The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 400 to 391
400. “You Can’t Catch Me,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; Did Not Chart; 1956. Chuck Berry sped up the intro that Muddy Waters used on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” for this 1958 non-charting, fast car tribute. He also referenced his prior hits “Maybellene” and “Wee Wee Hours” while writing lyrics and rhythms that would later be appropriated by John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen. In fact, The Beatles’ “Come Together” was such an obvious reworking of “You Can’t Catch Me” that it resulted in a lawsuit between music publisher Morris Levy and John Lennon. Lennon’s 1975 cover of “You Can’t Catch Me” was recorded as part of the settlement. Greil Marcus, “In the mid-‘50s, when Chuck Berry was just hitting the charts, before he had big money in the band, he never sang as ‘the poor boy’: just the opposite. He was the driver. He had his own machine – first a V-8 Ford, then a Cadillac – and where he went was up to him. ‘Maybellene,’ ‘You Can’t Catch Me,’ ‘No Money Down’ – the road was his. By the end of ‘You Can’t Catch Me,’ he’s airborne: in the ‘50s, everyone believed that in a few years cars would fly, and Chuck Berry never missed a trick.”
399. “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” The Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; #55 pop; 1967. American radio stations didn’t ascertain that Mick Jagger was singing about a girl having her period on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” but the suggested groovin’ around fun of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” was too hot to handle. This controversy resulted in Jagger’s eye rolling lyrical change to “let’s spend some time together” on the Ed Sullivan show and the piano hooked pop/rocker that went Top Five in the U.K. didn’t touch the U.S. Top 40. Andrew Loog Oldham on capitulating to Ed Sullivan to change the lyrics, “Eighteen months earlier we would have told Ed to go fuck himself and walked off the show. But now it’s show business and at this moment we’re at the top, we all have something to lose.” According the engineer Glyn Johns the percussion sound on the bridge was reinforced by banging together police nightsticks. Two police had wandered into the back door, wanting to make sure the studio wasn’t being burglarized. Andrew Loog Oldham quickly had a bag of illegal entertainment removed from the room, then asked the bewildered and star struck officers to help on the recording.
398. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye. Songwriters: Al Cleveland, Renaldo Benson, Marvin Gaye; #2 pop/#1 R&B; 1971. On “What’s Going On,” an informal party quickly turns into a what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding anti-war commentary. Berry Gordy initially proclaimed that the song was “the worst thing I’ve heard in my entire life,” however the socially conscious lyrics gave both Marvin Gaye and Motown substantive critical acclaim. This was a well timed message on top of an arrangement that sounds more like jazz than the R&B of its era. Brian McCollum of the Detroit Free Press, “For all of the intensity in the song’s message, Gaye’s velvety performance is subtle and serene, the sound of a singer confidently riding his instincts. Gaye wasn’t shoving anything into his listeners’ faces; he was leading them by the hand.” In 2020, the “What’s Going On” LP topped Rolling Stone’s latest listing of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
397. “Workin’ Man Blues,” Merle Haggard. Songwriter: Merle Haggard; #1 country; 1969. “Workin’ Man Blues” is familiar territory for Haggard – a tribute to blue collar men, welfare avoiding working class stiffs who dream of adventure, yet keep their nose on the grindstone to pay for the necessities. Still, they might regularly visit a tavern on the way home. Author Marissa Moss, “Ushered in with bits of funky guitar, 1969’s ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ became an anthem for the bluesy, blue-collar Bakersfield Sound that Haggard would come to personify. And those quirky intro licks would emerge as downright iconic too, making it increasingly safe for traditional country crooners to play as much in rock & roll waters as they damn well pleased. When the track was released, Haggard was having anything but the blues — he’d been riding high after seven Number One songs, but he refused to forget the rough and tumble roots that birthed him, singing the anthem of a man with nine children, struggling to get by.” In concert, Haggard would often perform “Workin’ Man’s Blues” in the style of Bob Wills, giving lengthy hot solo spots to several instrumentalists. Decades later Bob Dylan referenced Haggard’s wage grinding anthem on his 2006 number “Workingman’s Blues #2.”
396. “On Broadway,” The Drifters. Songwriters: Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller; #9 pop/#7 R&B; 1963. “On Broadway” was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and was originally performed from a perspective of a female assessing her bright lights, big city competition. The Cookies recorded “On Broadway” as a shuffle in 1962 and the song was an album track for The Crystals later that year. Leiber and Stoller re-wrote the lyrics from the perspective of a man with, perhaps, more determination than self-awareness. Author Joel Selvin, “Leiber and Stoller worked on the Mann-Weil song, writing the bridge, straightening out the lyric. Stoller messed around with the key and changed the finish of the crucial opening line, going up instead of down on the word ‘Broadway.’ On their way to lunch before the session, they ran into Phil Spector on the sidewalk and invited him. He showed up at the studio with his guitar and ended up playing the solo on the instrumental break.” Rock critic Ritchie Unterberger, “Rudy Lewis’s lead vocal on the verses projects the right balance of defiance, resentment, and ambition in his tale of a guy who’s poor and deprived now, but determined to make it on Broadway. The Drifters’ contributions as backing vocals might be unobtrusive, but they’re vital, softly murmuring ‘on broadway’ often after Lewis sings that phrase, as if they’re both acting as his subconscious voice, and mimicking the grandeur of the flashing neon lights of New York’s most glamorous strip. The song keeps changing keys upward with each subsequent verse, a convenient device perhaps, but quite effective in making the track progressively tenser.” Cover to discover – Neil Young’s 1980’s despairing crack addict reading.
395. “California Dreamin’,” The Mamas & The Papas. Songwriters: John Phillips, Michelle Phillips; #4 pop; 1965. “California Dreamin’” was written by John and Michelle Phillips while living in New York with lyrics inspired by Michelle’s homesickness for the West Coast. The song was originally recorded by Barry McGuire of “Eve of Destruction” fame. The Mamas & The Papas version added the alto flute solo performed by jazz artist Bud Shank, which reportedly was improvised on the spot. Also, the vocal arrangement is one of the most memorable of its era. Guitarist P.F. Sloan, “The ‘California Dreamin’ session was magical. John (Phillips) was very nervous. Nobody particularly liked the song, and to be honest with you, ‘California Dreamin’ was maybe three or four chords. I added the ‘Walk – Don’t Run’ Ventures guitar riffs for that ‘da da da da da da.’ That was all creative work inside the studio when I heard them singing on mic. I had recorded them with Barry McGuire on his second album, so I knew how good they were.” Author Holly Hughes, “While folk music had harmonies, they weren’t harmonies like this, a dense wall of vocals you could almost climb into. Because the song had ‘California’ in the title, I used to associate those harmonies with the Beach Boys’ sound, but the Wilson brothers always sounded sunny, their mellow voices blending in Four-Freshman-inspired polyphony; there’s nothing sunny about the minor-key dissonances of ‘California Dreamin.’ No, these harmonies owe more to the British Invasion, to the Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’ and the Yardbirds’ ‘For Your Love’ and the Beatles’ ‘Things We Said Today.’ Denny Doherty’s lines are constantly overlapped by Cass Elliott and Michelle Phillips’ counterpoint, so there’s scarcely a beat without vocals, their voices crunching together at the end of every verse in a haunting dissonant chord.”
394. “Time of the Season,” The Zombies. Songwriter: Rod Argent; #3 pop; 1967. “Time of the Season” was an unusual hit in that The Zombies had disbanded over a year prior to the single peaking on the pop charts. As mysterious and threatening as some of the lyrics sounded, the inspiration was most innocent. Rod Argent, “I remember thinking it sounded very commercial. One of my favorite records was George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime.’ We used to do a version of it when we started out. The words in the verse – ‘What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?’ – were an affectionate nod in that direction.” Argent also utilized a more contemporary influence in that the bass line is replicated from Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” Author Tom Doyle, “From its opening bars of loping drums, rising bass line, reverberated offbeat clap and sigh of ‘aah’, the Zombies’ ‘Time of the Season’ is an unmistakable track.” Argent, “We liked the result very much. We had no idea when it was finished that it would be a hit eventually. And in fact, it was released as a very last gasp over in the U.S. We only put out one single in the U.K., and that was ‘Care of Cell 44,’ which didn’t do anything. I do think it captures a mood. However that was and whatever it is, it does capture a mood.”
393. “Baby Blue,” Badfinger. Songwriter: Pete Ham; #14 pop; 1971. The power pop band Badfinger formed as a teen act in Wales in the early 1960s and were famously signed to Apple Records in 1968. They had three international Top Ten singles from 1969 to 1971 (“Come and Get It,” “No Matter What,” and “Day After Day”), finding a devoted audience with their polished update of the British Invasion sound. The Todd Rundgren produced single “Baby Blue” was inspired by songwriter’s Pete Ham’s infatuation with an obscure U.S. vocalist named Dixie Armstrong. Author Rob Hughes on this sentimental rocker, “A key feature was Rundgren’s decision to feed a guitar through a Leslie speaker. He later described the effect it created as a ‘swirly guitar sound that was somewhat signature on the song.’” There has been a sense of loss surrounding the band (original members Pete Ham and Tom Evans both committed suicide), and that feeling of resignation (“Guess I got what I deserve”) is appropriate for “Baby Blue,” the group’s last major hit. After being featured in the final episode of the 2013 television drama “Breaking Bad,” the song appeared in the U.K. pop charts for the first time.
392. “Into the Groove,” Madonna. Songwriters: Madonna, Stephen Bray; #19 R&B; 1985. Madonna hit the pop scene as a teen fashion icon, but later gained respect through her cutting edge dance music and smart image manipulation. As the late 1970s/early 80s disco hangover subsided, listeners became more open minded about the dance music that Madonna returned to mainstream radio. Also, she brought a new brand of feminism, one that celebrated her sexuality, into the realm of pop culture. Rolling Stone on her best single, “’Into the Groove’ is the streetwise beatbox anthem Madonna kept trying to write when she was down and out in New York, the days when she squatted and ate out of garbage cans. As she explained in 1985, ‘It was the garbage can in the Music Building on Eighth Avenue, where I lived with Steve Bray, the guy I write songs with. He’s Useful Male #2 or #3, depending on which article you read.’ Madonna and Bray – the ex-drummer in her punk band – knocked off ‘Into the Groove’ as an eight-track demo. (Bray later said he came up with the ‘rib cage’ and ‘skeleton’ of the music, with Madonna writing lyrics and adding her own touches – in this case, the song’s bridge.) Her movie ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ used it for the scene where Madonna hits Danceteria, but then it unexpectedly blew up on the radio. It still sounds like a low-budget demo – those breakbeats, the desperate edge in her voice when she drones, ‘Now I know you’re mine’ – but that raw power is what makes it her definitive you-can-dance track.” Peter Tabakis of Spectrum Culture, “’Into the Groove’ is the purest version of melody, melody, melody set to a metronomic pulse.”
391. “Brand New Cadillac,” Vince Taylor & His Playboys. Songwriter: Vince Taylor; Did Not Chart; 1959. Rockabilly singer Vince Taylor lived in both England and the U.S. while growing up and started his singing career based in London in the late 1950s. Featuring the lean, mean guitar work of Joe Moretti, who also played on “Shakin’ All Over” by Johnny Kid & the Pirates, “Brand New Cadillac” is the most explosive U.K. rock ‘n’ roll record of the 1950s and was later famously covered by the Clash on their “London Calling” album. The intensity of the song contrasts with the humorous tale within the lyrics – the narrator loses his woman after she obtains a Cadillac, as she is no longer willing to associate with a man who drives a Ford. Joe Strummer, summarizing Taylor’s impact, “Vince Taylor was the beginning of British rock ‘n’ roll. Before him there was nothing. He was a miracle.” David Bowie must have had a similar take, as Taylor was a major part of the inspiration for the Ziggy Stardust character.