Chuck Berry – ‘Too Much Monkey Business’

‘Too Much Monkey Business’ was Berry’s fifth single, the second of three that would be released in 1956, sandwiched between ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘You Can’t Catch Me’.

Berry’s music proved hugely popular in England with the two biggest bands of the British Invasion, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones reintroducing his songs to American audiences.

‘Too Much Monkey Business’ proved to be particularly infectious in England.

Chuck Berry and His Combo

Chuck Berry: guitar & vocal /

Johnny Johnson: piano / Willie Dixon: bass /

Fred Below: drums

Recorded April 16, 1956, Chicago, IL

Released, A-side Chess single, September 1956

Too Much Monkey Business (Chuck Berry) (2:56)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5b2w_nJLuvw

The Beatles performed the number on four different BBC broadcasts in 1963, with the last performance being released on “Live at the BBC” in 1994.

The Beatles

John Lennon: vocal & guitar /

Paul McCartney: bass / George Harrison: rhythm guitar /

Ringo Starr: drums

Recorded September 03, 1963 – Aeolian Hall Studios, London

BBC Light Programme “Pop Go The Beatles”

Available on: “Live at the BBC” (Apple 1994)

Too Much Monkey Business (Chuck Berry) (2:06)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbEeymi6lsE

Lennon was the only one of the Fab Four who could have pulled off this vocal; the sense that “no one understands me” simmering just beneath the surface of the quick-witted lyrics.

The number had long been a staple of their set-lists live and it shows with the skill with which they navigate the switchback turns despite the speed of the arrangement.

Tellingly, Lennon drops the fourth verse for a reprise of the third (about a girlfriend’s attempt at domesticating him) he then drops the fifth also (most likely due to time constraints) and finishes with Berry’s final two verses and the admonition that he does not need this “botheration”.

 

The following year saw eight British groups record and release versions of the song and Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon putting out his cover as a single in the States.

For bands, such as The Applejacks, Casey Jones & The Governors, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, The Hollies, the song was simply ill-suited to their Merseybeat sound; where the energy of The Beatles performances felt natural, especially Lennon’s machine-gun delivery, the others tried to increase the sense of excitement with exaggerated vocals and shouts, coming off like kids performing a “funny song” for the grown-ups, hoping for approval as much an appreciative smile.  These performances would be used as filler on their EPs and LPs.  (all of these versions can easily be found on YouTube)

One of the earliest released as a single (albeit, a B-side) and to me, one of the most interesting was from the Keith Powell and the Valets.

Keith Powell & The Valets

Keith Powell: vocal /

Colin Wood: guitar / John Allseebrook: bass /

Mal Ritter: drums

Mal Ford: organ / Phil Gaynor: saxophone /

Recorded 1964 – date unknown

Released B-side, Columbia (U.K.) single, ‘I Should Know Better (But I Don’t)’ September 1964

Too Much Monkey Business (Chuck Berry) (1:52)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-hZ4yEuLvQ

I don’t know if the actual recording is quite this raw or if it is simply the poor quality of the 45 from which the song was taken but this sounds like some of the rougher recordings that John Lee Hooker made in the back of barbershops and hardware stores Detroit in the early fifties.

They shave a full minute off of Berry’s original number, inserting the break after the third verse (Chuck waited until after the fourth) and add a chorus.  After that, Powell sings what was the fifth verse, followed by the fourth, drops the sixth (about being in the war) and races through the last before bizarrely wrapping up the number as if it were a show-tune being performed on “Thank Your Lucky Stars”

The Kinks covered the song on their first LP, (which also had Berry’s ‘Beautiful Delilah’ a standard for The Rolling Stones at that time) but the number comes off as half-hearted; Ray Davies’ vocal lacks a sense of exasperation, comic or self-justified and the band feels muted, with even Dave Davie’s guitar breaks, all tangled chords, seemingly under-recorded, leaving him sounding too much like George Harrison; fine for The Beatles, but not what you expect, or want from the Kinks.

Recorded before almost all of the above, but unreleased until December of that year, was The Yardbirds rendition.  The song was there opener for their live sets and it kicks off their first LP “Five Live Yardbirds”.

The Yardbirds

Keith Relf: vocal /

Eric Clapton: lead guitar / Chris Dreja: rhythm guitar /

Paul Samwell-Smith: bass / Jim McCarty: drums

Recorded at The Marquee Club, London March 20, 1964

Released “Five Live Yardbirds” (Columbia U.K. 1964) December

Intro (0:53) / Too Much Monkey Business (Chuck Berry) (2:01)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOWHescv8CI

“Blues purist” Eric Clapton gleefully disposes of that label to simply let loose here; he and Chris Dreja attacking the breaks with abandon.  The weak sound only hints at how exciting it must have been to be in a small club as the band went at it at full volume.  Even at the time, Clapton usually played with greater control, but his hell-bent-for-leather approach here is still fun to hear.

Beyond the remit of this post, but too good to leave out: The Yardbirds returned to the number a year and a half later, with another guitarist, Jeff Beck, taking the lead*

 Far better recorded than Powell’s performance, but wonderfully raw nonetheless, we’ll go out with another fairly obscure cover.  The Downliners Sect capture the energy and attitude of Berry’s original perfectly.

 The Downliners Sect

Don Craine: vocal & guitar /

Terry Gibson: guitar / Keith Grant: bass /

Ray Sone: harmonica / Johnny Sutton: drums

Recorded 1964

Released on “The Sect” (Columbia U.K. 1964) December

Too Much Monkey Business (Chuck Berry) (2:01)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzC2nHXyHkA

Like Keith Powell, they drop two verses, the third (the one Lennon sang twice) and the sixth, (as did Powell, about his Army service)

The “percussion”, sounding like hand-claps with an echo effect helps to fuel the excitement without their having to up the tempo.  Craine’s vocal has just the right edge and again like Powell, he is one of the few, including The Beatles, to include the final snot-nose protest “Don’t want your botheration get away, leave me”

Bonus track:

 * The Yardbirds

Keith Relf: vocal /

Jeff Beck: lead guitar / Chris Dreja: rhythm guitar /

Paul Samwell-Smith: bass / Jim McCarty: drums

BBC Session – recorded August 05, 1965

Available on “Live at the BBC” (Repertoire 2017)

Too Much Monkey Business (Chuck Berry) (2:28)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQBor7SnUgs

 

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