Song 46: Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode” (1958)Posted: February 16, 2013
Just as Harry Belafonte’s “Jump In the Line” makes me think of Beetlejuice, “Johnny B. Goode” makes me think of Back to the Future. Which is, again, kind of a shame. Chuck Berry revolutionized music by incorporating rhythm-and-blues into pop music, and what comes to mind? A duck-walking Alex P. Keaton. Can I blame television? Let’s blame television.
Anyway, because I was obsessed with Back to the Future as a child, I was obsessed with “Johnny B. Goode.” You may recall that the film posited that Chuck Berry didn’t revolutionize music; Marty McFly was responsible because he played this song within earshot of Chuck’s cousin Marvin. Many have criticized this plot point as being straight-up racist, another one of writer/director Robert Zemeckis’s revisionist histories that places a white guy at the forefront of something he had nothing to do with. I think that’s a pretty fair criticism.
Reading over some materials before working on this post, I realized that I never thought about Chuck Berry’s connection to country music. I always thought of Berry as turning rhythm-and-blues, as well as straight-up blues, into pop music for the kids. But there’s plenty of country in there too, and once I learned that “Maybellene” was a conscious rewrite of country star Bob Wills’s “Ida Red”, it all fell into place.
As for my own Chuck Berry fascination, my Berry-loving dad gave me the ..Berry Is On Top album on cassette. (I also remember asking him what the “drivers” in the lyrics refer to, and him explaining that they’re part of a train.) Despite having terrible cover art and a grammatically questionable title, it’s a terrific collection of Berry’s singles up to its 1959 release. Not every hit is here—no “School Day” or “No Particular Place To Go”—but it’s something of a rock ‘n’ roll history lesson. Berry’s influence is so embedded in our culture that his music doesn’t immediately register as influential, but in many ways, this is where it all began.