Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is a classic rock and roll song in more ways than one. Today, Berry’s genre-defining prototype for 50 years worth of rock songs is being remembered by fans of the departed guitarist.
Berry died on Saturday at the age of 90. Among the many tributes to the legendary bandleader, singer, and songwriter, a pair of notable items stand out as Chuck Berry’s uncanny contributions to popular culture. Berry, born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in 1926, was not only immortalized on celluloid with Back to the Future‘s cathartic use of “Johnny B. Goode,” the artist’s signature tune is also flying through deep space.
That’s right. Chuck Berry — in addition to being the creator of the linchpin tune at the crest of Back to the Future‘s time-traveling tale — is also cosmically celebrated as featured on the Voyager Golden Records, the phonograph albums launched aboard NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes in 1977. Should an alien lifeform ever find and play the interstellar gramophone discs, they’ll hear Chuck Berry’s 1958 hit, “Johnny B. Goode.”
As the Golden Records conquer the interstellar medium, Billboard recalled Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” as performed by protagonist Marty McFly in the climax to 1985’s Back to the Future. The time-bending teen, played by Michael J. Fox, rocks the tune with Marvin Berry and the Starlighters, an in-movie band led by a fictional cousin of Chuck Berry’s named Marvin.
In a hilarious example of the much-mythologized temporal paradox, Marvin calls Chuck from 1955 to play him his own future song, exclaiming that it’s the “new sound” he’s been searching for.
“Chuck! Chuck! It’s Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry! You know that new sound you looking for? Well, listen to this!”
As mentioned in the linked article, the film’s “crowd of students at the 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea dance” initially take kindly to the then-new sounds of Chuck Berry’s rock and roll music. However, when McFly ends the paradoxical performance with a guitar-playing display more befitting Eddie Van Halen or Pete Townshend — squirming on the ground and toppling amplifiers — the stunned audience of ’50s kids are left aghast.
Perhaps having shown the dancers a bit too much of music’s future in Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” topped with a heavy metal guitar solo, Marty admits, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.”
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Last year, NPR’s Morning Edition played some of the Voyager Golden Record for listeners, indicating that the space-traveling album contains “everything from Chuck Berry to Bach to a pygmy girl’s initiation song.” The Voyager Golden Records included aboard the Voyager spacecraft comprised a collection entitled The Sounds of Earth. The album’s tracks were meant to give a prospective alien intelligence an overview of Earth’s sounds and music. Among classical and world music selections, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen to represent rock and roll.
According to documentation, the inclusion of “Johnny B. Goode” was viewed as controversial at the time, with some viewing the song selection as an “adolescent” choice. As noted by the Smithsonian, Golden Record co-curator and legendary astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan countered, “There are a lot of adolescents on the planet.”
Were you saddened by the news of Chuck Berry’s death on Saturday? What’s your favorite song by the classic artist? Did you know that Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was included on the Voyager Golden Records launched aboard both Voyager spacecraft in 1977? Perhaps someday in the distant future, an interstellar extraterrestrial species will rock out to Chuck’s classic tune as featured on the cosmic gold discs.
Post your rock and roll remembrances of Chuck Berry in the comments section below.
[Featured Image by Evening Standard/Getty Images]