...a phrase to inspire terror in the heart of anyone with the slightest fondness for music. One song? How on Earth could anyone possibly be expected to condense the vast expanses of their (doubtless awe-inspiringly broad and eclectic) taste in music into a single song? Surely you jest, good sir - or, indeed, madam, since I acquired this particular challenge from a person of the Female persuasion?
Which is, of course, precisely the sort of ridiculous over-thinking which defines the nerd mindset. Just pick a damn song, and have done with it. Yes, you'd almost certainly come up with something different if you were asked the same question on a different day, or while in a different mood, or with a stronger Moon in the ascendant. But you weren't, you were asked it now. As, indeed, was I. So, with a certain numbing inevitability...
Well, it sort of had to be, really. There are plenty of singers with stronger voices than Chuck Berry, songwriters with more depth and range, and even a few guitarists who could probably outplay him on a good day. There are rock & roll songs which defined the template before 'Johnny B. Goode', and songs which came later and refined it into something more sophisticated, more powerful, and more successful.
But to this day, I don't think any song has ever taken the form to such heights of utter perfection. 'Johnny B. Goode' is - and watch carefully here, as I tiptoe uncertainly out onto the precipice of absurdly-overblown hyperbole - arguably the single greatest work of art produced in the last century. Richer than Joyce's Ulysses, more universal than Eliot's The Waste Land, more evocative than Picasso's Guernica . . . possibly even more spectacular than that amazing wig Elton John wore to his 50th birthday party. If haiku is the true test of a poet's skill - challenging the writer to overcome the incredibly-rigid constraints of a brief, three-line structure - then the 12-bar blues is surely the litmus test for any truly great rock guitarist. An incredibly restrictive formula, with little room for indulgence or showboating, but one with room for potentially-infinite variations on a theme. Chuck Berry spent more time than most exploring what could be done within that formula, and he outdid himself with 'Johnny B. Goode'.
If rock & roll is the artform which defines the 20th century - and I'd argue strongly that it is - then 'Johnny B. Goode' is the song which defines that artform. The iconic riff (lifted note-for-note as it is from Louis Jordan's '(Ain't That) Just Like A Woman', in a splendid demonstration of the truth behind the maxim "talent borrows, genius steals") sums up the exuberance, drive and pulse which lies at the heart of all great rock music more clearly than anything recorded before or since. The deceptively-simple lyrics sketch a story in colourful, broad strokes, providing just the right amount of detail needed to paint a vivid picture, and no more. There isn't a word wasted, not a note played or omitted which isn't absolutely necessary, and at a little over two-and-a-half minutes, it's over almost before you've noticed that it's there. It's been covered more times than almost anything else in the rock & roll canon, but nobody has ever quite matched the timeless perfection of Berry's original. It's the only song of which I could never imagine growing weary*, and it will never, ever die.
There are genres beyond pure rock & roll to which I listen far more frequently, and there are artists to whose work I'm far more devoted than Chuck Berry. But none of them could have existed without his influence, and this is his crowning glory.
*A hypothesis I tested to somewhere approaching breaking-point a few months ago, when in response to a slightly-silly challenge I'd made to myself, I listened to it on repeat, without pause or variation, for a little over three consecutive hours. Not something I'd rush into doing again, perhaps, but at no point did I feel any inclination to turn the damn thing off, and it's not impacted my ability to enjoy the song in the slightest. It has, however, imprinted every last note into my head so firmly that I could, and occasionally do, listen to it in my sleep.