Chuck Berry Made Americans Surrender to the Rhythm

Chuck Berry was not only the true king of rock 'n' roll, the architect and originator -- he was also an astute anthropologist of American culture.

Many of the tributes to Chuck Berry’s life, times, and work in the wake of his recent death at the age of 90 have had difficulties dealing with the complexities of his legacy. We've placed him in the Mount Rushmore pantheon of rock 'n' roll architects, alongside Fats Domino and Little Richard, all witnesses of the mid-'50s when the “race” music of R&B mixed with country and became rock 'n' roll. Berry was the singer/songwriter originator, trailblazer, the DNA source from which all great rock songs were born in the '60s. Without him there would be no Beach Boys “Surfin’ USA”, no raging John Lennon vocals in the Beatles’ cover of “Rock and Roll Music”, no Bob Dylan torrent of wordplay in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (a hipster’s re-write of “Too Much Monkey Business”), and absolutely no Keith Richards, who noted on Twitter at the passing of Berry, “One of my big lights has gone out.”

There's no need to legitimize Berry’s bona fides, and there will be no excusing here of his personal indiscretions. He blazed like a demon for at least ten years after “Maybellene”, his 1955 debut single. These songs were driving, propelled three chords, and dream tributes to girls gone bad, chases after dream girls, odes to teen troubles like “School Days” and “No Particular Place to Go”. Certainly in retrospect we can look at a 31-year-old man writing and recording “Sweet Little Sixteen” in 1958 and cringe at the implications, but it’s less a song about going after the teen in question than a salute to a rock 'n' roll fangirl (“Her wallet’s filled with pictures / she gets them one by one…”) She comes to life every weekend when she’s at the rock 'n' roll shows, but come Monday morning she’s back in school again.

A mix of legal issues, racism, and changing cultural tastes meant that by the mid-'60s Berry would become a legacy act, still writing and releasing new records but really making his living as a touring artist. That his only #1 song came in 1972 with the execrable “My Ding-a ling” was not the only stain on his legacy. A Mann Act conviction (transporting an underage 14-year-old girl across state lines for the purposes of prostitution) meant a 20-month stint (February 1962-October 1963) in jail. He also spent three months in jail in 1979 for tax evasion, and a late '80s class action lawsuit filed by over 50 women who claimed he’d installed cameras in the women’s room in several of his restaurants was settled out of court. Details regarding all these cases make it difficult to separate the man’s poor impulse control from the pure joy of the man’s recorded output. How do we deal with what can diplomatically be called complexities and realistically called predatory actions and abuse of celebrity status?

In his 2003 book All Shook Up: How Rock and Roll Changed America, writer Glenn C. Altschuler examined Berry’s Mann Act conviction and effectively concluded that race was an unavoidable impediment to justice. “Chuck Berry was a sexual threat and a target of opponents of the civil rights movement as well as foes of rock and roll.” The girl in question was a prostitute, Berry was touring Mexico and the American Southwest and had the audacity of opening a nightclub in a mainly white section of town. Had all these factors not been in play, and had Berry been a white man, he most surely would not have been convicted. This is hardly about excusing actions, but it’s important to put things in their proper context in early '60s southern United States.

Think about this: how would Berry be considered had he died in 1968, at 42, just like Elvis Presley? Neil Young posed a variation of this idea in 1979: “It’s better to burn out / than it is to rust.” Elvis’ tailspin was probably five years before his 1977 death, so an argument could be made that this self-anointed “King” slipped away long before his death. There was no such fate for Berry who, in his 1987 memoir Chuck Berry: The Autobiography seemed to see his motivation as a performer back in the early '50s as a black man bridging the world of the white fans and his own culture, that is; “code-switching” a half century before that term ever took hold:

Listening to my idol Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinct diction. The songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down home blues in the language they came from, Negro dialect. When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter… it was my intention to hold both the black and white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.

In effect, Berry was not only the true king of rock 'n' roll, the architect and originator, but he was also a cultural anthropologist. He understood the world of the rock 'n' roll music he had created, where literal division lines between white and black audience members were torn down once they surrendered to the rhythm. Berry’s autobiography is cringe-inducing when he recounts scores of female conquests and paints many of the women as people just looking for an angle. It’s golden, though, when he writes about the origins of the songs. Here’s what he had to say about “Johnny B. Goode”:

The gateway from freedom, I was led to understand, was somewhere close to New Orleans, where most Africans were sorted through and sold. I had driven through New Orleans while on tour and I’d been told my great grandfather lived ‘way back up in the evergreens.'

If Berry was about anything, beyond rock 'n' roll and personal sexual indiscretions at points in his life that are hard to ignore, he was about the promise of America, the promise of your place in the world, a dream that might have been deferred for his people then and now, but a dream that was always in reach. Take this opening line from “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”: “Arrested on charges of unemployment.”

The hero is a stranger in his own land and he drifts through history. He starts the song pleading his case on the witness stand and ending it by winning a baseball game. In the middle, Berry takes us back 3,000 years to assure us “There’s been a whole lot of good women shed a tear / for a brown-eyed handsome man”. Venus DeMilo becomes “Milo Venus was a beautiful lass / She had the world in the palm of her hand / But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match / To get a brown-eyed handsome man”. It’s a remarkable song for 1956 and equally potent today. “The audience was primarily filled with Hispanics and ‘us’,” he wrote of the inspiration behind the song. “But then I did see unbelievable harmony among the mix.”

With 1959’s “Back in the USA”, Berry revels in the ecstasy of what this nation has to offer.

New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, the cities spill out in the second verse. He missed the skyscrapers, freeways, “From the coast of California / To the shores of the Delaware Bay”. Free from identity politics, this is still a song about freedom that race may deny him. Not even the regular horror of the pre-Civil Rights era in the United States can dissolve this beautiful, joyous, celebratory song. Berry was simply expanding on the sentiments of poet Langston Hughes’s “I too”: “I, Too, sing America.” No matter what you want to do to me, they're saying, this is my land as well as yours.

There’s a similar feeling of exaltation and joy in Berry’s “Promised Land”, written during his 1962-1963 jail sentence. Like any great folk artist (and Berry borrowed as much as the acoustic balladeers), the song takes its melody from “Wabash Cannonball”. In a little over two minutes, our hero goes from Norfolk, Virginia to California via Greyhound Bus, train, and finally a jet airliner. “Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy” he asks, like a prayer, "Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin.’”

The American story has always been about journeys, trips, movement from one place to another. At the deepest core of our spirit is the urge for going. We came here, conquered, spread ourselves from small New England villages and headed out west to a wondrous golden valley, and we are still moving. Berry understood that. In September 1977, his classic “Johnny B. Goode” was included on a Gold Disc that journeyed with the Voyager I and II space probe into the dark, infinite unknown of outer space. The audio sections of the disc included greetings in 55 languages, a Brandenburg Concerto, Senegalese percussion and Peruvian panpipes and drums. Contributions from the United States included blues from Blind Willie Johnson, jazz from Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry’s prototype rock masterpiece about a guy who could play like a ring and a bell

“We cast this message into the cosmos,” President Jimmy Carter wrote in a 29 July 1977 statement accompanying the Voyager:

This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday… to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.

Go, Johnny! Go!

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

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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