Poet of the Practical Life
by Jake Chapman
With the possible exception of the opening bar of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, there is no single sound in music as immediately recognizable--as instantly, arrestingly expressive--as the Chuck Berry Guitar Intro. You know the one. I humbly submit that no human this side of remote Amazon tribes yet to make contact with modern man could fail, upon hearing less than a second of, say, "Roll Over Beethoven" (har, har), to know exactly what they're listening to. They might not know the name of the song-- they might not even know Chuck Berry's name-- but they will suddenly find themselves back in front of the jukebox at the corner five and dime on a hot summer day in 1956 even if they were born in Latvia in 1982. With Chuck Berry, you don't need to be told where you're at. You just know.
Poetic exaggerations aside, there is an explanation for this. We live in a post-Chuck Berry world. We don't need to have heard a single Chuck Berry song to grasp the formula instantly, because we've been hearing it ever since. Rock and roll: guitar, bass, drums, singer. Maybe some piano and sax for good measure. Driving 4/4 back beat, walking bass line, overdriven guitar, 12- or 16-bar blues form, repetition. Intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, guitar solo, chorus, and wrapped up in 2:40 or less. Boom. When you strip away the frills, that's really all it is: a mixture of elements so familiar by now that it seems almost innate within the universe we inhabit. Whether you received it straight from the man himself, or perhaps via the Beatles (as I did) or the Rolling Stones or whoever else, you got the message. It is our shared fluency in the language of Chuck Berry that enabled an interesting encounter between Chuck and Bruce Springsteen in the early '70s, at a show at the Maryland Armory, with Bruce and the E Street Band serving as Chuck's backing group. Springsteen tells the story in the foreword to Chuck's autobiography:I said, "Well, Chuck..." And he said, "What?" And I said, "What songs are we going to do?" And he said, "Well, we're going to play some Chuck Berry songs." That's all he said. So we went, "Okay."And that's all they needed to know. Some would point to this as evidence that Chuck Berry is merely formulaic, that "all of his songs sound the same." (To be fair, this isn't entirely unreasonable. Lookin' at you, "School Days" and "No Particular Place to Go.") I would argue that being formulaic is an entirely different deal if you invented the formula in the first place. Again, it's only in hindsight that all of this seems old hat.
It was not always this way. Just as the Beatles pieced together their act in Hamburg, Berry hit upon his winning recipe-- everything from the bluesy double stops to the duck walk-- during regular gigs at the Cosmopolitan Club in his home city of St. Louis, where he stepped into the Sir John's Trio along with pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Ebby Hardy on New Year's Eve, 1953. By employing what he called a "hilarious hilly and basic billy" delivery of the bluesy fare that was Johnson's specialty--or, by bringing hillbilly songs to get bluesed up by Johnson--Berry developed a style that wasn't like anything else out there. While Berry credits the discovery to his desire to "perform in excess of [Johnson's] own performance," there is significant debate about what actually went down at the Cosmo. Many have argued that it was actually Johnson who wrote the music behind Berry's lyrics; that it is he, not Berry, who is responsible for that magical musical fusion we now call rock and roll.
Keith Richards, for his part, is firmly in the Johnson camp. "He's not doing Chuck Berry songs," he stated during the filming of Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. "No, the way he's playing it, it's [Johnson's] riff; Chuck adapted it to the guitar. I know that, too, because of the key it's in. It's in Johnnie's keys, piano keys. If it was a guitar, if it was rock and roll, you play in A, in E, because you've got open strings." He seems awfully confident . Far be it from me to disagree with the Keef himself on the subject of rock and roll guitar, but speaking as a rock and roll guitarist, I don't buy it, for several reasons. (Hey, Keith! "Street Fighting Man" is in B and "Gimme Shelter" is in C#. I guess Ian Stewart wrote those!) The guitar is unique among the basic rock and roll instrumentation in that it is very easy to play in all sorts of different keys. Compare this to, say, the saxophone, where each key has a completely different set of fingerings-- not to mention that, for various notational reasons I don't have the time or inclination to get into here, horn players need to transpose everything into their own instrument's key. For instance, the note that a pianist (or really anyone besides a horn player) calls a C is called a D on tenor sax and an A on alto sax. If you want to see a horn section squirm, give them a song in F#.
Guitar has no such problem. Once you learn a couple of basic chord shapes and the pentatonic blues scale, all you have to do is slide the same patterns around to the appropriate fret-- and this isn't jazz we're talking about here. A few chords and a simple scale or two is all Chuck would have ever needed to cover his bases harmonically. Bruce Pegg, in his Berry bio Brown Eyed Handsome Man, shares my skepticism. Referring to keys like Bb ("Maybellene," "Johnny B. Goode") and Eb ("Rock and Roll Music," "Roll Over Beethoven"), he rightly states that "they are keys that are certainly not beyond the average guitar player... Richards's notion that they were not suitable keys for a guitarist thus becomes questionable." The inability to quickly and easily move these basic patterns between keys is a hallmark of truly amateur guitarists, not seminal rock guitar progenitors.
To argue Richards's case is also to ignore Berry's habit of jumping between keys for no apparent reason during live performances, which Richards himself had to put up with during Berry's 60th birthday celebration concert. He recalled, for example, their performance of "Roll Over Beethoven": "Chuck comes over to me in the middle of the solo and says 'After this we're going to change key'-- we were in C at the time--'to B flat,'" causing Richards to react with what Pegg calls "a look of horror and consternation." Later in the show, Chuck struck again, spontaneously deciding to play "Back in the U.S.A." in G instead of C, once again throwing everyone else on stage for a loop and angering Linda Ronstadt to the point where she stormed out after the song was over and refused to return for the second show. Chuck Berry plays in whatever key Chuck Berry wants to play in, dammit-- which Richards should know better than just about anyone. His assertion that Berry's songs sans Johnnie Johnson would be "just a lot of words on paper" strikes me as so strange and incongruous that I wonder whether some external drama could be clouding his judgment. After all, while there does seem to be a solid bed of mutual respect between the two guitar greats, their relationship is certainly not without contention. (This too is a topic for another day.)
This is not to say, however, that Johnnie Johnson wasn't responsible for a good deal of the musical composition of Berry's songs; all signs indicate that he had a very significant role, especially early on in Berry's career. "Johnnie Johnson's contribution to Chuck Berry's music cannot be underestimated," Fred Rothwell writes in Long Distance Information, noting quite correctly that Johnson was the "older and more musically experienced" of the two. This narrative of Johnson as the musical counterpart to Berry's lyrical prowess—the Rodgers to his Hammerstein--does hold up pretty well on several entries in the Berry catalogue. "Wee Wee Hours," for example, is little more than an extended Johnson piano solo with some lyrics sprinkled on top. Johnson's account of its composition and recording backs this up. "Chuck had me play that blues again," he says, "and he started puttin' words to it. Wasn't but fifteen minutes later we had 'Wee Wee Hours.'"
Other such examples are not difficult to find. The ingeniously onomatopoetic guitar intro to "School Days," for instance, was taken from a piano riff Johnson had been using for years as part of "Johnnie's Boogie," a highly improvisational instrumental number that was a mainstay of his tenure at the Cosmopolitan Club. Evidently Richards was actually dead on in this case, although it is worth noting that Johnson himself was imitating the intro to "Honky Tonk Train Blues" by Meade Lux Lewis, a prominent blues/jazz pianist of the '30s (who, in turn, was imitating a train whistle).
Berry himself is tight-lipped on the subject. Curiously, though he is quick to acknowledge his musical influences throughout his autobiography, he never attributes any creative or compositional role to Johnnie Johnson. Not once. In fact, he hardly brings up Johnson at all, except to bemoan his drinking. Thus we end up with a chapter entitled "The Creation of My Recordings" in which Berry immediately and enthusiastically admits that "the guitar styles of Carl Hogan, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, and Elmore James, not to leave out many of my peers who I've heard on the road, must be the total of what is called Chuck Berry's style," but only mentions Johnnie Johnson once in passing, as the reason for the name "Johnny" in "Johnny B. Goode." (This, too, is about his drinking; Johnny, be good!) To hear him tell it, "Wee Wee Hours" was based on "Wee Baby Blues" by Big Joe Turner, despite the fact that, as Rothwell points out, "apart from the similarity of the titles, the two [songs] have very little in common."
So on the one hand we have Keith Richards jumping through hoops to give undue credit to Johnnie Johnson, and on the other we have Chuck Berry jumping through hoops to avoid giving him any credit at all. What gives? It's hard to say, given that all involved have their respective memories clouded by time/addiction/self-mythologizing biases (take your pick)-- not to mention the discord created by Johnson's 2000 lawsuit against Berry for songwriting royalties on most of Berry's '50s output. So which story is true? The answer, unsurprisingly, is somewhere in the middle. "The world--in particular, the musical world--is too complex to support such binary oppositions," Pegg writes. Johnson helped Berry get his foot in the door (it's important to remember that Johnson was once the seasoned pro to Berry's enthusiastic amateur) and certainly laid down the basic boogie blues palette that would form the foundation of Berry's music, but then again, any comparable blues pianist in the right place at the right time could have fulfilled roughly the same role. Berry alone had the ambition, charisma, and creative curiosity to elevate the music above a mere sum of its influences. Rothwell agrees. "Ask yourself," he urges, "would Johnnie Johnson be known today had it not been for his association with Chuck Berry?" (No.) "On the other hand, Berry would undoubtedly have succeeded without Johnnie."
I'm not here to dwell on issues of musical forensics and what-ifs, however. What really interests me about Chuck Berry is his songwriting-- and I'm not just talking about his remarkable lyrical ability, about which much to-do has already been made. It's all too easy, as I have said, to dismiss Berry's music as trite cut-and-paste nonsense; but focusing only on everything that's the same from song to song will lead you to miss a good deal of genuine subtlety. He never tried to reinvent the wheel, and he'd be the first to tell you that. His goal, first and foremost, was to "entertain the patrons." He strove, in other words, not for artistic satisfaction, but for artistic efficacy. His songs are assembled like modular homes, purpose-built in the name of economy first and aesthetics second. Gregory Sandow, in a piece for the Village Voice, summed it up thusly: "He's not, I'd insist, a poet of excess. What he is, I think, is what I'd call a poet of the practical life."
The really ingenious thing--the thing that allows everything to mesh together so naturally--is that Berry took the same approach to lyrics (which is actually what Sandow was referring to). None of the otherwordliness, the Jerry Lee Lewis fire-and-brimstone flamboyance that characterizes so much other early rock and roll, is to be found in Berry's compositions. With songs like "Too Much Monkey Business" and "No Money Down" (or, for the younger listeners, "School Days" and "Sweet Little Sixteen"), he wrote for and about his audience.
All of this is epitomized in some of the very clever ways Berry fused lyric and music. Take "School Day" for example. Structurally, it's nothing new-- just a twelve bar blues-- but each verse is punctuated with a sudden jarring pause, giving the entire song a start-and-stop feel. In Berry's words, this peculiar staccato aspect "illustrate[s] the frenetic time table of school life"--a life of jostling around all day to get between points A and B, just so you can stop, sit down, and listen to your teachers. "Too Much Monkey Business" works similarly; Chuck's everyman narrator sounds like he wants to keep that beat going, but he's forced to stop every time he encounters some new instance of botheration. Compare to a song like "Maybellene," which is all driving beat from beginning to end, and not a pause to be found. Fitting, for a song about a high-speed car chase.
Berry had other ways of conveying each song's location on the spectrum of motion/stasis. One is well illustrated by the difference between "You Never Can Tell" and "Promised Land," two almost consecutive singles from 1964. The former is one of his humorous, rambling story songs; the latter sees Chuck motorvatin' all across the country, traversing thousands of miles in the span of a single verse. Accordingly, each song deviates from the twelve-bar blues form, in opposite directions. "You Never Can Tell" stretches it out longer, removing the IV chord entirely (normally the second chord in the pattern), leaving only long vamps on the I and V chords, each being held for multiple bars. This removes any sense of harmonic arrival and gives it a laid back, slow feeling despite the 160-bpm (read: fast) tempo. This was typical of his story songs: see "Memphis Tennessee," in which he pulls the same trick (albeit with the order of the chords reversed) to help drive home the narrator's frustration at being stuck far away from his love. "Promised Land," on the other hand, squeezes all the chord changes of a twelve bar blues into only eight bars, resulting in a repeating pattern that only takes about ten seconds to cover more harmonic ground than "You Never Can Tell" does in almost three minutes. Thus the motif of constant motion in the lyric is matched exactly by the music.
These are only a few examples, but in fact Berry was consistently adept at twisting his prosody to make each song reinforce its lyric musically on an almost subliminal level. Not to belabor the point about Johnnie Johnson, but I consider this pretty conclusive evidence for Berry's side. To my ears, the harmonic, rhythmic, and structural makeup of his songs is far too closely married to the lyrical content (which we know was all written by Chuck himself) to have been the work of an outside party, especially one who never seemed to care much about the lyrics in the first place. It seems there is actually far more to the Chuck Berry formula than initially meets the eye. In fact I believe it is precisely this--Berry's knack for illustrating just as effectively with his music as with his words--which gives his songs their instantly recognizable sound, and allows them to so clearly evoke scenes of common American life in a certain era, even for the poor millennial saps like me. My parents weren't even alive yet in the '50s.
Also see our other articles about and tribute to Chuck Berry
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