Charles “Chuckles” Berry, 1926–2017

To paraphrase Mark Ellen (who was talking about Van Morrison), I would guess there are two kinds of people when it comes to Chuck Berry: those who like his music; and those who have met him. As a black artist whose work had been appropriated, stolen, lifted, plagiarised etc. several times by white artists, Chuck Berry had every right to be a miserable old git. But while Lennon was a very naughty boy when he stole “Here come old flat top”, I’ve always considered it more of a reference/quote/homage than an outright steal, and I don’t think the Beatles thought they were pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. They weren’t trying to pull a Led Zep.

After all, The Beats had already covered both “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music”, and if Chuck Berry had a beef it was with the organised criminals who owned his publishing, notorious as they were for not paying out royalties. Lennon recorded “You Can’t Catch Me” in 1975 for Rock ‘n’ Roll, so Berry was paid back in spades.

Anyway, Berry’s own “Maybelline,” one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records, was heavily based on the song “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Bob Wills in 1938. And “Ida Red” itself included lyrics from F.W. Root’s song “Sunday Night”, written in 1878. In other words, it’s disingenuous of anyone to sue anyone else over copyright, which is really designed to protect artists from exploitation by greedy and unethical corporations and shouldn’t involve artists getting pissed at each other for doing what creative people do.

Great artists steal. (And even that quote is problematic, having been borrowed/stolen, reframed and so on, through multiple iterations. In its current form, it probably owes more to Steve Jobs than Picasso.)

So where does that leave us with Chuck Berry? Watching Springsteen work up and perform “You Never Can Tell” is one of the pleasures of my life; but watching Springsteen stand awkwardly to one side while Berry performs “Johnny B Goode” at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, treating Bruce and the E Street Band like just another one of his cheapskate pickup bands, is simply embarrassing.

Berry was an originator, one of the first to make this thing called rock music, and the first to write literate, intelligent lyrics that stand the test of time.

But he was a miserable old git and impossible to like. Which is before you get to the video cameras he allegedly hid in toilets at various properties he owned; or the 20 months he served for transporting a 14 year old girl across state lines for “immoral purposes”. Now you can point to the latter incident and consider the all-white juries and the different times, as they say on the Simon Mayo programme (it was 1959), but filming women with hidden cameras in the toilet is just nasty.

All of which is before you get to the armed robbery rap.

Monstrous ego, shoddy live performances with badly rehearsed pickup bands, sexual offences, armed robbery… Add to this the crime of “My Ding-a-Ling” and I’m afraid Chuckles is just not my kind of guy.


Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run (book)


Elodie got this for Christmas, but she also got Johnny Marr’s book, so I nabbed this to read quickly. I confess, I’d been looking forward to Elodie receiving it.

Springsteen writes very well – you can hear his voice behind the long sentences, full of detail, full of lists and parataxis. And the story he tells is a fascinating one, full of honesty about his early life, his career, and his battles with depression, which seem to have got harder as he’s got older. He doesn’t mention the incident, but what you read herein puts the 30th birthday cake-into-the-crowd hurling into a new perspective.

The best section is probably the one covering his early life, his extended family which had fallen on hard times, and lived in a crumbling house with just one heater. Springsteen’s often described as ‘blue collar’, but that doesn’t really do justice to the crushing poverty and hardship he experienced. He’s very articulate about his father – the figure who lurks in the background of so many of his songs – whose own mental health battles are so much a part of Springsteen’s formation.

He considers himself lucky to have been born when he was, able to experience rock’s first and second waves directly (Elvis and the Beatles, in shorthand), and then to be part of a vibrant local music scene that was driven and inspired by those waves. And when he finds himself, years later, on stage between Mick Jagger and George Harrison, he reflects on how extraordinary it is that he, just one of thousands of young kids to be inspired to pick up a guitar by the Stones and the Beatles, should end up on that stage.

The early life, the early musical experiences, these are the more interesting parts of this book. He spares us, however, the details of his life on the road, or even too much about the months spent in the studio. He mentions key events, key dates, the well-known difficulties he’s had with capturing the right sound (“stiiiiiiick!”), but he doesn’t dwell too much. He does mention that the hardships of his early life with a road band (cruddy motels etc.) were nothing compared to the cruddy environment he grew up in – it was a step up.

I was looking forward to reading about the times he abandoned (and then re-formed) the E Street Band, though he only hints at the reasons why. It seems clear he grew tired of the ‘Daddy’ role that being The Boss entailed, and it’s even clearer that it was the two members of the band who died young that were the source of greatest pain. The chaotic lives of Danny Federici and ‘C’ (Clarence Clemons) seem to have been ongoing issues. Of the two albums he released on the same day in 1992, the ones that preceded his first non-E-Street tour, he says nothing.

I lost interest a little towards the end. Maybe because I was reading too fast, but I suspect because of the way this book was written. The chapters are short, full of pleasurable passages, but also saltatorial, jumping from point to point, and sometimes repetitive. He says at the end that he originally wrote it out in longhand, over seven years, and it bears the hallmarks of something that has been written as a series of chunks. From about halfway through, there’s less of a narrative, and it becomes more like a memoir than an autobiography. Here’s the time I met Frank Sinatra. Here’s the time I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Here’s the time there was an earthquake. And so on.

But that’s a quibble for someone who likes to read for the plot, and should not detract from the many interesting chapters and sections that the book contains. It’s a great read for the Bruce fan, or for someone interested in the music business, and maybe even for those with an interest in mental health. In his introduction, he hints that the idea of the book is to explain not just how he can get up on stage and play 3+ hour shows every night, but why. And, of course, the why is the more interesting question.

Bruce at the Ricoh, Coventry

13308376_10153512132981555_4311945540071433760_oIt’s been 23 years since I last saw Springsteen live. That time, at the Milton Keynes Bowl, was disappointing. The Bowl is a terrible venue, for a start, and Bruce was without the E Street Band. The show was lacklustre, and has no fond memories for me. Prior to that, I saw him twice at Wembley. Having sworn off outdoor/stadium gigs forever after the Bowl, I didn’t expect to see him again. But then, turns out, my youngest daughter became a huge fan, and she’d been hankering to see him live for a couple of years.

So we booked tickets to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry. As stadia go, it’s not too big (40,000 capacity for concerts – about half the size of Wembley), so weren’t too far from the stage. But it was still outdoors, and the sound wasn’t great.

We parked in one of the park and walk car parks – and paid handsomely for the privilege (£20, fucksake). We joined the throng at the nearby shopping centre and had a coffee in Costa and then some food. There were massive queues everywhere, but the car park bratwurst stand wasn’t too busy. An awful lot of people were drinking, clearly anticipating more rip-off prices in the venue. There’s not much dignity in that, is there? If only venue operators weren’t so greedy, eh?

Getting into the venue was hassle-free, and we didn’t have to wait too long for Springsteen to hit the stage, playing “For You” solo at the piano. There was no support, and he started fairly promptly after 6:30, then played through to 10 pm without a break. It was a 33-song set, with no fucking around. He generally counted into the next song while the final chord of the previous was still reverberating. He did a few sign requests, pulled a couple of kids from the audience, all the usual stuff. Each set list includes something not played on the tour yet. In the US, this was a play through of The River, but for the European stadium gigs, he’s playing a standard set, favouring The River slightly. Bruce Springsteen is 66 years old. (Nils is a whippersnapper at 64, Miami Steve is 65 etc.)

The highlight for me was “Drive All Night,” but perhaps the most affecting moment came during “10th Avenue Freeze Out” when a montage of Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici hit the screens following the line, “When the change was made uptown
And the Big Man joined the band…”

So it was all good, but then we had to get out and get home. Oh, man. I mean, you expect things to be bad. We were warned it could take up to 90 minutes. Well, it took 40 minutes to get out of the rip-off parking field. Then we were sitting in standing traffic for another half an hour, before pulling a U-turn and driving in the opposite direction until Google maps offered an alternative route (via the M40 rather than the M6). Anyway, three hours after the concert was over, we completed the one hour drive home.



The River and Southeastern

I entirely blame the crapness of the iTunes curators for this, but Jason Isbell and his album Southeastern completely passed me by until recently, when I read about him in an article by one of my two trusted sources for Country music news and information. The first of these is Grady Smith, who has been writing about Country for the Guardian for a while. I think he started around October last year, but it took a while for me to notice, because as far as the Graun is concerned, this is something for their US edition and doesn’t get the prominence on the UK home pages.

The second source is Chuck Dauphin, whose column The 615 on is a useful source of release information. While both sources are male, both are critical of the Country music industry’s current sexism and obsession with (subtextually racist) songs about trucks and beer. Their tastes don’t exactly match with mine, but they at least offer a path to check things out.

The problem with Jason Isbell is that iTunes doesn’t even categorise him under Country but (depending on the album) under Blues or Singer/Songwriter, the latter of which is possibly the least useful genre category that music can offer.

Southeastern came out in 2013 and is under Blues, which is just ridiculous. I mean, yes, all pop music has its roots in the blues, but watch the video above of an excellent performance of the wonderful song ‘Stockholm’ on the Letterman show and tell me you’d file this one under Blues. I love it when a good album has a truly excellent track like that, because it means there is absolutely no work involved in deciding whether I like something or not. So, thanks to whichever of my two sources it was, Grady or Chuck, I downloaded Southeastern and have now pre-ordered the forthcoming Something More Than Free.

I really like his sound – guitars and keys with a bit of violin, it’s quintessentially Country. He has a smooth voice with some break in it and writes great melodies. ‘Stockholm’ is my new jam.

Meanwhile, back in 1980, Bruce Springsteen released an album called The River. There are a few things I remember around the release of this record. The first is that Julie Burchill wrote a scathing review of it in the NME, which was never a publication known for identifying a stone classic on initial release. Turns out, Burchill’s sneering at Springsteen’s use in his lyrics of simple girls’ names ending in -ie or -y (why, like Julie, Julie?) and what she saw as his over-use of cars and highways, was kind of missing the point. The second thing I remember is that the double album was priced as a single and came in a single, non-gatefold sleeve. I was slightly disappointed at the use of tiny black and white photographs (for example of the art installation Cadillac Ranch, immortalised in the song), but can’t knock him for trying to look after his fans’ pockets.

And the final thing I remember is that I got The River for my 18th birthday and left home (just like in the song ‘Independence Day’) about three weeks later.

So what of The River? Did it deserve the Burchill sneers, or does it stack up as the pinnacle of a great musician-songwriter’s career, Springsteen’s equivalent of Blood on the Tracks? Well, of course I’m biased, but there are a number of reasons I think this is his best work. Born in the USA, while it was a huge seller and transformed his career, is spoiled for me through the use of nasty synths and that wardrobe-falling-downstairs-in-a-cathedral 80s drum sound which is just horrible. Following that, Tunnel of Love was less bombastic but equally compromised by 80s production trends, while the Human Touch/Lucky Town release dumps the E Street Band and have the air of a mid-life crisis. They meant a lot to me at the time, but I don’t think they hold up today.

Of course, and to continue to draw the parallel with Dylan, Born to Run is his Highway 61 Revisited, and I’m not for one moment suggesting that it and Darkness on the Edge of Town aren’t essential. But The River has a scale and a breadth and a maturity in terms of songwriting that make it stand out for me.

To address the car thing: yes, it’s not a mistake that so many of the songs feature cars. It’s an album which rests on the automobile as a metaphor for freedom, prosperity and social mobility, Springsteen’s version of the green light in The Great Gatsby. Cars are for driving – but in this case it might be driving your girlfriend’s mum down to the unemployment agency. Or it might be driving endless highways in fear of ending up buried in the ground at the Cadillac Ranch, a symbol of the dead American dream. Or it might mean driving all night because it’s the only job you can find; or driving a stolen car both fearing and hoping you’ll get caught. It’s about the way you keep doing the thing you used to do because it’s all you know how to do, because you don’t know how to change and are trapped in your life.

I repurchased The River for the third time (!) the other day and I’ve been listening to it as an album for the first time in over 20 years. Whereas my restless younger self would keep skipping tracks and playing favourites over and over, as was my habit, I’ve been listening all the way through, from start to finish. And it’s great. Not a single dud track, which is incredible, given its length. It helps that my younger daughter is really into Springsteen right now, and it’s so great to be seeing this stuff through her fresh perspective. You cease to doubt something’s status as a classic when it speaks so powerfully to a different generation, 35 years on. Thirty-five years, and it sounds fresh and bright and full of raw emotion – and a river runs through it.

In many ways a pessimistic album, it was released at the beginning of the Reagan/Thatcher era, and the start of the decline of our civil society into the cauldron of nasty selfishness that has replaced human decency and empathy as far as political discourse is concerned. But to listen to The River is to remember that humanist values are still the best that we have, and that our ability to empathise with other people is what makes us good.

An ambulance finally came and took him to Riverside
I watched as they drove him away
And I thought of a girlfriend or a young wife
And a state trooper knocking in the middle of the night
To say your baby died in a wreck on the highway

Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
And I watch my baby as she sleeps
Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
Thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway


One of the undoubted benefits of the YouTube era has been the surprising availability of almost miraculous cultural artefacts. For example, I still can’t quite get my head around the fact that you can find a concert film of the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964. Back in 1977, when the 1964 and 1965 concerts were included  on a vinyl release, I would scarcely have believed that one day I would be able to watch – and in reasonable quality, considering it was 50 years ago.

I blogged a while ago about the appearance (on the UK iTunes store, at least) of Bruce Springsteen bootlegs, particularly from the 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. YouTube has a number of gems, too. I was never lucky enough to see Springsteen in the pre-stadium days, but the bootlegs and YouTube allow you to get a taste. You can also compare, perhaps unfortunately, to more recent shows.

Back in the early 1980s, all we knew was that there was a film of Springsteen performing Rosalita in Phoenix in 1978. I remember it being featured in the legendary Jeff Bridges-presented documentary about rock music (“Rock ‘n’ Roll – phew!”). The 9+ minute video was an tantalising glimpse of just how exciting Springsteen could be in his heyday.

1978 Springsteen is loose and rangy, diving all over the stage like a deranged mannequin. His set consisted of recent songs from Darkness, classics from his first three albums, unreleased tracks (“Independence Day”, “Fire”, “Because the Night”, “The Ties That Bind”), and classic covers, such as the Detroit Medley and the extended “Quarter to Three.” You simply cannot watch without being astonished at his energy levels, his showmanship, his rapport with the audience, the love and trust evident in his relationship with Clarence Clemons.

Recent Springsteen is still brilliant, that’s not what I’m saying. He knows that every night is someone’s first and only show, and he brings it to the absolute limit every single time. But 60-year-old Bruce is (of course) stiffer, less athletic than 29-year-old Bruce, and his voice is tighter and has less range. He’s also performing in a completely different way, simply because of the nature and size of the venues. And the E Street Band of 1978 was smaller, playing more intimate venues, and I’m afraid much better than the E Street Band of today. Two of the original members are dead, and the additional personnel have to be there, I suppose, because Bruce and Clarence together used to be the show, and older Bruce needs more help in the vast arenas he now plays around the world.

The Capitol Theatre show is available as an audio Bootleg – or (see above) as a pretty ropy black and white video recording of a TV broadcast. It’s low contrast, horribly degraded, visually, looking more or less the same as the Beatles Hollywood Bowl footage of 14 years earlier. But: it is brilliant. It’s Springsteen the guitar hero, the guy who leapt onto amplifiers and onto pianos and PA stacks – health and safety be damned. It’s the Springsteen of the 9-minute “Prove It All Night”, the 14-minute “Quarter to Three”.

There is a colour video from the 1978 tour. It came from slightly earlier in the summer, and was probably a local TV show, this time in Maryland. In spite of the colour, the video quality still leaves much to be desired, but that doesn’t matter. There’s something incredibly moving about performances of “Thunder Road” and so on in this era. I feel incredibly lucky to have access to these historical documents, the kinds of things I would never have believed could exist, back then. And maybe – just like the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show, which is available in very good quality – they will emerge in more pristine condition.

I defy anyone to watch the 1978 Detroit Medley and not feel unconstrained joy.

Winterland Night – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Winterland Night (Live)UK iTunes Store users who are also Bruce Springsteen fans will have noticed a burgeoning of bootlegs on the store over the past couple of years. There’s some kind of loophole, right? There are so many by now that it’s hard to choose between them. For example, from the 1978 (Darkness on the Edge of Town) tour alone, there are: Capitol Theatre, Passaic (New Jersey); Roxy Theatre (LA); Fox Theatre (Atlanta); and Winterland (San Francisco). Being unlicensed recordings, many of these are available in more than one version – at more than one price.

Take Winterland Night, which was broadcast on the radio in December of 1978 and famously features a live performance of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” You can buy this show for £7.99 or £14.99. Both are complete shows. Both are rip-offs, since the original recordings are bootlegs. What to do, then? Well, I used to have Winterland Night on a cassette tape, back in the day. I wanted to hear it again, so I thought about it for a few days and bought the £7.99 one.

I first heard it back in the early 1980s, when, through a friend of a friend, I had a regular supply of Bruce boots. The recordings were always on tapes, and always recordings of recordings of recordings, so quite stretchy with lots of wow and flutter. I was quite keen to hear the digitally mastered version of the original radio broadcasts.

The audio quality is okay. Like all radio broadcasts, it all sounds a bit over-compressed, and there’s a strong sense of “through the desk” with very little crowd noise. Sometimes, a bootleg from-the-crowd, while being of worse quality than a radio feed, will have more of the feel of being there. Still, Winterland Night is a decent document of a single gig on a single night. Knowing he was on the radio, knowing it would be bootlegged, Springsteen performs for posterity.

1978 was a very good year for Bruce gigs. He wasn’t yet so huge that he was playing the vast stadia he’s been playing ever since Born in the USA (1984). We’re also still in the era of long, long intros, stories, and a regular repertoire of crowd favourites such as the Detroit Medley. For me, this is the foundation of his reputation as a live performer. It’s pre-Nils Lofgren, but also pre-having too many guitars and other musicians on the stage. This is hard-core E Street Band, with much of the burden borne by Roy Bittan and Springsteen himself on lead guitar. The album just released, Darkness, is one of his very best, and the live versions of songs such as “Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” “Prove it all Night,” “Racing in the Street” and “Candy’s Room” are electric.

I mainly bought this so my youngest daughter could have a definitive version of her favourite, “Prove it all Night,” which at thirteen minutes and twenty-three seconds includes the full, unfiltered, Professor Roy Bittan piano intro and the scorching, hyper-real, guitar solo – all of which takes place before the song-as-recorded even begins.

Other highlights? “Fire”: “The Fever,” (as recorded by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes); “Because the Night”; a fourteen-minute “Backstreets” and the Detroit Medley. Hold your nose, but recommended.

p.s. A very special thanks to Autocorrect for changing Winterland to Hinterland every time I typed it.

Was London “at last” ready for Bruce Springsteen in 1975?



(That’s just to fulfil the obligation that all headlines that ask questions can be answered with “No.” Read on to know why.)

A perusal of the UK Top 40 album chart for the week of 22 November 1975 is enough to confirm the answer:

  1. PERRY COMO 40 Greatest Hits
  2. JIM REEVES 40 Golden Greats
  3. PETERS AND LEE Favourites
  4. MIKE OLDFIELD Ommadawn
  5. MAX BOYCE We All Had Doctors’ Papers
  6. ROXY MUSIC Siren
  7. ELTON JOHN Rock of the Westies
  8. ROD STEWART Atlantic Crossing
  9. ROGER WHITTAKER The Very Best of
  10. DAVID ESSEX All the Fun of the Fair.



There’s a big gap between Perry Como and Bruce Springsteen, and I don’t just mean in terms of chart positions. It’s hard to imagine, these days, a UK in which Perry Como would be number one, in a top ten that included Jim Reeves, Roger Whittaker, and Peters and Lee.

I used to want to stab my eyes out and puncture my eardrums when Peters and fucking Lee were on Top of the Pops.

So, I would say that apart from the few thousand people who bought tickets for Springsteen’s two nights at the Hammersmith Odeon (capacity just over 3000), London was most definitely not ready (as in “prepared”) for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. On the other hand, they may well have been ready (as in “desperate”). Watching the DVD of the concert now, I’m struck by how different the E Street Band were to anything then in the charts. I suppose the closest to them in that Top 10 would be Roxy Music, but really? The extended improvisations, the veering between styles, and the pure, tight as a drum funkiness that the E Streeters could put on at will were extraordinary. People might have expected a prog rock or blues act to do 17-minute versions of something, but not for something as groovy as “Kitty’s Back,’ nor for something as rock-operatic as “Jungleland”.

As to the rangy, floppy-hatted little guy who fronted the band, who could be prepared for him? Britain would have to go through the sheer horror of the Boomtown Rats being actually popular before it would realise that they were just a shitty, badly-reproduced facsimile of a far more powerful and talented ensemble.