Sunday, May 29, 2011

Floats Like a Butterfly, Rings Like a Bell

I was out jogging this morning with my i-pod and heard, in quick succession, a very nice version of a Chuck Berry song by his friend Billy Peek, and then "Too Much Monkey Business" by the man himself.  Peek's version (I'm afraid that I forget which song it was) was well done with a solid sort of rock/country feel, and fitting enough for a man who grew up singing country songs in a honky tonk and then found his hero Chuck.  Chuck Berry himself adapted over time.  Compare the heavy sound of the studio songs from the Chuck Berry London Sessions or the laid back sound of the Elephant's Memory songs from Bio with the skipping, ringing, swinging, light sound of the original "Too Much Monkey Business."  Chuck Berry songs swing.  Rhythmically they have more in common with Charlie Parker than much of the rock and roll that followed.  (I often think rock and roll lost the back beat.)  In "Too Much Monkey Business" (and most of the earliest songs) there's none of the chugga-chugga boogie rhythm guitar that later became his trademark.  In "Too Much Monkey Business" he's strumming.  The chords are simple, but the sound is light and almost jazzy. When he plays lead it literally rings (the opening notes sound like a hand bell the nuns at our school would ring to end recess) and his solo skips lightly like a rock across water.  I saw a kid on "So You Think You Can Dance" doing a sort of hip hop dance from Oakland California.  One of the elements of the style is to glide across rough ground like a dancer on ice.  That's the sound of Chuck Berry.  Kids could dance then.  They could twirl their partners.  Chuck himself could do impossible things while playing-- the duck walk and the scoot.  It was all impossibly light, effortless, rhythmic, like Muhammed Ali skipping backward and sideways while pummeling the competition, making it look easy.  And as with Ali, there was a sting included.  The fed up cat at the filling station.  The 29 or 30 year old rock and roller telling Tchaikovsky the news.  "You can't catch me," he said.  And he knew it was true.

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