1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, Music

Chuck Berry is On Top

This is one of those weird records from the 1950s where they hadn’t quite figured out how to sell music yet – it’s a compilation of previously released singles (released over the previous four years) now looked upon as a regular LP because these singles hadn’t been released on his earlier LPs. So, if you’re listening to this record and it feels a bit like a Greatest Hits record, well that’s not that far off.

Because of the nature of the record, it is exceptionally strong in terms of content compared to many ’50s LPs. There are, by my count, at least 7 tracks here (out of 12) that count among Berry’s very best songs (and would all be included on even a single-disc Greatest Hits album). The remaining material is hit and miss, with a couple tracks near the end seeming like complete filler.

But there’s an elephant in the room. The thing is, though Chuck Berry is one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, and though I prefer Berry’s version of rock and roll to that of many of his contemporary’s, his lyrics have dated horribly, and so have some of his performances.

The easier thing to deal with is what we might call the “casual racism” of his impressions. Like many performers of his day he would sometimes adopt a stereotypical voice when singing a different style, such as “Hey Pedro”. Everybody did it, but that doesn’t excuse him (or any of them). I’m glad we’re in a place now that such a performance would be basically unthinkable now. The good news is that the song is possibly the weakest here whether or not he’s doing an impression.

But then there are the lyrics about underaged girls. If you know anything about Berry, you know he had “issues” with women, some of whom were way too young to consent, and some of whom were not allowed to consent. If you know anything about Berry you also know that he was treated differently for these things – he went to jail for the incident with the minor – than contemporary white performers who did similar or worse things.

The world is a complicated place. It’s possible for flawed human beings to create incredible music. And it’s possible for us to appreciate the incredible music while acknowledging that aspects of that music are problematic, and that the performer’s behaviour is problematic. It’s possible for this to be a great record and for Chuck Berry to have done things and said things we disapprove of. Both things can be true at once.

9/10 for the record not the man

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