Now, There are a few reasons that make Chuck Berry a nasty rotten jailbird. There is also an awesome amount of evidence that explains why he is the master and the poet laureate of rock n’ roll. Chuck went on to influence countless pockets and patches of culture; he will as long as human beings exist. It’s just in the chemistry. The chain link reaction since the dawn of time and he was the molten hot link.
The dude started a trend of songwriting that would later lead to music that remains infinite in our human existence. Back in 1977, NASA launched The Voyager space mission that blasted a recording of Chuck’s own “Johnny B. Goode” into the stars! Swirling through the cosmos, a golden disc transmitting “J.B.G.” is still out there rockin’ space rocks today. You can find the heart of Berry’s repertoire in an album called The Great Twenty-Eight. Songs such as “Maybelline” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” will forever be heard as the foundation of rock n’ roll. These songs put Chuck in the stars, but his poetic, rhythmic genius is completely exposed with one track in particular. His 5th single from Chess Records, A track titled, “Too Much Monkey Business” was released in September of 1956. This song uniquely runs a string of complaints in a humorous, ironic fashion:
“Run and to and fro,
Hard-working at the mail,
Never fail at the mail,
Here comes a rotten bale.”
Or how about:
Well I oughta’ sue the operatah’
For tellin’ me a tale…ahhh”
The rebellion of routine recognized. The “botheration” expressed in rhythm and rhyme. A comedic, Shakespearean perspective on everyday life is thrown into a two minute and fifty-three-second track. Listen to Chuck’s cracked, stacked attack on:
“Same thing, every day,
gettin’ up, goin’ to school,
no need me to be complaining,
my objection overruled…ahhh”
Tone makes everything. From the tone in a sunset, to how you would talk to your mother; she did go through more pain than you could ever imagine just so you can sneeze and shit, the least you could do is talk to her in a royal tone. This rabble-rouser tone is nearly mimicked later in 1965 when the world would get flipped and swing the “Gates of Eden” open to a cultural renaissance.
The boot that kicked clean through the barn door, where culture was lying dormant, opens up with Bob Dylan’s evolution of “Another Side.” Coming from the hysterically careless romantic Bob-that-was in 1964 with Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing All Back Home exposes multiple new dimensions of what anyone could have expected from the guy. The opening track on the debut of Dylan’s electric brilliance, puffs up, slicks back and Bohemianizes Chuck’s “Monkey Business.” “Subterranean Homesick Blues” reflects the rhythm and rhyme of “Too Much Monkey Business” and is righteously reinvited:
“Maggie comes fleet foot,
Face full of black soot,
Talking that heat put plants in the bed but
Phone’s tapped anyway,
Maggie say ‘the men they say must bust in early may,’
Orders from the DA.”
Dylan attacks the unfairness of expectation that society holds, much as Chuck does. Dylan nearly interrogates it under a spotlight. It’s like Dylan has this special lens that allows us to observe a million little ants who don’t know how the hell to work together and they’re all bumping into each other, trying to figure it out. Chuck expresses a more day-to-day, profile-to-profile, person-to-person. Dylan reaches a bit further and goes chapter-to-chapter. Verse by verse, he compares the hustle of the city to the hustle of the farm; hinting at civil rights, cultural phenomena and the expectation of commercialized value. Dylan is literally warning you “Look out kid, this is what this hard life has to offer, here are some obstacles I’ve observed along the way; let me explain in my alien-like, Shakespearean, Chuck Berrian original dialect:
“Get born (Get Woke eh? Dylan was woke AF, am I right?) keep warm,
Short pants romance,
Learn to dance,
Get dressed, get blessed,
Try to be a success,
Please her, please him, buy gifts,
Don’t steal, Don’t lift,
20 years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift.”
These are two rhythmically-similar approaches to songs that paved the way to a new way of thinking. An honest and exaggerated way of thinking. The Earth is perfect, but the world is unfair and the human species is competitive. The real heroes are the honest ones who can practice patience, recognize and relay that reflection of chaos and stupidity that we, as a whole culture and species, are functioning under.
So the 70s happen and most of the 80s happen where time has allowed generations to digest the cultural phenomenon and renaissance that occurred in the latter half of the 20th century. This band in November 1987 puts out a single that supposedly was inspired by hyperawareness, anxiety, and a dream of a party full of people with the initials L.B. The 80s-indie rock band R.E.M. releases “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
“Six o’clock, T.V. hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform, book burning, bloodletting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate
Light a candle, light a motive, step down, step down
Watch your heel crush, crush, uh oh
This means no fear, cavalier, renegade and steering clear
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline”
We hear more of the stream-of-consciousness, dreamlike chaos come to life in this tune. However, the songwriter, Michael Stipe, created a piece that belongs in this group of rhythmic rhyme. It’s a whimsical perspective on the tragedy of being human. Its surreal, revolving, apocalyptic take still hints at rebellion and liberty from societal routine. If I could translate for you from my own interpretation: “Everyday at 6pm, the news comes on and UH OH, oh boy look at all this NEWS…yipee! Why does it all suck so bad? Maybe I should do something about it, light a candle for someone, try to get some action going on the streets?….ah there’s so much to do and nobody’s listening and they’re telling me not to do it anyway, but ah, fuck it, I am OVERWHELMED!”
Stipe effectively carries on the similar cynical helplessness in this fun, zany rhythmic rhyming pattern we see from Berry and Dylan. After doing some digging, I found that in an interview with Guitar World, R.E.M. guitarist, Peter Buck does agree that “End of the World” was written in the tradition of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It’s possible I’ve missed other examples in between 1965 and 1987, and if did, please let me know! I’d love to hear from you and talk music history!
2 years later, Billy Joel writes and releases a single in July of 1989 that captures accurate historical moments and tense emotion spanning from the end of the second World War to the present day of 1989. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” continues the legacy of “Too Much Monkey Business” with the rhythmic rhyming pattern that Chuck started back in 1956. Joel uses historical points as well as cultural and political icons to reflect the human collection of events that are placed on the scales of judgment. It’s a moral test of ourselves. Chuck is rolling his eyes from “botheration,” while Dylan’s weighted tongue is sticking out at America’s societal routine. Stipe’s in the corner puking from dizzying anxiety and now Billy Joel’s sits cross-legged on a bar, meditating the judgment of our population.
Joel steps back and looks not only at America but the world to examine the ripple that has been rolling since the bombing at Hiroshima using the same rhythmic-rhyming method as Chuck and Bob nearly 4 decades prior. I like to think of where these artists were when they were picking up influence for a piece like this. Was Joel listening to R.E.M. a couple of years prior on the radio and heard something click in his head? He had to be a fan of Chuck and Bob. Maybe he wasn’t even conscious of the similarities.
“We Didn’t Start The Fire.” The chorus implies that the generations before us kind of made a mess so big that the next generation can never avoid stepping in it.
“We didn’t start the fire, we didn’t light it but we’re trying to fight it.”
The 80s gave us a heroic tone, hopeful songs about changing for the better and how the world had to take a good look at itself in order to do so. Joel still uses a great amount of condemning and controversial examples of how the world isn’t in its best state.
“Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon Back Again (Whoops)
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock.
Begin, Reagan, Palestine, terror on the airline.
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan
“Wheel of Fortune”, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide
Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS crack, Bernie Goetz
Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore.”
In the end, it seems that it all has become too much. Yet, there is still hope in this song. The other three don’t hold the tone of hope as much as they do cynicism and tragic hilarity. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Too Much Monkey Business” complain and warn us, as “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” is more like a kid punching one fist in the air offering incomprehensible vulnerability with a radical attitude.
What stands out is that Bob doesn’t use a chorus, he uses a hook, they all start with the lines: “Look out Kid… It’s something you did… don’t matter what you did… you’re gonna get hit… they keep it all hid…” The other three tracks have a distinct repetitive chorus separate from the verses. Bob throws the hook in the latter half of each verse to bring his thought around to a satisfying conclusion only to continue kickin’ that rock n roll.
Perhaps there is a reason why quick rhythm can so easily express frustration and anxiety. It reflects the pace of our world today. These tracks are so impressive because they are fun, loose, but still translate, almost through code, a message that hits home. These tracks give us something to talk about, and that is maybe what we should do more of: talk with each other about the state of the world and if we TRULY believe that its for the best. You, with that pink spaghetti pile of a brain of yours, may not think you can do anything about big change. But it is true what they say: Many hands make light work. Just something to ponder while sputtering up poems at a pond.
We can conclude that these four tunes share multiple patterns and techniques that make them stand out from other songs. We witness the evolution that is the observation of societal decline. They all use quick, rhythmic rhyming patterns that make these songs catchy, memorable and well…songs, that we often hear blasting out of garages in the summertime. Make a playlist with these four songs in order from “Too Much Monkey Business” to “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” Find out for yourself. Let me know if you discover anything. Let’s talk about it!
Aloha and always cheers,
Fisher the Lloyd