ROCK / The riffs that launched a thousand hits

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The Independent Culture
AT 67, Chuck Berry is the elder statesman of insolence. For almost 40 years he has waged war against social hypocrisy. Between the coded politics of 'Brown-Eyed Handsome Man' (1956) and his US/UK No 1, 'My Ding-a-Ling' (1972), lie not just the civil rights marches, but a huge shift in the uncivil liberties that white consumers let their black entertainers take, the lewd propositions that could be made in public. Berry pushed hardest, first.

Insolence may also explain the perfunctory shows he's put on down the years. This one, at the Hammersmith Apollo, could be called sparing: 10 Berry classics, two blues, one duckwalk and no encore. But he sings his hits as if he hadn't done them 4,000 times before (the most recent is 30 years old); as if creating that leaping guitar sound wasn't as automatic as looking at his watch. And if he rations his sardonic asides to the audience, what there are still hint at reserves of pride, elegance, intelligence and energy.

When a man screams in excitement after a single note of the guitar intro to 'Sweet Little Sixteen', Berry stops, in amusement and mock astonishment. Apart from this, the fans are as restrained as he is. We went out cheerful rather than deranged. This is no longer music to rip seats out to. Wisely, his backing trio play it crisp and stately: every so often there's a tiny jazzy interlude to prove that there's more to them than Berry-on-45, but I doubt if the crowd care.

Pop may bring people together, but it also divides. Berry still sings 'country boy' rather than 'coloured boy' in 'Johnny B Goode' - he didn't want his white fans to think him biased, he once explained - but he also still opens with 'Roll over Beethoven'. The races are brought together at the expense of the generations.

To some listeners, Suede's 'So Young' is just another exploitation of that same worn- out generation gap - a teen rock-anthem foisted on the world long after teens stopped being agents of change. But if their show on Worthing Pier - displacing Sooty's World Cruise for the evening - hints at a certain traditionalism, it also takes us straight to the unlikely heart of their idealism.

Worthing figures in 'The Next Life', one of their most Utopian songs, which probably explains the way this polite South Coast ballroom hangs on their every note. It's a casual, loosely noisy show: they don't have anything to prove, so they're relaxed to the point of slackness. The fans crushed at the front pledge delirious love to whomever they're nearest - Brett Anderson returns the compliment by saying 'Thank you', as if every song was the last. The sound is murky, but everyone seems to know every song too well for that to matter.

There are T-shirts here reading 'We are a boy we are a girl', a typical Suede lyric (from 'Moving'). In fact, militant gay youths don't have much time for Brett. Even if he really was bisexual, they argue, he still wouldn't be properly gay: just cross-dressing up. But Suede's sometimes stodgy rock-pop can still get high on the kick of breaking all the stupid rules you were taught about sex roles.

Perhaps because of this, some have suggested that Suede are Seventies glam revisited. But they have little of the old-fashioned showmanship of, say, Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. Where Bowie had some artful high-risk stagecraft, Anderson has only his falsetto, his fringe and his wiggle.

What other band, though, could open with a tape of Vera Lynn singing 'White Cliffs of Dover' and make you think - without irony - about the song's commitment to better things ahead ('Tomorrow when the world is free'); about the yearning for transcendence in the hoariest showbiz routines? Even in Worthing, Brett's slinky magnetism proves that liberty-taking idealism is still what rock is all about.

(Photograph omitted)

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