In 1977, NASA launched the interstellar ships Voyager 1 and 2. Each carried a disc programmed with images, languages, natural sounds, and twenty-two musical selections, from Javanese gamelan to the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Not long after, Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” led with the news that radio telescopes around the world had picked up the first authenticated communication from outer space: “Send more Chuck Berry.”
More Chuck Berry would have done the job. Issued by Chess Records just after Berry was released from federal prison, where he had served twenty-one months on a Mann Act conviction, the LP was a collection of half-remembered tunes stretching from “Maybellene,” cut at Berry’s first session in 1955, to 1961’s “Come On” which two years later would become the Rolling Stones’ first single. For that matter, the album was a reissue: the obscure 1962 Chuck Berry Twist with a new cover.
It cranks up with a car chase and never stops. Without Berry’s guitar playing, his songwriting and the sly, knowing slide of his voice, hinting at secrets deep inside the songs, “rock & roll” might never have been more than words; the fourteen numbers on More Chuck Berry seem, as you listen, to define the thing itself.The instrumental introduction to “Johnny B. Goode”—with the traps closing hard as Berry breaks his guitar line out of its first phrase—remains the most inspired single passage in postwar pop music. A country boy is dreaming of his name in lights—“More or less myself,” Berry said in his autobiography, then telling one of the songs secrets out loud: “I feel safe in stating that no white person can conceive the feeling of obtaining Caucasian respect in the wake of a world of dark denial, simply because it is impossible to view the dark side when faced with brilliance.”
Everything else is like a star shooting out of that galaxy. “School Days” is light in its words, unyielding in its rhythm. “Back in the USA” explodes with the thrill of being in the right place, even if “Johnny B. Goode” starts near New Orleans because Berry knew the town as the place where “most Africans were sorted through and sold.” “Let It Rock,” a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it account of railroad workers trying to get out of the way of a train, is at once the simplest and most mysterious of all.
After forty-five years, though, “Roll Over Beethoven” sounds like the miracle. It seems much faster than it is—the rhythms move through the song like snakes. The heaviness in the voice and the beat brings the “Congo” Berry refers to in “Rock and Roll Music” right into the room, and there’s a vehemence in the words lose, dance, and top that grabs your hand and pulls you inside the sound. Every second is whole, distinct and fresh—“a fresh, green breast of the new world,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it at the end of The Great Gatsby.
Chuck Berry will be seventy-five this year.
Rolling Stone, April 12, 2001