Another from the brilliant Chuck Berry — I first heard it from Tom Rush, but quickly hunted up the original, and it started me on a never-ending Berry binge. I eventually had every album he made between 1957 and 1964, which is testimony in itself, because the fifties was not a decade of great rock ‘n’ roll albums. Rock ‘n’ roll was teen music, which at that point meant singles, since teens were assumed not to have the money for LPs. Rock ‘n’ roll LPs were either hit anthologies or teen-idol pin-up souvenirs, destined to be mooned over by adoring fans, not listened to as serious collections of great tracks. (A few rockers also made LPs for the adult market, separate from their teen hits, but they were people like Connie Francis and Pat Boone.) Or they were simply attempts to cash in on transitory popularity, with a couple of hits and a lot of filler.
As a result, Chuck Berry’s first album, After School Session bids fair to being the first great rock ‘n’ roll auteur LP. Released in 1957, it included none of the hits that had already made him a breakaway star: “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” or “Rock and Roll Music.” Apparently Chess figured that putting the big hits on an album would cut into singles sales, so instead they pulled together a bunch of B-sides and singles that hadn’t hit big — in other words, filler… but at that point Chuck Berry was so prolific that his filler beat virtually anyone else’s best work, whether your standard is quality, variety, or just plain entertainment.
After School Session has blues instrumentals, country music, the pseudo-Caribbean novelty “Havana Moon,” and several of Berry’s greatest compositions: this one, “No Money Down,” and his “black is beautiful” masterpiece, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” with the unforgettable verse:
Milo Venus was a beautiful girl,
She had the world in the palm of her hand.
She lost both her arms in a wrestling match
Over a brown-eyed handsome man.
Who the hell else ever wrote like that? Or, in this one, check out the way he inverts “working hard” and places the “yet” in the first verse:
I’ve been running to and fro,
Hard-working at the mill,
Never fail, in the mail, yet
Come a rotten bill.
The rhythm of his lines is perfect, propulsive, and feels like natural speech, but when you look at them closely, he is constantly inverting and inserting words in unlikely places to get that effect — and it never feels strained or calculating, because his ideas and phrases are so fresh and surprising, and yet so simple and accurate. The litany of complaints in this one range from school to work to the army to marriage, to the phone company. Who ever composed a more compact and instantly relatable narrative than:
Pay phone, something wrong, dime gone, will mail…
He was simply the best.