Thursday, July 5. 2018
Ridinâ along in my automobile, my baby beside me at the wheel
Remembering this line from Chuck Berryâs 1964 hit âNo particular place to goâ, copywriter Steve Landsberg and art director Gary Goldsmith of Doyle Dane Bernbach, Inc. (DDB) had the idea for an automobile advertising TV spot. So for the 1985 Volkswagen campaign they modified the text a little bit and produced the TV spot for VWâs GTI car showing the GTI riding the country with no particular place to go.
When I researched Chuck Berryâs contribution to the 1977 Dr Pepper advertising campaign (see the previous blog post
), I ran into a March 2017 article by Steve Landsberg posted in the AgencySpy blog on the Adweek Network website: âThe Day I Spent Making an Ad With the Late, Great Chuck Berryâ (https://www.adweek.com/agencyspy/the-day-i-spent-making-an-ad-with-the-late-great-chuck-berry/128720
Here we learn that Steve not only reused Berryâs 1964 recording but instead had him record a completely new version of his classic tune. I didnât know this. And my friends here didnât either.
So I started researching more about this rare recording. Steve and especially that time's DDB account representative Charlie Zollo have been very helpful with Steve telling even more than his story and Charlie providing a great collection of old documents from his files. Many thanks to both!
Steve even sent me a copy of the 1985 TV spot. Concurrently Anne Chanu found a poor copy of the spot on YouTube. Therefore all of you can go back in time and hear Berry perform this otherwise unreleased studio recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjSJHV2RfQU
Given Charlieâs and Steveâs additional information, Steveâs original article for Adweek needs some corrections and additions. Both Steve and Adweek allowed me to provide you here with an updated version of Steveâs story.
But let's first remember Charlie Zollo how difficult it was to have Chuck Berry sign the contract:
While we can't say how much, I was prepared with a "suitcase full of cash" as we fondly remember (actually a large Cashiers Check) as an upfront incentive to sign the contract. I was dispatched by Carol, the DDB talent administrator (sorry Carol, but I forgot your last name), to Berry Park in Wentzville to negotiate the final contract after Chuck had fired his agent.
I brought along these incentives knowing that Chuck liked to get paid upfront. And finally that incentive sealed the deal as he was opposed to some contract language that was non-negotiable and refused to sign.
I actually got up and was walking out when he called me back saying "OK, I'll sign, but you don't expect me to sign without getting paid first, do you?" I whipped out this very large Cashiers check and that was it, he signed.
He then gave me a tour of his Memorabilia Room ... hanging costumes, guitars, photos.
This is Steve's story about the recording session in Berry Park, with some embedded comments:
It was January 1985. [Editorâs note: According to Charlie's documents, the recording session told here happened in September 1984.] I [Steve Landsberg] was a copywriter at DDB. My art director Gary Goldsmith and I got thrown into a creative gangbang for the VW GTI. The brief was simple: position the GTI as fun to drive.
Hey, letâs take Chuck Berryâs song âNo Particular Place to Goâ and show a GTI driving all over the place! We changed the opening lyrics to âDriving around in my GTI, my baby sittinâ by my side.â The client loved it.
Go go go Johnny go.
Around this time, I sawÂ a rock and roll documentary on TV featuring Chuck Berry. He was going through hard, lean times, playing small clubs with local house bands. He was a solitary and bitter guy, resentful of the music executives who ripped him off and of not making the big money like the many bands so heavily influenced by his music.
Meanwhile I was thinkinâ,
âŠ maybe we could get Chuck Berry to re-record his own song. He could use the money. And why go the typical route and pay studio musicians to imitate Chuck Berry if we can pay the real Chuck Berry?
Ainât got nothing to lose.
At DDB, some folks thought heâd never do it. But persistence exceeded resistance. Calls were made. Negotiations were madeÂ and remade. A deal was struck. It would be Chuck Berryâs first commercial. [Editorâs note: Not quite. There was the 1970s Dr Pepper song as well as a couple of text-only commercials.]
It goes to show you never can tell.
The deal was $15,000 cash. We had to record in Chuck Berryâs personal studio on his compound in Wentzville, Mo. There would be no autographsÂ and absolutely no cameras.
Along with me and Gary, the team from DDB included TV producer Regina Ebel; music director Mike Doran; account supervisor Charlie Zollo; music producer John Hill; his engineer Glen Kolotkin.
We flew way out to St. Louis, drove 30 minutes south, and arrived at a driveway marked by large granite headstone engraved with the words Berry Park. The long, winding driveway led us to a modest ranch house that looked a little worse for wear. Dogs barkedÂ as weÂ grabbed our cameras and Charlie reminded us, in no uncertain terms: âNO CAMERAS.â Then Chuck Berry came out to greet us.
I got the wiggles in my knees.
After our awestruck hellos, Chuck directed us past two small in-ground swimming pools, half filled with dark water and dead leaves, to a large building across from his house that was used as a local night club. This,Â too, had seen better days. Inside was a low stage surrounded by tables and chairs, a bar, and a jukebox. The group followed Chuck into his sideÂ studio, but I hung backÂ because I just had to see the songs on Chuck Berryâs jukebox.
Seven hundred little records, all rock, rhythm and jazz.
Chuckâs daughter Ingrid and her boyfriend arrived (he played rhythm guitar). [Editorâs note: Steve is talking here about Ingridâs husband Henry âChuckâ Clay who played guitar, bass and drums behind Berry on many occasions.] The piano player showed soon after, but the drummer was a no show, so, Ingridâs guitar-playing boyfriend took his place. Then we discovered the studioâs 24-track system had about fourÂ working tracks.
Chuck and his band reviewed the 30-second musical arrangement and started warming up. After a little rehearsing, Chuck walked straight over to me and said, âI need a little chord to get the song going. Is that cool?â I still canât believe the King of Rock ân Roll asked me for permission to adjust his own song. âYeah sureÂ Chuck,â I stuttered. A few more takes followed, but then some equipment broke downâand while it was getting fixed, Chuck started jamming. No Particular Place To Go flowed into Nadine then Roll Over Beethoven and more. Chuck even did his signature duck walk.
Itâs such a sight to see somebody steal the show.
Then the equipment was fixed and our private show ended. âOK, boys, letâs play for money,â Chuck said, and they played a few more takes. Berry wasnât happy with the drummer, so during a break he casually drifted over to the set and started tinkering. âHey, lay one of these down,â he called to the guys in the booth, and played what would become the drum track. Then he did the same thing on piano, and after a few hours of sheer jaw-dropping joy, we had what we needed.
Well, I looked at my watch and it was time to go. The bandleader said, âWe ainât playing no more.â
It would have been the end of a perfectly wonderful and crazy dayâŠbut it got even better. Chuck asked, âWould you all like to come inside for a drink?â Yeah, we all said, squeezingÂ around Chuckâs kitchen table while his two female assistants prepared his dinner of spaghetti with tomato sauce and a side of peas.
âI donât drink anymore, but they keep giving me these,â he said while holding a cardboard box filled with an assortment of airline liquor bottles. I took a vodkaÂ (maybe two). He also gave us gold-colored souvenir matchbooks with âChuck Berryâ written in black type. We drank and watched him eat. âChuck, eat your peas,â scolded one of his assistants. He finished and asked, âWould you like a tour of the house?â as we all thought, âAre you fucking kidding me?â and responded with a polite chorus of yes and thank you.
We then followed Chuck to his study where almost every square inch of wall space was covered by framed gold records, awards, photos, and letters from Presidents, music royalty, and other VIPs. Back to the kitchen through the living room, we couldnât help but notice the round king-sized mattress on the floor, with two projection-TV screens playing. One satellite channel was tuned to Johnny Carson, the other was hard-core porn. Chuck said something I didnât quite catch, andÂ I thought about his assistantsâ job descriptions.
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in.
Last time I saw Chuck Berry he was waving me goodbye. âIâll see you in London, Iâll see you in France,â he said, playfully pointing at each of us as we shook hands, hugged, and thanked him for everything. We got back into the cars where our lonely, empty cameras had spent the day.
Stendhal Syndrome, also known as hyperkulturemia, is a psychosomatic illness triggered when individuals feel totally overwhelmed in the presence of concentrated works of art or what they perceive to be immense beauty. The effects are short-lived and do not require medical attention.
Or maybe we just had the rockinâ pneumonia.
We drove back to our hotel in silence, exhausted from sensory overload with smiles on our faces. We didnât even turn on the radio. We were still listening to Chuck Berry.
What a great story â and how nicely told. Thanks for sharing, Steve!
An additional comment from Charlie Zollo:
âFor all of us who were involved, it was one of those once in a lifetime experiences weâll never forget. While we all had our own personal experiences, my favorite (which I tell often) was sitting outside of the control room, on the floor against a wall in the room where Chuck and his band were rehearsing. So there I was 10 feet away, as they jammed during the equipment down time, listening to them jam Roll Over Beethoven and other riffs. Listening to Berry during the breaks was, for me, more exciting than seeing any live concert by any rock group.â
Definitely it was, Charlie!
Charlie sent me the copy of an 1985 article by Aliza Laufer from Backstage magazine in which John Hill adds some details:
Hill was the music producer on the entire Volkswagen 1984/85 campaign, having written and produced all and arranged about half of the 20-spot package. According to Hill, the 1984/85 Volkswagen campaign is the biggest introductory budget in VWâs 30-year history.
Although each VW spot in the new campaign carries the tag âItâs not a Car, Itâs a Volkswagenâ, for the 1985 model year a lot of liberties were used, according to Hill. âThese arenât ordinary car commercials,â he maintains. âOther car spots follow an automotive style â almost a clichĂ©. DDBâs effort is to be innovative; a couple of steps fresher than everything else.â
Hill explains that for the 1984 campaign the melody remains unaltered from beginning to end, while for 1985 he was freer to fit the music to the visuals. He approached it as if it was a jingle with words removed.
Even though Hill had the occasion to work with many pop and rock artists during his years at Columbia, he still confesses to getting a thrill out of working with Chuck Berry. âChuck was a childhood idol of mine,â Hill recalls, âHeâs an extremely professional musician; every approach on his guitar is unique.â
In the âNo Particular Place To Goâ spot, VWâs GTI is seen doing just that â driving along with no particular place to go. The song is played in the background.
âNew lyrics were written for the commercial, so we had to start from scratch.â Hill noted. âWe used modern hi-tech equipment for the recording, which was ironic because we were striving for a 1957 sound.â For the Chuck Berry spot the commercial was cut to the music.
The last sentence means that in contrast to other commercials where the sound follows the pictures, here Steve, Charlie and their team had to film and cut outdoor segments so that they fit to Berryâs singing. Remembering the filming Steve told me:
The commercial was shot in Scotland because Los Angeles was going through a drought and looked too dry. Nothing was green. The area of Scotland we used looked very much like Americaâs lush Â heartland.
Other than the music, you only hear a voice-over at the end of the spot. Steve remembers:
The announcer was the late Roy Scheider [Editorâs note: known from Jaws and other popular movies], who was the official voice of VW back then. I covered the recording myself in LA. He was a very kind man. He smoked and drank coffee to get that deep voice of this ready.
According to Charlieâs old files, the VW GTI spot premiered on March 1st, 1985 on MTV.
In addition to the TV spot, Charlie remembers that the same track was also used for a Volkswagen radio spot.
Since Berry's deal was for TV only, we paid him another large amount to use the recording for radio as well. Part of the payment was a new GTI, that he picked up at a local Missouri dealer. My secretary (in the days when we had secretaries) would call out "Charlie, Chuck Berry is on the phone" as we were arranging the personal appearance of Chuck picking up his GTI. There was press coverage as I recall, but none that I have a copy of. All in all, use royalties included, he did very well for a few hours recording time. I think we paid him for his studio also.
Does one of our readers have a copy of the radio spot or of the press article showing Berry getting his Volkswagen?
The gold-colored souvenir matchbook Steve Landsberg got from Chuck Berry is also known to exist in black with golden print. Hereâs a photo from Morten Reffâs collection:
Thanks to Steve, Charlie, and Morten for their help with this article bringing to our attention a Chuck Berry studio recording never released on record or CD.