Chuck Berry – The Great Twenty-Eight

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I hate when people ask questions like “which is the greatest rock band?” What does that even mean? What is “greatest?” This shit isn’t quantifiable – it’s not like measuring feet above sea level. And even being asked to list my top 10 favorite artists is an impossible task; there is simply too much out there and how do you begin to compare between even 100 artists? Inviting me to rank songs by one band is a more discrete but no less difficult task. I figure at best you can divide a band’s catalog into three parts (great/good/not good), and even then, things get tricky at the margins. Where would I rank Chuck Berry? How important is he to me? I have no fucking idea how to answer those questions. Like with the Beatles, if Berry did not exist, someone else – or multiple someone elses – would have created similar things, eventually. There wouldn’t just be this black hole dramatically altering the future of music; it would be different but roughly (on a grand scale), it would be similar. But he did exist, and where we are today is due in large part to him. Do kids still listen to Chuck Berry? Will bands continue to cover his songs? I doubt it. But that doesn’t change anything.

What I Think of This Album

Jesus. Fucking. Christ. I don’t even know where to begin. Please buy this album. If you care at all about rock ‘n’ roll, it is basically a moral imperative that you own this. These songs are: a) eminently witty; b) fun; c) the best showcases of the importance of a guitar riff; d) full of attitude and spirit; and e) the fucking cornerstones of rock ‘n’ roll.

All the great and critical Berry hits are here:  the iconic “Maybelline;” the racism parable “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man;” “Memphis,” the most heart-breaking song ever; poetic “Nadine;” anthem “School Days;” the warning shot that is “Roll Over, Beethoven;” the song that helped birth the Beach Boys, “Sweet Little Sixteen;” the song that gave the Stones their start, “Come On;” the song the Beatles copied for “Come Together” in “You Can’t Catch Me;” the lyrical geyser of “Too Much Monkey Business,” which inspired Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues;” the guitar masterpiece of “Carol;” sexualized “Little Queenie;” the self-mythologizing “Johnny B. Goode;” and the comical “No Particular Place to Go” (which is just “School Days” with new lyrics, but that’s okay). Plus a bunch of others that you have never heard before but should have, because they are also great (maybe not “Havana Moon”). Each of these songs is literally begging to be studied, not just listened to. Berry was a revolutionary guitarist, a stellar lyricist, a consummate showman, and an undeniable force. He was a visionary, and this collection proves it. Sometimes the sound quality on these recordings is a little lacking, and that can be disappointing but it’s a minor quibble.

The song-by-song credits are delightful to read through. Johnnie Johnson was Berry’s pianist on most of these tracks (with Lafayette Leake on several others, and legend Otis Spann on a few) and oh my, how they could play! The piano parts on the classic Berry songs like “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Reelin’ & Rockin’” are mind-boggling. Also, Willie Dixon played bass, and Etta James and the Moonglows sang backup. And, Jerome Green (Bo Diddley) shook the maracas on “Maybelline” and “30 Days.” The sheer amount of talent on this compilation is nearly incomprehensible.

The Best Thing About This Album

That it exists. Are you kidding me? Literally close your eyes and put your finger anywhere on the track listing. Fine . . . if “Memphis” doesn’t make you cry, you are not human.

Release Date

1982

The Cover Art

Pretty good. The picture could be sharper but I like the pose and Berry’s smile. The primary colors work and I like the Chess Records element across the top on an odd diagonal, and particularly how it integrates the “often imitated, never duplicated” phrase into the graphic.

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