Chuck Berry – Roll Over Beethoven (Song Review)

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Roll Over Beethoven is not Chuck Berry’s first single, so it’s arguably not his most groundbreaking one. It is not his most famous either, with that honor belonging to Johnny B. Goode. But, as is the case with most of his 50s hits, it pretty much sums up all you need to know about that rock ‘n’ roll era with its every element – from the attitude, to the energy, to the guitar-playing, to the lyrics and to the production.

Released in 1956 after the success of Maybellene, the story goes that Berry’s main inspiration was his sister playing classical music on the piano. “Roll over Beethoven” was the phrase that he would tell her, anxious to get his turn and play some rock ‘n’ roll. When eventually put into the song, the line became nearly an anthem onto itself, announcing the arrival of the new genre in all its might. It is an imperative directed at the listeners to forget all they thought they knew about music and open their minds and ears to this new sound. Lyrics such as “I got the rocking pneumonia / I need a shot of rhythm and blues” are instantly memorable, as is the chorus melody, and the references to other rock ‘n’ roll songs (Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes) show Chuck’s awareness of the fact that he was not alone in this musical and cultural revolution.

That’s not to say that the words are all that matters here, it’s just that sometimes we tend to overlook just how clever of a lyricist Chuck really was. But the thunderous guitar intro and driving beat are just as important to the delivery of the message – and while rock ‘n’ roll may not be the leading force in music today anymore, Roll Over Beethoven remains timeless. Plus, you can always read it as a metaphor for new waves of music dismissing the old ones while replacing them, regardless of the time period.

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20 replies

  1. Great review – such an iconic song and you are right, it ushered in the arrival of rock and roll as no other song ever did

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Lennon, speaking in the 1970s to Mike Douglas or Dick Cavett, I’m not sure, gave Chuck Berry his due credit as an innovative musician and superb storyteller. That besides calling him ‘My Hero,’ before their thrilling duet. It’s all on YouTube. Another interesting trivia, but priceless all the same, is on Hail Hail Rock’n’Roll, when Berry all but runs Keith Richards off the stage, by impatiently schooling him on how to properly play a particular chord progression, and also verbally.
    Perhaps it’s unfair to say that Berry could have given more to music and popular culture, given his already enormous stature. But I can’t help thinking that his is an all familiar decline, that many greats of his generation, James Brown, Little Richard, so many more, living or dead, who go into a fading away process, til few remember their relevance. Meanwhile, as Denis Leary would say, Metallica may be celebrating another whatever milestone, with a world tour, a few CDs, and maybe a HD VR DVD concert film. No offense, of course, they’ve earned.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great comment man, I couldn’t agree more. I think a big reason why some 50s and pre-Sgt. Pepper artists are forgotten nowadays is this predisposition to listen to full albums as opposed to singles/songs. And to judge them by their album output. Artists such as Sam Cooke, The Supremes, Buddy Holly, Every Brothers as well as those you mentioned were pretty much singles artists in that that market was their main focus. I’ve noticed this among people my age especially, everybody knows Miles Davis because Kind of Blue is widely appreciated critically, even though he’s an “old” artist too. But start a conversation on Ray Charles and the interest diminishes.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Good post and comments. I was in taxi to the airport in Chicago, when the son of the founder of Chess Records was on the radio discussing his father’s influence on music. They produced folks like Etta James and Muddy Waters. He noted the Rolling Stones were big fans of his father’s efforts and would call their studio.

        Thinking of this and the influence of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Hounddog Taylor, BB King, Howlin Wolf, etc., it was noted on the show, that British kids listened to these African- America performers, whereas American white kids did not, at least to the same extent due to Jim Crow restrictions. We had to have Johnny Rivers do covers of songs. As a consequence, these British kids – Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, the Stones, the Beatles, etc. learned to play better blues and rock and roll music.

        This was a key reason for the British invasion, as the these British white performers introduced white Americans to the music created here by African-American performers. Another key reason is Elvis started being a movie star and played less cutting edge music and Jerry Lee Lewis fell out of favor when the backlash over his marrying his 13 year old cousin occurred.

        Liked by 1 person

      • So true. I love Ray Charles but perhaps one of the things that made his profile rise above the rest was ‘formula,’ which many people rightly detested, to carry on his business: a big show, everything rigorously rehearsed, and almost no room for improvisation. I’ve seen him twice and was definitely not impressed, even though he sang flawlessly all the great songs I’ve loved all my life. I realized that it was his way to endure, have absolute control over his product, and pretty much be left alone. But you can still find some old pearls, more relaxed performances from the 70s, specially in Europe, where some of his geniality erupts. Some of his peers were not so organized and spent their lives fighting promoters, hiring sub-par musicians, etc. Perhaps Ray knew something about show business of his time that others failed to recognize. Good for him, and lucky us that he recorded a lot. Cheers

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  3. I like it a whole lot better than “Johnny B. Goode.” “Beethoven” doesn’t get played enough. That first line, “Gonna write a little letter, gonna mail to my local DJ,” might be my favorite lyric in rock & roll.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Words of wisdom about a great song and song writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Was just listening to Chuck the other day. This is one of the songs that hooked CB into rock n roll. I think anyone who plays R&R is playing a piece of Chuck whether they know it or not. Great tune! (I was listening to ELO’s version, they absolutely kill it).

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks for honoring the one who is truly the king of rock ‘n’ roll. He could rock, sing, play, dance and write some of the greatest kick-ass songs ever.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great stuff. I’m awfy fond of Chuck Berry… was actually via Keith Richards that I got into him, but I guess that’s pretty standard for someone my age – discovering music and deciding who you like and then checking out their influences. Essentially working back to the ‘masters’.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Another great post and thanks for highlighting just how clever/witty some of those lyrics were in ROB – “I got the rocking pneumonia / I need a shot of rhythm and blues”. Love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Chuck Berry.. Ah! What a man!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post for a great song. Almost impossible to do nowadays given how this early rock and roll has become so fully embedded in our musical pallette, but it is fun to try and place oneself into that era and imagine just how world-shaking this music was.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Very astute observations plus inside info, like the bit about picking up the song from his sister playing classical music. I guess that’s how he wrote. Chuck wrote about life. Chuck was life.

    Liked by 1 person

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