Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Chuck Berry: After School Session (1957)



This isn't a time capsule, or a dissertation, or any definitive blistering rundown of the early triumphs of Chuck Berry, St. Louis' giant among giants and the true King of Rock & Roll. This is an LP in a carefully orchestrated, staggered and designed sense clearly meant for listenability. It excludes the first three major Berry singles, anyway; "Maybellene" and "Thirty Days" are both missing though their b-sides are here, and "You Can't Catch Me" is noticeably absent as well. It sounds odd, but this resistance to the "instant greatest hits" scenario -- it would've been easy and tempting to replace the instrumentals and blues slow-burn incidentals here with the hits, after all, and there couldn't have been much artistic impetus to do otherwise in this era long before the legitimate supposed "art" of the rock long-player -- improbably makes the record stronger. Its pacing feels deliberate, it impresses and seduces methodically.

The result, thanks to a seamlessness of aesthetics and a healthy spreading around of the greatest wealth in the master's early catalog, is a definitive context for the classics included here. We open with one of Berry's first true manifestos, "School Days," which begins with a sardonic play-by-play of the trials of teenhood before allowing total release and a rolling over of Beethoven: "Hail, hail rock & roll! / Deliver me from the days of old." It's grand when you really think about it, and permanently prescient and universal. But like the other masterpieces included here, it's really just extraordinarily adept dance music before any of its literary aspirations, which are plentiful but not emphasized on this record. The verbose anthem to end them all, "Too Much Monkey Business," finds Berry spitting out phrases that give him solidarity with a working class he well understood, having already spent plenty of time with all the mentioned annoyances of work and life -- nearly every line, in its speed and wisdom and humor, with nary a breath between ideas, is immensely quotable: "workin' in the fillin' station, too many tasks / wipe the windows, check the tires, check the oil, a dollar gas, aahhh!" -- but its agelessness comes from its pounding beat and flawlessly angry-beautiful guitar lines.

The second half opens with one of Berry's most sumptuous singles ever; what it lacks in the innovation of "Too Much Monkey Business" and the thematic hugeness of "School Days" it compensates in its pure poetic fervor and breakneck pacing. With the confidence and spark of the master storyteller he is, Berry runs down through the ages with a sampling of the many triumphs caused by and for the "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" -- it takes little perspicacity to recognize "brown eyed" as meaning something else entirely, and this stunning rock & roll song becomes a musical empowerment.

It sounds so right to hear the four classics (many rank the ballad "Havana Moon" below the faster cuts, but not me; it's exciting, romantically sad, and beautifully sung, and then there's that world-shaking "OWW!" in the middle of it) broken up in this way you almost can't believe that the general preference among Berry's fans is the hit-after-hit structure of The Great Twenty-Eight. That's a splendid experience, but this is something else that can actually provide the listener with even stronger appreciation for Berry's gifts. There's no question that the choice cuts elevate the rest of the material; instrumentals "Deep Feeling," "Roly Poly," and "Berry Pickin'" mean little out of context, but here they provide moments of reflection amidst all the ruthlessness.

To boot, there are some songs here that deserve a careful level of attention and warrant far more affection than they've received over the years. "Wee Wee Hours" is difficult to argue with anyway, a piano-driven and genuinely shaken blues, and the same goes for the quite delightful "No Money Down" -- a fan favorite that reminds me of the Coasters' later "Shoppin' for Clothes" with Berry's own love-and-car numbers -- but don't discount the oddball ballad "Together (We'll Always Be)" which positions Berry as a sort of cracking Dion in a rather charming plaintive vocal rare for him. The record closes with two exquisite but forgotten atmospheric pieces that richly deserve rediscovery now; both exhibit the neglected cinematic quality in Berry's writing. "Down Bound Train" sounds like the lost overture from some John Ford epic, while "Drifting Heart" positively aches with romance and the film noir night-sky fever of Sweet Smell of Success. No one would argue that "Drifting Heart" deserves a place among Berry's top classic singles, but it alone makes this album worth buying -- which says a great deal about the quality control in the performer's music at this stage.

As composer, musician, and singer, Berry is much more than professional on this protracted debut. He's crafting consistently fascinating and elegant music that rather well deserves the setting Chess provides for it here. It's a small slice of Berry and '50s Berry in particular, of course, but whoever put this sequence of tracks together and presented them in this fashion deserves a veneration that history hasn't really provided. I'm not saying you ought to make this the first Chuck Berry record you pick up, but along with One Dozen Berrys, Chuck Berry Is on Top, and especially St. Louis to Liverpool, it's as essential to your library as one of the compilations. It's not mere archival history, though that's a part of it, it's all so immediate. There's so much pleasure in even the filler, you won't regret a run through the early LP discography at all. I shouldn't have to tell you how rare that is amongst '50s pop stars.

The Chess Box (1955-75)
The Great Twenty-Eight (1956-65)

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