The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 610 to 601
610. “Changes,” David Bowie. Songwriter: David Bowie; #41 pop; 1971. On “Changes,” Bowie paired his flair for theater level drama with lyrics about his great early 1970’s subject, the generation gap. This single, which was released in the U.S. twice, peaking on the pop charts in 1975, can be viewed as being about the inexorable march of time, or Bowie’s steadfast refusal to adhere to one public image. Bowie preferred the latter interpretation, stating, “It’s saying: ‘Look, I’m going to be so fast, you’re not going to keep up with me.” For a gent who had only one significant hit at the time, “Space Oddity” peaked at #5 on the U.K. charts in 1969, he was not lacking in the confidence department. Bowie, on his approach to his work, “I’m just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.”
609. “Redemption Song,” Bob Marley & the Wailers. Songwriter: Bob Marley; Did Not Chart; 1980. Dan Reilly of Billboard, “Written after his cancer diagnosis, Marley reflects upon his impending death, spirituality, and slavery, borrowing the lines ‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds’ from activist Marcus Garvey. With his still-powerful voice and a gently strummed acoustic guitar, Marley put his legacy as an artist and message as an activist into just 108 words, telling all the believers to learn from their pasts, know their presents, and fight for their futures.” Journalist Robert Webb, “This stark solo take, more akin to Bob Dylan’s early protest work than the hard-nosed reggae with which he had made his name, is the sound of the reggae star signing off with special poignancy.” Author Ian K. Smith, “The final line of the chorus, ‘All I ever had, redemption songs,’ reads like an epitaph for Marley’s struggle.”
608. “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” Bob Dylan. Songwriter: Bob Dylan; Did Not Chart; 1966. Bob Dylan was a certified pop star by the time he released the 1966 double album “Blonde on Blonde,” having hit the Top Ten the previous year with the singles “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively 4th Street.” He returned to the upper echelon of the pop charts with the “Blonde on Blonde” single “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35,” but was at his beguiling best with “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Author Jim Beviglia, “The bizarre tenor of the words in songs like this have a way of emphasizing the intended emotions far better than a straightforward take might do. In this case, the narrator gets buffeted about between these goofy characters and absurd situations ‘til his activities become almost comforting. This isn’t a blues that tears out your heart; it’s one that leaves you scratching your head. It’s not sorrow that Dylan wants to evoke here; its haplessness, and he accomplishes this via the surreal tone.” A seemingly appropriate Dylan quote for this occasion, “I accept chaos. I’m not sure whether it accepts me.”
607. “Sh-Boom,” The Chords. Songwriters: James Keyes, Claude Feaster, Carl Feaster, Floyd F. McRae, James Edwards; #9 pop/#2 R&B; 1954. The Chords were a Bronx based R&B vocal group who were discovered while singing in a subway and had their first and only hit with the ecstatic, fast paced doo wop number “Sh-Boom.” (An inferior version by the Canadian group The Crew-Cuts was also a major hit in 1954). Author Bryan Thomas, “’Sh-Boom’ is supposed to have been titled after the threat of an atom bomb explosion which, in the midst of Cold War posturing in 1954, was a very real topic on the public’s mind. However, this demented ditty also included the surreally optimistic message that everything was ultimately fine and as the rest of the lyrics suggested, ‘life could be a dream.’ By the end of June 1954, ‘Sh-Boom’ had climbed up the charts nationwide, charting on both the R&B and pop lists, a nearly unprecedented feat for its time. For all practical purposes – along with the Crows’ 1953 hit ‘Gee’ – ‘Sh-Boom’ introduced the white audience to black R&B music for the first time.”
606. “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” Sly and the Family Stone. Songwriter: Sly Stone; #2 pop/#3 R&B; 1969. Author Miles Marshall Lewis, “The week after Woodstock, ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’ entered the top 100 and speedily shot to number two for two weeks, Sly and the Family Stone’s biggest hit since ‘Everyday People.’ The languid, melancholy tone of the song perfectly captures the lazy haziness of summer. Beginning with simple piano trills, Sly jumps right into the lyrics: ‘End of the spring and here she comes back…’ It’s the first Sly and the Family Stone song with sentimental string orchestration, a universally appealing subject, instantly nostalgic. The trademark throaty growl Sly would later use time and again debuted here.” The line “I ‘cloud nine’ when I want to” can be viewed as either a salute to the Temptations or as recognition that Motown producer Norman Whitfield had copied Sly’s groundbreaking psychedelic soul sound.
605. “Please Please Me,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; #3 pop; 1963. John Lennon, “I remember the day I wrote it, I heard Roy Orbison doing ‘Only the Lonely,’ or something. And I was also always intrigued by the words to a Bing Crosby song that went, ‘Please lend a little ear to my pleas.’ The double use of the word ‘please.’ So it was a combination of Roy Orbison and Bing Crosby.” George Martin, “The songs the Beatles first gave me were crap. This was 1962 and they played a dreadful version of ‘Please Please Me’ as a Roy Orbison-style ballad. But I signed them because they made me feel good to be with them, and if they could convey that on a stage then everyone in the audience would feel good, too. So I took ‘Love Me Do’ and added some harmonica, but it wasn’t financially rewarding even though Brian Epstein bought about 2,000 copies. Then we worked for ages on their new version of ‘Please Please Me,’ and I said: ‘Gentlemen, you’re going to have your first #1.’” Keith Richards after being asked what is his favorite Fab Four number, “I’ve always told McCartney, ‘Please Please Me.’ I just love the chimes, and I was there at the time and it was beautiful. Mind you, there’s plenty of others, but if I’ve got to pick one, ‘Please Please Me’… oh, yeah!”
604. “You Don’t Know Me,” Ray Charles. Songwriters: Cindy Walker, Eddy Arnold; #2 pop/#5 R&B; 1962. Ray Charles, “I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me – like food or water.” Ray Charles had one of the most successful eras of his career by channeling that musical energy into country music.
Eddy Arnold had given Cindy Walker the title “You Don’t Know Me” and the theme of an infatuated man who can’t communicate his emotions. It took Walker several weeks to develop the story and determine the ending of the song. Eddy Arnold had a #10 country single with “You Don’t Know Me” in 1956 and it was also a pop hit for Jerry Vale that year. Ray always had a more countrypolitan than honky tonk take on the Nashville sound and while there’s too much syrup in the arrangement, his vocal on “You Don’t Know Me” is pure country soul heartbreak. Willie Nelson on the impact of the “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” album, “When Ray did ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ that was probably the time when country music was heard by more people than ever before. He kicked country music forward 50 years. Before him, a lot of people had probably never heard of songs by Don Gibson or Hank Williams.”
603. “One Fine Day,” The Chiffons. Songwriters: Carole King, Gerry Goffin; #5 pop/#6 R&B; 1963. “One Fine Day” was originally written for Little Eva of “The Locomotion” fame, but the writing team wasn’t satisfied with the results and submitted the song to The Tokens. That group was producing The Chiffons, who had a #1 single in 1963 with “He’s So Fine,” so Carole King thought the “fine” theme could work for them again. Jay Siegel of The Tokens, “Carole King and our group all grew up in the same neighborhood, and she sent us the demo of ‘One Fine Day’ with her voice on it, and we said, ‘This is great. We don’t have to do anything. We just have to add a saxophone to the track, put the Chiffons’ voices on the track, and we have a record.’ We knew when we walked out of the studio that ‘One Fine Day’ had to be a hit record.” It has also been said that it was Little Eva’s vocals, not Carole King’s, on the demo that The Tokens erased and replace with The Chiffons. In any case, it is definitely Carole King who played the pounding piano intro and recurring triplets on the recording. Cynthia Weil, commenting on King, one of her female songwriting peers of her era, “She was just too damn talented.”
602. “Guitar Town,” Steve Earle. Songwriter: Steve Earle; #7 country; 1986. Texas high school dropout Steve Earle developed an association with Lone Star State singer/songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark early in his career, appearing alongside Townes in the mid-1970s documentary “Heartworn Highways” and singing backup vocals on Guy Clark’s 1975 “Old No. 1” album. He spent a decade shuffling between Nashville and Texas and had his first radio success was a writing credit on Johnny Lee’s 1982 #14 single “When You Fall in Love,” an outing that sounds more like Air Supply than outlaw country Earle released several singles from 1983 to 1986, first hitting the country Top 40 in 1986 with the rockabilly flavored “Hillbilly Highway.” The ramblin’ man with a Jap axe/tremolo pedal of “Guitar Town” put a motel tanned, speed trap avoiding Earle in the country Top Ten and the album of the same name resulted in many comparisons to Bruce Springsteen. Music journalist Rick Moore, “Each of the three verses of ‘Guitar Town’ stand on their own as individual stories, and when combined with the ‘B’ section (which some people may or may not count as a bridge), you’ve got a two-and-a-half minute movie that leaves the listener in the driver’s seat, hitting the road for the next town once the equipment is loaded.”
601. “Memphis, Egypt,” The Mekons. Songwriters: Tom Greenhalgh, Jon Langford; Did Not Chart; 1989. The Mekons formed as enthusiastic art school amateurs during the late 1970s in Leeds, England and received elaborate praise from Lester Bangs, who wrote, “The Mekons are the most revolutionary band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.” Signed to A&M Records for their 1989 album “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” they turned in a record that was a diatribe against capitalism. “Memphis, Egypt” employs glorious waves of cacophony that both celebrates by its sound and eviscerates by its lyrics the very concept of “rock ‘n’ roll.” Timothy and Elizabeth Bracy from the “Stereogum” website, “The lead track from the band’s astounding, toxic triumph ‘The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll’ is a distillation of the rage, humor, and irony that populates so much of the group’s greatest work. Over a driving riff and unforgettable refrain, ‘Memphis, Egypt’ lays waste to rock’s mythologies while unapologetically indulging in its sensual pleasures. Here Langford brazenly and persuasively compares the birthplace of rock with the early foundations of human slavery, all with a beat you can dance to. Rock and roll might well be ‘capitalism’s most favorite boy child,’ but that doesn’t make it any less ‘the place we all want to go.’ ‘Memphis, Egypt’ does not so much bite the hand that feeds the Mekons, as tear off its head and parade it around in an unhinged orgy of bloodlust. Elvis would be proud, were he not so very dead.” Jon Langford, “When we were on A&M, they told us that 25,000 records sales wasn’t very good and we were like, ‘!’ We’d feel very uncomfortable if more than 25,000 people bought our record. “