Sunday, March 19, 2017
Chuck Berry and the absurdity of categories
Picture by Supersize Art.
Last night at the Aye Write festival in Glasgow I was taken to task for mentioning Carole King and Marvin Gaye in the context of a book that was supposed to be about "rock".
The words used to map music are sometimes good servants. They're invariably bad masters.
I'm old enough to have watched these terms move over the years, usually in response to somebody's needs to map out their own territory, a little place into which they can admit this but not that, a safe space in which they don't have to trust their ears and their emotional responses.
I was with a bunch of crime writers in the bar at the Malmaison later in the evening when we heard the news that Chuck Berry had died.
Chuck got his first hit with "Maybelline" by adapting a hillbilly song "Ida Red". That's a perfect example of how music ebbs and flows across boundaries, making a mockery of categories.
Chuck started writing songs about rock and roll because the kids liked them.
I was one of those kids who got into Chuck because the Beatles and Rolling Stones did his songs. This was 1963, when nobody talked about rock and roll. The Beatles were known as a pop group, when they weren't being a beat group. The Rolling Stones called themselves an R&B band.
At the time these bands were making his songs famous for a new generation, Chuck was in prison. He came out to find his songs were more famous than when he went in. Some of my favourite Chuck Berry records were made immediately after he came out. The English hipster DJ Guy Stevens had the idea of putting them out in the UK on the Pye R&B label, thus making them acceptable to music snobs.
The best of them is "You Never Can Tell", which I always say is the best record ever made. It's also, thanks to the Pye R&B label, one of the prettier records ever made. What category it belongs in I am not qualified to say.