Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The greatest picture ever painted of the greatest record ever made

This giant painting of Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" is the work of Morgan Howell. Morgan paints 45s. Actually, he does a bit more than that. He paints them on canvases tweaked and treated to reproduce all the creases, dedications, cigarette burns and abstruse love marks a black vinyl seven-inch picks up in the course of the kind of full life much-loved records tended to live. He sculpts them to look as three-dimensional as the original one, which might have been picked up for pocket money decades before and is now beyond price.

The original paintings are immense and sit on the office walls of moguls or above the fireplaces of successful entertainers. He's just finished Blondie's "Heart Of Glass" for Chrysalis Records founder Chris Wright. Al Murray has a reproduction of the original Charisma single of "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" by Genesis on his wall. A couple of Morgan's paintings of classic singles have gone for sums in the region of twenty thousand pounds at charity auctions. His operation is called Super Size Art and in August he's exhibiting his work at Snap Galleries in Piccadilly.

It's a labour of love which he'd like to make a living from. "When you take a single and make it huge you do justice to its significance," he says. He never does any record twice. His next big task in this labour of love is "She Loves You", which he intends to begin on the 50th anniversary of its release.

I don't know "You Never Can Tell" as other men know it. I'm the only person in the world who hasn't seen the scene in Pulp Fiction in which it features. I don't want to either. Films colonise your imagination and ever since I was 14 my head has been so content with the pictures the record evokes that I don't want anything to get in the way of the coolerator filled with TV dinners and ginger ale or the souped-up Jitney, the cherry red 53. And what space there is left is taken up by that red and yellow Pye International R&B series label, surely the most beautiful of record labels. We forget this. Before pop was on TV the label was the visual focus of the pop experience. There was just that perfect circle revolving its way into your heart. That's why nobody cares about labels anymore. Because records don't have them anymore.

You really love the records you really love because they appeal to your prejudices. I love "You Never Can Tell" because it doesn't fit into any of the established orthodoxies of pop. Chuck Berry wrote plenty of great songs. This was his greatest record. A record captures what happens on a particular day when a set of musicians gather round a certain song. If they'd reconvened the following day it wouldn't have been the same. Records are accidents which take place in air. "You Never Can Tell" is a sublime example.

It doesn't belong to a movement. It was separated from Berry's golden period by a jail term. It doesn't anticipate anything that came next. It's probably not even his in the way the writing credit claims. Although nobody else could have come up with the lyric, which is so well-chiselled it sings itself, the pianist Johnnie Johnson, whose band Berry had hijacked back in St Louis, probably came up with the tune. Certainly it's Johnson's honky-tonk piano that makes this also Berry's poppiest record.

Finally it belongs in that select bunch of records celebrating young marriage, which is amazing when you consider it was the work of such a misanthrope. "C'est la vie, say the old folks. It goes to show you never can tell." And you never can. When I did a radio programme I would play it for anyone who was getting married. My daughter had it played at her wedding last year. A couple of seconds of that pealing guitar figure at the beginning and no matter how old you were, for the next two minutes and thirty seconds you were gone, solid gone.

Chuck Berry – You Never Can Tell


  1. I've got one of these too - Ziggy Stardust in my case. Also the greatest record ever made!

  2. While there are several contenders for Berry's greatest record (I hold 'Nadine' in high esteem), for me this is the greatest for the simple fact that Chuck - THE guitar player - lets Johnnie Johnson tell the story. That must have been a decision to make.

    You *should* see the Pulp Fiction sequence - it will change not one frame of the vision in your head. Tarantino is obviously a fan of the song and he does it justice.

  3. "A record captures what happens on a particular day when a set of musicians gather round a certain song."

    Wonderful. Just a wonderful description. It's the *humanity* deep in the grooves that makes us love the records we love so much.

  4. "A record captures what happens on a particular day when a set of musicians gather round a certain song."

    Wonderful. Just a wonderful description. It's the *humanity* deep in the grooves that makes us love the records we love so much.

  5. Thank you, David, for this wonderful post. Only one thing to add about You Never Can Tell. Its capacity to walk the line between irony and joy makes it favourite or appropriate for more than the marrying young. My son remembers attending the funeral of a university lecturer friend of his who had died suddenly. The song was played late in the service and provoked instant tears and dancing among the congregation. For my part, when my wife and I married two years ago (me 64, she ten years younger), we walked out from the 18th century Unitarian Chapel to Chuck, the coolerator and the seven hundred little records, all rock, rhythm and jazz. It was a great and joyful moment. Thanks again for this brilliant piece.

  6. Top bit of writing that, David.