“Chuck! Chuck! It’s Marvin…your cousin, MARVIN BERRY! You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well listen to THIS!”
Life has losers and life has winners.
Sometimes the good guys lose and sometimes the bad guys win. It’s not fair but it’s just the way it is.
So they say, anyway.
It pains me, though, when a good guy doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. I’m hurt when a solid citizen does a huge favour for an ingrate – a life-changing favour, no less – and ends up forgotten, a footnote to be pondered briefly or ignored. The film Back To The Future presents us with this scenario and it ENRAGES me. We see quite possibly one of the greatest personal and professional sacrifices EVER and it’s treated as a joke: a good guy loses, and a really bad, bad, BAD guy wins, making rock ‘n’ roll history off of the back of it, and we’re just supposed to laugh it off.
Well not me. I’m here to give the good guy his moment, and to explain why the bad guy truly is a Grade A rotter.
Here’s what I’m talkin bout, Willis:
Marvin Berry: musician, crooner, “reefer addict”…what would 20th century popular music have been like without you? Without your urgent phone call to your beloved cousin Chuck, who knows? You must have loved your cousin greatly, Marvin, to give him this new sound, eh? To hand it over to him without a thought for yourself…you must have loved him very much indeed.
How much? Let’s look at the scenario and evidence:
Marty McFly stands in for the injured Marvin Berry to play guitar during the Enchantment Under The Sea dance. This occurs on November 12th 1955 after band-leader Marvin slices open his hand jemmying Marty out of the trunk of the band’s motor. Marty plays well enough during the song Earth Angel for the band to encourage him to play another with them – something that really “cooks”. Marty suggests “an oldie where he comes from” which turns out to be Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode. Marvin is so impressed with this song that he calls his cousin, Chuck Berry, to let him hear it, since Chuck has been looking for a “new sound”.
Observe just how keen good-guy Marvin was for his cousin Chuck to succeed:
Speed of call.
In the clip above, Marty starts the song at 0:21. The band are clearly impressed and Marvin is still on stage at 0:55, when the first verse is coming to a close. The camera cuts away but it does look like Marvin is turning to leave the stage. Even if he stays on stage for a few more seconds, he is definitely off-stage by 1:15, as the first chorus is ending. Give me the benefit of the doubt and say Marvin left the stage at exactly 0:55, he’s decided after 34 seconds of the song that he’s going to call someone about it, and that someone is his musically frustrated cousin Chuck. In addition, he has finished dialing Chuck at 1:29. Given that the telephone has a dial rather than buttons, and assuming that Chuck’s phone number has 6 digits, this dialing process would take perhaps 15 seconds. The maximum time that Marvin has had to decide to call Chuck, leave the stage, find the phone and then make the call is also 34 seconds. In total, therefore, from first note of the song to the last digit dialed, the time covered by Marvin to get in touch with Chuck is 1 minute and 8 seconds. That’s some fast thinking and dialing, and with an injured hand to boot.
And while stoned, for that matter.
Out of everyone he could call, he calls his cousin Chuck.
Imagine you had 1 minute and 8 seconds to hear some music and then call someone about it. Who would you call? Bear in mind that this is 1955, so you have no speed-dial: it’ll take at least 15 of those 68 seconds to actually make the call. So we’re down to 53 seconds. And as shown above, you actually need to hear the song to decide you like it, which took Marvin Berry 34 seconds. So you’ve got 19 seconds to decide who to call. And to find a phone.
Who would you call?
You’d call someone who you know very well and whose phone number you know off by heart.
Marvin could have called his mother, his father, a brother, a sister, a friend, a neighbour, any of his other relatives, but no…Marvin chose to call his cousin Chuck. Chuck, his cousin whose phone number he knows off by heart. In the days before mobile phones I didn’t know my cousins’ phone numbers off by heart and I only have two, so Marvin and Chuck must have been pretty close. Having said that, Marvin and Chuck were in the same business, and Chuck had had a million selling single in Maybellene for Chess Records two months before the dance, so Marvin was maybe just keeping in with the famous one in the family. In fact, as it turns out, ON THAT VERY DAY, 12 November 1955, Chuck was described by Billboard as the “most promising R&B artist of the year” (http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/november12th.html)…
Regardless, Marvin still wanted Chuck to have more success. That kind of selfless altruism is the mark of a truly good, good guy.
Professional and, therefore, personal sacrifice.
If you were a journeyman band-leader and you heard the most phenomenal music EVER, wouldn’t you be tempted to learn more about it, develop your style towards it and become a respected, influential musician off the back of it? Probably earning a fortune in the process? You’d give it a second thought, wouldn’t you?
Not our Marvin. His FIRST action, before the end of the first chorus of Johnny B. Goode, is to be on the phone to his already rich and famous cousin Chuck to give him MORE of the good living he’s already making for himself:
“Our Chuck has made a FORTUNE from Maybellene, and his face is everywhere. He’s got it made! But I want him to have more. Where’s that telephone?”
It is clear that at NO point did Marvin think “I could have some of what Chuck’s got.” At no point did he think that the fame, fortune and respect could be his. For Marvin, it was all about Chuck.
Marvin is injured.
As you can see in the clip, Marvin is sporting an injured left hand, which is thanks to jemmying Marty out of the car trunk while zonked out of his wee nut on blaw. Best case scenario, this is Marvin’s strumming hand; worse case scenario, it’s his fretting hand. I’m inclined to say that Marvin is right-handed (since his guitar is strung correctly for right-handed Marty and he lifts the telephone receiver with his right hand and dials with his left, as I – a right hander – used to do in the olden days) meaning that he’s injured his fretting hand. Now, if I played guitar professionally and had injured my fretting hand, I’d be SERIOUSLY worried: would I still be able to make those stretches across the fretboard after the wound has healed? And how long would it take to heal? There’s a lot of blood on that thick bandage. And remember: there was no NHS in the USA in 1955 (or now, for that matter) so Marvin has a medical bill on its way if that hand needs patched up. What if it gets infected? How much will that cost? And all while he can’t work as a guitarist. Will he have to pay a stand-in while his hand gets better? Where’s all this money coming from?
Marvin is nonplussed. His imminent fallow work period and expensive medical bills are far from his mind.
All he wants to do is call his cousin and good buddy Chuck Berry.
As you can see from Exhibits A to D, Marvin is possibly one of the GREATEST good guys this planet has ever known.
Now: let’s examine why Chuck Berry is an utter bastard*.
He claims not to know who Marvin is.
How many people do you know called Marvin? How many people do you know called Marvin who know your phone number? How many people do you know called Marvin who know your phone number who are likely to call you late on a Saturday night? Aye…exactly. And yet Marvin has to explain to Chuck that the Marvin who’s on the blower to him at that very moment is his cousin. Oh aye…THAT Marvin. My COUSIN Marvin. As opposed to all those other Marvins I know.
What makes this worse is that poor Marvin obviously thinks that he and Chuck have a good relationship together. Chuck DID, after all, confide with Marvin that he was looking for a new sound, so they must have met – or at least spoke together – recently (despite Chuck’s success with Maybellene and new wealth). Also, despite all the fame and the announcement THAT DAY by Billboard that Chuck was a promising R&B act, Chuck is sitting at home on a Saturday night and answers the phone after, at most, two rings.
So Chuck is sitting in his house on a Saturday night and the phone rings. He answers immediately. A voice says it’s Marvin. How many Marvins do you know, Chuck? Regardless, you ask who it is. It’s your cousin, Marvin Berry. Same surname, so obviously your fathers were brothers. Did they get on? Marvin’s dad obviously thought so, since he’s encouraged his son to form a good relationship with his brother’s son. Your dad, Chuck, however…maybe he thought less of his brother. Maybe your dad made too much of himself and looked down on Marvin’s father. Maybe your middle class upbringing wasn’t what the other Berry brothers provided for their families and your dad, Chuck, thought his brothers were mugs and their offspring were wasters. Some of this must have rubbed off on you, Chuck, as you treat Marvin Berry, one of life’s good guys, like dog muck.
Marvin who? That’s just cheek from you, Chuck Berry.
What did Chuck actually hear?
If you return to the clip, you’ll notice that Marvin points the phone at the stage at 01:42. From this point on Marty basically shreds while the band continue to play an R&B rhythm behind it. Frankly, it sounds bloody awful. If Chuck took anything from this his next single would have sounded like a cross between Buddy Holly and Yngwie Malmsteen. In other words: shite.
So, the only thing that makes sense is that Marvin returned to the phone (he’s back on stage at 02:03, so he must have left the receiver on a table for Chuck to listen) after the song was over to apologise to Chuck for wasting his time and then subsequently WENT TO CHUCK’S HOUSE WITH THE REST OF THE BAND TO PLAY THE SONG FROM SCRATCH.
Just how much does Marvin love this guy that, despite his potentially career-ending injury and impending financial hardship, and the fact that Chuck mugged him off on the phone, he’s decided to go round to Chuck’s house with the Starlighters to make sure that his cousin hears, note for note, exactly what “cooked” at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance in Hill Valley? Such selflessness is awe-inspiring.
Chuck stole someone else’s song (and may be a murderer*)
I’m no expert in copyright law, but surely hearing someone else’s song and presenting it as your own is a little bit dodgy? I’m sure Marvin and the Starlighters played Chuck the tune in good faith. Here’s the gist of it, Chuck. It was called Johnny Be Good or something but that’s not important. Got it? Right we’re off to take Marvin to the doctor. All the best.
And Chuck, instead of absorbing the feel of the tune and developing it into his own sound, decides for himself that this song is his for the taking. What could be simpler? The perfect crime. How does Chuck ensure that no-one can grass him up though? How do you think? Who’s heard of Marvin Berry and the Starlighters these days? Exactly. CHUCK BERRY HAD THEM BUMPED OFF! It must have taken Chuck a wee while to get the dirty deed done, because he never released his own version of Johnny B. Goode until 1958 (and Marvin probably never told him about the crazy white kid who popped up from nowhere to bestow the music upon them, so Chuck wouldn’t have known that the secret would eventually come out in a Hollywood feature film 30 years later) but he done it all right. Of that I have NO DOUBT WHATSOEVER*.
Marvin Berry was one of the greatest good guys ever in the history of human beings and Chuck Berry was an absolute rotter. Chuck may have got the fame and fortune but now Marvin, for your lack of selfishness in 1955, I salute you.
And if it wasn’t for Marvin’s quick thinking, The Vinegar Tits would not have been able to write a cheeky wee rock ‘n’ roll song like this:
Big Auld Erse by The Vinegar Tits
Yup, all this was just a big run up to me punting a song I wrote two years ago.
Search Spotify, iTunes and soundcloud for more songs from The Vinegar Tits.
Thanks for reading (and listening).
Chuck Berry is not a bastard, he did not steal Johnny B. Goode from Marty McFly (or anyone else, for that matter) and he most definitely did not murder Marvin Berry and the Starlighters or have them killed by person or persons unknown**.
**Can’t emphasize this one enough: Chuck Berry is not a murderer***