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Back in the USA – Chuck Berry V. Back in the USSR – Beatles

Think this will become a recurring post topic, cause I love covers and remakes of songs.  This isn’t exactly a battle of covers, but a song by the Beatles at least in part inspired by a song of one of the pioneers of rock n’ roll.

I was obviously familiar with the Beatles song, but didn’t hear the Berry song until I recently downloaded his best-of CD.  I thought Berry’s song was a response to the Beatles.  Berry was one of the originators of rock n’ roll, and it had to bother him a bit that these four kids from across the pond had become the biggest band on the planet.  But, in fact, Berry’s song was first, almost ten years before the Beatles song.  The title of the Beatles song was in tribute to Berry’s early song, and the chorus is actually a play on the Beach Boys’ California Girls.

Enough with the history lesson.  Berry’s song starts out with a riff identical except the key to the one in Johnny B Goode, which is pretty sweet riff, but then it fades and the guitar really takes a back seat to the drums and organ.  The Beatles start out with a sound effect of a plane taking off, then the drums kick right in with some guitar stabs, then the piano.  The sound effect works, but its repeat throughout the song gets annoying to me.  The piano/organ are really the star of both of these songs. Surprisingly, Berry doesn’t have a guitar solo, while the Beatles do.  Except for the chorus and the sound effects, the main instrumentation of the Beatles song could be the backing track to a Berry tune.  Musically, a tie.

The Beatles take the traditional verse/chorus approach to their song, while Berry begins with the chorus.  It works because instead of having a chorus you’d expect along the lines of “Back in the USA”, the chorus is a playful combo of woah-hos, yeahs and hee-dill-has.  It gets your attention.  The Beatle’s chorus doesn’t have that grab-ya, and the fact it’s just a tongue-in-cheek ripoff of the Beach Boys that seems to have just been plugged into the existing song gives an advantage to Berry.

Lyrically is where Berry’s song wins it for me.  The Beatles song is obviously a parody, and the lyrics are understandably silly.   Berry though seems to be singing from the heart, and his happiness at returning to the simple pleasure of a diner with a jukebox and sizzling hamburgers is great.  And he ends the song with the line “I’m so happy to be living in the USA”, which is a testament coming from an African-American man in 1959.  Game over.  The teacher beats the pupil this time.

Another related Beatles/Berry note.  I was psyched to see Berry play two years ago at the Virgin Fest in Baltimore. I mean, yeah he was 82, but still this would have been like seeing Jerry Lee Lewis or Muddy Waters.  He was going to be playing with the Silver Beats, a Japanese Beatles cover band.  Unfortunately, he canceled at the last minute.  The Silver Beats were tolerable, but I was sad to miss one of the pioneers of rock n’ roll.

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