Chuck Berry: 20 Essential Songs

"Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven" and other masterpieces that laid the groundwork for rock & roll as we know it

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"Back in the U.S.A." (1959)

Whatever mixed feelings Berry may have had about his native country were wiped away, at least temporarily, when he toured Australia for the first time, playing shows in Melbourne and Sydney in January and February of 1969. Witnessing firsthand the mistreatment of Aborigines clearly rattled Berry, since 10 days after he returned to the States, he cut this unabashedly grateful homage to the States. Backed by, among others, Johnnie Johnson on piano and Willie Dixon on bass, Berry salutes skyscrapers, drive-ins, burgers, freeways and major cities from New York to L.A. to Baton Rouge (it's as close to a National Anthem as Berry would ever write); even the uncredited backup singers sound pumped. 

Released as a single in June 1959, the song only hit Number 37 on the charts, but it didn't go unnoticed by the next generation of rockers. The MC5 and Linda Ronstadt each offered up faithful covers (Ronstadt's version was bigger than Berry's), and it was, of course, the inspiration behind the Beatles' cheeky "Back in the USSR." "Chuck Berry once did a song called 'Back in the U.S.A.,' which is very American, very Chuck Berry," Paul McCartney said in 1968. "Very sort of, you know, you're serving in the army, and when I get back home I'm going to kiss the ground. It's a very American sort of thing, I've always thought. … In my mind [the Beatles' song] is just about a spy who's been in America a long long time... It concerns the attributes of Russian women."

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