It’s my love of poetry. A lyric is poetry with a melody—a message with a melody. And phrasing is all mathematics. If it’s eight beats to two bars, then you can sing 18 syllables. It’s always best to sing 15, though, so you can grab a breath now and then. In fact—you won’t believe it—but my biggest influence was my mathematics teacher. Music is so much mathematics that it’s pathetic.
Chuck Berry, interview with Guitar Player, February 1971.
At David Bowie’s June 1971 BBC performance, his friend Geoffrey MacCormack sang Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown.” Berry was back in vogue, part of a rock ‘n’ roll revival coinciding with the rise of glam: Marc Bolan closed T. Rex’s “Get It On” quoting Berry’s “Little Queenie” and Berry himself got a cross-Atlantic #1 in 1972 with the atrocious “My Ding a Ling.”
“Almost Grown” hymned middle-class respectability: a teenager’s got a job and a car, he’s doing okay in school and by the last verse he’s domesticated. Finely attuned to his audience’s moods, Berry saw by the end of the Fifties that many were graduating, getting drafted or married and having children. So in “Almost Grown” Berry flattered them, told them adulthood hasn’t snuffed them out yet. He sang his aspirational middle-class narrative over a dirty jump blues, winking that beneath the kid’s vows of responsibility are dreams about sex (Berry leers “got my eye on a little gurrrrl”) and spending money.
The BBC session was the first time Bowie, Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey had played together in over a year and it was Trevor Bolder’s first-ever (nerve-wracked) performance with Bowie-—he bungles a few transitions and gets taken by surprise when Ronson (and possibly Mark Pritchard?) plows into a second solo chorus. A third-rate performance when compared with Berry’s single (which, to be fair, boasted backing vocals by the Moonglows, Etta James, and Marvin Gaye), the BBC broadcast documents a band listening to itself and working out kinks. While Bowie and the Spiders would play “Almost Grown” at a few gigs in 1971, they soon swapped it out for Berry’s more raucous “Around and Around,” whose stop-time structure they used in the last verse.
Recorded 3 June 1971. MacCormack, who was going by “Geoffrey Alexander” at the gig and later went under the name Warren Peace, would continue to work with Bowie, co-writing “Rock and Roll With Me” and singing on tours and Station to Station.