The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 990 to 981
990. “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Fats Waller. Songwriters: Andy Razaf, Fats Waller, Harry Brooks; Did Not Chart; 1943. Harlem based jazz pianist Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller co-wrote “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in the late 1920s. He became a major pop star in the 1930s, and was the first African-American composer to write a Broadway musical primarily seen by a white audience in the early 1940’s with “Early to Bed.” The smirking, good boy jazz tune “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was penned for the 1929 Broadway musical “Connie’s Hot Chocolates” and was a Top Ten single that year for Leo Reisman, Louis Armstrong, and Gene Austin. Waller had an instrumental hit with the song in 1929, but rerecorded the song with vocals shortly before his death in 1943. This version, which received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1984, begins with Waller’s playful tickling of the ivories and ends with a New Orleans/Dixieland jazz tribute. Author Stanley Crouch on Waller’s skills as a performer, “As they say in the jazz world, he could lift the bandstand. So if you were up there with him, and he started playing, you were going to play better — if only to keep from being overshadowed.”
989. “Life’s Been Good,” Joe Walsh. Songwriter: Joe Walsh; #12 pop; 1978. Joe Walsh took advantage of his high profile gig as a member of the Eagles and of his public image of a man who only put down his whiskey bottle when it was time to play guitar for his signature solo hit “Life’s Been Good.” He was well suited to document the trials and tribulations of being a rock star. Walsh, “I wanted to make a statement involving satire and humor, kind of poking fun at the incredibly silly lifestyle that someone in my position is faced with. I do have a really nice house, but I’m on the road so much that when I come home from a tour, it’s really hard to feel that I even live here. I thought that was a valid statement, because it is a strange lifestyle. I’ve been around the world in concerts, and people say, ‘What was Japan like?,’ but I don’t know. It’s got a nice airport.” Walsh, reflecting years later about destroying hotel rooms, “One of the most terrifying things that ever happened to me is that Keith Moon (of The Who) decided he liked me. He taught me a lot about the finer arts of anarchy, chaos, damage, destruction, all of that, mostly being hotels.”
988. “867-5309/Jenny,” Tommy Tutone. Songwriters: Alex Call, Jim Keller; #4 pop; 1982. The Northern California band Tommy Tutone formed in 1978 and first hit the Top 40 with the completely forgotten “Angel Say No” in 1980. With the dawning of the MTV era, the timing was right to launch what became the best known telephone digits in pop music history. Songwriter Alex Call, “Despite all the mythology to the contrary, I actually just came up with the ‘Jenny,’ and the telephone number and the music and all that just sitting in my backyard. There was no Jenny. I don’t know where the number came from, I was just trying to write a 4-chord rock song and it just kind of came out. I had the guitar lick, I had the name and number, but I didn’t know what the song was about. This buddy of mine, Jim Keller, who’s the co-writer, was the lead guitar player in Tommy Tutone. He stopped by that afternoon and he said, ‘Al, it’s a girl’s number on a bathroom wall,’ and we had a good laugh. I said, ‘That’s exactly right, that’s exactly what it is.’ I’ve met a few Jennys who’ve said, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who ruined my high school years.’ But for the most part, Jennys are happy to have the song.” Lorene Burns, quoted in an Alabama newspaper in 1982 on the joys of having the celebrated phone number, “When we’d first get calls at 2 or 3 in the morning, my husband would answer the phone. He can’t hear too well. They’d ask for Jenny, and he’d say ‘Jimmy doesn’t live here any more.’ Tommy Tutone was the one who had the record. I’d like to get hold of his neck and choke him.” I should also note that the line “you don’t know me, but you make me so happy” is one of rock music’s most subtle celebrations of self-gratification.
987. “Sister Anne,” MC5. Songwriter: Fred “Sonic” Smith; Did Not Chart; 1971. This revolutionary Detroit band was on their last commercial legs in 1971, but predictably, they were raging against the dying of the light. “Sister Anne,” a buzzsaw rocker about a tattooed nun, is an exploration of Chuck Berry inspired rock ‘n’ roll chaos with sonic boom intensity. Blogger Jason Tebbe, “It’s a seven minute song that feels about two minutes long, a time-bending feat accomplished through the persistent, killer riffs by Wayne Kramer and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith that just tear out of the speakers like wild tigers.” Stevie Chick of the Guardian, “The duelling twin-guitar and harmonica breaks are sheer rock’n’roll poetry, while, with their low-end restored, the group’s rhythm section powers on like a well-tuned and thoroughly overdriven engine.” Strangely, The Marine Hymn (a.k.a, “The Halls of Montezuma”) gets some love in the coda. Musically, think of these counterculture leftists as the missing link between the Rolling Stones and the Ramones.
986. “Paperback Writer,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; #1 pop; 1966. Paul McCartney, “We always try to do something different. The idea’s a bit different. Years ago, my Auntie Lil said to me, ‘Why do you always write songs about love all the time? Can’t you ever write about a horse or the summit conference or something interesting?’ So, I thought, ‘All right, Auntie Lil.’ I developed the whole idea in the car. I came in, had my bowl of cornflakes and said, ‘How’s about if we write a letter: ‘Dear Sir or Madam,’ next line, next paragraph, etc?” Engineer Geoff Emerick, “’Paperback Writer’ was the first time the bass sound had been heard in all its excitement. For a start, Paul played a different bass, a Rickenbacker. Then we boosted it further by using a loudspeaker as a microphone.” Author Colin Fleming, “A bass guitar had never sounded like this, and one can imagine the looks McCartney and engineer Geoff Emerick must have exchanged, as if they had just unlocked a whole new realm of potential for the instrument.”
985. “Push It,” Salt-n-Pepa. Songwriters: Hurby Azor, Ray Davies; #19 pop/#28 R&B; 1988. The female rap duo Salt-n-Pepa formed in New York in 1985 and had their first major international success with “Push It,” a song that quotes The Kinks and James Brown that was quickly written to be a B-side. Cheryl “Salt” James, “Fresh Gordon, to his credit, that he’s never officially gotten on the record … he started playing that famous synthesizer line and the song really built from there.” The single version was later remixed by San Francisco DJ Cameron Paul. Paul, “They didn’t even know ‘Push It’ existed practically, the record label. And now all of a sudden they’re hearing all this stuff coming from the Bay Area about ‘Push It.’ So the program director told them they were playing my remix and that was the version they did the video to.” Sandra “Pepa” Denton, “For 30 years, we have been telling people that ‘Push It’ isn’t about sex, but no one ever believes us. Honestly, for us, as young girls, it was about dancing. We like to say that song is possessed because it’ll never go away. It has a life of its own.” An underrated element of “Push It,” the natural vocal aggressiveness of the young female rap duo.
984. “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum. Songwriters: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid, Matthew Fisher; #5 pop; 1967. Skipping the light fandango, British prog rockers Procol Harum brought Bach to pop radio with their debut single. Author Jim Beviglia, “The moment that Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ pierces the air, ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ is utterly mesmerizing. Procol Harum’s singer Gary Brooker was responsible for writing the music, although Fisher’s organ part was so prominent that he also eventually received a songwriting credit after a protracted court battle. Keith Reid, who served as the band’s chief lyricist, wrote the words that have confounded generations of fans who still can’t help but singing along.” Songwriter Keith Reid, “I used to go and see a lot of French films in the Academy in Oxford Street (London). ‘Pierrot Le Fou’ made a strong impression on me, and ‘Last Year In Marienbad.’ I was also very taken with surrealism, Magritte and Dali. You can draw a line between the narrative fractures and mood of those French films and ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale.’” Paul McCartney heard the song the night he met his future wife Linda Eastman. McCartney, “The lyrics were all very strange and poetic and the theme was a famous Bach theme but we didn’t know that. We just thought, ‘God, what an incredible record!’ It was a sort of marker record. It was a benchmark. And we were all trying to guess who it was. So we had to go to the booth and ask, ‘What was that one you just played?’ and he said, ‘Oh yes,’ ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ by Procol Harum.’ ‘Procol what? Is it Latin or something?’ And there were rumors went around about what that meant. So all the mystery of the evening.”
983. “Ain’t That Peculiar,” Marvin Gaye. Songwriters: Pete Moore, William “Smokey” Robinson, Bobby Rogers, Marv Tarplin; #8 pop/#1 R&B; 1965. Smokey Robinson on working with Marvin Gaye, “I’d show him a song one time and I knew he would sing it better than I envisioned it. He’d always do something unexpected and wonderful. He sounded like he knew it even before I showed it to him.” Miracles guitarist Marv Tarplin developed the melody of “Ain’t That Peculiar” and the song was written during a European tour. The main riff was a variation of what Bill Doggett played on his 1956 instrumental #2 pop hit “Honky Tonk.” From the Motown Junkies website, “The rolling, chiming repeated riffs that underpin the song allow Marvin to float over the top, giving him room to extemporize with his vocal as and when he feels the need without it coming across as self-indulgent. Smokey and the Miracles stock the cupboards with hooks and tricks to boost the signal: a riveting pre-chorus break, a series of infectious call and response Ah-ah-ah!s, and a backing vocal-led chorus that must rank among Smokey’s catchiest efforts.”
982. “Highwayman,” The Highwaymen. Songwriter: Jimmy Webb; #1 Country; 1985. Jimmy Webb fell out of bed after a night of “professional drinking” with Harry Nilsson, waking from a frightful dream. Webb, “I had an old brace of pistols in my belt and I was riding, hell-bent for leather, down these country roads, with sweat pouring off of my body. I was terrified because I was being pursued by police, who were on the verge of shooting me. It was very real. I sat up in bed, sweating through my pajamas. Without even thinking about it, I stumbled out of bed to the piano and started playing ‘Highwayman.’ Within a couple of hours, I had the first verse.” Webb recording his supernatural soul stirring saga in 1977 and Glen Campbell did an…interesting version in 1979. The Highwaymen formed in 1985 with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson correctly deciding their commercial prospects were better at that time as a package megastar project. Marty Stuart pitched “Highwayman” to Johnny Cash before the band was named for a symmetrical four verses/four souls/four singers concept. The artists on this record are like a Mount Rushmore of Country Music and the grand, sweeping historical images in the song match their personas and voices perfectly. If I ever hear the voice of God and He doesn’t sound like Johnny Cash, I’ll be deeply disappointed. (I’ll try to hide it, but He’ll intuitively know).
981. “I Need to Know,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Songwriter: Tom Petty; #41 pop; 1978. Tom Petty was on the verge of breaking through in 1977 and 1978 – his raised on promises “American Girl” never charted but became an AOR staple and “Breakdown,” a rewrite of “Cheating” by the Animals, peaked at #40 on its second push as a single. “I Need to Know” is a two chord power pop rocker, pushed over the top by Petty’s palpable sense of being wounded and deceived by his love interest. Author Warren Zanes, “’I Need to Know’ was as fine a piece of power pop as the Heartbreakers would ever create. They thought they were cutting a song like ‘Land of a Thousand Dances,’ but it came out as a short, tight, two-guitar blast of rock and roll. At two minutes and twenty-three seconds long, the recording didn’t linger unnecessarily. Perhaps Cheap Trick had made a dent on Petty’s consciousness.”