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Chuck Berry: Remembering the Accessible Innovator

March 19, 2017

 

 

Chuck Berry has passed away at the age of 90.

 

And while he did not invent music, or even rock and roll, he is, for many of us, an indelible link between what is merely sound, which registers no meaning for us, and what is emotionally resonant music.

 

"Emotional" is a word rarely used to describe the music of Chuck Berry, the lifelong St. Louisan often credited with sending rock and roll in the direction which it took. His music is primarily simple, and not in a pejorative way. Quick, mid-tempo riff rock meant to evoke youthful rebellion, rather than any themes much more complex than that.

 

But the forces which compel strident opposition to 'the man' are, undeniably, emotions. And in his long career, nobody captured this like Berry did.

 

1960s rock bands cited many of the same artists as influences, but generally, none of these influences had their sound as steadfastly replicated as Chuck Berry.

 

The Beatles and The Rolling Stones covered him; The Beach Boys reinvented (and Berry had the royalties to prove it) "Sweet Little Sixteen" for "Surfin' USA." While the Sex Pistols claimed they wanted to kill rock and roll in the 1970s, they covered "Johnny B. Goode." Because when the Sex Pistols said "kill" rock and roll, they meant eschew its artsy derivations such as Pink Floyd or Genesis. But they loved Chuck.

 

Everybody loved Chuck.

 

It was John Lennon who once said, in a quote that you will certainly grow tired of hearing in the coming weeks, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'"

 

And he still resonates. I've tried listening to Robert Johnson, the Delta bluesman that Eric Clapton and Keith Richards cite as a formative influence. And I recognize his talent. And I think on some level, I get it. But I don't enjoy it. I enjoy Chuck Berry's music.

 

It doesn't sound like music in 2017, by and large, but the path of rock and roll music, through the British Invasion, through punk, through metal, through grunge and Britpop and the post-punk garage rock revivalists of the early 21st century, makes sense when you know Chuck Berry.


Chuck Berry isn't a history lesson. In the same way that I can have a greater appreciation for Marlon Brando's gritty realism in "On the Waterfront" than I can for the much more heavy-handed acting performances which came before it, Chuck Berry is truly the first modern rock star. He is still, at his core, one of the most enjoyable popular musicians who ever lived.

 

 

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