The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 100 to 91

Written by | June 20, 2021 3:59 am | No Comments

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100. “Chinese Rocks,” The Heartbreakers. Songwriters: Dee Dee Ramone, Richard Hell; Did Not Chart; 1977. Former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan established the Heartbreakers in 1975. The Ramones initially rejected Dee Dee’s heroin chic number “Chinese Rocks” (they later recorded it on their 1980 “End of the Century” album), so he gave it to Richard Hell, who was in the Heartbreakers for a short period of time. Dee Dee, “The reason I wrote that song was out of spite for Richard Hell, because he told me he was going to write a song better than Lou Reed’s ‘Heroin,’ so I went home and wrote ‘Chinese Rocks.’” The material fit real life junkies Thunders and Nolan like a clean syringe and the band sounded like a semi with a flat tire driving on the interstate, weaving back and forth trying to stay out of the ditches. The needle and the damage done scorecard – Johnny Thunders died in 1991 at the age of 38, Jerry Nolan died at the age of 45 in 1992, Dee Dee Ramone died in 2002 at the age of 50.

99. “When Doves Cry,” Prince. Songwriter: Prince; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1984. Not many artists were writing about the bodily functions of animals during the 1980s. However, Prince pulled a trick out of country music for the emotional strength of his #1 hit “When Doves Cry,” he wrote about his parents. Since this was pop music, it meant his parents were dysfunctional. Musically, Prince created a stark drama by eliminating the original bass line from the song. “When Doves Cry” was included in his 1984 film “Purple Rain,” which vaulted The Purple Guy into mainstream superstar status. Priya Elan of NME, “With an artist so prolific, so breathtakingly brilliant as Prince, it’s hard to pick one ‘best song.’ But ‘When Doves Cry’ is right up there. The insistent synth riff, the pure emotion that seeps from every second, and the delivery which is half bruised little boy, half lascivious little horndog, there’s so much to love.”

98. “The Letter,” The Box Tops. Songwriter: Wayne Carson; #1 pop; 1967. Songwriter Wayne Carson, “My dad came up with the first line. He was a songwriter of sorts. He would come up with ideas and pass them on to me, and say, ‘If you can do anything with this, go ahead.’ ‘Give me a ticket for an aeroplane’ was all he had. I took that one line and wrote the rest of the words and the melody.” A sixteen-year-old Alex Chilton wasn’t too concerned about his first recording session, he spent the previous evening getting drunk with his girlfriend. Chilton, “I was a little hungover, been out in the dewy grass in my bare feet all night, and certainly wasn’t in the best shape I could have been in. I was a little bit intimidated by my surroundings and I was singing kind of softly. Then (producer) Dan (Penn) came out and said, ‘I really want you to lay into this.’ Sounding like a soul singer myself was something I prided myself on being able to do. We ran through it a couple of times, my voice, considering the night before, didn’t have a lot left in it. So I was getting kinda hoarse, which fitted into things just fine.” The blue eyed soul number became a favorite for military men in Vietnam. Veteran Chris Paul, “’Give me a ticket for an aeroplane’ became the mantra for Marines getting discharged from the Corps, and I can’t remember any other lyric enjoying that much popularity until I got to Vietnam in ’68, where it was that song and The Animals’ ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place.’”

97. “ Friday on My Mind,” The Easybeats. Songwriters: Harry Vanda, George Young; #16 pop; 1967. Aussie rockers The Easybeats had an interesting background in that all five band members were from families who had migrated to Australia from Europe. Rhythm guitarist George Young would later work as a producer and was the older brother of AC/DC members Angus and Malcolm Young. No pop song has better captured the dichotomy of nine to five work drudgery and the exhilarating anticipation of the weekend than “Friday on My Mind.” Lead singer Stevie Wright’s assertion that as the week progresses, “Even my old man looks…good,” is particularly droll. Author Chris O’Leary, “’Friday on My Mind’ was one of the last triumphs of producer Shel Talmy. A 2:45 teenage manifesto and one of a string of tough working-class pop songs in the mid-Sixties, ‘Friday on My Mind’ was loaded with hooks – the band singing guitar fills, the bassline as a factory clock – that swept out the dreariness of the working week (the E minor verses) for the liberation of the weekend (the A major chorus).” The distinctive guitar intro was inspired by a movie scene that featured a French vocal group named the Swingle Singers. Guitarist Harry Vanda, “At one point in the film, they sang a melody that went ‘tudutudutudutudu’ that made us all laugh. We transferred the melody to guitar and it became the intro to ‘Friday on My Mind.” The weekend anthem has been covered many times, most famously by David Bowie in 1973, and was voted “Best Australian Song” of all time in 2001 by the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), a panel of 100 music industry personalities.

96. “Proud Mary,” Creedence Clearwater Revival. Songwriter: John Fogerty; #2 pop; 1969. John Fogerty on writing ‘Proud Mary,’ “Pardon me for not sounding humble. This thing had landed on me and I recognized that this was truly great, far above me. Far above anything I had ever even thought about. I had grown up with my mom talking to me about Irving Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael, how they wrote standards. I knew, ‘Man, this is a standard.’ Meaning it was like ‘Stardust.’ Or ‘White Christmas.’ I had never even brushed up against anything like that. It was like being struck by God. I was sitting there quaking with this paper in my hand. I really, really knew— I just did. I was literally shaking, just jittery: ‘Oh my God.’” Rock critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “’Proud Mary’ is filled with details that ring so true that it feels autobiographical. The lyric is married to music that is utterly unique, yet curiously timeless, blending rockabilly, country, and Stax R&B into something utterly distinctive and addictive. ‘Proud Mary’ is the emotional fulcrum at the center of Fogerty’s seductive imaginary Americana.” Fogerty refused to perform any of his Creedence Clearwater Revival material for many years, but Bob Dylan pushed the right button when he told him, “Hey, John, if you don’t do these tunes, the world’s going to remember ‘Proud Mary’ as Tina Turner’s song.”

95. “Our Lips Are Sealed,” The Go-Go’s. Songwriters: Jane Wiedlin, Terry Hall; #20 pop;1981. Jane Wieldin, “In 1980 we were playing at The Whisky on Sunset Strip, and The Specials were in town from England, and they came to see us, and they really liked us and asked us if we would be their opening act on their tour. I met Terry Hall, the singer of The Specials, and ended up having kind of a romance. He sent me the lyrics to ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ later in the mail, and it was kind of about our relationship, because he had a girlfriend at home and all this other stuff. So it was all very dramatic. I really liked the lyrics, so I finished the lyrics and wrote the music to it, and the rest is history. And then his band, The Fun Boy Three, ended up recording it, too – they did a really great version of it, also. It was like a lot gloomier than the Go-Go’s’ version.” Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go’s, prepping for rock critic duty, “A perfect pop tune with an atypical structure, unexpected chord changes, smart lyrics unlike any other song, and tons of hooks. The parts fit together like the links of a chain, from the chugging chord intro, solid beat, and rolling bass to Charlotte Caffey’s arpeggio guitar notes.” Rock critic Stewart Mason, “It’s the small touches that elevate ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ from very good to outstanding: the backbeat-and-tambourines opening, the subtle organ line, the infectious ‘hey-hey-hey’ that leads up to the chorus. The song’s most transcendent moment, however, is the glorious bridge, sung by Wiedlin in a sweetly vulnerable falsetto that’s even higher than her normal helium-pitched singing voice. The vocal interplay between Wiedlin and Belinda Carlisle in the last verse is equally divine, leading one to wish that the Go-Go’s had exploited Wiedlin’s vocal prowess more.”

94. “School Day,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #5 pop/#1 R&B; 1957. Chuck Berry, the lyrical Godfather of American teenage life, perfectly encapsulated the dreariness and excitement of growing up in “School Day.” The drudgery of school includes studying, being hassled by classmates, the regimented lunch routine, and coping with unpleasant teachers. When school’s out, life becomes about juke joints, dancing, romancing, and feeling the music “from head to toe.” Berry constructed the stop and start rhythm to “emphasize the jumps and changes I found in classes in high school compared to the one room and one teacher I had in elementary school.” Also, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!” was the perfect rallying cry for the still embryonic cultural movement. Berry had a comeback single in 1964 with “No Particular Place to Go,” a song that almost completely replicated the arrangement of “School Day.”

93. “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” Ramones. Songwriters: Joey Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, Jean Beauvoir; Did Not Chart; 1985. In May of 1985, President Ronald Reagan visited the Kolmeshohe Military Cemetery near Bitburg, Germany. The cemetery includes the graves of 49 members of the Waffen-SS, a combat unit with a strong belief in Nazi ideology. Joey Ramone, the Jewish lead singer of America’s favorite punk band, was not amused, “What Reagan did was fucked up. Everybody told him not to go, all his people told him not to go, and he went anyway. How can you fuckin’ forgive the Holocaust?’” Rock critic Bill Wyman, “As we listened to Joey’s pained, pleading voice, as we heard Johnny lob guitar bombs and as we were swept away by the Spectorian, rushing production, we marveled again at the Ramones’ capacity to surprise. And Joey finally found ferocity, howling his way through the group’s greatest song and his greatest vocal performance. The Ramones were never as dumb as they looked, but they weren’t geniuses either. But listening to Joey think his way through that particular political act in that particular song is a lesson in moral education that any of us can learn from.” Key lyric, which Joey practically spits out, “If there’s one thing that makes me sick/It’s when someone tries to hide behind politics.” The song was released as a single in 1985 and retitled as “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg),” reportedly at the insistence of right winger Johnny Ramone, on the 1986 “Animal Boy” album.

92. “I’m the Ocean,” Neil Young. Songwriter: Neil Young; Did Not Chart; 1995. Neil Young recorded his 1995 “Mirror Ball” album with Pearl Jam and delivered a fascinating seven minute stream of consciousness solipsism conceit on “I’m the Ocean,” that concludes with, “I’m not present, I’m a drug that makes you dream/I’m an aerostar, I’m a cutlass supreme/In the wrong lane, trying to turn against the flow/I’m the ocean, I’m the giant undertow.” Young, in a rambling discussion with Dave Marsh about the song’s creation, “Maybe its kind of like, you know, a bunch of flashes of things going on all at the same time, or something. So you, so you get kind of the feeling your life is kind of flashing before you, so that makes you kind of think that you’re floating up on the ceiling somewhere, watching. But I, I think it’s uh, I wasn’t thinking about that. I just uh, I just really kind of got caught up in this, in this thing where everything just kept happening, and, and all I could do was just write it down, but it wasn’t going backwards, it was going forwards.” As good as explanation as any.

91. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; #1 pop; 1963. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is a watershed single in pop music history. With this song, The Beatles phenomenon and The British Invasion began. Rolling Stone magazine, “When the joyous, high-end racket of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ first blasted across the airwaves, America was still reeling from the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Beatles songs had drifted across the Atlantic in a desultory way before, but no British rock & roll act had ever made the slightest impact on these shores. The Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, were determined to be the first, vowing that they wouldn’t come to the U.S. until they had a Number One record. ‘I remember when we got the chord that made the song,’ John Lennon later said. ‘We had, ‘Oh, you-u-u/Got that something,’ and Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it! Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to write like that — both playing into each other’s noses.’ The song ‘was the apex of Phase One of the Beatles’ development,’ said producer George Martin. ‘When they started out, in the ‘Love Me Do’ days, they weren’t good writers. They stole unashamedly from existing records. It wasn’t until they tasted blood that they realized they could do this, and that set them on the road to writing better songs.’ The lightning-bolt energy lunges out of the speakers with a rhythm so tricky that many bands who covered the song couldn’t figure it out. Lennon’s and McCartney’s voices constantly switch between unison and harmony. Every element of the song is a hook, from Lennon’s riffing to George Harrison’s string-snapping guitar fills to the group’s syncopated hand claps.”

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