Published on June 6th, 2016 | by Andy Sedlak
‘Rock It’ — Chuck Berry 
Summary: It turns out Carter-era Berry wasn’t too different from Eisenhower-era Berry. Reinvention must have been of little interest after building the cathedral others worshiped in.
Producer: Chuck Berry
Top 40 U.S. singles: 0
The year was 1979. It was the era of Blondie, Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, Public Image Ltd. and the Little River Band.
Nearly 40 years later, it’s tough to picture Chuck Berry sitting at that lunch table.
Nevertheless, it was the year Berry chose to conclude his recording career. Rock It, released that January, will be celebrating its 40th anniversary before long. Consider that Berry was already 20 years removed from his heyday at the time of its release.
For a man who revolutionized rock and roll one single at a time, the album game always eluded Berry. You’ll never find any of his studio releases on ‘best of’ lists. And as much as his early writings turned rock and roll into a substantive art form, he never dug beyond his initial role as a brick layer. As Keith Richards said, “Chuck was about the bread.”
But think about it … if you invented the iPhone from scratch, would you really be blown away by the third generation of it? Probably not. So we don’t need to wonder why Berry never embraced new wave or punk. Reinvention must have been of little interest after building the cathedral others worshiped in.
This, unfortunately, is a case of complacency. The songs on 1979’s Rock It would have worked on 1965’s Fresh Berry’s or 1970’s Back Home. That doesn’t make them timeless, mind you. It makes them humdrum.
After a stint with Mercury Records, Berry released Rock It on then-struggling Atco Records. By that time, Atco was mostly putting out obscure metal records and albums by unknown European artists. Gary Numan’s “Cars” provided a lift, but the label descended back into obscurity soon after. It’s evident, however, that the folks at Atco were happy to hand the reins over to Berry. He produced Rock It himself and wrote all the songs. He served as chief mixer and engineer. One tune, “Havana Moon,” was a re-recording. The rest were new compositions.
It’s fair to assume Atco didn’t push Berry and he was comfortable with that. As a result, songs were written and recorded within his usual framework.
There’s one exception, and it deserves prominent mention. The album closer, “Pass Away,” is an offbeat five-minute spoken coda that’s unlike the rest of Chuck’s canon. Reminiscent of Donovan’s “Atlantis,” it’s light funk and ambient echoes leave you wondering if Chuck had a musical freak flag he’d been hiding all along.
We’ll probably never know. Given he’s 89 as of this writing, a follow up isn’t likely.
What’s most ironic about Rock It is that Berry’s guitar isn’t the livewire that holds the album together. That honor goes to Johnnie Johnson’s piano. His hardcore boogie woogie playing adds a barroom bounce that’s sorely needed. Chuck must have agreed, as Johnson’s piano is pushed way up in the mix. It’s impossible to miss him on tracks like “Oh What a Thrill,” Wuden’t Me” and “I Never Thought.”
Johnson and Berry go way back. Their friendship began in the early ’50s. Johnson was there when Chuck recorded his first hit, “Maybelline,” in 1955. Other songs featuring Johnson: “School Days,” “Carol,” and “Nadine.” Although it’s long been rumored that Johnson was the inspiration behind “Johnny B. Goode,” he didn’t play on the track.
After Rock It, Johnson disappeared from the music business. I found an article that claimed he worked as a bus driver during that time. Eventually, he returned to touring and sued Berry for co-writing credits on the early hits. He didn’t win. A book came out in 1999 and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame soon followed. He played with Styx in 2005 and re-recorded “Blue Collar Man.” He died later that year. He was 80.
Back in 1979, Berry and Johnson chose to open Rock it with “Move It,” putting the artists back in their classic ragtop. Even though Berry was 53 at the time of Rock It’s release, his voice sounds anything but weathered. His enthusiasm anything but dampened. If he’s traveling down familiar roads, he’s having a ball doing it.
“Oh What A Thrill” is a blend of “C’est la Vie” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” And one wonders what a young band of heathens called the Rolling Stones could have done with “I Need You Baby” had it been recorded 15 years earlier.
From “I Need You Baby:”
He loved other women and I love only you
But you fall on him, Lord, like the morning dew
“I Need You Baby” is a slow, sauntering blues song that charismatic frontmen like Berry or Mick Jagger can ham up and turn into classics. The cut is damn good.
Throwaways like “California” and “House Lights” pass by without much notice. Attentive ears, however, will catch a few of Berry’s sharper insights.
From “I Never Thought:”
I went to Mississippi, I asked Mr. Charlie about my roots
He said, “Turn around, bend over, boy, they’re right here in my boots
Berry’s problem on the record is that he gets smug – even by his standards. The re-recording of “Havana Moon” is unforgivable. The original triumphed in its brevity, but the re-do feels never-ending. It’s not as bad as “My Ding-a-Ling,” but it’s still pitiful in its half-assery.
The smirking protest, “Wuden’t Me,” provides a spark. Once again, he makes points with punch lines.
From “Wuden’t Me:”
Old boy he ran a little stop sign in the south
And he got in deeper trouble with his mouth
They wouldn’t let him phone or make a bail
Just let him sit there in that Delford County jail
It wuden’t me, it wuden’t me
I’m so glad it wuden’t me
Later, Berry sneaks in one of his grimmest lines: Prayin’ ain’t no sure guarantee.
The tumbling number ends with a startling realization…
That’s when he knew he had to get on help his self
‘Stead if sittin’ pinnin’ it on somebody else
He hung a left into that thicket ‘cross the fence
And ain’t nobody ever sawed or seen him since.
Meanwhile, the narrator sings the pleasures of laying low. No guts, no glory, eh?
One look at the cover – a guitar-shaped spaceship somewhat reminiscent of Star Wars – brings you in on the joke. Never a long-form perfectionist, Berry sinks tight riffs and three-chord rockers like Stephen Curry sinks a three ball. In not pondering the recording process, Berry found both his blessing and his curse in the studio.
At the end of the day, it turns out Carter-era Berry wasn’t too dissimilar from Eisenhower-era Berry. Except, of course, he was richer.