So 50 years after Chuck Berry’s first single on the Chess label, ““Maybelline”, there’s not much fresh to say about the father of rock ‘n’ roll’s first 50 45 rpm sides. Even casual music fans understand and appreciate the importance and influence of such tunes as “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode”. No wonder NASA included the latter song as its message in a bottle included on its Voyager spacecraft into deep space. But while Berry’s infectious style of guitar playing, lyrical phrasing (think of words like “motorvatin”), and the combination of salacious innuendoes and racial awareness (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”) still hold up well, it’s the less successful B-sides that make this release so compelling.
One can hear him experimenting with jazz, blues, Latin and other more exotic styles as Berry struggles to find his distinctive voice and have hit records. The results can get quite silly (check out “Broken Arrow”, the flip side of “Childhood Sweetheart”) that features Native American-style (at least as featured in Western movies of the time) howling mixed with the melody to the children’s song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” for one greatly misconceived single. Or check out the Hawaiian sounding instrumental “Mad Lad”, the clacking castanets of “That’s My Desire” and the pop-Asian instrumentation on “Drifting Heart” for even stranger examples of Berry’s adventurous desire to cash in as compared with his ability to nail it on tunes like the pulsating “Too Much Monkey Business”, the catchy “School Day” and the anthemic “Rock and Roll Music”. There is a tendency to treat geniuses such as Berry as individuals who create masterpieces without effort. Berry’s first 50 sides reveal he was always stretching and testing his talents.