more intimate mood, and the images of “night” and “slow tempo”, suggest to me “slow dance”. “Sundown” has the implication of twilit mystery and fading warmth, and it brings us into a specific moment. “Rapid tempo of the music fell”, by starting the line with “rapid”, takes us through the cooling-down, which is also sketched by the unwinding rhythm. These ideas unite for me in an impression of cool-of-the-night sensuality and slightly illicit romance – feeling the “rapid tempo” of a dance partner’s heartbeat, perhaps.
The fourth line, zooms out of the storytelling to contrast this with the old folks’ square perspective. Berry uses this effect in many of his hits, contrasting teenage rebellion with convention: the “teacher” of “School Days“, the “back in class again” and the off-stage parents of “Sweet Sixteen“, the “jubilee” that gets all rocked up in “Rock and Roll Music“. I suspect this is derived from a technique of juxtaposing hip, black-coded viewpoints with square ones that crops up all over black music. The point is, Berry basically remoulds the opposition from “white-black” into “authority-youth”, handing over black hipness to American teenagers.
And the way in for white youth is mass-market consumption. The protagonists of “You Never Can Tell” create a hip lifestyle through their glamourised acquisitions: a nice record player and a huge record collection. This way they access the identity-forming power of black music. In the subsequent verse it’s a car that gets romanticised, a “souped-up jitney, cherry red ’53” – both the car and the record player are liberating, empowering technologies that allow free performance of one’s identity. The car motif taps into an American romance of the road trip which predates World War II and lead to publications like the Automobile Blue Book and the Negro Motorist Green Book.
So, we have consumerism, mass-market technology, black rhythmic music, the open road, boy-meets-girl and the American Dream. Berry’s ability to fluently intermingle these myths, have them resonate, and release their power in expressively-sung key phrases and words, is uncanny.
I believe there’s one factor that keeps these highly conventional myths and emotions from being too sentimental. It comes straight from black music. It is, I would say, a spiritual orientation towards joyful freedom, or as Paul Gilroy puts it, the politics of utopianism.
Gilroy distinguishes two strands of utopianism: the politics of fulfilment, which demands that society lives up to its own promises of equality and justice (Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, spirituals e.g. “Let My People Go”, roots reggae, etc.); and the politics of transfiguration, which, within the music itself and its immediate circumstances of production and distribution, manifests new and fairer modes of friendship, happiness and solidarity between black people, and between blacks and whites – generally on a non-verbal level and in signs whose brokenness (dirty timbres, fragmentary phrasing) maintains a memory of slavery’s unsayable terror. That is, the great-feeling moments in black music invoke a utopia where all of society could feel and interact in joyful ways that originated as captives’ survival/resistance techniques.
Gilroy goes on about how these strains of utopianism form an effective critique of capitalism and Western scientific racism, and you should read his incredible book if you’re interested. But let’s look at utopian politics in Chuck Berry’s song “Promised Land”:
It’s about the centuries-old American trope of going West, which featured in previous r’n’b songs such as Route 66. Here’s the 8th verse of “Promised Land”:
Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines, cool your wings
And let me make it to the telephone
The song title and the first line of this verse are taken from famous spirituals. To simplify (and this is a topic I know little about), both of the original spirituals are about finding redemption in a welcoming heaven that was both the far-off opposite of the socially-unjust, uncaring and prideful world of today; and an ecstasy momentarily attainable in the grooving call-and-response and group connectedness of church music and preaching. I find those emotions incredibly appealing even as a foreign white atheist whose origins are more imperialist than oppressed (seeing as some of my ancestors worked in Dublin Castle for the British administration, and another was a mining engineer in colonies and was briefly in the French Navy).
Berry neatly channels the feeling of an approaching, inevitable freedom into the national myths of going West and making it big. So the song is not just about travelling and getting rich. It’s about finding something you and yours have a birthright to, an emancipation from misery.
The rest of the verse once again shows Berry’s skill: the affectionate addressing of the aeroplane “Cut your engines, cool your wings” conveys strong affection for the empowering new technology. Like the “sun down” line from earlier, it uses the sensation of heat. (I guess all these references to cooling off would appeal to listeners in a heaving dance!) “Let me make it to a telephone” creates a character, a drive, and a scene in seven words.
Later verses also once again use contrasting worldviews, i.e. that of the “poor boy” narrator (reminiscent of Johnny B. Goode) and the citified plane pilot, rich friends and the phone operator.
So, Berry tied together expressive singing, great phrasing, emotion-laden words and images, characterisation, national myths and black spirituality. And, I want to say, all this stuff happens concurrently, within individual syllables and yet permeating not only whole songs but his whole output. Add that to the solos, backbeats and the secret sauce of Johnnie Johnson‘s sophisticatedly rippling and tumbling blues piano lines…. No wonder this music defined America as the land of the free, shaping global youth culture for decades.
I didn’t have time to research Chuck Berry’s political views on race and how it affected him and his music. So I’ll leave that massive topic. It comes up somewhat though in the last thing I want to talk about: Berry’s criminal record that shows him to have been a misogynist creep.
He went to jail in 1959 for transporting a 14-year-old across state lines and having sex with her. The girl was an Apache Native American who had worked as a prostitute and who testified against Berry. Berry claimed the judge had made racist comments to turn the jury against him, and that he only wanted to give the girl a job at his racially integrated nightclub, Berry’s Club Bandstand. (The conviction was under the Mann Act which was used against both real predators and social dissenters like polygamists and black boxer Jack Johnson.) Both his appeals failed.
Berry also had to pay out to a woman who claimed he punched her, in 1988, and to women whom he secretly videotaped going to the toilet in a restaurant he owned, in 1990. That’s pretty low!
And I heard a story recently about him inviting an underage girl he had spotted in the crowd to come backstage at one of his Irish gigs.
There’s a lot we could look at here, especially about the whole “can the artist be separated from the music” angle. But I’m bringing it up because I found it remarkable, when Berry died a few weeks ago, how hurt I was by people denigrating him on Facebook.
My point is that we identify with art and build some of our self-image on it. That feeling of hurt illuminated for me how sensible people can defend unpleasant causes if their self-image is attacked. In particular, I’m thinking about the gamergate online movement which fed into the rise of the alt-right. It came out of passionate fans feeling hurt when outsiders took the high moral ground to disparage much-loved video games as misogynist and sexist.
If I pick up that someone is saying “I don’t know much about Chuck Berry’s music but he was evil”, I don’t think that would bother me. But if I pick up “You are wrong to like Chuck Berry’s music”, even if that wasn’t the intended message, I get angry and upset.
So what do I think now about the position of those people who leapt to their keyboards after Berry died to dismiss him? Well, firstly that they probably don’t fully get what he gifted to mass culture – all the stuff I mentioned above, as well as the raw craft and the use of transcendent myths. (His songs were justifiedly ubiquituous for decades, required learning for rock, pop and r’n’b players, especially in England.)
Secondly, that he got so far having started as a black r’n’b musician.
Finally, that I agree Chuck Berry was predatory and venal and that we should keep that in mind as we enjoy his brilliance. That way, we can evaluate his achievements, rather than just throw them away. For example, how much of Berry’s success was due to his celebration of, perhaps surrender to, consumer capitalism as an American value? Does he represent a continuation of a black tradition of subverting capitalist/white commercialised music distribution from within? What about his hewing to standard, sexist depictions of women? (Which gets kind of sinister in “Carol” when he mentions the “little cutie” who takes your hat… hatcheck girl was the job he gave his victim in the trafficking case.) Was his stage demeanour reflective of an inner anger? Etc., etc. Keep at this and you can get pretty deep…. Doesn’t the virulent misogyny of a number of my very favourite artists (say Chuck Berry, Skip James, Miles Davis) demonstrate a problematic link between patriarchy and my favourite genres? What drew me as a teenager towards such hyper-masculinised styles as country blues and funk?
All questions for another day as I’ve been writing this thing for weeks now. Please leave comments, I love that.