[12 April 2004]
Take it as a given that everyone interested in rock should own some music from Chuck Berry. If there were no other way to get these songs, I’d be urging everyone to buy this. And if you want a complete collection of his early albums as they’re remastered and re-released (finally? Inevitably? Maybe?) on CD, far be it for me to stop you.
The album notes talk about this album providing an “accurate and nearly complete representation of the first year and a half of Chuck Berry as a groundbreaking recording artist”. Technically true, but Berry’s style never changed drastically, which calls the value of scholarly completism into question. Besides, Chuck Berry was a singles artist, not an album artist. More specifically, though this is indeed not just a collection of arbitrary singles, neither is it intentionally high (or low) concept.
With most of their artists, Chess Records would group together their singles as they mounted and release them as an album. With Berry, partially because three of his big hits, including both “Maybellene” and “Roll over Beethoven”, had already been released on the Rock Rock Rock soundtrack and the market could still swallow a full Berry album, Chess simply cleared their vaults of his uncollected early recordings, singles or not, and labeled the resulting product an album. Sure, there’s a concept of sorts here, with songs about school days, fast cars, and dates and other teenage experiences, but that’s because Berry knew who was buying his records. Moreover, he built his career on singing about school days, fast cars, and dating, so the concept is by no means exclusive; any decent compilation of his work will also function as a similar “concept album.”
Which is the problem, because there are decent compilations of Chuck Berry, even compilations as great as would befit a great singles artist. The one that gives the most bang for the buck (in terms of both song selection and number of songs) is The Great Twenty-Eight, 28 absolutely filler-free songs of his best. No “Tulane”, but no “My Ding-a-Ling”, either, and, if you care about only songs as opposed to comprehensive canon, this is an album of uninterrupted pleasures. It’s also out-of-print, though you can find it used on Amazon or Half.com and the BMG Music Club still carries it new.
There’s also The Anthology, 50 songs that include “Tulane” but also “My Ding-a-Ling” and which leave off “Have Mercy Judge”, the sequel song to “Tulane”, in favor of some rarities. And if you’re really crazy about Berry, there’s also the three-disc box set that includes all his best (at a price that lets you know it). And more (Yes, that’s intended to be a skewed compliment).
But, taking the middle road (and most easily available) Anthology as a guide, the question is whether the mere four uncollected songs on this budget reissue could justify, even to a completist, the expense of not going the way of the two CD comp. In ascending order of preference, those songs are:
“Together (We’ll Always Be)”: a slow one that shows off Berry’s fondness for Nat King Cole. Not coincidentally, Berry’s place in history isn’t closely linked with Cole’s. Stripped of tempo and exuberance, the lyric is pretty standard romantic fare, without a witty narrative or quick wordplay.
“Drifting Heart”: For the most part, Berry wasn’t too good at soulful. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” was social protest and it was barbed, but the deep feelings were hidden under cracks about the Venus de Milo losing her arms, cracks that fit Berry’s smooth, light voice. He gets off some wordplay here, but the slow tempo (again) dampens the fun. What’s worse in a ballad, he doesn’t do a good job of faking sincerity.
“Roly Poly”: typical classic Berry instrumental. Even without lyrics, it couldn’t be anyone else’s song. I even seem to detect a few chords of “Roll over Beethoven” in the solo. That said, why not go for “Roll over Beethoven” instead, which has great lyrics?
“Berry Pickin’”: an odd instrumental. It’s got the classic guitar licks and boogie piano, but they’re set against an island beat complete with maracas. It’s like “Havana Moon” sped up and combined with a “normal” Berry song. Or like Berry’s take on Bo Diddley. Pretty cool, and my favorite because it’s unique.
So there you are: four songs ranging from okay to good. Four songs that, in the right mood, a lot of people could come to like, but which only a completist would come to love. Besides, even a completist should admit that none of the four shed much new light on Berry’s genius. Taken on its own terms, this album is great stuff at discounted price, but, considering any of the alternatives which give more music for the dollar and which include this disc’s better half (or more), buy at your own risk.