Offhanded aggression in “Back to the Future”
Chuck Berry slowly replaces the handset on its cradle and stares dazedly at the phone for a long minute. He springs to his feet and digs through his bags for the notebook he uses to jot down ideas on the road, leafing through it to the right page. He looks down at his song. It’s eerie someone managed to come up with something so similar (identical?). He had had a feeling when he penned it, it was a good one; another follow up to “Maybelline”, the crossover hit he was currently riding high on.
But now, hearing some suburban kid playing it, it was clear it was too old school, already mainstream and square. It was time to get out of his comfort zone and come up with something new to really shake things up. It’s ironic Marvin had thought Chuck was looking for a new sound when he wasn’t and now he needed to, because of that call. He tears the page out, crumples it, and tosses it in the direction of the trash basket. He shakes his head: that was a close one.
We all know the scene. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is playing guitar on “Earth Angel” with Marvin Berry (Harry Waters Jr.) and the Starlighters for the Enchantment Under the Sea high school dance. But after that, he decides to bust out an “oldie from where he’s from” and slays “Johnny B. Goode”. The crowd goes wild.
The movie is sloppy with its 1955 facts across the board; IMDB’s “Goofs” page is immense.¹ And sure, it was harder to do research when the film was made, you had to actually relocate your physical body to an inconveniently situated locus known as a library, and find books made of paper whose contents could not be easily searched, rather a crude, almost necessarily erroneous device—the index—had to be consulted. Today, we have facts at our literal fingertips and can find out what the popular songs and movies were at any given date nearly instantaneously.
And also sure, the film is a comedy; not to be taken too seriously, but the science fiction elements, and specifically that of time travel, mean the entire premise is closely connected to an accurate depiction of a suburban California town in November 1955. It’s not: IMDB lists 14 anachronisms, and it’s pretty far from exhaustive. And no, I’m not going to fix IMDB.
Turning just to Marty’s performance with The Starlighters, there are several such problems, which are worth mentioning as they go to overarching issues: That guitar did not exist then, that amp did not exist then, those effects did not exist then.
The song as well as the guitar are clearly meant to allude to Chuck Berry, but he played a Gibson ES-350T, which was his trademark until the manufacturer discontinued it in 1963. Only then did he switch to the ES-355. No one in the ’50s had a red guitar either—most of them were some kind of sunburst. You can see below, Chuck is bucking the trend by going with either plain blond wood or white. Red didn’t happen until the ’60s.
The gag line on which all of this hangs comes when Marty is soloing and the injured frontman finds a phone:²
Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this!
As I’ve already indicated, Chuck was not looking for a new sound, as Marvin would have known. “Maybelline” was already a huge hit. It had sold over a million copies and hit number one on Billboard’s R&B chart and broke into the overall US chart as well, reaching number five only a few months previous to the movie’s timeline, and had stayed there.
Furthermore, the film is set in November 1955, with little left of the year in which Berry is known to have written the song, so that’s another likely miss historically. Indeed, Berry was to score nine more R&B-charting singles, as well as five that crossed over into the US chart as well before the release of “Johnny B. Goode”. Two of these, “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)”, and “Sweet Little Sixteen” charted higher in both categories: “School Day” reached number one R&B, number three US and “Sweet Little Sixteen”, number one and number two, compared with “Johnny B. Goode”’s performance of number two and number eight. The actual songwriting of “Johnny B. Goode”, rather than being a “new sound” was very much a rocked-up country blues song (as many were) exactly along the lines of “Maybelline” and these other hits.
I’ll note despite the awkwardness of the throwaway laff line, the movie did introduce a new generation to Chuck Berry’s musical genius; a silver lining.
If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.
And again, the film misses the boat as Phillips and Presley had already done this, rerecording Arthur Crudup’s R&B hit “That’s All Right” in July 1954. And even Elvis was also far from the first, despite what Phillips thought.
Then we come to the actual influences on the song the film attempts to efface: the opening riff is a note-for-note copy of the intro to Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five’s song, “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (They’ll Do It Every Time)” from 1946, well predating the fictitious McFly performance.
As for the guitar sound, if that was what Marvin meant (sans effects), Berry’s inspiration for that, as it was for many rockers before and since, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, was not only not white but also not male: “Godmother of rock and roll” Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
The real shame of Marty teaching Chuck his business is it abrogates Tharpe. Listen to a few bars of her song “That’s All”, originally recorded in 1938, and you’ll hear the guitar sound that actually inspired Berry—it’s unmistakable.
And this is where the real problem arises. The filmmakers think about (or at least portray) rock and roll as being born suddenly in the mid-’50s. Check the date for Tharpe’s song again—1938. Elements recognizable as characteristic of rock and roll actually began to appear still earlier, in the blues of the ’20s. There is debate about which song is the proper one to cite, but I’d offer Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Shake That Thing” of 1925 as a notable paterfamilias, despite his use of a banjo guitar; a six-string banjo using guitar tuning. Uncoincidentally, Jackson was one of the earliest black musicians to have his work covered in recordings by whites, as The Allen Brothers did with his “Salty Dog Blues” in 1926.
Mainstream culture seems to think rock and roll’s history begins more specifically, at the point of its becoming white, making it possible for a Marty to deracinate it at that time, but you’d actually have to go all the back to around 1670 in ports like Ouidah, and through them into the whole of what once was the Slave Coast of Africa, to reach what’s ultimately being whitewashed.
That the history of black American music begins in Africa (apart from the obvious) is attested in the English words associated with it, like the Kikongo meanings, if not etymologies, for words like jazz and funky. The concept of “cool” which has become integral to American culture, and perhaps even the world’s, is distinctly African, embodied in words like Yoruba itutu “(aesthetically) cool”, and the Fɔngbe phrase é na fa, “it will be cool”, which carries the exact same connotations on both sides of the Atlantic.
The whole reason rock and roll is the music of rebellion is deeply embedded in its history, which is also why it appealed to white teens in the conformist America of the middle of the last century. As Berry said of “Maybelline”,⁴
It came out at the right time when Afro-American music was spilling over into the mainstream pop.
Again, the history of black entertainers performing for white audiences goes way back, with venues like the Cotton Club strictly adhering to this format, beginning in 1923. They also required dancers and chorus girls to be light-skinned, as their advertising stated:
Tall, Tan, and Terrific!
The Brown Paper Bag Test was a common measure for “acceptable” skin color. These women also had to be at least five-foot-six and under 21.
The whole point of having Marvin’s band play in lilywhite Hill Valley is to try to be cool, though Marvin should have been able to land way better gigs just on the basis of being the cousin of an already huge star. Marty playing with the Starlighters, however, would be problematic as it makes them a miscegenated band.
When Rosetta Tharpe was backed by white performers, The Jordanaires (who would also later be used by Elvis), they could not stay at the same hotels or eat in the same establishments and many Southern venues simply refused to let them play. Certainly California would have been somewhat less strict, but the entire issue is glossed over, despite 3-D and Skinhead (yes, apparently that’s the character’s name) calling one of the Starlighters “spook” and the whole group “reefer addicts”, respectively. And, in fact, the lazy stereotyping of the film does have the band smoking pot.⁵
As for Marty himself, he is a deeply flawed character. Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan), a teacher at his high school characterizes him, not incorrectly, as a “slacker”: he lies to his parents, his audition tape is rejected, he’s frequently tardy to school, not especially bright, overly concerned with his physical appearance, and wantonly destructive of Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd)’s personal property. All of this is useful to the film as it makes him a highly relatable everyman for the audience, as well as being an effective driver for the plot as he bumblingly and repeatedly creates temporal issues he must then strive to correct.⁶
His performance of “Johnny B. Goode” is the penultimate such event—his note to Doc about his being shot in 1985 being the final one—but which apparently has no consequences other than Doc not dying. In the middle of “Earth Angel”, he is hovering on the brink of nonexistence, his hand becomes transparent, he ceases to be able to play, he is being unmade. Then the tide turns, his future parents dance and fall in love and he revives. He has literally just finished fighting to reverse the disruptions his trip into the past has caused, when with absolute disregard for how he created the problem that has just been solved, he attempts to erase the genius of Berry, presumably a hero of his, in order to claim it for himself.
As for Marty’s portrayer, the performance was not Fox at all: Mark Campbell did the singing and Tim May played the guitar. Mojo Nixon took issue, singing in 1987’s “Elvis is Everywhere”,
Michael J. Fox has no Elvis in him.
Asked why he cast the film star as an “Evil anti-Elvis”, Nixon is unrepentant, refusing to dial back his criticisms based on Fox’s being “sick”—Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 and has been semi-retired since 2000—and it’s also worth noting Nixon has also accepted the revisionist idea of white rock and roll:⁷
In Back to the Future and in that terrible Paul Schrader movie with the Springsteen song, Light of Day, Michael J. Fox desperately wanted to be a rock-and-roller. He’s not! He is an evil yuppie twit, and he always will be an evil yuppie twit. He can’t be a rock-and-roller.
In the end, Marty breaks rock and roll. Even discarding the classic grandfather paradox he has created, performing a song he learned from Chuck Berry for Chuck Berry—so he wouldn’t have written it for Marty to learn it so Marty could never have performed it. ’Cause Chuck Berry never would have borrowed anything from a nerdy suburban white boy, no matter how good.
In the new timeline he has created, in the future he returns to, white rock and roll will have been what black musicians will have had to create a counter-culture to even sooner, which will then have been co-opted by mainstream culture. In Marty McFly’s new 1985, being a guitar hero, no matter how skilled, will have been made passé, irrelevant. Popular music will have either gone retro, led by banjo or accordion, or new, unheard of instruments will have been invented—almost anything but guitar, bass, and drums.
Read Addenda to This Article
- “Goofs”, Back to the Future (1985), IMDB.
- Back to the Future, 1985.
- Quoted in Jerry Hopkins, Elvis: The Biography, 1971, though it is disputed.
- NBC Evening News, March 18, 2017.
- Back to the Future, 1985.
- Tom Murphy, “Mojo Nixon “un-retires” with Whiskey Rebellion”, Westworld, April 2012.