When the time comes, your ship sails, or the levee breaks, what’s the one collection of pop music you would grab? Pet Sounds? Sgt. Pepper’s? Zeppelin IV? Rocket to Russia? High School Musical 2?

If you’re partial to rock music and the way its history has played out, there’s really only one choice:
Chuck Berry’s The Chess Box.

Well sure, you’re thinking, Chuck’s a godfather of rock and roll and all, and Taylor Hackford did make that fine movie about him--with Chuck's occasional cooperation--but that was 20 years ago. And wait a minute, you say, Chuck defined his entire oeuvre 30 years earlier than that, back before there were men in space, color TV, the Internet or even Hannah Montana--what possible relevance could cultural relics rooted in the Eisenhower era have in a digitized, interconnected, bloggerized, post-modern, wireless world that’s seen everything but what’s coming next?

One word, pal: Everything. So mute that episode of the The Hills for a minute so I can school ya.

Chuck Berry is to rock music what mortar is to brick, what hydrogen and oxygen are to water. Without Berry, there might have been an Elvis, but he wouldn’t have turned heads playing “Maybellene” on the Louisiana Hayride. There may have been a Beatles and Stones, but not the ones who influenced a generation or three playing music rooted largely in “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Around and Around.” Maybe even a Dylan--if one lacking the stout poetic goosing Berry imparted to every rock lyricist who followed in his wake. Doubt it? Check out Chuck's "Too Much Monkey Business" and then listen to "Subterannean Homesick Blues." And whither the Beach Boys without their Berry-channeling breakthrough, “Surfin’ USA.” Before Brian Wilson was inspired to write his teenage symphonies to God, Chuck was writing blues-based symphonies to teenagers.

But don’t take my word for it; Brian Wilson once opined that Chuck "wrote all of the great songs and came up with all the rock and roll beats," while John Lennon mused, “If you were going to give rock and roll another name, it might be ‘Chuck Berry.’” Indeed, every time a musician lapses into rock’s foundational I-IV-V chord change, revved up and roaring, they’re singing the gospel according to Berry.

Imagining rock music without Chuck Berry is no mere historical mind game like “What if Spartacus had a tank?” It’s more complicated than pondering if Eric, Jeff, and Jimmy would have made it into the Yardbirds without Chuck’s influence -- and whether everything from Zeppelin and heavy metal to punk to alternative rock and the White Stripes would have subsequently evolved. Because Berry not only forged rock music in his image, he invented its whole language: teen angst, car culture, dancehall revelries, trying for further. More than 50 years later, if you don't get a thrill when Chuck catches Maybellene at the top of the hill, you better check your pulse or consult your guitar.

But truth be told, Chuck Berry's influence might be universal--literally. In the mid-‘70s, a NASA panel chaired by the late Dr. Carl Sagan was tasked with compiling a virtual anthology of human culture, a collection of sounds and images to be encoded on a pair of gold-plated alloy discs and attached to the Voyager I and II deep space probes which, 30 years after their 1977 launch, are poised to become the first human artifacts to escape the solar system into interstellar space. One is destined to pass near its first adjacent star in about 40,000 years. But those space-borne Golden Discs also belie their age: they’re analog, not digital, and even come packed with a stylus to play them--if not a turntable to spin them. E.T. D.J.s, take note.

On the golden discs inside the Voyager space probes are spoken greetings from peoples around the world, the sounds of wind, rain, and surf; of dogs, frogs, and crickets, and tractors, ships, and planes. And, of course,there is music. But there’s no Sinatra or Streisand, no be-bop or even Beatles (Sagan lobbied hard for “Here Comes the Sun”; the band concurred, but their label demurred). 

Bach gets three cuts, Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky one each. There are also Peruvian panpipes, Senagalese percussion, Navajo chants, and an Indian raga. And the entire history of America’s ethnic and popular music is summed up by Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night,"  “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. And Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

If and when contact with extraterrestrial intelligence does occur, their first communique will likely be just four words: “Send more Chuck Berry.”