August 1, 2021

Chuck Berry vs. the Beatles: the father enraged with his children

Perhaps the most exciting stories of The Beatles’ career refer to those encounters with other luminaries that shook their time, such as Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley. But beyond the photos and the face-to-face events planned by managers, the artist who perhaps exerted the greatest influence and fascination on the quartet was Chuck Berry.

There is a statistical basis: of all the covers that they released in their official discography – including albums after their dissolution, such as the Anthology saga or the sessions for the BBC – the late guitarist was by far the author most covered by the group.

In the final count, they performed nine versions of their songs, from the Roll over Beethoven sung by George Harrison to less stellar compositions, such as I’m talking about you O I got to find my baby. As a kind of symbolism, the hit that opened the first massive concert they gave in the US – on February 11, 1964 in Washington – was precisely Roll over Beethovon.

And if you continue with the numbers, Carl Perkins was the other great composer cited by the Fab Four, but still far from Berry, with only five covers.

February 9, 1964: The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show.

But the figures are also explained in a veneration that was born long before. Although the irruption of Elvis in the mid-1950s was the electric shock that most impacted John, Paul, George and Ringo, the future Beatles saw in those same days in Berry a much more complete mind, capable of interpreting adolescent life in his lyrics and slipping some darts against postwar life.

Above all, Lennon saw in him the first great social critic of the rock songbook, a keen observer who lashed out at judges (Thirty days), credit sellers (No money down) and high culture (Roll over Beethoven). In fact, Beatle himself explained it in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1971: “He is one of the great poets of all time. We all owe him a lot, including Dylan. In the 50s, when people sang about nothing, he was already writing songs with social comments. “

The author of Imagine placed the guitarist in his historical stature: the creator who took rock from its most frivolous and childish cradle to push it to other standards, where savagery, character and attitude could marry without problems. A name that started a genealogy in popular music that later became The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the entire generation of the 60s capable of turning the sound of guitars into a cultural manifestation without counterweights.

Loved by that proposal, the men of Help! they began to include American songs from their first shows in 1957, when they were still called The Quarrymen.

Over the years, the obeisances to his idol made up some of his most successful albums, right in the first half of the 60s, when the singer was dealing with jail, oblivion and legal disputes for having a relationship with a minor. Just when it was synonymous with sin for the white population, the group revived it for the new generations and for that public that said they detest it.

And in 1972 there was the definitive hug between father and son: Lennon and Yoko Ono met Berry on The Mike Douglas Show, a precise opportunity to play together once and for all. Johnny B. Goode and Memphis, Tennessee were the songs chosen.

But a year later everything seemed to fall apart. Morris Levy, the publisher who controlled Berry’s rights, sued Lennon for the alleged resemblance of one of the lines from The Beatles’ original Come Together to You Can’t Catch Me, written by his protégé.

The Englishman did not want more problems and reached an out-of-court solution: two years later he promised to record an album only of versions of rock and roll classics, a title in which he included two songs by his hero. To further wash wounds, in 1986, with the former Beatle murdered earlier in that decade, his eldest son, Julian, joined Berry on a live singing show Johnny B. Goode, in a show of camaraderie that seemed to bury the clashes in the past.