Chuck Berry: Chuck (2017) – Album Review

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Hands down the single most important figure in the history of rock music (Dylan and Hendrix aren’t too far behind, but they are still behind), Chuck Berry will forever be the first port of call when future generations try to get to grips with the groundbreaking phenomenon that is (Hail! Hail!) rock & roll. He invented the form: without him there’d be no Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Kinks, Springsteen etc. etc. you get the point. His revolutionary fusion of a backbeat-you-can’t-lose-it with explosive riffs and soloing on guitar (plus bluesy bass and boogie-woogie piano never too far down in the mix) codified the basic language of rock & roll and inspired millions of teenagers; simultaneously his exceptional lyrics invented the basic language of teenage rebellion: ‘School Day’ articulates better than any song I’ve heard how popular music is essentially a locus for working- and middle-class kids to vent their anger at the petty frustrations of life. And get laid. The man who penned ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ (incredibly his only no. 1 single) was ever the sly fox who knew full well that all of the dancehalls and automobiles peppering his narratives were essentially heady metaphors for s-e-x (see ‘I Wanna Be Your Driver’ for only the most obvious example).

In short, the man was a genius, and an utterly unpretentious one. Oh, and ‘Promised Land’ may just be the greatest song lyric ever written.

Now I’ve gotten my love for the recently deceased off my chest, let’s turn to the matter at hand: Chuck, the great man’s first posthumous album, and his first one in 38 years. It was recorded in a series of sessions that began in 2001 and continued right up until his death, at 90 years old, earlier this year. It’s a ‘greatest hits’ of his last 15 years on earth, then, and suitably raggedy as a result. But not nearly as shabby as you might expect.

Naturally, there are no songs here to match epoch-defining classics like ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Rock & Roll Music’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’… But there are plenty of good ones. Starting with hot opening duo ‘Wonderful Woman’ and ‘Big Boys’, in which his famous catalogue of riffs, including that ‘Johnny B. Goode’ one, are recycled again and yet sound remarkably fresh, even when coming from the red Gibson and aged vocals of an octogenarian. ‘Lady B. Goode’ and ‘Jamaica Moon’ are sequels to known classics that satisfyingly reward long-term fans of his amazing career. And he’s still a sly fox, cunningly updating his double entendres for the 21st century on the live, sleazy, and very funny ‘3/4 Time (Enchiladas)’: ‘I’ve been hoping to find a woman like you, honey, whose software matches this hard drive of mine.’

Rock is a collaborative sport, as Berry full well knows, and he benefits not just from the support of The Blueberry Hill Band, who sizzle here where his 50s crew erupted (perhaps in deference to his age), but also from the well-judged cameo appearances of Tom Morello, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Gary Clark, Jr. (on guitars the lot of ’em), all of whom rightly sound blessed to be allowed to record with the founder of their careers. Best of all, though, are the several collaborations with his children, Charles Berry Jr. on guitar and Ingrid Berry on harmonica, which help to make for example the gorgeous tribute to their ever-comforting presence, ‘Darlin’’, sound so real and so true: ‘Your father’s growing older/Each year strands of grey are showing bolder/Come here and lay your head upon my shoulder/My dear, the time is passing fast away.’

As you might gather from that quote, this album feels more autobiographical in tone than anything Berry’s recorded previously. Most of all, it’s dedicated to his long-suffering wife Themetta ‘Toddy’ Berry, who for nearly 70 years put up with his well-known cheating ways, plus a whole lot more I’m sure, and who very much deserves such tender tributes as ‘Wonderful Woman’ and the spoken-word ‘Dutchman’. Which isn’t to say that Chuck’s forgotten his roots in fiction, for there are several narratives that live up to his poetic reputation: ‘Big Boys’ is a cute tale about partying with girls and boys out of your league, and ‘Lady B. Goode’ is a typically well written story-in-song. Yet the female perspective of the latter is proof again that he has matured some, and recognises that he owes a great debt to his greatest lady friend.

Chuck is a worthwhile addition and a fitting ending to his catalogue then, providing both a rare opportunity to learn more about the character of Chuck himself, and/or to revel in the sharpness of his fictional observations, as you see fit. Any old way you choose it.

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