There’s a great sequence in the wonderful Back to the Future film, where a young Marty McFly picks up a guitar, sits in with a smooth dance band of the day, and rips into a Chuck Berry riff – morphing the band into a Rock outfit in an instant, and setting the whole place alight. The delicious joke is that Chuck Berry hears this on the phone and learns this way of playing from Marty. It’s a very subtle piece of tongue-in-cheek filmic history-rewriting, and of course Chuck was in on the gag. It has a real truth embedded in it, too, because, as far as I know, nobody knows where or how Chuck got inspired to play like that. It’s as if he must have tuned in to an alien, or a voice from Above, or, like in this film, copped it from a time traveller from the future.
That’s how blindingly NEW Chuck Berry’s style was. Remember we’re coming out of an era where the guitar was only just starting to be heard as a lead instrument – a ‘voice’ – in popular music. Until that time it had been used in orchestras and big bands purely as a rhythmic ‘chug’ in the background, until it became electrified, and amplified – notably by Les Paul, but equally notably by Django Reinhart. Suddenly here is this wiry little black guy with a wicked smile and a glint in his eye, singing his own songs which are in themselves quite risqué, with a wry dry voice, but also underpinning his performances and recordings with a guitar which rudely led the whole thing … his riffing was as rude and cheeky as his voice. It’s actually more than this. He hit those tight top strings of his guitar with such gusto that they actually made a kind of insistent clanging sound (one of his most famous lyrics (in Johnny B. Goode) says “He could play that guitar like ringin’ a bell”. I sincerely believe there is not a single rock guitarist in the world who hasn’t been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Chuck Berry’s ‘bell’ playing, and who hasn’t occasionally dabbled in his trademark double-stopped riffing style – which opens Johnny B Goode, Bye Bye Johnny, Carol, and many others among his classic rock records.
Yes, I’ll own up straight away … there’s a very deliberate direct quote in my playing in the coda of ‘Now I’m Here’ – followed by another nod … the thrown-in chorus “Go go go little Queenie”. This was in a song which was already a tribute to Mott The Hoople, whom we’d been supporting on tour, and who also can trace some of their influences to Chuck. The whole song is really about our swim in the Rock River which flows, and grows, and lives, largely because it IS so self-conscious about enjoying its roots… More at Brian May.com.
Such a brilliant tribute from the world’s best guitarist in the world’s best band.