Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sweet Little Sixteen

Once again, just dancing through another furlough day, and finding myself in a very Chuck Berry kind of mood. When am I not?

"Sweet Little Sixteen" was, interestingly, Chuck Berry's most successful single, at least as measured by highest chart position-- this 1958 single got to #2 on American charts, which is the highest Berry ever made it, even with songs like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Roll Over Beethoven" and all the others in his awe-inspiring catalog. No accounting for taste, I guess. More to the point in a Beatley context, it was also Berry's first major hit in the U.K.-- the first single to crack the top 20 there.

Like a lot of other Berry-penned songs, this one features a teenybopper plotline, a story about a girl obsessed with rock and roll. Or, really, lots of girls obsessed with rock and roll-- the callouts to all the various American cities make it clear that this is Everygirl, or at least Every Rock Fangirl, wherever they might be living. Berry's singing "right on!" to these girls, in a way, but even more so singing "right on!" at every heterosexual male who might think they stand a chance with the little underage wannabe groupies in their high heels at the rock shows. (Berry and the other rock stars, of course, have first pick.) As you can hear in Berry's original, particularly the lines about the shoes, there hardly seems room for any other interpretation but the sleaziest.

What a dirty, dirty song. LOVE. It's like the nasty version of all those other stupid lilting little songs about being sixteen, like "You're Sixteen" and "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen" and "Sixteen Candles." Man, what is up with the age of sixteen? I certainly don't remember that year of my life being very sweet at all. I remember it more as another year of prolonged awkwardness, zittiness, bad hair dye, and desperation to get the hell out of high school. I certainly didn't feel like I'd magically become desirable, Lord knows.

But enough about me! Go back up to the Beatles' version of this song for a minute, and you'll hear that John Lennon brings all the awesomeness that he always brings to Chuck Berry covers, wailing his way through all the a capella breaks like the rock star that he is. (Despite the poor sound quality, that is. I believe the video above features the same recording of this song that's on Live at the BBC, but it was taken from a bootleg, and the sound quality isn't nearly as good. Sadly, there seem to be no YouTube videos that sound better.) Note that on the chorus John actually changes the melody such that he's singing some higher pitches than Berry does on the original-- and though he's only singing about a third higher, it makes the song like thirty times more exciting. Of course, I don't ever think that Chuck Berry's vocals are exactly the songs' main selling points-- his flat, talky delivery totally works, especially for these more verbose songs, but it's not like it really makes me zing either. John's vocals, though, as frequent readers of this blog might have noticed before, get me every time, and on the Chuck Berry covers, which he obviously totally loves, he brings it more than ever. "Sweet Little Sixteen" is no exception.

Besides John, I want to single out George for a freaking off-the-hook guitar solo. Since the Berry version is a piano solo made up largely of glissandos up and down the keyboard (which in itself is pretty exhilarating), George seems to get more creative with the solo than he does elsewhere-- sometimes he just transposes other solos, presumably because he thinks they're totally kickass. But I think George came up with a lot of this one on his own, and isn't it tremendous?? The downward motion in the first bit goes into some stuff that's truly melodic and singable, and then seems to actually get sexier as it luxuriates on just that one note, kind of hanging out and rutting there. I'm probably thinking about it too much, but it's a REALLY great solo, especially considering that he worked it all out for a song that they went on to never bother to record commercially.

The "Sweet Little Sixteen" track is, I think, a standout on a whole album of standout live performances. The Beatles maintain the dirtiness but bring this energy and this, I don't know, sincerity or something to all their Chuck Berry covers that's so freaking winning. Yow! Dancing again. Talk later.

"Sweet Little Sixteen," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 2 track 10 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you, i think the Beatles' covers of Berry numbers are great. Kinda like the Byrds were the best interpreters of Dylan material.