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The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 210 to 200



210. “There Stands the Glass,” Webb Pierce. Songwriters: Russ Hull, Mary Jean Shurtz and Audrey Greisham; #1 country; 1953. Webb Pierce is the great lost legend of country music, he had forty Top Ten country singles during the 1950s with 13 of those topping the charts. Regarding his vocal style, one blogger has noted that he played “his sinuses like a pedal steel.” Webb Pierce’s greatest commercial achievement came in 1955 when his cover of “In the Jailhouse Now” spent twenty-one (yes, twenty-one) weeks at #1 on the country charts in 1955. His most significant artistic achievement was “There Stands the Glass,” which ranks with the very best of country music drinking songs. Webb sings about alcohol as pain medication, as liquid bravery, as a method to try to forget that which cannot be forgotten. Author Dana Jennings, “’There Stands the Glass’ opens with a slurred steel guitar played by Jimmy Day that is as warped and fuzzy as being drunk itself. Then Pierce’s pained tenor, ‘There stands the glass that will ease all my pain,’ sung with a fatalism that actually means, ‘There stands my tombstone.’”

209. “Tears of a Clown,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Songwriters: Stevie Wonder, Hank Cosby, Smokey Robinson; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1970. Steve Wonder and his producer Hank Cosby wrote the music to “Tears of a Clown” in 1966. Smokey Robinson, hearing a circus theme in the instrumentation penned the lyrics. Robinson, on being inspired by a 19th century Italian opera, “I was trying to think of something that would be significant, that would touch people’s hearts, but still be dealing with the circus. So what is that? Pagliacci, of course. The clown who cries. And after he makes everyone else happy with the smile painted on his face, then he goes into his dressing room and cries because he’s sad. That was the key.” Amazingly, “Tears of a Clown” was a 1967 album track that wasn’t released as a single until 1970, when Motown starting dipping into the band’s catalogue to capitalize on the popularity of the Miracles in the U.K. “Tears of a Clown” is a master class in songwriting, singing, and production – the “circus” instrumentation (including a bassoon, a piccolo, and a calliope motif) helps to establish the narrative, but doesn’t turn Smokey’s heartbreak into a novelty act. One of Smokey Robinson’s great gifts was making the sublime seem effortless.

208. “Oliver’s Army,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Songwriter: Elvis Costello; Did Not Chart; 1979. Costello, “I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons. They were no longer just on the evening news. These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world. The song was based on the premise ‘they always get a working class boy to do the killing.’” Producer Nick Lowe, “We went through it all afternoon, and it just wasn’t happening at all. Out of the blue, Steve Nieve said, ‘What about if I do a sort of ABBA piano part on it?’” A #2 U.K. hit, it wasn’t played in the U.S., in part due to the lyrical reference about a dead “white ni**er.” Costello, “That was the aim. A grim heart in the middle of an ABBA record.”

207. “I Fall to Pieces,” Patsy Cline. Songwriters: Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard; #12 pop/#1 country; 1961. It was four long years after Patsy Cline first hit the charts with “Walkin’ After Midnight” before she had her second hit single with “I Fall to Pieces.” This is the song where she found her calling – as one of the world’s most gifted torch song artists. Songwriter Harlan Howard, “On the night of the session, we absolutely did NOT want to do the standard 4/4 shuffle that had by then been done to death. We were trying all kinds of other (basic rhythm) combinations, but they all just laid there and bled all over the floor. So, it had to be the shuffle then, like it or not. But the amazing thing was, once Patsy got into the groove, she just caressed those lyrics and that melody so tenderly that it was just like satin. We knew we had magic in the can when, on the fourth take, every grown man in that studio was bawling like a baby and Bradley said `That’s the one’.”

206. “Dead End Street,” The Kinks. Songwriter: Ray Davies; #73; 1966. On “Dead End Street,” Ray Davies once again returned to the lighthearted British Music Hall tradition (could that be a session man on trombone?) as a vehicle to express complete existential despair. Davies, “My whole feeling about the ’60s was that it’s not as great as everyone thinks it is. Carnaby Street, everybody looking happy, that was all a camouflage. That’s what ‘Dead End Street’ was about. I don’t like it when people are out of work and hungry, obviously. I even made a film to go with that song on ‘Top of the Pops,’ but it showed slums and poverty, so they wouldn’t run it.” “Dead End Street” ended the relationship between producer Shel Talmy, who was more interested in commerce than art, and The Kinks. Davies, “’Dead End Street’ was produced by (Talmy), but he wasn’t there. But that was the contract.”

205. “Shop Around,” The Miracles. Songwriters: Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy; #2 pop/#1 R&B; 1960. Smokey Robinson penned this maternal advice number for Barrett Strong, but Berry Gordy rightly determined it would be a better fit for The Miracles. The original version of “Shop Around” was released in Detroit, but Berry Gordy decided that the tempo was too slow and convened a 3:00 A.M. recording session for the hit that went national. Author Mark Ribowsky, “That record was the turning point. It was R&B and pop for a new, young generation and upgraded Motown’s national image, both creatively and as a business nexus.” Smokey Robinson on his high pitched vocals, “I had a complex about my voice. People would confuse me with Claudette. People would go, ‘Oh, I thought you were a girl.’ I remember, one of our first hits, probably ‘Shop Around,’ I got sick and couldn’t go on stage, so Claudette sang for me. And in the middle of the songs, guys would be yelling out, ‘Sing it, Smokey!’” Author Mark Ribowsky on Motown’s first million selling single, “Shop Around’ was a victory for Gordy’s canine-like ears. It was the bridge between R&B and pop that Gordy was after, with Smokey’s jocose confession about love and marriage – ‘My momma told me/You better shop around’ – delivering the punch line.”

204. “Lady Marmalade,” Labelle. Songwriters: Bob Crewe, Kenny Nolan; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1974. The history of the vocal group Labelle dates back to late 1950s, when two rival Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey acts merged. Due to a business decision, they had their first hit in 1962 with “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” under the name the Blue Belles, but they didn’t perform on that record. The Starlets, a Chicago based girl group, recorded the song, but were taken off the credits of the #15 pop hit since they were unavailable to tour. Billed as Patti (or Patty) Labelle (or La Belle) and The Blue Belles, the group had two minor hits in 1963 and 1964, but were basically working in obscurity until New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint convinced them to record “Lady Marmalade.” Inspired by glam rock and disco, the trio updated their image, often wearing space suits or showy feather arrangements with platform shoes. “Lady Marmalade,” a New Orleans funk song about a prostitute, that included sexual propositions sung in French (“Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?”), was as spectacular as their visual exhibition. Patti LaBelle in 1986, “That song was taboo. I mean, why sing about a hooker? Why not? I had a good friend who was a hooker, and she died. She never took the mike out of my mouth and I never took the mattress from under her. I don’t believe in separating people. If your job is (being) a hooker, more power to you.”

203. “Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young. Songwriter: Neil Young; Did Not Chart; 1975. “Cortez the Killer” is an odd song with no chorus or bridge, it’s basically one long guitar solo interrupted with lyrics that Neil Young wrote in high school about the Aztec Empire and the conquering of Mexico by Spaniard Hernán Cortés. Young has described “Cortez” as having some of his best guitar playing – which is raw, slow, droning, and oozes such a druggy beauty that you wish it would never stop. Actually, “Cortez” was going to be longer, but after seven and half minutes, a circuit blew in the recording studio while the band continued to play. Young’s shoulder shrugging summary after losing the end of the song, “I never liked that verse anyway.”

202. “Imagine,” John Lennon. Songwriter: John Lennon; #3 pop; 1971. John Lennon created a vision for a new moral code on “Imagine” – a secular humanism unbound from both religion and nationality; a world where the common good replaces materialism and greed. Lennon, “’Imagine that there was no more religion, no more country, no more politics,’ is virtually the Communist manifesto, even though I’m not particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement.” Despite Lennon’s well known prickly personality, there is no anger or judgment or condescension in this hymn, only a desire for a utopian dream to become a united reality. President Jimmy Carter in 2006, speaking while monitoring an election in Nicaragua,“In many countries around the world — my wife and I have visited about 125 countries — you hear John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ used almost equally with national anthems. So John Lennon has had a major impact on some of the countries that are developing in the world.”

201. “Lake Marie,” John Prine. Songwriter: John Prine; Did Not Chart; 1995. “Lake Marie” is a wonderfully eccentric John Prine song, one where he quotes “Louie Louie” and contrasts the peacefulness of a lake with the chaos of his personal life and the world around him. Rolling Stone, “’Lake Marie’ combines three different stories — one about how two lakes on the Illinois-Wisconsin border got their names, one about a failing marriage, and one about a gruesome murder — into a classic that’s part modern folk tale, part chugging, big-chorused singalong.” John Prine on his song inspired by the Twin Lakes on the Wisconsin/Illinois border, “I had this idea for a song that was going to have half talking, half singing in it. It was going to have a strong chorus to it and it was going to start out with something that had a historical nature to it. The second verse about meeting a girl and the Italian sausages cooking, that was kind of autobiographical, me and my high school sweetheart, we used to go to Crystal Lake and Lake Marie, the chain of lakes, you know? So did everybody else, we used to go there on weekends and have picnics. Just different lakes. Everybody bring their best-lookin’ car. You go there, cook up Italian sausage and have a game of baseball.”


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