Behind the Song: Chuck Berry – ‘You Can’t Catch Me’

‘You Can’t Catch Me’, one of Chuck Berry’s early singles, proved an unexpected commercial flop. It failed to chart upon its release at the onset of 1957 – despite being given prominence by the fledgeling rock and roll feature Rock, Rock, Rock!, which had opened in cinemas the previous month – briefly halting the run of success which Berry had enjoyed since his 1955 breakthrough ‘Maybellene’.

‘Maybellene’, released in July 1955 as Berry’s first single, reached number 5 on the Billboard pop chart and number 1 on the R&B chart. Come the end of the year, it had sold more than a million copies, and was ranked number 3 on Billboard‘s list of the R&B records with most sales and jukebox plays. ‘Wee Wee Hours’, originally ‘Maybellene”s B-side, swiftly followed and peaked on the R&B chart at number 10. And before the end of 1956, it was joined there by ‘Thirty Days (To Come Back Home)’, which reached number 2, ‘No Money Down’, which reached number 8, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, which beyond a number 2 position on the R&B chart climbed to 29 on the Top 100 plus gave Berry his first hit in Germany, and ‘Too Much Monkey Business’, which reached number 4.

Berry’s next single after ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, ‘School Days’ (also known as ‘School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)’, reached number 5 on the Top 100 and number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart,while introducing Berry to audiences in the United Kingdom. But despite its relative lack of success, just as much as any of these singles ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ shows Berry’s gift for songwriting, while indicating the extent to which he perhaps more than any other person was the progenitor of everything about rock.

In fact ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ was recorded during the same session which produced ‘Maybellene’. On 21 May 1955 in Chicago, by the end of a session which ran until half past eight in the night, alongside a band comprising Johnnie Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Jerome Green on maracas, and Jasper Thomas or Ebby Hardy on drums, Chuck Berry with his guitar and microphone had completed ‘Maybellene’, ‘Wee Wee Hours’, ‘Thirty Days’, and ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. The session’s producers were the Chess Records brothers Leonard and Phil, and once recording was over Leonard – in what according to Berry would become something of a ritual – ‘sent out for hamburgers and pop’.

Berry had only contacted Chess after arriving in Chicago earlier that month, and while ‘Maybellene’ was released in a hurry, ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ was held over until an opportunity arose for it to appear on film. Following Rock Around the Clock, Rock, Rock, Rock! was the second in a series of five pioneering features to star the disc jockey and rock and roll impresario Alan Freed. It was released on 7 December 1956, and around the simple plot of a frustrated teenager (a thirteen-year-old Tuesday Weld) who desperately tries to raise enough money for a new dress to go to prom, it served as a showcase for emerging rock stars including Berry himself, LaVern Baker, Teddy Randazzo, the Moonglows, the Flamingos, and the Teenagers with Frankie Lymon as lead singer.

The picture’s tagline was ‘The greatest rock ‘n’ roll music played by the biggest rock ‘n’ roll groups this side of heaven!’. During the film, Freed informs the audience that ‘rock and roll is a river of music that has absorbed many streams: rhythm and blues, jazz, rag time, cowboy songs, country songs, folk songs. All have contributed to the big beat’. In some markets, Rock, Rock, Rock! was coupled with the summer Western Seven Men from Now, directed by Budd Boetticher, and starring Randolph Scott, Gail Russell, and Lee Marvin, with distributors proclaiming ‘The greatest double programme of the year!’.

Introduced by Freed with a reference to the popularity of  ‘Maybellene’, Chuck Berry performs ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ in Rock, Rock, Rock! clad in a white shawl collar tuxedo and black bow tie. The performance gave the world one of its first glimpses of the duckwalk, the low-squatting dance move which would become synonymous with Berry.

Despite the wealth of acts who strutted their stuff on film, ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ was one of only four songs from the movie to appear on the accompanying soundtrack. Also entitled Rock, Rock, Rock! and released that same December, it featured four songs apiece from just three artists: Berry, the Moonglows, and the Flamingos. Rock, Rock, Rock! the soundtrack holds an important place in the history of music, as it was the first LP ever released by Chess Records, Berry’s first appearance on a Long Player, and stands as the first ever rock and roll soundtrack.

In Billboard magazine, Gary Kramer commented on Rock, Rock, Rock!, calling Berry the:

‘most impressive act in the picture. He mimes the lyrics of the tune with his hands, feet, face and body movements, all but making a humorous ballet of it. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.’

That ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ failed to chart despite Berry’s recent success, the soundtrack, and praise for the moving picture is made stranger still because it was backed by ‘Havana Moon’, which served as the single’s B-side. ‘Havana Moon’ was a calypso-themed tune at a time when Harry Belafonte was at the peak of his commercial popularity. The same month ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ saw release, two songs by Belafonte – ‘Jamaica Farewell’ and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ – were inside the Top 100, while the singer found himself outperformed in the charts by the Tarriers with their alternative version of his ‘Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)’.

Lyrically, like ‘Maybellene’, ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ tells the story of a hot rod race. This time however it is Berry inside of a Coupe DeVille, and instead of chasing after his unfaithful girlfriend, he winds up flying down the New Jersey Turnpike on ‘hideaway wings’ as he attempts to outrun the blaring siren of a state patrol. In 1967, Berry described to Record Mirror his ‘yearning which I had since I was aged seven to drive about in a car. It was my fascination for the roads, for driving, motoring, which prompted me to write those songs’.

The lyrics contain references to two of Berry’s earlier hits: the action takes place in the ‘wee wee hours’, and as he cuddles up inside of his motor vehicle he decides to name her ‘Maybellene’, before heading home after two or three hours of cruising as the altitude drops and the gas tank begins running low. Some of the descriptive phrases in the song, like ‘air mobile’ for car and the adversarial ‘flat-top’ which conjures the short upright haircut, became part of popular culture.

The police chase at the centre of the song was compelled by a real-life incident upon one of Berry’s earliest visits to New York. In his autobiography, published in 1987, Berry writes:

‘”You can’t Catch Me” was embodied from an experience I had when returning from New York City along the New Jersey Turnpike. The New Jersey Turnpike itself is long enough, but the song was well on its way in theory as I rolled off the west end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was at night and Toddy and I in our Buick had been overtaken by some dudes with crew cuts (flat tops) who pulled up alongside and passed us, waving. Their car was not as late a model as mine, but must have definitely been in better shape or souped up. Naturally, I sped up and trailed them a while, losing ground intentionally for the kill. Any hot-rodder knows the way you lag back a little and the fore-running car can’t possibly tell when you began your surge to overtake. I had really gotten a good jump on acceleration before he realized I was still in the race and though he tried to barrel up I crawled past him and at that particular time I was happy that my car was smoking like a choo choo train but in his path.

There were two cars abreast barreling after me so I gave it my best shot and stayed in the lead until one of the vehicles turned a bright red cherry. It was a New Jersey state patrol car that had suddenly, out of nowhere, come alongside me.

It was then that I improvised the prayer (in the lyric) wishing I could have “let out my wings” and just disappear and “become airborne.” The other guys had quit the race and dropped back over a mile it seemed but it made me feel better when they were about to cruise by and the officer stopped, went out, and waved them down to give them a ticket as well.

The balance of the lyrics were improvised excepting the tail end of the chorus, “cool breeze.” In a novel I read some time ago, there was an explanation of how a saying got started. A native on a safari in the deserts of Africa was standing in the blistering heat, behind one of the camels, and suddenly the camel broke wind. The native only remarked that at least it was cool, and the phrase was carried throughout the trip: “A cool breeze from a camel’s ass.” My mom used to have me mimic that line for company so I’m passing it on in my book.’

Perhaps Berry was conflating the experiences, or else it only goes to show his penchant for high speed, but the pianist Johnnie Johnson recalled another encounter with the police as he and Berry headed into New York City for a week-long engagement at the Brooklyn Paramount. Driving through the Lincoln Tunnel, Berry:

‘was passing cars in the tunnel. But you couldn’t pass nobody in the tunnel, so when we got to the end, there was about five or six police cars and we were stopped. On the front of his car, he had a California license plate, and on the back he had a St. Louis license plate. And in his drivers’ license he was notified as an Indian. They didn’t arrest him or nothing. They just told him to get them plates straight on that car and to get that California plate off.’

Although it failed to furnish Berry with chart success, ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ has been frequently covered. The Rolling Stones recorded it in 1964, for release on their 1965 albums The Rolling Stones No.2 (in the UK) and The Rolling Stones, Now! (in the US). The Blues Project released a cover on their 1966 album Projections, Love Sculpture on their 1970 album Forms and Feelings, Stephen Stills in an acoustic version which appeared on Stephen Stills Live in 1975, and George Thorogood and the Destroyers on Born to Be Bad from 1988.

But beyond covers, few songs can have had their lyrics so memorably interpolated. On the song ‘State Trooper’ from his 1982 album Nebraska – a track which was sonically influenced by the New York synth punk duo Suicide – Bruce Springsteen opens verses with the lines ‘New Jersey Turnpike, ridin’ on a wet night’ and, as if to confirm Berry’s presence, ‘In the wee wee hours your mind gets hazy’.

‘You Can’t Catch Me’ also left its mark on Iggy Pop. There is a clear echo of the song on ‘1970’, from The Stooges’ seminal second album Fun House, a track which has also been released and covered as ‘I Feel Alright’. Where the third verse of Berry’s song goes ‘Flying with my baby last Saturday night / Not a gray cloud floating in sight / Big full moon shining up above / Cuddle up honey, be my love’, Iggy, Dave Alexander, and Ron and Scott Asheton pull the lines apart, reworking them to become ‘Out of my mind on Saturday night / 1970 rollin’ in sight / Radio burnin’ up above / Beautiful baby, feed my love’.

In 1969 The Beatles opted to make ‘Come Together’ the opening track on their new album, Abbey Road. Credited to Lennon-McCartney, the song was written primarily by John Lennon, reworked following his attempt to write a campaign song for Timothy Leary, who briefly stood for Governor of California against the incumbent Ronald Reagan. Leary’s campaign ended when, in January 1970, he was a handed a ten-year prison sentence for marijuana possession.

Lennon later said of ‘Come Together’:

‘The thing was created in the studio. It’s gobbledygook. ‘Come Together’ was an expression that Leary had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever he wanted to be, and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t come up with one. But I came up with this, ‘Come Together’, which would’ve been no good to him – you couldn’t have a campaign song like that, right?’

It was released as a double A-side in October 1969 with ‘Something’, and promptly reached the top of the Billboard charts in the United States, while climbing only so far as number 4 in the United Kingdom, banned by the BBC as its mention of ‘Coca-Cola’ violated their policy against product placement.

But despite Lennon’s dismissive attitude to the song’s lyrics, its opening line, ‘Here come old flat-top’, would provide cause for complaint. For in 1973, ‘Come Together’ became the subject of a lawsuit, brought against Lennon by Big Seven Music Corp., which was owned at the time by the industry impresario and club owner Morris Levy. Levy contended that musically and lyrically, ‘Come Together’ owed a debt to Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’.

Levy – who was known within the music industry as ‘Moishe’ or ‘Mo’ – was a controversial and flamboyant figure, a rapacious businessman whose reach extended through every aspect of production and sales. He developed a reputation for swindling artists out of their royalties – especially R&B artists, after falsely claiming songwriting credits. In the 1980s the FBI targeted Levy in a three-and-a-half year investigation into the relationship between the record industry and organised crime. Levy’s arrest in 1986 at the Boston Ritz Carlton made national television, and in 1988 he was convicted on two counts of conspiring to extort. Sentenced to ten years in prison and fined $200,000, Levy appealed, and though his conviction was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, he died in May 1990 before he could report to jail.

If greed was the overriding motivation, in this instance Levy was somewhat in the right, because Lennon had borrowed liberally from ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. In Many Years from Now, the authorised biography of Paul McCartney by Barry Miles, McCartney remembers of ‘Come Together’ that Lennon:

‘originally brought it over as a very perky little song, and I pointed out to him that it was very similar to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. John acknowledged it was rather close to it so I said, ‘Well, anything you can do to get away from that.’ I suggested that we tried it swampy – ‘swampy’ was the word I used – so we did, we took it right down. I laid that bass line down which very much makes the mood. It’s actually a bass line that people now use very often in rap records. If it’s not a sample, they use that riff. But that was my contribution to that.’

And beyond Lennon modelling his guitar riff on ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, Levy pointed to the resemblance between the line ‘Here come a flat-top, he was movin’ up with me’ from Berry’s song, and ‘Here come old flat-top, he come groovin’ up slowly’ which opens ‘Come Together’. The lawsuit was settled out of court, with Lennon agreeing to record at least three songs owned by Levy for his next release.

Lennon proceeded to record a number of covers between October and December 1973 with Phil Spector, but the project was shelved with just two Levy-owned songs attempted: ‘Angel Baby’ and ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. Lennon passed on to Levy a rough tape meant to show his work in progress, only for Levy to swiftly release it as Roots: John Lennon Sings The Great Rock & Roll Hits, a quickly withdrawn mail-order LP. Lennon and Capitol Records threatened to counter sue, and the protracted case came to a conclusion in July 1976, with Big Seven Music Corp. awarded $6,795 for breach of an oral agreement, Capitol Records and EMI Records awarded $109,700 to compensate for lost income, and Lennon himself awarded an additional $35,000 in punitive damages.

In the meantime, in February 1975, Lennon released his own album of 50s and 60s cover songs. Entitled Rock ‘n’ Roll, it featured ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, as produced by Spector, on side one. A few years later, Lennon touched upon ‘Come Together’ and the subsequent lawsuit, saying:

”Come Together’ is me, writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in, ‘Here comes old flat-top’. It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to ‘Here comes old iron face,’ but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on Earth.’

Whatever, as long as the rights to ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ belonged to Morris Levy, Chuck Berry did not stand to benefit from any of the proceeds. Back in 1956, although Chess ultimately received the right to release the Rock, Rock, Rock! soundtrack, the publishing wound up with Snapper Music, a company formed by Alan Freed before being sold to Levy and his business partner Phil Kahl.

Berry alludes to the deal struck with Snapper Music in his autobiography, describing the arrangement reached between Chess Records and Alan Freed:

‘I don’t think Leonard ever knew I caught on to one of his tactics, which was that whenever he was about to do something that was not in your favour, he would inevitably precede the scheme with an unexpected good deed. I figured this out after one time when before a recording session, he took the whole band out to a big breakfast and then offered me his nine-day-old Cadillac Eldorado to run down to the Southside of Chicago for a couple of hours to see Toddy’s [Berry’s wife’s] ill sister.

When I returned he had my band jamming with guy he was auditioning and this session later turned out to be an album by the guy without any compensation for my fellows. He then issued me a handsome royalty check as he shoved an unrelated songwriter’s agreement toward me to sign quickly as he was leaving for an urgent appointment. Six months later I realized what took place at the signing, which took twenty-eight years to redeem.’

It was not until 1984 that Berry regained the rights to ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, when the song was re-registered with the Library of Congress as a copyright administered by Isalee, the name of Berry’s own publishing company.