Chuck Berry: Blues

Brian James

Chuck Berry


Label: Chess
US Release Date: 2003-08-12
UK Release Date: 2003-08-11

"If you tried to give rock and roll another name," John Lennon once said. "You might call it 'Chuck Berry.'" True enough, perhaps, but though Berry is a huge part of rock and roll, rock and roll is not a huge part of Berry. As thoroughly worshipped as he has been by rock insurrectionists from the Stones to the MC5, the man himself thinks relatively little of his music and even less of his status as a rebel. What came out of him when he filled in as the guitarist in pianist Johnnie Johnson's band for a night was just the combination of the styles that he could do passably well: blues, jazz, pop, and some rockabilly thrown in to please the crowd. The alchemy was so striking that Berry became the new leader of the band, and what started out as a one-night gig turned into a decades-long collaboration between Johnson and Berry, one that would forever change the face of popular music.

The story of Berry's first night with the band is emblematic. Like most other first-generation rockers, he didn't see rock as a revolutionary force -- that would be applied retroactively by historians and more self-conscious musicians -- but as a good way to please a lot of folks and make a lot of money. If Berry had had his druthers, he would have followed in the footsteps of his idol, Nat King Cole, or perhaps concentrated on one of the other genres he loved more than the one he would eventually help found, but even if he preferred his blues B-side "Wee Wee Hours" to its smash rockabilly A-side "Maybellene", the success of the latter couldn't be ignored. That's where the massive audiences were accumulating, and Berry, ever the shrewd businessman, wanted in no matter what.

Remarking on his exit from vernacular music to rock and roll, he explained, "I was trying to shoot for the whole population instead of just, shall we say, the neighborhood?" But what if the man had had different priorities? The thought would surely seem alien to Berry himself, but a musician with enough dedication to a particular idiom might forsake fame and riches to concentrate on the music he loves. Blues, a new collection of Berry's work for Chess that focuses on the titular form, offers a glimpse into an alternate universe, one where Berry followed "Wee Wee Hours" through to its conclusion rather than "Maybellene". As a historical exercise, it's fascinating. All but the most dedicated collector can hardly imagine anything other than "Johnny B. Goode", "Roll Over, Beethoven", and a few fistfuls of others when it comes to Berry, so hearing an artist with such a firmly established identity tackling anything else can be a startling experience. "Deep Feeling", an instrumental heavy with steel guitar, surprises more than anything else here or on just about any other CD you can buy. Odder still is the fact that these recordings date from the dawn of Berry's career all the way through 1965. Rather than just capturing an artist before he hit upon the style that made him immortal, Blues tells a secret story running concurrent with the official version that no one has been willing or able to tell before now.

As great as that sounds, however, Blues also hints why no one has told it. Quite frankly, Berry is at best a competent bluesman, and though his excellent band (particularly Johnson) always keep things lively, his vocals compare badly with any other blues singer worth mentioning. He had a bright, clear tone but was hampered by a narrow range and little apparent skill at the microtonal shadings that are so essential to the blues. Rock's propulsive rhythms would take care of these shortcomings, which makes it very clear why he should've stuck to it even more devoutly than he did. Unlike Fats Domino's Blues Kingpins from earlier this year, Blues sounds exactly as one might expect despite the new medium, and the transplant, fresh though it may be, is largely unflattering. Similar releases by Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis highlighting their roots were often revelations, but Blues is nothing provides nothing so much as relief that this work was relegated to the status of a historical curio. Other rockers may have had the option to make it in other fields, but the only way a jack-of-all-trades like Berry could become a master was by mixing together everything he knew how to do. In his hands, the individual elements didn't amount to much, so Blues is best left for Berry fanatics that like eating slices of pepperoni in addition to putting them on their pizza.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.