Chuck Berry: The Greatest Hits Live (1981)

When I was interviewed last year for The Blues Magazine (I know, right? Check me out!) about blues influences, I went on at length about Chuck Berry, citing this album in particular.  The finished article doesn’t mention any of this – understandably, as I’d almost certainly been droning on like the worst kind of fanboy.  Anyway, when searching online for something else entirely, I found this tape – or rather, one very much like it.  Same cover, more or less, similar title (Live).  I thought it was a reissue and snapped it up.  The very next day I saw another one – recognised it as my childhood favourite in its original release (Spot Records, 1981), thought ‘sod it’ and bought it as well.  Three quid each and all.  This must be how Bono buys tapes.

Anyway, long story short (too late), they turned out to be different albums.  Nice.

I ended up doing a bit of research on this album, trying to sort it out from other releases and work out which festival it was recorded at.  I knew, from the meagre liner notes on the Spot release that it was recorded in Toronto in 1969 but there seemed to be two different festivals it could have been – The Rock’n’Roll Revival and Toronto Peace Festival.  Turns out they’re one-and-the-same.  This was a big one-dayer featuring the Plastic Ono Band (who also released a live album from their set), Clapton, Little Richard, Screaming Lord Such, Gene Vincent and The Doors, amongst others.  This was the festival Alice Cooper earned his chicken-killing reputation at.  It was also filmed by Monterey Pop director D.A. Pennebaker as Sweet Toronto.  Pennebaker’s coverage of Chuck Berry’s set was released as the concert film Rock and Roll Music in 1993 and has more recently been reissued as Chuck Berry Live at Toronto Peace.  Chuck’s set has formed the basis for two different live albums as well – this one and 1978’s Live in Concert, both featuring different song selections (as does the concert film).  Doesn’t look like the complete set has ever been compiled on to one release.

Anyway – this unsung gem of a recording is one of my actual favourite albums of all time.  I got my first copy in the early ’80s from the “cheap tapes” bin in Woolworth’s in Alloa, just beginning to get a wee music collection together and having just received a much coveted Panasonic personal stereo for Xmas, I was keen to get some cassettes.  At that time I don’t think I had any opinions one way or another on the merits or otherwise of live recordings, and this must have been one of the first live albums I owned.  Which may go some way to explaining my love of the live album as a format to this day.  Depending on the genre/artist/night, a good live album for me can easily outperform a good studio album.  My favourites are by the acts who are most willing to stray from their blueprints, to mess with the already winning formula of their studio recordings and take the music somewhere else.  That’s exactly what happens on The Greatest Hits Live.

It’s all out of sequence, starting as it does with show closer Johnny B. Goode, which originally flowed out of another track so here it just cuts in unceremoniously on the opening lyric.  “Flowed” is not quite the right word here – Chuck simply takes a left turn into the song and his backing band, made up of members of a couple of the bottom-of-the-bill acts on the day, gamely follows on.  The hits come fast and thick – Sweet Sixteen, Nadine and there is a terrific version of Chuck’s slow blues classic In the Wee Wee Hours, lent a heaviness and edge by the man’s good natured interaction with the band.  That’s something that comes across well throughout – the famously mercurial Mr. Berry is clearly having a whale of a time here and the impression is of one of the greats embracing the moment.  His guitar playing is gloriously sloppy, his sound big and gnarly, dry-yet-muddy.  He lets rip with some surprisingly structured soloing on an anti-war flavoured Too Much Monkey Business and amongst it all allows his pick-up rhythm player to take a brief lead on one track, and it’s a tasty touch of Southern-flavoured blues-rock when it happens.

The album wraps up with My Ding-A-Ling.  I’m reasonably sure this song was the original reason for my love of Chuck Berry, rock’n’roll and even, by extension, blues. The hit single version, an edit of, I think, The London Chuck Berry Sessions album version, was recorded (without Berry’s knowledge) at an English gig in 1972.  When I was, presumably about three years old (“When I was a little bitty boy”, indeed) my folks had a copy of the single and they used to play for me it all the time.  Undoubted hilarity must have ensued from a wean singing along to the innuendo-laden number, but I knew it only as a song about a young boy and his toy made from bells on a string (I was eventually given the single, and its B-side, the great Tulane, remains one of the big tunes in my personal musical development).   I didn’t know till years later that the rock music cognoscenti detested it, dismissing it as a novelty tune ill-becoming of the architect of rock’n’roll.  Indeed, the version here is conspicuously missing from the Pennebaker concert film.  A cover, the song’s pedigree is still impressive as it was written by Dave Bartholomew, co-writer with Fats Domino of Ain’t That a Shame, amongst others.  Berry, however, drastically reworked it into the lascivious nine-minute call-and-response singalong heard here, from that 1969 Toronto gig, a full three years before the hit version.  The Toronto take is better – the double entendres prove a hit with the hippy masses, it’s genuinely funny and Chuck’s delivery is the right side of gleeful throughout.

I was chuffed to bastardy when I picked this up on eBay.  I’ve no idea whatever happened to my original copy but I expect I wore it out.  Other than seeing the Rock and Roll Music DVD years ago, I’d never heard these recordings since whenever it was I lost/sold/discarded the original tape – easily twenty five years ago.  Listening back to it the other day for the first time in a quarter of a century, I knew every lyric, every vocal ad lib, every solo and fill.  It was as if I’d just been listening to it last week.  I’ll be transferring this to the digital world soon as there’s every possibility of my wearing this copy out too. - Chuck Berry