The Rewind Button – Chuck Berry, the Great Twenty-Eightby LefebvreDave on Aug 2, 2012 • 7:31 am No Comments
(The Rewind Button is a group blogging project. Every week we review an album from Rolling Stone magazine’s greatest albums list.)
This shouldn’t be called the Rewind Button, it should be called the Rollercoaster because that’s how reviewing the last few albums has felt. From Springsteen to Van Morrison to Michael Jackson and now we find ourselves at number 21 with Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight. Such variety.
The second oldest album we’ve covered on this list, the Great Twenty-Eight isn’t even good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll; it is prehistoric rock ‘n roll. It is the second compilation album to grace this list (Elvis’ Sun Sessions was the first at number 11). The tracks were all recorded in the decade between 1955 and 1965, though the album wasn’t released until 1982.
I’m going to start this post with a video that most of us know all too well. In 1985, Marty McFly went Back to the Future. On stage at his mom’s high school dance, he strapped on an old Gibson guitar and pounded out Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode. He introduces the song as “…an oldie but a goodie”; bear in mind, he’s gone back in time to 1955, which is still three years before Berry even recorded the hit song.
While Back to the Future is trying to pretend that Marty McFly is responsible for helping to create rock ‘n roll, truly it is the songs on the Great Twenty-Eight that marked the beginning of guitar rock.
There is little to differentiate the sounds of the first two songs on the album other than the guitar riff. Otherwise, Maybellene and Thirty Days are nearly identical in the composition of the drums and other accompanying instruments. As a result, your ear is more likely to highlight the guitar solo, since it’s one of the only deviations. Both songs have guitar solos, which was a trademark of Chuck Berry’s. His solos laid the groundwork for rock ‘n roll, and it’s this electric sound that helped create the genre.
The similarities between songs don’t end there. Barely a quarter of the way through the album we encounter Roll Over Beethoven, which sounds an awful lot like Rock and Roll Music, if you exclude the guitar sections. This unfortunately is a bit of theme in this album, and it’s partly a function of the times. Chess Records had a template for what it believed to be rock ‘n roll and it didn’t deviate much from it. The theory can be summed up by saying: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Similarities between songs aside, this is toe tapping, foot stomping music, but that’s more related to the inexhaustible piano and drums. When the guitar takes over, that’s when the magic of rock ‘n roll really takes place. That’s when you can suddenly visualize women in poodle skirts and guys in suits spinning across the dance floor and doing “the Twist”. I’m thinking specifically of Too Much Monkey Business when I write this.
Despite his amazing success, Berry served three jail sentences for armed robbery, transporting a 14 year old girl across state lines and tax evasion. For the second charge, he was essentially accused of raping the girl, who he’d brought to his St. Louis-based nightclub to work as a waitress. Yet, after each sentence he still managed to pick up where he left off and create more popular music.
Trying to understand Berry’s impact on rock ‘n roll is difficult – Elvis’ popularity looms large, like a shadow eclipsing Berry to all but those who lived during the era or who have a true love of old time rock ‘n roll. Yet, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, Berry was one of the first people inducted.
To truly appreciate this album you have to watch some of Chuck Berry’s old performances. Luckily, there are many on YouTube from which you can choose, and I’ve posted a few below.
Chuck Berry had personality. The video above is of Berry performing in 1955. Watch as the band starts playing before he comes on stage. Berry keeps the crowd waiting in anticipation. Watch around the 18th second as the guy sitting to the left of the screen turns around curiously wondering where Berry is. Then, around the 28th second, in comes Berry swinging his hands and running to his guitar. He definitely knew how to make an entrance, and these kinds of theatrics created the foundation for what rock would become. It was more than just playing music, it was performing. Notice how, through the act of picking up his guitar, he puts all of the emphasis on that one instrument. The music that’s being played by the band is nothing new – it’s Berry’s guitar skills that people have come to see. Then at 2:17 comes the guitar solo, and what a solo it is. This was the era when Elvis Presley’s shaking his hips made the ladies swoon. Imagine what it must have been like to watch Chuck Berry gyrating across the stage ripping through an electric guitar solo. This was a pivotal moment in rock history. The guitar became the centerpiece, eclipsing the pretty boy or the voice.
In this video of Berry performing his hit Johnny B. Goode, we get further confirmation of this transition to straight up guitar rock. His solo lasts more than minute, which admittedly by today’s standards is hardly a solo at all; yet at the time, this was a statement – Berry was putting the guitar and his skill in the spotlight.
This video of Roll Over Beethoven, meanwhile, exhibits Berry’s brilliant ability to introduce his music. In this video we also see the patented Chuck Berry guitar kick at 1:45. This move has oft been imitated (like in the Back to the Future clip earlier in the post), though its importance is tied to this era when showmanship and guitar skill melted into what is known as rock ‘n roll.
Also imitated was Berry’s hit Sweet Little Sixteen , which was flagrantly copied by the Beach Boys for their hit Surfin’ USA. This resulted in a lawsuit and the Beach Boys admitting the near perfect similarities.
Like most of the albums on this list, listening to them multiple times increased my appreciation of them. I found the Great Twenty-Eight to be especially difficult in this regard, because his music is from such a different era. For the first few listens, the music was so foreign to my ears that I struggled to get through the entire album. Yet, as I delved into Berry’s history, watched countless videos of his old performances and attuned my ear to his sound, I couldn’t help but profoundly appreciate this album.
If there was more variety to Berry’s sound and if it hadn’t coincided with Elvis’ meteoric rise, I might be inclined to place this album higher on the list, but I think its placement seems fair. While it didn’t single-handedly change music, it certainly helped change it. The Great Twenty-Eight is a bona fide 21.
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