The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 140 to 131
140. “Under My Thumb,” The Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; Did Not Chart; 1966. Mick Jagger on the lover-as-a-squirming-dog lyrics of “Under My Thumb,” “It’s a bit of a jokey number, really. It’s a caricature, and it’s in reply to a girl who was a very pushy woman.” The song gets its unique hook from a marimba, a lower pitched version of a xylophone. Keith Richards, “Brian (Jones) was still fantastic making records, because he was so versatile. I mean, he’d have marimbas – which is why you have marimbas on ‘Under My Thumb’ – or dulcimer, sitar. He kind of lost interest in guitar, in a way. But at the same time he added all of that other color, those other instruments and other ideas. He was an incredibly inventive musician.” Author Eric Klinger discussing the “Aftermath” album, “I’ve really been struck by how all five Stones have this incredible approach to rhythm throughout the album. ‘Under My Thumb’ is a perfect example. Charlie Watts’ drumming has an understated, almost jazzy quality, while Richards’ guitar chops in there like Steve Cropper. Jagger punches his lyrics at just the right time to deliver a touch of menace.” Rolling Stone magazine on the sweet and sour contrast, “The song is like a Motown number that wound up at the dark end of the street.”
139. “At Last,” Etta James. Songwriters: Mack Gordon, Harry Warren; #47 pop/#2 R&B; 1961. Jamesetta Hawkins had a difficult childhood raised in poverty in Los Angeles and San Francisco, never knowing who her father was, although she speculated he was famed pool player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone. She met Johnny Otis as a teenager and had a Top Five R&B hit in 1955 with “The Wallflower” (sometimes known as “Roll with Me, Henry” or “Dance with Me, Henry”) credited to Etta James and The Peaches. She found further R&B success early in the 1960s recording for Chess Records and later in the decade with records produced in Muscle Shoals by Rick Hall. “At Last” was a song from the big band era, first recorded by the Glenn Miller and His Orchestra in 1942. Ray Anthony had a #2 pop hit with his 1952 cover and Nat “King” Cole released a string heavy version of the song in 1957. NPR, “Etta James’ version of ‘At Last’ might be the strongest testament to her greatness as singer. With this song, she took a rather saccharine Tin Pan Alley melody and transformed it into one of the most soulful ballads in the history of rhythm and blues.” Amanda Petrusich once noted that “At Last” is “arguably the single greatest unburdening ever laid to tape. Here is a moment of extraordinary deliverance. Finally, James finds her man: a person who doesn’t get spooked, doesn’t waver, doesn’t leave her crumpled somewhere, alone and pining.”
138. “Remedy,” Black Crowes. Songwriters: Chris Robinson, Rich Robinson; #48 pop; 1992. The Black Crowes were the most traditional mainstream rock band of the grunge era and they threw an old school gospel infused, Southern blues rock party on the baby-baby-why’d-you-dye-your-hair “Remedy.” From the website The Daily Guru, “From the moment the song begins, and the guitar and drums ‘drop’ onto the listener, the band creates an amazingly captivating hard rock groove. The rhythm section of bassist Johnny Colt and drummer Steve Gorman are equally impressive, yet it is perhaps the piano playing of Eddie Harsch that stands out alongside the guitars. During the bridge sections, Harsch adds amazing fills, and it is his sound that gives the song an ‘authentic’ Southern feel, making it even less like anything else in music. ‘Remedy’ is one of the finest examples in history of a band moving as a single unit.” Chris Robinson on his toking inspiration, “’Remedy’ is a song that essentially is about freedom. We were into the whole idea that the ‘war on drugs’ was just silly – it was this asinine concept to me and millions of other people. That song to me is about freedom, plain and simple, just put in a rock ‘n’ roll framework.”
137. “Help!,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; #1 pop; 1965. Some days being in the Fab Four could be a little overbearing. John Lennon on “Help!,” “The whole Beatles thing was just beyond comprehension. I was subconsciously crying out for help. The lyric is as good now as it was then. It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was that aware of myself then. I meant it. It’s real.” Rock critic Dave Marsh asserted that the supporting music was a form of therapy, “’Help!’ is bursting with vitality. (Lennon) sounds triumphant, because he’s found a group of kindred spirits who are offering the very spiritual assistance and emotional support for which he’s begging. Paul’s echoing harmonies, Ringo’s jaunty drums, the boom of George’s guitar speak to the heart of Lennon’s passion, and though they cannot cure the wound, at least they add a note of reassurance that he’s not alone with his pain.” Lennon on his angst about the public’s reaction, “The ‘Help!’ single sold much better than the two before it: ‘I Feel Fine’ and ‘Ticket To Ride.’ But there were still a lot of fans who didn’t like ‘Help!’ They said, ‘Ah, The Beatles are dropping us. This isn’t as good as ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ So you can’t win. Trying to please everybody is impossible – if you did that, you’d end up in the middle with nobody liking you. You’ve just got to make the decision about what you think is your best, and do it.”
136. “Do You Believe in Magic,” The Lovin’ Spoonful. Songwriter: John Sebastian; #9 pop; 1965. Cool fact – John Sebastian and Zal Yonavsky met in 1964 when they were both invited to (Mama) Cass Elliot’s house to watch The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Their band spurted into the Greenwich Village folk revival/jug band scene and were signed to Elektra Records almost immediately after being formed. John Sebastian penned the bewitching “Do You Believe in Magic” by reworking the chord structure of Martha and the Vandellas’ 1963 hit “Heave Wave.” Songwriter John Sebastian on the band’s philosophy, “We were very intent on getting whatever fun we could have on tape. It was hard fun. It was the kind of fun that comes from being under pressure. But, it was fun.” Greil Marcus, making a big picture observation, “We’ve all been transported by music — swept away, taken out of ourselves. It’s what the Lovin’ Spoonful meant in ‘Do You Believe in Magic’ when John Sebastian sang about ‘a smile on your face and you don’t even know how it got there’; it’s part of what Pentecostal preachers mean when they damn rock ‘n’ roll as devil music; it’s what theorists mean when they bump into the limits of their theories and start talking about the ineffable. When you step back from the experience and try to make sense of it, nothing is sufficient.” Author Jim Connelly on the Lovin’ Spoonful’s debut single, “It’s almost preternaturally catchy, with its bouncy chord changes, perfectly-placed ‘ahhhhhhhhhhhh’ backing vocals, and guitarist Zal Yanovsky’s hooky licks and low-down guitar solo. And of course, lyrics about getting lost in the music. As sung with an open-hearted smile by Sebastian, that last line (‘How the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me’) doesn’t come across as a brag, but more like him matter-of-factly pointing out how connected he is with his muse and the music that comes from it.”
135. “Paranoid,” Black Sabbath. Songwriters: Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, Bill Ward; #61 pop; 1970. Black Sabbath formed in Birmingham, England in 1968 and delivered some of the darkest heavy metal music that the world had ever heard during this timeframe. Their 1970 single “Paranoid” is an adrenaline rush protopunk classic that went Top Five on the U.K. pop charts. Influential? John Lydon of the Sex Pistols, “One of the greatest ever singles.” Accidental? Geeze Butler, “The song ‘Paranoid’ was written as an afterthought. We basically needed a three minute filler for the album and Tony came up with the riff. I quickly did the lyrics and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing.” Far from metal’s typical swagger, “Paranoid” is a plea for help from a self-imprisoned emotional loony bin occupant.
134. “The Coo Coo Bird,” Clarence Ashley. Songwriter: Traditional; Did Not Chart; 1929. East Tennessee banjo player Clarence Ashley directly impacted several generations of country music. During the early 1900s, Roy Acuff performed with Ashley in traveling medicine shows (it is believed that Ashley taught Acuff the song “House of the Rising Sun”). His version of the traditional folk ballad “Little Sadie” was later revised as “Cocaine Blues” as recorded by Roy Hogsed in the 1940s and Johnny Cash in the 1960s. During the 1960s, folk revivalist Doc Watson was a member of his band. Ashley was a proponent of the rhythmic based clawhammer banjo style and he learned “Coo Coo Bird,” a traditional English folk song, from his mother. The song has an impenetrable mysticism with a sound that is much more ominous than the lyrics would suggest. The entire tone is that the narrator is filled with dark secrets that would be better off unexplored. From the “Where Dead Voices Gather” website, “This is a magnificent performance. Purely from a musical perspective, it is as close to perfection as anything gets. Ashley’s five-string banjo is played in a modal tuning, which provides a musical background that is as repetitive and as inscrutable as the words themselves. Ashley sings the song in a deadpan style, singing for all the world like it all makes perfect sense.” After several decades of obscurity, Ashley was rediscovered in the 1960s, touring overseas and performing at Carnegie Hall, before passing away in 1967.
133. “I’m Waiting for the Man,” The Velvet Underground. Songwriter: Lou Reed; Did Not Chart; 1967. A lyric about an addict making a drug deal was a groundbreaking theme in popular music in 1967 and Lou Reed captured the junkie’s mindset of anxiety and short term euphoria on “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Later in life he noted, “Everything about that song holds true, except the price.” A sharp, pounding, repetitive beat feeds the sense of urgency for a street medicine fix. Author Sean Stanley, “(I’m Waiting for the Man’) represents an aesthetic high point for the Velvet Underground, sonically and lyrically. Witness the rhythm section’s mimicry of a train heading to the intersection of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, East Harlem. Reed’s real triumph, though, is that with ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ he created cinéma vérité in rock. Its legacy, then, was creating a world in which any topic was now permissible in music – and that illicit trip to score drugs made for a joyride.” Meanwhile, busker John Cale had distinctly different memories about his time in Harlem, “I remember the first gigs we did with just (Lou) and me —I had a recorder and a viola, and he had an acoustic guitar. We’d go sit on the sidewalk outside the Baby Grand (bar) up in Harlem on 125th and see if we could make some money. Every time we got moved on, the cop always had a suggestion of where we should go. ‘Try 75th on Broadway! That’s a good spot.’ So we’d go down there and make a little bit more money.”
132. “Penny Lane,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; #1; 1967. Paul McCartney in May of 1966, forecasting his utopian nostalgia piece, “I like some of the things the Animals try to do like the song Eric Burdon wrote about places in Newcastle on the flip of one of their hits. I still want to write a song about the places in Liverpool where I was brought up. Places like The Docker’s Umbrella which is a long tunnel through which the dockers go to work on Merseyside, and Penny Lane near my old home.” Author Hunter Davies, “This is Paul, taking the subject of childhood memories, but treating it openly, straightforwardly, cheekily, cheerfully, cleverly–in fact very like Paul himself. No hangups here–his memories are fun: blue suburban skies, nice images, nice people. The musical arrangement is just as clever and rich as ‘Strawberry Fields’, with top class trumpets, flutes, and oboes.” Rolling Stone magazine on the arrangement, “With McCartney playing three piano parts, bass, harmonium and tambourine; his bandmates playing more piano, guitar, drums and a hand bell; and several horn sections, ‘Penny Lane’ built a detailed wall of sound that achieved the force of a rock song without sounding anything like one. Despite the aura of sunniness, McCartney did slip in a few sexual references, one to a fire engine and the other…, “We put in a joke or two: ‘Four of fish and finger pie.’ The women would never dare say that, except to themselves. Most people wouldn’t hear it, but ‘finger pie’ is just a nice little joke for the Liverpool lads who like a bit of smut.”
131. “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis Presley. Songwriters: Mae Boren Axton, Thomas Durden, Elvis Presley; #1 pop/#1 country/#5 R&B; 1956. While Elvis started hitting the country charts while on Sun Records, he hadn’t become a significant national star. He signed with RCA Records in late 1955 and started looking for new material. “Heartbreak Hotel” was written by Mae Boren Axton, the mother of future country star/songwriter Hoyt Axton, with steel guitarist Tommy Durden. In exchange for agreeing to record the song, Elvis also received a writing credit. However, it has been noted that Elvis not only reshaped the structure of the composition, but also served as the de facto producer for the session. Record executives and radio were initially skeptical of the song’s commercial potential, since it was a radical departure from Presley’s Sun Records material. “Heartbreak Hotel” became The King’s first major hit, topping the pop charts for 8 weeks, the country charts for 17 weeks, and peaking at #3 on the R&B charts. John Lennon, “When I first heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ I could hardly make out what was being said. It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We’d never heard American voices singing like that.”