The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 290 to 281
290. “Farmer John,” The Premiers. Songwriters: Don “Sugarcane” Harris, Dewey Terry; #19 pop; 1964. Has anybody seen Kosher Pickle Harry? The Premiers formed in the east L.A. barrio of San Gabriel in 1962. Originally, they were a neighborhood act that practiced in the backyard of brothers Lawrence and John Perez. “Farmer John” had been written and released in 1959 by the California rock duo Don and Dewey as a traditional 1950’s rocker. After the success of “Louie Louie,” Billy Cardenas, who managed The Premiers, suggested the band record “Farmer John” in a similar style. Rock critic Richie Unterberger, “The Premiers gave ‘Farmer John’ a raw, careening interpretation that threatened to spin into anarchy at points. The key touch in putting it over in the studio, however, was supplied not by the group but by the all-girl Chevelles Car Club. They provided most of the audience noise heard so prominently on the final recording, one unidentified Chevelle in particular screaming as loud as any fan in the front row of a Beatles concert.” Co-producer Eddie Davis, “We had a party at the studio and had all the kids come down. Everybody was having a good time and we put the record on — in those days they had three-track recording — and while everybody was having a party we recorded the crowd on top of it.” Neil Young released howling covers of “Farmer John” (that Ken Davis hates), in the studio and as a live recording in the early 1990s.
289. “Nowhere to Run,” Martha & the Vandellas. Songwriters: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland; #8 pop/#5 R&B; 1964. Martha and the Vandellas evolved from a Detroit teenage vocal group, known as The Del-Phis, that formed in 1957. Martha Reeves joined the act in 1960 and they recorded for Chess Records before becoming Motown stars. Reeves got her foot in the door at Motown by working as a secretary and her group got a recording contract by filling in for an absent Mary Wells at a planned recording session. According to Lamont Dozier, the Vandella’s 1964 hit “Nowhere to Run” was inspired by a young man who was killed in Vietnam. Dozier, “His friends asked if I would throw a party for him at my house before he was shipped out. We had the party, but he was very solemn, just sitting with his girlfriend. He had a premonition that he wouldn’t be coming back. I told him to be positive, but he was adamant. I found myself thinking about how he was feeling trapped – nowhere to run. Sure enough, two months later they shipped his body back. I think he stepped on a land mine. Nineteen years old.” From the Motown Junkies website, “From that blazing opening, this is just a full-on assault of a record, big and brash and textured. The sound is remarkable. Many people know the story of Ivy Jo Hunter dragging a snow chain into the Motown studio and slamming it on the floor until his hands were bleeding, all to provide a unique percussion effect, something like a thousand tambourines in the background. Stories are jumbled as to whether that first happened on ‘Dancing in The Street’ or here on ‘Nowhere to Run,’ but what is clear is that the percussion here is just out of this world, a barreling, slamming groove, anchored by that chain, pulling jagged bass and horns and drums behind it (all three played by people having career days here) and dragging huge great furrows in the earth.”
288. “Superstition,” Stevie Wonder. Songwriters: Stevie Wonder, Jeff Beck; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1972. Stevie Wonder wasn’t known as a funk artist in 1972, but he took the genre into an exciting new direction with the hair raising clavinet riff/Moog bass on “Superstition.” Jeff Beck, who had agreed to collaborate with Wonder with the understanding that he would receive the song in return, started the composition with the intro drum beat. Wonder then added what Beck later described as “the riff of the century.” Douglas Wolk of “Time” magazine, “Where Motown would once have overdubbed sweeping strings, he builds a groove from layer upon layer of keyboards. Each instrument seems to be arguing with the others, and Wonder’s voice ripples across them all like he’s rendering judgment.” The leadership of Motown were more interested in Wonder’s commercial prospects than the agreement with Beck and Wonder’s version of “Superstition” was released as a single first. Beck, later reflected on the disappointment within his camp, “We were gutted. We would have had a monstrous, monstrous hit.”
287. “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” Animals. Songwriters: Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil; #13 pop; 1965. Songwriter Barry Mann had cut a blue-eyed soul demo version of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” a song he wanted to pitch to The Righteous Brothers. Fortuitously, Allen Klein gave the demo to The Animals’ manager Mickie Most and it’s difficult to imagine the material being as ferociously anguished in any other hands. Eric Burdon, “Whatever suited our attitude, we just bent to our own shape. The song became an anthem for different people – everybody at some time wants to get out of the situation they’re in.” The longing for a better life lyric particularly resonated with American soldiers in Vietnam and Bruce Springsteen once said, “That’s every song I’ve ever written. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding, either. That’s ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Born in the U.S.A.’” Burdon was no stranger to hardship, “I’m really still a child of the Forties. I still think about it a lot, about the repercussions of armed conflict. Until 1953 we had rationing. We couldn’t buy meat, we couldn’t buy pleasurable goods like cigarettes and sweets. I didn’t starve, but I knew what it was like standing in line waiting for foodstuffs.”
286. “City Slang,” Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. Songwriter: Fred “Sonic” Smith; Did Not Chart; 1978. Sonic’s Rendezvous Band was comprised of Detroit music scene veterans including Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5 and Scott Asheton of The Stooges. Ignoring the trend of succinctness in punk music, “City Slang” is a bare knuckled Motor City guitar jam that smashes past the five minute mark. Oliver Hall of the Dangerous Minds website, “’City Slang’ is every bit as good as ‘Search and Destroy,’ ‘Kick out the Jams’ and ‘Sonic Reducer.’ A summer day that doesn’t end with the cops confiscating your wading pool and scratching the needle across your priceless copy of ‘City Slang’ is a summer day wasted.” Rock critic Thom Jurek, “’City Slang’ spoke about what it means to live in Detroit – to be angry, sorrowful and frustrated here. That single became my anthem, and is still the track I point to when people want to know about Detroit rock and roll.” In 1998, the Swedish hard rock band The Hellacopters, masters of the Detroit rock ‘n’ roll sound, recorded a cover version that somehow manages to compete with the original in terms of pipe bomb intensity.
285. “There She Goes Again,” Marshall Crenshaw. Songwriter: Marshall Crenshaw; Did Not Chart; 1982. Marshall Crenshaw’s resume includes performing in an off-Broadway production of “Beatlemania,” portraying Buddy Holly in the film “La Bamba,” assembling a Capital Records compilation on hillbilly artists, and penning a truckload of first rate songs. He tackles the classic pop themes of heartbreak and lost love on the melancholy, will-her-heart-ever-be-satisfied “There She Goes Again.” Crenshaw is clearly in full infatuation mode and when he sings “I’m gonna find someone better/Go have fun little girl I can live with you.” It’s difficult to know if the narrator is sincere or has misplaced confidence or if he’s giving himself a half-hearted pep talk, realizing his inability to move forward. The backing music replicates this conundrum, managing to sound punchy and melancholy at the same time. Trouser Press on Crenshaw’s early work, “Although he was seen as a latter-day Buddy Holly at the outset, he soon proved too talented and original to be anyone but himself.” Iman Lababedi of Rock NYC on this tale of unattainable gratification, “The first time I heard (Crenshaw’s debut) album, it took me an hour to get past the first song, ‘There She Goes Again.”
284. “Off the Wall,” Michael Jackson. Songwriter: Rod Temperton; #10 pop/#5 R&B; 1979. “Off the Wall” sounds similar to “Thriller,” the title track of the 1982 album that made Michael Jackson the biggest pop star in the universe. Both were written by Rod Temperton and include the polished production values of Quincy Jones. Rolling Stone, “Its succulent groove, swathed in Jackson’s sumptuous overdubbed harmonies, was as smoothly seductive as the vision of dance music in his head. Temperton, who arranged the rhythm and vocal tracks, re-created the dance-floor vibe of his disco band Heatwave, and the song’s growling funk synths were partly played by jazz and fusion keyboardist George Duke.” The message of “Off the Wall” is that you can boogie away your daily troubles through the magic of the dance floor. Not a terribly original concept, but no artist has ever had a bigger investment in escapism than Michael Jackson.
283. “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again),” Sly & the Family Stone. Songwriter: Sly Stone; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1969. Sly & the Family Stone were such an exciting and innovative band that they seemed like a bigger act than they actually were – they only had eleven Top Forty hits, but five of those went Top Ten and three were #1 singles. Beyond the stats, this was a pioneering pop/funk band with first-rate songwriting and production. On “Thank You,” Larry Graham laid down a mammoth popping bassline that would have a tremendous impact on pop and soul music for the rest of the decade. Author Reiland Rabaka, “Musically the song churned and chugged like a runaway train metaphorically heading away from white America and back to the heart of black America. With its darker and deeper funk sound, ‘Thank You’ could be read as Sly Stone saying thank you to black America for supporting him and accepting him on his own psychedelic rock-soul-funk terms.” When producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis decided to construct a “Rhythm Nation” for Janet Jackson, they sampled “Thank You” for their foundation.
282. “School’s Out,” Alice Cooper. Songwriters: Alice Cooper, Michael Bruce, Glen Buxton, Dennis Dunaway, Neal Smith; #7 pop; 1972. Alice Cooper has given different answers on the inspiration for “School’s Out,” one being it was simply a phrase used in a Bowery Boys movie with its meaning being to “wise up.” Another explanation is the title was the answer to the question, “What is the greatest three minutes of your life?” Alice Cooper, “The last three minutes of the last day of school when you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning. I said, ‘If we can catch that three minutes in a song, it’s going to be so big.’” A lasting anthem that captured the feeling of freedom and elation when the final school bell rings, “School’s Out” goes back into heavy rotation for parents and students at the end of every May. Drummer Neal Smith in 2020, “I get emails from new and longtime fans who are school teachers, and they tell me they played that song at the end of the school year for their class. We were just writing it to put on the album. We didn’t know that 45 years later it would be played around the world. Some things (about the song) are politically incorrect, but it’s like a time capsule.”
281. “Hey Good Lookin’,” Hank Williams with his Drifting Cowboys. Songwriter: Hank Williams; #1 country; 1951. Music historians know that Hank Williams wasn’t above nicking a melody from another artist, dig into I Saw The Light” and “Cold, Cold Heart” as examples. He also nabbed the title “Hey, Good Lookin’” from the Cole Porter song of the same name that was used in the 1943 Broadway musical “Something For The Boys.” He reportedly knocked out this cooking up a romance tune in twenty minutes, as a potential hit for Little Jimmy Dickens. After recording it a week later, Hank jokingly informed his friend, “That song’s too good for you!” Vocally, Williams playfully extends the syllables as he sings (e.g, “hey, good loooookin’”), as to tell the listener that he’s getting a protracted eyeful of female goodness. Williams performed the song, wearing his cowboy outfit adorned in musical notes, on national television in March of 1952, creating one of the few existing film clips of him singing live.