Friday, December 29, 2006

The 100 Greatest Songs of the 1970s, Epilogue.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way first.

I Can’t Believe I Didn’t Include Them, Either:

Frank Zappa
John Lennon
Joni Mitchell
The Modern Lovers
The New York Dolls
Isaac Hayes
Syd Barrett
Elton John
Brian Eno
Miles Davis
Willie Nelson
Marianne Faithfull
Harry Nilsson
Richard & Linda Thompson
Emmylou Harris
Lee “Scratch” Perry (all non-Marley reggae, in fact)
Leonard Cohen
The Stooges
The Jackson Five
Leon Redbone
Fela Kuti
George Jones
Ian Dury
Père Ubu
Loretta Lynn
Steve Reich

Beyond that?

Huzzah! I’m done!

And I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t already sketched out drafts for a 90s list, an 80s list, a 50s list, and a 20s list, but there’s another music-writing project I want to get to in the meantime, and
both I and my boss think I need to get more sleep.

Enjoy the new year, everyone, until something happens which makes it just another year.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

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

005. Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”
(Captain Beefheart)
Clear Spot, 1972

I’ve been told that there aren’t enough acts with underground or music-snob credibility on the list (not in so many words, but that’s the subtext); those people will probably not be mollified by my choice of the good Captain’s least-weird song, regardless of numerical placement. But the hell with them. This is one of the most moving, beautiful little songs ever recorded, a freak-soul ballad with gently odd rhythms and voicings, a straight-faced love song with surreal imagery that could be called Dylanesque (from around say 1964) if it weren’t so obviously its own thing owing nothing to no man. (Latter-day Tom Waits, though, can be extrapolated from his bruised caterwaul). And it contains just about the most beautiful use of marimbas in a Western pop context that I’ve ever heard. The uncompromisingly weird Trout Mask Replica is usually considered Van Vliet’s artistic apex, for much the same reason that some people tout the White Album as the Beatles’ best (more Beefheart is better Beefheart), but four years later he was lurching unsteadily towards the mainstream: Clear Spot also contains barely-twisted takes on hard rock, Stax-style soul, and funk (the title track is an alternate-universe Funkadelic track), and is one of his most purely enjoyable albums as a result. Not that any of them are unenjoyable, especially if you love that good old avant-r&b skronk.

004. Bob Dylan “Tangled Up in Blue”
(Bob Dylan)
Blood on the Tracks, 1975

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that every remotely complimentary comment about a Bob Dylan album over the past thirty years has used the words “. . . since Blood on the Tracks.” While a lot of that can be chalked up to boomer self-regard (if they loved it — and the record sales prove they did — it must be great), it’s also, wearily, true: this is the return-to-glory artistic validation that makes for a great last five minutes of Behind the Music. (Pity the story doesn’t end there, but we can’t all be summed up in an hour with commercials.) And the centerpiece, radio representative, and all-devouring juggernaut from the album, the song that announced that Dylan was back and kicking the aesthetic ass of every folkie-wannabe with a guitar and some half-baked poetic conceits (Don McLean, your fifteen minutes are up). It can even be difficult for me to listen properly to the song, it’s so familiar by now — but the extra concentration required is always worth it. The out-of-focus, time-shifting love story it chronicles isn’t much in straight dramatic terms, but as a sly, unhurried evocation of romantic relationships, historical meaning, and memetic associations (apparently it’s based on a Chekhov short story, unless that’s another of Dylan’s shrewd track-covering moves), it’s unparalleled, even providing cheese-rock standbys Hootie & the Blowfish with unearned style points when they quoted it in “Only Wanna Be With You.” Or am I dating myself with that reference?

003. ABBA “Waterloo”
(Benny Andersson/Stig Anderson/Björn Ulvaeus)
Waterloo, 1974

Guilty pleasure, my ass. Straight-up pop never got better than ABBA, and ABBA (the capitalization is essential; it’s both a reference to a rhyming pattern and an acronym of the first names of the group) never got better than this, their first hit single and winner of the Eurovision contest in 1974. Yes, Eurovision, the place where musical mediocrity goes to die. Things were better, once upon a time. I suppose there will always be haters — and the official ABBA® brand hasn’t made things easy for pure pop lovers, with the corny, grandma-baiting Mamma Mia! musical and their pop-culture status (especially in America) as a code-for-gay punchline — but just close your eyes and listen to the goddamn music, and the rest of it doesn’t matter. The song is all rise, baby, a thunderstorm of gorgeous sounds, from the power-chorded acoustic guitars and sparkling piano descents to the tight harmonies of Frida and Agnetha, warmly inviting (in a way that only 70s pop ever is) but still retaining the faintest frisson of a Swedish accent. Benny and Björn were master studio craftsmen by this point, loopy geniuses that didn’t know how to read music and just slapped down what sounded good. Which is why the song’s roiling combination of Beethoven chords, chugging jump-blues rhythms, and naïvely clever lyrical conceits is one of the purest expressions of unadulterated pop ever conceived, planned or executed. Ever.

002. The Buzzcocks “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone) (You Shouldn’t’ve)?”
(Pete Shelley)
single, 1978

And now for something completely — well, the same, sort of. The Buzzcocks were the greatest pop band to come out of the punk revolution. Famously formed in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ Manchester concert (which they had largely enabled), they put out one arty, distorted EP (which laid the foundations for British postpunk even as punk proper was barnstorming the nation), and then discovered Pete Shelley’s minimalist pop-music genius, without ratcheting down the punk. This is their most elegantly noisy jangle, a furious burst of wounded romanticism and elegantly violent heartbreak. Shelley’s adenoidal yelp paces the slightly soggy, high-school notebook-paper lyrics brilliantly (e. g. “You make me feel like dir-hir-hirt/And I’m hurt”), and the taut rhythmic patterning of the middle eight (I don’t think it can quite be called a solo) proved enormously influential; even bloody blink-182 did pretty much the same thing on “All the Small Things” — which is why I retain some lingering affection for the mall-punk hit. The velocity of the song is such that Steve Diggle’s Telecastered needly grace-notes barely register, but choirs of angels could scarcely improve on them; and of course the finest rhythm section in punk rock, with their Krautrock discipline and unerring sense of timing, makes the song, as it always did. The Buzzcocks barely made it to 1980 as a coherent group, but there’s never been a more blinding flash in any pan.

001. The Faces “Stay With Me”
(Rod Stewart/Ron Wood)
A Nod Is As Good As a Wink . . . To a Blind Horse, 1971

Taking the long view, the Seventies’ relationship to rock music is the same as the Thirties’ relationship to jazz: it’s the default music of the popular culture, and even when bastardized or watered-down it retains an unimpeachable vitality. Rock bands in the 70s are remembered for their excess in every particular: consumption of illegal (or just plain dangerous) substances, rampant egomania, sexual extravagance, and talent for uninhibited, unstoppable partying. No band was better suited to see the legend and raise it another dozen ounces of blow than the Faces; and no band could match the Faces for sheer working-class dirty-ass rock & roll mojo. This song, their one American hit and the moment of transcendence that every great band needs, is a cheeky satire of rockstar/groupie relationships in the lyrics, but nothing more than scuzzy sex with a backbeat in the music. There are no straight lines or clean surfaces in the song (or really in the Faces catalogue): Rod’s whiskey wail, Ron’s rusty-wire slide guitar, and even Ian’s fuzzed-out electric piano are practially a dissertation on distortion in the service of funk. And it is funk, greasy, grinding, sloppy funk: Ronnie’s melodic bass and Kenny’s battered drums, careening drunkenly though always in the pocket, ensure that. They were Stones- or Zeppelin-level rock stars, but they were also the lads from down the pub — they toured with an open bar on stage — and they knew the whole of rock music, from its roots in country, blues, and gospel to its latest permutations in metal, funk, and proto-punk, in their bones. But forget it all when Kenny strikes the snare and the band shifts into double-time for the outro: crescendo after manic crescendo (I told you it was sex) as each band member gets a sly, two-second solo, and Rod whoops ecstatically from the other side of the room. It’s grimy stadium rock, where the gutterpunks stop in for a pint with the cocaine astronauts, and rock & roll never dies.

Next: Epilogue, and Complaints. >>

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

010. Joy Division “Transmission”
(Joy Division)
single, 1979

This, if we must choose one, is as good as any other for the place where rock & roll died. (Long live rock & roll.) Joy Division is mostly remembered today for Ian Curtis’s suicide, the subsequent formation of New Order, and sounding more or less exactly like Interpol. But, of course, there was much more. Joy Division was the greatest-ever postpunk band, if postpunk can be thought of as a genre instead of a time period. Resolutely bleak in both tone and outlook, their sound was both chilling and agonizingly human (compare to, say, Nico’s 70s output, which sounds like ice and granite given voice). Peter Hook’s throbbing bass, Bernard Sumner’s doomy, atmospheric guitar and Stephen Morris’s fragmented, martial drum lines supported Curtis’s wavering baritone as he painted grim, despairing psychescapes with his lyrics — while they were undoubtedly a rock band, nothing of rock & roll’s original swerve and joie de vivre was left in their music; they were rigorously somber, expressionless, and austere. If rock & roll is basically about sex, then Joy Division was basically about death. And then, just to push the contradiction as far as it can go, this song contains the explosive chant “dance dance dance dance dance to the radio,” while a piano stutters and breaks down behind them. If you try, you can hear the vague beginnings of the morose dance-pop that acts like Depeche Mode and New Order (gee) would blanket the 80s with, but I prefer to think of it as the Beach Boys’ “Dance, Dance Dance” from the other side of the grave.

009. Blondie “Heart of Glass”
(Debbie Harry/Chris Stein)
single, 1978

Perhaps it’s ironic that the highest-ranking disco song on this list began as a goof by New York’s premier hipster-pop band and CBGB’s mainstay; but then Blondie set very high standards for themselves regardless of genre, and what was originally mockingly titled The Disco Song managed to capture and maintain the coked-out decadence of the Studio 51 era. In a decade of pop starlets who were famous as much for their hot looks as for their variable singing (Linda Ronstadt, Olivia Newton-John, Carly Simon), Debbie Harry was an oddity: not only the most beautiful woman in music, but a fiercely intelligent, considered vocalist who made up for her rather thin pipes with an expressionistic, dynamic singing style that has filtered down to become the basic pop mannerism of today. One of the most idiosyncratic of all pop starlets, she could (and did) sing bratty punk, cheerfully sinister hard rock, sighing girl-group, and bizarre low-culture riffs of the sort that They Might Be Giants would later make their stock-in-trade, but here she channels Donna Summer and uses a the silvery top of her register to float above the quirkiest disco beat to ever go platinum; Chris Stein and Jimmy Destri create odd, slightly disturbing sounds in the far background while Clem Burke does his best Keith-Moon-scared-straight impression. And Debbie gets away with saying “pain in the ass” in a #1 hit single.

008. Randy Newman “Louisiana 1927”
(Randy Newman)
Good Old Boys, 1974

The strings play what sounds like a selection from the works of Stephen C. Foster, the first great American songwriter (1826-1864), or maybe it’s derived from the opening lines of Show Boat’s “Old Man River,” which goes “here we all work on the Mississippi. . . .” But then the piano enters, hesitantly as always with Newman, and it’s the 1970s. But he’s singing about the past, about the South, about the myths and histories of a people and a nation, as he does, honestly and sarcastically (both at once), “what has happened down here is the wind have changed.” Cut to summer 2005, to today, to a world of associations and tragedy that Newman could never have predicted but which now are indelibly part of the world of the song. Change the president’s name, change the epithet “cracker” to another one (which Newman fearlessly spent the first track on Good Old Boys dissecting), and suddenly it’s headlines, it’s Kanye West saying the president doesn’t care about black people, it’s everything we instinctively understood the aftermath of Katrina to mean even though we didn’t necessarily say it out loud, that we would rather not believe that race equals poverty and that “they’re trying to wash us away” doesn’t just mean the preventable failure of civil engineering but the haste with which we all changed the channel, Middle America just as much as FEMA. In this context, Stephen Foster and Jerome Kern, whose songs were blackface entertainment for the masses, look positively enlightened — and Randy Newman looks like the prophet Jeremiah.

007. The Clash “Complete Control”
(Mick Jones/Joe Strummer)
single, 1977

Funny thing about punk, it was never pure. Hardly an original observation, perhaps, but today the Sex Pistols just sound like hard rock with a North London sneer and the Clash were three-chords-and-the-truth for the space of what, two singles? Joe Strummer’s shout “you’re my guitar hero!” as Mick Jones solos (the horror!) was a pair of fingers to the ideological “loud-fast-simple” purists who were already threatening to bury a revolution underneath the weight of dogma and schism. Which is fitting, because the whole song is a pair of fingers to their record label (who just reissued it along with every other single in a hundred-dollar box; guess who won?), who had released “Remote Control” without consulting the band. But unlike most such pissing matches on record, it’s also a proper song — fuck that, it’s a miniature epic. Already the most American of the British punk bands, they went arena-sized with this thing, all soaring chords and galloping drums. You could even say that it laid the foundation for the kind of widescreen emoting that U2, and by extension every rock band on the charts today, would later take up. But the Clash were still pretty damn punk, Strummer’s vocals a tangle of glottals and moans, and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s rough, thick production made sure it would never be mistaken for a Boston song. Which is as it should be; punk might never be pure, but it’s not punk without the rough edges.

006. John Cale “Paris 1919”
(John Cale)
Paris 1919, 1973

Rigorously trained in modern composition and theory, Cale was one of the rising young stars of minimalism in the early 60s until he was sidetracked by the cacophonous rock & roll of the Velvet Underground (you’ll notice that there was a sharp decline in unlistenable squalling epics after he left the band). He went on to produce Nico, the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, and Patti Smith, becoming one of the primary figures of underground rock. Meanwhile, he continued to dabble with experimental compositions with Terry Riley. And then he put out this album, without which huge swaths of (for example) the Divine Comedy, Belle & Sebastian, and the Decemberists would not exist. It’s literate indie-pop at its finest, and I do mean literate; listening to it is like half-overhearing a conversation between Henry James, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, and Dylan Thomas at an exclusive West End dinner party with a very good chamber orchestra sawing away in the background. But a chamber orchestra also versed in pop, like a grown-up version of the Zombies or the Left Banke. Cale’s reedy Welsh-accented tenor is perfectly suited to the cagey, understated ghost story of the title song (which only gets the nod above all the others because it was the one I heard first), which makes me think, perhaps inevitably, of The Turn of the Screw, but also of George Bernard Shaw, Gilbert & Sullivan, and even Mary Poppins. Cale, of course, never did anything remotely similar again.

Next: 005-001. >>

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

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

015. Roxy Music “Remake/Remodel”
(Bryan Ferry)
Roxy Music, 1972

I don’t mean to imply that they never did any better than the first track on their first album; “Virginia Plain” and “Love Is the Drug” are all-conquering behemoths, and even their 80s Eurocool hits are worth paying attention to. But they sprang fully-fledged from the brow of Jove, seemingly; no awkward missteps or influence-beholdening are on view here, on this intoxicating rush of a song that makes every needful case for Roxy Music’s staggering importance. Not just as sonic innovators, either — you’d hardly expect less with Brian Eno at the boards — but in applying the lessons of the most advanced experiemental music of the time to some of the most glorious pop music of the time. Though they’re often called an art-rock band, Roxy Music was, fundamentally and excitingly, a art-pop band, which makes all the difference in the world; pop can’t be pretentious, though rock frequently is. The sound of this song is the sound of a rock band incorporating the entire world of music into a definitive pop vision (the quotations at the end serve both as statement of intent — they will be as brilliant as the Beatles, as big as Wagner — and as a signal not to take them too seriously). The lyrics are astutely-composed nonsense (though “CPL593H” can sound revolutionary when shouted), but Ferry already sounds like the lovesick bastard offspring of Mel Tormé and Gene Vincent. And Eno’s wooshing, squalling treatments push all of popular music, politely but firmly, ahead a few decades.

014. Rod Stewart “Mandolin Wind”
(Rod Stewart/Ron Wood)
Every Picture Tells a Story, 1971

People are always asking me, “Jonathan, why do you like Rod Stewart so much? Isn’t he just another cheesy adult contemporary hack like Elton John, Sting, and Michael Bolton?” Okay, so no one’s ever asked me that (and one of these things is not like the others), but it can be difficult to explain my love for the first four albums of a man who went on to record “Da Ya Think Im Sexy?” Those first four albums, however, are masterpieces, showcases for an original brand of folk-rock that is broad enough to encompass blues, gospel, country and soul. And as a lyricist, he excelled at putting together just enough evocative, down-to-earth imagery (often highly colored by his own lower-class upbringing) to create vivid, if not particularly detailed, stories in the mind of the listener. But I love this song on such a deeply personal and potentially embarrassing level that I’m not sure I can explain why. It has something to do with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books being among the first to capture my childhood imagination, and something to do with the way the steel guitar and mandolin come in after that break, and something to do with the celestial key change in the outro; when he hollers “and I love you,” in that soulful rasp (which he hadn’t been doing long enough for it to be mannered yet), I feel like I’ve just finished watching Casablanca, or whatever the greatest romantic drama in the world might be for you.

013. The Undertones “Teenage Kicks”
(John O’Neill)
single, 1978

Probably the most enduring rock ’n’ roll myth is that of teenage rebellion. “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddya got?” is the matins, compline, and vespers of all true rock & rollers. In one telling of the story, anyway. (And let’s not forget that the line comes from a thoroughly Hollywood movie, a teensploitational flick that doesn’t even know about rock & roll; Brando’s motorbiking is set to old-fogey jazz.) But rebellion is all well and good up to a point, and then you gotta see what’s left. After every revolution, there is an retreat — for British punk, it was the Undertones, bringing the noise and the stomp not in service of the half-baked anarcho-nihilism of the Sex Pistols, or even the more fully-baked political heroism of the Clash, but in the service of all the old traditional pop values: girls and fun and hanging out with your mates. Unlike the founders of punk, they were teenagers, and were uninterested in the roiling mythological trappings with which adulthood invests youth; they were far more romantic, inarticulate, and blissful than any grownup band could be. Of course it couldn’t last; pop beauty never does. But for the space of three minutes and the most thrillingly bashed-out chords ever played by an Irishman (apologies to Van, Phil, Shane, and the Edge). Not to mention . . . if it’s good enough for John Peel, it’s good enough for me.

012. Wizzard “See My Baby Jive”
(Roy Wood)
single, 1973

Roy Wood’s 70s material often gets lumped in with glam because a) the face paint and b) no one knows what else to call it. But it’s not so much glam as rock ’n’ roll circa 1963 blown up to cosmic proportions and danced around in. With pretty much everything else you can think of thrown in. He started out doing trippy whimsical psychedelia with the Move, then hooked up with Jeff Lynne and was responsible for most of the interesting bits of the early Electric Light Orchestra, and then split to produce a handful of brilliant, confounding, bewildering, lovely, and overblown (in the best possible sense) albums (as Roy Wood) and singles (as Wizzard). He drew from WWII-era swing, 50s rock & roll, surf music, easy listening, hard rock, British Invasion pop, theatre music (especially ballet), exotica, and studiotastic psychedelia, and then made like he was Phil Spector in 1964, with miles of echo and gargantuan, overloaded sonics bursting out of the tiniest possible space. This is one of the rare songs that doesn’t sound better with headphones — it’s too big for them. Ideally, it needs to be blasting out of a really kicking PA into the space the size of a football field at 98db or so. Only then can its swinging crunch really wallop you upside the head like it needs to. The sway and lilt of the music says 1950s malt-shop jukebox, but the overpowering size of it says 1970s stadium decadence. Call all the people to the dance; gonna have some fun tonight.

011. Al Green “Let’s Stay Together”
(Al Green/Al Jackson, Jr./Willie Mitchell)
Let’s Stay Together, 1972

Every note, every trumpet puff, every guitar lick, every choked-off falsetto moan, is perfect. The Reverend Al Green is, as everyone knows, the greatest romantic soul singer of all time, and the last great soul singer from the South. It’s ironic, of course, that the years of his success dovetailed with the end of Southern Soul as such — the end of the hard, funky, gritty stuff as perpetrated by Otis, Aretha, Wilson, Solomon, Booker, Sam and Dave, and thousands of lesser lights. And Motown up north was leaving Detroit and its signature factory-produced silky-smooth sound for the more varied, tempestuous, and individual sounds of its roster of superstars and LA. Al Green, man of God and ladies’ man, both at once, split the difference. He could make a love song — scratch that, a sex song, a sweaty, needy jump-your-bones song — sound like a prayer, and his prayers were just as passionate, urgent, and shaken. But like every really religious person, he’s a romantic at heart. None of this “I Gotcha” stuff for him, he wants to stay together, to cherish, to look past the pain and the tears and the betrayals and allow love (redemption, sacrifice, sanctity itself) to heal all wounds. Willie Mitchell and the Hi Rhythm Section create a cloud of tender funk for that gorgeous, aching falsetto to beg, weep, plead, and rejoice upon, and not only a new kind of soul, but just damn about all soul would ever be anymore was born.

Next: 010-005. >>

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

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

020. Yes “Roundabout”
(John Anderson/Steve Howe)
Fragile, 1972

Name one other prog-rock epic you can dance to. And I don’t mean tap your toes, sway groovily, or execute a stately pas de deux. I mean dance — ass shaking, feet moving, and on the “in and out of the lake” breakdowns you can actually headbang if you’ve a mind to. Chris Squire’s knotty, heavy bass playing is as funky as Bootsy Collins or Larry Graham, Bill Bruford rocks mightily on the kit, and even Rick Wakeman — yes, Rick Wakeman — acquits himself with some Bernie Worrell-esque flashes of genius on the organ. And then there’s Steve Howe and Jon Anderson. Howe is competent enough — his acoustic picking on the downbeat section verges on the beautiful — but Anderson is at best an acquired taste, and it’s actually a compliment to say that he doesn’t (and perhaps can’t) ruin this song. Anyway. Progressive rock, in its ideal form, was supposed to take rock music into conceptual and harmonic territories that only compositional (classical) and jazz music had previously broached; its failure was twofold: first, no progressive band was as intelligent or forward-thinking as the leading composers and jazz musicians of the time, and second, rock & roll is an unsteady footstool to pile towering structures upon. Prog was best when it ignored the conceptual hooey and went (like all great rock) for the jugular. Like this.

019. Johnny Thunders “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory”
(Johnny Thunders)
So Alone, 1978

A jet boy in a beaten age, the scruffiest and most forlorn New York Doll never fulfilled the promise of his best work, and became just another junkie casualty in the unrocking ’90s. He made several valiant attempts after the implosion of his original band, though, spitting up a gloriously noisy Heartbreakers album in 1977 (casually bridging the distance between New York punk and London punk, not to mention their roots in good old rock & roll), and then released a more measured, wary solo record a year later, on which appeared the finest and most heartbreaking punk ballad ever written or recorded. That’s not an oxymoron: one favorite meaning of punk is “stripped down to essentials,” and for fifteen years of wildly uneven concerts he usually played this song solo on acoustic guitar. This original album version isn’t quite as shatteringly or beautiful as most live versions you can find; it’s overproduced, tries too hard to rock, and goes on too long. But Thunders was nothing if not adaptable; he makes it work, using his trademark bleeding-fuzz solos to underscore the pain and longing in the verses, and when the chorus kicks in over a drum line adapted from “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the stark simplicity of the lyrics can always kick you in the gut no matter how many overdubs there are. If you don’t know the song, listen to this version first, but then find a live version to fall in love with, L-U-V.

018. The Commodores “Easy”
(Lionel Richie)
The Commodores, 1977

How the mighty have fallen: Lionel Richie is today best known as the father of a certain unecessary celebrity. Conan O’Brien does jokes where “Lionel Richie” is the punchline. And even before all that, he was most famous for being a soupily bland sweater-wearing ballad singer in the 80s, a cross between Billy Ocean and Bobby McFerrin. How the mighty had fallen, even then. But from the beginning it was not so; the Commodores were one of the truly great funk/soul bands of the latter half of the 1970s. “Brickhouse” mostly gets played at weddings these days (wait, at weddings? Yes, at weddings), but its unstoppable dancefloor majesty is the equal of anything by Earth, Wind & Fire or Kool & the Gang. (Speaking of the fallen mighty . . . .) But it’s on this soulful ballad, which was intentionally — and successfully — written to try to top the r&b, pop, adult contemporary and country charts at once (though the country charts were only topped by a cover of it), that the Commodores really nailed it. From its lazily funky piano line to the smooth, pillowy horns, to the country swing of the rhythm, given a glossy urban makeover in the production but unable to hide its roots, it’s pitch-perfect and elementally satisfying. Even the fuzzed-out guitar solo is bliss; and Richie himself proves that once upon a time he could really sing. How great is a song when not even a Faith No More cover can ruin it?

017. John Baldry & Maggie Bell “Black Girl”
(Huddie Ledbetter)
It Ain’t Easy, 1971

For about five years there — say 1968 to 1972 — white British rockers were obssessed with the music on scratchy old 78s, the blues and early country and folk and jug-band music represented most often by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Obsessed not only with that music, but with covering it, with getting their sound as close as possible to the wild, woolly original, but also without pretending the last thirty years hadn’t taken place. The Rolling Stones probably did it best most often, but any number of acts tried their hand at it — and often managed something quite listenable. John Baldry, though, had better credentials than most; he’d been playing the blues in England longer than just about anyone besides Alexis Korner. Just about anyone who was anyone had played in his band (including most of the Rolling Stones and two-thirds of Cream), and he had a great craggy voice. After years spent in the smarm-pop wilderness of late-60s London, he was revitalized by an amazing, rootsy record that was equally produced by Rod Stewart and Elton John. For the second track, Stewart roped in fellow Scot and Stone the Crows vocalist Maggie Bell to duet with Baldry on Leadbelly lyrics. The tune is usually more familiar as bluegrass standard “In the Pines,” but here it can chill your blood, especially when Maggie lets loose one of her astonishing banshee screams. And Rod’s house band from his brilliant initial period, particularly Sam Mitchell on slide guitar, tear it up.

016. The Temptations “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)”
(Barrett Strong/Norman Whitfield)
single, 1970

In late 2005, not many weeks apart, I saw the Neville Brothers cover this song twice: once on Conan, and once on Leno. They were amazing, revitalized and given a furious urgency by Hurricane Katrina and the government’s horrifically inadquate response to it. But the real star was the song itself. I’d venture to bet that no other thirty-five-year-old protest song has aged as well, or is more heartbreakingly timely, than this one. (And it probably always will be, as long as humanity lasts.) The Temptations were the greatest black group in the world at the time, and had successfully negotiated the culture shifts of the late 60s by radicalizing their lyrics and cinema-funking their sound; Norman Whitfield is one of the more unheralded geniuses of the age. It opens with hoarse, distant shouts of “One two three four” and bubbling psychedelic guitars, but the tense tenor of the verses turn over to turbo-polished hard funk as the chorus is shouted in unison — and the horns get to play jazz-funk in the interstices. It’s a riveting song, searing in its catalogue of modern miseries but epically hopeful too (ah, Motown). But the best time to listen to it, I’ve found, is in my car with the windows rolled up, turned up as loud as my speakers can manage, so I can beg, scream and shout along with the lyrics. When it gets to “people all over the word are shouting end the war,” I choke up. Every single time.

Next: 015-011. >>

Monday, December 11, 2006

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

025. Elvis Costello “Alison”
(Elvis Costello)
My Aim Is True, 1977

The artist formerly known as Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus is, in my opinion (and the opinion of every right-thinking individual) one of the most creative, surprising, ambitious, intelligent, witty, and reckless in popular music — and has been for the last thirty years. This is the song that first proved he was more than just a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and a sneer, the least punk song on his debut album (which wasn’t really punk either, of course; or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that punk was one of dozens of pop genres he drew on to create his music, even from the beginning), and paid the ultimate at-the-time compliment by being recorded by Linda Ronstadt. This is the real version, of course, with John McFee’s sparkling guitar work setting a cool, reflective mood and Costello’s ungainly croak tempered enough to try a little tenderness. It’s a romantic ballad in feel, but there’s still enough understated menace (“Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking/When I hear the silly things that you say”) and pugnacious attitude that his Angry Young Man reputation was preserved for a few more years. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Costello record without wordplay, and the refrain “my aim is true,” repeated so many times that it grows slightly sinister, is a perfect early example: he’s both protesting the innocence of his intentions and (potentially) threatening murder. What more can you want in a pop song?

024. Warren Zevon “Werewolves of London”
(Warren Zevon)
Excitable Boy, 1976

Just so you know, it’s not that I want to keep listing only the big hit songs for cult acts, which makes me sound like I only know these artists from the radio or some shitty $7 compilation called The Best Seventies Rock Classics . . . Ever! (And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s the imputation of ignorance. Even when justified. Yes, I’m a haunted house.) It’s that, sometimes, the hit song is the best song — and also, in pop music, popularity does matter. Somehow. Warren Zevon, of course, is one of the all-time great cult acts, a man with a mean wit and the balls to use his Mellow Mafia connections in the service of cutting, vicious, visionary, and just plain wacked-out songs. This was his only real hit, a glam-by-way-of-L.A. mover, with that great minimal piano riff and a Thin Lizzy dual-guitar break — but of course, the real meat, as in any Zevon song, is in the lyrics. Just about every line here is memorable, quotable, inspired, or simply strange enough to be the making of any other song; packing them all together like this can only be described as chutzpah. From the irresistably alliterative rhythm of “little old lady got mutilated late last night” to namechecking both Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney, Jr. (oh, and “his hair was perfect”) (and “Better stay away from him/He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim/Huh!/I’d like to meet his tailor”), it’s wall-to-wall brilliance. He was often more complex, more unsparingly cynical, and more sentimental, but he was never funnier.

023. Sly & the Family Stone “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”
(Sylvester Stewart)
single, 1970

There was a period when I was at one of my lower ebbs emotionally and financially, when I played Sly & the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits (the 1970 compilation) nonstop in my car for about three weeks, never even considering changing it out (to compare, I normally get antsy if I have to listen to a single genre of music for more than an hour). Only twelve songs, and it was over in forty minutes, and I never once reached for the eject button once this song faded out, the whirr of beginning over sounded, and “I Want to Take You Higher” blasted out again. Setting aside the sheer physical impossibility of preventing “I Want to Take You Higher” from playing on, Sly & the Family Stone from 1966 to 1970 are the greatest band in the world for handling depression. It’s not that they don’t acknowledge it — it’s that they can stare it down, smiling widely, because they have distilled and bottle the very essence of joy itself, and it is in their music. There is no other band that can make that claim. None. This is their last joyful song, and its heavily funky, popping bassline points the way towards their later heavy, druggy, molasses-slow music — which is just as good, in its way, but terrible for combating depression. The sentiment of the lyrics (universal gratitude for selfhood) is, amazingly, sincere, and the quick run-through of their previous hits more or less clears the decks, and makes way for the new, different, and not particularly joyful decade to come.

022. Suzi Quatro “Can the Can”
(Mike Chapman/Nicky Chinn)
single, 1973

In the years between Janis Joplin and Joan Jett, very, very few women rocked. Loads of women sang, belted, and even shouted, and not a few played any number of instruments well and loud and fast. But only a bare handful actually managed to rawk — which, considering that it was more or less the Decade of Rock, is even more embarrassing for latter-day wannabe-feminists like me. Good thing there was Suzi Quatro. If you think of her as just a glitter-band mogul-made pop-tart riding the bubblegum-glam wave established by the Sweet, Slade, and Gary Glitter — well, yeah, she was that. But she was also an experienced rock & roller, having led garage bands in Detroit’s notoriously raucous scene (Bob Seger, the Stooges, the MC5, and Mitch Ryder were no accident) during the 60s, and her image as a sexy leather-clad bitch was of her own devising. Like the Walker Brothers, the Pretenders and the Strokes, she went to England to break huge, and it worked — the Chapman/Chinn songwriting and production team gave her of their best, which was pretty damn good. The swinging Bo Diddley toms and crunchy goodness of the guitars are what initially sells the song, but check how it just keeps rising — by the end, she’s flat-out screaming. “Honey! Honey! Honey! Honey! Honey!” It’s probably about putting out — hey, slut-pop didn’t start with Britney (or Madonna), you know — but Suzi’s aggressive presence makes it sounds like a radical feminist stance.

021. Ultravox “Hiroshima Mon Amour”
(Warren Cann/Billy Currie/John Foxx)
Ha! Ha! Ha!, 1977

They are the forgotten band, the missing link between Roxy Music and Duran Duran, the inventors more or less single-handedly of the fey, mysterious New Romantic aesthetic. And this song is where it happened. The record, which came out the same year that Never Mind the Bollocks did, is mostly unwieldy, overlong postpunk which thinks it’s more abrasive and transgressive than it is — and then this song is tacked on the end of it, and we’re in another world, a cooler, more well-designed world, with a grey frost in the air and the sound of faraway machinery. John Fox’s elegant cut-rate Ferry voice moans fragmented images inspired by Alain Resnais’ foundational text of New Wave cinema (this is where the connection lies, if there is one, between the two New Waves), and a lush synthesizer creates a vast featureless space around him. Then comes the saxophone solo. Played by a guy named cc from the incredibly obscure and apparently-unrecorded band Gloria Mundi, it’s reminiscent of Andy Mackay’s playing in Roxy Music, but it’s also astonishing how well it matches the cold, limited palette of the synthesized backdrop — never has a sax been played with so much fire and generated so little heat. It’s a groundbreaking song, taking the arty lushness of Eno, Bowie, and Roxy Music and whittling it down to fit into the smaller, less pretentious pop arena created by punk. And it just floats.

Next: 020-015. >>

Saturday, December 09, 2006

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

030. Joe Jackson “Look Sharp!”
(Joe Jackson)
Look Sharp!, 1979

Second only to Elvis Costello in the wave of brilliant, original, witty, acid-tongued, and musically adventurous young English singer-songwriters who came to prominence following the brief rule-rewriting that punk allowed, Joe Jackson is unfortunately mostly remembered as a classy new wave (in the VH1 sense) artist, the singer of Broadway-for-the-Eighties standard “Steppin’ Out,” and maybe by swing kids for his tribute to Louis Jordan, Jumpin’ Jive. But his original run of taut, nervy pop albums — played with a stripped-down virtuosity that acknowledged his classical training but refused to be shackled by it, and seething with a sarcastic vitriol that was never as layered as Costello’s, but never overreached as much either — are among the greatest run of records in rock & roll. At least four songs from his energetic, snidely wistful debut album could have occupied this spot with equal grace and fire; I chose the title track mostly because I love the kickdrum-and-piano middle eight, and because the lyrics are brash youthful self-confidence personified: taking no shit from anyone, sneering at the cautious advice the second person is offering, and dressed to the nines at all times — also, I’m a sucker for a good colloquial pun, and “look sharp,” with its double meaning of dressing spiffily and watching out for danger, is a superb one.

029. Labelle “Lady Marmalade”
(Bob Crewe/Kenny Nolan)
Nightbirds, 1974

I should probably point out that I’m white, male, straight, and terminally unfunky. Yet even I can dance to this. And have. (Not in public.) Labelle were a consciousness-shifting act, on the level of Sly & the Family Stone and Funkadelic, who remain criminally underappreciated today, difficult to find even on compilations — except for this song, their only hit. This cold shoulder is partly due to the fact that their dialed-to-eleven hard-funk sound can be difficult to get into, especially on the less rocking tunes, and partly it’s leftover chauvinism from the 70s, when a tear-the-roof-off-the-mother act like Patti, Nona and Sarah was still looked down on for having a largely gay audience. (By the way, what the hell has happened to gay taste in America? From Labelle to Madonna is not an improvement.) “Lady Marmalade” briefly resurfaced in the worldwide pop consciousness thanks to Moulin Rouge, but its snapshot life story of an aging transvestite is both a bitterer and a better story than that cotton-candy fluff — and than Lou Reed’s condescending, daring-you-to-be-shocked “Walk on the Wild Side.” (The Bob Crewe of the credits, by the way, was one of the masterminds behind Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons a decade earlier. You think you know a guy.) Not too long afterwards, they gave up the high-camp space-age accoutrements and Patti became just another diva, belting out high-processed smarm for aging black boomers. Nona still kicks ass, though.

028. Tom Waits “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”
(Tom Waits)
Small Change, 1976

It’s not a small trick that Tom — and you want to call him Tom, even after listening to just one record, that’s how convincing his friendly-neighborhood-hobo voice is — pulls off with this song: he manages to fully incorporate the lonely boozehound persona that he played (both on and off stage) to great conviction in the 70s — so much so, in fact, that it hovers on the edge of conscious self-parody — but the surreal, fragmented imagery of the lyrics (not to mention the actual drunken stumbling of the piano line) also point towards the increasingly arty, omnivorously apeshit direction he would take in the 80s. But he always had a way with a half-dozen words, and rhyming “creampuff Caspar Milquetoast” with “the IQ of a fencepost” deserves some kind of post-Beat Poetry award. He sounds tired here (which is part of the point of the song, yes, but), tired of the Everyman Barfly shtick, tired of not finding any answers in the bottom of a bottle, tired even of the stripper and her pasties on the cover of the album — tired, that is, of making up bullshit about himself and the world and then feeling obligated to live up to it (one reason he’s gotten better as he’s gotten older is that he’s lived up to everything, and can just make up bullshit from the comfort of the family homestead). So we get the bit of the Piano Man’s life that Billy Joel was too chickenshit, or maybe too successful, to tell us about, and it warms the cockles of the liver.

027. Richard Hell & the Voidoids “Blank Generation”
(Richard Hell)
Blank Generation, 1977

This is a doo-wop song. No, seriously; underneath Robert Quine’s atonal, arhythmic guitar chopping and Hell’s wasted-hipster yowl, it’s a swinging 50s R&B beat, and then just to drive the point home there’s those falsetto “ooh-oohs” after the chorus. Sure, it’s doo-wop as written by Charles Bukowski and orchestrated by the bastard offspring of Link Wray and LaMonte Young, but it’s doo-wop nonetheless. And in the grand tradition of the great doo-wop songs, it’s terminally misunderstood; Hell wasn’t being nihilistic in calling his generation blank, but saying that they were a blank slate, capable of anything. (We’re supposed to fill in our own adjectives when he goes “I belong to the! . . . generation.”) Of course the possibility of the nihilistic interpretation was always there too, and Quine’s slashing, corrosive Stratocaster probably sounded like the end of the world to people used to Peter Frampton or Glenn Frey, but what did they know? If the Ramones get to take credit for laying down the definitive punk-rock sound, Richard Hell is the one who layed down the definitive punk-rock fashion, all tatters and safety pins; McLaren and Lydon only transplanted it to England. And he wrote great street-punk beat poetry, the epitome of New York punk, which was always much cooler and even artier, in its way, than the London equivalent.

026. Talking Heads “Life During Wartime”
(Talking Heads)
Fear of Music, 1979

This is where the Heads’ white funk began to coalesce into something not just original, but world-changing. Sure, “Psycho Killer” can lay claim to being the first real college-radio hit and begetting Amerindie music in all its screwy, unafraid glory, and their cover of “Take Me to the River” pointed out that a black backbone, however transmuted, was essential to making their sound really jump as nervously as David Byrne’s voice, but here, with Brian Eno on the boards and Byrne’s first truly immortal set of lyrics — “This ain’t no party/This ain’t no disco/This ain’t no fooling around” — the band set up a bubbling, herky-jerky groove and hung onto it doggedly. And Byrne spins a quietly paranoid scenario of a high-pressure environment filled in with low-key, everyday actions. It could be set anywhere in the world — and is, and has been, and will be again — but it also marks the emergence of a distinctively global political conscience that would be the banner of left-leaning musicians during the ugly 80s, from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts to Sandinista! to Live Aid. World music is such an ugly label, but Byrne’s and Eno’s gradual absorption of reggae, trópicalia, afrobeat, krautrock, gamelan, and highlife into the Talking Heads’ original mixture of John Cale with James Brown produced one of the wisest, loveliest, and — dammit — most danceable musics ever to inhabit the earth.

Next: 025-021. >>

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

035. Janis Joplin “Me and Bobby McGee”
(Fred Foster/Kris Kristofferson)
Pearl, 1971

It can be easy enough to feel that Janis is less important than Columbia’s posthumous hard-sell of her legendary status would claim. Unlike Jimi Hendrix, she made no technical innovations and created no world-conquering genres; unlike Jim Morrison, she has no self-sustaning mythology, high-art aspirations, or half-baked Oliver Stone movie to cement her legacy. Although she’s usually namechecked with those other two rock & roll junkie deaths as one of the signifiers of the cultural move away from Sixties optimism, she never really belonged to the Flower Power generation; she was a gutbucket blues singer, a soul mama whose corrosive skinny-white-girl voice speaks more to years of hitting the bottle than to any hipper form of hallucinogenics, a low-rent Texas version of turn-of-the-century vaudeville divas like Sophie Tucker or Eva Tanguay. Her example allowed white women to sing rock (not that they ever hadn’t), and her incredible technical control of her voice betrays a master craftswoman. This song, though, is a fitting epitaph, even as it marks a turned corner into a career path not followed up: it’s a country song (in the newly-folkorized tradition that Kristofferson, as well as others, was then solidifying), but she treats it like a jazz singer, especially in the lengthy scatting outro, where the four primary strains of American music — jazz, country, blues, and soul — are so deeply intertwined you can’t ever pull them apart.

034. The O’Jays “Back Stabbers”
(Leon Huff/Gene McFadden/John Whitehead)
Back Stabbers, 1972

Let me start out by saying that I do not believe a cooler opening to a song has ever been recorded. Those magnificent rumbling piano lines, then the Latin-funk beat, the thoughtful, jazzy, Santana-loving guitar line, and then the swirling Isaac Hayes strings, some horns to punch it up, all building up to the group-rapped line “What they doing?” — it’s Philly soul at its finest pitch; listen to it on headphones while walking and you feel like a combination of Shaft and James Bond, and what’s cooler than that? The song itself might not be particularly edifying — paranoid black nationalists might, and probably do, consider it elitist propaganda to keep black men from trusting one another and building any cultural solidarity (listen to it after listening to the Last Poets and it sounds postively retrogressive) — but then again, it can also be read as a metaphor for how black men have been betrayed by the rest of the world. If you need to read any meaning into it at all, that is — like most pop songs, it’s just a pop song, and the lyrics are just there to match the paranoid atmosphere created by the music. The proof of the pudding is in the performances, and the O’Jays knock this one, as they ususally did, out of the park, building a claustrophobic atmosphere out of their tightly-packed voices, with Eddie Levert’s feverish lead communicating a whole host of emasculating, then belligerent, fears. It’s as much funk as soul, and as much an episode of a soap opera as anything else; “Trapped in the Closet” got nothin’ on it.

033. Tubeway Army “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”
(Gary Numan)
Replicas, 1979

Gary Numan has been retroactively declared a seminal figure in the development of techno, industrial and electronic music of all stripes, and while that’s cool, I prefer to think of him as he thought of himself: as a teenage David Bowie admirer trying hard to top the master with nightmarish urban science-fiction phantasias. Replicas, the breakthrough record for his nominal band Tubeway Army (he dropped the façade with his next record, monster hit The Pleasure Principle, and Replicas can be found under “N” in the CD racks these days), was a dark fable of a dystopian London in which memories of relationships are erased and human connection is only available through robots made to look like humans, called “Friends.” There’s also something about the robots rising and killing, and some kind of quasi-religious stuff — like most concept albums, it’s a bit of a confusing mess and makes for better discrete songs than a full story — but you don’t need to know that to love this song, with its stately, buzzing synth riffs and glam-guitar atmospherics. Like any great pop song, it’s endlessly quotable (“and just for a second I thought I remembered you”), and noir images like “There’s a man outside/In a long coat grey hat smoking a cigarette” perfectly capture the seedy, rundown atmosphere of this emotionally stunted future. Although he hit the charts with “Cars” a year later, Numan never really recaptured the magic of this record.

032. The Rolling Stones “Angie”
(Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)
Goats Head Soup, 1973

A great many Rolling Stones fans (I’m usually one) would prefer to believe that they broke up after, say, Exile on Main St. They couldn’t — and never did —top it, anyway, so why should they have kept recording? But no rock band that could seriously be considered one of the greatest four or five bands in the universe could continue to record without striking gold almost unintentionally, of course. Goats Head Soup is the record where their consumption of everything under the sun began to finally catch up with their sound; but unlike the rest of their coke-snorting peers, they made a record that sounded like heroin: lean, stringy, hollow-eyed, but still muscular and hungry-sounding. (Cocaine is the drug of the successful, but heroin remains the drug of the desperate.) “Angie,” of course, is their most famous and best ballad, with Nicky Harrison’s not-at-all-pompous string arrangement striking exactly the right chord behind Nicky Hopkins’ after-hours piano playing and Jagger at wasted, tender best. In college, another fellow and I used to do the crossword puzzle while waiting for class to start; once, when “Rolling Stones song” was the clue (and the only answer that fit was “Angie”), I started playing this song on my laptop. He arrived a few minutes later, started looking at the crossword, then glared at me. “You son of a bitch,” he grinned. “I wondered why the hell you were playing that.” So that’s why I couldn’t pick anything else.

031. Dr. John “Right Place, Wrong Time”
(Mac Rebennack)
In the Right Place, 1973

New Orleans is, of course, the most important city in American history when it comes to music. (Sorry, Kansas City, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Memphis, Nashville, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis and Atlanta. You’re all number two.) But it can often seem more hermetic than any other city, relieved of the responsibility of keeping up with the times, free to pursue its funky old rolling hoo-hah till the last trump. (Or at least till Katrina.) Dr. John is only one in a long line of piano professors and grand voudou wizards that includes Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and Jelly Roll Morton — not to mention the one or two other instruments that the Big Easy has laid a claim to the development of. He happens to be white, but he’s done everything he can to discourage his skin color from making much of a difference, refusing pop stardom when it could have been his (with, for example, this song), and keeping in close touch with the restless city on the mouth of the Mississippi that gave him his legendary funk prowess. This song is one of the many times that the easy, sludgy current of New Orleans music has floated up to the more rushing, reckless, clearer waters of the mainstream pop-music charts, and it’s one of the best. The rolling clavinet riff represents about the only concession to contemporary tastes; the rest of it is as specifically 70s as fried pig’s feet or Mardis Gras.

Next: 030-026. >>

Friday, December 08, 2006

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

040. Magazine “The Light Pours Out of Me”
(Howard Devoto/John McGeotch/Pete Shelley)
Real Life, 1978

The best criminally ignored postpunk band in existence, Magazine is up there with Television, Wire, the Slits, and Gang of Four when it comes to pointing to new directions for rock to take after punk. Howard Devoto, the band’s mastermind, was the co-leader of the first version of the Buzzcocks (the ones that recorded the seminal Spiral Scratch EP), and he was the John Lennon to Pete Shelley’s Paul McCartney in a lot of ways. Whereas the Buzzcocks under Shelley grew progressively more spiky, amphetamined, and pop, Magazine was unafraid to be slow, crushingly heavy, or arty, using chillingly icy synth tones before the cool kids in Joy Division and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark had figured them out. This song, though, is almost brutal in its rhythmic force, with a huge numbing riff and several layers of jagged guitar noise overlaying one of the most powerful, trancelike drum beats in rock & roll. Its lyrics deal with the usual tortured spirituality that postpunk bands like Echo & the Bunnymen or Simple Minds (when they were still any good) delved, but it’s Devoto’s stentorian drone that sells them convincingly, and the relentless rhythm that will make you accept them as gospel. It’s one of those rare songs that will make you a devoted fan of a band on first listen (if you’re anything like me, anyway), even when squeezed into a random selection of other downloaded stuff — I’m pretty sure I first heard it sandwiched between Benny Goodman and the Bhundu Boys.

039. Fanny “Ain’t That Peculiar”
(Pete Moore/Smokey Robinson/Robert Rogers/Marvin Tarplin)
Fanny Hill, 1972

They never struck the charts, they’re decades out of print, they’re virtually forgotten by all but the most hardcore 70s rock-geek fetishists. And they’re the best band you’ve never heard. Everyone else will tell you that they were the first all-girl rock band signed to a major label, and while that’s true, it’s unimportant: what matters is that they sincerely rocked when the need struck, and made a superb pop group (on the level of Harry Nilsson or Fleetwood Mac) otherwise. Like most great pop bands, they often excelled on covers, and this very-70s update of the Marvin Gaye classic might be their finest moment — legendary producer Richard Perry often quoted it as one of his favorite productions. June Millington’s groove-busting slide guitar, Nicky Barclay’s honky-tonk piano, Jean Millington’s funky basslines, and Alice de Buhr keeping it all togther on the kit, plus whatever Perry wanted to throw in the mix, make for an intoxicating combination, especially if you’ve got it turned up loud enough; call it southern-style Motown-rock, with all the bursting melodic glory and rootsy jive that implies. They only put out four albums in five years before breaking up in frustration with the misogynism entrenched in rock culture — even after seeing them tear the roof off live, Led Zeppelin fans refused to believe that four girls could play those instruments so well. It’s time for a rediscovery.

038. Black Sabbath “Iron Man”
(Black Sabbath)
Paranoid, 1971

An obvious choice, perhaps, but even after hearing it on the radio hundreds of times (this and “Paranoid” are, natch, the only Sabbath that ever get played), I can’t possibly get enough of its heavy, metal thunder. And no, it’s got nothing to do with the Marvel superhero; if you must find a cartooning connection, it may be based on the same English childrens’ book that Brad Bird’s animated feature The Iron Giant was. But screw all that: it’s fucking cool. Iommi’s guitar is as slow, as heavy, and as dark as molasses, and the primitively mechanical stomp of the rhythm section makes me think of Miyazaki-mecha, or of steampunk robot armies. And Ozzy is appropriately melodramatic, wailing like some crazed hobo-prophet, a John the Baptist for the titular Iron Man, and getting surprisingly thoughtful about the monster’s emotional life. I don’t listen to a whole lot of metal, as you might be able to tell, and part of the reason is because Black Sabbath fulfills just about all my metal needs. But then I hardly think of them as metal; they’re just another great 70s band, like ELO, Thin Lizzy, or Parliament, that found an indelible, unmistakable sound that worked perfectly for them and plowed that furrow to rich reward, artistically as well as (presumably) financially. Oh, and they don’t exist after Ozzy left. (On the other hand, neither does he.)

037. Todd Rundgren “Hello, It’s Me”
(Todd Rundgren)
Something/Anything?, 1972

I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s a song that screams “Nineteen-Seventies” more loudly or clearly than this one. Even the bass sounds five years older than I am. The fact that it was played during Topher and the redhaired girl’s first kiss on the pilot of That 70s Show only proves my point (and incidentally proves what a goddamn nerd I am). That bouncy, vaguely spacey piano line, the Bacharach-on-cocaine horns, the stomachchurningly wishy-washy “it’s important to me/that you know you are free” line, the black backup singers, Rundgren’s white-geek voice reaching for the highest notes he can: all very Seventies, very nice, very pop, very normal. Except, of course, that Todd was anything but. While “Hello, It’s Me” was on the one side (out of four sides) of Something/Anything? that was touched by hands other than the Rund-man’s, his cracked-prodigy fingerprints are still all over it. Holed up in a motel room for weeks on end splicing tape together, recording pianos, guitars, drums, everything he could think of, and high on any combination of whatever that famously illicit decade could provide, he produced what might be the greatest romantic pop song of the decade, managing in one swoop to beat the Beatles, Bacharach, Goffin/King, and the California sunshine factory at their own collective game, even while acknowledging the bittersweet letdown that the 70s was turning out to be. Not bad for a reclusive freak.

036. Siouxsie & the Banshees “Hong Kong Garden”
(John McKay/Kenny Morris/Steve Severin/Siouxsie Sioux)
single, 1978

Not many men can lay claim to having laid the foundations for an entire musical genre, let alone a lifestyle movement; and of course, the number of women who get a chance to do anything creative or individual at all in music is even fewer. But Siouxsie Sioux is one of those rare cases: not only the greatest female punk rocker (sorry, Patti Smith and Polly Styrene), she is also the single person most responsible (insofar as these things can be measured) for goth. Not that she’d take that as a compliment, probably — I’ve never met a goth who liked the word — but it’s also undeniable. As one of those people who reads all about an artist before actually getting a chance to hear the music, I came to this song ill-prepared years ago; I’d been told that the Banshees started out as a primitive combo, barely able to play their instruments in sync, and gradually evolved into one of the more sophisticated, elegant, and atmospheric bands in the world. That’s all kinds of rubbish: this, their first single, is just as sophisticated (those chopping guitars!) and atmospheric as it has any need to be. Elegance is simply off the table at this point; it is, after all, a song about Orientalism as both a hoary set of cultural stereotypes and as a point of living fact in the low-rent multicultural epicenter of London. I suppose if you really wanted to you could make an argument for this being casually racist (in the same vein as the Cure’s “Killing an Arab”), but why bother when you can just listen to Siouxsie’s deathless chanting?

Next: 035-031. >>

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

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

045. Dolly Parton “Jolene”
(Dolly Parton)
Jolene, 1974

I’ll cop: it wasn’t till the White Stripes covered it that I even heard of this song. (The only Parton classics I knew were “Coat of Many Colors” and “I Will Always Love You.” Um, yeah.) But whatever you think of Jack White’s music, the man’s got impeccable taste. This is a lean, spare, hungry song, steeped in the Appalachian tradition that delivered songs like “Pretty Polly” and “The Banks of the Ohio,” given Parton’s trademark femme-centric twist (a trick she might have picked up from her time in the commercial wilderness of girl-group pop in the late 60s). Its unsmiling bluegrass backbone goes against just about everything Nashville believed in at the time, and would have been commercial suicide if anyone who heard the song could ever get its haunting atmosphere out of their skulls again. The lyric is more or less country-standard, if unusual in that the singer’s addressing a potential rival instead of the cheatin’ man himself, but it’s the melody, the rising tension in that repeated “Jolene, Jolene,” and the desperate urgency in Parton’s aching soprano, that give the song its unescapable wild-roots force. If she’d never cut another song, she would deserve a spot in the American-music pantheon; as it is, the music will endure long after Dollywood, 9 to 5, and the most-beloved bazongas in country music are forgotten.

044. The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop”
(The Ramones)
The Ramones, 1976

The Ramones are difficult to write about because they require no explanation: just turn them on, turn them up, and they’re a two-minute world unto themselves. And the Ramones are really easy to write about, becuase they are so important and great and fun and necessary. And contradictory. On the one hand, they perfected punk’s noise + speed × simplicity formula, fusing a suburban-lowbrow aesthetic with an urban-hipster cachet, and were the first consciously punk-rock band. On the other hand, punk’s self-righteous anti-pop, anti-commercial, anti-mainstream attitude (as made famous by Maximum Rock’N’Roll) was the furthest thing from the Ramones’ ideals; or at least from Joey’s, and frankly who cares about the other jerks? Because the Ramones were a pop group, one of the greatest pop groups ever — and, like many great pop acts, it was because every song sounded the same, not despite — and they chased the commercial brass ring, though fairly unsuccessfully, and have by now become mainstream enough that this song is being played in a cellphone commercial. They were the first punk-pop band, too, and better than anyone since at it. The song can be read as death throes of glam (“blitzkrieg bop” is such a Bolanesque phrase), an “At the Hop” for teenage lunkheads with no prospects, a joyous call to arms for a new generation of pop radicals, and as a timeless pop chestnut every bit as thrilling as anything Brian Wilson or Phil Spector ever did. Your choice.

043. Kraftwerk “Neon Lights”
(Karl Bartos/Ralf Hütter/Florian Schneider)
The Man-Machine, 1978

Today, with the 12” aesthetic firmly in hindsight, this song can perhaps be appreciated better than in the days when a nine-minute song required extended solos, multi-suite compositions, or at least more than one verse to flesh it out. But with these guys it’s all about the texture, the subtle layering, the slow rise and fall of their warm electronic patterning. And one of their best, most evocative, and (yes) most minimalist lyrics. “Neon lights/Shimmering neon lights/And at the fall of night/This city’s made of light.” That’s it. But you should be able to hear a lovely soprano synth solo float up afterwards in your head, and if you can’t you need to listen to this song more often. People think of them as the godfathers of techno, but they were never club bangers, and if post-1985 electronic music must be referenced, then let it be trance (which was always more my style anyway). Without the insistent beat of the dancefloor, this has a meditative, running-water rhythm, and makes me think of nighttime driving on an urban freeway, perhaps on an off-ramp that arcs up over the city so you see it spread out before you, twinkling and flashing, beguiling and mysterious in a way daylight never is — or better yet, riding, so that even the minimal effort of steering and accelerating are taken away, and you may as well be floating.

042. T. Rex “20th Century Boy”
(Marc Bolan)
single, 1973

That opening feedback-laced blast is as heavy as pop ever got until 1991 and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (and if you don’t think that’s a pop song, you haven’t been paying attention), and the rest of the song finds Bolan edging perilously close to pop-metal. Which, since pop-metal wouldn’t become the scourge of the planet until the 1980s, is okay; plus, the emphasis here is on pop, with gloriously indeterminate lyrics like “Friends say it’s fine/Friends say it’s good/Everyone says it’s just like rock & roll” (or is it Robin Hood?) and his wife Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” wail backing him up on the chorus. Glam never swaggered like it did under Bolan’s attentive hand; only he could pull off such macho posturing and have it seem fey and slightly ridiculous. Part of that, of course, is his lamb’s-bleat voice, part of it is the giddy nonsense of his lyrics, and part of it is that even with all the crunch and stomp, his music never plodded; it was always light on its feet, always ready to dance but never insisting on it, always with an eye on the screaming-teenager demographic that launched his inital early-70s success, but never pandering to it. He was perhaps the definitive UK pop star, with only one (noveltyish) Stateside hit, but a devoted and surprisingly wide fanbase; everyone from Bowie to John Lydon to Morrissey to Damon Albarn to Robbie Williams to Pete Doherty has taken cues from the original Electric Warrior.

041. Jackson Browne “Rock Me on the Water”
(Jackson Browne)
Saturate Before Using, 1972

Sensitive singer-songwriters don’t get much more sensitive, or singer-songwriterly, than Jackson Browne. The only voice of his generation that was never acclaimed as the voice of his generation (which is why he’s still tolerable), he produced some of the most deeply-felt, literate, complex lyrics ever set to basic West-Coast soft rock; and while his initial (artistic) success was with writing songs for others to sing (and no one who worked with Nico can ever be entirely uncool), he had one of the finer mellow/nice-guy voices of the decade. This song, which ironically was a hit for one L. Ronstadt, comes off better in this underproduced, piano-led version, which addresses social change, personal responsibility, religious tradition, and an inexplicable sense of hope in image-heavy, understated lyrics that don’t mind if you don’t pay attention to them and would rather just groove to the music. It’s that humility, I think, that I find so pleasant about Browne; unlike other singer-songwriters (cough cough James Taylor Cat Stevens Janis Ian cough cough), he never preaches or prescribes, and you can enjoy the music simply as music. This would be reaffirmed in a few years when he’d drag Frankie Valli out of retirement to give him a classic-pop edge, but it was never out of evidence for those with ears.

Next: 040-035. >>

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

050. Neil Young & Crazy Horse “Like a Hurricane”
(Neil Young)
American Stars ’n’ Bars, 1977

I’m not real big on guitar heroes, as you might have noticed; not because of any righteous punk-rock anti-widdlywoo stance, but because I treasure songs as discrete sonic experiences, and 70s guitar wankery all tends to blend together after a while. The major exception, as he is to almost every other generalization out there, is Neil Young. It takes a peculiar sort of man to bridge the gap between John Denver and Dinosaur Jr. (I’m just talking sonically; for all I know J’s Denver and Mascis play poker every Thursday), and the most fiercely individual, contrary artist this side of Bob Dylan, the only figure who played a major role in the development of both country-rock and Amerindie, is it. His high, quavering voice, his spare, elliptical lyrics, his bone-dry melodicism, and his fearlessness in the face of untrod territory are the usual reasons to love him (and excellent reasons they are, too), but it is as a solo guitarist, sputtering, sparking, oblique, and piercing, that he should always be remembered. This song is one of his most bravura performances, a distended epic of feedback and dissonance that retains a down-home romanticism in the mere song (lyrics and melody), but is sliced open and spread across a vast, nightmarish canvas by his glorious spattering, whining, screaming guitar. Nobody plays like that and still gets played every hour on classic-rock radio. Nobody except Neil Young.

049. Stevie Wonder “Superstition”
(Stevie Wonder)
Talking Book, 1972

Because of the opening hard-funk drum pop. Because of the extra-ultra-funky clavinet line that jumps on its heels. Because of Wonder’s voice, delerious in the first real exercise of his full, unfettered strength, fusing a young man’s joy at limitless possibilities with an experienced craftsman’s determination to get everything precisely right. Because the lyrics, which recite a litany of age-old American and British superstitions and then berates the listener for believing in them, are delivered with a passionate brio that robs them of their condescending smugness and in fact celebrates the strange and curious things that human beings are capable of believing and doing. Because of the stuttering charge just before the line “superstition ain’t the way.” Because of the big-band horns, playing lines that an borrow equally from bop and swing, carving out a respectable adult space in the song to offset the funky, groovy hucklebuck of the rhythm section. Because it represents, paradoxically, both the rhapsodic fruition of Motown’s decade-long chart assault, and the slow, gasping end of Motown’s factory-produced, assembly-line pop genius; from now on, genius would be personal, individual, idiosyncratic, and beat a dignified retreat from the world of pop. And because Stevland Hardaway Morris wrote, composed, arranged, played, recorded, produced, and sang every atom of it all by himself — and, incredibly, it works.

048. Big Star “Thirteen”
(Chris Bell/Alex Chilton)
#1 Record, 1972

Modern indie begins here. Not with the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Can, or any other deep-cred act you can think of. Here, with the most famous obscurities in the 70s catalogue. Their music was not at all innovative, daring, or boundary-expanding; in fact, it wore its unremarkable influences (Beatles, Byrds, California pop) on its sensitive, hipster-sweatered sleeve. Their music was not at all challenging; in another world, they could easily have been as popular as Badfinger at least, and by now have probably have surpassed them in terms of song-recognition by having “In the Street” serve as the theme to the terminally-anachronistic That 70s Show. And their music was not at all popular, except in retrospect and with a fanatically-devoted cult. Thus the conditions of modern indie were born: backward-looking, heartfelt pop with enough guitar edge to play at rock & roll, and perfectly accessible except for the minor fact that the mass audience doesn’t really want to hear it. This is perhaps their most gentle and reflective song, a lovely ballad that would fit in perfectly with 60s summer-pop tradition except that this is the beginning of postmodern rock; rather than continue a tradition, it looks back and comments on the tradition, even mentioning “Paint It, Black” in the lyrics. Oh, and Alex Chilton had been in a chart-chasing garage-soul band before moving up an octave and going plaintive. I mean, totally indie.

047. Van Morrison “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)”
(Van Morrison)
Saint Dominic’s Preview, 1972

Jackie Wilson, as I hope you know, was a Detroit soul singer who notched several genre-mashing r&b hits in the 50s (“Reet Petite,” “Lonely Teardrops”), and struck gold in the 60s with “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” The invocation of his name (and quoting his first big hit) in the first line is Morrison’s way of serving notice to the listener that this song is gonna be all about joyful celebration. And no white man has ever really done joyful celebration as well as Van Morrison. While his lengthy discography is worth exploring in all its labrynthine mystic, literary, and jazzy ramifications, it’s as a hedonistic soul shouter that Morrison reaches his peak. It’s fitting, by the by, that soul music, the American music par excellence, should be re-presented in all its celebratory glory by an Irishman, since all of American music is a fusion of ancient African and Celtic traditions, fully democratized and given a good solid showbiz urgency. The horn charts, while undoubtedly Stax-based, also have a Celtic knottiness, and Morrison’s gravelly scatting owes as much to the language-play tradition that produced Yeats, Joyce and Flann O’Brien as to Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. Dexys Midnight Runners, practically the sole heirs to Morrison’s Gaelo-funk legacy, covered the song, and managed to make it sound self-pitying and dour. Is that the difference between Ireland and Northern England, or between the 70s and the 80s?

046. Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On?”
(Renaldo Benson/Al Cleveland/Marvin Gaye)
What’s Going On, 1971

Perhaps it’s too much to suggest that this record, by itself, permanently changed the course of soul music. Certainly the lush, delicate Philly sound was already brewing, and like-minded black artists like Roberta Flack in New York, Al Green in Memphis, and Barry White on the West Coast were each creating their own version of intimate, orchestrated, “smooth” soul. But after this record, soul changed permanently; rhythm split the scene with funk, and only passion remained; and the music became baby-making music. Which is ironic, not only because Gaye is often best-remembered today for superb baby-making music like “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing,” but because baby-making was about the furthest thing from the mind of this record, famously the first socially-conscious megahit from a black artist. It’s become the stuff of legend how Gaye fought, and fought hard, to produce the record his way, without any obvious singles or concessions to the radio audience. The radio audience ate it up anyway, of course, especially the lovely, glorious title track, which admits us to the hippest party in the universe — the one in which every guest is Marvin Gaye — and then proceeds to drop some truth on us in the most achingly beautiful falsetto known to man. The “brother, brother” lyrics are what grab your attention, but it’s the wordless vocalizations — “do bwee do doo do” — and constantly rising key changes that stay with you long after the record’s spun to a stop.

Next: 045-041. >>