The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 780 to 771
780. “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” The Stylistics. Songwriters: Thom Bell, Linda Creed; #3 pop/#2 R&B; 1972. The Stylistics were a Philadelphia based vocal group who released ten Top Forty singles between 1971 and 1974, to include the Top Ten hits, “You Are Everything,” “Stone in Love with You,” “Break Up to Make Up,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” and “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” which had originally been recorded by Connie Stephens in 1970. Producer Thom Bell wasn’t too impressed with The Stylistics as a unit, but he loved the falsetto voice of lead singer Russell Thompkins, Jr. While Motown was moving in a more socially conscious direction, Thom Bell was creating a new brand of supper club soul. Lyrically, “Betcha By Golly, Wow” is a saccharin overdose, but Thompkins’ voice is such a splendid instrument, you barely notice the references to candy land and ordering custom made rainbows.
779. “Mr. Soul,” Buffalo Springfield. Songwriter: Neil Young; Did Not Chart; 1967. Buffalo Springfield was a retroactive supergroup who helped to advance the country rock/California folk sound that had been developed by The Byrds. Their 1967 album cut “Mr. Soul” sounds like a fuzz heavy update of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” with Neil Young’s mercurial, stream of consciousness lyrics providing a more psychedelic lens. Author James McDonough, “Open to a thousand interpretations, shot full of mystery and dread, ‘Mr. Soul’ is the first glimpse into the darker side of Neil Young’s psyche. Whatever it was that had descended upon him, the feeling in ‘Mr. Soul’ is that he just made it out from underneath. Young, who bashed out the song in five minutes, playfully dedicated the tune “respectfully to the women of Whiskey A Go-Go and the women of Hollywood.” Otis Redding stopped by during the “Mr. Soul” recording session where (a) he saw co-producer Charlie Greene punch Stephen Stills in the mouth and (b) he decided to cover the song, an idea he later dropped or Neil vetoed depending on which story you prefer.
778. “Let’s Go,” The Cars. Songwriter: Ric Ocasek; #14 pop; 1979. Boston based musicians Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr started working together in the early 1970s and released a 1973 album as members of the band Milkwood. That group evolved into The Cars, who became an immediate success with the release of their 1978 debut album, pushed into platinum territory with the singles “Just What I Needed” and “My Best’s Friend’s Girl.” We have to go back to the early 1960s for the origins of their 1979 hit “Let’s Go.” A Los Angeles band named The Routers, an instrumental surf rock outfit, scored a Top Twenty hit in 1962 with “Let’s Go (Pony).” The Cars nicked the drumbeat and the handclap cadence from “Let’s Go (Party),” updating the sound for the new wave era. Ric Ocasek added lyrics about an unattainable young woman, fully confident in her sexual charisma. Stylistically, The Cars could stall out when exploring artier off ramps, but were in cruise control when operating pop songs with melodic keyboard hooks.
777. “The Real Slim Shady,” Eminem. Songwriters: Marshall Mathers, Andre Young, Tommy Coster, Mike Elizondo; #4 pop/#11 R&B; 2000. Eminem debuted as a mainstream rapper with “My Name Is,” a witty combination of humor and hand grenades that went after authority figures with a viciousness that the Coasters never imagined. I mean, he was even sued by his own mother over the line “My mom smokes more dope than I do.” Eminem cemented his mainstream success in 2000 with “The Marshall Mathers LP,” which sold over ten million copies and included “Stan,” about a dangerously obsessed fan, and Eminem’s alter ego anthem “The Real Slim Shady.” Eminem slung insults at various pop culture stars on the song, but the major hook is the “please stand up’ chorus, a call for unity among his defiant punk rap community. Eminem, on his background, “I was poor white trash, no glitter, no glamour, but I’m not ashamed of anything.”
776. “Arnold Layne,” Pink Floyd. Songwriter: Syd Barrett; Did Not Chart; 1967. During the psychedelic rock era, it was possible for a song about a transvestite who went on clothesline panty raids to be played on the conservative BBC. Roger Waters, “’Arnold Layne’ was actually based on a real person. Both my mother and Syd’s mother had students as lodgers because there was a girls’ college up the road so there were constantly great lines of bras and knickers on our washing lines and ‘Arnold’ or whoever he was, had bits off our washing lines. What was so stunning about Syd’s songs was, through the whimsy and the crazy juxtaposition of ideas and words, there was a very powerful grasp of humanity. They were quintessentially human songs. And that is what I’ve always attempted to aspire to. In that sense, I feel a strong connection to him.” “Arnold Layne” was Pink Floyd’s first single and it peaked at #20 n the U.K. pop charts. By the following year, lead singer/songwriter Syd Barrett was considered too psychologically damaged to stay in the band.
775. “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” Stevie Wonder. Songwriter: Stevie Wonder; #5 pop/#1 R&B; 1980. Stevie Wonder paid tribute to Bob Marley with the reggae themed “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” which was released one year prior to Marley’s death from cancer. Author James Perone, “Wonder’s music and arrangement is appropriately stripped down to the sound of a ska band. The vocal echo Wonder (as the record producer) adds to the lead vocal also reflects the style of Jamaican record making.” Author Steve Lodder, “Stevie Wonder’s interest in reggae was long-standing: throughout the Seventies he had jammed and recorded with reggae musicians, and was interested in bringing the music to the mainstream. If there ever was a pop statement that said, ‘Look, I can still write catchy, dancey, pop tunes that will sell, and then sell some more,’ then ‘Master Blaster’ was it.” The song was similar to Wonder’s 1976 hit “Sir Duke” in that both paid respects to music legends and were performed in the style of the artist being recognized.
774. “I Want You Back,” Hoodoo Gurus. Songwriter: Dave Faulkner; Did Not Chart; 1984. The Hoodoo Gurus formed in Syndey, Australia in 1981 and while they became a commercially successful act Down Under, they never achieved significant international success. The manic pop thrill song “I Want You Back” was inspired by the departure of founding band member Roddy Radalj. Songwriter Dave Faulkner, “When Rod Radalj left the Gurus, he was very dismissive of us. I basically turned that emotion around. It was me saying ‘You’ll regret it.’” Music journalist Stewart Mason, “‘I Want You Back’ is a classic of the power pop form, up there with Big Star’s ‘September Gurls’ or the Posies’ ‘My Big Mouth.’ Musically, Alan Thorne’s production is something of a three-minute seminar on how to add hooks to a song, from the slow fade-up of the opening (a neat gimmick that not enough bands have ever used) to Dave Faulkner’s perfectly overdriven, close-miked acoustic rhythm guitar; James Baker’s just-so drum flourishes in the bridge that leads to the chorus; and (the best part) Brad Shepherd and Clyde Bramley’s near-yelled backing vocals in the choruses.” The Gurus had their biggest Aussie hit in 1987 with the loneliness rocker “What’s My Scene?” (which was later rewritten to be the theme song for the National Rugby League) and were inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association’s Hall of Fame in 2007.
773. “Unhappy Anniversary,” Loudon Wainwright III. Songwriter: Loudon Wainwright III; Did Not Chart; 1986. Loudon Wainwright is marking time after a painful divorce on “Unhappy Anniversary,” noting “We fell in love and then fell out, both times there was no net.” Credit the Celtic and music hall touches to co-producer Richard Thompson (the acerbic songwriters toured together as “Rich and Loud” during the 1980s). Wainwright on 2017 on his post divorce relationships with Kate McGarrigle and Suzzy Roche, “The brilliant Kate, who is no longer with us, you know, that was – we fought like crazy. And then we split up. And then we fought for 30 more years after that about the kids. In the situation with Suzzy Roche, she’s my best friend. I mean, I saw her yesterday literally. We were hanging out. So, you know, it can go all different kinds of ways.” Although nobody was buying Loudon Wainwright albums in the mid-1980s, both “I’m Alright” (1985) and “More Love Songs” (1986) were Grammy nominated efforts.
772. “Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen. Songwriter: Bruce Springsteen; #9 pop; 1984. Bruce Springsteen confused the hell out of everyone in 1984 with “Born in the U.S.A.,” a song that sounds like a patriotic anthem of the highest order that is actually about a down on his luck Vietnam vet. Caryn Rose of Billboard, “’Born in the U.S.A.’ opens with majestic synth chords, soon accompanied by Max Weinberg’s snap-to-attention snare rim shot, reminiscent of (and influenced by) the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” And that voice: Springsteen snarls straight out at you: ‘Born down in a dead man’s town/The first kick I took was when I hit the ground/You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just covering up…’ The E Street Band comes in like a bulldozer after the first chorus, turning this song into a powerhouse.” Springsteen in 2005, describing his cool rockin’ daddy contradictions, “In my songs, the spiritual part, the hope part is in the choruses. The blues, and your daily realities are in the details of the verses. The spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I got from Gospel music and the church.”
771. “Let the Good Times Roll,” Shirley and Lee. Songwriters: Shirley Goodman, Leonard Lee; #20 pop/#1 R&B; 1956. Shirley Goodman, who had a 1970’s disco hit with “Shame, Shame, Shame,” credited to Shirley & Company, and Leonard Lee were New Orleans natives who released four Top Five R&B hits from 1952 to 1956, but are only remembered for their crossover pop hit “Let the Good Times Roll.” Author Spencer Leigh on Goodman’s untraditional singing, “Nothing can prepare the listener for the first time that he hears Shirley and Lee’s 1956 recording of ‘Let the Good Times Roll.’ Leonard Lee, as usual, sings the majority of the song, but it is Shirley Goodman’s voice, with its bizarre mixture of flat and sharp notes, that makes the record so distinctive. It is an oddly seductive sound.” Whereas Louis Jordan invited his friends to spend some cash and avoid the cops on his 1946 R&B hit “Let the Good Times Roll,” Shirley and Lee were having a much better time behind closed doors.