March 19, 2017

Let's talk about Chuck Berry lyrics — they were really good...

... and they were really good in a rock way. Someone on Facebook prompted me to think about Chuck Berry specifically in terms of the lyrics, and the first song I always think of is "Maybellene," the first song of his I knew, which came out in 1955 when I was 4. Wikipedia says:
Rolling Stone magazine wrote, "Rock & roll guitar starts here." The record is an early instance of the complete rock-and-roll package: youthful subject matter; a small, guitar-driven combo; clear diction; and an atmosphere of unrelenting excitement. The lyrics describe a man driving a V8 Ford chasing his unfaithful girlfriend in her Cadillac Coupe DeVille. 
What's more rock-and-roll than clear diction? I think if you have great lyrics, you'll do clear diction. That's something about Bob Dylan too: You could always understand the words (maybe not what they really meant, but you could hear the words). If you have lyrics like "On the ship, I dream she there/I smell the rose that's in her hair," you might prefer to mush them into unintelligibility.

I'll offer "Maybellene" for the lyrics: "As I was motivatin' over the hill/I saw Mabellene in a Coupe de Ville/A Cadillac a-rollin' on the open road/Nothin' will outrun my V8 Ford." And Chuck Berry's V8 Ford does in fact overtake that other guy's Cadillac. We never hear about the scene at the top of the hill when Chuck gets to Maybellene, but it doesn't matter. There were 2 cars — representing 2 men — and one was richer but the other was stronger and lasted longer, so we don't need to hear anything more.

Now, you talk about some Chuck Berry lyrics. I will just list a few of the news reports that stress lyrics:

1. Rolling Stone: "Chuck Berry: 20 Essential Songs." This transcribes the Maybellene line as "I was motorvatin' over the hill" and informs us that the woman's name was chosen because of the Maybelline mascara that was lying around in the studio.

2. KL.Fm: "Tributes as 'father of rock and roll' Chuck Berry dies." Quoting Mick Jagger: "His lyrics shone above others & threw a strange light on the American dream."

3. City Pages: "RIP Chuck Berry, inventor of the rock lyric, interpreter of teenage dreams."
“Nadine (Is That You?)” is the Technicolor remake of “Maybelline,” another chase after another woman, but with a cawing saxophone and super-charged language. “I was campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat”? You have the rest of your life -- write one phrase that damn good. There’s probably no better musical advertisement for marriage than the footloose “You Never Can Tell,” about two dumb, wedded New Orleans kids who live happily ever after, shimming and canoodling and subsisting on “TV dinners and ginger ale” (kept in their “coolerator,” Berry will have you know). But best of all, there’s “Promised Land,” in which Chuck skedaddles from Norfolk to L.A. in 2:24 and along the way seems to address every promise of American life and how to get by after it’s broken.
 4. NYT: "15 Essential Chuck Berry Songs." Spotify playlist. One song is “Too Much Monkey Business” (1956):
No one before Mr. Berry thought to write a pop song about the headaches of paying bills or losing your change in a pay phone. In his 1987 autobiography, he wrote that the lyrics were “meant to describe most of the kinds of hassles a person encounters in everyday life.” The chugging, rapid-fire vocal delivery would inspire Mr. Dylan’s breakthrough word salad “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and when Mr. Berry won the first PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award in 2012, Mr. Dylan sent a congratulatory note saying, “That’s what too much monkey business will get ya.”
5. Heavy: "Chuck Berry Top Hits: Best Songs to Remember Him By."
In 1963’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” the lyrics describe a man speaking to an operator trying to get in contact with a girl, Marie, who lives in “Memphis, Tennessee.”

It tells a surprisingly complex tale, with the audience being lead to believe that Marie is the man’s girlfriend, only for it to be revealed that she is actually his daughter, with it being implied that the man’s ex-wife took Marie away.
6. Billboard: "Chuck Berry Didn't Invent Rock n' Roll, But He Turned It Into an Attitude That Changed the World."
As for his songwriting, Berry eschewed generic emotional confessions and instead focused on crafting short stories with his lyrics. His songwriting style -- economical, vivid and enveloping -- influenced everyone from Paul McCartney to Ray Davies to Brian Wilson and set the course for rock to favor the short and sweet instead of the poetic and verbose. That's just not something his contemporaries were pioneering -- Little Richard's lyrics were brilliant nonsense, Bo Diddley's were stream of consciousness poetry, and Elvis Presley didn't write his own material. So Berry's introduction of storytelling into rock can't be overstated, particularly since that's what helped the genre stand out from straight pop in its first few decades.
7. Campus News: "Giants of pop owe it all to Chuck Berry."
John Lennon once said, “In the’50s, when people were just singing virtually about nothing, he was writing social-comment songs; he was writing all kinds of songs with incredible meter to the lyrics, which influenced Dylan and me and many other people.”...

Berry... sued Lennon for pilfering his lyrics for The Beatles’ “Come Together”… and won that case, too. (It was settled out of court.)

51 comments:

Bryan Townsend said...

Great post Ann. Yes, it was his lyrics as much as anything that were striking, innovative and influential. Not to mention prophetic as in "Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news" that rock and roll is here to stay and classical music is going to suffer a severe economic pinch!

Luke Lea said...

I love Chuck Berry and think he deserves every bit of the attention he is getting. But why didn't Ray Charles get even one twentieth as much? He went out with barely a ripple.

tcrosse said...

She could not leave a number but I know who placed the call 'cause my uncle took a message and he wrote it on the wall.

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

For years I did music therapy with emotionally disturbed children in closed class rooms (this was before mainstreaming) - and the Johnny B Goode lyric about not reading or writing so well, but playing a guitar like ringing a bell was made to order - the kids LOVED that song - brought such joy.

Ann Althouse said...

"But why didn't Ray Charles get even one twentieth as much? He went out with barely a ripple."

Is that some kind of joke? Ray Charles died as a big Hollywood biopic was coming out about him. An immense deal was made.

Bob R said...

I know that "With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye" has modifier problems, but it's one of my favorite line in all Rock and Roll.

Berry was a great lyricist, and his guitar playing (double-stop leads and the chugging, damped, 5-6 rhythm pattern) is the foundation of all rock guitar.

robother said...

I remember listening to a classical music station in NYC at midnight, my way of winding down after a late night at the printers on a deal, when it cut over to a rock n' roll format. The song: Roll Over Beethoven, literally.

Bob R said...

An immense deal was made about Ray Charles, but life was different before Facebook and Twitter. The way we react may not be "bigger" but it seems that way some times.

madAsHell said...

Video killed the radio star. I'm not sure Chuck Berry could flourish today.

glenn said...

What Chuck actually did was write and perform music that let kids get out on the dance floor and cut loose the way their parents did when they were the dreaded jitterbuggers. It's about the dancing, not the lyrics. If you don't get that I feel for you.

Laslo Spatula said...

Putting "Maybelline" in context: CARS OF THE BLUES

"Perhaps the king of the Cadillac and car song is Chuck Berry, who frequently either alluded to or directly referenced them in enormously influential numbers."

They don't mention Brokedown Bobby Shakes but that is probably because twelve-year-old girls usually don't drive cars.

I am Laslo.

The Toothless Revolutionary said...

You can tell he was the original innovator because the blues influence in his music is strongest and most evident, without corrupting the honest and happy, swing-along themes, groove and momentum in them that would characterize rock n' roll's upswing in mood and tempo.

American musicology is interesting. Rock is thought to originate in a fusion of blues with country or folk, but the rock trend in blues itself is identified as cropping up all the way back into the 1920s.

Berry did it all right. He was the emissary. True and true, through and through. He was rock's happy and honest core.

Lieber and Stoller originally wrote "Hound Dog" for a large female blues vocalist before it hit a couple years later with Elvis. But Berry could convey what rock needed from the start.

The Toothless Revolutionary said...

"But why didn't Ray Charles get even one twentieth as much? He went out with barely a ripple."

Is that some kind of joke? Ray Charles died as a big Hollywood biopic was coming out about him.


True, but as far as the popular consciousness is concerned, there was a lot more going on in America as it was asserting itself around the world then, ten years ago. Chuck Berry OTOH died as some Brylcreemed toupee and red hat wearer was talking about the nostalgia of bringing us back culturally to the 1950s, and politically to the 1920s.

The decades when Chuck Berry rose to fame and was born, respectively.

Plus his innovations contributed to the development of the biggest genre in American and world music. I don't think Ray Charles did that. Berry was as influential to that genre as the Bible was to the Western cannon of literature.

Carol said...

His lyrics were outstanding, and so good-natured, and funny, and observant. I wish we had newer artists like him. Dylan continued that sort of equanimity and never went full retard protester.

Yeah and you could dance to it too. The two are not mutually exclusive.

robinintn said...

I had decided long ago that Marie was his girlfriend AND his daughter. And that the song was a big fuck you to anyone who had a problem with that.

Laslo Spatula said...

glenn said...
"What Chuck actually did was write and perform music that let kids get out on the dance floor and cut loose the way their parents did when they were the dreaded jitterbuggers. It's about the dancing, not the lyrics. If you don't get that I feel for you."

I expounded upon this in yesterday's "Black Blood, Black Seed":"Benjamin, don't be so disingenuous. We BOTH know that once white women start dancing to black rhythms they lose all their inhibitions."

All the Chuck Love aside, I sure like to turn up the Bo Diddley.

I am Laslo.

The Toothless Revolutionary said...

For years I did music therapy with emotionally disturbed children in closed class rooms (this was before mainstreaming) - and the Johnny B Goode lyric about not reading or writing so well, but playing a guitar like ringing a bell was made to order - the kids LOVED that song - brought such joy.

This is a great comment. The best music is something that even a kid can relate to. I remember hearing "Yellow Submarine" a year or two before I was, well, adolescent enough to enjoy the energy of The Beatles, and then there were others on Revolver that did that as well, "Good Day Sunshine." Magical Mystery Tour... Simon and Garfunkle had the 59th Street Bridge Song. As schoolkids before that all we had was the goofy "Popcorn" instrumental.

Andrew Pardue said...

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Or sit beneath the tree by the railroad track.
Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade,
Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made.
The people passing by, they would stop and say,
"Oh, my, but that little country boy could play!"

The metaphor "Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made" which is set up perfectly by the 2 previous lines and backed up by Berry's playing is just brilliant.

The Toothless Revolutionary said...

I notice he does what Eminem does with "bending" words to make them fit or rhyme.

I must admit they have a rockin' band,
Man they were blowing like a herr-i-caaan

Jupiter said...

"There were 2 cars — representing 2 men — and one was richer but the other was stronger and lasted longer, so we don't need to hear anything more."

And sometimes a fish might need to choose between two bicycles.

LYNNDH said...

Chuck Berry always looked like he really enjoyed what he was doing.

William said...

He missed out on the biopic. I don't know how you can dramatize certain aspects of his life. The elemental force that flowed through his music flowed through other parts of his life and to far less joyful effect. He was as much victimizer as victim. It's hard to write a narrative that explains how so much grandeur flowered in so much squalor. "The god of love has pitched his tent in a place of excrement."

Bad Lieutenant said...

Ann, would have thought you old enough to know of the "coolerator" as a trademarked product:

https://libarchive.d.umn.edu/?p=creators/creator&id=760

Is that a solecism?

James Smith said...

In an interview some time ago, Chuck said the record company did not like the woman's name he had originally used in the song, so he changed it to Maybelline - which was the name of a cow on the farm where he was raised.

Graham Powell said...

After reading how he sued over "Come Together", now I'm hearing it in my head as an uptempo Berry song. "Here come ol' Flattop, he come grooovin' up slowly.."

Graham Powell said...

Incidentally, here's Bruce Springsteen and the band playing a song "we haven't played since we were sixteen", "C'est La Vie".

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-Ds-FXGGQg

ceowens said...

On The Mike Douglas Show in 1972, and John Lennon says “If you were trying to give rock ’n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”

Shane said...

Carl Perkins, Arthur Alexander, Buddy Holly, the Everlys, Little Richard, Elvis were all the start of it all, but it all was rolled into one package w what Chuck made of himself. The Beatles' likely covered more of his stuff than any other as shown on the Anthology series and BBC recordings. Lennon had Chuck nailed, but it was George, even with his scouse being the most pronounced despite the Americanization of their singing voices, that shown brightest w his "Roll Over Beethoven" -both on their record and in the BBC recording straight from the interview/joking session w the broadcaster of their show. George is absolutely brilliant instrumentally and vocally as you find yourself wondering how he manages to wrap his accent and those teeth around all those words and phrases. Great, great stuff.

But Chuck had his darkside. Anyone who watched his commissioned documentary "Hail! Hail!" w his abuse of the brilliant, patient and adoring to a point hero-worship of Keith Richards can see what he a prick he apparently was most of the time to most anyone. The film's director wrote a brilliant article in 2006 to coincide w the DVD release, which focuses on the realization made by Keef that all of those brilliant guitar riffs and chords, that Lennon mastered so spot on in rhythm, were actually based, in his opinion, on a piano base. It was Keith who sought out the recognition for Jimmie Johnson, the pianist behind all of Chuck's greatest songs. Chuck was all about the mighty buck, to his credit and to his personal failing. Chuck was right to bitch about the early artist all being taken to their cleaners on their song and publishing rights, but it was Chuck who made sure he screwed Jimmie Johnson out of absolutely everything, leaving Jimmie to be driving a bus when Keith finally found him for their documentary.

Lennon said (a lot of things) that he had always been told, or observed people seeing him in public, or at a restaurant, and the awe and starstuck in their eyes and bodies in seeing/meeting him. It was one of the reasons he settled on NYC. People saw the freak, but their were so many freaks everywhere, he tended to be either accepted, treated like a quasi-friend for a photo or a handshake or just let alone to go about his.their day. He had never experienced that for himself (he said) until the day he came upon Chuck Berry, and felt the thunderstuck of being in the presence of his "Great Man."

Shane said...

"Come Together" was originally conceived as the campaign song for Timothy Leary nascent political campaign for 1969 (before he busted for pot.) John had written it for Leary but by the time their winter of discontent (the Get Back sessions Jan 1969) had thawed, and John and Paul had reunited musically at least for "Ballad of John and Yoko" (it just the two of them doing everything. This was the first cresting of Lennon's "just get it done and out" stage (although he was always for short production if possible, and the longer he saw himself as being contained w in the Beatles, this became less possible.) Lennon reached this height w the morning writing, afternoon recording and evening pressing of "Instant Karma" (which as the first John "solo" release, would kickstart McCartney to "Maybe I'm Amazed" kind of getting out of his long post-break-up funk) and then culminating w the brilliant minimization of Plastic Ono Band (again h/t to Arthur Alexander as an influence on this album)). Sorry, got off track.

Lennon fully admitted the homage in the opening line of "Come Together." He also acknowledged he could have and thought of replacing "flat top" w "frying pan" (just as he had w "Polythene Pam" when the nickname had originally been "Polythene Pat" back in The Cavern, bc Pam was the name of "Mean Mr. Mustand" 's sister, Pam, whatever works) but he wanted the homage, so it stayed. I think its telling that out of the four of them, Lennon was the one who had the greatest difficulty remembering lyrics/words while signing. On the roof top, "I Dig a Pony" requires a stage hand on bended knee (w George also for a brief time) w a clipboard and the words written out for John to sing. When John played the One-on-One concert at MSG in 1972, he pretty well nailed the complicated and seemingly random wordplay of Come Together on his own.

It wasn't Chuck who sued Lennon for "Come Together", I believe. It was one of the Chess brothers, or whoever held the rights to the "You Can't Catch Me" who didn't sue, but sent out notice of the copyright infraction. (Now George was sued for "My Sweet Lord" (w Ringo on drums (and Ringo played all the drums on Plastic Ono Band) and was found to have "sub/unconsciously borrowed" his chords from "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons. Litigation that went to trial, and wasn't resolved until 1974.) Their settlement agreement was not truly monetary, as Lennon agreed to record covers on his "Rock n'Roll" album (recorded in 1973, tapes stolen at gunpoint by Phil Spector, and then finished late 1974.)

All of which leads to: Lennon's cover of "You Can't Catch Me" is my favorite Chuck Berry recording. Its got heart, didn't have the glossy overproduction and horns of some of Lennon's 1973-1974 work. Plus his vocal is so sincere and honest. Its as close as that 33 year old guy was ever going to get to the 22 year old boy/man who put his heart and soul and then finally his ripped larynx into the closer "Twist and Shout" on February 11, 1963, a year to the day from their first (and best) US concert in Wash DC.

St. George said...

"We had motor trouble that turn into a struggle
Halfway across Alabam."

-Promised Land, written in 1964

I wonder what possible trouble a black man might find on a bus traveling to Birmingham in the early 1960s.

A very sly political line.

St. George said...

"Way back in history three thousand years
Back every since the world began
There's been a whole lot of good women shed a tear
For a brown eyed handsome man
That's what the trouble was brown eyed handsome man."

Brown-Eyed Handsome Man, 1956

Is it Jesus he's singing about or black people generally?

rcocean said...

I love his lyrics too. Look at "School days"

Up in the mornin' and out to school
The teacher is teachin' the Golden Rule
American history and practical math
You studyin' hard and hopin' to pass
Workin' your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won't leave you alone

the whole song tells a story from beginning to the end.

rcocean said...

A lot of Rock songs, i only listen to 2/3 the way through, since I get tired of the refrain or the last stanza is just a patch job the songwriter put in to get to the required 2 minutes. (The Beatles do this a lot)

The best Chuck Berry songs aren't like that.

rcocean said...

Berry had a right to be cranky in his old age. He got RIPPED OFF big time by New york publishers who took advantage of him, and a lot of other Black artists.

He had millions of $$$ stolen from him. And these record company jackals didn't produce shit.

Limited blogger said...

"I guess you guys aren't ready for that, yet. But your kids are gonna love it."

Earnest Prole said...

In Nadine, the way he breaks meter and rhyme at the end of the first verse, the wacky genius of the similes (“campaign shouting like a southern diplomat,” “moving through the traffic like a mounted cavalier”), the way the song is a whirl of sudden motion (“she turned and doubled back,” “downtown searching for her, looking all around, saw her gettin' in a yellow cab heading uptown.”) exactly “like a wayward summer breeze.” Indelible. Do genius a favor and read the lyrics as you listen:

As I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat,
I thought I saw my future bride walking up the street.
I shouted to the driver "Hey conductor, you must slow
Down, I think I see her, please let me off the bus."

Nadine, honey is that you?
Oh, Nadine . . . honey, is that you?
Seems like every time I see you, darling you got something else to do.

I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
started walkin' toward a coffee-colored Cadillac
I was pushin' through the crowd tryin' to get to where she's at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat

Nadine, honey is that you?
Oh, Nadine . . . honey, where are you?
Seems like every time I catch up with you, you're up to somethin' new.

Downtown searching for her, looking all around.
Saw her gettin' in a yellow cab heading uptown.
I caught a loaded taxi, paid up everybody's tab.
Slipped a twenty dollar bill and told him "Catch that yellow cab."

Nadine, honey is that you?
Oh, Nadine . . . honey, is that you?
Seems like every time I catch up with you, you're up to somethin' new.

She moves around like a wayward summer breeze,
go, driver, go, catch her for me, please.
Moving through the traffic like a mounted cavalier.
Leaning out the taxi window tryin' to make her hear.

Nadine, honey is that you?
Oh, Nadine . . . honey, is that you?
Seems like every time I see you, darling you up to somethin' new.

FullMoon said...

rcocean said...

Berry had a right to be cranky in his old age. He got RIPPED OFF big time by New york publishers who took advantage of him, and a lot of other Black artists.

He had millions of $$$ stolen from him. And these record company jackals didn't produce shit.


Yeah, right, and without those jackals, you and me and everybody else would never have heard of CB and a thousand other guys.
You never heard a singer or band in a club as good or better as somebody famous ? Plenty of talent wish a jackal would take advantage of them so they could quit the 9 to five.

Farmer said...

He wasn't motivatin' over the hill - he was motorvatin' over it. The made-up word is a big part of what makes the lyric great.

I also don't think he comes off as a prick in Hail Hail Rock n Roll. Comes off like a guy who doesn't have time for or interest in a lot of bullshit. He had his way of doing things for decades and Keith Richards wanted to change it all. Probably for the better, but still - Chuck's way had been working fine, so you can't really blame him for getting a little shirty.

samsondale said...

I strongly suggest you watch him on Johnny Carson. He was funny and witty and smart. His performances and interview were so entertaining that Johnny dismissed the other guests and kept Chuck on for the whole show.

Livermoron said...

St. George: In interviews, he maintains that the song was first "Brown-skinned Handsome Man". And not a Jesus reference either.

Ann Althouse said...

@ Graham Berry does sing those lyrics in You Can't Catch Me.

New Jersey Turnpike in the wee wee hours
I was rollin' slowly 'cause of drizzlin' showers
Here come a flat-top, he was movin' up with me
Then come wavin' goodbye in a little' old souped-up jitney
I put my foot on my tank and I began to roll
Moanin' siren, 'twas the state patrol
So I let out my wings and then I blew my horn
Bye bye New Jersey, I've become airborne

Read more: Chuck Berry - You Can't Catch Me Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Ann Althouse said...

The Rolling Stones did that song early in their career.

eddie willers said...

It's about the dancing, not the lyrics. If you don't get that I feel for you.

And if all you got out of it was the beat, I feel for you.

boycat said...

Why exactly did he refer to the song "My Ding-a-ling" as his 'alma mater' before he sang it?

cathy said...

I read that his parents both were musicians, I think in a church, and were always discussing lyrics, how they did or didn't work, if they were natural, and everything else. That was his schooling.

RichardJohnson said...

I learned "You Can't Catch Me" from an album of The Blues Project. I didn't realize until today, a half century later, that it was a Chuck Berry song.

RichardJohnson said...

Back in the U.S.A. with Keith Richards and Linda Ronstadt. Back in the USA inspired the Beatles' Back in the USSR.

Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today,
We touched ground on an international runway
Jet propelled back home, from over the seas to the U. S. A.

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
Let alone just to be at my home back in ol' St. Lou.

Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U. S. A.

Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a juke-box jumping with records like in the U.S.A.

Well, I'm so glad I'm livin' in the U.S.A.
Yes. I'm so glad I'm livin' in the U.S.A.
Anything you want, we got right here in the U.S.A.


Chuck Berry, American.

Rusty said...

"Yeah, right, and without those jackals, you and me and everybody else would never have heard of CB and a thousand other guys."

If it weren't for those two saps at chess records there are a lot of black artists you'd still be ignorant of. Chess Records lost a lot of money on their recordings.

AllenS said...

I don't believe that Chuck Berry ever gave up the conk.

sparrow said...

After "Johnny Be Good", "No Particular Place to Go" is my favorite
First verse:

Riding along in my automobile
My baby beside me at the wheel
I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile
My curiosity runnin' wild
Crusin' and playin' the radio
With no particular place to go

Love that curiousity line, says a lot in just a few words

Roger Sweeny said...

and along the way seems to address every promise of American life and how to get by after it’s broken.

Please. Stop.