Friday, December 17, 2010
Golden Decade, Volumes 2 and 3
But then came Volumes 2 and 3. As I recall, they came one right after the other, sometime after the massive success of “The Chuck Berry London Sessions,” introducing me to a whole new set of great Chuck Berry records. both have a bit of roughness to them, at least in parts-- stray guitar notes twanging insistently on a couple of songs-- but they have a freshness, too, like live recordings.
Volume 2 was sort of the “Rolling Stones’” collection, with “Carol” and “Little Queenie.” Or maybe “The Christmas Collection,” with “Run Rudolph Run” and “Merry Christmas Baby.” This collection was somehow rougher edged Chuck Berry, with more reverb and a bit less polish. Except for a couple songs. “You Never Can Tell” and “No Money Down” were as intricate and poetic as anything on the first volume, and should have been included there for sure, along with “Carol.” But the others were somehow, to me, wilder and rougher. “Let it Rock” is a grown up work song.
In The Heat Of The Day Down In Mobile,Alabama
Working on the railroad with the steel driving hammer
Gotta make some money to buy some brand new shoes
Tryin' to find somebody to take away these blues
She don't love me, hear ‘em singing in the sun
Payday's coming and my work is all done
It’s a strange song, but seems to me to be a favorite of Chuck Berry, who plays it live a lot. What’s strange is the story—a train comes and they have to scatter.
Everybody's scrambling, running around
Picking up their money, tearing the teepee down
Foreman wants to panic, 'bout to go insane
Trying to get the workers out the way of the train
Engineer blows the whistle loud and long
Can't stop the train, gotta let it roll on
This isn’t "Johhny B. Goode." No one’s going to make a motion picture. No one's name's gonna be in lights. Their names are gonna be on a tombstone if they don't hurry. It’s a song about work, motion and an unstoppable force.
Another wild one is "Promised Land"—same sort of motion, but this time across the continent by bus, train and plane to California. The song starts with an abbreviation of the Carl Hogan intro and just steamrolls—the only break being a T-bone stake a la carte(y) up in the airplane. (AT least two other Chuck Berry songs look down from airplanes—“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Oh Louisiana” are a couple I can think of.) I think of “Promised Land” as one of Chuck Berry’s veiled civil rights numbers, with its mention of bus breakdowns in Alabama, and a quick shot through Mississippi. Not that Houston was probably a whole lot safer for the poor boy if he hadn’t had friends there.
“Little Queenie” was always a favorite. It’s the shy Chuck Berry hero, mostly watching and thinking.
There she is again standing over by the record machine
Looking like a model on the cover of a magazine
She’s too cute to be a minute over seventeen
I don’t know who Chuck Berry saw when he wrote it, or who Mick Jagger saw when he sang it, but I know who I saw when I heard it, and who I still see about 35 years later, and she was cuter than sin itself. It’s a great song, funny, with Chuck Berry’s incredible comic timing. “Meanwhile, I was stilllllll thinking…” (I was a kid who thought wayyyy to much at age 17.)
If I had been choosing, some of these songs would have made it onto volume one. I’d have relegated “Too Pooped to Pop” and “Anthony Boy” to later volumes and swapped in “No Money Down” and “You Never Can Tell.” And I would have squeezed in “Carol” somehow or another. But that’s okay. When you’re as good as our man, there’s always something more out there—and it was a treat to be introduced to it back in 1973 or thereabouts.
I used to laugh at “Together We Will Always Be” which sounded tentative and—well—bad. But I slowed down my turntable and learned to like it better. See my (perhaps whacky) analysis here.
And then comes Volume 3—a whole new kettle of fish, funky, with a little bit more blues. My favorites on Volume 3 were songs Berry didn’t even write— the sentimental “Time Was,” a song originally recorded by Jimmy Dorsey, and the wonderful “House of Blue Lights.”
Time was when we had fun
On the school yard swings
When we exchanged graduation rings
One lovely yesterday.
Time was when we wrote
Love letters in the sand
Or lingered over our "coffee and";
Dreaming the time away.
It is no surprise that Chuck Berry thought a song about school yard swings and graduation rings was a perfect fit. I wouldn’t be surprised if this song didn’t give him ideas. He probably knew it in high school, and it fits his oft repeated assertion that his songs were written on purpose to appeal to a large, crossover audience. (He was, I guess, one of the original Michael Jacksons. When Michael died everyone was repeating the media mantra that he was the “first” crossover artist. They were forgetting single namers like Chuck, Louis, Nat, Ray, B.B., Otis, Fats, Jimi, Sly and probably a dozen others who did it a long long time ago. Oh yeah—how about groups like The Temptations, The OJays, The Supremes. Lordy! Such revisionism!)
I liked the cover art of Volume 3, which showed Chuck as a filling station sign, and hearkened back to one of my favorite Chuck Berry lines ("dollar gas!"). Volume 2 showed hm reflected in a Coke glass and didn't quite do it for me-- except that all that expensive cover art showed a committment from Chess to sell the guy. But the inside of Volume 2 had a great discography that I checked off with my ballpoint pen, and a blue-tinted photo of the smiling Chuck Berry that I wanted to adopt me (when I was 16 years old!). Volume 3 has lots of information about the musicians and recording dates—something no one bothered with on Volume 1.
Of course, all of these are somewhat irrelevant now, with the two four disk sets that contain every recording from Chess on them. But these three disks were sure important to me at the time.