Roll Over Beethoven (1956)
The opening guitar riff is as thrilling as the starting gun of the Olympic 100-meter dash. As good as the starting bell’s ring with the cry: And they’re off, on Kentucky Derby Day. Staggeringly, “Roll Over Beethoven” is as thrilling half a century and more after the day it was born. It’s hard to imagine now the electric chills that went up the collective spine of its first listeners in the mid-1950s.
Without Chuck Berry: No Beatles. No Rolling Stones. No Beach Boys. No Bruce Springsteen. Hell – no Rock-N-Roll, period.
And without “Roll Over Beethoven” there is no Chuck Berry. Or at least no Chuck Berry standing tall and grinning in the rock and pop pantheon.
Jukebox is blowin’ a fuse…
As to his best, there are tolerable arguments to be made for “Maybellene” (1955); “School Days” (1957); and, of course, “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), all found inside the ancient, overflowing treasure chest on Berry’s ship of songs.
The foggy, fuzzy, distorted guitar opening of “Maybellene” – Berry’s first hit – provides the puppet strings from which Keith Richards still dangles.
Sure, “School Days” is the first teenage angst song to truly delve into the mind-numbing madness of big high school. But it also borders on novelty-song-land, which takes it down a couple of full notches.
“Johnny B. Goode” loses by a whisker to “Roll Over Beethoven” only because “Johnny’s” repetitive musical formula stumbles a bit by the final verse and its subject matter doesn’t include rockin’ rebellion, dancing, sexuality or much in the way of Check Berry’s trademark lyrical humor. It’s a country song set to a rock n’ roll beat.
Even more importantly, “Johnny’s” opening riff is essentially a re-hash in a different octave of “Roll Over’s” twangier, more electrified opening riff.
“Roll Over” is urban with a passing nod to Rock-A-Billy (if you can imagine a 33 record played at 45 speed) and leaves the old Blues behind in a cloud of smoke. It’s something altogether new, and mightily improved.
The lyrics throw down a gantlet not just to Tin Pan Alley, but to the entire musical history of the Western World since 1826 when Beethoven himself died. Yet “Roll Over Beethoven” is as joyous as a monk on a whorehouse holiday. It doesn’t snarl; it doesn’t complain; it doesn’t rub anyone’s nose in the music revolution. It’s a proclamation of the pure truth of the change that swept across the land.
Tell Tchaikowsky the news is just the beginning of the word delirium.
Such lines as I got the rockin’ pneumonia… I got the reelin’ arthiritis are descriptive of the adolescent jumpiness everyone gets. Being young is a disease, and Berry practically begs for a fix for it in between, singing, I need a shot of rhythm and blues.
He finishes with a lyrical flourish that remains a benchmark for rock lyricists to this day:
You know she wiggles like a glow-worm,
Dance like a spinnin’ top.
She got a crazy partner,
Ya oughta see ‘em reel and rock.
Long as she got a dime the music won’t never stop.
Berry’s funny, vivid, and in the last line foresees music’s future and describes it much more artfully than, say, a song such as “Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay” (Danny & The Juniors). The rhythm of “Roll Over” operates in the background in a tempo somewhere between simmer and rolling boil, carried by a back beat that Ringo Starr eventually made his own and through which he drove The Beatles.
The song lunges forward and forward, feeling half frantic until, at the perfect moment, there is a timing change, which also allows Berry to step in with an intense, easy-going, economical guitar solo. In those few bars one can hear the inspiration to a host of successor ax-men: Robbie Robertson; Clapton; Dick Dale; George Harrison; Hendrix; Prince; Johnny Ramone; Duane Allman. The influence of “Roll Over Beethoven” is lurking in practically every English-language Rock song to this day.
Speaking of language, Berry’s singing is a combination of blues shouting, growling, rasping, dance instructions, pleading with his audience to, for God’s sake, Enjoy yourselves.
“Roll Over Beethoven” is the most covered pure Rock-N-Roll song of all time. Interestingly, Berry’s lyrics cite Rhythm & Blues as the type of music people are reelin’ and rockin’ to. This is because, while the expression “Rock-N-Roll” may have been then recently coined, it was still unclear as to what exactly the beast was, made up as it is, of so many influences and feeder genres. Rhythm & Blues was thought of as the set into which Rock-N-Roll fell as a subset. That would be changed by Berry’s effort. He’s the Thomas Edison of rock. He invented almost everything.
As Berry wrote in another song, Hail, hail Rock-N-Roll!
- Berry pays homage to jump blues genius Louis Jordan in his mention of “Early In The Mornin’” – one of Jordan’s standards.
- The line, “roll over Beethoven” is something Berry said to his sister, who played classical music when he wanted to pound the family piano with R&B tunes.