Tag Archives: art

CHUCK BERRY: THE 1st POET OF ROCK

CHUCK BERRY:  THE 1st POET OF ROCK by Alan L. Chrisman

Chuck Berry has passed away at age 90.  Berry, was arguably, the most influential rock and roll founder, both musically and lyrically.  Berry could be called rock ‘n’ roll’s father. As John Lennon said when introducing him on the Mike Douglas TV Show in the 70’s ,” My hero, if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’”.  Before Bob Dylan and Lennon/McCartney, Berry, was perhaps its first rock poet. Dylan called Chuck Berry, “the Shakespeare of rock.” Berry would influence EVERYONE-The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Beach Boys, Springsteen, and most rockers to follow. Springsteen’s tribute,” Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”

Elvis is called the King of Rock ’n ’Roll and was its most important 50’s popularizer, had a great interpretive voice and charisma , but he didn’t write his own songs.  Other early 50’s founders, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly (from whom The Beatles would take their name and would set the standard for the future- guitars, bass, drums line-up), all wrote their own songs. But Berry wrote complete musical stories.  And he played his own lead guitar (from which Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards, would copy his style), before Hendrix would make the guitar and its solos forefront in rock bands. Richard and Lewis jumped on their pianos, and Berry would “duck walk “across the stage visually, before MTV and videos, and before Hendrix burned his guitar theatrically.

Berry had a string of hits in the mid- late 50’s, which perfectly captured a teenager’s life and preoccupations, girls, cars, music (“Sweet Little Sixteen”, “School Days”, “Rock ’n’ Roll Music”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Maybelline”, “Memphis, Tenn.”). Every young aspiring guitar player had to learn his “Johnny B. Goode.” Berry composed little vignettes, 2-3 minute poems set to music (check out the lyrics to his songs like,   “Promised Land”, “You Never Can Tell ( C’est La Vie”).

Berry had grown up in a middle-class neighborhood in St. Louis, (half-way between The South and The North),so maybe that’s why, although black, he understood white middle-class kids, who were the main radio audience in those early days of rock ’n’ roll.  His father was a contractor and a Baptist church deacon; his mother a school principal.  Berry’s influences were mainly black musicians like guitarist, T-Bone Walker. But it wasn’t until he moved north to Chicago and recorded along with other black musicians that were there too, like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley at Chess Records, that he had his first hits. Like Elvis, it was in this combination of both black and white musical influences, blues, country, rock ’n’ roll, that he found his sound. Berry’s distinctive guitar riffs were also influenced by his long time piano player, Johnny Johnson’s, jazz and swing notes as well. It was this synthesis of styles that enabled him to appeal to a cross-section of listeners.

But by the early 60’s, along with most of the early founders, he and they were no longer as popular and, one by one, for sometimes racial reasons, they disappeared from the scene.  Radio was taken over by the more watered-down mainly white pop performers (or “Bobby-Bobbys” as J. L. Lewis called them). Dylan: “I was still an aspiring rock n roller. The descendant, if you will, of the first generation of guys who played rock ’n’ roll — who were thrown down. Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis. They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of all these guys, to strike down rock ’n’ roll for what it was and what it represented — not least of all being a black-and-white thing.” Berry was accused of transporting a below-age waitress across state lines for sexual purposes under the Mann Act and was sentenced to 3 years in prison.

His career seemed almost over, but when he was released in late ’63, The Beatles Invasion was just starting to happen and he had been a big influence on many Liverpool groups and other British bands like the Stones. The Beatles were to record his “Rock and Roll Music” on their 2nd. album and  the first Stones U.K. single was a cover of his “ Come On” and “Carol” was on their 1st American album. Ironically, it was foreign groups who re-focused attention on Berry and other American early 50’s rockers and he gained a whole new respect for his song writing and playing .  One of the Beach Boys’ early hits, Surfin’ U.S.A., was actually Brian Wilson putting surf lyrics over Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” music.  The Beatles and Stones would continue to be influenced by him in their own songs and performing. McCartney would partly pattern his “Back in The U.S.S. R.” after Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” and Lennon would even “borrow” some words and melodies for Come Together from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” (which Lennon would later have to settle a lawsuit for with its publisher). Keith Richards organized a tribute concert/film for Berry called Hail Hail Rock and Roll in 1986 with Berry, Eric Clapton, Julian Lennon, Linda Ronstadt, Robert Cray, and Etta James. Berry would over the years come to his shows with only his guitar (refusing to play, until payment was already deposited into his bank account), not even rehearsing with the local back-up band, or telling them what key he was playing . Richards, amusingly, tells the story how Berry hit him for daring to even touch his hero’s guitar. But I guess geniuses are allowed these little personal foibles.

I remember seeing him in the film, American Hot Wax, which told the story of Rock ’n’ Roll’s first DJ , Alan Freed, in which Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and other early rockers, recreated their original stage performances. It was shown along with Saturday Night Fever, which was the disco rage at the time in the early 70’s.  American Hot Wax was shown first and while getting popcorn at break, I overheard these young John Travota fans marvelling at this guy “duck walking” across the stage. I thought that was interesting and it gave me hope for the timelessness of Berry and his music.

Berry is now recognized as one of the most important song writers and musical influencers in the whole history of rock. He was one of the first to be inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in at its opening in 1986. His “Johnny B. Goode” was ranked #1 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time” in 2007.

Pop writer Chuck Klosterman has predicted that Berry will be remembered, even 300 years from now, as the perfect embodiment of rock music. In 1986, “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen by NASA to be sent into outer space for its Voyager space probe. So maybe even other life forms will know Berry’s music one day. There was only one Chuck Berry, Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll!

 

Below, from Keith Richards -organized Tribute 1986 concert/film for Chuck Berry with Julian Lennon, etc.

https://youtu.be/5YcPtitpLkk

Below, from film, American Hot Wax, story of Rock ‘n’  Roll DJ. Alan Freed, Berry re-creating his “Reelin’ and Rockin’/ Roll Over Beethoven.”

https://youtu.be/IGY5bvNK_8Y

 

Original Hamburg Beatles: John, Paul, George, Pete Best, Stu Sutcliffe

BACKBEAT FILM: HAMBURG BEATLES & INSIDE STORIES

BACKBEAT FILM: BEATLES IN HAMBURG & INSIDE STORIES

By Alan Chrisman (All Articles ARE written BY ALAN CHRISMAN), copyright 2012-2015 (A Praveen Patel has tried to hack them and claim them).

BACKBEAT is a film that tells the story of The Beatles first playing in Hamburg Germany, in the early 60’s, before they were well-known. But until the film came out in 1993, the general public didn’t know that much about this crucial period in their development. George Harrison said Hamburg was where they learned to become a band.

The Beatles were first sent there by Allan Williams, owner of what was basically a strip club, where the early Beatles first played in Liverpool, before they became regulars at the Cavern and met manager, Brian Epstein. The Beatles, at that time, consisted of besides John, Paul, and George, drummer Pete Best (whose mother, Mona, also owned one of the first places they played, The Casbah in the basement of her house), and John’s close friend, Stu Sutcliffe, on bass.

While in Hamburg The Beatles performed in seedy bars in the “sin” part of  Hamburg, with prostitutes and drugs all around them. They lived in squalid conditions, once even in a tiny room behind a movie screen.  They played for hours and hours a night, with few breaks, speeded-up on pep pills, to keep up the grueling schedule.

Thus, this is a far cry from the later image of The Beatles as the clean-cut pop group in tailored suits which Brian Epstein would present to the world and for Beatlemania.

And this is the story that BACKBEAT, the film, reveals.  But it is also a love story. Because The Beatles were to meet in one of those sleazy bars one night, some  German arts students, especially Astrid Kirchherr.   Astrid and her friends were in a group of art students who called themselves “Exi’s” (existentialists). They dressed in black and copied the then unusual French swept-forward hair style. These German arts students were to have a profound effect on the still quite-young and impressionable Beatles.  Astrid took the first artistic, black and white photos of the Beatles.  And it was her that first convinced Stu and then the others to try out this new hairstyle, which would later be called the distinctive Beatles haircut.

Stu, a talented, promising painter and big artistic influence on John, fell in love with Astrid, and decided to leave the band.  He wasn’t very good on bass anyway and would often attempt to play, with his back to the audience; his main asset to the band being his cool James Dean look, with his dark sunglasses.

The film, BackBeat, tells these two stories then, the creative beginnings of The Beatles and the poignant love story between Stu and Astrid.  Poignant even more because their romance was tragically short-lived because Stu was to die shortly after, of a brain hemorrhage,  at the age of only 21 in 1960.   When Stu left the band it also necessitated McCartney moving over to bass, which would have a deep effect on The Beatles’ music with his melodic bass lines. The Beatles would soon after be discovered by Brian Epstein at the Cavern and the rest is history

But I’ve always thought this is the real story of The Beatles and BACKBEAT does a pretty good job of telling it.  It’s a bit stereotyped with John as the angry, sarcastic one and Paul the more people-pleasing pop singer (McCartney disputed that he wasn’t shown much as an also-rocker).  But Paul said he was astonished by the portrayal of Stu by actor Stephen Dorff.  The actress, Sheryl Lee, who portrays Astrid, looks like and captures the artistic photographer perfectly.  The director, Ian Softley, spent ten years interviewing Astrid and several others (Astrid was a consultant on the film), before he finally got it made.  Interestingly, real Beatles’ recordings weren’t used on the soundtrack, but instead several well-respected musicians, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, etc., from alternative bands were used to re-create Beatles songs and it works. The movie captures the hyped-up energy and stamina required the forming Beatles learned in those trying circumstances, which would come in handy later for their screaming Beatlemania touring days.

As I said, I’ve always been most fascinated especially, with this early period of The Beatles. And I was to fortunately later meet several who were there at their beginnings.  For example I was with George Harrison’s sister, Louise, when she actually saw BACKBEAT film, for the first time. She was a guest at the 2nd Ottawa, Canada Beatles’ Convention I organized in ‘96.  I remember her saying as she sat next to me at the screening, “George would never have cussed like that”.  But of course,The Beatles did a lot more than cuss in Hamburg.  They were even “adopted” by some of the prostitutes and protected by some of the tough bouncers in the bars, where often thugs in the drunken audiences carried weapons.  As I say, a far cry from the cuddy Beatles-image later created.

I mentioned before in my recent blog (“Little-known Last Lennon and McCartney Recording Session in ’74) which  May Pang, Lennon’s girlfriend in L.A., recently revealed, that I met May and Cynthia Lennon as well as Paul McCartney’s step-mom at the Conn. Beatles Convention in ’94.

Well shortly after I returned from there, I received a call from Pauline Sutcliffe, sister of Stuart Sutcliffe, original Hamburg Beatle and painter and John’s friend,  described in the Backbeat film.  I’m not sure how she got my number, but suspect that it was given to her by Cynthia Lennon, whom I had just met at the Convention in ’94.  For there, I had presented Cynthia with what was then only a school fantasy-project for a proposal to put on a possibly more-artistic Beatles Convention.  Cynthia, an artist herself, evidently liked the idea and perhaps mentioned it to her friend, Pauline.   Anyway, I had hoped to bring some of Stu’s paintings over to Canada as part of our now hoped for 1st Ottawa Beatles Convention but alas, wasn’t able to because of insurance reasons.  But a few months later I found out, there would be an exhibition of Stu’s paintings at a gallery in Toronto. I arrived at the exhibit early and no one was there yet, when a woman came over and offered me a tea. This turned out to be Pauline Sutcliffe, the English woman I had talked to on the phone a few months earlier. She was kind and showed me some of Stu’s magnificent mainly-abstract paintings.  I also discovered some rare Beatles’ photos tucked away around the corner.

We did do our first Ottawa Beatles Convention in 1995, although I had hoped to have Cynthia as a guest, she couldn’t come, and we got original Beatles’ drummer, Pete Best.  He had been with them for two years in Hamburg and Liverpool, before being replaced by Ringo, who was also playing in Hamburg as part of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.  In fact, in keeping with Pete Best and his Liverpool band, as guests, we called our first Beatles’ Convention, “Cavern Days”.  Our poster for it featured a collage of images from photographer, Astrid Kirchherr of the original Hamburg Beatles, with Pete, and Stu Sutcliffe and even of Astrid.  I later wrote to Astrid in Germany and received a special signed postcard from her agent.

And in 1996, I was to meet some more from this period and the Beatles’ beginnings. I attended a Beatles’ dealer’s get-together in southern Ontario. The guests there included Allan Williams, the Beatles first “manager”, who had first booked them into Hamburg.  Williams had written one of the best books on the early Beatles books in 1975, The Man Who Gave Away the Beatles, called that because The Beatles, once in Germany, stiffed Williams of his booking fees and he dropped them.  Williams had advised future manager, Brian Epstein, “not to touch them with a F’ ing 10 foot barge pole!”

Williams was a real character, full of raunchy stories of the Beatles. In fact, he held up Paul McCartney’s actual leather pants (he said he had gotten from one of the other Liverpool groups as supposedly Paul had just left them at the Cavern) which Epstein had gotten them to change out of into the suits. He said he wanted to sell back to McCartney for $10,000!  That’s the kind of character he was:  I liked him and he signed my copy of his book.  With Williams was Beryl Wooler, Epstein’s assistant at his Liverpool record store, Nems, and later married to Bob Wooler, the Cavern D.J. who was one of their early supporters.   At that same get-together was a member of Lennon’s early Liverpool teenaged band, The Quarrymen, Len Garry.  He was very friendly and told of the story of the fated day John Lennon met Paul McCartney at a Liverpool church,  July 6, 1957. Garry knows because he was there.

He also described both Lennon and McCartney’s characters, when he said, Lennon didn’t want to share band leadership with Paul, but knew he needed him because Paul knew more chords and songs, but Lennon didn’t want to admit it.  Later, he had his childhood friend, Pete Shotten, approach McCartney.  And the way, Garry told it, the next time Shotten ran into Paul, he asked him to join the fledgling band, and Paul just nonchalantly replied, “OK”.  Also a part of that early Lennon-McCartney connection was that they had both lost their mothers as teens around the same time.  Lennon wrote about it for years after in several of his songs, but McCartney rarely did, except she’s the “ Mother Mary” in “Let It Be”, again revealing of their different characters.  Shotten, by the way, also wrote one of the best Beatles’ books, The Beatles, John Lennon and Me in ’84.  Pauline Sutcliffe with Alan Clayson, wrote Backbeat, Stuart Sutcliffe: The Lost Beatle in ’94.

Pauline and Astrid both approved of the Backbeat film and I also recommend you seeing it and read the above books, from people who actually were there at the Beatles’ beginnings and I was privileged to meet several of them and hear their personal stories first hand.

 

HAMBURG BEATLES AND “STU MEETS ASTRID”, BACKBEAT FILM, 1993:

 

http://youtu.be/JhJBk9YNhwo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhJBk9YNhwo

Photographer& designer Beatles' haircut, Astrid Kirchherr, Stu Sutcliffe

Self-portrait: Photographer, Astrid Kirchherr & Stu Sutcliffe

1st Ottawa Beatles Convention poster with Astrid Kirchherr's Hamburg Beatles' images

Poster from 1st Ottawa Beatles’ Convention, using Astrid Kirchherr’s images of original Hamburg Beatles

Pauline Sutcliffes signed card from brother Stu's painting exhibit , Toronto & Astrid Kirchherr's postcard

Pauline Sutcliffe signed card from brother, Stu’s Sutcliffe’s painting exhibit & postcard from Astrid Kirchherr, Beatles’ photographer and creator of Beatles’ haircut