CHUCK BERRY'S FLYING CAR
Rock 'n' Roll was the fast food of the 50s. Everybody knew it wasn't gourmet, but they also all knew that if you liked one you'd like another just like it. Even the greats understood that the best reaction to a hit song was to write another song that sounded as much like the first this side of outright plagiarism.
Chuck Berry was 29 years old in 1955, having been kicking around the South playing a mix of country, blues, and R&B for years, when he got a shot at the big time, an invitation to record at Chicago's Chess Records. The best song on his demo reel was "Ida Mae," a version of the high-velocity country song "Ida Red," immortalized by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Leonard Chess demanded a new set of lyrics, you know, that plagiarism thing, so Berry looked to the teen crowd and improvised a ditty about girls and cars. The name Maybellene probably came from a box of mascara but the paean to the Cadillac Coupe de Ville and the V8 Ford was the pure Berry who loved hot cars, preferably filled with hot girls. The single stormed up every chart in late 1955 and Berry was instantly famous.
Alan Freed had a been given a songwriting credit on Maybellene as an inducement for him to play it - the very definition of payola, which was completely legal then. Playing it made Freed a lot of money, but neither he nor Berry minded making a lot more.
Freed had himself achieved a level of fame that allowed him to host a series of movies that were nothing more than feeble excuses for filming rock 'n' roll acts. Rock, Rock, Rock had a dozen of them, plus performances by Alan Freed & His Rock & Roll Band. Berry naturally had a part. The song he choose was "You Can't Catch Me."
If Maybellene was about seeing his girl in a rival's Cadillac de Ville, what could be better revenge than to get a de Ville of his own and name it Maybellene? Only one thing: make it a flying car, a "Flight de Ville." No cooler rock 'n' roll image emerged from the 50s.
I bought a brand-new airmobile
It was custom-made, 'twas a Flight De Ville
With a powerful motor and some hideaway wings
Push in on the button and you can hear her sing
Now you can't catch me, baby you can't catch me
'Cause if you get too close, you know I'm gone like a cool breeze
New Jersey Turnpike in the wee wee hours
I was rollin' slowly 'cause of drizzlin' showers
Here come a flat-top, he was movin' up with me
Then come wavin' goodbye in a little' old souped-up jitney
I put my foot in my tank and I began to roll
Moanin' siren, 'twas the state patrol
So I let out my wings and then I blew my horn
Bye bye New Jersey, I've become airborne
Flyin' with my baby last Saturday night
Wasn't a gray cloud floatin' in sight
Big full moon shinin' up above
Cuddle up honey, be my love
Sweetest little thing I've ever seen
I'm gonna name you Maybellene
Flyin' on the beam, set on flight control
Radio tuned to rock 'n' roll
Two, three hours done passed us by
Altitude dropped to 5:05
Fuel consumption way too fast
Let's get on home before we run out of gas
"Airmobile" is an inventive name. I can only find two earlier references to it in conjunction with a flying car, although the combination of "air" and "mobile" pops up in dozens of other different ways. The Flight de Ville coinage is even better. How Cadillac could have not used it later in the 50s, when the fins on the de Ville grew large enough to launch a Caddy into space if it hit a good bump, is baffling.
"You Can't Catch Me" has a great beat and fun lyrics. There’s even a sly reference to “Wee Wee Hours,” the b-side to “Maybellene.” The worst that can be said about it is that it wasn't as good as "Maybellene." Well, Joseph Heller once said when asked why he didn't write another book as good as Catch-22, "Who has?" When the song was released as a single, great things were expected.
They never happened. Incredibly, "You Can't Catch Me" didn't rate a listing on any chart. The movie "soundtrack" album - which included only four of the 21 tracks heard in the movie - didn't chart. Maybe the shoddiness of the movie diluted sales or Chess' inexperience at distribution meant the LP was seldom available or Freed wasn't paid enough. Only a handful of people could recognize, let alone name, any music from the movie or the soundtrack, so maybe the music didn't matter, although other songs as bad from the same artists charted. Historically, the album is gigantic. It's considered the first rock soundtrack, album, the first LP issued by Chess Records, and the first Chuck Berry album. He had four songs on it - "You Can't Catch Me," "Maybellene," "Thirty Days," and "Roll Over Beethoven." If you wanted those songs on an LP you had to buy the album. "Maybellene" and "Roll Over Beethoven" didn't appear on a Berry album until 1959, "Thirty Days" not until a 1962 compilation album. "You Can't Catch Me" had to wait for 1982 and the greatest hits album The Great Twenty-Eight long after Berry had become an oldies legend and curiosity.
The only legacy the song had was a sideways homage by John Lennon. In "Come Together" he modified the line "Here come a flattop, he was movin' up with me" to read "Here come ol' flattop, he come groovin' up slowly," with a rhythm similar to the original but groovin' more slowly. Berry's publisher sued, Lennon settled out of court, and put his version of "You Can't Catch Me" on his Rock 'n' Roll album.
It deserves more. A custom-made Flight de Ville with hideaway wings belongs in every garage.