The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 270 to 261
270. “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” Jason & the Scorchers. Songwriter: Bob Dylan; Did Not Chart; 1984. Jason & the Scorchers did not mix rock n’ roll and country music in an academic manner. They cut loose with an unregenerate…shall we say…fervor, but their blistering power scared Nashville and the hard rock crowd didn’t warm up to their unstudied twang. From the “A Biscuit in the Sun” blog, “Like most bands they do a Dylan song. However, most bands don’t grab a Dylan song by the scruff of the neck and throw it out onto the dance floor. If you aren’t familiar with this recording, you’ve lived a sad shadow of a musical life.” Guitarist Jason Hodges, “It was a weird thing when we recorded that song. I didn’t know it was a Dylan tune. I thought it was the best song that Jason (Ringenberg) had ever written. I think part of our take on the tune, the reason it came out the way it did – I don’t know about anybody else in the band, but I had never heard the original. I approached it as if it was one of our songs.” Hodges on opening for Dylan in the late 1980s, “The first couple of nights, we weren’t doing the song, because it was his song and we were opening for him. He finally came up to me and said, ‘Hey, why aren’t you doing ‘Sweet Marie?’ ‘Well, sir, it’s your song.’ ‘Yeah, but your version is better than mine.’ So, we started doing the tune.”
269. “Follow the Leader,” Eric B. & Rakim. Songwriters: Eric Barrier, Rakim Allah; #16 R&B; 1988. Producer DJ Eric Barrier (Eric B.) and rapper Michael William Griffin Jr. (Rakim) emerged from Long Island in 1986 and immediately went platinum with their 1987 debut album “Paid in Full.” They moved from a minimalistic sound to a more space age approach with their 1988 “Follow the Leader” LP, with Rakim showing off his remarkable flow and lyrical skills on the title track. Samples from jazz (“Nautilus” by Bob James), R&B (“Listen to Me” by Baby Huey), and Latin music (“I Wouldn’t Change a Thing” by Coke Escovedo), resulted in a hard, yet sophisticated sound. Billboard magazine in 2015, naming Rakim as one of the Top Five rappers of all time, “The dividing line between old-school and new-school isn’t a year, it’s a person: Rakim. His 1987 debut with Eric B, ‘Paid in Full,’ was a quantum leap in terms of mic techniques, from its complex internal rhyme schemes to his soft-spoken delivery. The street-conscious tightrope he walked in his lyrics — criminal, intellectual, everyman, god, all at the same time — set a blueprint that rappers from Nas to Kendrick Lamar still follow today.” The pulsating, jazz and funk music combined with Rakim’s fast moving internal rhyme schemes are dizzying. To wit – “In this journey, you’re the journal, I’m the journalist/Am I eternal or an eternalist?” Author Craig Hansen Warner on “Follow the Leader’s impact, “When rap seemed to be settling into the interminable ego duels between LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee, Eric B and Rakim’s ‘Follow the Leader’ reminded the community of rap’s visionary possibilities.”
268. “Let It Rock,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #64 pop; 1960. “Let It Rock” is three verse, no chorus, under two minute explosive rocker peaked at #64 in 1960 in the U.S. and went Top Ten in the U.K. in 1963. Lyrically, Chuck describes a dice playing railroad worker who is in the midst of a panic when an off schedule train starts bearing down on a makeshift gambling operation/teepee. Similar musically to “Johnny B. Goode,” Berry gives Johnnie Johnson the first instrumental break and replicates a train engine sound on his guitar on his spotlight turn. Keith Richards, “Chuck adapted his guitar riffs and keys from Johnnie Johnson’s piano keys, not Johnnie playing around Chuck’s keys. Guitar keys are played in A, E, D using open strings, and if you listen to the music, it uses piano keys, jazz keys, horn keys, Johnnie Johnson keys. Chuck adapted his guitar around Johnnie’s sound and put those great lyrics behind them.” The Stones, among other rock acts, covered “Let It Rock” during the 1970s and the song was a Top Ten country hit, retitled as “Let It Roll (Let It Rock)” for Mel McDaniel in 1985.
267. “Tupelo Honey,” Van Morrison. Songwriter: Van Morrison; Did Not Chart; 1971. “Tupelo Honey,’ a slow-paced hymnal of love and appreciation, is a spellbindingly beautiful expression of personal devotion. Van’s passion seems resolute, boundless, life consuming and life affirming. Author Mick Brown, “The most sublime, heartfelt and affecting love song that Morrison has ever recorded. Written when he was living in domestic bliss in Woodstock with first wife Janet ‘Planet’ Rigsbee – ‘an angel of the first degree.’ She’s as sweet as Tupelo Honey. And so is the song.” Bob Dylan once opined that this song has always existed and Van Morrison was selected as the earthly vessel to deliver it.
266. “It’s Too Late,” Carole King. Songwriters: Carole King, Toni Stern; #1 pop; 1971. If Carole King had never recorded a note of music, she would still be a legend due to her 1960’s songwriting credits, which include “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Up on the Roof,” “I’m Into Something Good,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Her 1971 album “Tapestry” wasn’t just a successful record, it’s one of that decade’s defining discs, a perfect example of L.A. studio soft rock that spent over 300 weeks on the album chart. “It’s Too Late,” reportedly inspired by lyricist Toni Stern’s breakup with James Taylor, was a significant writing achievement. The narrator blamelessly details the end of a relationship, moving from brooding emotion to resigned closure within the confines of a four minute pop song. Author Lilly Goren, “With the rise of the feminist movement during the early 1970s, we saw not just an increase in the number of women participating in pop music but also a change in how they participated. Women such as Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Judy Collins, and Carly Simon entered the scene as singer-songwriters, penning lyrics that were more personal and introspective than previous music had been. Carole King’s ‘It’s Too Late’ boasted confessional lyrics that exemplified the genre.”
265. “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” Marshall Crenshaw. Songwriters: Marshall Crenshaw, Bill Teeley; Did Not Chart; 1983. Crenshaw, “I thought ‘Whenever You’re on My Mind’ was the best thing we’d done up to that point. It was, like, ‘the bomb,’ as they say. If that had been a hit, it would have been really big for me.” As for my opinion, the guitar chords are heavenly and complaints that Steve Lillywhite’s production techniques were too obtrusive seem ridiculous in retrospect. Rock critic Steve Peake, “There may not be a more pleasing three minutes of melodic guitar pop on the planet than this wondrous love song.” Mark Deming of the AllMusic website, “’Whenever You’re on My Mind’ is a simply beautiful little tune about that most pop of subjects, thinking about girls. It seems Crenshaw just can’t get the gal of his dreams out of his head, but while that theme is hardly new or unusual, in Crenshaw’s hands it becomes almost magical. With the verses built around a subtle ascending guitar figure and choruses that all but demand the listener sing along, Crenshaw generates an awestruck wonder at the power of love, with the world around him subtly but certainly transformed whenever his love pops into his imagination. When Crenshaw sings, ‘I leave the world behind/Whenever you’re on my mind,’ he’s able to make it sound like the best thing that happened to him all day, and it’s not hard to feel the same way about hearing this song.” Crenshaw told co-writer Bill Teeley to rewrite the lyrics of The Flamingos’ 1959 hit “I Only Have Eyes for You” for “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” but Teeley did even better by changing the focus from visual to psychological contentment.
264. “Kansas City,” Wilbert Harrison. Songwriters: Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1959. Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller had never been to Kansas City, but knew that Charlie Parker and Count Basie had recorded there, and that was meaningful enough information to inspire their future #1 hit. First recorded in 1952 by Little Willie Littlefied as “K.C. Lovin’,” this song about crazy little woman exploded seven years later with hit versions by Little Richard, Rocky Olson, the Midnighters, and, most famously, North Carolina native Wilbert Harrison. The songwriting process was not easy. Jerry Leiber, “I had a beef with the song, Mike was playing a tune and I said, ‘That’s really corny, it sounds like Benny Goodman or something, let’s do something that’s really original.’ And he said, ‘Like what?’ (Leiber sings a bluesy version). He said, ‘I don’t like that, that’s like a hundred other blues.’ He said, ‘Who writes the music?’ I said, ‘You do.’ And he wrote it the way he wanted and I came into it and we had a smash.” Mike Stoller, “I wanted to make it have a melody that sounded like it could have come out of a little band in Kansas City, and so that if it was played as an instrumental, you’d still know what it was instead of just kind of 12-bar blues.” It would take Wilbert Harrison a decade to return to the Top 40 charts, a fine appearance with his 1969 call for unity “Let’s Work Together,” which became a hit for Canned Heat in the U.S. and for Bryan Ferry (retitled as “Let’s Stick Together”) in the U.K.
263. “Little Maggie,” The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Songwriter: Traditional; Did Not Chart; 1960. “Little Maggie” is a song that, as far as we collectively know, originated in the Appalachians in the late 1800s. Ralph Stanley originally heard the song from North Carolina fiddler Steve Ledford. Stanley, “I don’t know where he found the song, but it had been around the mountains for a good long while. I took to ‘Little Maggie’ right off and I still play the song just about every time I’m onstage. People holler out for her wherever I play. She’s a real show stopper.” The Stanley Brothers had released this song about alcohol abuse and unrequited love in 1948, but a 1960 version with the Clinch Mountain Boys has a fuller instrumentation sound, perhaps due to Ralph Stanley playing a three finger banjo picking style, rather than two, on the later version. NPR on Stanley’s passing in 2016, “Stanley’s haunting voice came to epitome’s the bluegrass genre’s ‘high lonesome’ sound.” Stanley’s vocals are chilling on this version, hinting of much more tragedy than exists within the song’s lyrics.
262. “Can’t Truss It,” Public Enemy. Songwriters: Carlton Ridenhour, Stuart Robertz, Gary “G-Wiz” Rinaldo, Cerwin “C-Dawg” Depper; #50 pop/#11 R&B; 1991. Public Enemy used fifteen different samples on “Can’t Truss It,” with four of those being percussion, building a machine gun attack sound while rapping about the relationship between literal slavery and modern day corporate America. Jesse Ducker of Albumism, “’Can’t Truss It’ is an undeniable monster cut. The Ministers of Funk (production team) come close to recreating the Bomb Squad sound, with the layers of horns, whistles, shifting drums, piano solos, scratches, and vocal samples filtering in and out. Meanwhile Chuck, bolstered by Flav’s spirited adlibs, tackles the way the American system oppresses African Americans and works to instill self-hatred throughout their community.” Chuck D, “White people have jobs because they have business. They have institutions that teach them how to live in America. Black people don’t have institutions that teach them how to deal with shit. The Number One institution that teaches you how to deal is the family, but slavery fucked that up. So the song is about the ongoing cost of the holocaust. There was a Jewish holocaust, but there’s a black holocaust that people still choose to ignore.”
261. “I Want You Back,” The Jackson 5. Songwriters – The Corporation: Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Alphonzo Mizell, Deke Richards; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1969. The first release by The Jackson 5 was originally slated for Gladys Knight & The Pips and later Diana Ross with the title “I Wanna Be Free.” Berry Gordy thought the music would fit his newest signed act and rewrote the lyrics as the type of teen love song that Frankie Lymon popularized in the 1950s. His gamble paid off. Michael Jackson became, at the time, the youngest vocalist on a #1 pop single. Gordy used the name “The Corporation” for the writing credits, to keep individual songwriters from receiving too much attention (this was undoubtedly inspired by his legal issues with Holland-Dozier-Holland). Author David Ritz, “This jewel was cut before the Jacksons got into the studio. The Jacksons of course had to put the gleam on the jewel, but it is very much a producer-driven vehicle.” Professor Jack Hamilton, “You’ve never heard a vocal quite like this before from a prepubescent child. He really conveys this sense of desperation…and all these things that you would not normally expect for an 11-year-old to be able to get across so effectively.”