The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 930 to 921
930. “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” Guns N’ Roses. Songwriters: Axl Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan, Steven Adler; #1 pop; 1988. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was the most successful single from the 1987 Guns N’ Roses album “Appetite for Destruction,” a record that sold over thirty million copies worldwide. The song hit the perfect metal sweet spot, melodic enough for female listeners, yet aggressive enough to not turn away male fans. Rolling Stone, ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ was born out of a spontaneous jam the members of the band undertook very late in the sessions for ‘Appetite for Destruction.’Axl wrote lyrics about his girlfriend Erin Everly, even if he never quite finished them. The line, ‘Where do we go now?’ was originally an honest question. He didn’t know where to take the song at that point, but it seemed to fit and so it stayed in.” Axl Rose, “’Sweet Child o’ Mine’ is the first positive love song I’ve ever written, but I never had anyone to write anything about before.” From the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, “The song also established lead guitarist Slash as a bona fide guitar hero. With his signature top hat, wild shock of hair and low-slung Gibson Les Paul, Slash struck a singular presence and had the memorable chops to match. The intro to ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ ranks among rock’s great guitar riffs while the main guitar solo translated the mid-tempo rock song’s romantic sentiment into a blistering passage with evocative blues licks and pentatonic runs, and wah-wah effects.” Slash, “It’s a combination of influences. From Jeff Beck, Cream and Zeppelin to stuff you’d be surprised at: the solos in Manfred Mann’s version of ‘Blinded by The Light’ and Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street.’”
929. “It Don’t Come Easy,” Ringo Starr. Songwriter: Richard Starkey; #4 pop; 1971. Ringo Starr’s solo career didn’t start with a bang – he released an album of standards (“Sentimental Journey”) and a Nashville album (“Beaucoups of Blues”) in 1970 and neither produced a hit. While recording the “Sentimental Journey” album, George Harrison and Ringo Starr worked on “It Don’t Come Easy.” Starr received the writing credit, but your ears will tell you that this is primarily a Harrison composition. With Badfinger on backup vocals, Stephen Stills on piano, and Harrison’s instantly recognizable fluid guitar work, “It Don’t Come Easy” is one of the best post Beatles singles by any Fab Four representative. Smartly agreeing with me, Phil Dellio and Scott Woods opined in their 1993 book “I Wanna Be Sedated: Pop Music in the Seventies” that “It Don’t Come Easy” and Ringo’s 1973 #1 single “Photograph” are “probably the two best post-Beatles singles of all.”
928. “Sick Day,” Fountains of Wayne. Songwriters: Chris Collingwood, Adam Schlesinger; Did Not Chart; 1996. The New Jersey rock band Fountains of Wayne were experts at character studies, often providing a humorous perspective on mundane life situations. They were somewhat reminiscent of The Kinks, in delivering lyrics that could be either poignant or biting. Their debut album is best remembered for the humming guitars on “Radiation Vibe” and the despairing “Sink to the Bottom,” but the empathetic “Sick Day” reflected their expertise on modern careerism. Jon Dolan of Rolling Stone, “’Sick Day’ is a beautifully melancholic ode to a Jersey girl taking the PATH train into Manhattan to fake her way through another day of temp-job purgatory – ‘making the scene with her coffee and cream.’ It’s simply the greatest song ever written about that sweet, slight moment of post-college, pre-career stasis, when nothing seems necessary, everything seems totally attainable yet weirdly beneath you, and even the dullest 9-to-5 distractions come haloed in ‘hey, whatever’ possibility. Every detail is perfect, from the busted copy machine to the wannabe worker bee in the next cube.”
927. “Beautiful World,” Devo. Songwriters: Gerald Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh; Did Not Chart; 1981. Devo was formed by a group of Kent State University art students in the early 1970s. Their name came from the word “de-evolution,” the all too true concept that mankind is regressing, not evolving. Beauty being in the eye of the beholder is most vividly expressed on one of Devo’s finest songs. Jerry Casale of Devo on “Beautiful World,” “We wanted to get everybody into a mood where people thought Devo was saying the world was really nice and saying the world was beautiful, then it turns out to be one man’s opinion, which is mine, which is, while the world could be beautiful, it’s not for me because of what I’m seeing. We had a very dark vision. We definitely saw the world crumbling. There wasn’t much optimism. I’ve often said Devo is like the house band on the Titanic, playing familiar tunes that make us feel better as we all go down together.” Mark Mothersbaugh on a less apocalyptic, more practical matter, “Jerry and I both tried to sing like Stan (Ridgway) from Wall Of Voodoo when we were doing the song. I don’t know why, but we could imagine Stan singing that song, so we were both trying to fake his accent and Jerry did a great job so he ended up singing on the record.”
926. “Me and Billy the Kid,” Joe Ely. Songwriter: Joe Ely: Did Not Chart; 1990. After several years of being the next big thing that never materialized and having plowed through The Flatlanders songbook, Joe Ely retreated into his Texas comfort zone during the 1980s. He released this comical tale of his misadventures with and against Henry McCarty (they never got along) on his 1987 Hightone release “Lord of the Highway,” but a better version kicks off his 1990 “Live at Liberty Lunch” album. Ely has said that he was inspired to write the song after visiting a “Billy the Kid” museum in New Mexico that clearly advertised fiction as history. Ely, “All the accounts that I’d read of him, you really couldn’t tell which account was on the level and which wasn’t. So I decided to make up my own story.” Conceptually, this outlaw story would have fit well on Ely’s 1992 album titled “Love and Danger.” “Me and Billy the Kid” has been covered by Pat Green and Marty Stuart and is the only song I know that rhymes “La Cucaracha” with “Chihuahau.”
925. “That Smell,” Lynyrd Skynyrd. Songwriters: Allen Collins, Ronnie Van Zant; Did Not Chart; 1977. Lynyrd Skynyrd started as a Jacksonville, Florida high school act during the 1960s, with a name inspired by a disliked phys ed teacher, and became one of the pillars of Southern rock in the 1970s. On October 17th, 1977, the band released an album titled “Street Survivors,” the cover image showed the band being enveloped by flames. The second track on the record, “That Smell,” is a song about cocaine and heroin and Quaaludes and the odor of impending death, inspired by a drunken car crash involving guitarist Gary Rossington. Three days after the album was released, the band’s chartered plane crashed outside of Gillsburg, Mississippi, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backup singer Cassie Gaines.
924. “In the Still of the Night,” The Five Satins. Songwriter: Fred Parris; #24 pop/#3 R&B; 1956. The Five Satins evolved from a Connecticut high school doo wop group and had their first hit in 1956 with “In the Still of the Nite,” their signature song. Author Jim Beviglia, “Arguably the greatest song in the history of doo-wop was written while its composer had a brief leave from the military and was recorded in the basement of a church in New Haven, Connecticut, and the guy who played the saxophone solo was a parishioner there. You couldn’t make this stuff up, as they say. Yet there is no doubt that ‘In the Still of the Night’ (or ‘Nite’ as it was also labelled) cast a long shadow over one of the predominant genres of music at around the time of the birth of rock and roll. The two-verse-and-a-bridge song, released in 1956, captures the wonder and awe of romance with stunning efficiency. Of course, describing a song like ‘In the Still of the Night’ doesn’t do it any justice. With this one, it’s best to hold your significant other with all your might, look up at the moonlit sky, and sway along to the Five Satins immortal contribution to the doo-wop canon.” The Five Satins two big hits feature different lead singers. Fred Perris sang lead on “In the Still of the Nite,” but had to leave the group due to his military service commitment. Bill Baker was the lead vocalist for the 1957 hit “To the Aisle.” During the 1980s, the two former lead singers engaged in a seven year legal battle over the ownership of the band name. Baker, who worked a manufacturing job in his later years, died nine months after the issue was resolved.
923. “Days,” The Kinks. Songwriter: Ray Davies; Did Not Chart; 1968. On this 1968 single, a #12 U.K. pop hit, Ray Davies copes with the loss of a lover or loved one not by focusing on his own pain, but by acknowledging how much positive impact the person had on Ray’s life. Author Andy Miller, “’Days’ articulates how we would all like to remember our friends, our lovers and our lives: gratefully, and without regret. It is Ray Davies’ wisest song.” Davies in 2010, “The song has grown in intensity over the years. I didn’t think much about the song when I wrote it. It’s built up quite a lot of mystique over the years. It certainly left me. It belongs to the world now.” Dave Davies, reflecting on a rare moment of brotherly bonding, “I remember when I heard Ray start playing ‘Days’ round the piano, I was really full of emotion. It made me feel like it didn’t matter if anybody didn’t like it, because we were together.” British singer Kirsty MacColl released a cover version in 1989 that peaked at #12 on the U.K. charts, just like the original.
922. “Chain Gang,” Sam Cooke. Songwriter: Sam Cooke; #2 pop/#2 R&B; 1960. Charles Cook, Sam Cooke’s Brother, on the origin of “Chain Gang,” “We was driving along this highway, man, and we saw people working on a chain gang on the side of the road. They asked us, ‘You got any cigarettes?’ So, we gave them the cigarettes we had. Then we got down the road about three or four miles and bought five or six cartons. We carried them back to the dudes that was working on that gang and Sam said, ‘Man, that’s a good song, right there.’” Instead of a group of guys begging for tobacco, Sam turned “Chain Gang” into a thirsty, love missing concept. This was Cooke’s second biggest hit, 1957’s “You Send Me” went to #1 on the pop charts, and it’s a tribute to his deft touch that he was able to give a prison labor theme such universal appeal. Thomas Rhett nicked the background vocal cadences of “Chain Gang” for his 2015 #1 country hit “Crash and Burn.”
921. “This Is My Country,” The Impressions. Songwriter: Curtis Mayfield; #25 pop/#8 R&B; 1968. Author Bill Friskics-Warren, “The hit records that Curtis Mayfield made with the Impressions were written as barely masked paeans to black pride. With the Impressions’ 1968 single ‘This is My Country’…Mayfield decided to drop the mask.” The cover of the “This Is My Country” album pictures the band standing in front of a dilapidated slum building, reflecting that “their country” was a land under siege. Backed by those sweet Chicago horns, Mayfield explains that his people have paid the price through welts on their back to proclaim their rights as Americans. How odd it must have been to hear “Shall we perish unjust or live equal as a nation?” on Top 40 radio. The concept of ownership was important to Mayfield, an African-American who founded his own publishing company and record label.