It was in the early 80s when I was about 3 or 4 years old that I was first introduced to the music of Chuck Berry. Dad brought home the cassette tape of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Concert In Central Park and amidst all the P. Simon writers credits was one for a certain C. Berry.
This is an album I have no memory of not knowing as it was a staple in our big yellow van in the 80s, alongside Paul Simon’s solo Graceland, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA and Cliff Richard’s Small Corners. These are the albums that anytime I hear them as an adult I’m still transported in time to the 80s and driving around Kuala Lumpur (where we lived 1983-1990) in that yellow van.
When I found out that Chuck Berry – one of the most influential musicians to ever have lived – had died aged 90, the first song I played was Maybellene. And after listening to Chuck’s original classic, I went back and watched on YouTube the Simon & Garfunkel cover from that early 80s reunion.
Honouring Chuck Berry’s gargantuan influence on rock & roll through a cover makes sense to me because after news of his death broke, the tributes from other superstars were remarkable. Whether it was Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger or Carole King or Brian Wilson, the absolute A-list of the industry were lining up to declare Chuck Berry as one of their biggest idols and inspirations.
Chuck Berry wasn’t just a star because of his own hits, his charisma and the way he played guitar in the early, wildly exciting days of rock & roll. He was a star because his influence and imprint can be heard on literally hundreds upon hundreds of guitar-driven rock & roll songs from 1955 onwards by the biggest names in history.
That his influence extends to his lyrics shouldn’t be overlooked either. Maybellene is a great case in point with the rapid fire lines (including made-up gems like “motorvatin'”) providing a pre-cursor to rap music almost quarter of a century before that genre came about. In the interim, it opened the door for a generation of songwriters to write about cars and girls and the preoccupations of the teenage mind.
The Simon & Garfunkel live cover is grand for all sorts of reasons, notably the way it’s perfectly tacked on to the back of the similarly-styled Kodachrome (originally a solo Paul song from 1973). Both Paul and Art spit out the brilliant wordplay about Cadillacs, Coupe de Ville’s and open roads without even a hint of a fumble and the crowd of half a million clearly love it. But the real novelty is to actually watch the clip and see how nonchalant Paul and Art are, almost to the point of boredom.
Paul in particular is virtually expressionless until the final chorus when his eyes flicker into life, like he’s belatedly realised he’s taken for granted how almightily cool this song from his childhood was and still is. Not only that, how much he and Art are absolutely nailing every line, every beat and every harmony despite it being 11 years since they broke up. A lack of onstage pizzazz never mattered so little and all things considered, The Concert In Central Park is still up there with the greatest live albums of all time.
Here it is – the Simon & Garfunkel version of Maybellene from Central Park in New York, 1981. And beneath that, the original by the man who John Lennon once said of: “If you tried to give rock & roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry”. RIP.