The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 20 to 11
20. “Search and Destroy,” Iggy and the Stooges. Songwriters: Iggy Pop, James Williamson; Did Not Chart; 1973. “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm/I’m the runaway son of the nuclear A-Bomb,” Iggy Pop declared on the furious rocker “Search and Destroy.” The Stooges are established legends now, but during their initial run, the band’s avant-garde, protopunk, blood enriched theater was way too extreme for mainstream tastes. Iggy, the world’s forgotten boy, and the band sound legitimately dangerous on “Search and Destroy.” Rock critic Bill Janovitz, “With ‘Search and Destroy,’ the Stooges lay down an archetype for punk rock. One can hear the influence of the song in a myriad of bands that followed: the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Motörhead, the Dead Boys (who covered it), and Nirvana.” Iggy Pop in 1986, getting his personal timeline a bit confused, “The part of myself I like best is the guy who would dare to sing a song like ‘Search and Destroy’ in the era I did, in 1969, so soon after ‘California Dreamin’; who said, ‘Stick your flower power up your ass ‘cos you’re not sincere about it.’ Yeah, that’s a side of myself I admire.” This is brutal punk rock savagely performed, an art form boiled down to pure hostility.
19. “My Generation,” The Who. Songwriter: Pete Townshend; Did Not Chart; 1965. Pete Townshend, “’My Generation’ was very much about trying to find a place in society. I was very, very lost. The band was young then. It was believed that its career would be incredibly brief.” Rolling Stone magazine on the sonic chaos, “Townshend opened the song with a two-chord assault that beat punk rock to the punch by more than a decade. Bassist John Entwistle took the solo breaks with crisp, grunting aggression — he had to buy three new basses to finish the recording, since his Danelectro’s strings kept breaking and replacement strings weren’t available. (He ended up playing the song on a Fender.) Roger Daltrey’s stuttering, howling performance, Townshend and Entwistle’s R&B-inspired backing vocals, and the upward key changes created a vivid, mounting anxiety that climaxed with a studio re-creation of the Who’s live gear-trashing finales, with Townshend spewing feedback all over Keith Moon’s avalanche drumming.” Author John Atkins, “As a lyrical statement, ‘My Generation’ is the Who’s most discussed work, containing what have become Pete Townshend’s most famous lines. It is a short, sharp, incisive attack on the older generation (the generation in power at every level, the Establishment), who represent society at large. ‘I hope I die before I get old’ is usually taken as a literal wish to die young rather than join the Establishment. What it really means is ‘death would preferable to becoming like you,’ a rebuke to an older order. This is the ultimate negation of what are seen to be corrupting values in society. The voice here would prefer the ultimate opt-out over accepting conformism.”
18. “The Tracks of My Tears,” The Miracles. Songwriters: Smokey Robinson, Warren Moore, Marvin Tarplin; #16 pop/#2 R&B; 1965. Similar to “Tears of a Clown,” Smokey Robinson is maintaining a façade to hide his sadness on “The Tracks of My Tears.” The deliberate pace of the music reinforces the depth of the narrator’s heartbreak. Smokey Robinson, “’Tracks of My Tears’ was actually started by Marv Tarplin, who is a young cat who plays guitar for our act. So he had this musical thing (sings melody), you know, and we worked around with it, and worked around, and it became ‘Tracks of My Tears.’ One day I was listening, and it just came – the tracks of my tears. Like footprints on my face. So that was what I wrote about.” Journalist Leonie Cooper, “Smokey’s heart-string tugging falsetto sits front and center in this slow burning beauty. Motown knew what being in love felt like, but, even better, knew what falling out of love was like. This was pop as poetry and ‘Tracks of My Tears’ is basically a Shakespearian sonnet.” Author John Lingan, “Smokey’s songs were linguistically clever, emotionally direct, melodically indelible, and never overlong. By marrying these elements to a finger-snapping beat, he and Berry Gordy essentially created modern pop music as we know it. Then of course there is the song that crushes all others, his ‘Born to Run’ or ‘Mama Tried’ or ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ only it’s better than all of them. I refer, of course, to ‘Tracks of My Tears.’ Sadder than any country song, more beautiful than any jazz ballad, and more vulnerable than just about anything you can dance to.”
17. “Shake Some Action,” Flamin’ Groovies. Songwriters: Cyril Jordan, Chris Wilson; Did Not Chart; 1976. The Flamin’ Groovies are one of those beautiful loser bands, one forever loved by a tiny cult, yet never heard by a significant number of pop music fans. You could argue that their critical acclaim is overstated, except that “Shake Some Action” is one of the best records in rock ‘n’ roll history. While some great rock moments hit you like an avalanche, “Shake Some Action” is a groundswell, the guitars slowly build until the chorus erupts in a sense of sheer elation. The song finds a spot where undeniable determination and rapturous victory celebrate together. The title phrase represents a statement of purpose and a vision of life based upon the rejection of the status quo. Greil Marcus, “In ‘Shake Some Action’ everything is new, as if the secret (of rock ‘n roll) had been discovered and the mystery solved on the spot.”
16. “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke. Songwriter: Sam Cooke; #31 pop/#1 R&B; 1965. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and prejudices that he endured, Sam Cooke blended his gospel background with social commentary for the turmoil filled “A Change is Gonna Come.” Author Peter Gurlanick, “It was less work than any song he’d ever written. It almost scared him that the song — it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular — in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ — but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people. When he first played it for Bobby Womack, who was his protégé, he said, ‘What’s it sound like?’ And Bobby said, ‘It sounds like death.’ Sam said, ‘Man, that’s kind of how it sounds like to me. That’s why I’m never going to play it in public.’ And Bobby sort of rethought it and said, ‘Well, it’s not like death, but it sounds kind of spooky.’” Mavis Staples, “It would just go all through your bones. You know when he came with that song we needed – black people needed black people to do something for us and Sam Cooke was at the top.” Jerry Wexler, “Sam Cooke was the best singer who ever lived, no contest. When I listen to him, I still can’t believe the things he did.”
15. “Tangled Up in Blue,” Bob Dylan. Songwriter: Bob Dylan; Did Not Chart; 1972. Rock critic Rob O’Connor, “(The) Blood On The Tracks (album) is The Story of Your Life!: I don’t care if you’re 12. This album speaks to you about all of life’s vagaries. Being divorced is tough!” And “Tangled Up in Blue,” with its keep on, keepin’ on rootlessness and lost love and illusions from the past may be the central plotline of your life. Reflecting on one of his greatest artistic achievements, Dylan has described this song as taking, “Ten years to live and two years to write.” A journey toward an elusive romantic and personal fulfillment, Dylan conveys a permanent alienation, an inability to find internal peace or a sense of belonging. Regarding the lyrics, Dylan has noted in a true Billy Pilgrim spirit, “What’s different about it is that there’s a code in the lyrics, and there’s also no sense of time. There’s no respect for it. You’ve got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little you can’t imagine not happening.” Speaking of Dylan’s journey, he was once performing as a young man and had an encounter with fame 1950’s professional wrestler Gorgeous George. Dylan, “He winked and seemed to mouth the phrase, ‘You’re making it come alive.’ I never forgot it. It was all the recognition and encouragement I would need for years.”
14. “Eleanor Rigby,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; #11 pop; 1966. A forgotten woman dying a lonely death was a quite unusual subject for a pop song. Paul McCartney, “When I was a kid I was very lucky to have a real cool dad, a working-class gent, who always encouraged us to give up our seat on the bus for old people. This led me into going ‘round to pensioners’ houses. It sounds a bit goody-goody, so I don’t normally tell too many people. There were a couple of old ladies and I used to go ‘round and say, ‘Do you need any shopping done?’ These lonely old ladies were something I knew about growing up, and that was what ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was about – the fact that she died and nobody really noticed. I knew this went on.” Rolling Stone magazine on the sharp, staccato chords of the string ensemble, “None of the Beatles actually play an instrument on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ — McCartney sings the double-tracked lead vocal, and Lennon and Harrison contribute harmonies, but the music is performed entirely by a pair of string quartets, arranged by George Martin. ‘Paul wasn’t immediately enamored of the concept,’ said engineer Geoff Emerick. ‘He was afraid of it sounding too cloying.’ When he agreed to the idea, McCartney said he wanted the strings to sound ‘biting.’ With that in mind, Emerick was determined to capture the sound of bows striking strings with an immediacy previously unheard on any recording, classical or rock & roll. Instead of recording the octet on a single microphone, he miked each instrument individually. ‘I was close-miking the strings — really close,’ he said. ‘So close that the musicians hated it, because you could see them sort of keep slipping back on their chairs to get away from the mic in case they made any errors.’” Jerry Lieber, “The Beatles are second to none in all departments. I don’t think there has ever been a better song written than ‘Eleanor Rigby.’”
13. “Ticket To Ride,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; #1; 1966. “Ticket to Ride” sounds innocent enough, but may have had a promiscuous inspiration. British journalist Don Short, “The girls who worked the streets in Hamburg had to have a clean bill of health, and so the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything. John told me he coined the phrase ‘a ticket to ride’ to describe those cards.” John Lennon has described this #1 single as “one of the earliest heavy-metal records,” which may be a bit of an overstatement, but author Johnny Black has noted, “’Ticket to Ride’ is a watershed single, the moment when the Beatles moved from cuddly mop-tops to strange and interesting sonic explorers. The song’s weird soup of hypnotically chiming, droning guitars, stuttering drums and contrasting vocal textures that, in the context of the 1965 charts, was far ahead of its time.” Paul McCartney is credited with creating the unusual drum pattern. Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “One of the most exciting, rhythmical patterns and parts and songs that I ever heard, which I thought was really big-time and had it all going is a track by The Beatles called ‘Ticket to Ride.’ The drum part on that I always thought was exceptional.”
12. “Surrender,” Cheap Trick. Songwriter: Rick Nielsen; #62 pop; 1978. Cheap Trick delivered one of rock ‘n’ roll’s quirkiest anthems by turning the generational divide upside down – a young boy worries about the possible negative consequences of casual sex while his parents smoke pot, make out, and listen to KISS records. The band had to clean the song up a bit for the masses. The line “Now, I had heard the WACs recruited old maids for the war” was originally, “Now, I had heard the WACs recruited old maids, dykes, and whores.” Rick Nielsen, “I used to hear my friends saying they thought their parents were strange. The first thing I got was the opening of the chorus: ‘Mommy’s all right, daddy’s all right.’ It just rolled off at one sitting. Those opening lines, ‘Mother told me, yes, she told me I’d meet girls like you,’ that’s advice to the lovelorn, and obviously inspired by the old Shirelles hit ‘Mama said that there’d be days like this.’ It’s a good way to start a song, if you can make it go with a chord progression.” Eric Melin of the power pop band Ultimate Facebook, “’Surrender’ (has) the biggest, best shout-along ending ever put on record. By the time ‘Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright’ turns into ‘We’re all alright, we’re all alright,’ I can hear the crowd chanting along like I’m there. All of a sudden, ‘Surrender’ is all inclusive. We’re all in this crazy-ass life together and at this moment, singing along with Cheap Trick, everything is OK.” Cheap Trick’s don’t give yourself away advice serves as a timeless reminder that we can’t stop the aging process, but we can remain as young as we want to be in spirit.
11. “All Along the Watchtower,” Jimi Hendrix. Songwriter: Bob Dylan; #20 pop; 1968. The dramatic intro to Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” sounds like warning shots for a revolution. The lyrical guitar playing throughout the song sounds like the battle has been won. Bob Dylan released this ominous sounding folk song on his 1967 album “John Wesley Harding.” Hendrix started working on his version less than a month later. Bob Dylan, “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” Hendrix gave Dylan’s allegory of imminent doom an epic feel with his dramatic guitar solos. Author Jeremy Allen, “All Along the Watchtower’ sounds like one of Hendrix’s own compositions, aided no doubt by one of his most elegant and soaring solos. There’s no flab, no flubs and no filler – it communicates in a language none of us can speak but we all understand. It’s mesmeric in the way it slips and slides, grunts and grinds, hollers and howls. Hendrix came across an interesting new device deployed by Frank Zappa called a wah-wah pedal, and he soon made that sound all his own, too. It’s still phenomenal when it comes on a stereo somewhere, no matter how many times you’ve heard it.” Dylan in 2015, “I actually saw Jimi Hendrix perform when he was in a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames — something like that. And Jimi didn’t even sing. He was just the guitar player. He took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and pumped them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere and turned them all into classics. I have to thank Jimi, too. I wish he was here.”