Listen to this track, a huge landmark song in the rock ‘n’ roll treasury by one of the undisputed Founding Fathers, Chuck Berry. It’s his 1956 single, “Too Much Monkey Business”, recorded on Chess Records and later to be released on the essential Great Twenty-Eight compilation, that every, EVERY music fan should own. I suppose that’s what essential means. But, it can’t be stressed enough, good people.
How influential, vitally important, and artistically exalted is Chuck Berry in the realm of popular song? This post would be far, far too long trying to describe the breadth of this question. Suffice it to say, the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan, among many, many others arguably WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN, were it not for this lunatic genius from St. Louis, an auto worker, house painter, and only part-time musician until his 1955 hit “Maybelline” took off and convinced him he could make more money by being a recording artist than by painting houses.
I could focus on his role as a self-contained singer-songwriter-guitarist. In an age of professional songwriters doling out tunes to singers, who in turn needed professional musicians to play the songs, Berry was a triple threat who stood on his own. This helped to set the scene for his contemporaries, like Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, who would do likewise. But, it also presented this approach as a viable possibility for his musical children, including the British Invasion-era groups that took his example and began to forge their own songwriting capacities to all of our benefits.
I could focus on his guitar style alone, which has become so intertwined in how everyone expects a rock guitar player to sound like, that when players don’t at least reference Berry’s style, they aren’t considered to be playing rock ‘n’ roll at all. Everyone, from Keith Richards, to Johnny Thunders, to the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, and the list continues, all touch on Berry’s playing.
Berry’s guitar style is basically country picking meets boogie-woogie piano as translated to six strings. In this second element, we must also thank longtime Berry collaborator and largely unsung hero pianist Johnnie Johnson, who contributed a great deal to how Berry’s guitar playing, and his sound in general, evolved. But, even that is a post in and of itself.
But, when you’re talking about the role of lyrics in rock ‘n’ roll, then you have to mention Berry yet again. And this tune is a giant in Berry’s catalogue. As a rock ‘n’ roll song, it has everything; disdain for routine, for dead-end jobs, and for the futility of trying to please everyone. On top of that, it is all about the rhythm of language with this tune. The instruments take a backseat as Berry sings. The way the words sound, tumbling one after the other, is enough to make you want to dance. Many bands have covered this song just because of how punchy it is lyrically, from the Yardbirds, to the Beatles, and even Elvis Presley. My favourite cover version is by The Hollies.
The groove this song created, thanks to how the verses were structured sent out a massive ripple effect, giving birth to other songs by other artists down through the decades, from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, to Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up”, to REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)”. If one thinks of Berry as a guitar hero, let us first think of him as one of the most lyrically gifted songwriters of the form as well.
For more information about how Chuck Berry influenced rock ‘n’ roll, and popular music in general, check out this article about Chuck Berry’s musical influence on history-of-rock.com and learn more.