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Chuck Berry's "The Great Twenty-Eight" -Black In America In 1956

Almost free


















No folks, The Great 28 is NOT all you need from Chuck Berry. But add another 10, maybe 11 more songs if you include “My Ding-A-Ling” which I don’t of course, but even so, “Tulane”,  “Run Rudolph Run”,  heavy duty jams “Everyday I Have The Blues” –yeah, Berry recorded a lot and, yeah a lot of it was important.

But if all you could get was a double album? Get The Great 28.

Indeed, if all you could only own one album forever and all eternity just this one and then nothing at all? “The Great 28”

If I could cheat maybe a touch, I’d dump “Havana Moon” and “Beautiful Delilah” and replace it with “Tulane” and  “Together (Forever)” but otherwise, and even then maybe I wouldn’t just because they act as breathers, just a chance to skip maybe a track or wonder why, with one of the great rhythm patterns of all time, it doesn’t hang as an album so great. But once you’ve made that claim, just go with it.

“Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out…”  Let’s start with Mick Jagger daydreaming about Memphis in the East End of London in the early 1960s. Everything around Jagger is gray and dying, the city is decadent in the worst meaning of the words, 1000 years on it is a groggy foggy mess and  still there is no hope, the roots to punk rock, fifteen years later, are being sodden down while Mick and Keith buy Chess 45s. Blues greats and, what else? Rock and roll. Presley’s problem was that he was so unique he seemed to come from another world, but Berry: Berry was a black white guy and as he came on to Carol, he had to make an admission. An admission of a type of impotence, an impossibility, no, a world where he had the wheels, but what else? Chuck couldn’t dance.Using language like sound, iterations likelanguage from another planet he came on and begged her. And Jagger, teen Jagger and pimply Keith, and not yet worldly Brian, they came together and learnt it and used the invite to begin  the British Invasion.

“Carol” chugs from piano and guitar (tuned to Jamie Johnson’s piano of course, and Berry glides, the way great rap glides, what we call flow nowadays, he flows through his tribulations, through his “botherations”. On 28 songs that set the foundation and the language of rock and roll, of teenagers, and, oddly enough, of a place where the black man and the teenager met: condescension and injustice from the straight America… Berry’s response? “don’t bother us leave us alone… ”

Don’t believe me, try this: change “Almost Grown” to “Almost Free”..

Somewhere here, as Berry worked through the 1950s South he made a connection (it is a connection I was trying to make on Presley post). Forget, if it is humanly possible, which it isn’t, how great these 28 are. Forget that everybody from Lennon, to Lowe to Wilson, have rewritten his songs. Forget that everybody in the world of rock and roll learnt rock and roll from these songs, and just look how he carved himself some of the world.

But look what was really happening with him. Look at Chuck Berry this way: his middle class roots didn’t save him from either Jim Crowism or early marriage or jail and only his smarts saved Chuck from Leonard Chess and Muddy Waters future. He looked about him and chuck saw a white world who would steal his money and jail him as soon as look at him so reacted to this pressure by reinventing himself from bluesman to rock and roller and with a flair for the vernacular never equaled (not even by Dylan) he wrote the lexicon of rock and roll and also the lexicon of a new demographic, teenagers.

While it might seem at first sight to be asinine to equate the generation gap with the civil rights movement (though Berry’s peak were before either became part of the pop landscape, essentially he did that. With no choice in the matter at all, Berry used metaphor. Nobody is claiming the treatment of teenagers was similar to the treatment of blacks in late 1950s America, but it still comes, especially for girls, from a similar place of power and infantilism. The black person was made to go (literally) to the back of the bus.

Berry, who claimed himself “I ain’t never been in Dutch” (meaning I’ve never been in trouble – a relic from the 17th century fights between the Dutch and the English by the way), in fact,  Berry has spent way too much of his life in Dutch.

So Berry himself was not a teenager at all (mid 30s at the time of “Maybelline”)  and was in fact a Black middle class man being railroaded in the usual fucked up fashion for the time.

A long way back to the Great 28, a double album Greatest Hits of astounding power and a template for modern pop music still used today. If you can’t hear “Almost grown” in “Titus Andronicus”, you aren’t listening hard enough.

Berry writes three songs here:

1. Songs about girls.

2. Dance songs

3. Teen protest songs.

4. Car songs.

Sometimes all at once, or dipping between one and the other “Maybelline “ is a  song about girls and a car song, “Sweet Little Sixteen” is a song about girls, a dance son and a teen protest song. Berry mixes and matches his ideas and his idioms, he doesn’t have the deep seated BLACKNESS of James Brown, and his songs are not quite white rock either. But if there is no country music here, the telling of a story is a variant on country or even folk tall tales. And the melodies are solid in a country not a blues way, this despite Berry cutting his chops on rock.

Written to be sung and played by Berry (all the weird keys), they were covered and rewritten by everyone and they just don’t appear from time to time but they appear all the time: if Kanye West owes Lou Reed a debt on Yeezus, what does Lou Reed owe Chuck Berry? Or Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles  and the Stones for that matter. He echoes down the years and decades with cessation.  When you listen to the great rockers, you listen to Berry. When you listen to the Clash’s “White riot”, a band that dumped r&b for reggae, you are listening to Chuck Berry language.

In 2013, The Great 28 loses nothing at all in the retelling. At all. If you don’t dig this forget about it, rock music isn’t for you. Listen to the botheration of “Come On”  or “No Particular Place To Go” the boredom of being made a child when everything about you shouts adult: shots I’M A Man.

“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is to the Civil Rights Movement exactly what “Roll Over Beethoven” was to 1950s pop music.  The brown eyed man on the witness stand  for “Unemployment” has the judges wife snarl at the District Attorney “if you want your job you better free that brown eyed man”. In moment after moment, line after line, black excellence has never been more excellent. In a world where justice for black people was nonexistent, Berry managed to move the black man, himself, not just on the same level but above the white world. I think that black excellence schtick is a drag in 2013, but in 1956 he is a clarion call and a masterpiece and so ambiguous Buddy Holly covered it. It is the Rock and roll Gospel.

 The Great 28 was released in 1982.


Maybellene 1955



“Thirty Days” 1955



You Can’t Catch Me 1956



Too Much Monkey Business 1956



Brown Eyed Handsome Man 1956



Roll Over Beethoven 1956



“Havana Moon” 1956



School Days 1957



Rock and Roll Music 1957



“Oh Baby Doll” 1957



“Reelin’ and Rockin'” 1958



Sweet Little Sixteen 1958



Johnny B. Goode 1958



Around and Around 1958



Carol 1958



“Beautiful Delilah” 1958



Memphis 1959



“Sweet Little Rock and Roller” 1958



Little Queenie 1959



Almost Grown 1958



Back in the U.S.A. 1959



Let It Rock 1960



“Bye Bye Johnny” 1960



I’m Talking About You 1961



Come On 1961



Nadine (Is It You?) 1964



No Particular Place to Go 1964



“I Want to Be Your Drive” (from Chuck Berry in London) 1965


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