Chuck Berry – St. Louis to Liverpool

Chuck Berry – St. Louis to Liverpool
Released November, 1964

“St. Louis To Liverpool” is this week’s offering by the incomparable Chuck Berry, released in 1964. Chuck Berry is known as the man who invented Rock and Roll. Well not so much invented it, but put together the pieces of blues and country which we now call Rock and Roll. Whilst Elvis Presley was a white man playing black music and thus inventing his own style, Chuck Berry was a black man playing white music. There is no doubt that without Chuck Berry, music today wouldn’t be what it is.

Chuck Berry had and still has quite an interesting life involving a hard upbringing with numerous arrests and convictions. Despite all of this he still went on to be considered as one of the biggest influences on Rock Music. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #7 on their “100 Greatest Guitarists of all Time” List. They also ranked him #5 in their “Greatest Artists of all Time” list. He was quite a prolific artist, as was the style of the time, and released 13 albums in the 60s alone. Whilst his albums never really did anything specular in terms of commercial success, his music has gone on to greatly influence artists such as The Rolling Stones, The Greatful Dead, John Lennon, The Who and Bob Dylan. It would be a crime not have Chuck Berry included somewhere in this project. As John Lennon once said “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry”.

Musician, and critic, Cub Koda put it more eloquently than I ever could. “Of all the early breakthrough rock & roll artists, none is more important to the development of the music than Chuck Berry. He is its greatest songwriter, the main shaper of its instrumental voice, one of its greatest guitarists, and one of its greatest performers. Quite simply, without him there would be no Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, nor a myriad others. There would be no standard “Chuck Berry guitar intro,” the instrument’s clarion call to get the joint rockin’ in any setting. The clippety-clop rhythms of rockabilly would not have been mainstreamed into the now standard 4/4 rock & roll beat. There would be no obsessive wordplay by modern-day tunesmiths; in fact, the whole history (and artistic level) of rock & roll songwriting would have been much poorer without him.”

“St. Louis to Liverpool” comes after a stint in jail, showing that the old boy still had it in him. It was during his time in jail that several bands who were very influenced by Berry, such as The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones started covering his songs. “St. Louis to Liverpool” was written as a response to this renewed interest. Personally I’ve spent my whole life listening to the guy. My dad is a massive fan and to this day it’s often playing in the background when I visit him. Whilst I was not necessarily familiar with this album per se, I feel like I know it. I know his sound so well that I find it really hard to objectively review this album. Chuck Berry knew what he liked when it came to music. He is a story teller whose songs are short and to the point. His music is dependable and doesn’t stray far from the formula. There is only one Chuck Berry. When you hear a Chuck Berry song, you instantly know it’s a Chuck Berry song.

Whenever I hear Chuck Berry I often think of that scene in Hairspray where a fat Ricki Lake is dancing like a woman demented at the local dance. As someone who came of age in the 90s I was lumped with dirty flannelettes and mosh pits. The 60s look like much more fun. And that’s what I love about this album. It’s not trying to be anything other than what it is. It’s unlikely that you’ll put this album on and find it immediately becomes your favourite album that reveals the meaning of life. But it is inoffensive, good fun, and sometimes in life we could all do with a little more of that. All in all, I enjoyed this album for both sentimental reasons and because I’m a bit of a sucker for blues music with pretty guitar licks. Chuck Berry, you may be a strange guy but you sure know how to play that guitar.

I think we had the pleasure of listening to quite a fun album this week. All the songs on Chuck Berry’s “St. Louis To Liverpool” are quite upbeat, which was a deliberate plan to appeal to a younger audience. Maybe that’s why there’s so many references to sex? ‘Our Little Rendezvous’ talks about making a grandchild for their parents (and building a spaceship, that’s a little weird…), and ‘No Particular Place to Go’ tells of Chuck’s struggle to undo his companions seat belt. Presumably to “get in to her pants”, as the kids say. There’s also my favourite line from any of these songs: “All the way home I held a grudge, for the safety belt that wouldn’t budge”. Classic. Following on the theme of relationships, ‘You Never Can Tell (C’est la vie)’ is all about a poor, young couple who come good. And that’s about it, really, but at least it is in keeping with the theme. And then there’s ‘Merry Christmas, Baby’, a cruisy, bluesy number, which talks about another relationship, the one with his brand new hi fi. ‘Promised Land’ is a song that basically just lists places in America, from Virginia to California. I guess it’s hard to talk about ALL the shenanigans a trip across the country might contain in two and a half minutes. Listen to the first five seconds of ‘Promised Land’. Now the first five seconds of ‘Go Bobby Soxer’. Kinda similar? Now try the first five seconds of perhaps Chuck Berry’s most famous song, ‘Johnny B Goode’. Almost note for note replicas… I don’t know what it means, if it means anything at all, but I thought it was worth pointing out. “St. Louis to Liverpool” is pure, vapid, saccharin pop aimed at a younger audience, and Chuck absolutely nailed it.

Last week when reviewing Charles Mingus I admitted that I prefer my music to have structure. Which is why I really got into “St. Louis to Liverpool”. The guitar is the hero in Berry’s music, which was a relatively new approach at the time, as most rock n roll and blues songs featured solos by saxophone and piano. It was Berry’s prominent use of the guitar that ultimately left its mark on rhythm and blues rock and remained Berry’s lasting legacy. And wow, Chuck Berry sure did rock at guitar. Before listening to Chuck Berry I didn’t actually know much about him apart from having watched the ‘Johnny B. Goode guitar solo’ scene in Back to the Future I many times. Berry relies on blues chord progressions, mostly the good old 12- bar blues – a chord pattern that was initially the foundation of all rock ‘n’ roll music. Berry certainly has his own guitar style, and he actually re-works his own guitar intro’s and chord patterns, recycling them but with slight changes, to create new tunes. I’m not really that keen on all the rock ‘n’ roll songs that just sound like b-grade versions of Johnny B. Goode. I mean the songs are good, but I find them a bit boring after a few listens.   Chuck Berry was known to be eternally adolescent; the themes of his songs are youthful, telling tales of school dances, college girls and summer holidays. Listening to songs like ‘Little Marie’ I definitely can see how his style influenced British counterparts like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who used elements of Berry’s style in their own music. My favourite track is the jazzy swing number ‘You two’, and I think I’ll add that one into my easy listening playlist on my ipod. Overall, I really enjoyed listening to Chuck Berry and learning about what he did to the evolution of rock.

When I was 13 I bought a Chuck Berry CD of his greatest hits. I was learning guitar at the time and I thought I could easily play along to it, as he was the master of the three chord rock ‘n’ roll song. I’m only one of thousands of budding guitarists who turned to Chuck Berry; he had catchy songs, simple solos and that famous duck walk. The thing that surprised me on that CD was just how similar a lot of it was. Some intros seemed to been used for more than one song, and even melodies appeared to double up. This album has echoes of older Chuck Berry tunes throughout. ‘Promised Land’ starts with the first half of the ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ intro. ‘Little Marie’ is a sequel to ”Memphis, Tennessee’ and a tune that was good enough to be a hit once is good enough to be used again. One of my favourite tracks here, ‘No Particular Place To Go’ could be a sequel to ‘School Days’ with the melody nearly identical and a similar stop-start structure. ‘Go Bobby Soxer’ is basically a reworked ‘Johnny B. Goode’ mixed with splashes of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and so on. I’m sure there are more examples of his self-plagiarism, but all that doesn’t seem to matter or take away from the enjoyment of this record. ‘You Never Can Tell’, responsible for breakouts of the Batusi since 1994, is a boppy tale of young love that boasts a great brass section. The two instrumentals are quite inspired, and ‘You Two’ is a lovely little number with a touch of jazz blues. Although this album is only made up of four singles, their B-sides plus other songs not released on other Chuck Berry records, this is remarkably cohesive and quite enjoyable. Not essential, but enjoyable.

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