The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 360 to 351
360. “The Boys Are Back in Town,” Thin Lizzy. Songwriter: Phil Lynott; #12 pop; 1976. From the late, great rock critic Rick Johnson, “How would you like to run into Thin Lizzy in a dark alley? No, thanks, they’d remove your face for future lampshade use. They treat life like a napkin.” Thin Lizzy released six albums before they had their breakthrough hit in the U.S. “The Boys Are Back in Town” was tough enough for the hard rock crowd and tuneful enough for pop radio. Highlighting the band’s trademark dual guitar harmonies and drinks-will-flow, blood-will-spill working class lyrics, the song was inspired by the Quality Street Gang – a group of shady characters from Manchester, England who frequented the Clifton Grange Hotel. Philomena Lynott, Phil’s mother, worked at the hotel bar and her famous son was amused by the characters who held court into the wee hours of the morning (the band also has a song titled “Clifton Grange Hotel”). The Ultimate Classic Rock website on the sense of adventure in the song, “Learning how to drive, then spending weekend nights goofing off with your friends in the car, you’d kill to hear a song like this on the radio. It would soundtrack your night, but you’d hope for more – that it would somehow bend the evening toward some chaotic climax of insanity, like a bar fight or the chance to sweep some new girl off her feet. Even if, in reality there were no bars you really had a prayer of getting into and few girls willing to give any of us guys the time of day.” Patterson Hood triumphantly namechecked “The Boys Are Back in Town” on the 2001 Drive-By Truckers song “Let There Be Rock.” Lead singer Phil Lynott ended his napkin life at the age of 36 after years of struggling with heroin addiction.
359. “Sail Away,” Randy Newman. Songwriter: Randy Newman; Did Not Chart; 1972. Los Angeles native Randy Newman had writing credits on chart singles by Jerry Butler, Irma Thomas, and Gene Pitney during the 1960s. He has spent most of the past forty years collecting Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Grammys, and Emmys for his work in movies and television, but he also released eleven albums as a recording artist from 1968 to 2017. His 1972 album title track “Sail Away” has the dramatic sweep of a cinematic score, but the lyrics are from the perspective of a slave trader, making a utopian sales pitch to a “little wog.” Satirist Tom Lehrer, describing Newman’s approach to his craft, “Randy Newman takes a sardonic subject or attitude and sets it to the most pleasant music, thus disguising the thorns in there.” Newman, “Bobby Darin could sing, but he did ‘Sail Away’ and, well…I don’t think he understood it. He did it like it was a happy song about coming to America.”
358. “The Band Plays On,” John Anderson. Songwrites: Fred Knoblock, Gary Scruggs; Did Not Chart; 1996. John Anderson’s second major commercial run ended with his 1996 album “Paradise.” The title track went to #22 on the country charts and two other singles from the release failed to make Top 40. “The Band Plays On,” an album cut about resilience that nobody heard, was written by Fred Knoblock, who scored a #1 adult contemporary hit with “Why Not Me” in 1980, and Gary Scruggs, a son of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs. John ironically duets with famed drummer Levon Helm from The Band (get it? “The Band Plays On?) on this gospel influenced number that will absolutely rip your heart of its chest cavity, slam it on the driveway, then stomp a mudhole in it. You might think those two voices would mesh like two hyenas fighting over a zebra carcass, but this works in spades. Thematically, the message is that it doesn’t matter what happens to you in life. Nobody cares. The band plays on.
357. “Discovering Japan,” Graham Parker. Songwriter: Graham Parker; Did Not Chart; 1979. Graham Parker wasn’t turning Japanese like The Vapors on the lead track to his highly acclaimed “Squeezing Out Sparks” album, but instead penned a love song filled with international intrigue. Parker, “I’d been on tour, and I remember being on an airplane flying back from Japan, which was, and probably still is, like an alien planet. It’s really different.” Parker chronicled nuclear shadows and abusive G.I.’s while his band detonated beyond gravity in the background. Budding songwriters should study “Discovering Japan” for its irresistible rhyming scheme. Parker found himself musically in foreign territory, “The chord sequences are still, for want of a better word, advanced. This ain’t no R&B thing; this is something else altogether. … I was breaking some different ground in the rhythmic structures and the whole push/pull of the thing. The way the chords spun around on each other and the lyric was so totally mysterious that I didn’t even understand it myself.”
356. “The Village Green Preservation Society,” The Kinks. Songwriter: Ray Davies; Did Not Chart; 1968. Perhaps no other song describes Ray Davies’ outlook on life as succinctly as this one, where he bemoans “progress” such as office blocks and skyscrapers and reflects on the need to maintain “little shops, china cups, and virginity.” The record has been described by author Andy Miller as “an oblique protest song,” but Ray Davies was focusing on timeless themes on the “Village Green” album. Davies, “It’s where I set my imaginary world. It’s a series of dreamscapes. It’s to do with innocence and lost youth. The village green is beyond fashion, news, war, the media.” From the altrockchick website, “The title song (an anthem, really) is a lovely way to begin a record. Beneath the pleasant melody, wonderfully varied harmonies and deceptively simple structure, we find a profound rejection of what we are conditioned to believe is progress. What Ray Davies insists we preserve are the traditions and human-scale experiences that give us both community and continuity. The village green is a symbol of a truly human-scale environment where people can gather together naturally to talk, play or just sit and enjoy the sunshine.” The album was a complete commercial flop when it was released, but is now reportedly the band’s best selling studio release.
355. “Indianapolis,” Bottle Rockets. Songwriter: Brian Henneman; Did Not Chart; 1997. “Indianapolis,” a true life story of a van breakdown and the ensuing working class angst about dependable transportation, was originally recorded by Brian Henneman as a solo record in 1992 with backing from Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt), Jeff Tweedy (Uncle Tupelo/Wilco), and future Bottle Rockets drummer Mark Ortmann. In fact, “Indianapolis” played a key role in getting Henneman his record contract that resulted in the formation of the Bottle Rockets. On the 1997 release, the band bashes away at their frustration while Henneman sings the best lyric of the decade, “Who knows what this repair will cost?/Scared to spend a dime/I’ll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time.” Whenever I hear this song performed live, I feel like I’m in the exact spot that the universe wants me to occupy. The Bottle Rockets had previously grumbled about their transportation issues on the droll 1994 album cut “1000 Dollar Car.”
354. “Are You Experienced?,” Jimi Hendrix. Songwriter: Jimi Hendrix: Did Not Chart; 1967. Producer Eddie Kramer, on this high water mark from the psychedelic era, “’Are You Experienced?’ is a very interesting song as was the way it was constructed. Jimi and the lads played a basic track of drums, bass and guitar then we flipped the tape so that all of the music was backwards. We then overdubbed a regular forward rhythm guitar, lead guitar, a tack piano, drums, vocals. So in the final mix there was ONLY backwards bass, a mixture of backwards and forwards drums, backwards guitar solo and Jimi’s voice normal along with the track piano. Plus of course loads of effects courtesy of yours truly!!” From the Harry Shapiro/Caesar Glebbeek book “Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy,” “’Are Your Experienced?’ is a majestic set piece of declamatory anthem rock. Mitch (Mitchell)’s military snare raps out behind the startlingly contemporary hip-hop scratch sound-effects of tapes running backwards punctuating Jimi’s condition for being your guide (‘If you can get your mind together’). To what? Sexual ecstasy? Altered states of consciousness? Or just finding yourself, taking time out to view what you’re doing from the outside, ‘from the bottom of the sea’, letting go of the daily grind of the ‘measly world’. It is all there for the taking. The secret is being at peace with yourself – ‘not necessarily stoned, but beautiful.’”
353. “Many Rivers to Cross,” Jimmy Cliff. Songwriter: Jimmy Cliff; Did Not Chart; 1969. Jimmy Cliff started performing as a teenager in Jamaica and was lured by Island Records to relocate to the U.K. in the mid-1960s. “Many Rivers to Cross,” originally released in 1969, became known in America as part of the soundtrack to the 1972 Jamaican film “The Harder They Come.” In fact, it was this song that influenced filmmaker Percy Henzell to cast Jimmy Cliff in the movie’s starring role. The church organ and backup vocals give a gospel flavor to this tale of an unfulfilled physical and spiritual journey. Cliff, “When I came to the UK, I was still in my teens. I came full of vigor: I’m going to make it, I’m going to be up there with the Beatles and the Stones. And it wasn’t really going like that, I was touring clubs, not breaking through. I was struggling, with work, life, my identity, I couldn’t find my place; frustration fueled the song. I came to England with very big hopes and I saw my hopes fading. And that song came out of that experience.” UB40, Cher, and Annie Lennox have hit the U.K. and U.S. pop charts with their respective covers.
352. “Waltz #2 (XO),” Elliott Smith. Songwriter: Elliott Smith; Did Not Chart; 1998. Singer/songwriter Elliott Smith was a master of melancholy. “Waltz #2 (XO)” is a sonically beautiful song that documents Smith’s childhood issues with his mother and a reportedly abusive stepfather. Journalist Marcy Donelson describing his work, “Distinguished by a vulnerable demeanor conveyed by intense but wispy vocals (often double-tracked) and personal lyrics that referred candidly to subjects like addiction, depression, and alienation.” Journalist Michael Nelson, “The bridge is one of the most aching and moving moments of music in a catalog that is entirely aching and moving, as Elliott sings of the prison-home provided by his mother, ‘I’m here today, expected to stay on, and on, and on,’ his voice going higher and higher. When Elliott sings, ‘I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow,’ he’s singing to his mother, the woman whose choices forced him to leave.” Elliott Smith died tragically in 2003 and there’s still no definitive answer of whether the cause was suicide or homicide.
351. “I Only Have Eyes for You,” The Flamingos. Songwriters: Harry Warren, Al Dubin; #11 pop/#3 R&B; 1959. The R&B vocal group the Flamingos hailed from Chicago, forming in 1953. They scored a 1956 Top Ten R&B hit with “I’ll Be Home,” which was not successful due to sterling production values. For “I Only Have Eyes for You” the group used a soft doo wop sound similar to the Skyliners and the Platters. The composition dates back to 1934 and was #2 pop hit that year for big band leader Ben Selvin, whose version included the warbling dramatic oversinging of its era. Before the Flamingos recorded their shimmering doo wop take, it had been recorded by Doris Day, Billie Holiday, the Ames Brothers, Patti Page, and Eddy Arnold during the 1950s. There is so much reverb on the Flamingos’ version that it gives the song a strange, ethereal beauty. First tenor Johnny Carter, “I can’t now remember exactly how we got so much reverb on the ‘doo‑bop sh‑bop’ backing vocals to make them go that far back, but it was really heavy and just a little of it was used on Nate (Nelson) to warm up his lead. There were no overdubs, everything was done live in complete takes, and you can hear a few little mistakes in there. However, the way it was in those days, if it sounded good to the engineer or whoever was in the control room, that was it. Time was money.”