Thursday, April 15, 2010

Song of the Week: Chuck Berry "Roll Over Beethoven"

Picture me spring-cleaning my apartment one recent Sunday, windows open, sun shining. Hear the birds outside and the 50's rock playlist blaring from my computer. Picture me elbow-deep in Clorox as Chuck Berry invites Beethoven to roll over in his grave and tell Tchaikovsky about it. Now picture me, hearing for the first time a song I've heard all my life.

Song of the Week: Chuck Berry, "Roll Over Beethoven"

We know Chuck Berry as one of rock's forefathers, a musical pioneer, and a legendary guitar-player. But he's more than that: he's an American icon, a cultural touchstone. His music is ingrained in our collective pop consciousness, so famous and influential we feel like we've heard it before we have. Maybe the downside to being that famous is being taken for granted; we can impassively recognize greatness, but we can't hear it fresh, as new and groundbreaking as his music was in 1956. For example, many people my age were actually introduced to Chuck Berry by Michael J. Fox's comic performance in Back To the Future. We implicitly understood that the "Marvin Berry" joke referenced someone famous from the 50's, but didn't yet know who or what.

When you're as famous as Chuck Berry, new generations know you before they really know you.

(Another quick example: I watched Annie Hall for the first time recently. Like most people, I've seen my share of Woody Allen parodies, caricatures, and impressions; I've heard this movie's most famous lines ad nauseum, seen its famous shots of NYC recreated in different media, etc. In other words, I was seeing Annie Hall for the first time, but I wasn't seeing it fresh. I kept thinking, "Woody Allen's really overdoing this Woody Allen impression.")

So, here I am again, falling in love for the first-and-millionth time with Chuck Berry. I could wax poetic all day about "Roll Over Beethoven," but there's nothing I can say that this doesn't say better:

I will, however, note my favorite and somehow overlooked strength of the song: trash-talk. The refrain, "Roll over, Beethoven/and tell Tchaikovsky the news" set the standard for trash-talking-via-song. It makes the words "Beethoven" and "Tchaikovsky" musical, expanding pop music's vocabulary well past contemporary standards of the "roses are red/violets are blue" variety. It plays to his fans' expectations (youthful, fresh), enforces his onstage persona (wild, cocksure), and counters his critics ("rock n' roll isn't real music"). Beyond that, it's bad-ass.

If you can find a cooler trash-talking refrain in the history of rock, I'll eat my shoe. Berry sings "Roll over, Beethoven" playfully, but the line's full of menace. Picture a boxer taking on the champ, knocking him out with a punch he never saw coming, then standing over him in the center of the ring and telling him about it. It's the sound of a new sound--European and African musical traditions co-mingling for centuries, finally forging something new, vital, and distinctively American, taking a backseat to no one, apologizing to nobody. It's the sound of a man at the peak of his powers, who's onto something, who knows he's got you licked.

Most of today's trash-talk (and the genre where it's most-valued as its own art-form) is found in hip hop. But, just for fun, here are a few more of my favorite non-rap moments of musical trash-talking. Some are explicit, some are implicit, some comical, some serious.

Bob Dylan, "Visions of Johanna"
"The country music station plays soft/but there's nothing--really, nothing--to turn off..." Dylan seemingly goes out of his way to disparage the relevance of contemporary country music. There's something on the radio, but it's a lot of nothing.

BONUS PICK: One of my all-time favorite clips of any musician, ever: Dylan playing "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," taken from the documentary Don't Look Back. Dylan has been hounded throughout the tour by requests to meet Donovan, his supposed British doppleganger. Their entourages finally force the meeting, and Dylan is visibly annoyed. Donovan sings a dippy song to his adoring crowd (0:55--check out that guy!) while Dylan sarcastically eggs him on ("that's a good song, man"). Then, Dylan begins the yet-unreleased "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," ostensibly written about a dying relationship. Here, Dylan directs its venom and lyrical power at Donovan. He sets out to eviscerate the notion that this guy is his equal as a writer. He slows the song to a crawl, stretching out every word and enunciating every syllable to nearly painful effect, as if to say, "are you getting this?" The emphasis on "it's all over NOW, baby blue," sung directly at Donovan, is the nail in the coffin (Dylan looks at him on "over," at the 3:23 mark, again at 4:19). Revel in Donovan's deflated mug at the 3:36-3:42 mark.

This is the reason John Lennon waited months after the initial invite before meeting Dylan: he wanted to wait until he was his "ego equal." Wise move.

My brother once compared this performance to Shaq blocking a rookie's shot into the 9th row. Amen. Seriously, I can't recommend this clip enough.

Cory Branan, "The Kiss Song"
"I don't want to Lick It Up, you f*cking buttercup." The whole song is a playful dig at mid-80's Kiss ("you took off your makeup and broke my heart"), so any lyric would do. A great, back-handed homage.

Beatles, "Polythene Pam"
Absolutely everything about this minute-long-song is a Who-impression. It's not necessarily a negative impression, but it is undoubtedly silly. The Beatles think enough of the Who to give them exactly 73 seconds, then move on.

What are some other great moments in pop-song trash-talk? What are your favorites? Hit up the comments and let me know!

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