There is a big difference between an album and a single. Originally designed to spin at 33 and 1/3, the full-length album is an art form whose success is dependent upon the ability to hold the listener’s attention for over a half-hour. That feat requires the best albums to possess a pace and a rhythm that borders the symphonic: songs stand not only on their own merits, but also in their proximity to the other tracks on the record. It’s not just that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band” segues into “A Little Help from My Friends”, but more importantly that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” follows the latter with equal purity and perfection. Great albums, from Revolver to Welcome Interstate Managers, are made to be heard in their entirety: no one would ever think, lest dare, to skip past even one song.
Singles, on the other hand, are a different animal entirely. Three minutes and thirty-three seconds is usual time allotted — “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Stairway to Heaven” aside — to captivate and amaze with musical magic. Singles are stand-alone pieces; Monet’s bridge at Giverny , not his suite of massive water lilies. The art of the single so differs from the creative ability to construct albums that some bands never cross the line separating one from the other: Creedence Clearwater Revival has forty incredible songs and only two half-way decent albums; with the exception of live albums, even the immortal James Brown hasn’t even released any great record of length. That’s not to take anything away from either the Godfather or Fogerty, but rather to say that some of the greatest geniuses of our time are simply better at forging their craft in narrower time frames than others. After all, it’s a rare group like the Beatles that can consistently create enough songs to fill quality after album; even my beloved Rolling Stones were only able to do so for a stretch of four records out of almost 30.
Chuck Berry is a singles artist. Viscerally, he is the singles artist. Historically, he might even be the most important singles maker of all time. Any way you put it, even a best-of collection correctly called The Great Twenty-Eight fails to capture the sheer enormity of the outstanding work Berry was able to create in well under a decade’s time. Berry’s sound not only dominated the charts in his prime, but continues down through our own as well. Berry’s catalogue has become the standard textbook of rock music for any aspiring student: just try to imagine a garage band without “Johnny B. Goode”, try to conceive how a Keith Richards could have been created in absentio Berry. In this year where many celebrate the rather oddly calculated “50th Anniversary of Rock and Roll”, it seems only appropriate that a rash of re-issues and re-masters should include the work of the guitarist, singer, and — most incredibly, for his time — songwriter, would earn a place of high regard.
But it is not The Great Twenty-Eight, the myriad timeless, classic and epoch-making string of Chuck Berry singles about which I write. No, it is instead 1964’s St. Louis to Liverpool, released after Berry himself was released from prison [minor across interstate lines], but before his parole was even up. Berry’s hunger to regain his fame and proper position aperch the pop music world is apparent in the inspired work he put into such classics as “No Particular Place to Go”, “Promised Land”, or the Tarantino-approved “You Never Can Tell”. But also clear on this collection is Chuck’s inability to put into 30 minutes what he so magically places inside of three. St. Louis to Liverpool is filled with, you guessed it, filler: a lackluster performance of the blues standard “The Things I Used to Do”, a five-years-too-late encouragement to “Go Bobby Soxer”, and an inexplicably titled [unless you was to justify an album that tries to cash in on the Beatles’ fame] unmoving instrumental “Liverpool Drive”.
The cute and comic “Little Marie” and enjoyable-enough “Our Little Rendezvous” are decent additions to the Berry canon, but they pale in comparison to his greatest work. Especially when some of that greatest work rests side-by-side on Side A of St. Louis to Liverpool. “You Never Can Tell” is not only one of the most joyful of Berry’s compositions, but it is also one of his most mature: Chuck’s now one of the “old folks”, you know, the people who pepper their speech with misunderstood French phrases yet also understand that the functions of love and happiness are beyond anyone’s ken. As surprisingly complex as “You Never Can Tell” remains, “No Particular Place to Go” is precisely the opposite: an adolescent romp about romance doomed by a poorly functioning seat-belt. And perhaps best among the individual tracks on St. Louis to Liverpool ranks “The Promised Land”, a location-by-location fast-moving verbal tour that not only catalogues a United States that flows for Berry with milk and honey, but also captures in its unfathomable 2:19 the entire essence of the American dream. Not bad for rock and roll.
No, not bad for rock and roll at all. Look, it would be easy to argue that there is no such thing as a record collection unless it includes a Chuck Berry collection of some sort; that’s a bet I think I’d take any day. Still, the question remains: which album, which collection best represent the immense contribution Berry made to popular music in his century and beyond? The answer to that query is certainly not St. Louis to Liverpool. Perhaps it is The Great Twenty-Eight, perhaps the multi-disc The Chess Box, but it is certainly not the record subject to this particular review. Only the die-hard fans, the ones who long for what Anthony Kiedis once called “the backwoods where the chuck berries grow”, are going to rush out and pick up this album. They’ll be the ones who long to hear the pensive melody of the UK-only release “Fraulein”, or the rare single “The Little Girl from Central”, both of which are appended as bonus tracks. Perhaps they’ll even enjoy them. But for the rest of us, Chuck Berry is better appreciated not for what he recorded for one album in a few isolated months of early 1964, but for the entire output of singles he released in the decade previous. Berry should have better left album-making to the little boys from the Liverpool of his record’s title, while he focused on his incredible ability simply to churn out hit song after hit song.