Hello there! This week’s blog entry is You Never Can Tell. This is a great rock ‘n roll tune by Chuck Berry, and is part of our series Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies. We will review Chuck Berry’s original song and explain how the song features in the film Pulp Fiction. We will then discuss covers by Bob Seger and by Bruce Springsteen.
Chuck Berry and You Never Can Tell:
We first encountered Chuck Berry in our blog post on Back in the USA. We later discussed his song Sweet Little Sixteen, then his cover of Ida Red (which he titled Maybellene), and the iconic rocker Johnny B Goode. So we will briefly review his career here.
Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry was one of the greatest rock ‘n roll pioneers. Born in 1926 and raised in St. Louis, he quickly became interested in rhythm and blues, and he began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson. The group established a strong regional reputation, which earned Chuck an audition in 1955 with Leonard Chess of Chess Records.
Apparently the Chess brothers were uninterested in adding Chuck to their stable of blues singers – after all, they already had artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. At some point in the audition, apparently Chuck was asked something like “Why don’t you play your worst song?”
At that point, Chuck and the boys broke into one of their ‘black hillbilly’ songs. As it happened, the Johnnie Johnson Trio would occasionally mix country songs into their playlist of blues and ballads, a move that turned out to be quite popular with their fans. The producer urged Berry to write his own version of a ‘hillbilly’ song; this became Chuck’s first hit Maybellene, which was released in 1955 and hit #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.
Below is a photo of Chuck Berry performing with his band circa 1956.Embed from Getty Images
Maybellene set Chuck Berry off and running into rock music history. He and his band, with Johnnie Johnson on piano and blues great Willie Dixon on upright bass, put out a string of hits, all following the same basic formula. The songs featured Chuck’s rapid-fire lyrics that painted a vivid word-picture. This was combined with his signature rock guitar riffs, which became standards for rock guitarists.
Chuck Berry was also a master showman. Over roughly a five-year period, he charted a number of hits that established him as one of the great R&B trailblazers.
Chuck keenly appreciated the irony that, as a 30-year old black ex-con, he was selling records primarily to middle-class white teen-agers. Regardless, Chuck’s lyrics were terrific, and his songs effectively conveyed to his teen audiences the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.
The song You Never Can Tell also goes by two other names – C’est La Vie and Teenage Wedding, both titles referring to lyrics in the song. Chuck wrote the tune in the early 1960s while he was in prison for violating the Mann Act. That statute made it a crime to transport
“any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose”.
The law was passed in 1910 and has been amended but never repealed. At the time, it represented an attempt to close down brothels, which had previously been legal in many cities. Also, it was an over-reaction to the notion that thousands of women were being kidnapped and forced into prostitution, or “white slavery.”
This idea was epitomized in an excerpt from a book by the U.S. District Attorney from Chicago:
One thing should be made very clear to the girl who comes up to the city, and that is that the ordinary ice cream parlor is very likely to be a spider’s web for her entanglement. This is perhaps especially true of those ice cream saloons and fruit stores kept by foreigners. Scores of cases are on record where young girls have taken their first step towards “white slavery” in places of this character.
The Mann Act was used as a device to punish many forms of sexual behavior, from prostitution to couples who eloped, to punishment for men who abandoned their lovers. Both Chuck Berry and the boxer Jack Johnson were convicted under the Mann Act, and actor Charlie Chaplin was charged but acquitted of violating this statute.
Anyway, the song You Never Can Tell was released in 1964 and made it to #14 on the Billboard charts. The tune marks a sort of watershed for Chuck Berry, as it was his last Top 40 hit until Chuck’s novelty song My Ding-a-Ling hit #1 in 1972.
You Never Can Tell describes a Cajun couple, Pierre and “the lovely mademoiselle,” who get married in New Orleans at a young age and settle down. The song is told in Chuck’s inimitable talking-blues style, with his colorful lyrics piling up images atop one another.
It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well
You could see that Pierre did truly love the mademoiselle
And now the young monsieur and madame have rung the chapel bell
“C’est la vie”, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell
They furnished off an apartment with a two room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale
But when Pierre found work, the little money comin’ worked out well
“C’est la vie”, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell
Each verse of the song ends with the line ‘“C’est la vie” say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.’ Fittingly enough, the song contains Cajun-inspired rhythms.
And here is Chuck Berry in a live performance of You Never Can Tell.
This performance took place in 1972. Chuck slows down the tempo considerably from his single record. He noodles around with guitar solos while his backup band makes sure they know the right key to play.
The pianist interjects some enjoyable Dixieland tempo. I greatly enjoy this particular Chuck Berry tune, which has a slightly different style from his signature guitar-driven rockers.
Chuck Berry would frequently tour without a band; this saved him money, as instead of paying a touring band he could hire local backup musicians for scale. It was not unusual for Chuck to show up immediately before a performance and simply instruct the musicians ‘follow me.’
That may be the case with the live concert in the video above. It certainly appears as though the guitar and bass players are tentative, and aren’t really sure what they are doing.
Over the years Chuck Berry has received virtually every honor in the field. He was a shoo-in for induction into the 1986 inaugural class at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the comments in his bio was that he
laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.
How true! Chuck also is ranked fifth on the Rolling Stone list 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
On March 18, 2017, Chuck Berry passed away from cardiac arrest at the age of 90. Rock and roll music lost one of its great pioneers, a legendary singer and songwriter whose output forms a great contribution to modern rhythm and blues.
Chuck also played a significant role in making the guitar the dominant melodic component of rock music. Anyone learning rock guitar will begin by committing to memory Chuck Berry’s classic guitar licks.
You Never Can Tell in the movie Pulp Fiction:
Pulp Fiction was a 1994 movie directed by Quentin Tarantino, with a script co-written by Tarantino and Roger Avary. It was arguably the most important film of the 1990s.
Tarantino assembled an all-star cast to tell his complex, interwoven tale about a number of gangsters in Los Angeles. The film is shot out of chronological sequence, and in addition a couple of the scenes are presented from more than one point of view. Throughout the film, the lives of the various characters intersect in many different ways.
Tarantino pitched his script to various studios before it received the green light. For example, Columbia TriStar pictures rejected the film as “too demented.” However, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Pictures was enchanted by the script. Pulp Fiction became the first film that was fully financed by Miramax.
The plot of Pulp Fiction is incredibly intricate and detailed, so we will give a very rough summary of the story, in chronological order (note: this is not the order that scenes appear in the movie).
The story begins when mob hit men Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) retrieve a mysterious briefcase for their boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). The pair kill Brett, the holder of the briefcase, and prepare to return it to their boss.
One of Brett’s associates has been hiding in the bathroom. He jumps out and empties his gun at Vincent and Jules. However, every shot misses, and the mobsters then kill him. Jules is convinced that he was spared by divine intervention, and considers this a sign that he should cease his criminal ways.
Vincent and Jules stop at a diner. A couple, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, hold up the establishment at gunpoint. Jules trains his gun on Pumpkin. Vincent, who was in the bathroom, emerges with his own gun, creating a Mexican standoff with the armed couple. Jules recites a Biblical verse, then allows the pair to rob the diner and leave.
Vincent and Jules are driving back to Marsellus with one of the associates in the back seat of the car. Vincent accidentally shoots and kills the associate. The pair then drive to the house of a friend, who calls in a “cleaner” (Harvey Keitel). The cleaner directs Vincent and Jules to clean the car, hide the body in the trunk, and take the car to a junkyard where it is crushed.
When Vega and Winnfield arrive, Wallace is bribing a boxer (Bruce Willis) to throw a fight. Wallace asks Vega to escort his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) while he is out of town. Vega takes Mia to a bar that sponsors a dance contest, which they win. When Vega and Mia return to the Wallace house, Mia finds some of Vega’s heroin and overdoses. She is revived by a shot of adrenaline to her heart.
Butch double-crosses Marsellus and wins his fight. He returns to his apartment to gather his belongings and flee. There he encounters Vincent and shoots him dead. However, as Butch is leaving town he is spotted by Marsellus.
Marsellus chases Butch into a pawnshop. The pawnshop owner pulls a gun on the pair and ties them up. Marsellus is sexually assaulted by the pawnshop security guard. Butch eventually frees himself and kills both the pawnshop owner and security guard. Because Butch has saved Marsellus, he is allowed to go free provided he never mentions the assault on Marsellus.
The Weinstein brothers entered Pulp Fiction in the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. They flew the entire cast to Cannes for the festival. The film won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or; this created a tremendous buzz for the movie.
At left we show a poster for Pulp Fiction. It features Uma Thurman in the foreground holding a pistol with a pulp magazine beside her, with the mobsters played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson (sporting a large Jheri-curl wig) in the background.
Pulp Fiction was a major box-office hit. Against a film and promotional budget of less than $20 million, the film made over $200 million worldwide. In addition, the movie won a slew of awards. It was named best picture of the year, with Tarantino as best director, by many film critics.
There was one unfortunate event. Roger Avary had agreed to waive his co-writer status so that promotional materials for the film could read “written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.” As a result, Tarantino alone was the recipient of the Golden Globe Award for best screenplay. And in his acceptance speech, Tarantino failed to mention Avary! This was rectified when Tarantino and Avary shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Here is the clip from Pulp Fiction that features the Chuck Berry song You Never Can Tell.
In this scene, Vega (Travolta) takes Mia Wallace (Thurman) to a club that sponsors a twist contest. Vega and Wallace compete, to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, and win first prize.
As you can see, Berry’s record has a much more upbeat tempo than the live clip we showed earlier. Johnnie Johnson thumps away with his Cajun-inspired piano licks, while a lively saxophone keeps the tempo going.
The scene here is quite electric. Uma Thurman is incredibly sexy, while Travolta is the epitome of cool. Like Saturday Night Fever, this is yet another movie highlighted by Travolta’s dancing.
Pulp Fiction showed off Quentin Tarantino’s many talents. The complex screenplay managed to weave together several disparate strands of the plot. The film was memorable for its snappy dialogue, particularly between Travolta and Jackson.
The video work was spectacular, and the film also contained several sly references to earlier movies. Pulp Fiction had an incredible impact on films in the 90s and beyond. The movie appears on a number of “Best Movies” lists, and elicited a generally positive critical response.
In addition to his other skills, Quentin Tarantino is a master at incorporating the perfect popular music to complement his films. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino did not use a film score but instead relied on a number of rock and roll tunes, in particular surf music from Dick Dale.
Negative reactions to Pulp Fiction tended to center on the hyper-violence seen in many Tarantino films. Part of this strong negative reaction to Tarantino’s movies occurs because he is such an accomplished film-maker that the scenes of violence are that much more shocking.
I share this ambivalence towards violence in Quentin Tarantino films. I will never again be able to watch the “straight razor” scene in Reservoir Dogs.
However, others argue that the violence is simply part of an iconic film package. For example, critic Gene Siskel stated that
the violent intensity of Pulp Fiction calls to mind other violent watershed films that were considered classics in their time and still are. Hitchcock’s Psycho , Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde , and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange .
I’m not entirely convinced by Siskel’s argument. After all, there were significant ethical issues underpinning both Bonnie and Clyde and A Clockwork Orange, that seem to be absent in Tarantino’s more amoral movies.
However, I cannot argue with the impact of this and other Quentin Tarantino films.
Bob Seger and C’est La Vie:
Bob Seger is a rock and roll singer-songwriter. He has become a rock superstar, although he took a surprisingly long route before hitting the big time.
Bob Seger was born in 1945 and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father was an accomplished musician and taught his son to play several instruments. Unfortunately, his parents argued constantly and when Bob was ten, his father abandoned the family and moved to California.
Seger played in a number of bands and issued a couple of albums. He has a terrific voice for rock ‘n roll, a raspy growl that he copied from Little Richard. Seger garnered a devoted following in southern Michigan, but could not seem to score an album or single that would catapult his career forward.
Below is a photo of a young Bob Seger performing in the late 60s.Embed from Getty Images
After fronting a couple of bands, Seger formed the Silver Bullet Band in 1974. It was predominantly made up of session musicians from the greater Detroit area. There has been considerable turnover in the Silver Bullet Band over the past 40 years; however, Silver Bullet provides Seger with a tight ensemble that produces a consistent, highly professional sound.
This is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, which has also backed Bruce for at least 40 years. We will meet up with Bruce in the next section of this post.
To give an example of Seger’s regional popularity, in mid-1976 he was the featured performer at a concert in Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome that attracted 80,000 fans. The following evening, Seger performed in Chicago to an audience of less than 1,000.
Bob Seger’s break-out album was the 1976 release Night Moves. The title song of that album reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. That song covered several themes common to many Bob Seger tunes: indelible youthful memories; middle American pastimes such as bars and strip clubs; and the passing of time and loss of innocence.
A second Bob Seger hit on that album, Mainstreet, was written about Ann Street in Ann Arbor. It covers similar themes to Night Moves, and also contains an iconic soaring guitar solo by Silver Bullet guitarist Pete Carr. Both of those songs are still favorites on classic-rock radio stations.
By now the album Night Moves has sold nearly 10 million copies. But Seger’s success with this album also sparked a demand for his two previous albums, Beautiful Loser and Live Bullet. Each of those albums has now sold over 2 million copies. In addition, the live concert album Live Bullet remained on the Billboard album charts for well over three years.
Here is Bob Seger in a live performance of C’est La Vie. This was a single on Seger’s 1994 Greatest Hits album, which has sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. This is from a March 2011 concert in Toledo, not all that far from Seger’s residence in a Detroit suburb.
Mr. Seger really has a good time with this old Chuck Berry tune. He is backed by his longtime group the Silver Bullet Band, which contains an energetic horn section led by saxophonist Alto Reed. A honky-tonk piano follows the Dixieland theme, tinkling away throughout the song.
I have caught Bob Seger in concert a couple of times, and he invariably turns in a first-rate performance. His throaty vocals are just perfect for rock ‘n roll, and some of his best songs are truly memorable.
Bob Seger has continued to command superstar status over the past 40 years. However, there is now a significant time between the release of new material, and now that Bob has reached 70, he has hinted that he may soon retire from touring.
But at present he’s still on the road. If you can catch him when he passes through your town, you can be assured of a hard-rocking, crowd-pleasing set. Keep rockin’,Bob!
Bruce Springsteen and You Never Can Tell:
Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest rock and rollers of the modern era. We discussed Bruce and his career in an earlier blog post on the song Brown-Eyed Girl, and also his cover of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive. Here we will provide a short bio of his life and career.
Springsteen grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s, where his father was largely unemployed and his mother worked as a legal secretary. Springsteen’s maternal grandfather had emigrated to the U.S. from Naples, Italy.
After graduating from high school, Springsteen participated in a number of different groups. He gathered a following along the Jersey coast, and began assembling a backup group that would eventually become the E Street Band.
Bruce Springsteen’s first big break came in 1972, when legendary producer John Hammond signed him to a contract with Columbia Records, just like Hammond had signed Bob Dylan a decade earlier.
Springsteen’s songs tend to focus on social issues such as the plight of middle class Americans, veterans, and the poor. Early in his career, Springsteen was the recipient of much critical praise. Bruce also developed a cult following because of the energy and exuberance of his live performances.
This led to Springsteen’s nickname “The Boss,” even before he had achieved any notable commercial success. However, in his early career Springsteen’s record sales were rather disappointing, and matched neither the promise of his reviews nor the enthusiasm of his fans.
His first big single was Born To Run, the title cut of Springsteen’s third album released in 1975. Although the song only made it to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and performed rather poorly outside the U.S.), it established Springsteen as a young artist to watch.
Below is a photo of Bruce Springsteen performing in Amsterdam on his 1975 Born To Run tour. At left is Bruce’s great sax player Clarence Clemons.Embed from Getty Images
I was conflicted over Born To Run. The song featured an impressive “wall of sound” instrumental backing. And the lyrics were terrific, bringing to mind some of the best work by artists like Bob Dylan and Billy Joel. However, I thought the production values on the record were third-rate, and I waited to see if Bruce would live up to the hype.
Well, Mr. Springsteen succeeded in spectacular fashion. The 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. established him as one of the great rockers of his generation. Like Born To Run, the album was chock-full of hits – in fact, 7 of the songs on this album made the Billboard Top 10 hits. Furthermore, the advent of music videos at this time meant that millions of Americans were introduced to Springsteen’s energy in live performance.
And the production values were superb on the Born In The U.S.A. album. The E Street Band was in great form, and the album sold like hotcakes, with over 30 million units sold worldwide.
Here is Bruce Springsteen performing You Never Can Tell. This is from his 2013 Wrecking Ball tour of Germany; this performance took place in Leipzig.
The premise here is that Bruce and the E Street Band are doing a song that either they have not performed for a long time, or perhaps have never performed.
I am not sure whether I accept the notion that Bruce and the boys had not previously rehearsed this song. However, there is no doubt that they are having a great time, as is the audience.
Bruce spends about a minute deciding in what key the song will be played. He then allows his band to noodle around a bit on the tune, and invites the audience to hum along to start off the song.
Once they get going, the performance is thoroughly delightful. The E Street Band horn section have major solos during the piece – trombone; saxophone; and two different trumpets – while pianist Roy Bittan maintains the Dixieland beat.
At this point, Bruce Springsteen is a living American treasure. He continues to release albums, varying between hard-rocking tunes with the E Street Band and folk records inspired by artists such as Woody Guthrie.
Springsteen’s concerts also tend to be epic events. He and the E Street Band generally appear in stadiums or major venues, and his energetic concerts last up to three hours or more.
The musicianship is first-rate, and Springsteen’s energy does not flag – he still produces the dynamic live show that was his calling-card from the earliest stages of his career. Bruce, what a great career – “it goes to show you never can tell”!
Wikipedia, You Never Can Tell (song)
Wikipedia, Chuck Berry
Wikipedia, Mann Act
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Chuck Berry bio
Wikipedia, Pulp Fiction
Wikipedia, Quentin Tarantino
Wikipedia, Bob Seger
Wikipedia, Bruce Springsteen