As a performing group, the Beatles began by playing old rock favorites, for dancing, to tough audiences in Liverpool and Hamburg. When they began writing seriously, they discovered that they couldn’t compose in the early American rock tradition. So when they needed something crude, harsh and joyfully loud to round out an album, they borrowed songs originally done by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Larry Williams or someone from Motown. (Paul McCartney finally ended the custom by writing a perfect Little Richard song himself, one that not only worked in its own right, but poked a little fun at the style and at the Beatles as well — the marvelous “I’m Down.”)
When the Beatles cut old rock ‘n’ roll, they were recording music still in their performing repertoire, and besides, they never thought of the music as old. That makes it all the more bizarre that Rock ‘n’ Roll, John Lennon’s celebration of early American rock, comes out sounding like nothing but oldies — self-conscious musical attitudinizing about rock roots, and poorly done at that.
In paying tribute to his musical-childhood background, Lennon sounds like he’s forgotten he used to perform material like this seven nights a week and that he used to record it several times a year. He’s forgotten that most of today’s rock audience came to Little Richard and Chuck Berry through the Beatles versions of the music. His “Money” wasn’t just more popular than Barrett Strong’s original — it was also better.
The Beatles never sounded intimidated by their idols. They never interpreted old rock; they simply played it as well and as joyfully as they knew how. On Rock ‘n’ Roll, John Lennon does nothing but interpret old rock. The Beatles didn’t care whether they got the music right so long as they got the feeling. Lennon can recreate the music correctly (“Be-Bop-A-Lula”), but never catches the feeling. The Beatles version of this music used to be filled with exhilarating moments; Lennon sounds like he’d be satisfied if he could capture only one. Underneath the pushing, shoving and straining, his album sounds like music in search of a climax that never comes.
The Beatles did their best cover work on Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and music influenced by Richard, such as Larry Williams’s “Dizzy Miss Lizzie.” But now, almost 20 years since Richard and his imitators made their best music and more than ten since the Beatles started recording theirs, Lennon offers hollow visions of “Ready Teddy,” “Rip It Up” and “Slippin’ and Slidin’.”
“You Can’t Catch Me” is given the kind of over-elaborate, heavy-handed reading that must make Keith Richard and Mick Jagger smile with pride — they caught the mood of that Chuck Berry song so much better over ten years ago, on a great little Rolling Stones album, Now!
The most revealing failure comes on Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want to Dance.” The song stands for all the gems left behind by rock’s minor heros — there’s no logic to anyone as limited as Bobby Freeman writing anything so great. But more than he misses the point of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Lennon misses the point of this kind of rock — the stuff that sounds almost anonymous, like anyone could sing it, music whose simplicity is its greatest strength. You don’t do anything with a song like this except perform it — it speaks for itself. But here comes John, with a reggae twist and a new melody line, and the magic of a tune called “Do You Want to Dance” is gone.
On the back cover of the beautiful package, Lennon’s name appears in lights — just like Chuck Berry promised they would in the last verse of “Johnny B. Goode.” At the bottom, there’s the now famous quote (the best thing about the album, really) from Dr. Winston O’Boogie: “You Should Have Been There.” John Lennon was, but sounds like he’s forgotten what it was like. In making an album about his past, he has wound up sounding like a man without a past. If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed that this was the work of just another talented rocker who’s stumbled onto a mysterious body of great American music that he truly loves but doesn’t really understand. There was a time when he did.