FRIDAY SONG: Chuck Berry, YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1964)
For pity’s sake, let’s have a happy Friday Song – something sunny, celebratory, about being young, about getting out and having fun.
Here’s an idea: what better than one of those great songs written between 1955 and 1964 by the strange, shining genius that was Chuck Berry?
There are a few problems in writing about Chuck – life problems, sex problems, personality problems – so maybe we should keep this simple. This is the Friday Song: we’ll concentrate on the music.
Preparing to write about this week’s song has been an utter joy but, such is startling brilliance and originality of the Chuck Berry songs of this period, that it has been almost impossible to choose one above the rest.
Should it be ‘Maybellene‘, his first release in 1955, which brought story-telling to rock ‘n’ roll? Chuck came to the Chess studios with the idea of doing a rock version of the old country classic ‘Ida Red’ that was a 1938 western-swing hit for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and, when you see that version on YouTube, it becomes clear the debt Chuck Berry owed to country music. That’s where the story-telling and the comedy – combined with a guitar style pioneered by T-Bone Walker – came from.
‘Milo of Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
She lost both her arms in a wrestling match
To meet a brown-eyed handsome man
She fought and won herself a brown-eyed handsome man.’
Or ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’? Or ‘Johnny B Goode’? Or ‘School Days’?
At the moment I’m reading David Lehman’s A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs in which Lehman writes of the melacholy moment in the 1950s and 1960s when the great songwriters of the first part of the century were being booted off the airwaves by the new music. Lehman encapsulates the reaction of the music establishment with a quote from Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song.
‘In just the span of 25 years the whole lovely, warm-hearted, clear-headed, witty, bittersweet world of the professional songwriter was gone.’
The names used to refute that good-old-days argument are usually taken from the world of folk – Dylan, Paul Simon – but I’d argue that the adjectives Wilder uses to describe his lost musical world, with the possible exception of ‘lovely’, could unblushingly be applied to the early songs of Chuck Berry.
Like the best lyricists, he could create a world in a verse, tell a story in a three-minute song. Just as in performance he and the guitar, the sound and the show, are in perfect unison, so everything in his lyrics – the beat, the sound, the meaning – are part of the organic whole.
There are probably learned treatises about Chuck Berry’s lyrics, but there are particular things about them which I love. Take the economy of the opening verse of Nadine:
‘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 this bus.’
As an opener, this has it all. It’s funny, every word counts, the lyric drives it forward, the timing and rhyme structure is clever but not showy. It avoids cliché – she’s not just a pretty girl, she’s his ‘future bride’. Joseph Conrad said that his job as a writer was to ‘make you see’ and that’s exactly what ‘Nadine’ does. We can see Chuck on the bus, – breathless, eager, up for it.
Compare the opening lines of ‘Nadine’ to those of songs rightly revered by Alec Wilder (‘Heaven, I’m in heaven…’, ‘Have you seen the well-to-do/ Up on Lenox Avenue?’, ‘It’s quarter to three/ There’s no one in the place…’, )and what one notices about Chuck Berry’s song is its speed.
The old songs, even when they were about young love, were leisurely, mature. Chuck is in a hurry. He wants it – the girl, the car, life – and he wants it right now. Although he was in his late twenties and early thirties when these songs came out of him, he captured that all-important moment, the arrival of the teenager.
For me, to describe him as the father of rock ‘n’ roll is to miss the point. The songs are too peculiar for that, too literary. Think of the chorus of ‘School Days’. After going through the school day until the moment of liberation (‘Ring, ring goes the bell’), down to the juke joint (‘Drop the coin right into the slot/ You gotta hear something that’s really hot‘), the song reaches its big declamatory pay-off.
‘Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’roll!
Deliver me from the days of old.’
It’s grand, self-important, unapologetic. Hail, Caesar! Hail rock ‘n’ roll!
But hang on. Juke joint – what’s that? Then again, what was ‘motivatin’ over the hill’ in ‘Maybellene? And what was a jitney in ‘You Never Can Tell’?
When the right word or phrase wasn’t there, Chuck Berry just improvised. And it always worked.
‘They bought a souped-up jitney
‘Twas a cherry-red ’53.’
It’s almost impossible to choose one Friday song from this small but astounding body of work by Chuck Berry and I’m slightly surprised t have ended up with ‘You Never Can Tell’, which is less flashy than many of the earlier songs. But it has a sweetness and optimism to it which seems right for today. When you see John Travolta and Uma Thurman do the twist to it in Pulp Fiction, it’s impossible not to feel a spark of hope for our poor old battered humanity.
‘You Never Can Tell’, almost the last song of any worth that came from Chuck Berry’s pen, was written while he was serving a jail sentence for transporting a 14 year-old girl across state lines ‘for immoral purposes’.
And there’s the cloud. After those songs of sunny optimism – and a sort of innocence – were written, the life began to overshadow the music. Keith Richards once said,
‘I love his work, but I couldn’t warm to him even if I was cremated next to him.’
It’s difficult to disagree. Sexually, Chuck was a bit of a sleazebag, around whom various unsavoury stories circulated. He was weird about money. Unforgivably, he was ungenerous towards other musicians. Too cheap to pay for his own band, he would use local musicians when on tour and liked to show them up by messing during around during his set – changing keys unexpectedly and so on.
There were excuses. He was ripped off in his early years, and a victim of racism. He was said, by Carl Perkins among others, to have been changed by his jail term – having been ‘an easygoing guy’, he was suddenly ‘cold, real distant and bitter’. Even when interviewers were on his side, as in a late Rolling Stone interview, it’s difficult to recognise in him the man who wrote those wonderful, life-affirming early songs. (And in that interview, he genuinely seemed to think ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ was his masterpiece).
Let’s put all that aside, and enjoy the brilliant production of the original recording. Then there’s Bruce Springsteen’s shambolic but enjoyable live performance in Leipzig in 2013(reassuring for guitarists that Bruce needs a guitar with a capo when he decides to play in G rather than A).
But I particularly love this live performance of the song from 1972. It’s low-key by Chuck’s standards but he was clearly having a good time. Here it is – the greatest two-chord song ever written: