Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Why you shouldn't trust a Beatle (or pay money in advance for a Chuck Berry gig)



For reasons entirely professional, I have been listening to old vinyl LPs a lot recently, mostly by the marvellous (and tragic) Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher. Then, this morning, I decided to put on my old Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll! compilation.

Fresh as paint, they sound, all those familiar classics: Sweet Little Sixteen, Maybelline and the astonishing Brown-Eyed Handsome Man. It's hard to believe all this sophistication is so early - as old as me. And that's, well, old. And there's much of it. The man must, by a long way, have more classic songs to his name than anyone else.

Berry was verbally stunning: sly, witty and with a phenomenal, gleeful but mordant grasp of the details of 1950s consumerism; No Money Down isn't just the best car song ever written; it's the best song ever written about capitalism. But only when you listen on a proper hi-fi do you hear the secret of his melodic and rhythmic success: Johnnie Johnson's piano (though Johnson himself was replaced for some tracks by the oddly-named imitator Lafayette Leake. That's where those chords come from, though Johnson was never credited by the notoriously mean'n'nasty Berry. And he is unreliable, too. Beware Berry's propensity for not appearing as advertised. Or playing cursory gigs with pick-up bands. I mean this somebody who actually frightened Keith Richards.

Anyway, that's not my point. It was during Catch Me If You Can that the line "here come ol' flat top, he was groovin' up with me' came hurtling out of the speakers. Wait a minute, I thought, like the sad, anally-retentive person I am, that's from the Beatles' Come Together, first track on Abbey Road. Credited to Lennon-McCartney, but actually written and sung by Lennon.A couple of Google clicks later, and Wikipedia came up with this:

"Come Together" was the subject of a lawsuit brought against Lennon by Chuck Berry's music publisher, Morris Levy, because one line in "Come Together" closely resembled a line of Berry's You Can't Catch Me: (i.e. The Beatles' "Here come ol' flattop, he come groovin' up slowly" vs. Berry's "Here come up flattop, he was groovin' up with me"). After settling out of court, Lennon promised to record other songs owned by Levy, all of which were released on Lennon's 1975 album Rock 'n' Roll.

And all the attention fell, of course, on poor old George Harrison's appropriation of The Chiffons' He's So Fine for My Sweet Lord...

Those Beatles, eh? Never trusted them...But then, the sequel comes with poor old Johnnie Johnson's legal case against Berry for unpaid royalties on all the songs he co-wrote. Dismissed in 2000 because too much time had passed.

1 comment:

bigrab said...

You're quite right Tom, Chuck Berry can write and perform a song alright. However as for the best ever song about capitalism, how about Tom Waits Step Right Up?