By Caragh Medlicott
Nationwide tributes have been made to Chuck Berry after he passed away on the 18th of March at 90 years old. The music legend was there for the inception of rock n’ roll and is renowned not just for his classic sound but the influence he had on the Beatles, Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones, among many others. The fifties is often marked out as the first decade to see a distinct cultural generational tension between parents and their children. The idea of the independent and rebellious “teenager” becoming popularised around this time. If ‘Rebel without a Cause’ and ‘the Catcher in the Rye’ are exemplary of some of the first instances of rogue American teens in cinema and literature, then Chuck Berry was the soundtrack to this ideology. When we look back at some of Berry’s biggest hits we see this sense of youth and vibrancy commemorated in his music.
Among those paying tribute to Chuck was former Beatle Paul McCartney who praised Berry as “one of rock & roll’s greatest poets”. Set to the backdrop of Berry’s mash up of blues and western tones -familiar to us now as a classic rock & roll style- his lyrics roll off beautifully as he relays to us some teenage folk-esque tales. I don’t know of many people who don’t love the classic ‘Back to the Future’ scene where Marty McFly performs ‘Johnny B. Goode’ to a group of jiving high school students. Even today (in the right establishment) the guitar intro to ‘Johnny B. Goode’ alone can send eighteen year olds running for the dance floor as eagerly as it did on its initial release. Everyone recollecting just in time to join Berry in singing “Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans…”
Berry’s lyrics might not have been highly politically charged –though an original version of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ did touch upon racial issues- he was able to use his talent to continually turn out popular music in a time when many black musicians work was being stolen and played by successful white artists instead. Besides, we only have to look at recent political events to see that tension between generations is still alive and kicking; with everything from Brexit to Trump. Perhaps our contemporary idea of “teenagerdom” is different now to what it was in Chuck Berry’s day but I think we can certainly all appreciate what Berry did in creating his soundtrack for America’s youth.
Really what this whole piece has been about is honouring Mr. Berry for being instrumental in innovating rock & roll. In many ways the new sound he created became the foundation of modern music and its subsequent evolution. For all the wonderful new artists we have today we can look back on Berry as a pioneer for creativity and the performance of live music. Chuck Berry, you’ll be greatly missed, but your sound and influence will live on for generations.