This week’s showdown is between Tyneside bluesmeisters the Animals and rock n’ roll messiah Ziggy Stardust, as played by David Bowie. The song? Chuck Berry’s 1958 hit “Around and Around”.
Like a lot of Chuck Berry songs, this one is an ode not only to rock n’ roll, but also to the culture it created. This is a song about good times and police intervention. In 1958, rock n’ roll was considered by many to be a cultural threat, and in many ways they were right. Communities which had been apart were drawn together because of the popularity of the music, and the peace was often disturbed.
Where the song here focuses mostly on how the music affects people, causing them to rise out of their seats with the feeling that they “just had to dance”, the underlying themes here are undeniable too. When the police knocked, those doors flew back. Rock n’ roll here is both joyous and fraught with danger at the same time. For this alone, it’s a classic. And as the cover versions which came about proved, it was a very interpretable classic too.
The Animals had credibility among their peers as R&B experts during the British blues-boom in the 1960s. The group boasted the authentic blues voice of lead singer Eric Burdon as well as the gospel-infused organ of Alan Price, who arranged the band’s most famous recording; their version of ‘House of the Rising Sun”. The group’s love of the Chess Records catalogue was obvious too of course, and their debt to Chess artists is even more obvious. They scored hits with two John Lee Hooker songs – “Dimples” and “Boom Boom” – and this tune by Berry as well which appeared on their debut album The Animals in 1964.
Berry’s influence is felt all over the rise of British R&B. But what is most striking about this version is the sense of menace in Burdon’s delivery. You really get the feeling that there is impending violence in the events that unfold in the song. That’s my favourite part about this version; Burdon’s voice is so compelling, so believable, you know that he’s not just talking about a night out. He’s talking about confrontation. The Animals’ take on Berry’s song seems to allude to impending change, proving the song to be something of a prophecy, whether they intended it or not.
The ensuing years would prove that the British establishment feared rock n’ roll as a means of stirring things up, just as it had been feared in America as well. Jail sentences and drugs charges plagued rock royalty by the end of the decade in an effort by the police to make examples of them. Members of the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles were raided, and some were even put up on criminal charges. Jagger and Richards even went to jail before they were exonerated in late 1967. The seeming effort to suppress social change ultimately failed, and although the social changes of the time are difficult to accredit to rock musicians, the music they made did seem to create an environment where it was possible to break out of cultural doldrums by embracing new experiences and new cultures. And what is this song by Berry talking about if not crossing the tracks to the other side in some fashion? In many ways, it’s the perfect countercultural anthem.
If anyone was aware of cultural shifts and changing times, it was Bowie who first made a splash on national TV when he debuted his song “Starman” on Top of the Pops in 1972, dressed like a glittery androgyne from outer space. The performance was a shock to some, and a delightful wake-up call to others, as Bowie knew it would be. By this time in his career, he had Mick Ronson aiding Bowie’s glam-rock sound on guitar, which is effectively a sound fueled by 50s American rock n’ roll. This of course makes the choice of this cover version a pretty obvious one. Yet another aspect of this of course is the tension in the song – the crowded club, and the arrival of the police who mean to knock the doors down and do who-knows-what after they do.
His take on the Berry song, found on the boxset Sound + Vision (called “Round and Round”) is along the same lines as the Animals, in that this is more than just a story of an overcrowded night club. This is about fear and supresssion on the part of the authorities. Bowie’s delivery is not as menacing as Burdon’s, but there is a heightening sense of tension in his voice, something almost maniacal when he reaches the line “those doors flew back!”. And Ronson’s haphazzard guitar solo makes this sound like a riot is breaking out, which is perfect for the material. Like a lot their work together, Ronson’s guitar is the wave on which Bowie’s voice rides. And the “Around and Around” on this version is about disorientation, more than it is about dancing. Bowie would cover this ground on his own of course with his song “Changes”. But on this track, we’re not getting a patient explanation that the generation coming out of the time is “immune to the consultations” of police and government. This is anarchy. This is revolution.
It stands to reason that such a song would become so important to many with regard to changing one’s views on authoritarianism. And where I don’t think that records alone can change the world, I think that singing them and hearing them sung tends to be an indicator of what are on people’s minds. In the 1960s and 1970s in Britain after the war, rationing, classism, and a mass amount of immigration from places which had formerly been a part of the Empire, change was in the air just as it was in America in the late 1950s. The doors were about to “fly back” as it were.
But the question today is this, good people. Which version is best? British R&B disciples the Animals? Or meta-performer Ziggy Stardust?
As always, you decide!