The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 470 to 461
470. “Wicked Game,” Chris Isaak. Songwriter: Chris Isaak; #6 pop; 1990. Chris Isaak ruled the airwaves and MTV in late 1990/early 1991 with “Wicked Game,” a dark sensual number about destructive romantic obsession. Isaak, “This one I wrote really late at night and it was written in a short time, because I remember that a girl had called me and said, ‘I want to come over and talk to you,’ and ‘talk’ was a euphemism. And she said, ‘I want to come over and talk to you until you’re no longer able to stand up.’ And I said, ‘Okay, you’re coming over.’ And as soon as I hung up I thought, ‘Oh, my God. I know she’s gonna be trouble. She’s always been trouble. She’s a wildcat. And here I am, I’m going to get killed, but I’m doing this.’” Author Grant Walters, “’Wicked Game’ is a pristine union of Isaak’s aching vocal and the desolate wail of James Calvin Wilsey’s ’65 Stratocaster. Underneath, the brushed drum loop, simple bass line, and muted background vocals create a simmering atmospheric buzz.” I saw Isaak in concert in the mid 2010s and when the band struck the opening chords of this song, it was like an intoxicating pheromone mist was sprayed across the entire room.
469. “Life Beings at the Hop,” XTC. Songwriter: Colin Moulding; Did Not Chart; 1979. Inspired by glam rock and the New York Dolls, the musicians who would comprise XTC started performing in Swindon, England in the early 1970’s. After using a few different names, they became XTC in 1976 and quickly displayed a more advanced and skewed pop sensibility than their punk rock/new wave rivals. With a nod to the 1950’s classic “At the Hop” by Danny & the Juniors, XTC replicated the bristling excitement/energy of youth on “Life Begins at the Hop,” describing a church dance with sodas, cookies, nuts, and a band that can’t afford a decent guitar. It’s a warm look back at the age of innocence. Songwriter Colin Moulding, “I like to reminisce and this one sprang from spending the greater part of my adolescence on a council estate and having the church hall hop as the only way of getting me rocks off. I go into a trance every time I think of those young socialists meeting in the church hall every Friday night. Well, you have to write about something, haven’t you?”
468. “My Pal,” God. Songwriter: Joel Silbersher; Did Not Chart; 1988. Just like the Aussie act the Saints were ahead of the punk rock curve in 1976, these Aussie teenagers were grunge before that genre had a name. Music journalist Andrew Mueller’s spot on overview, “No art operates a lower barrier to entry than rock’n’roll – it’s the form’s greatest strength, and greatest weakness. Where every other mode of expression insists upon years of education, rehearsal and refinement before you inflict yourself on the public, rock ‘n’ roll will cheerfully wave through anyone who has managed to beg, borrow, steal – or even save up honestly for and buy – an electric guitar. Mostly, this lackadaisical open door policy ushers in unlistenable racket. Just occasionally, it permits a bunch of hairy teenagers from Melbourne, who can barely play a lick between them, to make one of the best singles ever made by anyone, anywhere, anytime. ‘My Pal’ was, and is, both astonishing and ridiculous. It’s an almost impudently sublime song, a frothy, poppy, punky thrash evocative of everything that was ever wonderful about the Stooges, AC/DC, Buzzcocks, Hüsker Dü and early Replacements, anchored by an irresistible five-note riff that nagged and nagged even though there was no chance at all you didn’t hear it the first time. ‘My Pal’ was a grunge signpost ahead of its time, down to the Dinosaur Jr-variety feedback-laced wipeout that serves as a solo, and that Cobain-esque lyrical declaration of adolescent alienation (‘You’re my only friend/ You don’t even like me’). The song mostly as Australia’s eternal garage band classic, our ‘Louie Louie,’ or ‘Wild Thing,’ or ‘Surfin’ Bird’ – one of the things you learn to play on your first electric guitar. The resounding charm of ‘My Pal’ lies in the fact that it sounds like the same was true of the people who made it.” Half the band died of heroin overdoses when they hit their early thirties.
467. “Stranglehold,” Ted Nugent. Songwriter: Ted Nugent, Rob Grange (uncredited); Did Not Chart; 1975. Detroit native Ted Nugent had his first success with The Amboy Dukes, who scored a #18 pop hit in 1968 with the psychedelic rocker “Journey to the Center of the Mind.” Nugent began his solo career in 1975, with a wildman shtick that included swinging from a rope onstage while wearing a loincloth. The “dog in heat” lyrics of “Stranglehold,” pretty much reflect his junior high school version of sexuality during the 1970s, but the performance includes he best solos of Nugent’s career. His guitar work is much more fluid and constrained than a typical Terrible Ted outing. Nugent, “’Stranglehold’ is a masterpiece of jammology. I was showing my rhythm section the right groove for the song…we were going to leave a hole there so that I could overdub a solo later. Then I started playing lead work, just kind of filling in and though I had never played those licks before in my life, they all just came to me.” Uncredited song co-writer Rob Grange deserves credit for his tension heightening, pulsating bassline. Derek St. Holmes, the inspiration for the character name Derek St. Hubbins in the film “Spinal Tap,” performed the lead vocals.
466. “Word Up!,” Cameo. Songwriters: Larry Blackmon, Tomi Jenkins; #6 pop/#1 R&B; 1986. Cameo was a popular R&B act, who released seven gold albums before having their major crossover success with the electronic funk of “Word Up!” Frontman Larry Blackmon gained infamy by wearing the boldest, shiniest codpiece in music history. Chris Norris of Blender, “Jamming on bass and guitar in their hotel suite, Cameo found one particularly mean groove and began refining, distilling. They developed a gunshot snare sound by recording in a stairwell at Manhattan’s Quadrasonic studios. And when they were satisfied with the track’s intensity, Blackmon got into character.” Blackmon on his sucker DJ dissing, no time for psychological romance stance, “You get a song like you get a script for a movie. You create a character that best suits the song’s attitude. (In ‘Word Up!), he’s hip, he’s slick, he’s a guy who’s been around. He’s a New York guy, he’s a Paris guy. He’s international.”
465. “Heart of Glass,” Blondie. Songwriters: Debbie Harry, Chris Stein; #1 pop; 1978. Coming from the CBGB’s New York pop scene, Blondies first Top Forty hit inspired may cries of “sell out” from their hardcore fan base, although the band did no apologizing for their #1 hit. Debbie Harry, “When we did ‘Heart of Glass’ it wasn’t too cool in our social set to play disco, but we did it because we wanted to be uncool.” Written several years before it was recorded, the working titles for the song included “Once Had a Love” and “The Disco Song.” Producer Mike Chapman added a synth based Eurodisco sheen to the track and, not without some jealousy from the other band members, created an era defining rock star when Debbie Harry’s inaccessible beauty hit the mainstream. Rock critic Tom Breihan, “It’s a beautiful piece of recording, all these sticky and hazy interlocking pieces combining together into a sighing, rippling landscape. Parts of it – Clem Burke’s lockstep drums, Nigel Harrison’s funky and vaguely Chic-esque bass-pops – sound truly disco. Other parts sound like rockers in an expensive studio attempting to figure out how the Giorgio Moroder magic was made. The whole thing glimmers and flutters and fades like a mirage on the horizon.”
464. “I Can See for Miles,” The Who. Songwriter: Pete Townshend; #9 pop; 1967. Pete Townshend, “I always feel that the best constructed early song that I ever wrote was ‘I Can See for Miles.’ I put about two solid days into that and when it actually worked…I think the lyrics are great, they create a great sort of impression of images and the music is harmonically exciting.” Townshend was devastated that the Top Ten single about romantic obsession didn’t top the pop charts: “That was a real heartbreaker for me. It was a number we’d been saving, thinking that if The Who ever got into trouble this one would pull us out. On the day I saw it go down (the charts) I spat on the British record buyer. To me this was the ultimate Who record and yet it didn’t sell.” Rock critic Richie Unterburger, “’I Can See for Miles’ boasts one of Keith Moon’s greatest performances, and ergo, one of the best drum parts ever on a rock record, right from the time Moon responds to the guitar twang with a couple of crackling beats. Ever-shifting, frequently pausing to increase the tension, the drums brilliantly convey the onset of a dramatic, doomy showdown. The verses are in a most uncommon irregular meter, slowing to a near-crawl for Roger Daltrey’s menacing accusations of unfaithfulness and speeding to a frenzy (paced by furious Moon drum rolls) for the riffs that separate the lines of the verse. The chorus is a harmonized repetition of the title – mostly the last two words of the title, actually – that, combined with the battlefield guitars and drums in the background, creates the psychedelic effect of a dizzying echo on the verge of spinning out of control.”
463. “Rave On,” Buddy Holly. Songwriters: Sonny West, Bill Tilghman, Norman Petty; #37 pop; 1958. A-weh-uh-heh-uh-ell, Buddy Holly may not have written this number and it was first released by Sonny West, but he told producer Norman Petty that he had to have this song and he put his best hiccupping vocal on the track. Being such a spirited rock ‘n’ roll outing, “Rave On” became attached to Holly’s image and was used as a title of a 2011 tribute album to The Bespectacled One, even though it was a minor pop hit. Author Philip Norman, “His playing style became as influential as his voice – the moody drama he could conjure from a shifting sequence of four basic chords, his incisive downstrokes and echoey descants. The deification of the rock guitarist, the sex appeal of the solid-body guitar, the glamour of the Fender brand: all were set in train by Buddy and his sunburst Strat.” The Danish indie duo The Raveonettes got their name by mashing together this song title with the band name The Ronettes of “Be My Baby” fame.”
462. “The Summer of My Wasted Youth,” Amy Rigby. Songwriter: Amy Rigby; Did Not Chart; 1998. On “The Summer of My Wasted Youth” Amy Rigby catalogues several experiences she had in New York City that resulted in her coming of age as an artist. Those life lessons included discovering Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis, buying thrift shop skirts, indulging in pot and LSD, pushing plaster cows, drinking cheap beer in a Polish bar, and having all this freedom of discovery via unemployment compensation. Rigby, on penning the song on a subway, “I thought of how long I’d been doing this, writing songs, and here it was happening again. If I could just hold on to the words and melody until I got home and grabbed my guitar, well maybe this time, this song would be the one, it would say it all and I really would have done something.” Everyone deserves at least one season in their life like the one Rigby describes with such a sense of wonder and fulfillment.
461. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” The Byrds. Songwriter: Bob Dylan; #74 pop; 1968. The Byrds quickly moved from Rickenbacker jangle pop to psychedelic rock to a country based sound in the 1960s. By 1968, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman were the only original members of the band; Gram Parsons was brought onboard and heavily contributed to the vision of the 1968 “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album. The lead track on the album was the previously unreleased Bob Dylan track “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” The lyrics are typically impenetrable, but the country folk, whoo-ee, ride me high, groove is deathless. Author Ray Robertson, “The delightfully jolly ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ is archetypal country-rock: a series of Dylan’s most Dylanesque non-sequiturs strung together and sung by McGuinn in his inimitable nasal with help from Gram (Parsons) and (Chris) Hillman on the familiarly Byrdsy chorus and with lots of Lloyd Green’s sweet pedal steel in the forefront.” The Byrds took “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” to #74 on the pop charts in 1968 (the critical legacy of the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album has been much more substantive than its commercial success), but a later version recorded by Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band went to #6 on the country charts in 1989.