The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 40 to 31
40. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” The Ramones. Songwriters: Tommy Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone; Did Not Chart; 1976. Joey Ramone, “I hate to blow the mystique, but at the time we really liked bubblegum music and we really liked the Bay City Rollers. Their song ‘Saturday Night’ had a great chant in it, so we wanted a song with a chant in it. ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ was our ‘Saturday Night.’” The Ramones formed in Queens, New York in 1974 and quickly became somewhat of the house band for CBGB’s, the legendary New York dive that became ground zero in the American punk rock movement. The lead track on their debut album was too radical for pop radio in its day, but later became a “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” sports anthem and set the template for the Ramones’ formula – simple barre chords, no solos, concise writing, songs that could be humorous and powerful. Their high energy punk rock sound would be replicated by a million bands, but the Ramones did it first and best. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” The Ramones. Songwriters: Tommy Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone; Did Not Chart; 1976. Joey Ramone, “I hate to blow the mystique, but at the time we really liked bubblegum music and we really liked the Bay City Rollers. Their song ‘Saturday Night’ had a great chant in it, so we wanted a song with a chant in it. ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ was our ‘Saturday Night.’” The Ramones formed in Queens, New York in 1974 and quickly became somewhat of the house band for CBGB’s, the legendary New York dive that became ground zero in the American punk rock movement. The lead track on their debut album was too radical for pop radio in its day, but later became a “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” sports anthem and set the template for the Ramones’ formula – simple barre chords, no solos, concise writing, songs that could be humorous and powerful. Their high energy punk rock sound would be replicated by a million bands, but the Ramones did it first and best.
39. “Respect,” Aretha Franklin. Songwriter: Otis Redding; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1967. Songwriter Otis Redding, who had a #35 pop with “Respect” in 1965, “That’s one of my favorite songs because it has a better groove than any of my records. It says something, too: ‘What you want, baby, you got it; what you need, baby, you got it; all I’m asking for is a little respect when I come home.’ The song lines are great. The band track is beautiful. It took me a whole day to write it and about twenty minutes to arrange it. We cut it once and that was it. Everybody wants respect, you know.” Aretha gave a new arrangement to the song and turned it into a feminist anthem. NPR on the song’s transformation, “The track was actually a clever gender-bending of a song by Otis Redding, whose original reinforced the traditional family structure of the time: Man works all day, brings money home to wife and demands her respect in return. Franklin’s version blew that structure to bits. For one, Redding’s song doesn’t spell out ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ like Franklin’s does. It also doesn’t have the backup singers and their clever interplay. So much of what made ‘Respect’ a hit — and an anthem — came from Franklin’s rearrangement.” Rolling Stone magazine, “In Redding’s reading, a brawny march, he called for equal favor with volcanic force. Franklin wasn’t asking for anything. She sang from higher ground: a woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority. In short, if you want some, you will earn it.”
38. “In My Life,” Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; Did Not Chart; 1965. John Lennon on his meditative/personal journey composition “In My Life”: “There was a period when I thought I didn’t write melodies, that Paul wrote those and I just wrote straight, shouting rock ‘n’ roll. But of course, when I think of some of my own songs – ‘In My Life,’ or some of the early stuff, ‘This Boy’ – I was writing melody with the best of them. Paul helped with the middle eight musically. But all lyrics written, signed, sealed, and delivered. And it was, I think, my first real major piece of work. Up till then it had all been sort of glib and throwaway. And that was the first time I consciously put my literary part of myself into the lyric. Inspired by Kenneth Allsop, the British journalist, and Bob Dylan.” Lennon looks backwards and forwards in the lyrics – cherishing the people who have shaped his life, yet feeling excited about building a future with his lover. Lennon wanted a baroque feel in the instrumental section, so George Martin played a piano solo and sped up the tape, resulting in what sounds like a harpsichord.
37. “I Saw the Light,” Hank Williams. Songwriter: Hank Williams; Did Not Chart; 1948. Hank Williams penned what sounds like a centuries old gospel standard with equal parts theft and inspiration. Gospel composer Albert E. Brumley published “He Set Me Free” in 1939 and it was first released by The Chuck Wagon Gang in 1941. “I Saw the Light” is almost a direct copy of the Brumley song. Author Colin Escott, “If gospel composer Albert E. Brumley had been a litigious man, he would surely have sued over ‘I Saw the Light.’ Not only was the melody identical to his hymn, but the lyrics bore a passing resemblance too. ‘I Saw the Light’ wasn’t just ‘He Set Me Free’ with new lyrics, though. It was the prayer of the backslider, who lives in hope of redemption.” In short, Hank’s song became a standard because his discovery and fervor regarding his salvation is a classic marriage of country and gospel themes. Bob Dylan, “Songs like (Ralph Stanley’s) ‘Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain’ and ‘I Saw the Light’ – that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that…The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”
36. “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Songwriter: Neil Young; Did Not Chart; 1979. “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” was Neil Young’s attempt to understand the punk movement and concludes with the idea that Johnny Rotten had supplanted Elvis as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Young’s assertion that it is better to burn out than to fade away was advice that Kurt Cobain took a bit too literally. “Hey Hey, My My” is perhaps the apex of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s grungy, bone throttling, crater stomping power. Young picked up the motto “rust never sleeps” from Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and ran with it as a lifestyle choice. Young, “It relates to my career; the longer I keep on going the more I have to fight this corrosion. And now that’s gotten to be like the World Series for me. The competition’s there, whether I will corrode and eventually not be able to move anymore and just repeat myself until further notice or whether I will be able to expand and keep the corrosion down a little.”
35. “Good Vibrations,” The Beach Boys. Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Mike Love; #1 pop; 1966. You could say that “Good Vibrations” was a bit of an obsession for Brian Wilson. The math: seventeen recording sessions over a six month period of time, over 90 hours of tape, and $50,000 of studio costs for a three and a half minute pop song. Brian Wilson, “’Good Vibrations’ was going to be the summation of my musical vision, a harmonic convergence of imagination and talent, production values and craft, songwriting and spirituality.” Bassist Carol Kaye, “That wasn’t your normal rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, it wasn’t ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ and it wasn’t ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ You were part of a symphony.” Paul Tanner’s sci-fi sounding, high pitched Electro-Theremin has been noted as one of the first uses of an electronic instrument in pop music. Wilson, “I was thrilled by Paul Tanner’s theremin sound. It was scary to hear that sound, but good scary. Derek Taylor had done The Beatles’ publicity and took The Beach Boys on, too. When he first heard ‘Good Vibrations,’ he said, ‘I call that a pocket symphony.’ Isn’t that brilliant? The Capitol execs loved that tune. I remember the A&R man saying what a great pop record it was.” Drummer Hal Blaine, “It was monumental in concept and delivery. Brian was at the top of his creativity. He was such a young guy composing, arranging and directing, and all the while with no real score to work from. A brilliant young man.” Author Peter Ames Carlin: “(The song’s) contrasting moods and rhythms – veering from the delicate, flute-filled opening verses to the rumbling, wailing cello-and-theremin chorus to the Jew’s-harp-and-honky-tonk-piano first bridge to the echoing, churchlike organ on the second bridge and the round of arching falsettos that lead to the final chorus – exploded even the most progressive notions of how a pop song could be written, constructed, and performed.” Oom bop bop, indeed.
34. “Be My Baby,” The Ronettes. Songwriters: Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector; #2 pop/#4 R&B; 1963. Author Jason Ankeny, ‘Be My Baby’ announces its arrival with arguably the most dramatic introduction in all of rock & roll – Hal Blaine’s drums are the Morse code of the gods – and somehow just keeps getting better from there; the quintessential Phil Spector production, it begins as the Wall of Sound but ends up a full-blown Taj Mahal, a gleaming sonic temple erected in eternal tribute to Ronettes frontwoman (and the future Mrs. Spector) Veronica Bennett.” Drummer Hal Blaine, “That famous drum intro was an accident. I was supposed to play the snare on the second beat as well as the fourth, but I dropped a stick. Being the faker I was in those days, I left the mistake in and it became: ‘Bum-ba-bum-BOOM!’ And soon everyone wanted that beat. If you listen to me in Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night,’ I’m playing the ‘Be My Baby’ beat, just very softly.” Ronnie Spector, “Recording it took forever. I rehearsed in New York with the Ronettes, then I had to go to California on my own to sing the lead. Phil (Spector) picked me up at the airport and kept saying: ‘This record is going to be amazing.’ In the studio, I had to hide in the ladies’ room so the musicians could get their work done – I was very pretty and they’d keep looking at me. While I was in there, I came up with all those ‘Oh oh ohs’, inspired by my old Frankie Lymon records. It took three days to record my vocals, take after take. The recording captures the full spectrum of my emotions: everything from nervousness to excitement. When I came in with ‘The night we met I knew I needed you so,’ the band went nuts. I was 18 years old, 3,000 miles from home, and had all these guys saying I was the next Billie Holliday.” Brian Wilson on hearing the song for the first time, “In a way it wasn’t like having your mind blown, it was like having your mind revamped. It’s like, once you’ve heard that record, you’re a fan forever.”
33. “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Etta James. Songwriters: Bill Foster, Ellington Jordan; Did Not Chart; 1968. Etta James would rather lose her eyesight than see her man walk away on the heart wrenching “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Although Etta didn’t write the song, she was involved in a personal relationship where life imitated art. James, “I was blind. I was blind in my love life, and I was blind in my personal ways. Like the song says, ‘I just don’t want to be free.’” Songwriter Ellington Jordan had his own reasons to be depressed, he was imprisoned for robbery when he wrote the song. (According to Etta James, former doo wop vocalist Bill Foster received a writing credit as part of Chess Records’ creative business accounting practices, not for any artistic contribution). James wrote about the reaction that label president Leonard Chess had to the song in her autobiography: “He got up and left the room ’cause he started crying… When he came back in the room, he said, ‘Etta, it’s a mother … it’s a mother.” Music critic Matthew Greenwald, “Heartbreaking and soulful, the premise of the title is affecting enough, yet the sheer poetry of the words takes it to an even higher place. James’ vocal delivery is, of course, unparalleled and positively drips with emotion, giving the entire song and recording a bittersweet feeling that is undeniable.”
32. “Tutti-Frutti,” Little Richard. Songwriters: Little Richard, Dorothy, LaBostrie; #21 pop/#2 R&B; 1956. “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!,” announced Little Richard, creating one of the most memorable phrases in rock ‘n’ roll history, before describing his affection for Sue (“who knows just what to do”) and Daisy (“she almost drives me crazy”). Legend has it that the original lyrics were much more sexual: “Tutti fruitti/Good booty/If it’s tight, it’s all right/And if it’s greasy/It makes it easy.” Rolling Stone, “’Tutti-Frutti’ may have been modified from ‘explicit’ to ‘suggestive,’ but Richard’s lustfully tumbling onomatopoeia still voiced a carnal glee far beyond the reach of any dictionary words – when he lands on the last two syllables you can practically hear the bodies slapping against each other.” Little Richard, “My greatest achievement would have to be ‘Tutti Frutti.’ It took me out of the kitchen – I was a dishwasher at the Greyhound bus station, making $10 a week working 12 hours a day, and ‘Tutti Frutti’ was a blessin’ and a lesson. I thank God for ‘Tutti Frutti.’” Drummer Earl Palmer, “The only reason I started playing what they come to call a ‘Rock and Roll’ beat was came from trying to match Richard’s right hand – with Richard pounding the piano with all ten fingers, you couldn’t so very well go against that. I did at first – on ‘Tutti Frutti’ you can hear me playing a shuffle. Listening to it now, it’s easy to hear I should have been playing that rock beat.” In 2007, Mojo magazine published a list of “100 Records That Changed the World,” signifying “the most influential and inspirational recordings ever made.” “Tutti Fruitti” was #1 on their list.
31. “Eight Miles High,” Hüsker Dü. Songwriters: Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn, David Crosby; Did Not Chart; 1984. What language does one use to describe the Hüsker Dü version of “Eight Miles High”? You could compare it to an atomic explosion or perhaps a collision of two planets. You might say it sounds a tidal wave of thrashing despair. Bob Mould sounds like a man pushed to pure physical and mental exhaustion. He screams as if he’s exorcising life threatening demons out of his body. Bob Mould, “The purpose of ‘Eight Miles High’ for the ‘Zen Arcade’ (album) sessions was – everything we did in the studio, basic tracks, was first take. We did not want to use one of the songs from the album as a warmup track. We would jam a little. We had to do something, so that was the first song. We did that, and I did vocals right away to warm up. It’s a pretty crazy vocal take. It became this calling card, at the moment, for the band.” The results? “It makes me feel like I’m winning. It makes me feel good. A lot of people interpret the catharsis—or all the tiny, scary angst, frustration or whatever as negative. Quite on the contrary, if you’re frustrated, let it out. That’s what makes you feel good.” Blogger Jim Connelly, “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the greatest cover song ever. Better than The Clash’s ‘I Fought the Law.’ Better than The Beatles ‘Twist and Shout.’ Better than The Who’s ‘Summertime Blues.’ Better than The English Beat’s ‘Tears of A Clown.’ Better than Jimi Hendrix’s ‘All Along The Watchtower.’ There is nothing about Hüsker Dü’s ‘Eight Miles High’ that isn’t masterful. In an era where punk bands though it was funny to do ironic covers of 60s and 70s classics, Hüsker Dü took the greatest song of the 1960s, and simultaneously destroyed and rebuilt it. From the first notes of Bob Mould’s psychedelic thrash guitar utterly ripping through McGuinn’s iconic riff while Grant Hart makes not like an airplane but a rocket ship on the drums, the Hüskers totally and completely reinvent ‘Eight Miles High’ for the 1980s.”