Friday, May 1, 2009

Mean Old World

Chuck Berry's best selling album ever was a mixed bag called The Chuck Berry London Sessions-- a half studio, half live set that included, alas, "My Ding-a-Ling." (I listened and laughed a hundred times, but I sort of wish it never happened.) (Except that he made lots of money that he should have made for better songs!) But not far from that dumb, funny song was one of Chuck Berry's best recorded blues-- a rock hard version of Little Walter's "Mean Old World," with solid drumming and blistering guitar. I wish I could present it here. It opens with a standard Chuck Berry blues introduction, then some popping snare and thumping bass drum, and then a lot of deceptively simple (but nearly impossible) guitar fingering done around open E and A chords. It's masterful-- Chuck Berry at the height of his guitar virtuosity-- a period I think lasted (on records, anyway) from 1970's Back Home through the London Sessions in 1972.

It's also an example of Chuck Berry's improvisational magic-- he basically never plays the same song the same way twice. "Mean Old World" is one of Chuck Berry's standard blues cover songs. He plays it often. (Another is Elmore James' wonderful "It Hurts Me, Too.") But to get a feel for how little regard Chuck Berry has for sticking to the arrangement compare it to the youtube footage shown below.

The studio version of "Mean Old World" from the London Sessions was recorded in February 1972. This video taped version was recorded in London with a different band just a month and a half later. There are a few similarities in his vocals, but the guitar and the whole feel of the song are completely different.

Some people say Chuck Berry's been playing the same songs for 50 years. ("Someone opened up the closet door, and out stepped Johnny B. Goode.")

Well, if I wrote "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," "Maybellene," "Nadine" or any of a couple dozen of those songs, I'd be playing them for 50 years, too.

But Chuck Berry never acts like an oldies act. The songs are newly created, fresh, every single time he plays them. (When you're done with this, check out "Reelin' and Rockin'" up above. "Wing it, boys!")

No comments: