Monthly Archives: March 2017

TMBP Extra: RIP Chuck Berry

From Forthin Road’s front room to their final fracture, the Beatles were openly ripping off Chuck Berry, imitating and flattering the late, great rock and roll patriarch with complete sincerity.

The bass line to “I Saw Her Standing There,” for instance, is the bass line to Berry’s “I’m Talking About You.”

Here’s Paul McCartney, getting the message through in Beat Instrumental, via Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now:

I played exactly the same notes as he did and it fitted our number perfectly. Even now, when I tell people about it, I find few of them believe me.

This you can believe: The massive influence of Charles Edward Anderson Berry — who left the material world on Saturday at 90 — on the Beatles is quite impossible to minimize. The Beatles’ growth pattern wouldn’t have been the same if there was no Buddy Holly or Little Richard, Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins, Lonnie Donegan or Slim Whitman, Jim McCartney or Julia Lennon. But the mark Chuck Berry left was unique.

You’ve heard this quote for sure, if not before this weekend, then certainly since:

If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it “Chuck Berry.”

That was John Lennon in 1972, spoken in Berry’s presence on the Mike Douglas show. John’s adoration took many forms in the more than decade prior to that.  Here’s Paul, as quoted in the Anthology book:

We’d go up to John’s bedroom with his little record player and listen to Chuck Berry records, trying to learn them.

And there was plenty of reason to learn them. The sheer velocity of the music was one. John explained the other in a 1972 interview, relayed in Anthology:

In the Fifties, when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible metre to the lyrics. When I hear rock, good rock, of the calibre of Chuck Berry, I just fall apart and I have no other interest in life. The world could be ending if rock ‘n’ roll is playing.

As the Quarrymen moved things up a trifle further in becoming Beatles, their love of Berry’s music was written all over their performances, with more than a dozen of his songs covered live over their touring career (you can find many of those songs as performed by the Beatles on their two Live at the BBC compilations, plus the Bootleg Recordings 1963 release).

“Memphis, Tennessee” made the cut as one of the songs for their failed audition for Decca in 1962.

Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven” — the Beatles blessed record buyers with those tracks on wax and also live from the stage.  The former was performed right up until their last live show in 1966, when it was the concert opener, while the latter made it as late as into their 1965 tours.

Two and a half years after that last concert — in the timeline we’re concerning ourselves with here on this blog, January 1969 — the Beatles turned to Berry’s music over and over again, if not for inspiration then at the least out of habit and comfort. For John, Paul and George, it meant filling moments amid the tension and tedium by jamming into a impromptu but completely sincere rehashes of “School Days” or “Sweet Little Sixteen” or “Thirty Days” or “I’m Talking About You” or .. or … or …

Even when they were fooling around with their own “Back in the U.S.S.R.” at Twickenham, it was just another reminder of Berry’s influence by way of “Back in the U.S.A.”

That the Beatles would play a song by Berry wasn’t in and of itself that telling, but their universal knowledge and comfort in playing his songs, said a lot.

Months later, in the Beatles’ waning days as a unit, Berry’s inspiration struck Lennon very directly in “Come Together.”  John dismissed the claim that “You Can’t Catch Me” — a song he said he hadn’t heard in a decade, yet one that John belted out a few lines from in a jam the final week of January 1969 — sparked the Abbey Road opener.

(Someday we’ll have to talk about how an early version of “Come Together” resembled the Kinks’ “Drivin'” off  Arthur. But that’s for another blog.)

Paul, who had no shame admitting he integrated Berry’s work into his own, felt pretty certain John did the same. As quoted in Anthology:

John came in with an up-tempo song that sounded exactly like Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me,’ even down to the ‘flat-top’ lyric. I said, ‘Lets slow it down with a swampy bass-sand-drums vibe.’ I came up with a bass line and it flowed from there. Great record.”

He’s right, it is a great record.

Turns out, they could catch John, and as part of an eventual settlement, John had a chance to re-make “You Can’t Catch Me” (as well as a few other songs owned by the prosecution) for his 1975 Rock ‘N’ Roll LP (another great record).

John’s love of that original era of rock and roll, which made him want to do it himself, gave his life and career meaning and shone on that record, and really whenever he had the opportunity to play it. The genuine glee felt by John, when he got to share the stage with Berry on the Mike Douglas Show in 1972 is palpable. If you haven’t watched it before, you should, both the performances as well as the interview segment.

John recalled that day during an interview/DJ session with Dennis Elsas on WNEW, September 24, 1974:

Because although I was there with Chuck Berry, and I’d been sitting backstage with him, I met him a few times over the years, I still have that feeling, that when I was sixteen, those were the records I listened to [in] what we called “milk bars” in England, with a jukebox. And I could never quite see him as a human ’cause there was one of my idols, actually talking to me. … It’s sort of an effort to see, “Oh, yeah, it’s a human, but it is Chuck Berry, isn’t it?”

Like John Lennon, Chuck Berry was indeed human and thus mortal, and the master was able to enjoy 50 more years on this earth than his apprentice.   The Beatles were as innovative as any act as popular music has seen, but with Berry’s genius baked into the individual members’ DNA from youth, the group didn’t have to start from scratch. It wasn’t enough that the Beatles had a backbeat they couldn’t lose,  the lyrics mattered too.

“Ever since I was in my teens I was acquainted with the works of Chuck Berry, whom I consider one of the original rock and roll poets,” John Lennon said after the Beatles’ breakup.

Said in a deposition.

Said in a deposition in which he was being sued for ripping off Berry.

But this spoke more of the litigious universe that enveloped The Beatles in the early ‘70s than anything else — Berry didn’t sue John over lyrics in “Come Together,” it was the people who owned the rights to “You Can’t Catch Me.” And the solution was simple: just play some Chuck Berry music on another record.

Paul was never litigated for ripping off Berry, but he still went ahead and covered him decades later in 1999, cutting “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” for the most excellent Run Devil Run.

On Berry’s death, Paul (and/or his people) tweeted his condolences, and it was his turn to rip off John.

Or maybe he didn’t rip off John at all. Berry was a poet, and Paul just didn’t have any better word to describe him.

Berry’s music will live on through his own recordings and as a direct line through the Beatles, too. And as long as we’ve got a dime, the music will never stop.

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Jan. 8: Let it be hers

Mid-afternoon on January 8, 1969, at Twickenham Film Studios, Paul McCartney sat at a piano and microphone and ran though “Let It Be.” Nine months later, and 3,500 miles to the west of London, the Queen of Soul was doing the very same thing.

By that point — October 1969 — Abbey Road was in stores while “Let It Be,” along with the rest of the songs slated for the Get Back LP that would ultimately evolve into the Let It Be LP, remained on the shelf. Aretha Franklin had a copy of the unreleased track, though, and we know she had been promised that song for a long time, going back at least as far as the start of the new year. But she wasn’t getting an exclusive.

Let’s go back to Twickenham, January 8, 1969:

George:  You going to give it to Aretha Franklin?
Paul:  I’m going to do it, and give it to her.

Specifically, Paul planned to have the Beatles cut a “rough demo from the first rehearsal” once the song was complete and would “try to get her to do it as a single.” But “Let It Be” was not quite complete yet on this, the fifth day of the sessions. The melody is locked down, but Paul only presented the first verse and chorus to this point.

Weight and see: Aretha Franklin does her thing, while Duane Allman (right) does his on a cover of The Band’s “The Weight” on January 9, 1969.

Still, he knew what he had, and its potential as a cover. “It would be great for Aretha Franklin, that number,” Paul said before singing a line in an absolutely terrible imitation of her. (For the record, that same January 8, 1969, Aretha was recording her version of “The Weight” by The Band, whose influence weighed heavily on the Beatles these sessions.)

Ringo provided upbeat drum accompaniment —  exactly as laid out by Paul, with a faster tempo than would ultimately surface on the record, and with several awkwardly inserted fills.

Tongue firmly in cheek, John soon offered a lyrical tweak and a poke at Paul’s pseudo-religious lyric, suggesting “Brother Malcolm” as a nod to the group’s do-it-all assistant. (Paul will deliver that line in a few future takes.)

The group would return to the day’s on-again, off-again writing-cum-rehearsal session for “I Me Mine” followed by “The Long and Winding Road,” which like “Let It Be” was similarly unfinished lyrically and being given its first introduction on the tapes to the full band this afternoon.

These repeated truncated takes of “The Long and Winding Road” — which lasted nearly a half hour, split into two separate stagings late in the day — mainly served, as far as the Nagra reels were concerned, as background music for an increasingly captivating conversation about the eventual live show. More about that in the next post.

“The Long and Winding Road” caught George’s fancy, and he called the song “lovely.” Before the end of the day, Paul taught George the song’s chords. Likewise, Paul sketched out how to play “Let It Be,” which was played for about 10 minutes at the very end of the day’s musical portion, and George and Ringo were full participants.  The song was never to be played live in front of an audience by the Beatles, but at this point it was clearly in line for the upcoming concert, and Paul sought out additional accompaniment come showtime.

“It’s sort of gonna do like a hymn. That’s why I was thinking we could get audience participation on that,” he told George.

af-lib

The sleeve for the French release of Aretha’s version of “Let It Be.”

The January 8 session was really the formal coming-out party for “Let It Be,” marking first time Paul played it to the rest of the band these sessions (on tape, at least, but it seems clear if it had been played prior, it wasn’t as extensive).

Like “Yesterday,” the song was famously sourced from a dream, but this time around it was the lyrics that were nocturnally inspired.

Here’s Paul, as quoted in Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now:

In the dream she said, “It’ll be all right.” I’m not sure if she used the words “Let it be” but that was the gist of her advice, it was “Don’t worry too much, it will turn out okay.”  It was such a sweet dream I woke up thinking, Oh, it was really great to visit with her again. I felt very blessed to have that dream. So that got me writing the song “Let It Be.” I literally started off “Mother Mary,” which was her name, “When I find myself in times of trouble,” which I certainly found myself in.

But to be clear, the trouble wasn’t dated to January 1969. Rather, like “The Long and Winding Road,” “Let It Be” materialized in 1968 amid the lengthy and tumultuous White Album sessions. The two gospel-flavored songs had another link, and that was they were written with other people in mind from the start, too: “The Long and Winding Road” was influenced by Ray Charles.

As for Ray’s future Blues Brother co-star, Aretha never did end up releasing “Let It Be” as a single in the U.S. or U.K., but it was among the standout tracks (her covers of “Elanor Rigby” and “The Weight” were among others) on her This Girl is in Love With You LP, which was released January 15, 1970 — two months before the Beatles’own version came out as a single, and 11 days after the last Beatles recording session.

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