The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 170 to 161
170. “Gloomy Sunday,” Billie Holiday. Songwriters: Rezső Seress, Sam Lewis; Did Not Chart; 1941. The music of “Gloomy Sunday,” a song about contemplating suicide, was penned by Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress in 1933. Lyricist Sam Lewis provide English lyrics in 1935 and it was a #4 pop hit for big band leader Hal Kemp in 1936, with Bob Allen providing vocals that were more melodramatic than contemplative. Hungarian composer Laszlo Marosi on the composition, “Altogether, the melody, the phrasings, the text that he uses to describe his pain and his sadness is just so lovely. And it’s a very sympathetic way he stated everything – no complaining, still offering the love. I know that she left me, I know this all, but please know that I love you forever and my love can’t be stopped even if I’m dead. Don’t close my eyes because my love will still go through my dead eyes. (Laughing) beautiful.” It has been said that “Gloomy Sunday” was linked to several suicides and the BBC banned Holiday’s definitive version in 1941, stating it would detrimental to wartime morale. Holiday’s languid vocals are both calming and disturbing, like a drug that’s both seductive and fatal.
169. “Life is So Peculiar,” Louis Armstrong with Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five. Songwriters: Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke; Did Not Chart; 1950. Armstrong is generally defined as a premiere innovator and Jordan is generally defined a premiere entertainer, but our Louie Louie’s had their brass in both endeavors. Penned by lyricist Johnny Burke (of “Swinging on a Star” fame) and musician Jimmy Van Heusen (of “Love and Marriage” fame), Armstrong and Jordan perform with a level all encompassing joy that would make a three day old corpse smile on “Life is So Peculiar.” It feels like Armstrong and Jordan are competing on who can project the most happiness on record and the winner is the listener.
168. “Get Off of My Cloud,” Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; #1 pop; 1965. When it came time to release a follow-up single to “Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones were up to the challenge, responding with another #1 U.S. and U.K pop hit. Mick Jagger, “That was Keith’s melody and my lyrics. It’s a stop-bugging-me, post-teenage-alienation song. The grown-up world was a very ordered society in the ’60s, and I was coming out of it. America was even more ordered than anywhere else. I found it was a very restrictive society in thought and behavior and dress.” Author Andrew Grant Jackson (a very presidential sounding name, no?), “The song was a prime example of how to remake your smash hit the same but different. The ‘hey-hey’ hook from ‘Satisfaction’ was recycled for crowd sing-alongs, and Charlie Watts’ instantly recognizable drumbeat set the kids dancing to the proto-Hustle of the Chez Vous Walk (also known as the Marvin Gaye Walk). Keith Richards’ distorted guitar snarls in aggravation at being hounded by the record label to top ‘Satisfaction’ just eight weeks later. (Brian) Jones simplifies the ‘Last Time’ riff into the stoned shrug of ‘What, me worry?’” Competitor Neil Young’s assessment, “’Satisfaction’ was a great record. ‘Get Off of My Cloud,’ even better record. Looser, less of a hit. More of a reckless abandon.”
167. “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” The Temptations. Songwriters: Norman Whitfield, Eddie Holland; #13 pop/#1 R&B; 1966. The lean, hard hitting “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” was Norman Whitfield’s first production for The Temptations, a role he coveted, taking that job from Smokey Robinson after “Get Ready” failed to hit the Top Twenty on the pop charts. Author Joel Francis, “If you’re not hooked in the first five seconds of this song, you haven’t been paying attention. All the elements attack immediately: the drum roll coupled with the insistent clanging cymbal, the knuckle-roll piano riff and, of course, David Ruffin’s raspy vocal. The stinging staccato guitar that shows up later in the initial verse is a direct homage to James Brown. Throw in the glorious backing vocals from the rest of the Temptations and a stellar horn line and you’ve got not only an incredible song, but a definitive snapshot of Motown in full glory.” Whitfield created the sense of desperation by pushing David Ruffin to sing above his vocal range; Otis Williams of the Temptations later recalled that by the end of the session, Ruffin was “drowning in sweat and his glasses were all over his face.” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” returned to the Top Twenty of the pop charts in 1974, courtesy of the Rolling Stones.
166. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” The Beach Boys. Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Tony Asher, Mike Love; #8 pop; 1966. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” with its lyrical longing for long term commitment, was a major change in subject matter for the Beach Boys, who found fame singing about girls, cars, high school loyalty, and other elements of fun, fun, fun. Songwriter Tony Asher, “Brian (Wilson) was constantly looking for topics that kids could relate to. Even though he was dealing in the most advanced score-charts and arrangements, he was still incredibly conscious of this commercial thing. This absolute need to relate.” Brian Wilson, “’Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ wasn’t a real love song, but it’s a very ‘up’ song. It expressions the frustrations of youth, what you really want and you have to wait for it.” Author Joe Tangari, “’Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ has everything you love about the Beach Boys in spades: the Wall of Sound Jr., the scarcely believable harmonies, the dreamtime prosody, and the imaginative instrumentation. It’s the ultimate starry-eyed teenage symphony to God, and it perfectly captures the earnest devotion we only seem capable of in a small window of years.”
165. “Rock and Roll Music,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #8 pop/#6 R&B; 1957. Chuck Berry, “I was heavy into rock & roll and had to create something that hit the spot without question. I wanted the lyrics to define every aspect of its being.” Berry used a rumba rhythm to define his love for rock ‘n’ roll, while lyrically disavowing modern jazz, tangos, and mambos. Music historian Ed Ward, “’Rock and Roll Music’ was the teenage anthem America had been waiting for – a celebration of the music’s central place in teen life, a declaration of independence, and a performance like Berry had never given before, with guitar pyrotechnics supporting a great lyric. He made it perfectly clear: he had nothing against other types of music, provided they were well played, but ‘It’s gotta be rock and roll music/If you wanna dance with me.’ And what teenager in his or her right mind could disagree?” The Beatles covered “Rock and Roll Music” with John Lennon practically screaming the lyrics in 1964 and The Beach Boys took the song back to the Top Ten of the pop charts in 1976. Still the cover to discover is The Manic Street Preachers’ 2000 irony free, artillery blast release.
164. “Hot Burrito #1,” The Flying Burrito Brothers. Songwriters: Chris Ethridge; Gram Parsons; Did Not Chart; 1969. The Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 album “The Gilded Palace of Sin” is considered one of the most important records in country rock history, although critical hosannas far outpaced retail activity. Inspired by a breakup, “Hot Burrito #1” is one of Gram Parsons’ strongest vocal performances and was effectively covered by Elvis Costello as “I’m Your Toy” on his 1981 “Almost Blue” album. Chris Hillman, “I only heard two great vocals out of that guy: ‘Hot Burrito #1’ and ‘Hot Burrito #2.’ The rest of it was good, and there was a lot of soul; he was a very emotional singer. But those two vocals were tearjerkers — they give you chills.” Rock critic Mark Deming, “’Hot Burrito #1’ was the song of a broken man opening up his soul for the woman who has left him behind; it’s hard to imagine anyone else blending shame, regret, anger, and troubling memories so artfully as Parsons does.” Author Kent Zimmerman, “Gram’s masterpiece represents Cosmic American Music fully realized. A pleading, soulful performance that Otis Redding could have felt at home adapting.”
163. “Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Songwriter: Neil Young; #14 pop; 1970. On May 4th, 1970, after several days of anti-Vietnam War protests, the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed students at Kent State University and injured nine others. Less than three weeks later, Crosy, Stills, Nash & Young recorded “Ohio,” a bracing protest song blaming President Nixon, who had campaigned on ending the war, for the deaths. It’s difficult to imagine a more sobering chorus hook than “four dead in Ohio.” David Crosby ends the song by painfully asking “Why?” and “How many more?” Commenting on the intersection of art and commerce, Young would later note his discomfort in profiting financially from the tragic event. David Crosby, “It seemed like those who stood up to Nixon, like those at Kent State, were shot. Neil Young did not seem scared at all.”
162. “Money (That’s What I Want),” Barrett Strong. Songwriters: Janie Bradford, Berry Gordy; #23 pop/#2 R&B; 1959. Songwriter Janie Bradford explaining the song’s origin to author Susan Whitall, “Mr. Gordy was doing a riff on the piano, and he was just really getting into the rhythm, the pattern of the song. He said, ‘I need a title, give me a title, something that everybody wants.’ I said, ‘Money, that’s what I want!’ So that’s how he and I came to collaborate on that.” (The authorship has been questioned, Barrett Strong claims that he wrote the unforgettable piano riff). “Money” was the first hit record under the Motown umbrella and has a more raw R&B feel than what later became “The Motown Sound.” From the Motown Junkies website, “The whole thing is just an unstoppable, nasty, MEAN, sexy groove. Everything on the record just demands attention – the raw-throated, almost-shouted vocals, the thundering bass, the spiky, twanging guitars, everything.” Barrett Strong’s long term contributions to Motown were as a lyricist, with writing credits on Gladys Knight/Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” The Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” and several other major hits.
161. “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Bob Dylan. Songwriter: Bob Dylan; #39 pop; 1965. Bob Dylan on this catch phrase dropping, proto-rap number, “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the ‘40s.” The song also represented Dylan’s move away from traditional acoustic folk instruments. Dylan, “Nobody told me to go electric. No, I didn’t ask anybody. Nobody at all.” Author Evan Schlansky, “If you had to distill Bob Dylan down to his essence, the result would probably be ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ where he manages to cram 7 minutes worth of words into 2 minutes and 21 seconds of pop perfection. Witty, wise, rebellious, and verbally dexterous, ‘Homesick Blues’ represents all of Dylan’s greatest attributes, captured at the precise instant he was giving himself a musical makeover. Add some drums and bass to acoustic guitar, and you’ve got a brand new bag.” Dylan, being about a decade and a half ahead of his competition, also released the famous cue card dropping video for his first pop hit.