Thursday, 13 January 2011

Chuck Berry - Nadine (1964/ No. 27/ 7 weeks/ Pye)

A study in lust and motion.

The lust is all on the part of the singer, an unvarnished portrayal in eye-popping, tongue lolling salivation, the silly things which it makes him do and the sense of adrenalinised excitement which it induces in him. In most songs about feeling aroused, singers normally make themselves out to appear confident, suave, assured - Songs about being a priapic idiot are much more compelling and make for much more engaging narratives.

The story is entirely told in terms of motion, not just the competing rhythms and motifs of the arrangement, but in the lyrics. Its a tale of pursuit and chase, on foot and and on various forms of transport. First line;

I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat
I thought I saw my future bride walking up the street!
I shouted to the driver 'Hey conductor! you must slow down!
I think I see her! Please - Let me off this bus!'

Naaaydiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine! Honey is that you!?

Back on the street, Chuck thinks he saw her but "she turned and doubled back" (perhaps not without reason). He pushes through the crowd "to get to where she's at" (which turns out to be walking towards a "coffee-coloured Cadillac"), again shouting "like a Southern diplomat" (eh?) As is so often the way in such situations, Nadine fleetingly reappears;

Downtown searchin' for her - Lookin' all around
Saw her gettin' in a yellow cab headin' up town!
I caught a loaded taxi - paid up everybody's tab
With a twenty dollar bill told him 'Catch that yellow cab'

We don't get any real impression of what Nadine is like. In certain sorts of songs that can really irritate me, but here it would rather spoil the point of the song. All we really need to know is that Nadine is clearly strikingly attractive. Note that the one description of her is in terms of movement;

She move around like a wave of summer breeze
Go! Driver! Go go! Catch her for me please!
Moving thru the traffic like a mounted cavalier.
Leaning out the taxi window trying to make her hear

and again that pleading;

Naaaydiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine! Honey is that you!?

We don't know if he does meet her in the end, though I imagine that his persistence would be rather off-putting and slightly scary. The sense of constant motion in the lyrics is supported by three competing instrumental motifs; a duckwalking guitar that jerks back and forth, running from striking excitement to thwarted frustration and with lewder implications that act like the id of the recording, a horn fanfare that only strikes up when Nadine is sighted, and a glistening, ticklish piano line that itches with mischief and anticipation.

Chuck Berry has been ill served by fifty years of lumpen pub rock interpretations of his songs (and, it must be said, his own scarily repellent personality). Go back to the original songs, though, and wiping away this accretion of dust and muck reveals pleasures of tremendous wit and finesse.

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