I am writing my autobiography at the moment. Not for publication; the whole family are doing autobiographies for the archives. It’s in the form of question and answer, for example, ‘WHAT AGE WERE YOU WHEN YOU STARTED WORK?’ or ‘WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER OF THE PLACE YOU LIVED IN AS A CHILD?’
The questions are structured such that you can spin off into as much or as little information as you want to give. Sometimes half a page sometimes six pages, so you use the questions as building blocks to tell your life story.
The question last night was about music: ‘WHAT PIECE OF MUSIC WOULD YOU CHOOSE AS YOUR OWN FAVOURITE FROM WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG?’ Tall order, getting all my favourite stuff distilled down to one track but I have gone for SCHOOLDAY by Chuck Berry.
This is what Herb Bowie thinks:
Of all the early rockers, Chuck Berry was by far the most significant. He was really the first artist to exhibit many of the traits that would come to define the form.First, he featured his own electric guitar prominently in his music. He used the instrument to give his material a propulsive, driving rhythm underneath his vocals, and then used equally rhythmic lead parts to echo and accent his vocals. This presaged the overall importance of guitars and guitarists in the idiom.
Next, he exhibited the highest degree of musical integrity. Not only did he play guitar on all of his recordings, he wrote and sang all of his own material. The result is the most satisfying and consistent recorded canon of any of the early rockers. Others, like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, frequently relied on outside sources to supply their songs. The results were often uneven, with some of the best performances seeming to happen despite the supplied material, and not because of it.
Much like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry developed a unique songwriting style that prominently featured his own talents on guitar. Diddley developed a “shave and a haircut, two bits” rhythm that proved repetitive and inflexible over the long haul. Berry’s style, on the other hand, while still unmistakable, proved to be much more flexible, ultimately being used for dozens of songs, many of which have proven to be enduring rock classics.
As good as Berry’s music was, however, his lyrics proved just as ground-breaking. Sterling Morrison, member of the group Velvet Underground, said: ‘I liked Chuck Berry as a guitar player. But I liked him better as a lyricist. There was a lot more depth there, and the rhythm of his lyrics was fabulous.” (Fricke 1995) While the lyrics of other early rock songs continued pop traditions of endless variations on obvious romantic themes, or at best simply reflected current popular culture, Berry’s words transcended and commented on the youth culture he was addressing, usually in a comic way. “Memphis,” for example, starts as a traditional country song, sung by a man trying to connect with a girl he is missing. It is only in the last two lines of the song that he finally reveals that the girl he is trying to contact is his six year old daughter. Other songs dealt with the frustrations of being at the mercy of adults, as with “Too Much Monkey Business.” Berry often wrote about cars, and their role in youthful relationships, as in “Maybellene” and “No Particular Place to Go.”
Berry was one of the first, as well, to write about the music that he and others were creating. “Rock’n Roll Music” and “Roll Over, Beethoven” were two of his classics on this theme. He was also one of the first to observe the ability of the music to liberate those who played it from their humble beginnings, as in his triumphant “Johnny B. Goode.”
This combination of great music and words resulted in Chuck Berry easily becoming the rock songwriter who has most frequently had his songs covered by other rockers. Artists as divergent as Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and the Beach Boys all recorded Chuck Berry tunes, to name just a few.
And this is what Mr B thinks about the actual track:
Recorded and Written by Chuck BerryIn this song, Berry recounts the events of a typical day in school. The first verse gets the protagonist out of bed and into class, and manages to summarize the tension of working for good grades and competing with peers.
Up in the morning and out to school...
The teacher is teaching the Golden Rule.
American History and Practical Math:
You’re studying hard and hoping to pass,
Working your fingers right down to the bone —
And the guy behind you won’t leave you alone.
The second verse goes on to describe the rushed, crowded experience of the lunchroom, followed by more classes in the afternoon.
The third verse finally provides release, getting our hero out of school and down the street into the local juke joint.
The fourth verse describes the experience of listening and dancing to the rock and roll available from the juke box. The instrumental break that follows features Berry’s lead guitar, which serves to dramatize the scene just described.
The fifth and final verse explicitly describes the liberating power of rock music.
Hail, hail, rock and roll.
Deliver me from the days of old.
Long live rock and roll.
The beat of the drums, loud and bold.
Rock, rock, rock and roll.
The feeling is there, body and soul.
This songs works on a number of different levels, all complementary. First, it offers a slice of American teenage life in the late fifties. A wealth of detailed observation serves the song well in this regard — the sharp glimpses of the school day, the movement “down the halls and into the street,” the local juke joint where you could select your favourite tunes and dance to them with your best girl — all these and more are carefully depicted.
The song also works as a direct expression of rock’s grand theme of liberation. The first two verses describe the oppression of the school day: being subject to authority, working hard at the study of subjects that seem to have no intrinsic interest, the regimented schedule of classes with no more than a brief interlude for lunch, the competition with the jostling crowd at the school.
The next two verses offer release from all these constraints. “Soon as three o’clock rolls around, you finally lay your burden down.” The scene at the juke joint is joyful and energetic, in stark contrast to the school day. In particular, there is contrast between the rigid structure of the school routine, and the emotional freedom offered by the rock music and its associated environment: hearing something “really hot,” “feeling the music from head to toe,” and making romance with the one you love.
Finally, the song pays direct homage to rock music as a liberating force, saying that, by being “loud and bold,” the music can “deliver us from the days of old.” And what are we being liberated to? “The feeling is there, body and soul.”
So we can see that this brief rock song encapsulates the mission of rock music as a liberating force, freeing a generation from a value system that places structure, discipline and rote learning at the top of its pyramid, and releasing it to a new world dominated by passion and feeling. Put another way, the movement is from an experience based primarily on the “head,” to a “whole body” experience that includes the heart and soul, as well as the mind.
I’ve focused on the lyrics so far, but the music is just as good and entirely supports the themes conveyed by the words. Berry’s guitar opens the song, repeating the same chord as rapidly as a jack hammer, or the sound of an alarm going off. (Audio clip - 40K.) Then he delivers the first line with a swooping note sliding upwards, perfectly paralleling the movement of the words: “U-u-up in the morning and out to school.” (Audio clip - 60K.)
To fully appreciate the first line of the song, you need to compare it to the first line of the last verse: “Hail, hail, rock and roll.” Note that, for ostensibly the same melody, you have only five syllables in the last verse, and a total of nine in the first. This is not just a matter of convenience, or sloppiness: the crowded syllables in the first verse perfectly represent the hectic day at school, while the clean and graceful melody of the last verse represents the unfettered freedom offered by rock music.
Another way to appreciate the magnitude of Berry’s musical achievement in this song is to try to imagine Frank Sinatra singing its first line: “U-u-up in the morning and out to school.” The image simply doesn’t work. This is some indication that Berry really has delivered us from the days of old. There is an entirely new musical sensibility at work here. In place of the subtle melodies and lilting swing of the past generation, we have the staccato percussive attack of rock’n roll, expressed through Berry’s guitar as well as his vocals.
The structure of the song is worth mention as well. There is no repeated chorus at the end of each verse. Berry easily sacrifices this pop convention, seemingly in order to make room for a couple of extra verses. Neither is there a bridge. Both of these mechanisms usually are employed to add melodic novelty, in order to keep the listener’s interest, and to prevent the repetitive structure of the verses from becoming too monotonous. But Berry has no need of these devices here. First, the lyrics are simply too good, and the movement of the song too strong, for the effort to become boring. But more to the point musically, Berry subtly varies the melody from verse to verse, adding extra syllables at time, as already noted. He also uses his guitar to echo and comment on each vocal line, and the variations here are more than enough to hold the listener’s interest. In place of the bridge, he has an instrumental break, featuring his guitar. Given the theme of the song, Berry’s rocking guitar solo works perfectly, setting words to action and playing something “really hot,” letting the listener feel the music in addition to understanding the words. (Audio clip - 68K.)
It is impossible to overstate Berry’s achievement on this recording. In retrospect, many components of early rock and roll — and, indeed, of all popular art — seem to consist of historical happenstance and cultural artifacts. Musical style A meets style B and style C is produced. Fleeting hair and clothing styles are immortalized in song. The music seems to be a product of its time and place, rather than of an individual artist or group of particular individuals.
Imagine, for a moment, that we could separate this one recording from its cultural and economic surroundings. Take away Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and all the rest. Erase the fact of this song’s success on the Top Ten. Forget bobby sox, tight jeans and blue suede shoes. Even if all we had was this one recording of Chuck Berry’s, we would have ample evidence of art and artist. Look deeply at this one track, and you find an act of conscious creation expressing a unique artistic vision belonging to a particular individual.
As Berry said in another song: “Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news!”
I thought it was such an incisive analysis that I would put it up here. When I was a kid, me and Paul Leith would go along to the fair on a Saturday and pump our entire joint weekly pocket money into the jukebox, playing Schoolday over and over and over again. That is a measure of how great we thought it was then.
Still think it is unassailable.