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The Straight Dope

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While leafing through my Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock 'n' Roll, I came upon the horrifying fact that Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," the song that started rock, peaked at number eight in 1958. What seven forgettable songs were deemed better than this classic? --Tim Ring, Montreal

Cecil loves the classics as much as the next guy, but let's not get carried away. "Johnny B. Goode" did not start rock. Even "Maybellene," Chuck Berry's first hit (number five in 1955), did not start rock, though it was one of the earliest rock tunes to make it big. If there's one tune that put rock 'n' roll over the top, I say it's got to be Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" (1955), which became, admittedly not right away, a monster smash selling 22 million copies. And let's not forget the contribution of Alan Freed, the Cleveland deejay credited with attaching the term "rock 'n' roll" to the emerging new sound in the early 50s.

"Johnny B. Goode" peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts on or about May 5, 1958. My assistant Little Ed, in his ceaseless drive to muck up my holy work, threw out all my old Billboards last spring, but I still have the monthly composite chart for May 1958, compiled by Dave McAleer, on which "Johnny B. Goode" ranks number 11. It got beaten out by the following tunes, some of which, god help me, I cannot remember, and some of which, god help me, I can't forget: (1) "All I Have to Do Is Dream," Everly Brothers; (2) "Witch Doctor," David Seville; (3) "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck," Elvis Presley; (4) "Twilight Time," Platters; (5) "He's Got the Whole World (In His Hands)," Laurie London; (6) "Return to Me," Dean Martin; (7) "Book of Love," Monotones; (8) "Looking Back" b/w "Do I Like It," Nat King Cole; (9) "Tequila," Champs; (10) "Oh Lonesome Me" b/w "I Can't Stop Lovin' You," Don Gibson.

Don't feel sorry for Chuck Berry, though. He had two other Top 40 hits in 1958, "Sweet Little Sixteen" (number 2) and "Carol" (number 18), plus several others that made it into the Top 100. And he definitely had the last laugh. In a career that included such gems as "Roll Over Beethoven" (number 29, 1956) and "No Particular Place to Go" (number 10, 1964), his only number-one hit was the inane "My Ding-a-Ling," which held the top spot for two weeks in 1972.

OLD PLASTIC IN NEW BOTTLES

In response to your recent opus on plastics recycling [August 18], I thought you might want to update the teeming millions regarding the enclosed. --Rob Grierson, Evanston

First Modern Gun says there are nonmetallic guns right after I say there aren't, and now the Northwestern University alumni magazine says you can mix different types of recycled plastic right after I say you shouldn't. Clearly these magazine guys are consumed with envy. The NU article, which is misleadingly headlined "Mixing Plastics Is Now OK," describes a new plastics recycling process developed by Northwestern's Basic Industry Research Laboratory. (Actually, the basic process was developed in Germany to recycle tires; NU's contribution was to adapt it to plastics.) The process, known as "solid state shear extrusion," uses a twin screw extruder to pulverize a random collection of old plastic under high pressure. Unlike conventional grinding methods, this causes the plastic not simply to mush together but to recombine in ways not yet fully understood. The result to some extent is new plastic that I'm told can be used to make high-value products. The high-value product shown at a demonstration a few months ago was a souvenir key chain, but I guess everything's relative. The new process promises to be everything current plastics recycling methods aren't: cheap and hassle-free, since any mixture of old plastic can be used as feedstock.

The key word above is "promises." The new process was only recently introduced and has not yet proven itself in the marketplace. Several companies have expressed interest, but commercial application is still at least 18 months to two years away. Until your local recycler specifically tells you otherwise, do not, I repeat do not, mix different types of plastic. Not that I have any doubts whatsoever about the viability of this thing, but in 1959 the magazines said we'd soon all be living in underwater cities, and I'm still waiting for those, too.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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