Thursday, November 30, 2006

The 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s, Part IX.

060. Wings “Jet”
(Paul McCartney/Linda McCartney)
Band on the Run, 1973

Positioned midway between the Electric Light Orchestra’s self-important pomp-rock and the goofy glam of bands like Chicory Tip, this is probably Paul McCartney’s most recognizable post-Beatles “rock” song (as opposed to power-ballads like “Maybe I’m Amazed” or snooze-fests like “Mull of Kintyre”), and makes the definitive argument for his continued relevance, as far as I’m concerned. He retains the clever rhyming patterns that only he and Elvis Costello have ever really been successful with this side of the 1940s, and while the lyrics don’t make much sense on their own (so the girl’s name is Jet? and you thought her father was a lady? what the hell?), they provide the necessary lightweight balance for the otherwise-turgid dynamics of the song. Wings, of course, was never a real band, but Paul, Linda, Denny, and the studio hires could fake one convincingly — and the further away we get from the arrogant rock-snob elitism of the late 60s and early 70s, the less that kind of thing matters when all that’s left is the music. And the music here is sincerely great, 70s rock wrapped up in one big tidy pop package, bridging the gap between humorless, lunkheaded hard rock and the sharp, production-heavy wit of acts like 10cc. And there is a glammy stomp buried back in the mix; or am I just thinking that because the word “suffer-agette” inevitably recalls David Bowie’s greatest glam stomper?

059. Curtis Mayfield “Freddie’s Dead”
(Curtis Mayfield)
Superfly, 1972

Blaxploitation is a curious thing. The very word gives off mixed signals: on the one hand, there’s the “I’m black and I’m proud” connotations that lowbrow auteurs like Melvin Van Peebles cultivated; but on the other hand, there’s an undeniable “watch the darkies beat each other up” vibe that satisfies a primitive racist jones for behaving badly in a vicarious way through black people, who are morally degraded and so can’t be expected to know any better. (In the racist’s mind, that is; and not that anyone thinks this consciously, but the remnants of minstrelsy cast a long shadow.) You have to think that Curtis Mayfield, unquestionably one of the greatest progressive black voices of the era, was aware of this, and consciously turned the soundtrack to Superfly, a wannabe-noir glorification of ghetto cocaine-pimping, into a socially conscious record documenting the psychological and spiritual toll of the drug-dealing lifestyle. And yeah, viewed through modern hip-hop eyes there’s kind of a Bill Cosby-ish paternalism to it some of the lyrics, but damn, dawg, truth-telling’s never sounded so hip. His inimitably sweet falsetto glides over the most gorgeous cinema-funk not produced by Isaac Hayes or Norman Whitfield, using studio tricks worthy of David Axelrod or Jack Nietzsche for a lush soundscape that retains an urban, soulful grit. Just gorgeous.

058. Chi Coltrane “Thunder and Lightning”
(Chi Coltrane)
Chi Coltrane, 1972

I really had no idea what to expect when I found this record in the Female Vocal section of one of the local vinyl paradises. I bought for two reasons: I’m a compulsive collector of music from 1972, and I wondered if she might somehow be related to that other Coltrane. (Answer: unless her ancestors owned his, probably not.) Apparently this hit the charts back when, but I’d never heard it; it’s gospel-pop not unlike Carole King’s “I Feel The Earth Move,” but harder-rocking and less beholden to Brill Building tradition. And she’s got a better voice, a honeyed growl that owes as much to deep soul singers like Barbara Acklin and Irma Thomas as to white singer-songwriters like King or Laura Nyro. But this is no Sixties pastische: the piano-thumping velocity of the thing, the honking saxophone, the streamlined, bubbly production all smell like crisp 70s vinyl to me. (That’s not so much synesthesia as sense-memory, actually.) Aside from her one-hit-wonderish debut, Coltrane was only somewhat successful; she released a handful of albums and like many, found more fame, adulation, and money on the European circuit, where being white didn’t preclude her from being a soul singer, and being female didn’t preclude her from rocking. But she never bothered the U.S. charts again.

057. Gang of Four “Damaged Goods”
(Gang of Four)
Entertainment!, 1979

Punk is good, we’re not knocking punk, but (setting aside the issue of defining the thing at all; we talking New York, London, or what, here?) when you get down to it, it’s really only interesting as a corrective to the larger rock scene, or as a framework for further exploration. And that’s what this is, both of them at once: the first great punk-funk song, stripping the heady symphonic bliss of disco down to a numbing Krautrock bassline, but then amphetamined, bringing both the rhythmic speed and the abrasive guitar noise that a post-Pistols Britain required to be taken seriously. Gang of Four was remembered for the longest time mostly as an agitprop postpunk band, leftists with a skitterish, difficult-to-take-hold-of sound. When I first wanted to listen to them, I had to buy imported CDs. Then the great dancepunk revolution of 2003 ocurred, and suddenly they’re just a quirky pop band. Which they always kind of were (only a fool takes postpunk rhetoric at face value) , but this is the only time they ever really sang about relationships, and of course it’s in a quasi-clinical way using metaphors from capitalist economics. They meant to be preaching revolution, but a quarter-century later, it’s no longer incendiary, unless you mean burning up the dance floor.

056. Badfinger “No Matter What”
(Pete Ham)
No Dice, 1970

I’ll go ahead and say it: I hate power-pop. Matthew Sweet, Weezer, Sloan, Teenage Fanclub, Fountains of Wayne, the New Pornographers, whatever: thank you for your interest, but we already have a Beatles. No further applicants are required at this time. But wouldn’t you know it — dial back thirty years, and the most explicit violation of the Beatles’ still-warm corpse is okay by me. It’s probably the production, to be honest; no guitar has sounded like that — both ringing and crunchy at the same time, without being the least bit glossy or “heavy” — on record since about 1976. And nobody else has emulated Paul McCartney’s singing style with such naked admiration (except Phil Keaggy, but that’s a different list), nobody has ever replicated George Harrison’s simple, elegant solos so effortlessly, and even the drummer sounds like Ringo, for crying out loud (though it’s the handclaps that pull of a reall Starkeyism). And the lyrics are nonsensical-but-meaningful in the best Lennon/McCartney tradition. But remember, a little of this goes a long way; I can’t think of any power-pop act post-R.E.M. that pushes these kinds of buttons. It’s in no way true that the first are always the best (three words: Sugar Hill Gang), but when it comes to gooey, slavish adoration, you need to at least place. Eventually, imitation just becomes the most sincere form of necrophilia.

Next: 055-051. >>

Monday, November 27, 2006

The 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s, Part VIII.

065. Looking Glass “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”
(Elliot Lurie)
Looking Glass, 1972

Normally, I despise the too-common complaints about how popular music was so much better “back then,” usually meaning the golden age of 60s and 70s rock. Those whiners are the same as the people who were horrified by the rise of rock & roll in the 50s, and scandalized by jazz in the 20s. But occasionally, they can have a point. For example. “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is as perfectly dopey a slice of AM pop as the 70s ever provided, and could be used, along with selected hits of the Carpenters, America, and Loggins & Messina, to provide a kind of Lowest Common Denominator for 70s pop. Now compare it with the Lowest Common Denominator soft-pop of today, James Blunt or whatever. At least Looking Glass told a fucking story, however trite. Modern AM mush-pop is all grand generalities, all non-specific “I”s and “you”s, with a couple of common verbs and a universally-applicable adjective or two thrown in, with emoting in place of melody. “Brandy” is starting to look pretty good now, huh? Okay, so “it’s better than James Blunt” is nobody’s idea of high praise, but seriously, who can hate this song? It’s so damn cheerful, even though the narrative is about heartbreak and loss; it’s the horns, probably, that give it the extra something needed to break through into the eternal-pop pantheon. Where it is, in my book.

064. Throbbing Gristle “Hot on the Heels of Love”
(Throbbing Gristle)
20 Jazz-Funk Greats, 1979

The Gristle at their most floppy-eared bunny-hugging accessible, this song has been called everything from dark electro-funk to the first techno song. It’s actually got more in common with latter-day glitchtronica like Autechre than with anything out of Detroit in the mid-80s, but if you’re willing to stretch a point you can almost hear it. The punishing noise and splintered tape loops that made them the originators of industrial music have been left behind for the stark minimalist sound of sequencers thumping and bristling fragments of electronic melody, over which Cosey Fanni Tutti murmurs, sounding like a robot dominatrix, a lyric just as minimal: “Hot on the heels of love/I’m waiting for help from above.” But like John Lennon said of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” the lyrics are so spare because that’s all that needs to be said. You could call it the moment when the industrial side of post-punk, which had always been screamingly political rather than personal, first tipped over into the icy romanticism that, say, the Eurythmics would later exploit, but first that’s kind of an insult depending on what you think of the Eurythmics, and second the song doesn’t need any historical-fulcrum analysis in order to be a kickass song. If androids dream of electric sheep, this is the song those sheep waltz to when the dream edges into nightmare.

063. Rachel Sweet “Who Does Lisa Like?”
(Liam Sternberg)
Fool Around, 1978

Rachel Sweet was sixteen years old when she left Akron, Ohio for the greener pastures of post-industrial London and Stiff Records. A seasoned performer, brought up doing country covers on the county-fair circuit, she already had a huge, booming Patsy Cline voice and a facility with interpretation that many older performers could envy. The song’s writer, Liam Sternberg, came with her from Akron, a sort of burnt-out hippie manager-cum-svengali who, strangely enough, managed in his songwriting to nail a specific tone that could be American, English, or whatever — but it’s definitely teenager. Bored teenager, too (though Rachel sounds anything but), like the Ramones were supposed to be. The song is high-school lunchroom gossip, specific in its evocation of Americana — hanging around in the Firestone parking lot — but cheeky enough to appeal to British sensibilities too. And Nick Lowe matches that hat trick with one of his best productions: a nervous, twitchy rhythm, with several Rachels piled up on top of each other for those great plastic harmonies (and some help from labelmate and fellow Ohioan Lene Lovich on the high notes), and a fitful, spastic guitar played off a snarky, Clemonsy sax. By the end of the song, no one cares about that slut Lisa anyway; the cheerfully catty Rachel is the one all the boys want to hang with.

062. Chic “Le Freak”
(Bernard Edwards/Nile Rodgers)
C’est Chic, 1978

“Ahhh . . . freak out!” Although in the popular imagination disco is forever wedded to Saturday Night Fever, lapels big enough to shelter a starving African family, and bearded Gibbses, it was Chic who really brought the 4/4 glide out of the gay Harlem clubs and into the coke-snorting mainstream. And this is as good and smooth as disco ever got: orchestral swirl and soar, knotty bass workouts, black women singing smolderingly, and underneath it all the unstoppable high-hat/snare heartbeat. As in the other great stylish pop ménage of the 70s, the men did all the heavy lifting — songwriting, arrangement, production — and the girls looked hot and sang in breathless harmony. The lyrics don’t really matter — it’s disco, remember? — but this is the great self-reflexive song of the genre, literally inviting everyone down to Studio 54 where they could do “the Freak” (intentionally recalling fifteen-year-old dance-craze numbers lik the Twist or the Mashed Potato, but with a druggy gay subtext for those who knew), and even comparing the then-new disco scene to the swing-dance contests that used to be held at the Savoy Ballroom in the 40s, where the big bands of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie would bring the crystalline, impeccably-arranged funk all night long. Correspondingly, Birdland was CBGB’s.

061. Derek & the Dominos “Thorn Tree in the Garden”
(Bobby Whitlock)
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970

I’m fully aware of the irony of choosing a track from Eric Clapton’s best album that doesn’t feature Clapton either singing or playing. But the Dominos really was a band, even if extremely short-lived. Bobby Whitlock, the songwriter and singer, is one of the central figures (along with drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Jim Keltner) in a loose aggregation of musicians, session players, stars and roadies who were responsible, among other things, for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, most of Delaney & Bonnie’s output, Leon Russell’s Shelter People recordings, Derek & the Dominos’ work, and even Exile-era Rolling Stones. He was discovered by Delaney Bramlett in a Deep South juke joint, where his unfettered howl and aching falsetto, married to an almost punk-rock honky-tonk piano style, made him one of the famous Friends of Delaney & Bonnie. His solo material, captured on two 1972 albums that I never get tired of listening to, alternated between Stax-on-amphetamines hard rock and quiet, impossibly tender ballads like this one. Like many of the great singers of the 60s and early 70s, he made no distinction between country, blues, rock, and soul, and all of it is present in his boozy, heartachey voice. And then he breaks into that shivering falsetto, and Duane Allman’s guitar, almost whispering behind him, follows. It’s transcendent, is what it is, and it’s the best argument for rock & roll the guitar gods ever produced.

Next: 059-051. >>

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s, Part VII.

070. Television “Marquee Moon”
(Tom Verlaine)
Marquee Moon, 1977

Almost thirty years ago, critics were groping for words like “angular” and “wiry” to describe Television’s sound, and no better descriptives have come along since. Although I still remember the way they were first described to me: as the Grateful Dead with all the blues leached out. Which makes them, in an odd way, more beholden to European classical music concepts than to the traditional rock & roll forms. This is their definitive track: a comopositional masterpiece without a hair out of place, Richard Lloyd’s guitar laying down a mesmerizing rhythm while Tom Verlaine’s guitar works increasingly complex patterns over top of it. There are lyrics, too, some kind of depressive beatnik ramblings, but they’re not the point (though Verlaine’s hipster yowl is about the only thing “punk” about the song; it’s an album-rock radio staple in a much cooler parallel universe). The point is the structure of the piece, the way it works inevitably, mathematically even, to a glorious crescendo — and after that, the most incredible sound, like fireworks or some kind of aural orgasm. Then the drums kick in with the motorik boom-chik again, and the train gets back on the tracks. Another verse, and it’s just about over. The structure, actually, is more or less the same as “Won’t Get Fooled Again” — but this is incomparably the greater song.

069. Nick Drake “Pink Moon”
(Nick Drake)
Pink Moon, 1972

One of the odd side-effects of the modern age of mp3s and the long tail marketplace is that the process of rediscovery often says more about the present time than the past. This isn’t really anything new: Moby-Dick was rediscovered and canonized in the 1920s because the 1920s needed Moby-Dick more than the 1850s had. Similarly, Nick Drake was virtually unnoticed during his lifetime, the age of singer-songwriters whose sensitivity was more or less a commercial venture; his rediscovery and canonization in the 1990s (where he could be seen as inhabiting the same level of uncertain beauty as Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith or early Belle & Sebastian) said more about the needs of the 1990s than it did about the time when he lived — and died. Like Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley, he died early and meaninglessly. Which is part of the charm, no doubt; music nerds sometimes seem to prefer a closed discography to those works still in progress (like Dylan or Costello today). This song was chosen, and I’ll be frank about this, because it was used in a car commercial and that’s how I became aware of it, and of Drake, and of his work. It was the first song I knew by him, and because I’m not a Drake obsessive (yet), it’s still my favorite, an immensely hushed scrap of fragile completeness. Whatever that means.

068. Harry Chapin “Taxi”
(Harry Chapin)
Heads & Tales, 1972

Sometimes you’re more critical when the artist sets a very high standard; anyway, that’s what I tell myself during the lazy, lazy rhymes “didn’t say anything more” and “a sad smile just the same.” Never mind what VH1 says, Chapin is one of the few musicians really worthy of the title Storyteller: his songs are almost always little dioramas of morality, longing and loss. And his sound-sculpturing was never less than brilliant, using what was really a quite small band to sound like a full studio orchestra, getting just about any cinematic effect he could ask for. The rhythm of this story is familiar — teenage lovers meet again years later to find that their youthful dreams both failed and came true in bittersweet irony — but he manages to place the telling little details that spark it to its own unique kind of life: the dress wet in the rain, the giveaway name on the license, the gate and the fine trimmed lawns. Not to mention the strange fantasy imagery on the bridge, which seems to come out of another song entirely (and the weird, keening lines by his bassist, Big John Wallace) but which dovetails beautifully with the finale. It would be a tough-luck story worthy of Hemingway, O’Hara, or Fitzgerald if it weren’t for the final couple of lines, which transform it into a post-Sixties comedown: Ken Kesey or Hunter S. Thompson with more dignified grace and wry humility.

067. The Damned “Smash It Up, Parts I & II”
(The Damned)
Machine Gun Etiquette, 1979

The milquetoast’s punk anthem. First you get two minutes of gorgeous pointillist electric drift, with Algy Ward’s sludgy bass keeping it real while the guitars and drums swirl in soft-rock fantasias, and then, finally, 1:59 deep into the song, do we get anything resembling a buzzsaw attack. But even that’s just amphetamined glam, T. Rex with no time to waste, not the dark, jagged noise the Damned made their name playing. For a band that pretty much accidentally became the first UK punk-rock group, this is some awful sissy stuff, the destructive nihilist lyrics delivered with an audible grin, even when Vanian unleashes the bottom-register “demonic” voice during the middle eight. Apparently the song is something of a tribute to Marc Bolan, who died in the summer of 1977, just late enough to declare himself the Godfather of Punk (his final, brilliant pop masterpiece, “Celebrate Summer,” makes the case exquisitely); and it works beautifully for that. It works beautifully anyway, without the backstory, and any pop lover who thinks punk isn’t worth their time needs to hear it, like, yesterday. Yeah, the Damned cut the first UK punk single (“New Rose”), the first UK punk album (Damned Damned Damned), toured the US first, had the first serious membership rift, and became the first punk dinosaurs in the 80s, but it was this moment, and specifically this song, when they decided to bleed in other rock genres, that their ghoulish, snarky version of punk became interesting.

066. Genesis “Firth of Fifth”
Selling England by the Pound, 1973

This may have been the first time I bought an album, uh, sound unheard; I hadn’t heard any of it on classic-rock radio, no one I knew had ever heard any Genesis; I just read a review (Starostin’s, if you must know) and decided it sounded good. So an important step in my musical education, sure, but it deserves the spot for other reasons too: despite the extended, and extremely pretentious, instrumental suites, it’s structurally a decent little pop tune, with some of Peter Gabriel’s best meaningless-folderol-that-adds-up-to-visionary-poetry. I get the sense that Tony Banks’ opening piano sketch is trying to evoke Beethoven, but doesn’t have the melodic muscle for it and ends up somewhere closer to Grieg; or maybe it’s just the firth in the title that makes me think of the composer of the Norwegian fjords. Regardless, the entire song — Gabriel’s lyrics, the sweeping faux-majesty of the instrumental passages, all of it — makes me think of tales of Northern ocean voyages in the age before steel or gunpowder, of dawn over a white, calm ocean, of tantalizing glimpses of green mountains through the fog, the sight of a naked albatross sailing overhead, tempests that threaten but do not drown, and of the sparkle and wonder of the unearthly Aurora Borealis, a sight vouchsafed only to a chosen few. That’s what I think of; but I was young when I first heard it, and more romantic than I am today.

Next: 065-061. >>

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s, Part VI.

075. Leon Russell “Tight Rope”
(Leon Russell)
Carney, 1972

By 1972, Leon Russell had kicked around the music industry enough to be his own man at last. He’d worked for Phil Spector, reportedly clapping until his hands bled for a Ronettes track. He’d played piano for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, had dated Rita Coolige, had turned out two goofy swamp-psychedelia albums of middling interest with Marc Benno, and had seen songs he’d written taken to the top of the charts by Cocker, Donny Hathaway, and the Carpenters. And with this song, a cheerful, carnivalesque thumper, he took stock of his life and times, trying to deal with a newfound fame but self-mythologizing habitually, like any rock star worth his salt would. (The same album contains an extended criticism of Rolling Stone journalists and overinvolved music fans; one paranoid possibility for why his career petered out after the mid-70s.) The music is more or less ragtime gone country, with boogie-woogie accents and a circus-music breakdown which follows not just the pattern of the lyrics but the album art and, more generally, the fact that rock & roll, especially as it blossomed into a more variegated form of theater/ritual in the late 60s, had roots in older low-class entertainment forms like vaudeville, burlesque, medicine shows, minstrelsy, and even (once upon a time) opera and straight drama. Show business is show business; it always bleeds its practitioners dry. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t enjoy the ride.

074. John Prine “Sam Stone”
(John Prine)
John Prine, 1971

The singer-songwriter phenomenon was in full swing by the time Prine came along and, with Kris Kristofferson’s help, scored a record deal and produced an LP that bore this, his most famous — and maybe his best-ever — song. Cat Stevens, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell had been the vanguard of the singer-songwriter movement (with Dylan, naturally, as its unwilling, irascible spiritual godfather), and their complex melodies and elegant, contemplative lyrics set the pattern; they’re the reason “sensitive” is so often prefixed to “singer-songwriter.” We might even call them emo today. Prine was cut out of different stuff altogether; unafraid to either shock or disgust (but devoid of the badass pretention that made someone like Lou Reed an underground icon), he cuts through the self-important bullshit of the genre with a clean picking style and a hoarse voice, and lands one of the best sucker-punches in music with the most devastating opening couplet to a chorus that I’ve ever heard. There’s grim humor here, and sympathy without sentiment, and even an approach to Harry Smith’s timeless universality, in the lean, sparse tale of a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran; and the reference in the final stanza to the G. I. Bill reminds you that, shit, Vietnam was hardly the first war to leave psychic scars on a generation — and it’s not the last, either.

073. Ike & Tina Turner “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter”
(Aillene Bullock)
Workin’ Together, 1971

Let’s get this out of the way first: Tina Turner is one of the top three female soul singers of all time. (Aretha is of course the second, and the third spot is debatable, though I’d go with Etta James). Her adult-contemporary career in the 1980s, as well as an understandable reluctance on the part of liberal boomers to give credit or money to asshole extraordinaire Ike Turner, has almost pushed out of sight a jaw-dropping amount of funky, hot, raunchy, devil’s-own music that spanned two decades, and is the greatest little-heard treasure trove in rock & roll. And make no mistake: Ike had just as much to do with it as Tina, and often more. A relentless self-promoter and manipulative svengali, he was also a dynamite instrumentalist, bandleader, songwriter, arranger, producer, and (occasionally) vocalist. Now that Tina’s safe from his reach, living with her Italian millionaire while he hustles to get cheapo blues releases on the shelves, it’s time to even up the score again. This is deep funk, made by a man who knew his Stone and his Clinton, but nasty and trebly to match Tina’s sawmill of a voice. Though it follows the usual formulas of an early-70s dis song, it’s generally agreed to be about Ike (Aillene Bullock is a version of Tina’s maiden name), and he either was too dim to catch on or figured it would be more badass if he didn’t care.

072. Iggy Pop “The Passenger”
(Ricky Gardiner/Iggy Pop)
Lust for Life, 1977

Vo-de-o-do-Oi! Yes, that carefree electric strum recalls the sound of a cigar-box ukelele and nights spent spooning on the porch with the local shieks and flappers . . . but the song is one of Iggy’s trademark paranoid urban fantasias, aided and abbetted by David Bowie on production and backup vocals in Berlin. Iggy Pop is one of American music’s great mavericks, from his ear-splitting, vein-bursting years with the Stooges to the varied muses he’s followed as a solo artist, but this song finds him edging his dry, world-weary croon into a more sophisticated, European mold. It’s about what we would today call eurotrash glitterazzi, people who can afford smoked-glass limos enjoying that luxury, trawling through the decadent streets in search of ever more spectacular and sleazy thrills. And that’s where the Twenties swing comes in: New York socialites were doing the same thing in Harlem fifty years earlier (and don’t think Pop — and especially Bowie — didn’t know it), and at the same time the Bright Young Things were doing it in Soho and Chelsea in London, and the Old-World aristocracy was doing it in Weimar Berlin. (Speaking of which, fuck Cabaret; check out Pandora’s Box, G. W. Pabst’s much more truthful 1927 collaboration with Louise Brooks.) There’s no machinist noise here, but that lazy strum is all the scarier.

071. Candi Staton “Too Hurt to Cry”
(George Jackson/Robert Moore)
single, 1971

This might be the last great Southern soul song. No, Al Green doesn’t count. He’s something else entirely. The Muscle Shoals studios were never the equal of Memphis’s Stax/Volt behemoth in terms of sales and influence, but they were just as fine an operation, and the discerning knew it. (Even Lynyrd Skynyrd namechecked them.) And their Aretha was Candi, whose appealingly raw, emotion-soaked voice made up for her lack of gale-force lungs on record; producer Rick Hall used to make her sing at the top of her voice until her voice started to crack, and then recorded that. Like many insane, borderline-abusive producers, he was right. She covered country songs frequently, and to good effect; her version of “In the Ghetto” is about the only listenable one there is. But it’s this song that was her finest moment, both commercially and artistically. Over a breezy piano line and some of the funkiest drums outside of a beatbox, she manages to have it both ways, both raw emotion (her voice) and noble, silent suffering (the lyrics), without contradiction. The pop-soul instrumentation is flattering and punctuational, and the impression, on first listen, is that of discovering not just a lost classic, but a whole new universe of soul and spirit. She later became a disco diva (and was made comfortable in middle age by being sampled on house songs), and today mostly does gospel, but she saved soul’s soul back in the day.

Next: 070-066. >>

Friday, November 17, 2006

The 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s, Part V.

080. Yoko Ono “Listen, the Snow Is Falling”
(Yoko Ono)
b-side, 1971

Yes, another Yoko solo song. As long as people continue to repeat the canard about Yoko being the evil bitch who broke up the Beatles, I’ll continue to celebrate her real and considerable achievements on her own. Not that this is really on-her-own on her own; John’s fingerprints are all over this thing, from the gorgeous church-organ arrangement to the simple beauty of the melody and the vivid poetry of the lyrics. It was the b-side to “Happy Christmas (War Is Over),” and thirty-five years later is so much obviously the superior song that it’s kind of insulting to know that the a-side will be all over oldies stations in the next month whereas I’m only ever going to be able to hear this by pressing Play. The fact that Galaxie 500 brought the song to indie-snob attention in 1990 with their final album is a factor, but only in the sense that they pointed out how far ahead of her time Yoko (and John) could be: nothing else released in the 1970s is quite as relevant to modern indie-pop as this. Belle & Sebastian, among thousands of others, are somehow unimaginable without it. Two last things to savor: the false beginning where it sounds like it’s going to just be more whisper-pop, and the stately, chiming hook that sounds both like Bach and Phil Spector at his best.

079. Townes Van Zandt “Pancho and Lefty”
(Townes Van Zandt)
The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, 1972

And sometimes all you need is a man and a guitar and some dust in his voice. Townes Van Zandt (no relation to Steve or the Skynyrd boys) was one of the all-time great singer-songwriters, a Texan whose downbeat version of country-inflected folk-rock brings to mind a Southern, rural Leonard Cohen. The song is a character sketch of sorts, an incomplete story in which the important things are left unsaid and the imagery is all passive: a determinedly pessimistic response to the failure of 60s idealism. The chorus is one of the great sarcastic barbs of the 70s (a decade, let it be noted, in which Randy Newman and Warren Zevon came into their own), a weary sneer at human folly and the general pointlessness of it all. But it’s the sound of the song, more than anything, that really gets me: I live in the American Southwest, and I tend to spend most of my music hours immersed in the sound of just about anywhere else, but this is the sound of scrub brush on the vast yellow-gray plains, a two-lane ribbon of road heading from nowhere to nowhere, under a vast uncaring sky. It’s the sound of weathered boards and metal that’s oxidized for decades in the desert heat, the sound of grainy, unlovely dust getting everywhere, no matter how tightly you shut everything up. Pancho and Lefty knew this terrain well, and while one of them died in Mexico and the other tried to escape to the more shuttered Midwest, you never really get the mesas out of the back of your mind.

078. The Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass “Theme de Yo-Yo”
(The Art Ensemble of Chicago)
Les Stances a Sophie, 1970

The Art Ensemble of Chicago: the legendary conceptual-jazz quartet who built off of Coltrane, Davis and Shepp to blaze a cosmic, performance-art-oriented path across the musical landscape. Fontella Bass: the St. Louis soul singer whose big hit was “Rescue Me.” Oh, and who also happened to be married to AEC trumpeter Lester Bowie. Les Stances a Sophie: a mediocre French dramedy which managed to snag one of the most innovative jazz groups around to record the soundtrack, because they were living in Paris at the time. “Theme de Yo-Yo”: the most perfect union of jazz and funk on record. Fontella sings some surreal lyrics featuring some of the least complimentary similes outside of a Dylan song (though it’s hard to tell whether or not they’re meant to be uncomplimentary; some people think they’re sexy), the drummer and bassist lock into a groove and keep it going come hell or high water; and the horns head for the stars. Then, suddenly, wham! that nagging, funky riff returns, and you realize that you’ve been dancing through some of the freakiest free-jazz squalls this side of Ornette Coleman. This keeps up for another five minutes of funky, freaky goodness, Fontella returns for a victory lap, and it’s still a tragically well-kept secret outside of hardcore funk and jazz heads. But I guarantee you that Can knew it well.

077. Mott the Hoople “Honaloochie Boogie”
(Ian Hunter)
Mott, 1973

Mott the Hoople is a difficult band to rank in a list like this. This is because while they weren’t a spectacularly original or innovative band, they were always really good (at least till Hunter left), and so I’m left with the difficulty of deciding which of their many terrific songs is my favorite. I’m not going to complain, because it means I get to listen to more Hoople, but all that is just to say that “Honaloochie Boogie” was chosen almost at random. What gave it the edge is that I wanted to point out how funny the way the British pronounce “boogie” (with a long “oo” instead of a short one, like the Americans who freaking invented the stuff) always is to me. At least they get the hard G right. And okay, the riff is really great; they were only really associated with glam rock for the one album that Bowie produced, but the pep talk it provided made for some wonderful crystalline production, all glitter and kick. The reluctant sound of Mick Ralphs’ guitar (I don’t know how else to describe it) is one of my favorite sounds from the 70s; for a band that started out almost pathetically influenced by the Stones, they were nearly on another planet by this time. Oh, and Hunter’s watery production on the “she’s a screwdriver jiver” bridge deserves a nod. So does the guest appearance of Andy Mackay’s saxophone. Shit, this is an even better song than I thought!

076. Kirsty MacColl “They Don’t Know”
(Kirsty MacColl)
single, 1979

Stiff Records is in the running for greatest label of all time. Not just because of their impudent bravado, which turned the art of promotion on its head, and not even because of the leg up they gave to punk and/or Elvis Costello, but because they nearly single-handedly revived the art of the great pop single at the tail end of the 70s. Almost forgotten beneath weighty double-album prog rock epics, unlimited disco remixes, the macho posturing of heavy metal, and insidiously bland corporate “rock” that sounded like nothing so much as cocaine poured over folk-rock’s twitching corpse, the great pop single (you know, like the Turtles, the Monkees, the Beach Boys, and those other guys, what was their name, oh yeah the Beatles used to make) was forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of slightly disreputable history. Until a scrappy label with practically no taste and unlimited enthusiasm (plus perhaps the greatest in-house producer ever, Nick Lowe) popped up in a Bayswater back street and decided that they would do whatever the hell they pleased. One of the things that pleased them to do was to record Kirsty MacColl, a.k.a. The Greatest Pop Singer of The Last Twenty-Five Years. They were interested in her songs mostly for Tracy Ullman to cover (no, really), but one listen to this Phil-Spector-for-the-blank-generation song (and that heartstopping “ba-ay-bee!”) drops a major hint as to just who the one with the talent really was.

Next: 075-071. >>

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s, Part IV.

085. Pink Floyd “Comfortably Numb”
(David Gilmour/Roger Waters)
The Wall, 1979

I know you’re not gonna believe this, but I’ve never listened to The Wall. Or watched it, for that matter. I only know the song from AOR radio, which is probably why I like it so much. As I may have mentioned before, I’m a pop guy. Concept albums and multi-disc suites are all very well in theory, but just give me a damn song, and I couldn’t be happier. So I have no idea how this fits in to the grand overarching scheme of rock’s most notoriously excessive concept-album statement about the soul-crushing horror of being a rock star or whatever, but I do know that pretentious self-important twaddle has never sounded more compelling, that glistening million-dollar space-age textures have never sounded so emotional (even if the emotions are fractured, blunted, and miasmic), and that David Gilmour’s crescendoing solo at the end — even though mental flashes of millions of be-mulleted air-guitarists around the world playing along are inevitable — is one of the finest examples of late-70s playing, in that overly-tightassed, perfectly-sculpted way that always makes me think of billionaires doing cocaine on a space station. Like I said, I’m a pop guy, and the perfect pop moment in the song comes just after the words “there’ll be no more.” You know what I mean. Still overly-mannered and emotionally dead, but still, a cry from the heart.

084. Gil Scott-Heron “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
(Gil Scott-Heron)
Pieces of a Man, 1971

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay. There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay. Even though I, a bourgeois honky more or less in bed with The Man, don’t have the right to call black men my brothers except in the most general Christian sense and have no particular quarrels with law enforcement even though I’m perfectly aware that I would not have gotten off scot-free that one time if I were less than lily-white, I still love that line, or rather the repetition of that line, which makes the jump from spoken-word to actual goddamn rap. Now that everyone from Chuck D to the Roots has acknowledged Scott-Heron’s importance in the development of rap (not to mention the development of radical black consciousness), I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new compilation of his work in Starbucks; but he’s still dangerous. Not just because he dares to use the word revolution (and back in 1971 it was infinitesimally closer to an actual threat), but because all of black music, past and future, finds a locus in him — even in this song. Backwards through funk, soul, jazz and the blues, forward to — well, most of us have lived through the next steps. He was right that the revolution would not be televised; what he didn’t mention was that soon, very soon, everything would be televised. And there wouldn’t be any room left for revolution.

083. James Luther Dickinson “Wine”
(The Nightcaps)
Dixie Fried, 1972

Novelist and critic Nick Tosches has been calling this record one of the great American musics for the past thirty-some years, but it remains a wild, uncivilized secret, one shared by a devoted few with surreptitious nods and suddenly-jerked heads whenever we hear anything that sounds remotely similar. It reaches back into the primordial dawn of American music, long before that boy Edison and his gramophonomatichord started pumping blood into Billboard’s veins, before there was much of a distinction between country and blues or anything else, when everything in American culture that was not sanctioned by stiff-collared European precedent was raw and violent and rock & roll. This is a deviant take on the country-blues rhythm number “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” originally cut by Stick McGhee in 1946, set afire with a daemonic flame by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1957, and completely overhauled and given a new chassis by Dallas garage band the Nightcaps in 1962. Legendary Memphis producer and session man Dickinson loads the song up with hard-rock signifiers, but also refuses to take the easy way out, remaining true to the song’s country-blues roots: the result is a huge unsanctified noise, with several guitars, pianos, drum kits, basses, gospel backup singers, and what I swear to God sounds like panes of glass being shattered piling on top of each other fighting for space under Dickinson’s throaty roar. If you close your eyes and turn it up as far as you dare, it’s damn close to rock & roll nirvana.

082. Tim Buckley “Starsailor”
(John Balkin/Larry Beckett/Tim Buckley)
Starsailor, 1970

And then there’s the Kid A outtake. Well, at least it doesn’t sound like much else released in the pop market in the past thirty years. Actually, this is a serious compositional piece; Buckley wanted to push the frontiers of pop to keep up with experimental tape-loopers like Karl Penderecki and György Ligeti, and this is a brief snatch of free verse in — well, here, the “composer’s notes” that every lyric-bot website reproduces will explain:

Harmonic structure: a set of horizontal vocal lines is improvised in at least three ranges, the vertical effect of which is atonal tone clusters and arhythmic counterpoint. Performance: the written melody is to be sung, after which the lines of lyric are to be reordered at will and sung to improvised melody, taking advantage of the opportunity for quartertones, third note lengths, and flexible tempo.
So yeah. I’m too clod-ignorant to know what any of that actually means, but I do know that it sounds fucking cool. Apparently, after the release of this album, the record company told him to make his music more accessible or he wouldn’t be allowed to record any more; within five years, he was dead.

081. Bruce Springsteen “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
(Bruce Springsteen)
The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, 1974

You know the famous line about Springsteen’s Born to Run sound being that of a ’57 Chevy running on melted-down Crystals 45s? This is where that started. Actually, it’s all of early-60s rock & roll: the Beach Boys, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, King Curtis, Dion & the Belmonts, Duane Eddy, the Coasters, “Spanish Harlem,” and the entire Phil Spector universe, painstakingly disassembled and then reconfigured, with stunning postapocalyptic vision, into a post-Dylan barroom soul-rock epic that signals not only the advent of a new voice in rock & roll, but that the way forward in rock was not to leave behind the goofy teenager-in-love drama of pre-Invasion American pop, but to embrace it, with all the goofiness and splendor that it entails. Although he became deeper, more soulful, more artistic, and even, eventually, more hip, he never again sounded like he was having quite so much fun — when he shouts “the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!” you can hear the honest delight in his voice, because they really just had — in making rock & roll. It’s the most adrenal, pop, delirious, charismatic multi-suite song in age of tedious, wanky, sensitive, and pompous multi-suite songs, one huge crescendo after another, until finally the whole band is just chanting orgasmically. This does make three songs in a row, however, where the final sound is feedback draining from the amps. Make a note of that, someone.

Next: 080-075. >>

The 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s, Part III.

090. Led Zeppelin “When the Levee Breaks”
(Kansas Joe McCoy/Memphis Minnie)
Untitled, 1971

This is why Zeppelin matters. Their widescreen, Technicolor version of the blues in Surround Sound™ is one of the greatest achivements of rock & roll. Forget their development of the grammar of heavy metal, their stadium excess, their noodly hobbit crap, and the lowbrow “Zep rulz 4eva” culture that’s deified them at the expense of subtlety, intelligence and reason. The reason Bonham’s opening blows (“beats” doesn’t do them justice) have been so frequently sampled is that despite their lunkheaded reputation, Led Zeppelin is secretly funky underneath all that wail and roar. Seriously; I can’t listen to this song at work anymore, because I’ll look like an idiot bopping Cypress Hill-style to my headphones. It’s a truism that when white people try to play black, they usually pump up the volume, even though black music is generally notable for how much it holds back, how devious rather than blunt it is. (That’s what slavery and an underground-by-necessity culture will do.) With this song, Zeppelin lives up to the trusim and takes it the further step of making volume fundamentally necessary, a part of the artistic world of the song rather than just a racial signifier. This is Wagner to Memphis Minnie’s biergärtenlieder, a reconfiguring of everything we know to fit a new, more dangerous world. When the people refuse to listen to the dire prophecies contained in those crackly old 78s, maybe primal force will get their attention.

089. Chicago “Saturday in the Park”
(Robert Lamm)
Chicago V, 1972

Those opening reverbed piano notes are all I need. The rest of the song could just not exist, and I wouldn’t care, as long as that “dun-da-dun-na, dun-da-dun-na” was around for me to hear every once in a while. Okay, I guess the chicken-scratch guitar on the downbeat is pretty good to. And that first trombone note is wonderful. All right, fine, the rest of the song kicks ass. But it’s all about those piano notes. Chicago started out as a great band, a Miles Davis-influenced jazz-rock combo with side-long suites and funky prog-jazz hits like “25 or 6 to 4.” Then they recorded this song (although the rest of that album remained fiercely progressive), and they began their long slow slide into the maggot-infested easy-listening zombies that they became in the 80s. This song retains their old muscle, however, and is a breezy, truly delightful portrait of the kind of day that is usually shown in romantic comedies in montage form — frequently with this song playing over it. It’s almost the last echo of 60s optimism before the grim reality of the 70s set in, and although I could do without Lamm’s white-dude-singing-soul vocals (you can just tell he thinks he’s really cool just because he’s in a band and so gets laid a lot, even though he’s a dweeb), they end up being charming in some mysterious naïve-hippy fashion. Oh, and singing in Italian — always cool.

088. Nicky Hopkins “Speed On”
(Nicky Hopkins/Jerry Williams, Jr.)
The Tin Man Was a Dreamer, 1973

The ultimate session man (just about every decent rock & roll outfit between 1965 and 1980 had him lend a hand on the ivories now and again), Nicky Hopkins is also one of my favorite solo artists. Yes, he only recorded two LPs in the 70s, and only one of them wandered onto CD, but if he’d wanted to tour and do the usual pop-star thing, he could have been a less-smarmy Elton John or a less-pompous Billy Joel. But he was too shy, and too sickly, and preferred to just hang out with rock legends than be one. This song chronicles a bit of the tribulations of being a session man (another song on the album is called, even more directly, “ Waiting for the Band”), with him suffering an anxiety attack in the back seat of a cab because he’s late to the studio. It’s a fine, hard-driving song of the kind that would go extinct very soon, when velocity would become inextricably linked to volume. But here, George Harrison lends a hand on a perfect slide solo, there’s a drums-and-bongos breakdown, and Nicky screams and shrieks the lyrics into the mike like John Lennon at his most unhinged. The horn section that the Stones used on Exile makes a reappearance here (one of the perks of being a great session player is that you get to use other great session players on your solo work), and ultimately you’re left with the impression that the song is mostly about how amphetamines are a necessary part of the survival kit of a rock & roll musician.

087. Kate Bush “Wuthering Heights”
(Kate Bush)
single, 1978

I’m not gonna front: I prefer her 1986 re-recording of the song, in which she sounds marginally less like a Chipmunk singing to Dave Seville, but the fact remains that this is the definitive version, the song that brought her international fame at the age of 19, and which is still an amazing recording, twenty-eight years later. It’s based on the Emily Brönte novel, of course, and she sings from the point of view of rich young brat Katherine to her dark, murderous lover Heathcliff — though I’ve gotta wonder how many people think it’s about a cartoon cat — and she nails both the false high drama and florid emotion of the novel in her melody and arrangement. I read an article once that said that Kate Bush is like the weird, multi-necklaced art teacher we all had in high school who some people hated and others followed devotedly. That’s not a bad comparison, although she is of course a greater artist by a factor of thousands than anyone who’s still teaching high school — and she certainly projects enough of an eccentric-feminist vibe to creep out the jocks and inspire the sentimental goth chicks. Which isn’t really present in this song; Ian Bairnson’s Gilmourish solo provides enough muscle for the meatheads who can’t clue in to the fire behind her icy soprano and the joyous passion behind those marvelous piano runs. I do miss those cries on the fadeout, though.

086. The Pointer Sisters “Yes We Can Can”
(Allen Toussaint)
The Pointer Sisters, 1973

A decade before they became frizzy-haired dance-pop icons with “I’m So Excited,” the Pointer Sisters (Ruth, Anita, Bonnie and June) released two of the most wonderful albums of the 1970s, or, really, ever. The Pointer Sisters and That’s A-Plenty (1974) are an amazing showcase of a quartet that can do just about anything — and does. Veering from hard bop to Kansas City swing to psychedelic soul to bluesy funk to mile-a-minute vocalese to Tin Pan Alley to Broadway gospel to straight-up country — often, as the saying goes, within the space of a single song — they offer a too-brief lesson in the history of twentieth-century American music, and make a staggering case for the tragic underappreciatedness of the female vocal group along the way. The “sister act” is as old as vaudeville, but they transformed it into a new and compelling trans-genre form. Seriously, check them out. You’ll thank me later. This song, though, is more straightfoward. Allen Toussaint wrote it for Lee Dorsey in 1970, but these girls drive it home with a Sly & the Family Stone-derived groove, a San Franciscan stomp on a New Orleans shuffle, upping the feverish gospel quotient (Bonnie even proto-raps towards the end) and entering a kind of trance with their cut-glass harmonies on the infinitely-repeated chorus: a lesson that house music would later take to heart when it learned the value of synthesized loops and gospel samples. Just remember, they did it first.

Next: 085-081. >>

Monday, November 13, 2006

The 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s, Part II.

Oh, one more prefatory remark I’d meant to make last time. I’m listing the format the songs were originally released in, not where you can find them now. You’re all adults and can figure out how to use Allmusic, Amazon, iTunes, and Soulseek. Reissues come and go, but the original release is forever.

095. Heart “Crazy on You”
(Ann Wilson/Nancy Wilson)
Dreamboat Annie, 1976

I’ve heard this song called a Zeppelin rip-off (supposedly the line “let me go crazy, crazy on you” is derivative of “it’s been a lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.” Uh, okay, whatever), and more generally, Heart is dismissed by classic-rock chauvinists as a second-rate band with too many pop hooks and not enough instrumental wankage. Oh, and they probably have cooties. But if they’d only ever recorded the first two or three albums, they’d be considered legends by more people than their record company’s accountants — seriously, this is good freaking stuff. It helps, maybe, if you think of them as great 70s pop like Harry Nilsson and Fleetwood Mac, instead of as major album-rock artists going head to head with, I dunno, Rush or something. But they’re not just pop, either (although those hooks are killer, and a handful of their songs have achieved boomer-radio immortality); instrumentally, Nancy Wilson is as great a radio-friendly guitarist as there was in the 70s — as the classical-acoustic prelude to the song seems bound and determined to prove — and the dudes hold their own, especially the drummer. Ann, of course, has a great set of pipes, and if she doesn’t have the hair-raising immediacy of the best rock singers, she still manages to convince on both the Galadrielesque cod-mysticism of the verses and the snarling hunger of the choruses. Though there is one thing we can all agree on: they sucked in the 80s.

094. Lou Reed “Perfect Day”
(Lou Reed)
Transformer, 1972

This is how the indie-snob mindset works, for those who are curious: Lou Reed gets a free pass to write a sappy love song with big Broadway key changes and lyrics stolen fron Motown, because 1) he doesn’t sing on key all the way through, 2) he mentions (and mispronounces) sangria in the first few lines, and 3) he wrote “Heroin” and “Sister Ray.” Once you’ve made ears bleed, you’re allowed to do pop fluff, especially if it doesn’t sound quite like any other pop fluff out there. I like the song because it seems like such a direct contradiction of his hipster-asshole persona. And because of the aforementioned big Broadway key changes, which could be right out of a Sondheim show but with less witty and intelligent lyrics. Bowie’s production emphasizes the theatrical pomposity of it, undercut by Reed’s low-rent everyman voice. It’s not punk, and it’s only vaguely related to glam because Bowie and Ferry emphasize the theatrics in their music, and it’s only deeply personal in the way that the best pop music is, by being so universal that it applies perfectly to everyone’s life, so in that sense it’s not a typical Lou Reed song at all. But it’s not only the best song on Transformer (like most random hits, “Walk on the Wild Side” has dated badly), but it’s great, great pop music, and that’s why we’re here, after all.

093. Ronnie Spector “Try Some, Buy Some”
(George Harrison)
single, 1971

When David Bowie included a cover of this song on his 2003 album Reality, music reviewers fell all over themselves talking about how it was a tribute to the recently-dead George Harrison, thereby proving that they could read songwriting credits. Maybe one in every hundred knew about the original. George wrote and co-produced (with Phil Spector) this song for Ronnie as one of the fledgling singles on the Apple label, and the song bears the distinction of being the last time all four Beatles played on the same track until “Free As a Bird” (though they were never all in the studio at the same time). Which is nice trivia to have — and it certainly shows the esteem the then-Mrs. Spector was held in by the Fab Four — but the Bowie cover touches on something deeper: Ronnie, along with Dusty Springfield, was one of the patterning female icons of glam (see “Bennie and the Jets” for a direct tribute), and subsequently of gay culture. Her reading of the mysterious-as-usual lyric — is it about prostitution? spiritual awakening? yet another ode to Patti Boyd? — is full of the fragile dignity that camp icons from Bette to Judy to Barbra to Liza to Debra Messing incorporate. It’s taken at a stately pace, and the orchestral swoop and roar is a grand thing to behold; it failed as a single, naturally, and isn’t available on CD (although the 45 has recently been reissued). That’s nothing new; she’s made dozens of comebacks since, none of them successful commercially, but she remains one of the shining lights of twentieth-century music.

092. Sparks “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us”
(Ron Mael)
Kimono My House, 1974

Might as well get this out of the way now: there is no Queen on this list. That’s because this song exists, and Queen is rendered unnecessary thereby. Okay, hyperbole; and of course I still bang my head to the last movement of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But Russell Mael’s operatic falsetto completely destroys Freddie Mercury’s, and in this short glam-pop-metal-novelty song, they manage to hit every one of Queen’s marks: glorious riffage, classical melody played at a brisk rock & roll clip, wild Hollywoodesque imagery — everything except the massed choirs of Mercuries. Enough with the Queen-fan-baiting, though. Sparks were — are — a couple of brothers, Ron on keyboards and Russ on vocals. Back in the 70s, though, they had a full band, and this massive song takes full advantage of the fact, with cascading drums, winding guitars, and a muscular bassline that almost tricks you into thinking this pair of jokers is a serious stadium act. They could have been, if that was the kind of thing they were interested in; but they belong to the grand American tradition of restless eccentrics, and preferred to maintain their goofy, complex, rapid-fire sound rather than chase the crock of gold at the end of the pop-chart rainbow. Until new wave and synth-pop caught up with them in the 80s, that is; but that’s a story for another day.

091. The Wild Tchoupitoulas “Hey Pocky A-Way”
(Ziggy Modeliste/Art Neville/Leo Nocentelli/George Porter, Jr.)
The Wild Tchoupitoulas, 1976

As you might be able to tell from the songwriting credit, originally this was a Meters song. And it’s a great Meters song, one of the cold classics of New Orleans funk. This is not as muscular, or as funky — at least, and this is where language kind of lets you down, it’s not funky with the same overcharged stomp. It’s swampier, sultrier, slowed-down a trifle, with more tribal voudou and less R&B strut. The Wild Tchoupitoulas were — are, dammit — a Creole group whose main purpose is to celebrate Mardi Gras, a highly traditional collective, dressed in full faux-Indian regalia, that still uses music for its original purpose: to celebrate the here and now, a specific time and place for the people that can hear them from where they dance. With that mandate, it’s not surprising that they only made the one record (the surprise is that they made it at all), but it’s a slow-burn voodoo funk treasure — and the first time all the Neville brothers appeared on the same record at the same time. You can hear Aaron’s unmistakable voice, of course, but he also plays piano while Red and Art are on keyboards and Charles and Cyril on percussion. The rest of the Meters help out here and there, while the Tchoupitoulas themselves, led by Big Chief George Landry, sing and harmonize. This is the heart of New Orleans folk-jive.

Next: 090-085. >>

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s, Part I.

Despite clemency requests through official channels, emotional pleadings for mercy, and cries from all quarters of “Oh, dear God, make it stop,” I hereby present my 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s. A couple prefatory remarks, and then we’ll get down on it:

First, because I don’t feel any pressure to compete with a Pitchfork (may-they-reign-forever) feature, this will be a much less, shall we say, adventurous list than my 1960s one. Also, since they didn’t take all the good songs first on this go-round, it will be a more obvious one. As such, it only contains songs that I personally love the hell out of, whatever their artistic merit or setting-the-stage-for-modern-indie-rock cred.

On a similar tip, “greatest” is of course a totally subjective adjective. These are my greatest songs. Don’t like them? Go make your own damn list.

Structurally, I only included one song per artist. This is because some artists, like say David Bowie, could have a top-hundred-songs-of-the-70s all to themselves. So if you come across a song you think totally sucks and shouldn’t even be near these rarified precincts, just substitute a David Bowie, Rolling Stones, or Clash song. They would almost certainly have taken the spot if allowed. Oh, and the order this time is very precisely calibrated. Position is a value judgment. If your favorite band is low on the list, ha ha they suck. (Well, no. Then they’d be off the list. But still.) And I’m only doing five at a time this time, apparently because I want to drag it out agonizingly. My write-ups are slightly longer, though, if that’s any consolation.

Finally, a word abouy my blind spots. While I dearly love to project an all-world-knowledge-at-my-fingertips image, there are vast tracts of the music world I remain largely unfamiliar with. Heavy metal, reggae, country, jazz, krautrock, and anything from outside the English-speaking world are mostly given token nods here. This is very much a rock & roll list. So be it.

Now, let’s all enjoy a good laugh at the first thing on the list, shall we?

100. Bachman-Turner Overdrive “Takin’ Care of Business”
(Randy Bachman)
Bachman-Turner Overdrive II, 1973

Yeah, what? It’s — well, it’s fun. It comes on the radio, and even though you know it’s dumb, cheesy, overblown corporate rock, you turn it up a little bit, and bounce in your seat, and maybe keep time on the steering wheel. It was still early enough in the decade that the production hadn’t glossed the energy out of it, and that wet drum-shuffle sound just gallops along. Mostly, though, I’d have to say it’s the piano. After about 1975, you never hear good old-fashioned honky-tonk piano in a rock & roll song unless the band is being comically retro, or Billy Joel. Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were better at their pianos (and scarier) than Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore at their guitars, but because John Lennon played rhythm guitar instead of piano, rock has gradually left the poor old Steinway behind. Keyboardists today want to be Brian Eno and apply “texture,” leaving energy to the rhythm section. Even though the piano — check your fourth-grade music-class orchestra diagrams — is a rhythm instrument. But back to BTO. The song’s about joining the hedonistic life of the rock star, dropping out of the annoying real jobs and picking up a second-hand guitar. Actually, Randy, chances are you’ll end up having to go straight back to the suit and tie, but way to encourage the competition. It can’t be a coincidence that the most unrealistic image of the rock & roll life is also the most giddy fun.

099. Patti Smith “Dancing Barefoot”
(Ivan Kral/Patti Smith)
Wave, 1979

All right, finally, some credibility to the list! (And with that, I’m done addressing the cred/lack of cred in these choices. Up yours, indie snob that lives in the back of my head!) Patti Smith occupies a strange place in the rock & roll pantheon: lyrics pretentious enough for any prog-rocker, but her mystic voodoo jive is in the service of stripped-down chords, chunky riffs and the leaden New York art-punk beat. She self-consciously cultivated a marble-cool shaman-poet persona, half Witch of Endor and half James Dean, and helped to define punk as a writer before issuing one of the first classic LPs of the stuff. Punk only in the garage-band sense, though, without the speed-fueled adrenaline of the MC5 or the aggressive sheets of noise of the Stooges, and more soggily literary than either. She could both chant side-long earth-mother melanges and ride the charts with a Springsteen song, but this captures her at her leanest and best: the lyrics are still a big gooey quasi-religious feminist mess, but it’s true rather than provocative, and the music is as straight-up rock & roll as she ever managed to get. Her half-sobbing voice on the chorus brings to mind religious ecstasy as well as the more earthly kind, and the free-verse recital at the end neither overstays its welcome nor makes people who know real poetry wince. And that might be her highest achievement in rock.

098. The Who “Baba O’Riley”

(Pete Townshend)
Who’s Next, 1971

First, this was so not the first real use of synthesizers as a defining element in rock music. Silver Apples, the United States of America, and the Nice can walk away with those prizes. And the backstory about how Pete came up with the synth line — he punched his guru Baba Yaga’s vital stats into a sequencer — is vaguely interesting for gearheads, but it’s got nothing to do with the song. Which is one of the most lovely surprises of classic rock radio. The Who were the epitome of Youth in the 60s. Not just the “hope I die before I get old” chestnut, but the sheer exuberance of their 60s singles, the awkward callowness of Tommy, the adolescent humor of “A Quick One While He’s Away,” and the common youthful confusion between black American music and increased volume. But with Who’s Next, they matured. Slightly. “Baba O’Riley” is notable for being just about the first externally-focused song (that wasn’t funny) that Pete ever wrote, as the lyrics take on the perspective of an older, working-class couple that is bewildered and not very pleased by the wide-sweeping youth-cultural change of the 60s. The other half of the coin, of course, is the last track on the album, but this one actually does a better job of showcasing the Who’s bombastic new sound, a continual rise to peak after peak, with guests Nicky Hopkins and Dave Arbus adding a more civilized European sheen — though without compromising the pummeling force — to the overwhelming hard rock of the greatest power trio (plus Roger Daltrey) of all time.

097. The Allman Brothers Band “Melissa”
(Steve Alaimo/Gregg Allman)
Eat a Peach, 1972

It’s Duane’s last song. Not actually his literal last song — that’s still only on vinyl, dammit. (Good, though. “Dearest I Wonder” on Bobby Whitlock’s Raw Velvet, 1972. Seek it out.) But his fingerprints are all over it; he helped Gregg shape it way back in 1967, and it’s the finest ballad by the band that bears his name, the band he and his brother led to transform American rock & roll from something reactive, wanting to be the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, to something active, something that dug deep into its own native soil, into the deep country, blues, soul, and jazz roots of the American South and transformed them into a new and blistering kind of hard rock. Of course, “Melissa” isn’t hard rock at all; it’s an elegant hobo ballad, half country-rock and half country-soul, with blues changes like Arthur Alexander used to work, and Dickie Betts slips and slides all around it, making a kind of halo out of his guitar lines, flirting with transcendence. He was never the prodigal genius that Duane was, but here he almost reaches for those heights, in a song that is both a magnificently simple elegy for the dead bandmember and a universal cry of loneliness, regret and heartache. “Crossroads, will you ever let him go” is one of the great opening lines in, hell, in all of literature, as far as I’m concerned, nailing so perfectly a certain remorseful desperation that everyone knows, and which the stereotypical Allman Brothers fan stereotypically drinks to forget. There’s a tear in this beer.

096. Human League “Being Boiled”
(Ian Craig Marsh/Philip Oakey)
single, 1978

David Bowie famously called this song the sound of the future, and it’s always startling how prescient he could be. It’s the first English pop song to be produced entirely with synthesizer and voice, predicting three generations of synth-pop, techno and (god) IDM. Of course, “pop” is a relative term; it didn’t do much to the charts, and its vaguely Nietzschean lyrics about boiling children alive and listening to the voice of Buddha, intoned in an icy monotone by a Kraftwerk-biting Philip Oakey, weren’t exactly calibrated to win over the hearts and minds of the average Bay City Rollers fan. It’s deeply post-punk, even though the synthesized throbs and loops are warmer and more inviting than the usual jagged guitar shards; but if this evokes the kind of futuristic urban nightlife usually conjured up by early synthpop, it’s one in which every shadow hides a skulking psychopath and the city lights are just as likely to blind you to your death as to give a sense of sophisticated cool. They’d go on to conquer charts and the hearts of easily-swayed pop kids in the MTV era, but before they acquired the female singers and the dance beats, two computer programmers, a hospital porter, and a visual designer sat in a dark, squalid room and punched keys on a second-hand machine to create the glistening future of pop music.

Next: 095-091. >>

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Housekeeping (And Staying Alive).

So I’ve been doing some thinking while resting up after the last project, and I’ve decided to change a couple things about this blog.

First, I’m not going to be posting public-domain short stories on this blog anymore. They interrupt what the blog is about, which is me, and what I think about stuff. Which doesn’t mean I’ve given up on them; I’m looking into establishing actual webspace for that. (And not Project Gutenberg, either; presentation is just as important as availability.)

Second, after reading an essay in the New York Times Book Review last week, I’ve decided to use more Google-friendly titles for my posts, especially for large projects like the Sixties Song one. (And there will be more. I’ve already started vaguely sketching out an 80s list; and even more vaguely, a 90s one.) So less preciousness in titles and more “this is what I’m talking about” directness; big whoop.

Finally, the blog address may move. If and when it does, rest assured I’ll let you know; and don’t worry, I’ll import all the previous content over. I’m far too in love with my own writing not to do that.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Beat Has Ended. Go in Peace.

(This is an end. Click here to start from the beginning.)

Only a few loose ends to clear up.

First, despite protests, I’ve been contemplating doing the 1970s next. It would only be 100 songs and it would be less determinedly eclectic (because I’m a lazy bastard), but I’ve pretty much nailed the list down. Yea? Nay?

Second, I’ve been listening to the list, and I feel like I need to run some disclaimers on things I got factually wrong, or which I don’t quite feel the same way about anymore, or just things I forgot to mention. But never mind. The music’s more important than anything I can say about it.

And finally, what was left off. I intentionally left off a baker’s dozen of very good songs that you’d expect to find on a list like this, mostly because they’re too familiar and have nothing left to say to me anymore. Here’s that list:

13. Van Morrison “Brown Eyed Girl”
12. The Byrds “Mr. Tambourine Man”
11. The Temptations “My Girl”
10. The Animals “The House of the Rising Sun”
9. Bob Dylan “The Times They Are A-Changin’”
8. The Beatles “In My Life”
7. The Rolling Stones “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”
6. Cream “Sunshine of Your Love”
5. The Byrds “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
4. The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Purple Haze”
3. Bob Dylan “Blowin’ in the Wind”
2. The Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
1. The Beatles “Yesterday”

Anything else that would seem to be obvious was probably left off because I hate it.

Of course there were another two hundred songs I could easily have included; but I’ll leave it to some other sucker to try to build that list, especially now that Pitchfork and I have already called dibs on all the cool songs.

Okay? Okay.