Songlines: ‘Too Much Monkey Business’

Chuck Berry didn’t tour England until May of 1964, but his songs had been in the repertoires of countless British bands for years by then, including the two biggest, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Surprisingly, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ proved to be particular favorite.

I say “surprisingly” as the song was not released in the U.K. as a single or EP and made its first appearance on an LP on Pye International’s 1963 “More Chuck Berry”. 

In the U.S., the song originally appeared on Berry’s first LP, “After School Session” in 1957 after having been released as the A-side to his fifth single, the third of four released in 1956, coming between ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘You Can’t Catch Me’.


Chuck Berry and His Combo

Chuck Berry: guitar & vocal /

Johnnie Johnson: piano / Willie Dixon: bass /

Fred Below: drums

Recorded April 16, 1956, Chicago, IL

Released, A-side Chess single, September 1956

Chuck Berry and His Combo – Too Much Monkey Business

The song had been part of The Beatles’ live sets since 1960; in 1963, they performed the number on four different BBC broadcasts: in March, April, June and September, with the last performance being commercially released on the compilation “Live at the BBC” in 1994.

The performance below was the second, available only on bootleg –

The Beatles

John Lennon: vocal & guitar /

Paul McCartney: bass /

George Harrison: rhythm guitar / Ringo Starr: drums

Recorded April 04, 1963, BBC Paris Studio, London

Broadcast June 24 BBC “Side By Side”

Released on The Complete BBC Sessions (bootleg)

The Beatles – Too Much Monkey Business

For me, Lennon was the only one of the Fab Four who could have pulled off this vocal, keeping an aggrieved sense that “the whole world is against me” simmering just beneath the surface of the quick-witted lyrics. 

The tempo has been increased and only six of Berry’s original seven verses are sung; they also drop the outro, placing a brief break in the middle of the number. 

Lennon drops the fourth and fifth verses, reprising the third after the break (about a girlfriend’s attempt at domesticating him), finishing up with Berry’s final two verses and the admonition that he does not need this “botheration”.

Their playing on the version released on the “Live at the BBC” collection is a little cleaner compared to the one above (to the song’s determent, for my tastes).

Running exactly the same length, Lennon once again shuffles the verses; after the break, he sings Berry’s sixth verse, goes back to the fourth and finishes with the seventh, with the original’s fifth verse, about losing his money in a payphone, again left out.

The following year, 1964, saw eight British groups record and release covers of the song; one in September, then two in October; three in November and another two in December. 

November of 1964 also saw a cover of the song released as the A-side of a single by Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon.

Cannon’s take on the number was notable solely for the arrangement, with the verses set to a rhythm closer to Johnny Otis’s ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’ and the three quick breaks taken by the guitarist (unknown to me) which keeps the number percolating. 

In the U.K., 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 with the exception of Casey Jones & The Governors 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

Keith Powell & The Valets – Too Much Monkey Business

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 his Army service) 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 in their earliest days) 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 on the Beatles’ Berry covers.

Recorded before almost all of the above, but unreleased until December of that year, were The Yardbirds.  The song was the 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

The Yardbirds – Intro (0:53) / Too Much Monkey Business

“Blues purist” Eric Clapton tears off 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.  Even at the time, Clapton usually played with greater control, but his hell-bent-for-leather approach here is still fun to hear.

Far better recorded, 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

The Downliners Sect – Too Much Monkey Business

Like Keith Powell, they drop two verses, the third (surprising as this is the one about a girlfriend’s attempt at domesticating him – a “fear” of many young men) and the sixth, (as with 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”

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