Monday, August 24, 2009

Memphis, Tennesse

This was the first track that came up on my iPod's shuffle mode on my walk to work today, and it just made me so freaking happy.

I love this song, as I love so many of Chuck Berry's songs, and as I love so many Beatles covers of Chuck Berry songs. "Memphis, Tennessee" was the B-side to "Back in the U.S.A.," a 1959 single that strangely failed to chart for some reason on, I'm pretty sure, either side of the Atlantic. I think "Memphis, Tennessee" has become more famous in the years since its release just because it's been covered so much, and covered by some heavyweights, too: Roy Orbison, Bo Diddley, the Animals, and Elvis all had a crack at it, among many many others. (I'm quite fond of Orbison's, personally-- you should seek it out.) The Beatles never released a commercial version themselves , but we can hear a good live one on Live at the BBC. In fact, they did several live versions of this song for the BBC (I'm not actually sure which version is above, because it's not marked very well in the YouTube video, but it sounds like it could be a bootleg version of the BBC recording to me). And they apparently liked it well enough to include in their Decca audition setlist too.

Perhaps so many artists were drawn to this song because it's just a good story. Chuck Berry wrote a lot of songs that told good stories, but the "Memphis, Tennessee" story has some interesting twists, with a surprise ending, and of course it's much darker and more adult than the stories in songs like "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny Be Goode." Appropriately, the feel is a little moodier, a little less manic than other Berry offerings, without all the rock and roll histrionics that you can sometimes enjoy in Berry songs. Which is not to say that there's not some great guitar work here, but listen and you'll note that George is keeping his solo fairly monochromatic and rough-edged in the same way that Berry does. Even John's vocal sounds a little more serious than it normally would. But I think this vocal is a great example of the intensity John can bring even to a vocal that doesn't demand the screaming rock persona that he's so good at elsewhere. Because it's definitely intense, and a great listen. Just edgier, somehow. Angrier, maybe. It's harder to dance to than a lot of '50s rock and roll. But it rules.

When John performed with Berry in 1972 on the Mike Douglas show, they busted this one out, and though there's some messiness to this performance (and though Yoko makes Yoko-ish noises for some unaccountable reason, which sounds even stupider on a '50s rock song than in her own songs), I like the rapport they seem to have here. I swear John seems nervous with his idol. It's kind of cute.

Making this brief just to get back to work, where I am having one of those days, but John singing Chuck Berry always perks me up, I gotta say.

"Memphis, Tennessee," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 30 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.


  1. A good one, Meg. The vocal is really understated. FYI among the "many others" who recorded this was Johnny Rivers and it was his first U.S. hit. I haven't heard it in a while, but i recall it is darn good. Rivers also covered CB's Maybelline.

  2. Maybe John was nervous for Yoko.

    Great song.