It's February 3, 1972, and very few visitors to the Lanchester Arts Festival in the Locarno Ballroom, Coventry, England, know that the guy in front of them on stage once thought about becoming a comedian in his youth. And if they knew, they'd cheer all the more, after every single line of the song. The man at the microphone rolls his eyes, grins, and acts like he can't hold back a drop of water: "This here song it ain't so sad, the cutest little song you ever had." Indeed, sir, the whole thing sounds more like shake rhyme and nursery rhyme than sophisticated rock art. But hasn't rock'n'roll always been a nursery rhyme? And weren't dirty innuendos part of the business model of spontaneous musical entertainment from the beginning, oh, long before rock'n'roll? The singer knows this: "Those of you who won't sing, you must be playin' with your own ding-a-ling!"
Sure, the guy who sings it is Chuck Berry, and his song is "My Ding-a-Ling." A novelty song penned by Dave Bartholomew, written 20 years earlier, when the composer was still producer, mentor and partner-in-crime of rhythm'n'blues legend Fats Domino. Black musical nobility, then. And Chuck Berry is nothing else. However, not like Bartholomew and Domino in New Orleans, but a pop century later in a northern English university town and for an almost exclusively white audience. To him, Berry is the revered godfather of rock'n'roll, the somewhat whimsical uncle of the Woodstock generation, and an almost forgotten relic from pre-Beatles times. So what is he doing in the Locarno Ballroom? He's touring because he needs to make money. And the white kids have had enough.
With his raunchy and not entirely serious performance of "My Ding-A-Ling," recorded in Coventry for his album "The London Sessions," Chuck Berry lands a number one hit in the U.S. shortly thereafter. The first in his career. And one that makes it clear to the fans gathered here, who are familiar with the craziest varieties of rock, how it all began: with three chords, an irresistible beat (which Berry produces with his guitar alone, he doesn't need a drummer) and a simple, often ambiguous lyric. "My Ding-A-Ling" is something like the antithesis to this year, in which rock has distanced itself as far as possible from its popular hit qualities, while at the same time reflecting on them and throwing the political ballast of the counterculture overboard
In the week of Chuck Berry's guest appearance, the Top 20 of the English album charts presents an interesting picture: At the top is "Electric Warrior" by T. Rex, a first highlight of glam rock, which consciously departs from the "bigger, higher, further!" principle of the post-Beatles era and again focuses on fun and catchy rock'n'roll ("Jeepster," "Get It On") and addresses the classic pop clientele of teenagers with the good old single. At the same time, the bestseller list features Led Zeppelin with the XXL rock of their fourth album, plus bands as diverse as Faces, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and folk rockers Lindisfarne. Their records show: The mainstream market is open to all varieties of rock music, to simple three-chord thrills, introverted singer-songwriter poetry and romantic folk rock as well as to complex progressive rock. The latter will experience its commercial peak this year.
When Chuck Berry is on stage in Coventry, Yes are still on their "Fragile" tour through England, the first with their new keyboard player Rick Wakeman, but at the same time they already start recording their next album in February. "Close To The Edge" will be released in September '72 and will become Yes' opus magnum. Never before and never after did the band around singer Jon Anderson succeed in creating a more coherent synthesis of unhinged musical castles in the air, breathtaking soundscapes and epic pop melodies. The record sells like hot cakes and makes it into the Top Five on both sides of the Atlantic, in the USA and the UK