The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 570 to 561
570. “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Elvis Presley. Songwriter: Bill Monroe; Did Not Chart; 1954. On July 5, 1954, a musically obsessed teenage Memphis truck driver was recording at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. At the end of what seemed to be an unproductive day, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black began a spontaneous performance of Bill Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and Sam Phillips immediately knew he had found the sound he wanted. A few days later, Bill Black suggested cutting a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as the B-side. Like Elvis would do often in his career, he didn’t just sing “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” he completely transformed it. Sam Phillips immediately noted his approval, “Hell, that’s different. That’s a pop song now, Levi. That’s good.”
569. “Street Fighting Man,” The Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; #48 pop; 1968. Dissatisfaction among college students in France was slowly growing in 1968 and police overreaction to organized dissent created a short-term national crisis. The Stones weren’t known as a political act, but Jagger found inspiration in the chaos. Jagger, “There was all this violence going on. I mean, they almost toppled the government in France; de Gaulle went into this complete funk, as he had in the past, and he went and sort of locked himself in his house in the country. And, so the government was almost inactive. And the French riot police were amazing.” (Jagger may not have the perspective of, let’s say, an actual history professor on this era). Keith Richards was, unsurprisingly, more concerned about sonic issues, “There’s no electric guitar parts in it. Even the high-end lead part was through a cassette player with no limiter. Just distortion. Just two acoustics, played right into the mike, and hit very hard. There’s a sitar in the back, too. That would give the effect of the high notes on the guitar. And Charlie was playing his little 1930s drummer’s practice kit.”
568. “The Weight,” The Band. Songwriter: Robbie Robertson; #63 pop; 1968. Rockabilly artist/Arkansas native Ronnie Hawkins relocated to Canada in 1958, bringing drummer Leon Helm with him. His backing group eventually evolved into The Band and immediately became a high profile act by serving as Bob Dylan’s touring unit from 1965 to 1967. Author Barry Nicholson on “The Weight” from The Band’s 1968 debut album “Music from Big Pink,” “Has any piece of music ever sounded so cosmic, or indeed so American, as the Band’s signature track? By the time Levon Helm’s road-weary traveller has pulled into Nazareth – not in biblical Galilee, but eastern Pennsylvania – he’s already ‘feeling ’bout half-past dead’; with light years on the clock, and no end to his journey in sight. So ingrained is the sense of the mythological and metaphysical that even after you learn the more prosaic truth behind its cast of characters – that ‘Luke’ refers to their former Hawks bandmate Jimmy Ray Paulman, ‘Anna Lee’ was a childhood friend of Helm’s and ‘Crazy Chester’ was an eccentric club owner from North Carolina – it still feels as esoteric and inscrutable it did on your first listen.” Robert Christgau on a well meaning cover, “I admit that when Aretha Franklin sings ‘The Weight’ is sounds as if she knows what she means. But I still don’t.”
567. “Surfer Girl,” The Beach Boys. Songwriter: Brian Wilson; #7 pop/#18 R&B; 1963. Brian Wilson on finding his gift, “Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life. I was nineteen years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it ‘Surfer Girl.’” Music historian Bill Holdship, “There is no greater song than ‘Surfer Girl,’ in my estimation. There are many that may be its equal, depending on your mood, but none any better. It’s a song with a simplistic beauty and melody that can be appreciated by toddlers as well as old people in their twilight years. I’ve loved it for most of my life. To think it was the first song he ever wrote, in his car, conceptualizing the entire thing in his head as he drove, still boggles my mind. A grand slam right out of the gate.” Author Phillip Lambert, “(Wilson) has also acknowledged that his melody was inspired by ‘When You Wish upon a Star,’ a song that he apparently sang as a child and that might have been fresh on his mind after hearing a version by Dion & the Belmonts that was on the charts briefly in 1960.”
566. “Atlantic City,” Bruce Springsteen. Songwriter: Bruce Springsteen; Did Not Chart; 1982. Springsteen sings about the hopes and fears of a low level mafia operative on “Atlantic City,” an entry from his 1982 folkie, lo-fi “Nebraska” album. The song was partially inspired by Philip Testa, a mob boss known as “The Chicken Man,” who was killed by a homemade explosive while opening the door to his home in 1981. Music journalist Mike DeGagne, “With the harmonica and guitar sounding like they’re his only friends, ‘Atlantic City’ has Springsteen playing the desperate character once again, stooping as low as the hoodlums he despises by doing ‘a little favor for them’ so he can free himself of debt and run away from his dismal lifestyle. With escapism personified in the form of his girlfriend, Springsteen’s song sounds woefully effective, with hints of Bob Dylan cropping up in the vocals.” “Atlantic City” has become somewhat of a No Depression standard – The Band, John Anderson, Hank Williams III, Pete Yorn, Eddie Vedder, Mumford & Sons, and many others, have described the fate of the Chicken Man and the realities of cash strapped desperation. Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.
565. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Lloyd Price. Songwriter: Lloyd Price; #1 R&B; 1952. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was the first hit for Lloyd Price, who went from writing radio advertising jingles to becoming an R&B star after Specialty Records owner Art Rupe went to New Orleans seeking new talent. Since Price didn’t have his own band, he was backed by Dave Bartholomew’s crew to include Fats Domino on piano. The melody is taken from the 1940 Champion Jack Dupree song “Junker Blues” as was Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man.” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was arguably one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records and it created the template for much of the commercial New Orleans music of the decade. However, it’s staying power is in Price’s pained vocals of unrequited love. Price has noted that the inspiration for the lyrics was a breakup with his girlfriend, resulting in him singing “with pitiful sorrow in my voice.” From a business standpoint, it’s shocking that a teenage Lloyd Price received the sole writing credit. Art Rupe, “It never occurred to me to put my name on Lloyd’s composition or that of any other songwriter. To do so would have been theft.”
564. “Suffragette City,” David Bowie. Songwriter: David Bowie; Did Not Chart; 1972. “Suffragette City” updated boogie woogie rock ‘n’ roll for the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am glam rock era with synth lines replicating saxophones while giving a lyrical nod to the Stanley Kubrick film “A Clockwork Orange.” Blogger Justin Farrar connects the dots, “Things aren’t so simple underneath its glittery crunch, where a tug-of-war is waged between nostalgia and futurism. If the pounding ivories and greasy boogie long for the ’50s, then the slashing chords and razor-sharp execution lunge toward the punk revolution that’s still a few years out. Perhaps no early Bowie track better displays his love of The Stooges and The Velvet Underground; it all begins with brilliant guitarist Mick Ronson’s opening riff, roaring and clawing like a famished tiger. It’s an aesthetic Bowie would bring with him when he mixed Iggy and the Stooges’ 1973 landmark (album) ‘Raw Power,’ a record that helped kickstart punk and hardcore.”
563. “Cold Sweat (Part I),” James Brown. Songwriters: James Brown, Alfred Ellis; #7 pop/#1 R&B; 1967. Sax man Pee Wee Ellis, “One night somewhere, James called me into the dressing room and grunted a bass line, which turned out to be ‘Cold Sweat.’ I was very much influenced by Miles Davis and had been listening to ‘So What’ six or seven years earlier and that crept into the making of ‘Cold Sweat.’ You could call it subliminal, but the horn line is based on Miles Davis’ ‘So What.’ Between the two of us, we put it together one afternoon. He put the lyrics on it. The band set up in a semicircle in the studio with one microphone. It was recorded live in the studio. One take. It was like a performance. We didn’t do overdubbing.” “Cold Sweat” also was completely unconventional in that the song has only one chord change. RJ Smith, “There is a reason why music teachers call the succession of harmonies in a song a chord progression. They have a lot invested in the word progress nestled in the phrase. Like their assumption that ‘growth’ or history’s forward march is tied to a series of chord changes, and the assumption that a proper sequence of chords builds an arc, or a storyline, or somehow creates a sense of getting somewhere. ‘Cold Sweat’ jumps off that train. It moves all right, but it does not travel a route. ‘Cold Sweat’ is about an enduring, dominant present.”
562. “Got to Give It Up,” Marvin Gaye. Songwriter: Marvin Gaye; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1977. This innovative funk, party dance track was a comeback hit for Marvin Gaye, his first return to the pop Top Ten since 1973’s “Let’s Get it On.” Gaye had been asked by his label to produce a disco song and his original intent was to write parody of the disco genre. The working title of “Got to Give It Up” was “Dancing Lady,” inspired by the 1976 Johnnie Taylor “Disco Lady.” The end result was an irresistible, percussion heavy funk dance track that would later influence “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” by the Jacksons and Michael Jackson’s solo hit “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough.” “Got to Give It Up” returned to the limelight in 2013. Robin Thicke’s international smash “Blurred Lines” was clearly heavily influenced by the Gaye track, but was released as an original composition by Thick, producer Pharell Williams, and rapper T.I. (Clifford Harris, Jr). As the result of legal action, Gaye was given a posthumous writing credit on “Blurred Lines” in 2015.
561. “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” Talking Heads. Songwriters: David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, Brian Eno; Did Not Chart; 1980. For the 1980 “Remain in Light” album, the Talking Heads, along with producer Brian Eno, developed a wonderfully odd mixture of electronic sounds, new wave funk, and African polyrhythms. David Byrne on discovering African music, “It was very exciting, very fascinating for me to hear things in that music which are also a part of American funk music and other kinds of black American music. I think the main difference between the African ethnic music and American funk is that some of the textures are real different; the overall textures and the combinations of instruments they use, the way they build an orchestra, is very different than just guitar-bass-drums-percussion. So overall, it might have the same structure but still a very different sound to it. It was a good starting point for inspiration.” Byne took that “orchestra” approach to imminently danceable funk track “Born Under Punches.” Rock critic Bill Janovitz, “’Born Under Punches’ is a thick menage of polyrhythmic percussion, staccato guitars, popping bass, and Devo-like electronic blips and bleeps, which erupt from one of guest guitarist Adrian Belew’s guitar-synth squalls. And it is all, remarkably, in time to the beat. Byrne alternately speaks and shouts his invectives and warnings through a rich reverb effect, slipping his lines in between a call-and-response backing-vocal section. The latter serves as a sort of Greek chorus that the singer reacts to (while remaining disjointed) in an internal dialogue: ‘All I want is to breathe (I’m too thin)/Won’t you breathe with me/Find a little space/So we move in between (I’m a tumbler)/And keep one step of yourself.’ The backing vocals take on a P-Funk dimension during the last lines of the song: ‘And the heat goes on/Where the hand has been.’ It is rare for a band to be so experimental and melodically catchy simultaneously.”
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