The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 580 to 571
580. “Under the Boardwalk,” The Drifters. Songwriters: Kenny Young, Arthur Resnick; #4 pop/#1 R&B; 1964. Rudy Lewis of The Drifters died of a heroin overdose on May 21, 1964. Instead of mourning the next day, with studio time booked, former Drifters lead singer Johnny Moore replaced Lewis to record “Under the Boardwalk.” The lyrics of “Under the Boardwalk” describe young love blossoming, while beating the heat of the summer, through the sensory pleasures of seaside attractions. Author Joel Selvin, “(Producer) Bert Berns considered ‘Under the Boardwalk’ a lightweight throwaway by a couple of unknown Brill Building songwriters, Artie Resnick and Kenny Young, still looking for their first big song. Arranger Mike Leander’s crisp take on Berns’s Afro-Cuban approach to the Drifters’ trademark sound, first tried out on the Solomon Burke album track ‘You Can’t Love ’Em All’ gave ‘Boardwalk’ a familiar yet fresh sound for the tired vocal group, ten years down the road from Clyde McPhatter. Written in a cubicle at TM Music on the same Brill Building floor as Leiber and Stoller’s office, Kenny Young strumming the guitar and Artie Resnick scrawling out the lyrics, ‘Under the Boardwalk’ practically invented the summer song genre, in addition to revitalizing the Drifters’ marquee value just when Atlantic needed it badly.”
579. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” Otis Redding. Songwriters: Otis Redding, Jerry Butler; #21 pop/#2 R&B; 1965. R&B star Jerry Butler had the initial idea for “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” He performed the unfinished song for Otis Redding who responded, “Hey, man, that’s a smash. Let me go mess around with it. Maybe I’ll come up with something.” Redding turned the ballad into another one of his dramatic heartbreak numbers, sounding as though a romantic quandary is physically tearing him apart. Memphis trumpet player Wayne Jackson, “’I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ has great horn parts. You can almost hear the horns saying the words in that record. They’re also used like a rhythm instrument on the stop line – definite punctuation.” Booker T. Jones, “My experience having been a church player, and having had the classical experience, really helped there. The ‘walk-ups’ on those songs are classical type walk-ups, the way the chorus progresses to where the chromatics strike, that emotion. Working on something like that, Otis and me became very good friends, you know, spending time on the road or in a studio together. ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ and ‘Try A Little Tenderness.’ Those were, I think, some of our best moments together.”
578. “How Many More Years,” Howlin’ Wolf. Songwriter: Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett); #4 R&B; 1951. Mississippi born blues singer Chester Burnett had a perfect stage name as Howlin’ Wolf. He was a physically intimidating presence with a booming, unforgettable voice. “How Many More Years,” Wolf’s debut single, is a pre-rock ‘n’ roll rock ‘n’ roll record. Wolf spits out gravel about his women problems when he’s not playing harmonica fills. Ike Turner plays a driving barrelhouse piano while Willie Steele pounds the drums like they are his worst enemy. On top of it all of that, guitarist Willie Johnson lays in some fat, distorted power chord licks. T-Bone Burnett, “The first major breakthrough Sam (Phillips) made was with Howlin’ Wolf. That’s when he started bringing the bass and drums up loud. Back in those days the bass and drums were background instruments; it was all about the horns and the piano, the melody instruments, and Sam brought the rhythm section right up front, and that became rock ‘n’ roll. That was a big shift…. In some ways ‘How Many More Years’ by Wolf would be the first rock ’n’ roll song because that has the guitar lick that became the central guitar lick in rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s the first time we heard that played on a distorted guitar. It was an old big band lick, turned into something completely fresh.” Sam Phillips, “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’”
577. “Just Like Heaven,” The Cure. Songwriters: Robert Smith, Simon Gallup, Porl Thompson, Boris Williams, Lol Tolhurst; #40 pop; 1987. The Cure had been together for almost a decade before having their first U.S. Top Forty hit with “Just Like Heaven.” Lipstick abuser/fashion victim Robert Smith, “I knew as soon as I’d written it that it was a good pop song. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the structure is very similar to ‘Another Girl, Another Planet,’ by The Only Ones, which I can still vividly remember hearing on the radio late at night in the mid-’70s. The main difference is that as the song progressed, I introduced some different chord changes, which give it that slightly melancholic feeling. The song is about hyperventilating – kissing and fainting to the floor. Mary dances with me in the video because she was the girl, so it had to be her. The idea is that one night like that is worth 1,000 hours of drudgery.” Barry Walsh of Slant, “The band is at the top of its game (particularly drummer Boris Williams) on the simply stellar ‘Just Like Heaven.’ Glistening descending guitar lines, Gallup’s throbbing bass line, and Williams’s authoritative thumping frame a typically lovelorn Smith lyric, with the end result being one of the Cure’s finest singles, and perhaps one of the best pop singles of the late ’80s.” One would be hard pressed to find too many opening song lyrics as memorable as, “Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick/The one that makes me scream she said.”
576. “Green Onions,” Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Songwriters: Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Lewie Steinberg, Al Jackson Jr.; #3 pop/#1 R&B; 1962. Booker T. Jones started working as a professional musician at the age of sixteen and co-wrote the 1962 #3 pop hit “Green Onions” while he was still in high school. It was during this timeframe that the M.G.’s became the Stax house band, although they continued to release instrumentals under their own name throughout the decade. “Green Onions” is a perfect representation of the minimalist genius of Booker T. & the M.G.’s. It’s played with an every-note-matters sensibility that balances playful and ominous tones. Booker T. Jones, “I started playing that riff. I had played it a few times on piano, but this was the first time on the organ. It sounded different through the little organ speaker. It had more urgency, more attitude.” Author Robert Gordon, “It was sinister, with a staccato emphasis on the beat like the popular TV detective show theme song ‘Peter Gunn.’ ‘Green Onions’ also evokes the deceptive simplicity of a John Lee Hooker song, and the beat heavy ‘Think’ by the Five Royales. The guitar and bass often double, playing the same notes, guided by Booker’s left hand; it gives the band a fat sound, uncomplicated.” Producer Jim Stewart, “They came up with this fantastic groove, a funky, unbelievable groove. Everybody came into the control room and was jumping up and down.”
575. “Memphis, Tennessee,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; Did Not Chart; 1959. This long distance plea for help was originally the b-side to “Back in the U.S.A.” in 1959 and hit the U.K. Top Ten in 1963. Musically, “Memphis” sounds like a muted form of rockabilly, but the hook is in the story. As the song develops, it is revealed that the phone call was made in hopes of finding a six-year-old daughter, the victim of a broken family. A 1963 Lonnie Mack instrumental version of “Memphis” preceded the Johnny Rivers cover that peaked at #2 on the pop charts in 1964. Most interesting version – Wilson Pickett’s 1973 release sounds like a Blaxploitation film waiting to happen.
574. “Come Dancing,” The Kinks. Songwriter: Ray Davies; #6 pop; 1983. “Come Dancing” was The Kinks’ first top ten hit in America since “Lola” in 1970. Lyrically, Ray looks back at the U.K. big band dance hall culture of the 1950s and reflects on his sister Rene, who loved that scene. (Unlike the song, Rene passed away at a young age, reportedly on the same day that she gave Ray a Spanish guitar in 1957). Best moment – when Dave Davies’ power chords slam into the bridge, taking the listener from the nostalgic theme into present. Kinks biographer Carey Fleiner, “As with the songs off ‘The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society,’ ‘Come Dancing’ had universally appealing themes of family, childhood, and memory, charting on both sides of the Atlantic.” Ray Davies in 2015, “I wanted to regain some of the warmth I thought we’d lost, doing those stadium tours. ‘Come Dancing’ was an attempt to get back to roots, about my sisters’ memories of dancing in the ’50s.”
573. “Loser,” Beck. Songwriters: Beck, Carl Stephenson; #10 pop; 1993. When Beck Hansen hit the pop scene in the early 1990s, he brought the aesthetic of a collage artist into mainstream music – cherry picking soundbites, loops, and samples, while tap dancing into a wide swath of genres. With its request for a homicide, its mixture of a blues lick with hip hop beats, and a sarcastic self-demeaning chorus in two languages, “Loser” was not a typical pop hit. According to Beck, the title concept came from his disappointment at how inept he felt his rapping was. Part of the inspiration for the comical lines came from Beck’s time working in L.A. clubs, as a means of getting attention from an audience bored with blues covers. Chuck Klosterman on the impact of “Loser” on a generation of getting-crazy-with-the-Cheese-Whiz stoners and slackers, “Here’s what really happened when MTV played Beck’s ‘Loser’ for the first time, in 1994: The culture inverted itself, weirdness was instantaneously mainstreamed, everyone stopped combing their hair, people slept more and purchased broken turntables at stoop sales, dirtbags began using the word art in casual conversation. ‘Loser’ was lifestyle branding. It made a vision of unspecific, apolitical apathy appear charming and desirable. Overnight, it was so much easier for white people to be cool. All you had to do was look weird and act weirder.”
572. “Oh Girl,” The Chi-Lites. Songwriter: Eugene Record; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1972. The Chi-Lites started as a high school vocal group in the late 1950s, but had no commercial success until 1969’s Top Ten R&B single “Give It Away.” Their smooth R&B sounds found the pop mainstream with the early 1970’s hits “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People,” “Have You Seen Her,” and their #1 smash “Oh Girl.” This soft soul tale of romantic dependency, replete with a mournful harmonica and orchestral strings, features lead singer Eugene Record begging for forgiveness while wearing a guilty face. Eugene Record in 2015, “I gave (Chicago record producer) Carl Davis seven songs on a tape and he called me to say there’s a #1 tune on there. I named them all before ‘Oh Girl’ and I thought he was kidding.” English singer Paul Young returned “Oh Girl” to the Top Ten of the U.S. pop charts in 1990. Eugene Record passed away from cancer in 2005, two years after receiving a writing credit and a Grammy for Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” due to its sample of The Chi-Lites 1970 R&B hit “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So).”
571. “Keep a Knockin’,” Little Richard. Songwriter: Little Richard; #8 pop/#2 R&B; 1957. “Keep a Knockin’” was originally recorded as a piano based blues number by James “Boodle It” Wiggins in 1928, who tossed in a kazoo solo. It is believed that Wiggins was from Louisiana and author W.T. Lhamon has described “Knockin’” as an “old blues standard associated with Storyville, the New Orleans brothel district. Indeed, (musicologist) David Evans has pointed out that ‘Knockin’ was a folk song from a prostitute’s point of view; she is with a john in her stall, so cannot let in the knocker, but urges him to try again tomorrow.” Milton Brown and Bob Wills recorded Western swing versions of “Keep a Knockin’” during the 1930s, followed by a primarily instrumental, jump blues cover by Louis Jordan in 1939. Little Richard recorded the most famous version of “Keep a Knockin’,” a wild saxophone driven affair with a drum intro that Led Zep nicked for “Rock and Roll.” Little Richard also took the writing credit, because all is fair in love and war and rock ‘n’ roll.