The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 960 to 951
960. “Honky Tonk Masquerade,” Joe Ely. Songwriter: Joe Ely; Did Not Chart; 1978. Joe Ely didn’t serve up his multi-cultural influenced Texas music in the traditional honky tonk style, but the title track to his 1978 album is a withering account of betrayal and heartbreak. Ely milks his pain like George Jones, noting that the attractiveness of the woman who broke his heart is only enhanced by the light of a night club beer sign. Author Don McLeese on the groundbreaking “Honky Tonk Masquerade” album, “The difference between Joe and Doug Sahm was that the latter incorporated so many different indigenous strains into his music that he could never cover them all on a single album. Joe’s achievement is that he did, and never better than on ‘Honky Tonk Masquerade.’ This was the album that turned heads and opened ears well beyond Texas, that started folks asking how a place as conservative as Lubbock could generate such a radically creative strain of music. And this was the band and the music that would lead both the Clash and Bruce Springsteen to embrace Ely as a kindred spirit. As a live act, the Joe Ely Band was right there with them.”
959. “Domino,” Van Morrison. Songwriter: Van Morrison; #9 pop; 1970. Van Morrison had penned “Domino,” his highest charting U.S. single, in 1968 and it is believed he held back on releasing the song until he could extricate himself from an unfavorable publishing deal. The title is a reference to Fats Domino and Morrison’s request in the song to hear more R&B on the radio became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Musically, the horn chart sounds like the Stax house band performing James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good).” With the punchy, feel good music and the “don’t want to discuss it” lyrics, Morrison manages to sound oddly joyful and contrarian at the same time. Jimmy Page on Morrison’s voice, “My first impression of Van Morrison was that he was a terrific singer. No, I take that back. I thought he was a really dirty singer. Everything he did had a real big pair of balls to it.”
958. “Maggie’s Farm,” Bob Dylan. Songwriter: Bob Dylan; Did Not Chart; 1965. The Bently Boys were a North Carolina banjo and fiddle duo who recorded during the 1920s. Bob Dylan took the melody from their 1929 song “Down on Penny’s Farm” for his 1961 composition “Hard Times in New York Town.” It’s also believed that the themes from “Down on Penny’s Farm” and the 1934 update “Tanner’s Farm” by Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett influenced the lyrical concept of “Maggie’s Farm.” There are some observers who have viewed Dylan’s call for independence on “Maggie’s Farm” as a rejection of being typecast into the folk community, but that seems more like coincidence than intent. As Dylan once said, “Anybody can be specific and obvious. That’s always been the easy way. It’s not that it’s so difficult to be unspecific and less obvious; it’s just that there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, to be specific and obvious about.” More important than the often told Dylan went electric hysteria is that this #22 U.K. pop hit demonstrated Dylan’s ragged but right approach to rock ‘n’ roll.
957. “Cruel Summer,” Bananarama. Songwriters: Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey, Steve Jolley, Tony Swain, Karen Woodward; #9 pop; 1984. The vocal trio Bananarama formed in London in 1981 and scored two Top Five U.K. hits recorded with Fun Boy Three in 1982 – “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way You Do It)” and “Really Sayin’ Something. Those singles were modern takes on 60’s girl group music with the later being a cover of Motown’s Velvelettes 1965 R&B hit. The English production team of (Steven) Jolley & (Tony) Swain gave the group a modern pop/dance sound with “Cruel Summer,” which might have the best marimba riff of any Top 40 tune since “Under My Thumb” by the Stones. Bananarama vocalist Sara Dallin, “The best summer songs remind you of your youth: what you did in your holidays, how it felt when you first kissed a boy, going away without your parents. For me, our hit, ‘Cruel Summer,’ played on the darker side: it looked at the oppressive heat, the misery of wanting to be with someone as the summer ticked by. We’ve all been there!”
956. “The Humpty Dance,” Digital Underground. Songwriters: Earl Humphrey, Greg Jacobs; #11 pop/#7 R&B; 1990. The Digital Underground, a San Francisco based rap group, first hit the R&B and rap charts with the 1989 laissez faire funk number “Doowutchyalike” and stormed MTV and the pop charts the following year with “The Humpty Dance.” Humpty Hump was a comedic alter ego of Shock G who was an alter ego of rapper/songwriter/musician Gregory Jacobs. The character combined nerd threads with a large prosthetic nose and birth control glasses while singing in a nasally voice about sex: “I’ll eat up all your crackers and licorice/ Hey yo fat girl, come here, are you ticklish?” “The Humpty Dance” was hooked by a sick, rubbery bassline created by Jacobs, paired with drumbeats sampled from Sly & the Family Stone and Parliament. Rolling Stone, “One of the most potent, re-useable, powerful snares in Nineties music. You’ll stop counting at 200 if you try to take a total of how many songs between 1990 and 2003 just straight-up took this track’s drum ingredient. Like, seriously, this song is the two fish and five loaves of bread of hip-hop. No organization represented George Clinton’s P-Funk rhythm nation better than Shock G and Co.” Do me, baby.
955. “If We Make It Through December,” Merle Haggard. Songwriter: Merle Haggard; #28 pop/#1 country; 1973. Christmas is the happiest time of the year, unless you are unemployed and you can’t buy your baby girl a present and you may have to move to find work. Then, it’s rather bleak. Merle Haggard had seventy Top Ten country hits, however, this tale of seasonal depression was his only crossover Top 40 entry (the potentially more famous/infamous “Okie from Muskogee” peaked at #41). Billboard magazine’s review of “If We Can Make It Through December” at the time the single was released, “Another change of pace by Haggard, who keeps surprising with his various styles, and does so well with all. He is a complete artist.”
954. “Pretty Vacant,” Sex Pistols. Songwriters: Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, Paul Cook; Did Not Chart; 1977. Musical thievery wasn’t anything new for the nascent punk scene, but the riff for this Top Ten U.K. hit about cultural apathy was nicked from an unlikely source – ABBA’s “S.O.S.” Glenn Matlock, “Being at art school and being hip to the Dadaists and Marcel Duchamp, you’d nick something and make it your own. If I hadn’t come clean, no one would have ever spotted it.” Whether Johnny Rotten’s rage was real or manufactured, it was certainly jarring, in the great rock ‘n’ roll tradition, either way. From the Sex Pistols website, “‘Pretty Vacant’ peaked at Number 6 in the charts and was the first Pistols record to receive any real radio airplay. Perhaps due to having less controversial content than its predecessors. Though, if the powers-that-be had noticed John Rotten cleverly subverting ‘Vacant’ to ‘Va-Cunt’ they might not have been so keen.”
953. “Part-Time Lover,” Stevie Wonder. Songwriter: Stevie Wonder; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1985. With nothing more than drums, synthesizers, and the backing vocals of Luther Vandross, Syreeta Wright, Philip Bailey (of Earth, Wind & Fire), and Keith John (a son of Little Willie John), Stevie Wonder went to #1 on the pop, dance, R&B, and adult contemporary charts with this “knowing it’s so wrong, but feeling so right” cheating number. Wonder, “When I first heard ‘Part-Time Lover,’ I thought of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love.’ Uh-huh. It’s a combination of (The Supremes’ singles) ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and ‘My World Is Empty Without You.’ A lot of the songs I write are from my own direct experiences. I remember when I was breaking up with this girl and I was, like, seeing this other girl. I came home and some guy called up and disguised his voice, tried to sound like one of her girlfriends to see if she was around. After I wrote ‘Part-Time Lover,’ I thought about how many people might get into trouble behind that song.”
952. “Sleeps with Angels,” Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Songwriter: Neil Young; Did Not Chart; 1994. Neil Young wrote “Sleeps with Angels” after Kurt Cobain quoted his line, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” in his suicide note. Young, “When he died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me. It fucked with me. I wrote some music for that feeling.” The music is suitably slow, roiling, and dark, as Neil notes that “He sleeps with angels/Too soon!” Crazy Horse, Young’s long time backing unit, provide startling dramatic flourishes. Rock critic Mark Johnson, “It is a terrifying song of feedback and distorted vocals. Totally harrowing, but essential listening.” David Fricke, “With a daring and sensitivity that go far beyond the sincerest form of flattery, Young has paid an affecting tribute to Cobain – his life, his grief, his accomplishments and everything he left unsaid and undone – by bringing it all, briefly, back to life in music.”
951. “Then He Kissed Me,” The Crystals. Songwriters: Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry; #6 pop/#8 R&B; 1963. The Crystals were an African-American female quartet from New York who signed with Phil Spector’s Phillies Records in 1961. The group didn’t always perform on records released under their name. For example, Darlene Love and the Blossoms actually recorded the 1962 #1 pop hit “He’s a Rebel,” which was credited to The Crystals. Delores “La La” Brooks, the only Crystal to sing on “Then He Kissed Me,” on the instructions she received from Phil Spector, “He said, ‘Think of somebody kissing you.’ I was a kid, so I’m not going to think like that. So he would turn off the lights, I would have a little light on my music, on my words, and then he said, ‘Now, concentrate.’ And I said (singing), ‘Well, he walked up to me and he asked me if I wanted to dance.’ He said, ‘That’s the way you do it!’ So I guess he had to train my mind to think that I was talking about a boy. He knew how to get things out of you.” Dee Dee Kenniebrew of The Crystals on Spector’s Wall of Sound production style, “He’d go in and lay down beautiful vocals and backgrounds, and by the time he’d go in and overdub and overdub with more musicians he’d bury the original song. We had done a few other records before we did ‘And Then He Kissed Me’ that were just mish-mash because it was too much. But we were paying the cost. He could stay in the studio for a week because it was coming out of our money and he wasn’t paying for it. Well, coming out of your money if he ever decided to pay you.”