Monday, September 07, 2020

The President Of Rock And Roll- Chuck Berry’s “Hail, Hail Rock and Roll” (1987)-A Music Film Review

The President Of Rock And Roll- Chuck Berry’s “Hail, Hail Rock and Roll” (1987)-A Music Film Review 

DVD Review

By Associate Music Critic Lance Lawrence 

Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, starring Chuck Berry with a big part for The Rolling Stone’s Keith Richard and appearances by a number of rock and roll legends like Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton, Etta James, directed by Taylor Hackford, 1987 

Earlier this year (2017) when the legendary “first wave” rock and roller Chuck Berry passed away I startled a number of my colleagues by declaring Chuck Berry the first black president here in America.  (That “first wave” meaning present at the creation 1950s times not the later 1960s revival with the British Invasion led by the Beatles and The Rolling Stones which also lifted Mr. Berry and others back to the limelight from those who worshipped that earlier sound in Europe after it had faded almost from view in America except among a few aficionados.) Of course my frame of reference was not directly political since we all know that Bill Clinton was the first “black” president but rather that Chuck Berry was the first president of rock and roll, the thing that counted for the young back in the 1950s.   

At that time not only had I startled some colleagues with that little bombshell but I apparently nettled the regular music critic here (and at the on-line American Music Gazette) and my boss, Zack James, when I argued that while Elvis may have been the “king” back in the day Chuck was the Chief. Here is what I said there:

“I am one who, belatedly, has come to recognize that Elvis (I don’t think I need to mention a last name but if you need one just ask your parents or grandparents and you will get your answer in two seconds flat) was indeed the “king” of rock and roll. He took, as Sam Phillips the legendary founder of Sun Records and first finder of Elvis in old Memphis town who has been quoted many, many times as saying, the old black rhythm and blues songs and put a white, a white rockabilly, face on the genre and made the crossover in a big way. So I will not argue that point with Zack. Will not argue either that Elvis’ act, those swirling rotating off their axis hips make all the girls, hell, all the women sweat. Point Zack.                          

“But see I am a good republican (with a very purposeful small ‘r”) and as such I believe that the “divine right of kings,” the theory that Zack is apparently working under was discredited a few hundred years ago when Oliver Cromwell and his crowd took old Charles I’s head off his shoulders. And while I would have wished no such fate for the “king” his influence other than for purely sentimental reasons these days is pretty limited.

“A look at this CD selection will tell a more persuasive tale. Sure early Elvis, Good Rockin’ Tonight, Jailhouse Rock, It Alright, Mama spoke to 1950s teenage angst and alienation read: lovesickness, but beyond that he kind of missed the boat of what teenagers, teenagers around my way and around Zack’s older brother’s way, wanted to hear about. Guys wanted to hear about anyway. Cars, getting girls in cars, and hanging out at places like drive-in theaters and drive-in restaurants looking for girls. In short thoughts of sex and sexual adventure. This may seem kind of strange today. Not the sex and sexual adventure part but the car and drive-ins part.

“Those were the days of the “golden age” of the automobile when every guy, girls too, wanted to learn how to drive and get a car, or at least use the family car for those Friday and Saturday night cruising expeditions for which we lived. (I hear anecdotally all the time about 20 somethings who don’t have their driver’s license and are not worried by that horrendous fact. Could care less about car ownership in the age of Uber and Lift. Madness, sheer madness).  Cars for running to the drive-in to check out who was at the refreshment stand, cars for hitting “lovers’ lane if you got lucky. For that kind of adventure you needed something more than safe Elvis, safe Elvis who made your own mother secretly sweat so you know where he was at. Say you found some sweet sixteen, found some sweet little rock and roller, say you found that your parents’ music that was driving you out of the house in search of, say you were in search of something and you really did want to tell Mister Beethoven to hit the road. Needed some help to figure out why that ever-loving gal was driving you crazy when all you really wanted to worry about was filling the gas tank and making sure that heap of your was running without major repairs to cramp your style.             

“Take a look at the lyrics in the selections in this CD: Maybelline, Sweet Little Sixteen, Sweet Little Rock and Roller, Nadine, Johnny B. Goode, Roll over Beethoven. Then try to tell me that the man with the duck walk, the man with the guitar from hell, the man who dared to mess with Mister’s women (hell we have all been beaten down on that one since Adam’s time, maybe before) one Chuck Berry didn’t speak to us from the depth of the 1950s. Hail to the Chief.”     
I made my case before I had watched or rather re-watched the music film under review the Keith Richards-inspired Hail, Hail Rock and Roll centered on the life and times of Chuck Berry (until 1986) and two concerts he gave in honor of his hometown Saint Louis from where he started out to change the music landscape of the young. This film I will force-feed if necessary to one Zack James, boss or no boss, to put paid to the “controversy” around who was who the “king” or the “president”

Naturally the film had to deal with the central question of the expansion of rock and roll from its rockabilly and rhythm and blues beginnings. So naturally as well the question of race in the beginning to heat up start of the black civil rights movement days came to the fore as it did in every aspect of social life in segregated America. As for music Sam Phillips thought he had one answer-get a white guy to swing and sway like a black guy and make all the women, white women now, sweat. And Sam was right. But as fully documented here one Chuck Berry had an idea that he could do the reverse slam-dunk cross-over with lyrics and a back beat that the sullen 1950s red scare Cold War benighted teens with discretionary money to spend would gravitate to. And Chuck was right. Right even as the black and white kids broke down the barriers between them in any given concert or dance hall. Once again hail to the Chief.

[That Saint Louis concert produced many great Chuck Berry performances of his greatest hits both by himself and by his guest artists. Beyond Chuck’s outstanding performances stand-out work was done by the guy who inspired the guy who thing Keith Richards being Keith Richards one of the greatest guitarists around and Etta James. But for my money Linda Ronstadt stole the show with her booming rendition of Chuck’s Back in the U.S.A.]  

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