Monday, December 21, 2009

Back to Mercury

According to Chuck Berry’s notes he recorded 16 songs on this date 42 years ago—which seems ambitious but unlikely. Fred Rothwell pares it down to just two—“I Can’t Believe” and “Soul Rockin’”—and puts another eight of them (including one of my Mercury favorites, “Ma Dear Ma Dear”) a few months later at the same San Francisco studio.

I got all of these after the fact in a jumbled two-fer that included songs from Chuck Berry in Memphis and Live at the Fillmore. I bought it used in 1972 or 1973 and played it a few hundred times on an old turntable that I had fished out of a dumpster a few years before that. It occurred to me recently that this history—a used record played on record player that was somebody else’s garbage—might explain my oft-repeated claim that Mercury records sound “tinny.” (My only other Mercury records are another jumble that includes the Memphis songs and the remakes, and “Concerto in B. Goode.”) But I don’t think it’s strictly a matter of being misled by circumstance. I think they sound bad—like the guitars, drums, organ and vocals are being squeezed through a transistor radio, and the bass is pretty much gone.

Otherwise, they are better than I remember. Not, for the most part, up to the standards of the first couple of dozen songs, but, but pretty much up to the standards of the rest of the career, with real gems (and maybe a little coal) scattered through the semi-precious stuff.

What I tend to like best are the horns, which come up front on several of the Mercury records and give a new feel to the music. (Horns were always there, but you could hardly tell sometimes at Chess, where it was all bass, guitar and piano.)

I’ve said it before—they should put this Mercury stuff out again after a thorough re-engineering. Move those horns back just a tad. Pump of the bass. Turn down the treble. The stint at Mercury wouldn’t seem so wasteful then. There’s good music on these disks. You just can’t hear it.

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