August 10, 2003
Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry!

I still can't get my video recorder to record digital channels properly, but oddly enough I find I'm minding this less that I thought I would. There's something to be said for seeing TV when they show it or not at all. Now that there are so many channels, most of the good stuff will be back again.

Last night I watched a show about the great Chuck Berry – called Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll! The basis of it was a concert arranged in St Louis, featuring Chuck Berry and a lot of his songs of course, and organised by Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who is one of my favourite musicians in the whole world. Richards wanted posterity to have a record of what Chuck Berry sounded like with a crack collection of real state-of-the-art rock and roller musicians backing him, instead of the usual cheap as-founds he usually worked with. So, as well as Richards himself, there were Eric Clapton (who looks disturbingly like BBC trash TV "personality" Jeremy Beadle), and two other black guys whose names I don't quite now remember but should. Robert Cray? Anyway he's done Rolling Stones tours and obviously knows his Rock and Roll stuff. Plus there were walk ons from other celeb fans of Berry, like Julian Lennon and Linda Rondstadt.

I found the effect curiously disappointing. It was as if the confident we-know-how-to-really-do-this bunch of guys behind him managed to turn Chuck Berry's personal style into a more homogenised, all purpose rock and roll sound, less dominated by Chuck himself and more impersonal and industrialised. His normal method was to just show up on his own and whistle up three … in Britain we'd call them pub musicians, and then play, with the backing people just adding whatever they could manage, but with Chuck Berry making all the moves that mattered with his own voice and with his own guitar.

The impression given was that Berry lived and performed as he did because he had a chip on his shoulder about all other members of the human race about a yard deep, ever since he had some underage sex spat with the law and got sent to prison. I wonder. Maybe what he really wanted was to be musically on his own, and he tolerated the attentions of Richards and his swanky rock and roll aristocrat friends not because he really believed in what they were doing for him, but because one week of putting up with these annoying persons would guarantee such a ton of record sales, bioth now and for ever and ever ay-men. In addition to be being a musical and lyrical genius, Berry is also a canny businessman.

The good news was that you could hear Chuck Berry voice, which was still very good and strong, with absolute clarity, and therefore also his truly outstanding lyrics also.

Rock and roll lyrics are for many groups a mere excuse for the bloke at the front to yell incoherently and and for the rest of them to thrash away at their instruments and for the audience to wave their arms in the sky and go mad. Who cares what it says? Who cares what it means? The words are usually inaudible anyway, and thank god. Compared to that, last night was a breath of fresh air. Berry came through on this film as the true poet that he is, not just when singing his songs with their perfectly crafted words, with their rhythms exactly fitting the instrumental patterns, but when prefacing a song about a car dealer with a little impromptu piece to camera about his own little car collection, most of it litearally kept under wraps. Dealers won't now give him a decent price, so he's going to hang onto them and then sell them for fifty thousand dollars, with the "fifty thousand dollars" spoken as if it was the last half line of a Shakespeare sonnet, delivered with all the sophistication and poetic beauty of someone like Ian McKellen. It's a big mistake to see Chuck Berry merely as the man who invented headbanger electric rock and roll, even if he pretty much did.

The weather in London now is pretty much as I imagine it down there in the Southern United States, in "Delta Country", very hot and very humid, so it fitted all this perfectly.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:45 PM
Category: Pop music