Fifty-five years ago, Chuck Berry’s Maybellene was released, and rock ‘n roll would never be the same.
I know that songs like Rock Around The Clock and Rocket 88 had been released before Maybellene, and Elvis Presley has popularized rock ‘n roll by July 1955, when Maybellene was released. Still, I think Maybellene was the first modern rock ‘n roll song. Rolling Stone apparently agrees: in its on-line entry on Maybellene, it says “rock & roll guitar starts here.” And it did, too.
I heard Maybellene on the Ipod the other day, and it sounds just as fresh and great as it must have sounded when it first crackled over the AM airwaves on a summer day during the Eisenhower Administration, so long ago. The song irresistibly invokes two of the timeless themes for successful rock songs — girls and fast cars. The first verse is calculated to appeal to the instincts of every teenage boy, from the ’50s until now and probably until the end of time:
As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coup de Ville
A Cadillac arollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin’ about ninety-five
She’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side
What could be more American than accelerating down an open road trying to catch up to your girl? Add those lyrics to a pulsing beat that sounds like a speeding car, driven by guitar and stripped down bass, tinny piano, and drums, and you have an unbeatable classic. You hear it and you turn up the volume, your body starts moving, and you feel compelled to play some air guitar. It’s no wonder that the themes and feel of Maybellene have been borrowed by so many successful rock ‘n roll songs since 1955. It has to be one of the most influential rock songs ever recorded.
Youtube has several videos of Chuck Berry playing Maybellene. I like this one best, because it contrasts Berry’s vibrant new style with the stodginess that existed at the time. Check out the looks on the faces of the band members and audience when Berry starts his duck walk.