We couldn’t devote time to music before the British Invasion without including Chuck Berry, a one-man invasion all on his own:
This amped-up version of “Johnny B. Goode” from The Tami Show is abbreviated and from at least five or six years after the record came out in 1958, and it’s in a higher key than the studio version, but I’m throwing it in because the energy is infectious and the dancers are cute in their entirely irrelevant surfer gear. Also it’s kind of amusing how the couple on the left, with the girl in the bikini, vanishes after the opening shot and is replaced by a blonde whose enthusiasm is, one might say, rather less noticeable.
Here’s the official version:
That is one of rock’s all-time great guitar intros, isn’t it? It holds the promise of great things to come, and the song of course delivers (we could do a whole category about disappointing songs following great intros, and no doubt will someday.) “Johnny B. Goode” is one of relatively few early rock classics that’s actually about something. Indeed, it may be the very first song about the drive to become a rock star, since a guitar god is what Johnny is born to be:
He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track
Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade
Strummin’ with the rhythm that the drivers made
People passing by, they would stop and say,
“Oh, my, but that little country boy can play.”
Even his mom knows it:
His mother told him, ‘Someday you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big old band.
Many people comin’ from miles around,
To hear you play your music when the sun go down,
Maybe someday your name will be in lights,
Saying, ‘Johnny B. Goode Tonight’”
Rock from its earliest days (and 1958 is pretty close to its earliest days) has sold itself as a force of nature, and Chuck Berry was perhaps the biggest promoter of that point of view. As he demanded in “School Days”: “Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll/Deliver us from the days of old.” (He also of course told us all about “Rock and Roll Music.”)
Also in 1958, Danny & The Juniors informed us that Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here to Stay”, and rock has been pretty much paying tribute to itself ever since. There’s a straight line from these early records to Roger Daltrey shouting “Long Live Rock” (and as an aside, is there any other band on earth that could’ve gotten away with that “Rock is dead/Long live rock” business? You’d laugh at anyone else, but the Who pull it off), Joan Jett insisting “I Love Rock and Roll,” Bob Seger declaring that “Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets,” and Mick Jagger (who more qualified?) shouting “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It).”
That arrogance, braggadocio, self-satisfaction would be sort of obnoxious in most other contexts, but it’s always been just fun in rock, since nine times out of 10 they’re at least partly kidding (this is the 10th time), and anyway, rock always seems within reach in a way that makes fans part of the boast.
That was new in even popular music; non-musicians didn’t listen to, say, Scott Joplin or Louis Armstrong or Dixieland bands and tell themselves, “I could do that.” But they heard Elvis and Chuck Berry and even Bill Haley and said, “You know, if I got a guitar…” Even as rock fans and headbangers adore their idols, there’s always just a little bit of “That could be me up there” in the mix. That’s why it’s lasted all these many decades, surviving one disco/hair metal/numetal/hip-hop fad after another. Just like Chuck knew it would.