Festival Hall, West Melbourne, Australia
Sometime in 1975
The sweat, smoke, and cold misery of thousands of defeated fist-fighters never seems to leave the suspended air of Melbourne’s Festival Hall. Even though the venue’s famous boxing ring has been disassembled for tonight’s show, the hall’s echo-enhancing walls still reverberate with the tolling clang of the bell. It’s a big, bloodied, booming cavern.
I’m here as a wide-eyed 13 year old anticipating the presence of true rock’n’roll royalty. Charles Edward Anderson Berry or, if you prefer, “my man, the King, the real thing, the ring-a-ding-ding, the oh so very merry, Mr Chuck Berry”, (as Frankie J. Holden would later enthuse). I’m here with my friend, the be-quiffed and side-burned Brendon, who is to my eyes the perfect picture of an archetypal 1950’s rock’n’roller. Even he, the epitome of laid-back cool, seems a little excited.
The stark house lights are switched off and Chuck’s backing band alight the stage. From my seat they look a bit uncertain, wary perhaps, as they plug in and run through some warm up tunes. Their sound bounces around the hall, colliding into itself before dropping like damp clay into our laps. Still, I thought, things will get better when Berry appears.
They don’t. There’s a big roar when the headliner walks on cradling his famous cherry red Gibson ES-355 guitar.
“Good evening,” he declares. “With your permission we would now like to start the SHOW”.
A bigger roar. And then, ringin’ out just like a (sponged) bell, the classic guitar figure that fanfares the beginning of Johnny B. Goode. There’s trouble on stage, though. The band seem to hang back from the beat, as eyes dart from bass player to drummer, anxious and tentative. The uncertain performance is being battered by the acoustics of the boxing arena. The song ends and Berry returns to the microphone. He stares above the landscape of audience and waits for the applause to stop. “With your per-MISS-ion we would NOW like to start the show”.
The next song begins and dives off the stage like a damp paper dart. At song’s end, Berry again, waits, glares and intones, “With YOUR per-MISS-ion, WE would NOW like to start the SHOW”. I realise at this point he is addressing his band.
Years later I would learn that Berry would tour essentially as a solo act, moving from city to city and picking up a scratch band at short notice. Sometimes they’d rehearse, sometimes not. Sometimes they be given a set list, at other times they would have to pick up each tune as Berry began it, in the moment, in front of the audience. Sometimes not a single word was exchanged, on stage or off, between band leader and band.
I’d been waiting all evening for Maybellene, perhaps my favourite CB song. Tonight, it fared no better than his other songs at this show. I yearned for the snappy V8 chug of the studio recording, the whipsmartarse syncopation of Berry’s vocals and his celebratory, chromium-plated guitar solo. The next day I tentatively placed my copy of Maybellene on the turntable, fearing that the song may had been defiled by the previous night’s version. It rang out, true, clear, purposeful, belligerent, declarative and full of freedom. The lines between the literal and the figurative, the car and the girl, his desire and hers were blurred, as they always had been, but this lack of distinction, housed as it is in the cracking performance, only adds to the propulsion of the song.
I’d smuggled in a small cassette player and bootlegged the show. The resulting tape (now long lost) was rarely played. It sounded like a Chuck Berry cover band rehearsing in an aircraft hangar. Which I guess it was.
Or maybe a better description might be that this was a prize fight, something befittingly occurring in what used to be called The House of Stoush. Here was a solo black performer fighting his white band, his white audience, his white promoter and his whole history of white oppression, white rip-off and white justice. Pummelled from infinite rounds of dodgy deals and default racism, Berry was still swinging…but now less like how a musician of his brilliance should and more like a proud but punch drunk boxer.
Chuck Berry died 18 March 2017, aged 90.