In November 1972, a novelty hit sat atop the charts and ‘Top of the Pops’ proceeded with caution. In his introduction to the video clip, Jimmy Savile reminded viewers the song was about a bell and nothing else; to emphasise this during the performance, the programme’s producer mixed in footage of Rolf Harris sketching bizarre bell-themed self-portraits. Everybody watching and everybody who had made the record an unlikely No.1 knew that the song’s title, ‘My Ding-a-Ling’, was a euphemism for a penis; the fact it had topped the charts presented radio and TV with a problem, but forty-five years on the ironic legacy of this particular piece of BBC ingenuity is that the TOTP presentation of the performance is now off-limits for completely different reasons. The moral barometer has swung in another direction, and Chuck Berry’s smutty ditty is not the cause of retrospective panic. I’m sure Chuck would have found the whole business hilarious.
The performance of ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ used on TOTP was lifted from Berry’s recent appearance on BBC2’s ground-breaking ‘In Concert’ series; the programme had been designed as a thirty-minute showcase for some of the era’s prominent singer-songwriters, with the likes of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King and Don McLean receiving rare TV exposure that gave them more breathing space than the hit-machine conveyor belt of most music shows. In hindsight, Chuck Berry seems an incongruous gate-crasher into this sedate patchouli oil-scented refuge from showbiz glitz, yet confronted by a cross-legged audience, he wins them over and wakes them up by encouraging their participation in ‘My Ding-a-Ling’; they can’t resist it. The man oozes charisma and the cheeky schoolboy smirk that spreads across his face come each double-entendre is pure Benny Hill.
Of course, ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ may have been the only time the name Chuck Berry hit the No.1 spot, but it hardly serves as the most accurate obituary for a man whose passing at the grand old age of 90 will be marked across the media this weekend. His sole chart-topper came at a moment when the music he’d pioneered almost twenty years earlier was undergoing a popular revival after being shoved off the radar by the cultural revolution of the 60s. The same year ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ topped the charts he’d shared the bill with fellow bad-boy survivors Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis at Wembley Stadium in the landmark ‘London Rock ‘n’ Roll Show’. Watching the DVD of this event is fascinating and I heartily recommend it.
The audience is a mix of long-haired Hell’s Angels-biker types (still in their twenties) and their 50s Rocker predecessors, the kind of ageing Teddy Boys I remember from my childhood; most are pushing forty, yet their haircuts haven’t altered since the mid-50s; the seismic shifts in the pop landscape of the previous decade seem to have passed these guys by. In 1972, they were still partying like it was 1957, though it’s interesting to note a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo from none other than Malcolm McLaren, manning a stall from which he’s flogging goods sold in his original Let it Rock boutique. At one gig, you have the immortal innovators without whom the 60s could never have happened, but you also have the presence of someone who would eventually shape the 70s.
It’s virtually impossible to overstate the importance of Chuck Berry. The blistering chainsaw guitar that sliced through the slick tuxedo crooning club of the 1950s and illuminates the incendiary Rock ‘n’ Roll anthems his reputation was built upon still splits the musical atom sixty years on. That guitar is the starting pistol for Hank Marvin, George Harrison, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and every axe warrior to have strut his stuff before a stack of Marshall amps ever since. The electric guitar itself was in its infancy when Charles Edward Anderson Berry first took to the stage, largely in the hands of veteran Bluesmen whose audience was as segregated as everything else in the Deep South; an ambitious Berry soon began composing his own songs and played them in a frenetic speeded-up Blues style that gradually crossed the racial divide in a part of America that suddenly had a generation whose appetite for change wasn’t coloured by the prejudices of their parents.
Berry’s songs made him a lyrical cartographer, mapping out the landscape of fast cars and loose women that rebranded America as the turbo-charged, Technicolor Sodom and Gomorrah that proved especially attractive to the war babies coming of age on the monochrome side of the Atlantic. But Berry was no detached observer; by living his lyrics, he also pioneered the outlaw myth of the Rock ‘n’ Roll guitarist. He’d already served time as a juvenile delinquent in the US equivalent of Borstal before anyone had heard of him, but once he’d established himself both as a live and recording act his talent for trouble earned him three years behind bars after transporting a 14 year-old girl across state lines; he served another sentence in 1979 for tax evasion.
Like the other cast members of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s opening act (bar Elvis), Chuck Berry never enjoyed the sustained commercial success and immense riches that those he directly inspired have continued to mine. By the 80s, he occupied the same ‘living legend’ nostalgia circuit that kept Sinatra in business, recycling signature tunes penned decades earlier in a permanent road-show that nevertheless paid the bills. He was still performing just three years ago, well into his eighties.
John Lennon once remarked that if Rock ‘n’ Roll was ever to be given another name, it may as well be renamed Chuck Berry. It’s hard to dispute Lennon’s logic; he knew, as did every other adolescent wannabe to graduate from British bomb-site to US baseball stadium, that the debt owed to the duck-walking gunslinger with the six-stringed revolver was immeasurable.
© The Editor