Why Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’ is the first rock song aliens might ever hear

18 October 2021, 12:35

Chuck Berry and the Voyager spacecraft
Chuck Berry and the Voyager spacecraft. Picture: Getty

By Mayer Nissim

Two golden records are hurtling through space right now with 'Johnny B Goode' imprinted on them.

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Chuck Berry, who died in 2017 at the age of 90, was a pioneer in pop music and the undisputed Father of Rock and Roll.

While we have to acknowledge the less-than-savoury elements of his life story, as a songwriter, musician, and especially as a performer, he changed the face of music.

And on what would have been his 95th birthday, we can look back at one of his achievements that none of his contemporaries can share – the first pop song in space.

Voyager Gold Record
Voyager Gold Record. Picture: Getty

When the PIoneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft were launched in 1972 and 1973, included on board were gold-anodised aluminium plaques with a pictorial message, intended for any extra-terrestrials who picked them up after they left the Solar System.

But scientist Frank Drake decided that the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes – launched in 1977 – should go one better.

Instead of just a picture, they each included a golden record, containing pictures and sounds from Planet Earth.

A committee chaired by future Cosmos presenter Carl Sagan decided on the contents, which then-President Jimmy Carter called "a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings".

As well as 115 pictures and variety of natural sounds, the record included spoken greetings in 55 languages, and – more importantly – a 90-minute collection of Earth's music.

There was plenty of classical music on there rubbing shoulders with traditional music from around the world, as well as a small clutch of more popular tunes.

Blind Willie Johnson's 1927 gospel blues 'Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground' was included, as was Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven's version of 'Melancholy Blues' from the same year.

But the only proper pop song on there was Chuck Berry's 'Johnny B Goode'.

How Chuck's 1958 classic was included over every other pop song isn't completely known.

They had just six weeks to put the record together, with the goal of reflecting music from around the world and not just American society, and they also "wanted it to be a good record".

"Always the criterion was that we were trying to describe our culture," said technical director Frank Drake.

"Something we wanted very much was the music of The Beatles and they said, 'No way'. And we said it's going into outer space, it'll never be heard on Earth. 'No, we don't do it.' They don't licence for outer space."

It was decided that there was only room (at most) for one contemporary rock piece, and Chuck Berry got the nod.

It's claimed that Carl Sagan wanted to include 'Here Comes the Sun', but while the individual former Beatles were keen, EMI said no, or were asking for too much money.

Timothy Ferris, who also worked on the selection, says that they never actually considered using that song – not being in the room we'll never know for sure.

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