Friday, December 4, 2009

Much Too Much Too Much Monkey Business For Me! (Dietmar's Gift)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about “Too Much Monkey Business.” And a couple of months ago I mentioned the album I saw on the internet featuring 30 versions of the song. So you can imagine my happiness the other day when I opened a brown paper package from Essen, Germany and found that a person I’d never met had SENT ME THE ALBUM! (And more! More about that later.)

And not just any person. The person who took the trouble to send me a gift was Chuck Berry scholar and collector Dietmar Rudolph, whose WEBSITE, "The Collector’s Guide To The Music Of Chuck Berry," can be found in the “Particular Places To Go” section of this site. Go there. Dietmar is one of those people (Morton Reff, Fred Rothwell, etc.) who know more about the recordings of Chuck Berry than most of us know about our own noses.

So, finally and publicly: Thank you Dietmar! (I wish I had something to repay you with—but my own Chuck Berry collection consists of a bunch of tattered and worn records I picked up between 1970 and 1975, with a bunch of boxed sets thrown in later. I did nothing to preserve any of it—I just played them into the ground. But I may think of something!)

Anyway, the CD has been in my car for a few days, and whenever I’m running errands I listen to as many versions of the song as I can until I have to come up for air.  I've heard them all at least once now.  I can't say I know them all.

But let me make this one observation: it’s a measure of your musical greatness when one of your lesser known songs is recorded at least 29 times.

And let me make one other observation: your musical greatness is pretty grand indeed when not one of those versions matches yours.

Lots of times covers beat the original—or at least renew it in some important way. If you have heard Otis Redding sing “The Tennessee Waltz” you know what I mean. Or "Last Train To Clarksville" (speaking of Monkies' business) by Cassandra Wilson.  Usually there’s no reason to record a cover unless you think you can spin it in a way that is new and different.

But here, after listening to them all, no one could deny it: there are a lot of great versions here, but the best, by far, is Chuck Berry’s original, recorded at his third session along with “Roll Over Beethoven.” It’s a song that sounds fresh every time, with gritty vocals and real world complaints that don’t pander to the teenage audience Chuck Berry was consciously trying to develop. The guitar solos are great. (You can tell the middle one was recorded the same day as “Roll Over Beethoven.” It has many of the same elements.) And there’s a fire to the song that marks the beginning of rock and roll as rebel music. And it’s the only version on this disc where I don’t get tired of hearing the chorus.

But some of the others are pretty danged good. Surprisingly, the one guy who really makes it his own is Dion.  (Dion's website HERE.)  His version is a relaxed blues shuffle, mostly acoustic. If Chuck Berry is spittin’ mad singing his song, growling “ahhhhhh!” after the “dollar gas” line, Dion is more the slacker, asking “do they think I’m crazy?” It’s not that the stuff is making him angry—he’s just ignoring it all. And in the relaxed new rhythm he’s got time to throw in the extra pronouns and auxiliary verbs that Chuck’s mad lad doesn’t have time for. It’s a version with all the humor of the original, but a completely different feel. Bravo, Dion!

Freddy Cannon  also made the song his own—or maybe he made it Bo Diddley’s! He recorded it to a strong Bo Diddley beat, wild, energized guitar, and a vocal track that sounds like it’s coming through a Sputnik era transistor radio. It’s pure rock and roll, and worth hearing.

I also liked a version by Sleepy LeBeef, (LINK ), someone I’d never heard of but have now. Sleepy does it country style, with a deep baritone and backed by a zipping lead guitar. In fact, the country western versions of the song probably are among the best. Elvis did it country, and several people on this record seem to have modeled their versions on his. My favorite part of Elvis’s cover (also mostly acoustic) is his scatting of bass guitar sounds in the middle of the song. I get the feeling that the biggest chip on Chuck Berry’s shoulder is Elvis and his inflated reputation—but I hand it to Elvis for doing a number of good Chuck Berry covers during his career.  This is one of them.

All of the British Invaders seem to have recorded the song—The Beatles (ouch!), The Yardbirds (go Eric!), The Kinks and The Hollies. Nothing new there. And lots people are singing it here in their second language. (One of the more interesting country versions, by the way, is by Luca Olivieri, who sings in a thickly accented country baritone. I didn’t know they had country western in Italy, but I should have known better. After all, I once say a baseball diamond from an airplane there.  Here is Luca's website.)

And finally, there’s Anne Feeney, who wrote witty new lyrics into the original spirit of the song but kept the chorus. I like that, because ultimately Chuck Berry’s songs, despite his copyrights and legal rights, belong to the world. They are modern folk songs, people’s songs, and they are evolving and mutating the way those early blues did.  Anne is new for me, too-- which shows why it's a good thing to study Chuck Berry.  He'll take you everywhere.  From her website, Anne sounds like female Utah Phillips.  And since she got Utah's endorsement, I know she's good.  So here is her website.

And although I celebrate the people Like Dion and Feeney who’ve taken the song and made it their own in some way, I also understand why all these people recorded it even thought they couldn’t add to it.

They did that because it’s a great song. One of his many. One of his best.  And fun to play!


anne said...

cool article... and thanks for the kind words. you might also be interested to know that my friend Jack Irwin, who is a huge CB enthusiast, has a fabulous occasional band in Nashville called The Twenty Eights ... they play nothing but CB tunes using identical instruments - and apparently do it very very well... although I've never had the pleasure. Googling Jack Irwin Chuck Berry should take you to some fun places.

Peter said...

Folks-- Just received this comment by e-mail and wanted to post it. I used "bootleg" in the original post, but only with the meaning of an unauthorized live recording. Peter

Hi, Peter!

I just read what you wrote about the CDs. Sounds like you enjoyed them.

Since you are a lawyer, you might understand that I want to state clearly that neither of the CDs I sent was a bootleg or anything illegal.

The Monkey CD is a private collection of cover versions I did not collect by myself but received from a fellow collector. Copying such a collection for private, non-commercial use is legal in this country. In fact we pay a certain tax on every blank CD-R we purchase. This tax is then distributed to musicians, composers, authors and the like.

The live CD is again a private collection of segments from private audience tapes I received from other collectors. Again this is not a "bootleg" which implies that this collection would be available commercially.

I thought to enter a corresponding comment to your blog postings, but since my comments never make it to you or the blog, maybe you could set the record straight. I don't want t anyone to have the impression I would create or sell bootlegs, because I do not.

Kind regards

-- Dietmar Rudolph