Sunday, September 10, 2006

Proof of Insanity, Part One.

Okay. So last month, Pitchfork (the indie-snob website everyone loves to hate) did a countdown of their version of the 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s. Within two days, I had the songs from their list that I was missing. I’ve been listening to it almost non-stop. It’s a good collection, beautifully-paced, organically designed, and hitting all the right buttons.

So, of course, I decided that I’d do my own list. And just to make it an extra pain in the ass, I decided that I wouldn't use any songs from Pitchfork's list. For one thing, because that’s how rich the 60s are in good songs; for another, because I kinda wanted to show them where they got it wrong. (Not that wrong or right apply here; it’s all great stuff. Listen to it, will you?)

Pitchfork, being a magazine with lots of contributors, spread its posting of the 200 over one week. I, consisting entirely of myself, will only be able to go as far as posting ten per day. So it’ll take longer. Sorry. Oh, and I’m not doing chart position, because I’m lazy and I don’t think it matters.

Finally, yes, I am insane.

So the list.

200. José Feliciano “Light My Fire”
(John Densmore, Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison)
Available on Feliciano!

Like millions of Americans under the age of forty, I loathe the original, which represents everything wrong with the baby boomers: self-involved, pretentious, obsessed with sex, and goes on way too long. What’s great about Feliciano’s version isn’t just that it cuts down the running time and gets to the song’s pop heart, or that his tasteful flamenco guitar is easier to swallow than Manzarek’s turgid organ: it’s that he makes it sound like an actual seduction. When Jim Morrison sings it, it’s more like date rape.

199 Joan Baez “Birmingham Sunday”
(Richard Fariña)
Available on Joan Baez 5

Way too many rock kids have never forgiven Baez for maybe being the subject of “Like a Rolling Stone,” unless it was someone else. Even more have never forgiven her for remaining political, rather than following Dylan down the street of Personality-Driven Americana Art Stuff. But songs like this are the reason she was considered folk’s Virgen de Guadalupe: her clear soprano turns Fariña’s angry propaganda into an aria. And it’s not like the world turned hunky-dory in 1967, kids: angry propaganda is still a necessity.

198. Dusty Springfield “The Look of Love”
(Burt Bacharach/Hal David)
Available on The Look of Love

She’s remembered as a soul singer, but she didn’t really have the pipes to belt like Aretha, Gladys, or even Janis. Her voice had a delicate, feathery edge that seems to pinpoint a longing (not necessarily romantic) never forgotten by a wounded heart. It comes out best in quiet songs like this, where her voice isn’t drowned out, and she barely rises above a whisper except to keen in a cracked falsetto. The music is Bacharach-does-bossa-nova, more or less, and fine for what it is: the first intimations of sophisticated adulthood for hungry teenagers.

197 Thelonious Monk “Raise Four”
(Thelonious Monk)
Available on Underground

It’s standard Monk, I guess, only more so. The stumbling piano figure that kicks the tune off and keeps going as steady as a primitive sequencer pulse reminds me of the oblique solos of Robert Quine, or maybe the repetitive drones of Steve Reich; or the uneasy, shuddering rhythms of experimental hip-hop. It’s as much art-music as jazz, and as much punk as anything else. Apparently the jazz world hated the record in 1967. Their loss.

196. Doris Troy “Just One Look”
(Gregory Carroll/Doris Payne)
Available on Doris Troy Sings Just One Look and Other Memorable Selections

It sounds like pop-reggae; but a decade before Stevie Wonder asked Reggae Woman to Boogie On and Aretha Franklin suggested that you Rock her Steady. Of course, it’s really just the slow R&B shuffle that Jamaica fell in love with in the first place; and it’s not from New Orleans either, it’s from New York; and she wrote and produced the damn thing herself (under her Doris Payne pseudonym), which is what makes it even more irritating that she’s best known for backing up Mick and the boys on Let It Bleed.

195. Junior Walker & the All-Stars “Shotgun”
(Autry DeWalt II)
Available on Junior Walker & The All-Stars: The Ultimate Collection

It’s a turbocharged shot of rhythm & blues, greasy as the chicken shacks where Walker and the boys got started, the hardest, tightest, funkiest thing Motown ever released. It’s also Junior Walker’s first vocal, alternating between hoarse shouts and shrill squawks on the sax that do for that instrument what Dave Davies did for the electric guitar. (Origins of James Chance & the Contortions, right here.) It has all the energy of balls-out 50’s rock & roll, and all the sweat and grit of prime Southern soul. Berry Gordy himself insisted that what Junior thought was just a demo till the real vocalist showed up be released; as always, he was right.

194. The Turtles “Happy Together”
(Garry Bonner/Alan Gordon)
Available on Happy Together: The Very Best of the Turtles

Forget the Byrds, the Beau Brummels, and whoever else the Sixties Nerds try to tell you formed the American response to the Beatles: nobody Stateside ever came closer to drawing a bead on the Fab Four’s mixture of intelligent pop-craft and detailed studio attention than the Turtles. (Brian Wilson’s something different, maybe better.) It makes sense that the two leaders of the group, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, would later hook up with Frank Zappa and back up T. Rex: they were always too smart for the bubblegum their label wanted them to be, and which too many people who don’t listen properly think this song is.

193. Buck Owens & His Buckaroos “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”
(Harlan Howard/Buck Owens)
Available on 21 #1 Hits: The Ultimate Collection

Maybe you can’t really understand what a breath of fresh air this was unless you’ve been steeped in the Nashville countrypolitan sound for ten years. As that was a reaction to the growing danger and fire of rock & roll, so this — the first bona fide Bakersfield hit, with electric guitar up there in the mix and everything — was a reaction to the stultifying daytime-drama adulthood of the Billy Sherrill sound. And while Owens’ overly-broad twang and the song’s clever-dumb lyrics plant the seeds that would later sprout into Hee Haw (white minstrelsy, Nick Tosches called it, and he wasn’t wrong), the original Bakersfield sound still smacks you upside the head with its lack of pretension and invitation to dance. What more do you need from pop?

192. Prince Buster “Madness”
(Cecil Campbell)
Available on Roots of Reggae, Vol. 1: Ska

The song is so much more than the inspiration for the name of those guys who did “Our House.” (The 80’s one, not the CSNY one.) Buster might be the original ska hero, if Jamaican music history allowed for such a thing. He was full of contradictions: an innovative, experimental producer who produced pop hits as a vocalist; a devout Black Muslim who wrote this song about keeping Rastafarianism down; one of the true originators of ska who was then ignored and crushed when reggae begame a worldwide global phenomenon. Okay, maybe that last part’s not so much a contradiction as business as usual.

191. Eddie Palmieri “Ay Que Rico”
(Eddie Palmieri)
Available on Boogaloos De Siempre: Fania

Like almost everything having to do with Latin Americans in the United States, boogaloo has been ignored and undervalued for way too long. The Nueva Yorican sound is mostly kept alive by tiny labels and cash-in-quick releases, which does immense injustice to a scene that was as vibrant, innovative, diverse, and hip-shaking as any during the Sixties. It’s where Latin jazz meets early funk, and Palmieri, one of the legends of Latin jazz, knocks it out of the park with this thing. “Cómo? Palmieri? Boogaloo?” someone asks as the track starts. You bet your ass, Palmieri boogaloo. And the female voice that floats up in places is hot.

Next: 190-181. >>

1 comment:

Iagorune said...


I have to admire any list that has Prince Buster on it.

- rick