The Long Goodbye: 'Chuck' Took Its Own Sweet Time

Randy Lewis
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

It wasn’t supposed to take four decades to make what turned out to be Chuck Berry’s final album.

It wasn’t supposed to take four decades to make what turned out to be Chuck Berry’s final album.

In fact, very soon after the release of his 1979 work “Rock It,” one of the primary architects of the entire genre of rock ‘n’ roll music started working on a follow-up at his home studio in his native St. Louis.

Rock ‘n’ roll’s first guitar hero and its original lyric poet, Berry chipped away for nearly a decade writing songs. He demoed much of the arrangements himself, playing not only guitar and singing the lead vocals but also providing piano, bass and drum parts in an effort to create a template for his band.

“Then the unthinkable happened,” Berry’s son, Charles Berry Jr., told The Times earlier this month. “His studio burned down. It destroyed all the two-inch, 24-track tapes, all his recording equipment — nothing was left but cinders and scorched pieces of metal.”

That 1989 studio fire sent Berry back to Square One, and after spending two years rebuilding the studio, Berry senior started in again from scratch, slowly but surely trying to re-create what had been destroyed.

When he sat down backstage before a 2002 performance at the Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, he told The Times that he was still working steadily and that the world would see another new Chuck Berry album one day.

“Now I’m writing about the life I’m living, and the life my generation is living,” he said at that time. “The generation right behind me is close to (that life), so they can look forward to it.”

Now the world at long last can hear the fruit of that long-maturing work in “Chuck,” an album that was completed last fall but wasn’t quite ready for release before Berry died on March 18 at 90.

“This was his next chapter,” said Charles Jr., who plays on the album along with his elder sister, Ingrid Berry, and his own son, Charles Berry III, Chuck’s grandson. “He worked very, very, very long and hard to get it released. He passed four or five days before ‘Big Boys’ was scheduled to be presented to the world.”

The song premiered as the album’s first single in March.

“That left us flat-footed,” he said. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. He’s supposed to be here. Of course he would have wanted it to be successful, but he didn’t need to do another album. His legacy is already secure. But obviously he still had something to say and he wanted people to hear it.”

The four decades that went into “Chuck” result in an eminently worthy final statement from the artist of whom Leonard Cohen once said, “All of us are footnotes to the words of Chuck Berry” and Bob Dylan lauded as “the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Shortly after Berry’s death, Rolling Stones guitarist and songwriter Keith Richards was asked whether it was Berry’s perfectly articulated vocals, his distinctive guitar work, his literate songwriting or his animated performance style that first captured his attention.

“Yes, yes, yes and yes,” he told The Times with a laugh. “I guess it was the combination of all of those things. To me, (Berry’s records) had sort of a crystal clear clarity of what I wanted to hear, and what I was aiming for.

“In retrospect, it was Chess Records,” he added, referencing the Chicago label that launched the careers of Berry, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Etta James, Bo Diddley and more.

“It was an amazing collection of musicians. And they were having fun — that was the underlying aspect of it all. There was an exuberance and they were not too serious. What was serious was what was going down — (but) they weren’t serious about it.”

The new “Chuck” album opens with “Wonderful Woman,” in what sounds like a happy reflection on the day he and his wife of more than six decades, Themetta Berry, met: “Well I was standing there trembling like a leaf on a willow tree/ Hoping them great big beautiful eyes would fall on me.”

“Big Boys” is a classic-sounding Berry rocker about a kid who yearns to up his game and fall in with the hip crowd.

“It kind of came out of the blue last fall,” Nathaniel Rateliff, one of the album’s guest artists, said in a separate interview of participating on the record. “It’s an honor and a privilege to collaborate with the guy who invented rock ‘n’ roll, essentially. It’s funny the way Chuck uses words; John Prine does the same thing — he says things in a simple way that connects with everyone.

“Oddly enough,” Rateliff added, “my parents and other family grew up in Wentzville, Mo., (where Berry lived) and they used to hang out and party with a lot of those folks. It’s strange the way things work out.”

Among the songs on the album that Berry didn’t write is one from the Great American Songbook, which greatly influenced him as a young music hound who lived through the Depression and World War II.

J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie’s “You Go to My Head” allows Berry to channel his inner crooner and exhibit some of the impact such pre-rock singers as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby had on him.

Ingrid Berry joins her father, singing and playing harmonica, on the poignant “Darlin,’” an aging parent’s twilight love letter to his child: “Lay your head upon my shoulder, my dear/ The time is passing fast away.”

“I’m going to brag about my big sis,” Charles Jr. said. “My sis was incredible on that one. I thought she was going to cry while she was singing it. Yes, I’m biased, but she’s fantastic. I’ll put her up against any of them, vocally or on harmonica.”

Fifteen years ago Berry spoke to The Times about one of the newer songs he was working on, quoting a metaphorically rich couplet: “A builder built a temple/ He wrought it with grace and skill.”

“Now that has nothing to do with ‘Come back, baby!’” he said with a little smile, indicating he’d moved well beyond the youthful exuberance, lusty romanticism and whimsicality that often surfaced in hits such as “School Days,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “You Never Can Tell.”

The lyric he quoted in 2002 has evolved slightly in the album’s deeply philosophical closing track, “Eyes of a Man,” in which he virtually writes his own epitaph as the referenced temple appears to represent his life’s work: “When other men observe its beauty/ They stand and see and sigh and sing/ Great is your work, oh yes, old builder/ Your fame shall never fade away.”

As Charles Jr. sees it, that sentiment has been borne out in the continuing life span of Berry’s music.

“He was in the game for 60 years, he toured for 60 years,” Charles Jr. said. “Did he ever think his legacy was going to fade? I don’t think so. Neither do I.

“Almost 40 years ago, NASA put ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on that record they sent out into space on Voyager. It’s something like 5 or 6billion miles out there now,” he said.

In fact, the Voyager 1 probe is more than 11billion miles out in space. “His music has already transcended the barrier of fad, and has taken its place in historical posterity,” said Charles Jr.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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