1,000 Greatest Songs of the 1960s – 20 to 11

Written by | August 15, 2018 6:35 am | No Comments

I was born by the river in a little tent.

20.   “96 Tears,” Question Mark and the Mysterians.  Songwriter: Rudy Martinez; #1 pop; 1966.  Question Mark and the Mysterians were comprised of Hispanic children of migrant farm workers who had relocated from Texas to Michigan.  The ever enigmatic Question Mark (Rudy Martinez), who claims to be an alien from Mars, on the song’s origin, “Little Frank (keyboard player Frank Rodriguez) comes in singing a tune, and I said, ‘I’ve heard that before. And I ain’t going to do nothing until I’ve heard where that music and the title of it comes from.’ He played it for like 45 minutes. Everybody’s getting mad. And then all of a sudden it dawned on me, I said, ‘Oh, I know where I heard that. I wrote that song long time ago.’ Then the lyrics came out: ‘Too many teardrops for one heart to be crying,’ all that came out just like that. Boom. See, it was meant to be. There are certain things that are meant to be.”  Author Bill Holdship, “’96 Tears’ is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs in the history of the genre. In fact, it may be the greatest. John Lennon reportedly once said exactly that, and Question Mark — the Michigan native who wrote and recorded it — claims Brian Wilson told him the same thing in 1987. Those three-and-a-half minutes of brilliance alone helped launch garage and punk rock, as well as helping to shape the whole R&B-trash rock aesthetic.”

19.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” The Beatles.  Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; #1 pop; 1963. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is a watershed single in pop music history.  With this song, The Beatles phenomenon and The British Invasion began. Rolling Stone magazine, “When the joyous, high-end racket of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ first blasted across the airwaves, America was still reeling from the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Beatles songs had drifted across the Atlantic in a desultory way before, but no British rock & roll act had ever made the slightest impact on these shores. The Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, were determined to be the first, vowing that they wouldn’t come to the U.S. until they had a Number One record. ‘I remember when we got the chord that made the song,’ John Lennon later said. ‘We had, ‘Oh, you-u-u/Got that something,’ and Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it! Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to write like that — both playing into each other’s noses.’ The song ‘was the apex of Phase One of the Beatles’ development,’ said producer George Martin. ‘When they started out, in the ‘Love Me Do’ days, they weren’t good writers. They stole unashamedly from existing records. It wasn’t until they tasted blood that they realized they could do this, and that set them on the road to writing better songs.’ The lightning-bolt energy lunges out of the speakers with a rhythm so tricky that many bands who covered the song couldn’t figure it out. Lennon’s and McCartney’s voices constantly switch between unison and harmony. Every element of the song is a hook, from Lennon’s riffing to George Harrison’s string-snapping guitar fills to the group’s syncopated hand claps.”

18.  “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke.  Songwriter: Sam Cooke; #31 pop/#1 R&B; 1965.  Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and prejudices that he endured, Sam Cooke blended his gospel background with social commentary for the turmoil filled “A Change is Gonna Come.”  Author Peter Gurlanick, “It was less work than any song he’d ever written. It almost scared him that the song — it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular — in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ — but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people. When he first played it for Bobby Womack, who was his protégé, he said, ‘What’s it sound like?’ And Bobby said, ‘It sounds like death.’ Sam said, ‘Man, that’s kind of how it sounds like to me. That’s why I’m never going to play it in public.’ And Bobby sort of rethought it and said, ‘Well, it’s not like death, but it sounds kind of spooky.’” Mavis Staples, “It would just go all through your bones. You know when he came with that song we needed – black people needed black people to do something for us and Sam Cooke was at the top.” Jerry Wexler, “Sam Cooke was the best singer who ever lived, no contest. When I listen to him, I still can’t believe the things he did.”

17.   “Good Vibrations,” The Beach Boys.  Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Mike Love; #1 pop; 1966.  You could say that “Good Vibrations” was a bit of an obsession for Brian Wilson.  The math: seventeen recording sessions over a six month period of time, over 90 hours of tape, and $50,000 of studio costs for a three and a half minute pop song.  Brian Wilson, “’Good Vibrations’ was going to be the summation of my musical vision, a harmonic convergence of imagination and talent, production values and craft, songwriting and spirituality.”  Bassist Carol Kaye, “That wasn’t your normal rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, it wasn’t ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ and it wasn’t ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ You were part of a symphony.”  Paul Tanner’s sci-fi sounding, high pitched Electro-Theremin has been noted as one of the first uses of an electronic instrument in pop music.  Wilson, “I was thrilled by Paul Tanner’s theremin sound. It was scary to hear that sound, but good scary. Derek Taylor had done The Beatles’ publicity and took The Beach Boys on, too. When he first heard ‘Good Vibrations,’ he said, ‘I call that a pocket symphony.’ Isn’t that brilliant? The Capitol execs loved that tune. I remember the A&R man saying what a great pop record it was.”  Drummer Hal Blaine, “It was monumental in concept and delivery. Brian was at the top of his creativity. He was such a young guy composing, arranging and directing, and all the while with no real score to work from. A brilliant young man.”  Author Peter Ames Carlin: “(The song’s) contrasting moods and rhythms – veering from the delicate, flute-filled opening verses to the rumbling, wailing cello-and-theremin chorus to the Jew’s-harp-and-honky-tonk-piano first bridge to the echoing, churchlike organ on the second bridge and the round of arching falsettos that lead to the final chorus – exploded even the most progressive notions of how a pop song could be written, constructed, and performed.”

16.  “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones.  Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; #1 pop; 1965.  The famous/often told tale is that Keith Richards woke up from a dream with the riff to “Satisfaction” in his head, put it on a tape recorder, then went back to bed.  More cynical observers have observed that he took the horn arrangement from Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run” and played it on guitar.  Richards on the guitar sound, “It was the first (fuzztone box) Gibson made. I was screaming for more distortion: This riff’s really gotta hang hard and long, and we burnt the amps up and turned the shit up, and it still wasn’t right. And then Ian Stewart went around the corner to Eli Wallach’s Music City or something and came around with a distortion box. Try this. It was as off-hand as that. It was just from nowhere. I never got into the thing after that, either. It had a very limited use, but it was just the right time for that song.”  Musician Steve Van Zandt, “It’s one of the earliest examples of Dylan influencing the Stones and the Beatles — the degree of cynicism, and the idea of bringing more personal lyrics from the folk and blues tradition into popular music.”  Mick Jagger, “It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band.”  Keith Richards, “I hear ‘Satisfaction’ in ‘Jumping Jack Flash.’ I hear it in half of the songs that the Stones have done.”

15.   “Stand by Me,” Ben E. King.  Songwriters: Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; #4 pop/#1 R&B; 1960. Mike Stoller, “Ben E. had the beginnings of a song—both words and music. He worked on the lyrics together with Jerry (Lieber), and I added elements to the music, particularly the bass line. To some degree, it’s based on a gospel song called ‘Lord Stand By Me.’ I have a feeling that Jerry and Ben E. were inspired by it. Ben, of course, had a strong background in church music.” Jerry Leiber, “Years later, after ‘Stand by Me’ was a #1 R&B smash, after it was a Top Five pop hit, after it had been covered by everyone and his mother, after Rob Reiner had made a hit movie using the title and featuring the song, a journalist asked me what made it so popular.  ‘Mike’s bass line,’ I said.  ‘There’s got to be more to it than that. What about the lyrics? The vocal?’ ‘The lyrics are good, King’s vocal is great. But Mike’s bass line pushed the song into the land of immortality.  Believe me – it’s the bass line.’”  Author Spencer Kornhaber, “The song’s historical and aesthetic significance can’t be understated. The lyrics work as a testament to friendship, or to romance, or to broader social solidarity. Its elemental power comes from the way it transforms a human relationship into something cosmic, apocalyptic, essential.” Music historian Neil McCormick, “(King’s) voice occupies a transitional space somewhere between the easy flowing soul of Sam Cooke and the more raw throated emotionalism that would arrive with Otis Redding. King’s relaxed delivery meant he never sounded like he was trying too hard yet he packed quite a punch all the same, feeling bristled through every note and he had a quality of conviction that is the most precious talent any singer could hope for.”

14.  “People Get Ready,” Impressions.  Songwriter: Curtis Mayfield; #14 pop/#3 R&B; 1965.  Curtis Mayfield, “That was taken from my church or from the upbringing of messages from the church. Like there’s no hiding place and get on board, and images of that sort. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song.”  He later reflected, “This is a perfect example of what I believe has laid in my subconscious as to the preaching of my grandmother, and most ministers when they reflect from the Bible.”  Author Craig Werner, “No song bore witness to the (civil rights) movement’s trials with greater depth than ‘People Get Ready.’ From the opening bars – a gospel hum carried along by bells, Johnny Pate’s beautiful horn chart, and Mayfield’s delicately syncopated guitar chording – the song pours a healing vision over a nation poised on the brink of chaos. When the final strains of ‘People Get Ready’ faded to silence, you could almost believe that, despite what was happening on the streets of Chicago and Detroit, the promise of the movement would be fulfilled.”  The use of a train as the means of transportation wasn’t by accident; it had been a symbol of freedom for the African-American community dating back to the underground railroad.

13.   “You Really Got Me,” The Kinks.  Songwriter: Ray Davies; #7 pop; 1964.  The Kinks breakthrough hit was a reworking of “Louie, Louie” with a rhythmic stop and start power chord structure that would later have a major influence on punk and heavy metal music. Ray Davies, addressing the most identifiable riff in 1960’s rock music and the controversy over whether Jimmy Page played the solo on “You Really Got Me” in 1981, “There were a lot of groups going around at the time—the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones—and nobody had really cracked with a sort of R&B number one record. The songs were always sort of like the Beatles. When we first wanted to do a record, we couldn’t get a recording gig. We were turned down by Decca, Parlophone, EMI and even Brian Epstein came to see us play and turned us down. So I started writing songs like ‘You Really Got Me,’ and I think there was a sheer jealousy that we did it first. Because we weren’t a great group—untidy—and we were considered maybe a bit of a joke. But for some reason, I’d just had dinner, shepherd’s pie, at my sister’s house, and I sat down at the piano and played da, da, da, da, da. It was recorded first at Pye with a producer who made it sound like Phil Spector, and there was no way that I was going to let them put it out. I said I’d leave the music business first because I’d never write another song like it. In the end, they gave us 200 pounds—which is like 400 bucks—to re-record it. We went into a cheap little studio, and, for all I know, Jimmy Page must have been having dinner with his mother that night.”  Film director Julien Temple, “I first heard the Kinks at the age of 11 – listening to Radio Caroline on a crystal radio set beneath my bedclothes. It was August 1964, and the rabid-dog riffs of ‘You Really Got Me’ came crackling through my tiny earpiece, blowing my world apart like a dirty bomb. Those distorted guitar chords went on to rearrange the sonic architecture of the 1960s.”

12.  “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” James Brown.  Songwriter: James Brown; #8 pop/#1 R&B; 1965. James Brown, “My music – and most music – changed with ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.’”  Robert Christgau, “With ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ he discovered the deepest of his many callings, which was putting rhythm on top of American pop.  James Brown was the greatest musician of the rock era, no contest.” Saxophonist Maceo Parker, “I just thought he was a little bit more raw or a little bit more urban or a little bit more street. It was a little bit more simple. And the simpler the music is, the rhythms are the changes; the more people can hear it, the more people can understand it and the more people can like it, because it’s not difficult. It’s not intricate. Da, da, da-da-da-da. Da din na, da, da, da-da-da-da. I mean, it’s simple, but it’s groovy.”  Music journalist Nelson George, “The way he orchestrated the breaks, the stops in time, the guitar signature strums and the horn interjections were very different. It wasn’t totally a smooth-flowing melody like you might find at Motown Records. It wasn’t Southern, per se, the way that the Stax records sounded. It had its own kind of universe that it existed in. The Civil Rights Act of ’65 was passed in that year. Desegregation was happening all across the country in various places, in various ways. There was a real sense of positive energy that we had made a change and were making changes and that we could not be stopped. You could also see the song and the lyric as a metaphor. Your bag was who you were, what you thought the world was about, what you believed in, and Papa having a brand new one meant that change was happening.”

11.  “Be My Baby,” The Ronettes.  Songwriters: Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector; #2 pop/#4 R&B; 1963.  Author Jason Ankeny, ‘Be My Baby’ announces its arrival with arguably the most dramatic introduction in all of rock & roll – Hal Blaine’s drums are the Morse code of the gods – and somehow just keeps getting better from there; the quintessential Phil Spector production, it begins as the Wall of Sound but ends up a full-blown Taj Mahal, a gleaming sonic temple erected in eternal tribute to Ronettes frontwoman (and the future Mrs. Spector) Veronica Bennett.” Drummer Hal Blaine, “That famous drum intro was an accident. I was supposed to play the snare on the second beat as well as the fourth, but I dropped a stick. Being the faker I was in those days, I left the mistake in and it became: ‘Bum-ba-bum-BOOM!’ And soon everyone wanted that beat. If you listen to me in Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night,’ I’m playing the ‘Be My Baby’ beat, just very softly.”  Ronnie Spector, “Recording it took for ever. I rehearsed in New York with the Ronettes, then I had to go to California on my own to sing the lead. Phil (Spector) picked me up at the airport and kept saying: ‘This record is going to be amazing.’ In the studio, I had to hide in the ladies’ room so the musicians could get their work done – I was very pretty and they’d keep looking at me. While I was in there, I came up with all those ‘Oh oh ohs’, inspired by my old Frankie Lymon records. It took three days to record my vocals, take after take. The recording captures the full spectrum of my emotions: everything from nervousness to excitement. When I came in with ‘The night we met I knew I needed you so,’ the band went nuts. I was 18 years old, 3,000 miles from home, and had all these guys saying I was the next Billie Holliday.”  Brian Wilson on hearing the song for the first time, “In a way it wasn’t like having your mind blown, it was like having your mind revamped. It’s like, once you’ve heard that record, you’re a fan forever.”


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