The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 420 to 411
420. “I Can’t Get Next to You,” The Temptations. Songwriters: Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1969. Dennis Edwards, formerly of The Countours, had replaced David Ruffin as the frontman of The Temptations in 1968 and producer Norman Whitfield had given the group a psychedelic soul sound and a view of the slum life on their hit “Cloud Nine.” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” their next major hit, was a move away from social commentary back to love song lyrics for The Temptations, but with a decidedly funky edge. Producer Norman Whitfield had all members of The Temptations take a lead vocal turn on the song, sharing the microphone like rappers would in the future. Author Chris Morris writing about the different lead vocal sound after Dennis Edwards replaced David Ruffin, “As a teen, Edwards sang gospel, but, like Sam Cooke and many other prominent gospel performers, he turned to rhythm & blues. His presence toughened the group’s vocal sound. While David Ruffin had specialized largely in smoother romantic balladry, the gospel-trained Edwards sported a grittier style, and he left a distinctive mark on the unit’s work as both lead vocalist and in the ensemble harmonies.” Two years after “I Can’t Get Next to You” topped the pop and R&B charts, Al Green took the song to #11 on the R&B charts with his slow, bluer than blue rendition.
419. “Take Five,” The Dave Brubek Quartet. Songwriter: Paul Desmond; #25 pop; released in 1959, peaked on the charts in 1961. California native Dave Brubeck started playing piano when he was four years old and avoided combat service during World War II by forming a military jazz band to entertain his fellow soldiers. Brubeck started recording in late 1940s and founded the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1951, an act that become so popular that Brubeck was featured on the cover of “Time” magazine in 1954. After hearing Turkish street musicians performing in 9/8 time, Brubeck became interested in exploring unusual meters and “Take Five” is famously written in 5/4 time. Author Ted Gioai, “It became the first instrumental modern jazz single on the Billboard Hot 100 to sell a million copies—and was also one of the last. Even more peculiar, the song was written in 5 /4, a meter that had never been used before in American popular music and had hardly existed in jazz before Dave Brubeck recorded ‘Take Five.’” Dave Brubeck, ”(Saxophone player) Paul (Desmond) came in with two themes unrelated. I’m the one that put them together and said, ‘We can make a tune out of this. We repeat the first theme, and then you’d go to what we call a bridge, and then go back to the first theme, and then improvise on the one E flat minor chord change.’ And then have a drum solo. (Drummer) Joe (Morello) said, ‘Dave, don’t ever quit playing that vamp under my solo or I’ll get lost.’” The U.K. rock act The Stranglers used a similarly odd time signature on their 1981 international hit “Golden Brown.”
418. “No Particular Place to Go,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #10 pop/#10 R&B; 1964. “No Particular Place to Go” is a rewrite of Berry’s 1957 hit “School Days” with a lyrical emphasis on automobiles and young love. The title is ironic since Berry wrote the song while in prison. The punchline on Berry’s biggest hit of the 1960’s is that as Chuck’s curiosity blossoms during a romantic interlude, he’s unable to unfasten the “safety belt” of his female counterpart. Berry contributes some of his most aggressive guitar work on the song, while former Elmore James drummer Odie Payne lays into the stop and start backbeat. Berry had a commercial resurgence in 1964 after the Beatles had covered “Roll over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music,” while the Rolling Stones tackled “Come On” and “Carol.” It’s no wonder that Berry titled a 1964 album “St. Louis to Liverpool.” Keith Richard, “I could never overstress how important he was in my development. It still fascinates me how this one guy could come up with so many songs and sling it so gracefully and elegantly.”
417. “Bang a Gong (Get it On),” T. Rex. Songwriter: Marc Bolan; #10 pop; 1973. T. Rex was a major band in the U.K., releasing ten Top Ten singles from 1970 to 1973, but “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” was the band’s only U.S. hit. Using simple chord structures, the band tarted up 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll (there’s a lyrical nod to Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” on the fade out) with 1970’s production values and sexual themes. Rock critic Jim Farber, “’Get It On’ packed into one song everything Bolan had to offer. Its trio of saxes (all manned by King Crimson’s Ian McDonald) give the song a horny wink. The ‘female’ backup vocals—provided by ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan—lent a haunting, even orchestral allure, while Bolan’s huffing vocal had an orgasmic release. Better, the song’s chunky guitar riff created its own brand of boogie.” Bolan’s rock star attitude didn’t impress one important figure on the American music scene. Dick Clark, speaking to Lester Bangs of “Creem” magazine, “He thought he was Mick Jagger. He was Donny Osmond. Print it. The schmuck.”
416. “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” Jimmy Ruffin. Songwriters: William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser, James Dean; #7 pop/#6 R&B; 1966. Jimmy Ruffin was the older brother of Temptations member David Ruffin and he started his recording career in 1961. He didn’t have his breakthrough hit until 1966’s “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” a song initially written for The Spinners. Ruffin, “I’d been working for the Ford motor company and I had a back injury that kept me off work. So I thought I’d use that year to see if I could make it as a singer. ‘Brokenhearted ‘came out and that was it. I didn’t go back to the motor company, I can tell you that! But the pressure is incredible. A lot of people died from the pressure, including my brother David. Suddenly you’re moving up in society, going to places you’re not really prepared for – beyond your own race, culture and class, your own country.” Mark Hagen on Ruffin’s signature song, “The Mississippi-born Ruffin delivers a staggering performance, lunging at the song and its tolling bell of a melody without ever losing control. It’s this inherent fatalism, this stoicism, this idea that he’s a cursed man in a blasted world who can’t do a damn thing about it, that harks back to the blues and gives the song one half of its astonishing power. The other half, of course, comes from the music, which plays out in a taut counterpoint to that vocal, moving on up from its stately beginning with a glorious, swirling logic that says it doesn’t have to be like this, things can be better, things WILL be better.”
415. “Whole Lotta Rosie,” AC/DC. Songwriters: Angus Young, Bon Scott, Malcolm Young, Did Not Chart; 1977. Angus and Malcom Young, the longtime nucleus of AC/DC, were the younger brothers of George Young, who found fame in the early 1069’s as a member of The Easybeats and co-wrote “Friday on My Mind,” one of the best singles in pop music history. AC/DC formed in 1973 and hired the heavy drinking, charismatic Bon Scott as their lead singer the following year. The band beefed up the basic riff from Chuck Berry’s 1955 #8 R&B hit “No Money Down” to write “Whole Lotta Rosie,” a love ditty about Bon Scott’s night with an obese Tasmanian woman. Angus Young, “There’s very few people who’ll go out and write a song about a big fact lady, but Bon said it was worthy.” “Whole Lotta Rosie” was a #5 pop hit in the Netherlands, which is enough information to give pause when thinking about the phrase “Dutch treat.”
414. “Cleaning Windows,” Van Morrison. Songwriter: Van Morrison; Did Not Chart; 1982. Van Morrison recalls being a working man in his prime and pays tribute to blues artists Leadbelly, Blind Lemon, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Muddy Waters on “Cleaning Windows.” It’s a beautiful vision of a bohemian lifestyle where art is more important than commerce, where filling one’s soul is more important than one’s coffers. Music journalist Steve Turner, “Van sketched the details of his life during 1961 and 1962, and captured the balance between his contentment at work and his aspirations to learn more about music. It conveyed the impression that his happiness with the mundane routine of smoking Woodbine cigarettes, eating Paris buns. and drinking lemonade was made possible by the promise that at the end of the day he could enter the world of books and records.” Notable sidemen – former James Brown sax man Pee Wee Ellis and guitar ace Mark Knopfler.
413. “Cathy’s Clown,” The Everly Brothers. Songwriters: Don Everly, Phil Everly; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1960. It’s one thing to be treated like yesterday’s garbage by a former lover, but it’s a higher level of humiliation when the entire world knows you’re the abused puppet. Such is the dilemma on “Cathy’s Clown,” where sincere tears hold no allure for reconciliation. Assistant engineer Bill Porter, “I asked (producer) Wesley Rose if I could use the tape loop on the drums. He said, ‘I don’t care.’ So, I hooked it up, fed it back into the console and got the balance, and then I switched it off on the verse and on during the bridge. I just did it manually with a switch. It’s right in tempo and right in sync, so it gave the effect of two totally different drum sounds. That became the biggest record they ever had.” Vince Gill, “I honestly believe I’ve spent the last 40 years, on every record I’ve been part of for somebody else, trying to be an Everly. On every harmony part I’ve sung, I was trying to make it as seamless as Phil did when he sang with Don. They had an unfair advantage – they were brothers – but I’ve spent my whole life chasing that beautiful, beautiful blend.”
412. “Bus Stop,” The Hollies. Songwriter: Graham Gouldman; #5 pop; 1966. Graham Nash and Allen Clarke were childhood friends who started performing as a skiffle duo during the late 1950s. They formed The Hollies, the name a tribute to Buddy Holly, in 1962 and that band was a fixture on the U.K. pop throughout the rest of the decade. They scored eight U.K. Top Ten singles before having their true breakthrough U.S. hit with the public transportation romance number “Bus Stop.” Songwriter Graham Gouldman, “I had the title and I came home one day and (my father) said ‘I’ve started something on that ‘Bus Stop’ idea you had, and I’m going to play it for you. He’d written ‘Bus stop, wet day, she’s there, I say please share my umbrella’ and it’s like when you get a really great part of a lyric or, I also had this nice riff as well, and when you have such a great start to a song it’s kind of like the rest is easy. It’s like finding your way onto a road and when you get onto the right route, you just follow it.” The combination of the minor chord melody, Greek influenced guitar work, and distinctive three part harmony singing in “Bus Stop” resulted in one of the finest British pop records of the decade.
411. “Strictly Business,” EPMD. Songwriters: Erick Sermon, Parrish Smith, Bob Marley; #25 R&B; 1988. The rap duo EPMD was comprised by Long Island rappers Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith, who started performing together in 1987 and had immediate success with their 1988 gold certified album “Strictly Business.” (They lived up to their acronym, which stood for Eric & Parrish Making Dollars). The title track brought Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff” into the world of threatening rap braggadocio. Rolling Stone, “Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith’s laid-back rhymes were revolutionary in their way too. Most rappers in 1988 were still stuck on loud, clear cadences. EPMD’s casual, goofy approach to the mic laid the groundwork for generations of chilled-out – as well as weeded-out – rappers.” Rap historian Jesse Ducker, “It was sonically striking at the time to hear the duo hunt down phony emcees over a rock cover of a reggae track. While Parrish works in references to ‘Land of the Lost’ and villainous cartoon dog Muttley, Erick drops lines like, “It don’t take time for me to blow your mind/Take a second to wreck it because you’re dumb and blind.” My personal fave couplet: “Like a magician, who pulls a rabbit out a hat, son/I pull them all like a .44 magnum.” Parrish Smith, “Our first album was titled ‘Strictly Business’ because we put everything on the line. We gave up a lot just to be a part of the hip-hop culture so…you couldn’t lose.”