The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 300 to 291
300. “Light My Fire,” The Doors. Songwriters: Jim Morrison, Robbie Krieger, John Densmore, Ray Manzarek; #1 pop; 1967. Robby Krieger, “I was living with my parents in Pacific Palisades – I had my amp and (Gibson) SG. I asked Jim, what should I write about? He said, ‘Something universal, which won’t disappear two years from now. Something that people can interpret themselves.’ I said to myself I’d write about the four elements; earth, air, fire, water. I picked fire, as I loved the Stones song, ‘Play with Fire,’ and that’s how that came about.” Ray Manzarek has described the song as having a jazz structure with his extended organ solo influenced by John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and “Ole Coltrane.” Drummer John Densmore had some interesting inspiration as well – “I loved ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ in 1964 and all the bossa nova albums that followed. So I went with a bossa nova beat during Jim’s vocals, but kept it stiffer.” Rock critic Wayne Robins on the band’s image, “While everyone else in 1967 was enjoying the sunshine, both real and hallucinated, the Doors and Morrison, ‘the Lizard King,’ grasped the darkness; even in their Summer of Love hit, ‘Light My Fire,’ there was an apocalyptic edge the celebration. The line ‘Girl we couldn’t get much higher’ wasn’t an expression of joy as much as a warning.” The Doors could have inspired their own genre – bubblegum gloom.
299. “Bad Reputation,” Freedy Johnston. Songwriter: Freedy Johnston; #54 pop; 1994. Freedy Johnston had the biggest commercial push of his career with the Butch Vig produced single “Bad Reputation,” which almost reached the pop Top 40. It’s easy to see why it didn’t, because the theme is a little too complicated for commercial radio. “Bad Reputation” is about a man desperately in love (“Do you want me now?/Do you want me now?”), but with too much pride to become a better person for his potential lover (“Don’t try to be an inspiration/Just wasting your time, time, time”). The narrator is emotionally stuck between his stubbornness (“Nobody’s gonna tell me who to love”) and his weaknesses (“I couldn’t have one conversation/If it wasn’t for the lies, lies, lies”), that ends with him “breaking down, down, down.” From the website The Second Single, “The song is gorgeous, beginning with Johnston’s vocals and acoustic guitar before giving way to a full scale ballad, complete with guitars so jangly, The Byrds may have asked him to ease off on the treble.” Johnston, “We were almost at the end of making ‘This Perfect World,’ and Butch Vig asked if I had any more songs. I told him I had this one song that was called (at the time) ‘Talk, Talk, Talk,’ but I didn’t like it too much. He heard it and said, ‘That’s going on the album.’ I learned something from that (laughing). If I write something that annoys me, I need to play it for someone else.”
298. “Can the Circle be Unbroken (By and By),” Carter Family. Songwriters: A.P. Carter; Did Not Chart; 1935. The Carter Family specialized in “shape note” singing, a style that was developed for choirs and community singing. It was perhaps their formal musical vision which gave weight to their version of “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” which was originally published in 1907 as the Christian hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” A.P. Carter reworked the lyrics and chorus to take a writing credit for the Carter Family version. (The same tune is used in “Since I Laid My Burden Down” and the 1928 boot stomping, holy ghost version by The Elders Mcintosh & Edwards’ Santified Singers is well worth your time). Dour in its original performance, the song is now often performed as an anthem of hope – a vision of a family gathering in the supernatural afterlife. “Mother” Maybelle Carter, known instrumentally as an innovator for her flatpicking guitar work, performed the song again on the famous 1972 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
297. “Why Do Falls Fall in Love,” Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Songwriters: Frankie Lymon, Herman Santiago, Jimmy Merchant; #6 pop/#1 R&B; 1956. Frankie Lymon was only thirteen years old when he sang one of rock music’s most timeless songs about the beguiling nature of romance. Author Richard Williams, “For many young listeners in the Britain of 1956, Why Do Fools Fall in Love? was the first record that sounded as if it had been made by teenagers for teenagers: it was a blast of doo-wop straight from the streets of Harlem, sung with irresistible energy by the juvenile delinquents who had written it.” From The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, “’Why Do Fools Fall In Love?’ was a defining moment in doo-wop history. The song has attained the status of a vocal-group classic, owing to Lymon’s agile, ingenuous and utterly charming performance.” George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic, “Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers made such a splash it’s hard to communicate. Frankie was a little younger than I was, but we were all more or less the same age. When Frankie hit, we were fourteen and we saw immediately where it all might lead – to being cool, to getting girls, to being at the center of the school’s social life.” Lymon became a pop music tragedy, dying in 1968 at the mere age of 25 from a heroin overdose.
296. Wake Up Everybody (Part 1),” Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Songwriters: John Whitehead, Gene McFadden, Victor Carstarphen; #12 pop/#1 R&B; 1975. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes had been recording since the mid-1950s, but didn’t have any chart success until the found Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia hit factory. The name was misleading – Harold Melvin had seniority in the group, Teddy Pendergrass was the lead singer during their commercial peak. “Wake Up Everybody” is one of strongest message songs of the 1970s. The emphasis on this community based take on the DIY philosophy is not self-fulfillment through voluntarism, but of developing an ethos for a common good. Current Blue Notes lead singer Donnell “Big Daddy” Gillespie in 2019, “The group really needed Teddy to get them over the hump to be heard. Without Teddy, they wouldn’t have become a household name, because 99 percent of the songs were sung by Teddy. He picked that group up and put it on his shoulders and walked with it.” Songwriters John Whitehead and Gene McFadden hit it big a few years later with the unity anthem “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.”
295. “Lost Highway,” Hank Williams. Songwriter: Leon Payne; Did Not Chart; 1949. It is ironic that “Lost Highway” is so closely associated with Hank Williams, a song that somewhat defines his persona, perhaps due to its subject matter of sin and condemnation. The “too lost to pray” themed “Lost Highway” was penned by Leon Payne, who released it in 1948, after being stranded while hitchhiking from California to Texas. Author Bobby Moore, “The song’s lasting appeal is quite simple. Over the years, this tale of life on the road and sins’ wages began to represent the glamorized idea of country stars as drifters and renegades.” Angus Batey of “The Guardian, “Williams’ own struggle to reconcile the sacred and the profane certainly helped him wear Payne’s song as if it were one of Nudie Cohn’s trademark suits, but it’s his voice – cracked, careworn but never tired – that makes this the definitive reading of an all-time classic, and a high point in a career that had more than its share.” This doomed, living a life of decadence number has been a key to Hank’s crossover appeal, having been covered by several rockers to include Jason & the Scorchers, The Mekons, and The Replacements.
294. “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; Did Not Chart; 1968. Mike Love, perhaps the most detested man in popular music, on Paul McCartney’s homage to Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.,” “Paul came down to the breakfast table one morning saying, ‘Hey, Mike, listen to this.’ And he starts strumming and singing, ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.,’ the verses. And I said, ‘Well, Paul, what you ought to do is talk about the girls around Russia, Ukraine girls and then Georgia on my mind, and that kind of thing.’ Which he did.” A cynic might point that if McCartney used lyrical themes suggested by Mike Love that a lawsuit would have quickly ensued, however, there is a nice hat tip to The Beach Boys in the bridge and the lyrical reference to “Georgia on My Mind” added to the amusement. McCartney, “I just like the idea of Georgia girls and talking about places like the Ukraine as if there were California. It was also hands across the water, which I’m still conscious of.” McCartney played drums on the track, during a timeframe when Ringo Starr had temporarily left the band. History did not record whether he also rang his balalaika for the track.
293. “Love Sick,” Bob Dylan. Songwriter: Bob Dylan; Did Not Chart; 1997. Bob Dylan experiences the type of love that destroys a man’s soul on “Love Sick,” the lead track on the 1997 Grammy Award winning album “Time Out of Mind.” Producer Daniel Lanois, “We had quite a crew in there including Augie Meyers on organ from Texas. He’s a specialist in that little back beat skank organ I call it. That little stab at the beginning came from Augie and the more celestial sound came from Jim Dickinson on a Wurlitzer and that provided all that mystery and cascading of sounds. And then we had two of the greatest drummers in the world, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner. As subtle as the drums may be on that record there’s a lot of southern feeling on that record.” As for Dylan, he notes that the streets are dead, the clouds are weeping, and his lover has destroyed him with a smile. He sounds like he’s married to despair with no hope of annulment.
292. “Harlem Shuffle,” Bob & Earl. Songwriters: Bob Relf, Earl Nelson; #44 pop/#3 R&B; 1963. Doo wop singer Earl Nelson was a member of The Hollywood Flames during the 1950s and he performed the lead vocals on their 1950’s Top Ten R&B single “Buzz-Buzz-Buzz.” Nelson partnered with Bobby Relf in 1962 and released the dance floor groove “Harlem Shuffle,” which was arranged by a young Barry White. The duo’s vocal style has drawn frequent comparisons to Sam and Dave and the song was based upon a Los Angles instrumental single titled “Slauson Shuffletime” by Round Robin. “Harlem Shuffle” just missed the U.S. Top 40 charts in 1963, but was a Top Ten U.K. hit in 1969. British author Rikky Rooksby, “Apparently, a simple two-chord change and a lyric about dancing, it is much greater than the sum of its parts. This has to be the creepiest dance record ever made. Like ‘Whiter Shade of Pale.’ it’s a performance whose atmosphere hits you right in the gut every time.” Keith Richards, “The original version had horns on it, straight ahead soul-disco style. It was probably the first disco record. It was still the early Sixties when they did it, but the sound and beat were very connectable to that early disco stuff.” Los Angeles rappers House of Pain sampled “Harlem Shuffle” for the intro of their 1992 Top Five pop hit “Jump Around.”
291. “When A Man Loves a Woman,” Percy Sledge. Songwriters: Calvin Lewis, Andrew Wright; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1966. There are several stories about how “When a Man Loves a Woman” was written. In interviews, Sledge always claimed to be the primary writer, inspired by either humming the melody while working in cotton fields or penning the soul classic after a heartbreak. He went on to claim that he generously gave away the credits to members of his backing band, The Esquires. Hmmm. In any event, the song was recorded in Muscle Shoals, not at Rick Hall’s FAME studio, although Hall did coordinate the licensing agreement with Atlantic Records. Jerry Wexler found the murky recording unsatisfactory and requested a new version of the horn parts. Bassist David Hood, “They went back in the studio and changed the horns, got different horn players to play on it. But then the tapes got mixed up and Atlantic put out their original version. So that’s the hit.” Author Tom Moon, “It’s a melody made for pleading, a graceful rainbow arc that holds all the romance (and concomitant distress) a singer can muster.” English producer Denny Cordell, “We used to try and crib the Stax sound, but at the time, on (the Procol Harum hit) ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’ what I was trying to copy was ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ by Percy Sledge.”