This is one of those songs that really sounds great in mono. And that's because it should really be blasted as loudly as possible from a boombox or cheap radio or something, preferably on a hot summer day from someone's car while you dance around on the beach and then kick back with, I don't know, a cold Moxie or something. It's a song for the kids to get crazy too. Listening to "Rock and Roll Music" on your headphones on an early Thursday morning, before you go out to work, which today is not the office as usual but is instead a trade show, which thus requires you to be wearing a freaking suit-- well, this is basically the opposite of how the song is intended to be heard. And yet here I am.
"Rock and Roll Music" is one of those rock and roll icons of a song, one of several such songs written by Chuck Berry, who is a god. It was a hit for Berry way back in 1957, the year that John turned 17, so you can bet that "Rock and Roll Music" left a lasting impression on him and the other future Beatles. In fact, this was featured in their live set with pretty solid regularity, as I understand it, almost from the time they had a live set. Which is why, when they decided to fill out Beatles for Sale with some old school covers, they were able to bang out "Rock and Roll Music" in a single take with minimum fuss. They're consummate professionals.
Here's Berry's original, the one that would have kept the youthful pre-Beatles up at night in rock and roll ecstasy.
Chuck Berry is a master, undoubtedly, but here on "Rock and Roll Music" John adds a level of intensity to the vocal that Berry just never reaches on his own. This is the last Beatles cover of a Chuck Berry song that we've got left in the year, so I invite you to check out some of the others and see for yourself what John does. I mean, John gets Chuck Berry songs, and in many ways I feel like he improves upon them, at least vocally. (See in particular: "I Got to Find My Baby," "Carol," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode.")
Now, that said, there are those who don't love this "Rock and Roll Music" version. (Which reminds me to note that you can find two other versions in the legally sanctioned catalog-- there's an earlier live rendition from a BBC radio show on Live at the BBC, plus the version from the Budokan in 1966 on Anthology 2, which gives us three over a pretty wide time span.) I think that the album recording of "Rock and Roll Music" might get caught up in the mainstream story line on Beatles for Sale itself. You know the story: the Beatles were getting tired, their old style was feeling a bit worn out, yada yada. And in my opinion "Rock and Roll Music" falls victim to that mindset. Because, I don't think John or the band sound tired on "Rock and Roll Music" at all. (Compare this to "Dizzy Miss Lizzie," say, in which I think you can hear the signs of strain.) I think they sound fairly amazing. They are as tight as can be, and though no one's got any particularly sexy guitar solos or anything here, it's all as solid and rollicking and rock-your-socks-off that I for one couldn't wish for anything better. (It's better than either of the two live versions I cited above, for one.)
And even more rocking, I have to say, is producer George Martin, who's playing that kickass piano line, just percussive and loud as can be. He's the only single member of the band who can compete with John for my attention here. John, in his "Twist and Shout" tearing-flesh voice, gives us such an impassioned love letter to the music he's devoted his young life to that I for one can't help but dig it. He takes Berry's song to a new level of rock and roll love. In the context of Beatles for Sale, "Rock and Roll Music" might seem to look backward-- but it's a look backward that I'd miss if it weren't there.
"Rock and Roll Music," released in the U.K. side A track 4 of Beatles for Sale, December 4, 1964; in the U.S., side A track 4 of Beatles '65, December 15, 1964.