Friday, October 27, 2006

The Beat Goes On, Part XX.

010. U-Roy “Dynamic Fashion Way”
(Ewart Beckford)
Available on Super Boss: The Best of U-Roy

Jamaica is not a place where firsts can be ascertained with any reliability; history is in the eye of the reteller, and everyone gets their day in the sun. So calling this the first “toast” record is not only an exercise in futility, it’s pointless. And it wouldn’t matter anyway if it weren’t also a great record. Producer Keith Hudson conjures up a tinny, toy-carnival track, and the Originator just lets his id out. To be explicit, he raps. Not in any way that a thirteen-year-old 50 Cent fan would recognize, maybe (Jamaicans just aren’t that percussive, you know?), but it’s the trickle of water that will one day carve the Grand Canyon of the modern music world. It’s also very, very rasta dread roots reggae; the suits of rocksteady and the toothy smiles of ska are gone. Instead, it’s constantly-shifting patterns, a blurting MC, and unintelligibility. This way to the future.

009. The Who “My Generation”
(Pete Townshend)
Available on My Generation

The bass solos, that’s why. Not Daltrey’s corny sputtering, or Moon’s clattering din, or — dear God — Townshend’s far-too-easily-mocked (especially in the 21st century) lyric. But Entwhistle’s solos, meaty and beaty and spazzing all over the song, making it punk a decade before punk was a twinkle in Lester Bangs’s eye. John was the normal one of the group; afflicted neither with Pete’s pseudo-artistic aspirations, Roger’s preening machismo, or Keith’s irresponsible lunacy, he stood there and played his bass, no matter how boring it got. And when the Who made their preening, pseudo-artistic, irresponsible Generational Statement, it was Entwhistle who both anchored it rhythmically and sent it spiralling into the noisy chaos that so much of the best music of later years would imitate.

008. Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash “Girl from the North Country”
(Bob Dylan)
Available on Nashville Skyline

(Note: For bookkeeping purposes, I’m counting this as a Johnny Cash song. But otherwise, yes, it would be the sixth song on the list where Bob Dylan sings lead. What can I say?) Now, normally, this kind of thing shouldn’t work. Not only is it a cover of a song which was already drummed into the popular consciousness with Simon & Garfunkel’s ornately gorgeous “Canticle/Scarborough Fair,” but it’s an English folk song interpreted by quite possibly the two most American men on the planet. And it’s a supergroup of sorts, or at least a collaboration that one would expect to be more like Clive Davis producing Santana than a natural fit. But it is. Bobby’s reedy tenor and Johnny’s rumbling baritone twine, curl, and echo each other perfectly. It’s damn near the most beautiful thing either of them ever did. One of the high-water marks not only of folk music, but of all music past, present and future.

007. The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun”
(George Harrison)
Available on Abbey Road

The Beatles were always ahead of the curve. (Okay, so they were behind the curve on musique concrète. Or . . . were they ahead of it on sampling?) That’s the thinking, anyway, and you can read the logic: first major beat group, first to write all their own music, first pop group to use arrangements from classical music, first to apply psychedelia to pop, first concept album, first to retrench with more roots-oriented music, first to break up . . . . (I’m not seriously suggesting they were actually the first in any of these. They were very good barometers, though.) But one of the underrecognized facts is that with their last album (sigh. Last-recorded, not last-released), they not only predicted the singer-songwriter soft rock that would dominate pop for the next five years, they did it better than anyone. Wait, who’s this they? I mean, of course, that George did.

006. The Ronettes “Walking in the Rain”
(Barry Mann/Phil Spector/Cynthia Weil)
Available on The Best of the Ronettes

Lyrically, it recalls the Gershwins’ best non-show song, “The Man I Love,” in its dreamy evocation of how wonderful it’ll be once Ronnie finds the boy she wants to spend the rest of her life with. The fact that she was married already — and to her producer — and that he abused her — and that after leaving him she never really found a good platform for her intense pop presence (well, not yet) can only give us, who know how the story turns out, a frisson of cognitive dissonance. It’s not in the song. However cruel and psychotic a taskmaster Phil Spector might have been, he knew how to set his wife’s voice, as a great jeweler knows how to set a diamond, and the combination of harmonies, instrumentation, production, and even sound effects here screams teenage romanticism at its highest (virginal) peak.

005. The Beach Boys “Heroes and Villains”
(Van Dyke Parks/Brian Wilson)
Available on Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys

For years, it was the only charting song (besides “Good Vibrations,” which is its own separate monolith) that gave any clue to how wild and dense Smile would have been. And now that we have Smile — or, more cautiously, a version of Smile — it remains not just a high point of the album, but of the Boys’ career. It’s the Wild West, as filtered through Hollywood, through singing cowboys and Western soundtracks written by people who have never twanged in their lives. It’s a Wild West set, in fact, where the false storefronts hide false stores where you can only buy trinkets, and the guys in the white hats fight the guys in the black hats every two hours, all good clean fun, come on down, bring the children. It’s the Walt Disney version of American history, and an implicit criticism of it, and also just amazing to listen to for the density of the harmonic construction. Seriously.

004. Bob Dylan “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”
(Bob Dylan)
Available on Bringing It All Back Home

It says something about Dylan at this period that his most lovely, simple, and elegant love song still contains a lyric like “in ceremonies of the horsemen, even the pawn must hold a grudge.” Is that about chess? Politics? Economic inequality in a militarist society? What on earth does it have to do with the beautiful, winning portrait of “my love”? Doesn’t matter, of course; half the reason to listen to Dylan in the mid-60s is the abstruse cascade of imagery. The other half is the heart-stopping beauty of the melody (yes, a real melody), the spare but shimmering guitar, and his voice. It’ll never be mistaken for Perry Como’s, but it contains worlds of tenderness and grace in its microtones.

003. Aretha Franklin “Respect”
(Otis Redding)
Available on Lady Soul

Even after hearing it, at a conservative estimate, 5,000 times without going out of my way to do so. Even after hearing it punctuate the sudden appearance of any large black woman in a comedy for the past fifteen years. Even after seeing drunk white teenagers try to dance to it. It remains not just a cultural touchstone — we’ll always have plenty of those — or a personal favorite — I mean, really, who doesn’t love it? — but something even more incalculable: a coherent piece of art, the finest moment of the Stax/Volt crew (Booker T. & the MG’s, Isaac Hayes, the Sweet Inspirations), and the magic-in-a-bottle capturing perfectly, for all time, the unleashed force of Queen Aretha, the greatest female soul singer in the history of forever. It took me, at a conservative estimate, 2,500 listens to realize that it was not just a fragmented stream-of-consciousness thing, but that it had structure, verses, a chorus, everything. That’s the power of the Queen: so great you forget about the art and just listen to the pow.

002. Martha & the Vandellas “Dancing in the Street”
(Marvin Gaye/Ivy Hunter/William “Mickey” Stevenson)
Available on The Ultimate Collection

There’s still a tightening in my chest every time I hear that opening horn riff. It’s more like a bugle blast announcing a cavalry charge; or a fanfare announcing the approach of royalty. And then the drums hit like God’s hand slapping earth. This is Motown. All of it: the celebratory swing, the surge and then the soar, the scientifically calibrated precision of every atom of every element in the song, the open invitation to everyone, everywhere, everytime, to get down and boogie, no matter race, color or creed. Berry Gordy’ll take all-a y’all’s money. The song is a Dantean beatific vision, a Paradiso set in 1960s America, where peace, love and understanding stopped being funny for just a moment and everybody beat their swords into plowshares and their plowshares into mirror balls. I’m a child of boomers, and we have to make fun of the 60s, because goddammit they didn’t live up to the promise of this song. Can’t forget the Motor City. For the space of two minutes and forty seconds, there is no God but Motown, and Martha Reeves is His prophet.

001. The Beatles “Help!”
(John Lennon/Paul McCartney)
Available on Help!

John Lennon once said that there were only ever two songs he wrote as a Beatle of which he meant every word. They were “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Help!” He was probably taking the piss.

This was the first Beatles song I ever consciously heard. That’s why.

Next: Postscript. >>

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Beat Goes On, Part XIX.

020. Lesley Gore “You Don’t Own Me”
(John Madara/Dave White Tricker)
Available on Start the Party Again: The Ultimate Collection

Listening to girl groups with feminist ideology in mind is usually an exercise in getting pissed off, or at least in completely missing the point of the songs, which are high-drama camp, not One to Grow On. Except I bet a lot of feminists love this song, and while maybe that doesn’t really sound like a recommendation, it’s good to hear a song where the girl tells the guy to fuck off once in a while. Which wouldn’t matter if it weren’t such a perfect pop confection, of course. It’s all chilly, echoing chords and boiling crescendos — a noir version of Phil Spector — while Gore (of “It’s My Party” brat-pop fame) sings the verses like she’s pointing a gun at her asshole boyfriend and the choruses like she just pulled the trigger.

019. The Beach Boys “California Girls”
(Mike Love/Brian Wilson)
Available on Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys

Mike Love has a lot to answer for. Deservedly or not, he’s blamed by Smile obsessives the world over for that album’s 1967 burial (he certainly hated it at the time, and probably still does); he continues to tour with a bunch of anonymous backing doofuses in Hawaiian shirts as the Beach Boys, further destroying the legacy of what was once the greatest band in America; and as far as I can tell, anyone who’s ever met him thinks he’s a giant asshole. On the plus side, he wrote the lyrics to some of the Beach Boys’ most memorable songs. But then, are the lyrics what makes them memorable? The pocket symphony that opens “California Girls” is more impressive than the cheerfully misogynistic (but patriotically so!) lyrics that follow. Okay, “I dig a French bikini on Hawaiian island girls” has a certain charm. But that’s it. The man is still responsible for (shudder) “Kokomo.”

018. The Ronettes “You, Baby”
(Barry Mann/Phil Spector/Cynthia Weil)
Available on The Best of the Ronettes

And then there’s this. If it’s possible to have a crush on a forty-year-old voice, I do. It’s an acquired taste, I suppose; I can barely remember being put off by Ronnie’s little-girl croak with a New York accent (least lovely of all accents), but I do remember that it happened. I also don’t remember when I changed my mind on the subject, but this song had something to do with it. Specifically, the “uh” at 2:25, also known as the most erotic moment in Sixties Pop, and yes, of course I’ve heard “Je T’Aime . . . Mais Non Plus.” Also: once I realized that Ronnie’s woah-ohs were imitated by Bruce Springsteen in “Born to Run” and Elvis Costello in “Oliver’s Army,” I had to fall in love with her.

017. Creedence Clearwater Revival “Proud Mary”
(John Fogerty)
Available on Bayou Country

“John, we all remember when you came down to The River. You were in pretty rough shape, always talking about a job in The City you had just left where you worked seemingly around the clock for someone you cryptically referred to as ‘The Man,’ and you called that a good job. You also mentioned a dishwashing job and a position in what you called a ‘pain-pumping station.’ We weren’t sure if you were mentally ill, high on drugs, or having a nervous breakdown, but we got you cleaned up, gave you some food, and sent you on your way. It was just the right thing to do. But the hobos and hippies have been pouring in ever since, wanting handouts, and we think it’s due to your indiscretion. We must insist that you stop telling everyone in the world that we’re happy to give. We’re not, John.”

016. The Nashville Teens “Tobacco Road”
(John D. Loudermilk)
Available on Tobacco Road

It would probably be too much of a stretch to say that this song is based on Erskine Caldwell’s bestselling 1932 novel of the same name (for the curious: it’s not unlike Steinbeck). But it’s an intriguing possibility, given the racial tension at the heart of the novel and the big ol’ blues chords written by pasty white dude Loudermilk (previously a teen idol who sang as Johnny Dee) and played by skinny limeys. The Nashville Teens split the difference between the Rolling Stones and Herman’s Hermits, and somehow ended up making the best balls-to-the-wall rawk song of the early British Invasion. The piano thumpin’ on the chorus is what sells it for me, but the huge blistering guitar line and massive whomp of the rhythm section would do just as well. It’s been covered a million times, but these guys did the first cover, and the best.

015. Sly & the Family Stone “Dance to the Music”
(Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart)
Available on Dance to the Music

“Cynthia!” “What?” “Jerry!” “What?” “You might like to hear the horns blow, Cynthia on the thro-one!” “Yeeeaaaaaaaaah!” Funk was born here. Oh, sure, the stop ’n’ pop rhythm came into existence under James Brown’s watch, and it wouldn’t get good and greasy until George Clinton slicked up Funkadelic properly, but the propulsive, manic energy here, fluid and communal rather than strict and authoritarian like the J.B.’s, combined with the brilliant nonsense of the lyrics, gives real sho’ nuff Fonk its first-ever hit. And it was a massive hit, even cataclysmic. Soul music would never be the same after the sometime disc jockey from San Francisco got his hands on it. “Cynthia ’n’ Jerry got a message they’re sayin’ . . . ” “All the squares, go hide!”

014. The Beatles “Day Tripper”
(John Lennon/Paul McCartney)
Available on Past Masters, Volume Two

A day tripper is what people who live in picturesque places in England call a weekend visitor from London or other less-picturesque places; a tourist, but one who’s too cheap to spend the night and takes the train back home instead. Got it? Not a prostitute. Seriously. Americans. Anyway, the reason for this song is the huge, ringing riff, which is both a reference to earlier rhythm & blues, and the template for metric tons of hard rock to come. It’s hardly an original observation, but cut the Beatles between 1964 and 1968 and they bleed melody; this song catches them on a day when they didn’t have a problem with making something of a racket either.

013. The Flying Burrito Brothers “Sin City”
(Chris Hillman/Gram Parsons)
Available on The Gilded Palace of Sin

Who cares if it’s one of the foundational exercises for alt-country? (And who cares about alt-country, anyway?) What matters isn’t Gram Parsons’ relevance to the future, but his deep connection with the past. Specifically, the record this song evokes is the Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real, but updated by a decade and given just the faintest hint of what would later be celebrated/excoriated in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Parsons is thought of as the father of country-rock, but all he did was get rock bands to play country; the rock part was grandfathered in later. Unless intelligence, beauty, and wide-ranging subject matter are all attributable to “rock.”

012. The Rolling Stones “Honky Tonk Women”
(Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)
Available on Hot Rocks, 1964-1971

Callback to #103! Merle Haggard sang, “I couldn’t drink enough to keep you off my mind,” and Mick and Keith sing “I just can’t seem to drink you off my mind,” but it’s still theft. Well, love and theft, as Dylan reminds us. And I love this song so much that I can’t listen to “Country Honk” — it just sounds wrong. But anyway. This is where the Stones that produced Exile on Main St. (in certain moods, the greatest rock & roll album ever made) first found their footing. Despite the return-to-their-roots fawning, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was still just playing the bad-boy card that got them noticed in the first place (and which gave Their Satanic Majesties its title); it’s here that the elegantly-wasted myth of the Glitter Twins, awash in equally heavy doses of country, soul, and rockabilly, was born. It’s a country song. With a horn section, gospel backup singers, and everything.

011. Cream “White Room”
(Pete Brown/Jack Bruce)
Available on Wheels of Fire

Hey, look, it’s that Eric whathisname guy on the guitar. And yes; this is his finest moment, according to me. There are no hard-rock riffs or pop pfoolery; this is pure psychedelia as spun by the second-best power trio ever. Baker’s instrument takes the lead here, almost (it’s as heavily percussive as any Who song), and Bruce moans falsettily about God knows what (but the imagery is quite lovely), and Clapton is texture, squinking and squonking up and down the scales, taking the lessons of Hendrix and applying them to an all-white context (which is good, because dude he’s not black). It took them three albums to get here, but they wouldn’t be able to do any more; they’ve gone about as fur as they kin go.

Next: 010-001. >>

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Beat Goes On, Part XVIII.

030. The Bee Gees “New York Mining Disaster 1941”
(Barry Gibb/Robin Gibb)
Available on The Bee Gees 1st

Where did these guys go? These creators of intelligent, eloquent music? The guys who were once considered peers of the Beatles and the Zombies for beautifully-crafted chamber-pop? Who produced psychedelic concept albums as well as universe-spanning pop songs like “To Love Somebody”? Somehow I get the feeling that if these guys could see the bearded, leisure-suited pansies soundtracking Travolta’s narcissism they’d grow up to be (and which would remain the popular image of the Brothers Gibb as long as they lived), they’d kick their own asses. This is a cheerful song about the slow death of working-class men trapped in a mine, sung in a half-Cockney, half-Australian accent despite the New York in the title. It’s kickass.

029. The Kinks “Days”
(Ray Davies)
Available on The Kinks Kronikles

Cover your ears, kids: I’m about to blaspheme. As the Kinks’ finest moment, the epitome of grace and beauty and wit that marked Ray Davies’ writing and the band’s playing between 1966 and 1970, this song is superior even to “Waterloo Sunset.” The gorgeous harmonies, the treble-bleeding production, the acoustic guitars dancing and splashing as though Dave thinks he’s still playing chunky electric, Mick Avory’s constantly-underrated drumming providing the half of the narrative drive that the unearthly beautiful melody doesn’t — it’s damn near a religious experience. It could be addressed to God, of course; or just a girl. But any girl who gets this sung to her would have to be pretty divine already.

028. The Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin
(Barry Mann/Phil Spector/Cynthia Weil)
Available on Back to Mono

It’s the peak of Phil Spector’s mature style. There’s no arguing with that; it just is. (I’d say the first, and maybe highest, peak is “Be My Baby”; and the beginning of the end is “River Deep, Mountain High.”) This is where he opened up the sound to combat those limeys who were stealing his charts out from under him, where he fully committed to stereo, where he took huge chances that paid off. Anyone else putting down 3:05 for a 3:45 track would have been crucified by pissed-off DJs; he set up the punch that Dylan threw the knockout for, breaking the three-minute mold. And Medley and Hatfield match him. That build on the bridge, until we max out with Hatfield’s amazing “ple-ea-ea-ease” is not only one of the best moments in 60s pop, but in all of popular music. No cover ever gets it right.

027. The Velvet Underground “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
(Lou Reed)
Available on The Velvet Underground and Nico

Lou Reed’s talent for writing gentle, shimmeringly beautiful pop songs may have stayed with him after the Velvet Underground imploded, but he would never again be able to rely on any voice but his own to express them, and despite his world-class arrogance (and a perfectly fine voice), that’s a shame. And Nico’s talent for singing gentle, shimmeringly beautiful pop songs might swiftly recede as she turned bleaker and more existential with every record, but she would never again be able to unite provocative intellectual content with normal-person-friendly melodies, and despite her achievements in bleak existentialism (and an eternally distancing voice), that’s also a shame.

026. The Beach Boys “In My Room”
(Gary Usher/Brian Wilson)
Available on Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys

To the few remaining emo kids who didn’t get the message last time: listen to this song, and then just. Give. Up. To everyone else: gosh, isn’t it lovely? It not only represents the first non-surf, non-drag song the Beach Boys recorded, but the first time the shy, abused genius of the group, Brian Wilson was allowed (or allowed himself) to express his actual feelings on record. The lacy, lilting melody and the ebb and flow of Brian’s solo voice sliding into those epic harmonies would have made it a stone classic already; but Usher’s lyrics (built out of Brian’s fumblingly-expressed ideas) make this not just the first emo song (whoop-de-doo), but damn near the first time pop music had expressed introversion at all. Shy guys of the world, respect.

025. The Rolling Stones “Lady Jane”
(Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)
Available on Aftermath

This may be the most image-dissonant song ever recorded by anyone anywhere anytime anyhow ever. Okay, it can be read as misogynistic, and that’s par for the course, and it’s about a player juggling three women (two high, one low) at once, and that’s certainly Stonesy, or at least Jaggery. But it’s also . . . well . . . Elizabethan. As in Elizabeth I, Queen of England from 1558 to 1603. And I don’t just mean vaguely, the way the Left Banke can sound almost Mozartian if you squint real hard and ignore the rhythm section. I mean someone (probably Brian) is playing a psaltery, and there’s a lute and a harpsichord in the mix too, and the lyric sounds like an adaptation of a freaking Andrew Marvell poem or something. The Stones didn’t do this kind of thing. Except, of course, they did, and frankly, they kicked just about everyone else’s ass at it. Okay, that’s pretty Stonesy too.

024. Merrilee Rush & the Turnabouts “Angel of the Morning”
(Chip Taylor)
Available on Angel of the Morning

Okay, now this is Chip Taylor’s greatest female protégé of the decade. (Remember, way back on number 158 when I said Evie Sands was his second-greatest? That’s right, it was foreshadowing.) And she did nothing else of note but this one song; or the album it was on, anyway. That’s okay; sometimes a single song, perfectly pitched, can overshadow entire decades of a mediocre career. Which Merrilee didn’t have; once the hubbub over this song died down, she returned to being a local musician, apparently satisfied with her fifteen minutes. The song’s a stone classic, of course: one of those wonderful pop singles that could tip over into either soul or country (and it did both), and also be used in a Charlie’s Angels remake for a cheap gag.

023. Peggy Lee “Is That All There Is?”
(Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller)
Available on The Best of Miss Peggy Lee

I first caught wind of this song flipping through late-night channels at the top end of the dial; on some continuous infomercial touting (I think) Dean Martin Show DVDs, a healthily zaftig Miss Lee stepped out, smirked at the audience, and purred, half-saucily, half-ruminatively, “I remember, when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire . . . .” They showed the whole clip, and my jaw inched open. The canard about rock & roll is that it rescued music from the boring, asinine stuff the grown-ups were doing. This was more decadent than rock would dream of being for another decade, and it was all done by pre-rock grown-ups. It’s wrtitten by Brill Building mainstays Lieber/Stoller, but the arrangement is totally Weill/Brecht, and it appears to be an adaptation of a story by Thomas Mann. Hooray, Weimar!

022. The Doors “(Break on Through) To the Other Side [Single Version]”
(John Densmore/Robbie Krieger/Ray Manzarek/Jim Morrison)
Available on the Forrest Gump soundtrack

Generally speaking, the Doors were as intelligent and sophisticated as a schoolboy who says “fuck” to see his mother flinch. If anyone deserved to be edited to within an inch of his life for radio, it was Jim Morrison; incredibly, the edit made the song more mysterious and compelling. If you first hear the radio version, you think he could be screaming “Shake it” in domineering, authoritative tones; when you hear the album version, it’s inevitably a letdown. “She get high” is just a pointless exercise in shocking tame curates. The rest of the song’s fine, too: I like the heavy soul groove these boys can dig when they put their mind to it.

021. The Beatles “Revolution”
(John Lennon/Paul McCartney)
Available on Past Masters, Volume Two

This, rather than the atheist-hippie “Imagine” nonsense, should be what people think of when they think of John Lennon. Sonic attack; wildcat yowl; loping boogie; sarcastic, thin-lipped lyrics; dead-perfect sociopolitical observation; roiling electric piano break (courtesy Nicky Hopkins, who really gets around); and ending with those increasily psychotic “all right”s, which of course mean the furthest thing from it. It was the B-side to Paul’s mushy emotional-blackmail anthem “Hey Jude,” and tells him to stuff it just with the guitar lick. It’s hot and nasty without forgoing a cool irony, politically aware but refusing the numbing comfort of idealism. This made Lennon cooler than Jesus.

Next: 020-011. >>

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Beat Goes On, Part XVII.

040. The Yardbirds “For Your Love”
(Graham Gouldman)
Available on For Your Love

Gregorian chant. Unhinged Persian tabla science. J. S. Bach-style harpsichord. And Keith Relf getting his sensitive-dude voice on. Eric Clapton’s in there somewhere too, but you can barely hear a guitar and he quit soon after because he hated the literate transgenre-pop, non-blues direction this song took the band in. (Which is probably the biggest blank check for making fun of Eric Clapton I could ask for. I’ll just mutter something about Cream under my breath and move on.) Songwriter Gouldman is one of the secret pop geniuses of the 60s, the ’Birds’ manager at the time and producer of this song, which deserves more recognition than it usually gets as one of the greatest British Invasion bombs in a year that was chock-full to spilling over with them.

039. The Rolling Stones “No Expectations”
(Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)
Available on Beggars Banquet

The term “roots-rock” is inherently unsatisfactory. While it’s obvious to the least attentive ear that country, the blues, soul, and rock & roll are blood relations, the fact remains that most people who try to combine them end up with little more than generic boogie-rock, succeeding (if they do) on the strength of energy and personality rather than any real feel for the roots in question. The Stones, beginning in early 1968, are one of the few rock acts who not only get it right, but actually build on the traditional forms in new and beautiful ways. Brian Jones’ stunning bottleneck slide is the star here, only approached by Mick’s lovely gentle/raw vocals and Nicky Hopkins’ tasteful honky-tonk piano. They would dig deeper into the country/blues dichotomy over the next five years, but they would never quite match the midnight elegance of this pop-gutter lament.

038. Booker T. & the MG’s “Hip Hug-Her”
(Steve Cropper/Donald “Duck” Dunn/Al Jackson, Jr./Booker T. Jones)
Available on Stax Profiles

Not as ubiquitous as “Green Onions,” not as soundtracky as some of their other hits, this track (for me) hits the perfect medium between cool, close-to-the-vest playing and the hip-shaking dynamite that dance floors need. It’s not funk, exactly, but it’s slow-burn funky. Cropper’s crisp, stinging guitar complements Booker T.’s stop-start organ surges, and the rhythm section keeps it unobtrusively but definitively in the pocket. The record cover shows four twig-thin white girls in the eponymous trousers, and for the 2:26 that the track lasts I can almost imagine a Josie & the Pussycats type thing where they’re the ones playing the music. But of course, no four hot white girls ever grooved this well.

037. Simon & Garfunkel “I Am a Rock”
(Paul Simon)
Available on The Sounds of Silence

Memo to every emo kid, anywere, anytime: Stop it. No, seriously, put down the Bic, crumple up the notebook paper and throw it away, unsling the guitar and put it in its fashionably-scuffed case. Now, go outside and go to your local record store (okay, your local Best Buy, you suburban dinks). Get your mom to drive you. Find a Simon & Garfunkel CD with this song on it. Oh, you’ll be able to find it; your parents’ generation can’t get enough of these twittering self-absorbed showmen. Go back home, put it in your stereo, and play this track. Play it over and over again. And ask yourself this question: “Do I have anything to say that Paul Simon did not already articulate, better than I can ever hope to do?” Then ask yourself: “Is there any room left in the world for such weedy self-pity after he satirically demolished it with this song?” The answer, in both cases, is no.

036. Steppenwolf “Born to Be Wild”
(Mars Bonfire)
Available on the Easy Rider soundtrack

Reason #1: Dude, it was written by a guy who called himself Mars Bonfire. Reason #2: Even if “motorcycle rock” isn’t exactly your favorite dish at the World-Wide Pop Music Sunday Buffet, it’s still cooler than you are. And this song invented it. Reason #3: Listen to it not as some kind of proto-heavy metal (’cause it’s not; it’s just hard-edged boogie) but as part of the continuum of genre-melting West Coast music of the late 60s, including Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Sly & the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. It’s pop with a grinding guitar tone. Reason #4: Dude, it was written by a guy who called himself Mars Bonfire.

035. Roger Miller “Dang Me”
(Roger Miller)
Available on All Time Greatest Hits

Best known to VCR-reared children of the 80s like myself for voicing the rooster narrator/bard Alan-A-Dale in Disney’s Robin Hood (he wrote the songs too; “Not in Nottingham” remains a peculiarly affecting favorite), he was also one of country music’s great lyricists, with a sly wit that ran as easily to satire as to cornpone. His pop hits like the hobo anthem “King of the Road” or the British Invasion-courting “England Swings” only tell half the story: he was deeply comfortable with country music’s broad conventions too, and did them even better. If the tempo of this song were slightly different, and it didn’t depend so heavily on his wordless vocalizing to the guitar lines, it could be one of those cold-eyed “I’m a mean sonofabitch” Johnny Cash songs, only funnier.

034. Small Faces “Itchycoo Park”
(Ronnie Lane/Steve Marriott)
Available on There Are But Four Small Faces

Apparently, Itchycoo Park is a real place, like Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. Steve Marriott grew up in the neighborhood; its real name, boringly enough, is Little Ilford Park. It sounds like a nice place, alright, or at least it would be until some jackass started braying “It’s all so beautiful!” at the top of his lungs. I’m kidding, of course; it works perfectly in the song, which is pastoral pop-psychedelic blue-eyed soul at its finest. I can’t ever really forgive Marriott for abandoning the rest of the band to do leaden boogie in Humble Pie, even though the Faces (my favorite 70s band) were born of the ashes, and of course that lead singer went on to do the same thing . . . .

033. James Brown “Say It Loud! (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”
(James Brown/Pee Wee Ellis)
Available on Say It Loud!

“Uh! With your bad self.” Yes, this is a call to radical racial realization, re-identification, and revolution, but first and foremost it’s a dancefloor-sex tune, like everything the Hardest Working Man in Show Business did between 1965 and 1975. I don’t want to make Dave Chapelle go crazy and decamp to Africa again, but as a white dude I love singing along to this song. Well, chanting along; Brown even proto-raps during the verses. I’m not black, but I’m proud to live in a time, a country, and a culture where something like this could become a hit. And I’m a music geek: obviously, on some level, I want to be black. Partly James Brown’s fault, of course, for making it sound so easy.

032. Vladimir Ussachevsky “Wireless Fantasy”
(Vladimir Ussachevsky)
Available on Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music

A lot of early electronic music focuses on sounds that couldn’t be approximated by acoustic instruments. Often this means ear-bleeding white noise, cycled through again and again for half an hour or so. But once in a while you’ll get a composer/tape manipulator/crackpot techno-fiddler who understands the things that are important to pop, like dynamics, tension and release, rhythm, and narrative. This is one of those: a beautiful, ominous, industrial-strength piece “for tape,” as the compositional databases have it, that sounds like the distress call of a ship trapped in Arctic ice as glaciers steadily creep up on it, drawing nearer and nearer . . . . I’d bet my eyeteeth that every sound editor and soundtrack composer in Hollywood knows it by heart. Oh, and there’s still plenty of ear-splitting shards of white noise, for those who want it.

031. Joni Mitchell “Chelsea Morning”
(Joni Mitchell)
Available on Clouds

Is it even possible today to realize the impact Joni Mitchell had when she first burst on the scene in the late 60s, both a fully-formed songwriter and deeply idiosyncratic singer, arranger, and performer? Women weren’t supposed to be able to do that; they could sing songs that other people wrote, or they could send demos around and have other people sing their songs, or (if they were really radical and liberated) they could join a band and let the guys do half of the singing. Joni made no apologies for doing what she did just as well as Dylan or any other person-with-a-penis, without being beholden to any of them or following in anyone’s footsteps in particular. She gathered up various musical strains that were in the air, and weaved something entirely new, complete, observational and distinctly female — not girly, not “feminine” — out of them. Forget the boys’ club: sisters can trump Leonard Cohen all by themselves.

Next: 030-021. >>

The Beat Goes On, Part XVI.

050. Love “She Comes in Colors”
(Arthur Lee)
Available on Da Capo

I’m tired of hearing how Forever Changes is their overlooked masterpiece; for my money, Da Capo is where it’s really at. Partly that’s because I’m a chamber-pop junkie, and the fact that a flute is the primary instrument on this song, plus we get a harpsichord break, really revs my engine. And partly it’s because the record is a lot less boring than Changes, even with Side 2 being one long song. Sure, it’s more or less Hendrix without the fire or bravado, mixed with some cod-English whimsy, but . . . well, if that doesn’t sound like a recommendation to you, you’re hopeless.

049. The Move “Flowers in the Rain”
(Roy Wood)
Available on The Move

Roy Wood is one of the forgotten maverick geniuses of pop music, a man who contributed equally to psychedelia with the Move, pomp-rock with the Electric Light Orchestra, and glam with Wizzard, and then went off the deep and and started to do some really interesting stuff, raiding musical styles of decades past. This was their third single, a rollicking march with a primitive syntheziser line, and some lyrics about, well, sitting and watching the flowers in the rain. Of course, sitting is the proper way to do it; you could get a tan from standing in the English rain. (The reference is apt.) Heard with headphones, a world of sonic subtleties opens up, and suddenly you’re all “Beatles who?”

048. David Bowie “The London Boys”
(David Bowie)
Available on The Deram Anthology

You know, I’m not sure why David Bowie had to go and invent glam rock in 1971 (or move to Berlin and change the face of rock music in 1977), because he had already perfected a decadent, ominously-sheened art-pop here. Of course this wasn’t any kind of hit, sinking without a trace on release and leaving the former D. Jones still a complete unknown, but that’s how it goes when you’re ahead of your time. The story (it would be appropriated, with a ham-fisted touch, by Taupin/John for “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”) of a boy from the country who falls in with a homosexual gang and ends up on the streets isn’t exactly what you’d expect to hear in 1966; but it sounds like glam rock to me.

047. The Beach Boys “Surfer Girl”
(Brian Wilson)
Available on Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys

Ah, yes, the seed from which the magnificent flowering tree that is “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” grew. That’s only partly tongue-in-cheek, too: the Beach Boys are a little too cod-Hawaiian here, Brian’s gorgeous falsetto imitating a steel guitar in its gentle sway, for true timelessness. (Of course, timelessness isn’t everything either. Pop music don’t need no fucking posterity.) Is there a better song for a Californian night with the top down, preferably with an armful of something soft and feminine? Well, I mean, I’m guessing.

046. The Count Five “Psychotic Reaction”
(Craig Atkinson/Sean Byrne/Roy Chaney/Kenn Ellner/John Michalski)
Available on Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era

One of the horrorshow Marilyn Manson-type acts of the decade (others were Screaming Lord Sutch, Arthur Brown, and what was left over of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins after the Fifties died), Count Five used to take the stage dressed in voluminous Dracula costumes. Which made them way cooler than Paul Revere & the Raiders or Jay & the Americans, no doubt. But the song itself is a garage-rock classic, one of the few that manages to be both pyschedelic (in its disorienting instrumental breakdown) and punk (in the sheer velocity and thrash of said disorienting instrumental breakdown). “And it feels like this!”

045. Dusty Springfield “No Easy Way Down”
(Gerry Goffin/Carole King)
Available on Dusty in Memphis

For some reason I want to call this a Stonewall anthem, even though I have no idea if anyone in the gay community ever listened to Dusty. Really, it works as a song about almost anything — the moment when you turn away from something beautiful and thrilling, and realize that the shitty messed-up world is still there waiting for you. It’s about the end of the 60s, the end of an affair, the end of a spiritual experience, the end of civil rights, the end of all euphoria and happiness and shared joy. And no one could sell it with as much dignified pain as Dusty. Mostly I connect it to her own struggle as a lesbian; but like I said, it could be anything.

044. Laura Nyro “Eli’s Coming”
(Laura Nyro)
Available on Eli and the Thirteenth Confession

I’ve still never heard the Three Dog Night version of the song which was the hit. I don’t think I ever will, at least on purpose. I don’t need to. This is perfection itself. A multi-suite secular country-gospel song with minimal, improvised-sounding lyrics, thousands of Laura Nyros whispering, crying, shouting, swooping, keening, harmonizing, sliding off-key then jumping unexpectedly back on like something in a Buster Keaton movie. All at the service of what might be the most enigmatic set of lyrics in the 60s: “Eli’s coming, better hide your heart girl.” What does it mean? Hell, what doesn’t it mean?

043. Henry Mancini & His Orchestra “The Pink Panther Theme”
(Henry Mancini)
Available on the Pink Panther soundtrack

No, seriously. No, seriously. Okay, stop laughing, guys, seriously. It takes a while, and I can’t say I’ve fully succeeded yet, but you can eventually break the automatic mental habit that associates this cool, only just slightly unnerving theme with crappy Saturday-morning cartoons. Unless you were lucky enough to only know the decent original cartoons; or better yet, only the Peter Sellers movies. But listen to the theme some time on its own. It’s slinky, spooky, and plays like real jazz for a couple of bars before making you jump with a sudden full-band WHAM. I don’t want to say it’s necessarily an immortal composition, except, well, it kind of is.

042. The Band “I Shall Be Released”
(Bob Dylan)
Available on Music from Big Pink

Hold on. Just listen to those first opening piano notes again. An entire world of lonesome grace is in them, reverberating across the decades. This is only amplified by Richard Manuel’s unlearthly lead falsetto, and trebled by Richard Danko’s keening harmonies on the chorus. It was the first track on their first album, and they would still have been one of the greatest bands ever if they’d never recorded anything else. Dylan’s post-accident lyrics strip away all the surreal imagery and Western Literature references to give us an eternal, ice-true myth. Surely any funeral where this was played would be attended by hosts of angels.

041. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band “My Human Gets Me Blues”
(Don Van Vliet)
Available on Trout Mask Replica

And then sometimes you’re left with nothing to say, just bopping your head in bewildered jive rhythm. What would happen, this song asks, if you took equal portions Howlin’ Wolf, Ornette Coleman, Sly & the Family Stone, and Hoyt Ming’s Skillet Lickers and smushed them together into a single song? Why, you’d get Tom Waits in the 1980s. Or, rather, you’d get the deeply idiosyncratic, raffishly incognito manic maniac who inspired, oh, say 65% of Tom Waits. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but by sheer force of personality he makes me believe that she was under her dress too.

Next: 040-031. >>