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The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 220 to 211

 

220. “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #2 pop/#1 R&B; 1958. This 1958 #2 pop hit/#1 R&B number was Berry’s biggest single until “My Ding-A-Ling” in 1972. Lyrically, it’s about a teenage girl, living her fantasies through getting autographs from rock ‘n’ roll stars, wearing high heels and being chased by all the boys, then changing her persona for her high school reality. Unsurprisingly, Berry was being shrewd and playful at the same time. Author Matthew Delmont, “It was no accident that Chuck Berry referenced ‘American Bandstand’ on ‘Sweet Little Sixteen.’ Berry made his national television debut on ‘American Bandstand’ in 1957 and including the program in the lyrics helped ensure that this new song would receive ample airtime on the program. Less obvious than his references to Philadelphia and ‘American Bandstand,’ Berry’s nods to teens dancing in Texas, San Francisco, St. Louis, and New Orleans underscored a point that ‘Bandstand’ called attention to every afternoon – the existence of a national youth culture.” Brian Wilson admittedly wrote The Beach Boys 1963 #3 pop hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.” using “Sweet Little Sixteen’ for the melody. Due to potential legal action, Berry was giving a co-writing credit on “Surfin’ U.S.A.” in 1966.

219. “California Girls,” The Beach Boys. Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Mike Love; #3 pop; 1965. No song better defines the 1960’s wind in your hair, sand in your toes, West Coast Beach Boys vibe than “California Girls.” Brian Wilson, “(The song was) something I’m very proud of in a sense because it represents the Beach Boys really greatest record production we’ve ever made. It goes back to 1965 when I was sitting in my apartment, wondering how to write a song about girls, because I love girls. I mean, everybody loves girls. I was thinking about the music from cowboy movies. And I sat down and started playing it, bum-buhdeeda, bum-buhdeeda. I did that for about an hour. I got these chords going. Then I got this melody, it came pretty fast after that. ‘California Girls’ had that beat — it’s called a shuffle beat — and that’s definitely a Bach influence.” Rolling Stone magazine, “The first time Wilson took acid, he sat at the piano and wrote the brooding, beautiful opening bars to ‘California Girls.’ It was a breakthrough moment, Wilson has said, that led him to begin creating more complex, emotional music. Despite the teen-fantasy theme, the singing is tougher than earlier Beach Boys hits, with tightly wound harmonies and an aggressive lead vocal.” Wilson in 2007, ” It was special, I knew that would become the theme song of the Beach Boys. It’s an anthem. That song went to No. 3 in the country. I think if anything, that song speaks louder than ever. Everyone knows about California girls, and that song is the reason.”

218. “Mean Woman Blues,” Jerry Lee Lewis. Songwriter: Claude Demetrius: Did Not Chart; 1964. Fame had long escaped Jerry Lee Lewis’s clutches by 1964, when he found himself performing at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, a European port city known for embracing booze, prostitution, and any other affordable sin. “Mean Woman Blues,” a rockabilly number that was an R&B hit for Elvis in 1957, is the opening track from the “Live at the Star Club” album and it captures The Killer pounding his piano keys as though he’s trying to exorcise unknowable demons. He’s back by The Nashville Teens, of “Tobacco Road” fame, who may have considered setting themselves on fire in an attempt to maintain the manic pace. Lewis includes a tribute to Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” before the manic conclusion. Stephen Thomas Erlewine on the album, “Compared to this, thrash metal sounds tame, the Stooges sound constrained, hardcore punk seems neutered, and the Sex Pistols sound like wimps. Rock & roll is about the fire in the performance, and nothing sounds as fiery as this; nothing hits as hard or sounds as loud, either. It is no stretch to call this the greatest live album ever, nor is it a stretch to call it the greatest rock & roll album ever recorded. Even so, words can’t describe the music here — it truly has to be heard to be believed.”

217. “Mother’s Little Helper,” The Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; #8 pop; 1966. The Rolling Stones noted that it wasn’t only the rock ‘n’ roll generation who were escaping reality through pharmaceutical experimentation during the 1960s. Jagger, “Very strange number. Like a music hall number. It’s about drug dependence, but in a sort of like spoofy way. As a songwriter, I didn’t really think about addressing things like that. It was just every day stuff that you I’d observe and write about. It’s what writing is for really. There is a sort of naivety, but there’s also a lot of humor in those songs.” It is sometimes reported that Brian Jones played sitar for the song’s primary riff, but that wasn’t the case. Keith Richards, “The strange guitar sound is a 12-string with a slide on it. It’s played slightly Oriental-ish. The track just needed something to make it twang. Otherwise, the song was quite vaudeville in a way. I wanted to add some nice bite to it.”

216. “Baby, I Love You,” The Ronettes. Songwriters: Phil Spector, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich; #24 pop/#6 R&B; 1963. Rock critic Andrew Unterberger, “Nobody in pop history has ever ‘whoa-oh’ed quite like Ronnie Spector, and likely the finest utterance of her signature non-verbal came as the lead-in to the thundering drums and bellowing winds of ‘Baby I Love You.’ Never matched, the song’s testimony of unreserved devotion and affection has nevertheless made it an easy target for decades of covers, including by The Ramones and Cher — the latter of whom also sings backup on the original recording.” Ronnie Spector was called away from tour to record “Baby, I Love You,” resulting in the other Ronettes not being on the record (Elaine Mayes, a cousin of Ronnie, was a replacement for the live dates and the public was seemingly none the wiser). Phil Spector also produced the Ramones version of “Baby, I Love You,” resulting in a Top Ten U.K. hit in 1980. Ronnie Spector on the punk movement, “In the ‘70s, I’d go to CBGB and see Blondie and the Ramones, and they were calling me up onstage. I didn’t know punk, but they knew me.”

215. “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Jones. Songwriters: Bobby Braddock, Curly Putnam; #1 country; 1980. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam wrote “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in 1977 and Johnny Russell recorded two unreleased versions of the song in 1978. Billy Sherrill loved the eternal togetherness through death tale, although he had the lyrics restructured to include the spoken word middle section. George Jones hated the song, calling it “morbid” and thought the melody was too much like Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Producer Sherrill has said at various times that the recording of the song took over a year up to eighteen months, but recording studio logs reflect a much shorter timeframe. In any event, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is considered one of the greatest recordings in country music history and revived Jones’s dormant career, becoming his first #1 single in six years. Jones, reflecting on this hit’s impact, “A four decade career had been salvaged by a three minute song.” According to studio session musician L.E. White, Jones was staring at Tammy Wynette, his former wife who had entered the studio control room with then husband George Richey, throughout the entire vocal performance.

214. “Ziggy Stardust,” David Bowie. Songwriter: David Bowie; Did Not Chart; 1972. With his androgynous look, rumors of bisexuality, theatrical makeup, and eccentric costumes, David Bowie didn’t break through on the U.S. pop charts in a major way in 1972, but he did actively terrify parents while providing an unusual asylum for their outcast children. A glam rock power ballad about a self-anointed rock ‘n’ roll messiah, “Ziggy Stardust” became an iconic character in music history. Bowie, “I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star.” On another occasion, Bowie fretted about getting lost in his own alter ego, “My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.” The guitar tone and swoon worthy chords played by Mick Ronson merit special attention. Bassist Trevor Bolder, “Mick Ronson had an incredible feel. He didn’t have to play a lot. He wasn’t a flashy guitar player; the simple things he did were incredible. He was a true musician, who put his heart and soul into everything he did.”

213. “Highway Star,” Deep Purple. Songwriters: Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Jon Lord, Ian Paice; Did Not Chart; 1972. Deep Purple formed in Hertfordshire, England in 1968 and had immediate success with their cover of the Joe South composition “Hush,” which went Top Five in the U.S. They are best known for “Smoke on the Water,” with the riff every beginning guitarist must learn, but peaked with the 1972 non-charting single “Highway Star.” The concept of speed metal didn’t evolve into a major commercial genre until the 1980s when bands like Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax popularized the form. While Motorhead was the primary influence for the 80’s speed metal meets thrash movement, the eight cylinders interstate throttle of “Highway Star” may have been the first true speed metal song. Ritchie Blackmore on his solo, “I wrote that out note for note about a week before we recorded it. I wanted it to sound like someone driving in a fast car, for it to be one of those songs you would listen to while speeding. And I wanted a very definite Bach sound, which is why I wrote it out – and why I played those very rigid arpeggios across that very familiar Bach progression – Dm, Gm, Cmaj, Amaj.” Richard Riegel of Creem on the results, “’Highway Star’ is forever.”

212. “Travelin’ Man,” Ricky Nelson. Songwriter: Jerry Fuller; #1 pop; 1961. Ricky Nelson’s bassist (and future Wrecking Crew member) Joe Osborn, “I had been in Ricky’s band for a couple of weeks. Out on the lot where they did the ‘Ozzie and Harriet Show’ there was this room full of demos, all reel-to-reel tapes. He appointed me to mail all of those back to the writers before we got sued. I don’t think I ever sent one back. I started listening to all the demos and ran across ‘Travelin’ Man.’ I took it to Ricky and said ‘Your pop wanted all this stuff sent back, but I think you oughta take a listen to this one.’” (For his part, songwriter Jerry Fuller has said he pitched the song to Sam Cooke’s business partner J.W. Alexander, who immediately tossed the demo in the trash. In this version of the tale, Joe Osborn was magically in a next door office, overheard the song, and requested the demo from Alexander). The girl-in-every-port number “Travelin’ Man” was Nelson’s second and last #1 pop hit, with his first being 1958’s “Poor Little Fool.” Nelson was also backed during this timeframe by James Burton, one of the most respected guitarists in rock music history. Rolling Stone magazine, “With Nelson, Burton created his distinct technique: He used a fingerpick and a flatpick, and replaced the four highest strings on his Telecaster with banjo strings, so that his guitar snapped, popped and stuttered.” Keith Richards, “I never bought a Ricky Nelson record. I bought a James Burton record.”

211. “Flagpole Sitta,” Harvey Danger. Songwriters: Sean Nelson, Jeff J. Lin, Aaron Huffman, Evan Sult; #31 pop; 1997. Harvey Danger’s not sick/not well pop punk masterpiece “Flagpole Sitta” is one of the most sarcastic singles to ever hit the Top 40. It’s a mixture of self-gratification, self-deprecation, and a look at a culture that the band found fascinating and appalling. Songwriter Evan Sult, “I think it’s a really true version of what it felt like to be alive, at least in Seattle [when] we actually wrote it. The ironic remove and the innate suspicion of both the mainstream culture and the alternative culture, and the yearning to be part of something, but not being able to get around the suspicion and the self-loathing. And then the ‘bah-bahs’ are just also the joy of being alive. It resonates with a frame of mind that turns out to be more universal than I would’ve thought. It’s both really upbeat and kind of savage and snarky at the same time.” It endures, as Graham Parker might say, because passion is no ordinary word.

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