Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Still fresh after all these years

I've been listening over the last couple of days to a fairly comprehensive Chuck Berry collection (available on Spotify), after his death brought his work back to mind. While I have listened to the originals before, it's probably been decades since I've listened to more than a couple at a time.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been, but I was startled by how consistently good the songs are (as well as the playing). Even though Berry was notorious for recycling riffs and tunes, he gives it a fresh twist each time (at least in the singles), through both the lyrics and his guitar work. The vignettes and (in effect) short stories that the songs embody are of course great - sometimes autobiographical, but at other times evidently channeling his audience rather than his own experiences, yet generally with a distinctive point of view that's often rooted in comic futility and frustration. Even the Beatles' and Stones' versions of his songs, while usually good (although the early Stones were a bit rudimentary), generally don't capture the self-confident wit.

Berry was almost thirty by the time he broke through, which adds to the surprise of his so brilliantly capturing the concerns of the white teenage audience that made him a star.  A big part of the breakthrough was his combining blues and country to create a new style - great artistic advances often involve combining things that were already there - but the articulate humor and point of view were crucial as well.

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