Let’s be real, it was pretty stunning that, come 2017, we still had so many of the principle framers of the rock music constitution walking among us. Rock and roll is now old enough to collect social security, and given the way so many of its white practitioners made a fetish out of drugging themselves to death even in the early days, it’s pretty bonkers that the first men to record the music – Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry – were at year’s dawning still kicking and in some cases still recording. So while it’s sad to hear that the oldest of rock’s originators has laid down his last riff, we needn’t bother to feign shock. Chuck Berry was older than the Empire State Building. It was his time. If you’re still upset, consider that he won’t be taping women going to the bathroom where he’s going, or at least we can hope not.
Nevertheless, death calls for a roundup of the deceased’s earthly contributions and so here we are. The Top 5 Chuck Berry tracks.
Rules and Exemptions
I’m tempted to suspend to Too Obvious Rule for this installment, since Berry poses two very unique challenges to this rule – namely, that most of his notable songs are legendary to some degree, and almost all of them sound reasonably similar. So while I’m not necessarily calling Chuckles on a violation of the rule, I’m passing on “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Rock and Roll Music” – i.e., the three most obvious tunes in the CB canon, and thus the ’50s rock canon writ large. They’re great, of course, but there’s simply more interesting terrain afoot, IMHO. The only other exemption I feel compelled to invoke goes to “You Never Can Tell,” a song that people tend to overvalue due to its inclusion in an iconic scene in Pulp Fiction. I don’t disagree with the scene’s touching marriage of silliness and real human connection, but that doesn’t make the song any better than “Stuck in the Middle With You,” so it’s out. I was also this close to including “Carol,” but what can I say, the Stones did it better. Don’t be mad, dead Chuck, it happens.
The first historically important rock guitar song remains one of the ten or fifteen best in the idiom. What’s notable here is just how far Berry departs from the blues and jazz that formed the musical and ideological basis for what was doing. The electric guitar is crunchy, rough, percussive. The verse hangs on a single chord. The vocal doesn’t sing the lyrics so much as sprint through them, all the while aiming for that pleading MAYYYY-bel-LINEEEE at the top of the chorus. “Maybelline” doesn’t age like most artifacts because it’s just so mean. Chuck doesn’t let you touch that dial. He screams at you to stay put.
“Too Much Monkey Business” (1956)
I’ve written before that every Chuck Berry song has a Chuck Berry counter-song, another track in his discography that sounds exactly the same or is at least built around the same musical device. You know, like how “School Days” and “No Particular Place To Go” are literally the exact same fucking song??? Like that. Anyway, “Too Much Monkey Business” is, I think, the song to “Reelin’ and Rockin'”‘s counter-song. Both are songs where the vocal solos during a short quatrain verse, followed by a jaunty chorus in a 4-1-5 chord pattern. Okay, so why is one better than the other? Couple of reasons. The subject matter for one thing; “Reelin’ and Rockin'” is a song about a party. Okay, great. “Too Much Monkey Business,” on the other hand, is a song about everything. It’s about all the little bullshits and indignities that beset adult life. It might be the first existential rock song. I also love the way Chuck plays with the vocal metrics in the chorus: “Too much monkey business / For me to be involved in.” He seems never to settle on just how he wants to sing it, and the variance keeps the song fresh. I never get sick of this one.
“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” (1956)
Why are there not more rock songs about beautiful men??? The conceit of this one is actually remarkably astute: a good-looking dude, says Chuck, can get away with just about anything:
Arrested on charges of unemployment
He was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
She said, “Free that brown-eyed man.
If you want your job you’d better free that brown-eyed man”
Over the next several verses, bitches be wandering the desert and losing both their arms over these jobless derelicts. A feminist deconstruction of this song would be a killer airplane read, but alas, the song wins its place in this list by its musical charms: it’s the most danceable song so far, and it opens with one of Chuck’s hardest riffs. I’ve been studying Chuck Berry guitar lines for well over a decade and I’ve never been able to nail this one. And do you know this was the B-side to “Too Much Monkey Business”? Jesus Christ.
“Don’t You Lie to Me” (1961)
Dig that fucking groove, man. It seems almost cruel to include any songs on this list that Berry didn’t write, since a huge part of his legacy is wrapped up in being one of the first singers to write his own songs. But Chuck’s rendition of this standard bumps and grinds and sizzles like nothing in his or anyone else’s discography. He did some great blues in his time (see “In the Wee Wee Hours”) but Chuck’s genius always lay in his ability to see what the blues could be, and this one sees farther than most.
“Nadine” is my favorite Chuck Berry song, which I suppose means it must be my favorite rock and roll song, Berry being the ultimate embodiment of the form. Fittingly, this perfect rock and roll song was released the same month that the Beatles stampeded into America, thus bending history irreparably away from Berry’s story-focused style and toward new approaches to song structure, recording, and just about everything else. But it’s an excellent final statement on what made Chuck so great: the rhythm and meter of the vocals should be studied by aspiring poets and Shakespearean actors alike; the central riff is a testament to the place of minimalism in guitar music’s DNA; the chorus – Nadine / Honey is that you? / Seems like every time I catch up witcha / You are upta somethin’ new – is a clear echo of “Maybelline,” but now, almost ten years later, there’s an extra degree of longing to it, as if Chuck knows his time in the spotlight is about to run out. But what a way to go.