Farewell To The Brown-Eyed Handsome Man

Chuck Berry died yesterday at age 90.  He was the man whose songs gave rock ‘n roll a sound and a shape and a theme and a direction, way back in the ’50s, and thereby helped to create a genre of popular music that has endured for more than 60 years.  His song Maybellene, his first big hit, was released in 1955, and its combination of irresistible guitar licks, a chugging back beat, and a story about teenage angst, girls, cars, and speed created a lasting framework for what was then a shocking and utterly new sound.  (Interestingly, just last year Chuck Berry was working on an album of new material to be released some time this year.  Let’s hope we get to hear it.)

chuck-berry-1957-billboard-1548The tributes to Chuck Berry are pouring in from across the music world.  The Billboard tribute linked above notes that John Lennon once said:  “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”  The New York Times has published a fine list of 15 essential Chuck Berry songs that are worth listening to, again, in honor of his passing.  And a good indication of Berry’s huge influence on other crucial artists in the rock ‘n roll genre is that his songs were covered by the Beatles, who released excellent versions of Rock and Roll Music and Roll Over Beethoven, and the Rolling Stones, who recorded memorable live versions of Carol and Little Queenie, and just about everybody else of consequence in the world of rock music.  Has any artist had more songs covered by more superstars?

I can’t compete with the likes of John Lennon and Billboard in assessing the impact of Chuck Berry on the world of music, so I won’t even try.  I can say this without fear of contradiction, however:  when my college roommate and I hosted parties back in the late ’70s where the whole point was to drink draft beer and dance with wild abandon, nobody was better at getting people up and moving their feet than Chuck Berry.  That remains true today, 40 years later.  That’s quite an impact, when you think about it.

Still Reelin’ And Rockin’

Chuck Berry turned 90 this week.  Perhaps fittingly, one of rock and roll’s few surviving pioneers will be releasing an album of new songs next year.

chuck-berry-duck-walk-hd-wallpaper-1Many people helped American music take an abrupt turn in the early ’50s, from the big band/crooner/torch singer sound to the chaotic rhythms of rock and roll, but Chuck Berry was foremost among them.  Berry helped to define the genre in two key ways — in writing about fast cars, music, and girls, and in producing a guitar-focused sound that made everyone want to move their feet and strum the air.  More than 60 years later, the riffs he produced on Maybelline and Johnny B. Goode remain some of the greatest ever recorded.  And Berry’s showmanship on stage, including his trademark duck walk, helped to define what live rock music should be, too.

When Elvis Presley died almost 40 years ago, I was working for the Ohio State Lantern, which ran a headline referring to Presley, as many did, as the King of Rock and Roll.  Our faculty advisor, Tom Wilson, emerged from his office to vigorously object to that headline, because he thought that title could only be given to Chuck Berry.  Some people in the newsroom argued with Mr. Wilson, but not me.  He was absolutely right.  And Berry’s recordings remain as fresh and catchy today, and as ready to convert a young person to the world of rock and roll, as they were when they first hit the disk jockeys’ turntables so long ago.

One other thing:  it’s nice to be able to write about a music legend who has lived to a ripe old age.  Rock music takes its toll, and many of its best have been felled by drug overdoses, plane crashes, or violent death.  Chuck Berry duck-walked right on past all of that, with his wife of 68 years, Themetta, there beside him.  Two of their children are part of the band that has recorded the new album, too.

Goodbye To Sir George

630305_01Sir George Martin died on Tuesday at age 90.  Though he had a long and accomplished career in music, he will forever be remembered as the Beatles’ producer — and therefore as a giant in the history of popular culture.

Martin’s first interactions with the Beatles are the stuff of music legend.  The Beatles, fresh from long stints in Hamburg clubs, had just experienced the departure of Stu Sutcliffe and had replaced Pete Best with Ringo Starr; their first efforts to get a recording contract had ended in failure.  Martin, a classically trained musician who studied piano and oboe, was working as a producer for the struggling Parlophone label, which specialized in classical music.  When Martin first listened to the Beatles’ music, he was not impressed — but there was something there, and Parlophone was desperate to break into the rock music market, so the band was signed.

the-beatles-george-martin-the-beatles-33432395-400-400The rest, as they say, is history.  Martin struck up a good relationship with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, and he respected the wishes of McCartney and Lennon to become real songwriters, not just performers.  He listened to their songs, made crucial suggestions, and Martin and the Beatles quickly developed a relationship of collaborative creativity that produced some of the greatest popular music ever recorded.

Please Please Me, the first album the Beatles recorded with Martin, is a terrific rock and roll album that captured an almost live music feel and showed Martin’s technical recording skills.  Listen to the irresistible Twist and Shout, with the band’s tight, chunking rhythms, John Lennon’s hoarse vocals, McCartney’s soaring screams, and Ringo’s ashcan drumming at the end, and you’ll hear a masterful exercise in recording.  From there, it was a line of hits that steadily and inexorably stretched, and stretched, and stretched the boundaries of popular music, with Martin suggesting strings here and a sitar there, speeding up sections of songs, recording feedback and backward music, and eventually producing the ground-breaking Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.  But while others might focus on the lushly produced songs, like Yesterday or Strawberry Fields Forever, we shouldn’t forget that Martin was brilliant at the basics and knew when avoiding a cloying, over-produced sound was just as important.  A Hard Day’s Night, from the taut opening guitar chord of that song to the end of the album, still remains one of the greatest rock albums ever released.

I’ve written often about music generally and the Beatles specifically.  They were extraordinary talents, but it was people like George Martin who helped them to produce magic and beauty, songs that touch you deeply and songs that make you want to dance in a sweaty crowd and songs that make even the vocally challenged among us want to sing out loud.  Sir George Martin was part of something tremendous that will live on for years.  He will be celebrated in his passing, and justifiably so.

David Bowie

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I heard the sad news about David Bowie’s death this morning, and I couldn’t help myself.  Immediately the crushing opening chords of Ziggy Stardust thundered in my head, and I sang, with my internal voice, “Ziggy played guitar . . . .”

Bowie died Sunday at age 69 after a long illness.  He had a long and prolific career as a songwriter and performer.  He wrote All The Young Dudes — the Mott the Hoople classic — and recorded a series of fabulous songs in the ’70s, like The Jean Genie, Space Oddity, Rebel Rebel, and Diamond Dogs.  But I will always think of David Bowie for one reason:  his fertile brain and voice and persona created The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which I’ve said before is one of the very best rock albums ever made.  It’s easily in the top ten, and maybe in the top five.

It’s one of those albums that is perfect in concept and execution, from beginning to end, every song setting up the next, with interesting lyrics and compelling music and a weird back story that is as shining and wonderful and compelling now as it was the first time I heard it more than 40 years ago when I was in high school.  So many of the songs are deeply embedded into my consciousness and come bubbling up, unbidden; I will be walking home in the darkness and suddenly think “Didn’t know what time it was, the lights were low -oh – oh . . . .”  I love every note of the album and know I always will.

Most of us don’t know, and will never know, what it is like to be touched by genius and produce a timeless and brilliant creative work.  David Bowie did know, and it happened to him more than once, but with Ziggy Stardust he reached a height that very few musicians ever touched.  He will be missed — but he will always be remembered.

Louie, Louie

The man who sang one of the greatest rock ‘n roll songs in history has died.  Jack Ely, the lead singer for The Kingsmen who delivered the definitive vocal rendition of Louie, Louie, died recently at age 71.  His song is an acknowledged classic that is instantly familiar to every rock music fan and was memorably sung by the frat boys in Animal House.

What makes a song great?  The Kingsmen’s version of Louie, Louie is only 2 minutes, 46 seconds long.  It features a cheesy organ intro, a simple beat, crashing drums, and an off-kilter guitar solo, but what makes it unforgettable are vocals that sound like they were recorded at 3 a.m. in a bus station bathroom by a drunken guy who is singing in a rare Martian dialect.  The unique sound occurred because Ely, who was wearing braces at the time, was placed in the middle of the band by the recording engineer to achieve a “live feel” in the recording and had to scream out the lyrics into a microphone located several feet overhead.

The deliciously slurred, garbled result was an immediate hit, in part because you could dance to it and in part because teenage boys across America had heard that the “real” lyrics were “dirty” and bought the record in droves trying to decipher them.  In fact, Louie, Louie, which was written by Richard Berry, is a simple, sweet song about a man thinking about the girl he is going to see when he returns to Jamaica — but good luck figuring that out from Ely’s howling, boozy-sounding vocals.

The rumors of a dirty meaning to the song were so persistent and widespread that the FBI and other law enforcement entities actually looked into the issue to determine whether Louie, Louie violated then-existing obscenity laws. They ultimately concluded that The Kingsmen’s version was “unintelligible at any speed.”  And that’s what made it great.

Time For The Rolling Stones To Gather Some Moss

Keith Richards is being quoted as saying that the Rolling Stones have met for a few rehearsals and are thinking about touring to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary together.

Sad, isn’t it?  It’s embarrassing to even contemplate a bunch of 70-year-olds preening and prancing on stage, trying to live up to their old tag line of being “the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.”  Of course, that description hasn’t been accurate for a very long time.  It’s been decades since the Stones have released a meaningful studio album, and they’re not really relevant to modern music, except for the enormous contribution they made back in the ’60s and ’70s.

As the linked article indicates, the Stones’ last tour, in 2007, was hugely profitable — in fact, for several years it held the record as the most profitable tour of all time.  Could they possibly have squandered all that money already, and be desperate for a paycheck?  Do they honestly think that since, say, 1977, anyone has gone to a Rolling Stones concert to hear their new music?  How many times can these guys play I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and Gimme Shelter?

The Rolling Stones aren’t, and shouldn’t be, like Styx or Kansas or any of the other sad “legacy” bands that need to hit up their diehard fans every summer for a few concert bucks.  The Stones produced some of the greatest rock music ever released in the ’60s and ’70s.  Why not let that body of work stand, without being further tarnished by lame geriatric tours and pathetic tell-all books?

Neil Young In The ’70s

Some questions linger in the mind, constantly bubbling up to occupy your thoughts when you least expect.  For me, they are questions like:  What makes a creative person creative?  What gives an individual the ability to write songs or produce great art?  And, perhaps most important, just what was it that motivated people whose careers reflect enormous outbursts of stunning artistic accomplishment during a finite period of time?

Consider Neil Young, for example.  He’s been a fixture of the rock ‘n’ roll scene since the 1960s and has had successful musical releases in each of the intervening decades.  But, even by the high standards of his career, the 1970s were remarkable.  Consider the astonishing albums he produced during that magical decade:  After The Gold Rush (1970), Harvest (1972), Tonight’s The Night (1975), Zuma (1975), American Stars ‘N Bars (1977), Comes A Time (1978), and Rust Never Sleeps (1979).  Many musicians would gladly claim what he produced during that single, prolific decade and call it an entire career.

And what a range!  He moved effortlessly from acoustic work that included all-time folk classics like Old Man (performed live below), Heart of Gold, and The Needle And The Damage Done, to country songs like The Old Country Waltz and Hey Babe, to crushing power rock, with Like A Hurricane and Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black).  He wrote great political anthems (Ohio), funny, boozy ballads (Saddle Up The Palomino), raggedy, ironic songs about losers (Tired Eyes) and long, dreamy ruminations about ancient civilizations (Cortez The Killer).

We can all be grateful for whatever it was that impelled Neil Young, again and again and again during the 1970s, to pick up his guitar or sit down at his piano and let his awesome creative juices flow.  As a diehard Neil Young fan, I can’t imagine what the music world would be like if he hadn’t done so, and I was left to face life alone, without songs like World on a String.  But I will always wonder — just what was it?

Ziggy’s 65th

Happy birthday today to David Bowie.  Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and The Thin White Duke turns 65 today.

Bowie is an interesting character for a lot of reasons and has produced a lot of memorable music.  Bowie wrote All The Young Dudes — the epic song from the legendary band Mott the Hoople — and his playlist includes classics like The Jean Genie, Space Oddity, Diamond Dogs, and Changes, among many others.  Bowie is one of those artists who seems to leap easily from genre to genre, from hard rock to pop and back again.

To me, however, the greatest of Bowie’s many musical achievements is The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which I think is one of the very best rock albums ever made.  From Five Years to the initial chords of Moonage Daydream (“I’m an alligator . . . . “) to It Ain’t Easy to the power riffs of Ziggy Stardust (“Ziggy played guitar . . . .”) to the finale of Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide (“Time takes a cigarette and puts it in your mouth . . . .”), the album is filled with stunningly good songs that are as interesting and powerful today, 40 years after they were first released, as they were back in 1972.

So Happy Birthday to you, Mr. Bowie.  You have made your mark.  And here’s a 1972 performance of Starman, another great song from the Ziggy Stardust album, that the rest of us can use to celebrate your big day.

Rock And Roll Hall of Lame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced their list of 2012 inductees recently.  The list was uninspiring and showed that another “hall of fame” is heading on the wrong track to Lameness Town.

In case you missed it, the 2012 inductees in the “performer” category are the Beastie Boys, Donovan, Guns N’ Roses, Laura Nyro, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Faces/Small Faces.  Yawn.  Really?  Laura Nyro wrote some nice songs for the likes of The Fifth Dimension, and now she’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?  The Beastie Boys are a rock and roll act, and not wannabe rappers?  (I’m not quite sure how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame even defines “rock and roll.”  Any genre that encompasses Neil Diamond (a 2011 inductee), ABBA (a 2010 inductee), and the Beastie Boys, among others, is not focused with laser-like precision on “rock and roll” as I understand it.)  Do any of these guys really deserve mention in the same breath as, say, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen?  Is the motivation behind enshrinement of these new inductees recognizing giants and ground-breakers — or is it just wanting to have a few more acts to perform at the 2012 induction ceremony and TV broadcast?

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has become reflective of a culture where everyone gets a trophy.  If you’ve written a few decent songs and had a few hits, you’ll probably get in.  It’s like the Baseball Hall of Fame.  The first class, in 1936, included only five true superstars — Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Walter Johnson.  The years pass, and after the turn of the century the Hall is down to admitting players like Bill Mazeroski and Ron Santo.

If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wants to mean anything, it needs to commit itself to being truly selective and to limiting its scope to real rock and roll, not every musical form that has existed in popular culture since 1950.  The exhibits to inductees like the Beastie Boys and ABBA are just clutter that will get in the way of visitors who want to see Buddy Holly memorabilia or learn more about the music of The Doors.

Obscure Bands And Great Songs: Sam The Sham And The Pharoahs And Wooly Bully

In the ’50s and early ’60s, rock ‘n roll was simple and, well, fun.  The songs were about things like cars, or finding the right girl, or some new dance.  The weighty, political issues of the day were reserved for the folk singers, with their heartfelt lyrics about social injustice, their severe black clothing, and their ultra-serious attitudes about everything.  At some point in the mid-’60s, with the Vietnam War, civil rights, and street protests dominating the news, politics invaded rock ‘n roll, and the innocence of the music was never quite the same again.

The song Wooly Bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs epitomizes the early days of rock ‘n roll.  It’s a song about nothing, and the music could not be more basic.  A repeated series of chords on a synthesizer, a basic rhythm guitar backing, a saxophone solo, and a bunch of dancing guys shouting out the mindless lyrics.  Put them all together, and you have one of the most infectious rock ‘n roll dance songs ever recorded.

The YouTube video of the song, below, is classic because it is live and shows some musicians who are having fun, not taking their performance too seriously, and enjoying their moment of fame.  And how about the politically incorrect band members, with Sam in his cheap, costume shop turban and the “Pharoahs” mysteriously clad, not like ancient Egyptian rulers, but rather like Bedouins?

The Value Of Lennon’s Suit

The white suit that John Lennon wore on the cover of Abbey Road recently sold at auction for $46,000.  The two-piece suit, which had been made for Lennon by a French designer, was purchased by an on-line bidder who wanted to remain anonymous.  It is not clear whether the suit will end up in a museum or in some private collector’s basement.

What is the value of this kind of memorabilia?  In this case, the value is precisely the $46,000 the anonymous bidder was willing to pony up.  More broadly, of course, the value of such items is that they evoke a time, a place, and a person.  Anyone who sees the suit and hears what it is will think of the iconic cover photo, where Lennon led Ringo Starr, a barefoot, smoking Paul McCartney, and George Harrison across the street on a striped crosswalk, with the white Volkswagen in the background.  And knowing that the suit has been worn by an important historical or cultural figure allows the viewer to establish a more intimate connection with that figure.  “Hey, John Lennon wore this very suit.  Gee, I thought he was taller.”

I am not a collector, and I can’t imagine paying thousands of dollars for an old suit.  But Lennon’s suit would be a nice thing to see in an appropriate museum — say, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — so visitors could look at it and think of a blue sky day when four rock music giants who were coming to a brilliant end to their collaboration walked across a British street.

Maybellene, Chuck Berry, And The Future Of Rock ‘N Roll

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.