Chuck Berry: On A Roll

Echoes Deputy Ed., Kevin Le Gendre has some thoughts on the passing of one of the all-time greats.

The steady stream of tributes to Chuck Berry has swollen into an ocean of praise over the last few days, the common theme running through the eulogies being, of course, that the guitarist-singer was one of the progenitors of rock & roll. Furthermore, he provided a brilliantly metaphorical soundtrack to the new phenomenon of the teenager in the ‘50s and celebrated its central tenets of sexuality and freedom.
While all of this is true, one of Berry’s greatest achievements as a lyric writer was the projection of a supreme self-confidence and audacity that makes him essential to the history of black cultural empowerment.
If he captured the fizzing hormonal energy and popping rebellious drive of kids with V-8 Fords and jukeboxes, then his grand coup de theatre was to take on a force far bigger than the poker-faced parents who might have tried to put the handbrake on their speedy self-indulgence.
Such is the artfully infectious nature of the riffs on which Roll Over Beethoven is constructed – a key achievement of blues-derived music – it is easy to forget that the song is a challenge to the European classical establishment that does not want for bravado. Given the fact black music in the 19th and early 20th century was frequently slighted as something much lower down the evolutionary scale than the ‘serious’ works of German, Italian, French and British composers, as ‘hot rhythm’ posed a threat as well as a thrill to polite society, Berry’s act of dissent to the hierarchy is significant. He knows he is riding in a winning motor.        
Needless to say Berry also lived very fast, and his well-documented crimes and misdemeanours, above all his quite ghastly treatment of women, cast light on the darker, reprehensible edges of a character that sadly compares to the many others in rock & roll’s rogue’s gallery.

Roll Over Beethoven is really part of a wider tradition of self-assertion in black music. The sense of knowing. The strength of believing. The feeling of value in a society that strips you of your humanity. In gospel, the sacred cousin of the blues, a fundamental statement is the lyric of This Little Light Of Mine because it says so boldly ‘I’m gonna let it shine.’ The action is non-negotiable; the conviction is absolute. That evinces courage in a world of inequality.
Profane as Berry was, he understood that very repository and his successors built upon a similar bedrock of resolution. In the birth pangs of ‘60s soul the apparently non-political is deeply political. When Martha Reeves sings, ‘Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?’ on Dancing In The Street she is announcing soul music, another iteration of the blues, as a global force for which you have to be prepared. The music is the transformation of both lives and sounds.
By the same token James Brown’s Papa’s Brand New Bag invites you to ‘dig this crazy scene’ because it will blow your mind, and as a student of soul Bob Marley naturally deploys similar tropes in reggae. Lively Up Yourself warns ‘don’t be no drag’ because ‘reggae is another bag’.  Get hip to this West Indian t’ing or get left behind. And you’ll be sorry.
Hip-hop took the swagger to engrossing, often disproportionate levels, but its innovators ran with Berry’s baton in a similarly confrontational way. They named names. They killed sacred monsters with much brio.
It is for Berry as well as themselves that Public Enemy trashed Elvis Presley, the arriviste man who would be king, and John Wayne, the duke who was anti-anti-Vietnam, in the epochal Fight The Power.Tellingly, the lyrical beatdowns were once again set to a new beat.

While stating that you have a dope rhyme with which to conquer the world remains a valid part of the lyrical database of black popular music, it inevitably does not have the same resonance in an era when the commercial potential of black American and Caribbean music has been largely fulfilled by the worldwide success of all of the above.
It cannot be refuted that Berry, Brown, Bob et al changed the face of pop because their respective influences are so pervasive. Yet many challenges remain. The record industry’s rebranding of black pop as ‘urban’ music in the ‘90s, with the bling factor cranked right up, was problematic for the way political voices were largely silenced, and new generations of artists opted for glossy style over conscious substance.    
Nevertheless, in an era of Black Lives Matter, the inflection of blues, soul, funk and hip-hop directly towards the failings of post-racial America is arguably the best possible expression of self-confidence, defiance and plain straight talking that would do Berry proud. Nowhere is this more astute than on Common’s Black America Again, which is a subversion of Trump’s spooky call to ‘make America great again’, an assertion of what cultural colour America really is, and a resistance to an oppressive new world order. On the track a sample of James Brown’s voice tells us about a man’s need for pride. Stevie Wonder sings an affecting chorus. Roll over Donald, tell Vladimir the news.