65 Years Ago: Marty McFly Invents Rock ‘n’ Roll
On Nov. 12, 1955, the time-traveling Marty McFly took the stage in a high school gymnasium stuffed with fellow students who had no idea what they were in for. Accompanied by his band the Starlighters, Back to the Future's lead character delivered a riveting show.
"This is an oldie,” he says as he introduces the number, forgetting momentarily that what he's about to play hasn't even been written yet. “Well, it’s an oldie where I come from.”
The band leaps into Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." Played by Michael J. Fox, McFly rocks and rolls from one end of the stage to the other, the audience slowly but surely comes round and everyone begins to shimmy and shake. One young man, Marvin Berry, rushes to phone his cousin Chuck. "You know that new sound you've been looking for?" Marvin says. "Well, listen to this!"
"Johnny B. Goode" wouldn't actually come to fruition until 1958, but McFly, ahead of his time by three whole years, attempted to turn Hill Valley High School onto music's next big thing. As the song continues, McFly lets loose, emulating future guitar legends that no one has ever seen before.
"For about four weeks we worked this piece, and at the same time I was working with this choreographer for Madonna,” Fox told Empire.
“I said, ‘I dance like a duck. I can’t dance. But what I’d like to do is incorporate all the characteristics and mannerisms and quirks of my favorite guitarists, so a Pete Townshend windmill and Jimi Hendrix behind the back and a Chuck Berry duck walk.’ And we worked all that in, and he made it flow. It was moments like that when you don’t think, I’m tired or I feel pressure to do this. You just do it and have a blast.”
Watch Marty McFly Invent Rock 'n' Roll in 'Back to the Future'
The performance is one thing, but the guitar playing is another. Fox, not exactly a virtuoso himself, had to learn guitar well enough to be filmed playing.
“When I did the ‘Johnny B. Goode’ scene, I had a great guitar teacher who taught me how to play,” he said. “I said to Bob [Zemeckis], ‘When I do this scene, I play guitar, so you can finger sync me. Feel free to cut to my hands any time you want.’ Having said that, it put pressure on me to get it fucking right. So I had this guy named Paul Hanson, who was my guitar teacher.”
Hanson taught him the basics, but ultimately, Fox's playing and singing would be overdubbed by guitarist Tim May and vocalist Mark Campbell.
"Since I’m a few years older than Michael anyway, it was like youthing it up, energizing it up just a tad," Campbell told Nerd Report. "That was all I knew about it and the rest was it’s 'Johnny B. Goode' by Chuck Berry and everybody knows it, or should by that time."
Campbell, good friends with the members of Huey Lewis and the News at the time of the movie's production, knew the soundtrack would be a big deal. Two of the band's songs, "Power of Love" and "Back in Time," would appear exclusively on the album, a definite incentive for fans. And while Campbell had agreed with the film's musical supervisor, Bones Howe, that his name would mainly be kept on the down low, he credited the opportunity as an undeniable highlight of his career.
"They want to keep the mystique that it’s Michael singing, and I was all good with that," he said. "I did get a special thanks credit at the end: Mark Campbell, my name’s right there. I was happy with that, but Bones didn’t really like that. He was like, 'You should get more than that.' So he made sure I got my gold album and also that I got a very small piece of the soundtrack, so every time I run into Huey I do the same thing. 'Thank you, thank you, thank you for putting those songs on that album,' because it went through the roof."
Another small but unforgettable musical moment appears when McFly, donning a space suit, slips a cassette tape labeled "Edward Van Halen" into a Walkman to blast into his father's ears. Years later, Eddie Van Halen revealed it was indeed him on the tape "just playing a bunch of noise."
A "bunch of noise" is likely the best way to describe how McFly's display in the high school gym ends. His performance becomes so raucous in the scene, the crowd ceases dancing, unsure of the wild spectacle unfolding in front of them. In reality, most real-life teens were already accustomed to rock 'n' roll sounds on their radios in 1955 by artists like Bill Haley, Little Richard and even Chuck Berry himself, who had released "Maybellene" that summer.
Still, McFly passes it off. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” he muses before leaving the stage. “But your kids are gonna love it.”