“Live fast, die young” is the sort of motto that appeals to young people, but the image it conjures up is of hedonism: drink, drugs, sex and rebellion. In the case of Bert Berns, the fact that he crammed a lot of songs into his short life (he died at 38) may have had something to do with his knowing he didn’t have long in the first place.
People who contract rheumatic fever as a child know their heart has been weakened and that it is likely to give out relatively young, and such was the case with Bertrand Russell Berns, author of immortal pop/rock songs like Twist and Shout and Hang on Sloopy.
Those two songs alone make Berns the king of the three-chord trick, the holy grail of the aspiring guitarist. You’re aged 12, say, and you’ve just persuaded your parents to buy you a guitar. It’s a terrible thing with a heavy action and a tone devoid of any beauty, and it doesn’t stay in tune. But it’s a guitar and you are now a guitarist. All you need is a song you can knock off in five minutes, because the fancy stuff can wait – you just want to be able to bash something out and show the world you’ve got the gift.
Without wishing to get any 11-year-olds too excited, you should be able to master three simple chords quite quickly. By the time your fingertips have hardened enough to hold the strings down for three minutes you should be able to go – slowly and clumsily – from D to G to A, and if you can, that’s Twist And Shout in the bag.
Learn how to play the chord of C and you’ve got Hang On Sloopy, which is G, C and D. And Bob’s your uncle: you’re a star in the making.
For the rest of the world, those are just great little songs. The Isley Brothers had a hit with Twist and Shout before the Beatles took it on. John Lennon recorded the lead vocal at the end of a long day in the studio, his voice tired and ragged, and had to be cajoled to go through with it when he would have preferred to leave it for another day when he would be more in control. He didn’t like the result – strained, imprecise and as rough as a bear’s armpit – but for us, the consumers, it’s kind of thrilling. And the song itself is just one of those rabble-rousing things that gets people dancing and singing almost in spite of themselves.
Its durability can be seen by its success in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Matthew Broderick as the charismatic Ferris gatecrashes a carnival float and mimes the entire song. That’s a song more than 20 years old, sounding as fresh as yesterday.
Sloopy was recorded by The McCoys and easily makes it into my top ten raucous, good-time songs.
And then from Berns’s pen came Here Comes The Night, a hit for a young Belfast band, Them, featuring Van Morrison before he became a “serious artiste”. The chords have upped the ante a little, but any young guitarist worth his salt and with six months’ experience should be able to negotiate it. Speaking of guitars, Jimmy Page played on the track, even though Them had their own guitarist in Billy Harrison.
It’s another irresistibly singable song and has been covered many times, including early versions by Lulu and David Bowie and a more recent one by Rod Stewart. Lulu’s version actually came out before Them’s, but tanked, failing to make the top twenty – much to Them’s delight.
Lyrically it’s quite gloomy, a tale of lost love and seeing your girlfriend with someone new and wondering what is wrong with you and why you can’t accept the situation: Morrison’s voice and character are perfect for it.
Another success for Berns was Tell Him, a hit in the US for The Exciters (as Tell Her – it works either way) and in the UK for Billie Davis, sometime girlfriend of Shadows bass player Jet Harris.
Other early 60s hits included Cry Baby and Piece Of My Heart, both revamped later in the decade by Janis Joplin.
Berns also had a successful career as a record producer, working with people such as The Drifters.
His damaged heart duly packed up in 1967 when he was just 38, and that was the end of Bert Berns. Such was his knack for creating a hit song out of very little, he could have extended his career and reputation for many more years. Think what might have happened if he had still been around in the punk era. Three chords and a catchy chorus – there was no one better.