Earlier this year MCA acquired a national treasure — the catalog of Chess Records, arguably the finest single collection of Chicago blues and early rock & roll, including the classic recordings of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. Clearly, ownership of these recordings is a serious responsibility; this first release in a planned series of Chess reissues suggests that it’s being taken half seriously.
At least, Rock’n Roll Rarities does the basics right. Record buyers who know better than to touch anything “electronically rechanneled for stereo” will be glad to know that eleven of the twenty tracks on this two-record set are in pristine mono; the stereo on the other nine is original, though on seven of them it has been remixed (most of the remixes sound fine, but the wailing saxophones on “Nadine” have nearly been silenced). And we’re given recording dates and personnel. But this is a no-frills package: both discs are crammed into a single unsightly jacket, and there are no liner notes to explain this record’s significance or purpose.
Some of these cuts are indeed rarities — obscure songs or previously unreleased takes. There’s the “original demo version” (whatever that means: it has Berry’s full recording band) of “Reelin’ & Rockin'”; a take of “Johnny B. Goode” with a Lafayette Leake piano solo instead of the famous guitar break; “Rock and Roll Music” sung in close, apparently overdubbed, harmony; “Sweet Little Sixteen” in its original key, a half step lower than the released version, which was mechanically speeded up. But some of these “rarities” are well-known songs in their best-known versions: “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Nadine” and “Promised Land.” What are these tracks, remixed or not, doing on the same record with “Time Was,” a Forties-style ballad that has never before been released and is mostly interesting as a curiosity?
Still, despite the shoddy packaging and baffling rationale, the music is wonderful. It’s not hard to tell why these versions of “Rock and Roll Music” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” were rejected — they’re noticeably less energetic than what was originally released — but they would still have been hits. So would “Johnny B. Goode,” even without its signature guitar licks. Equally rewarding (and less discombobulating) is the obscure material: “County Line,” a road-race epic in the manner of “Maybellene” with a taunting “yah yah yah” refrain; “Oh Yeah,” a lament for lost love and youth at a tempo belying its lyrics (which manage to work in the titles of most of Berry’s hits); “Run Rudolph Run,” a Christmas novelty that rocks hard enough so the words don’t sink in; and, best of all, “Betty Jean,” an engagingly failed attempt at teen fluff, complete with hand claps and adenoidal voices chorusing, “Oh yeah, Betty Jean” and “Sing your song, Chuckie boy.” Anybody would choose songs like these over a double jacker or detailed liner notes. But nobody should have to.