Johnny B Goode (Chuck Berry, 1958) chosen by Paul Glavey


[i] The version in the film is not by Berry but attributed to Marty McFly and The Starlighters


[iii] Hear it for yourself: use the link above


[iv] It’s fair to say that Berry’s success validates that aspiration, his influence on other musicians is well documented, see for example Reynolds, Simon. Retromania; Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past. London: Faber and Faber. 2011: 245-248. ‘Johnny B Goode’ was sent into space as part of the Voyager mission as an example of representative music from Earth.

[vi] In Back to the Future we see Marty suggest to the café busboy, Goldie Wilson, that he becomes Mayor of Hill Valley in the future to which his boss retorts ‘A coloured mayor, that’ll be the day’.

See also: Bruce Tucker. Black Music Research Journal Vol. 9, No. 2, Papers of the 1989 National Conference on Black Music Research (Autumn, 1989), pp. 271-295 In which the integrationist nature of rock n roll is addressed with specific reference to school segregation.


[vii]See:  Prince, Stephen. A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2000: 219


[viii]   Bigsby, Christopher ed. The Cambridge Companion to Modern American Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2006:387


[ix] Bruce Tucker. Black Music Research Journal Vol. 9, No. 2, Papers of the 1989 National Conference on Black Music Research (Autumn, 1989), pp. 271-295

When I was 8 years old I saw Back to the Future. I found the storyline exciting, was thrilled by the skateboarding and caught up in the tension of the dramatic harnessing the lightening scene. The film’s time travelling plot of the film meant the soundtrack covered different decades and whilst I enjoyed the melody of Mr Sandman and the excitement of Huey Lewis’ The Power of Love accompanying Marty’s skate to school some of the other songs passed me by. Van Halen (played to waken and terrify the sleeping George), and the cover of Earth Angel were largely ignored but with a successful denouement to his parents’ story at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, Marty McFly then took centre stage to play something that ‘really cooks’ I was unprepared for what came next. Having been raised on a limited musical diet, and whilst I did have Abba, Richard Clayderman and Kris Kristofferson to accompany family car journeys they had not prepared me for the immediacy and the power of Johnny B Goode[i].

Chuck Berry released the song on Chess Records in 1958. By then rock and roll had emerged as a musical force perhaps in 1951 with the release of ‘Rocket 88’, or in 1954 with ‘Rock Around the Clock’ depending on who you ask. Either way, the kids at that dance in late 1955 might have been better prepared for the corybantic joy of that riff and that beat then I was. The track was loosely autobiographical and it has come to be regarded as one of the best rock n roll songs of all time.[ii] Those electrifying opening bars were borrowed from an earlier Louis Jordan recording[iii] and it told of one boy’s aspiration to see his name in lights.[iv] Tellingly for the time Berry amended his original lyrics from ‘coloured boy’ to ‘country boy’ to ensure radio play[v] and the song reached no.8 in the charts. This sensitivity about race and is a theme addressed to some degree in the film and is temporally connected to the timeframe of considered.[vi]

Some critics read this film as fitting the Reganist ideas of the time; with nostalgia for an idealised past and a desire to use the past to remake the present[vii] as a central theme. More pointedly the humorous aside at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance when Marvin Berry, the injured guitar player, calls his cousin Chuck to tell him he’s found the new sound he has been looking for has been criticised for suggesting white origins of this music, ‘a white supremacist fantasy of creativity’[viii]. This plays into the wider histories of rock n roll and ideas of cultural appropriation levelled at artists like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.[ix]

But to an 8 year old me none of that existed. All I knew was I loved it and I wanted to hear it again, and again, and again…