The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 480 to 471
480. “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” Harry McClintock. Songwriter: Harry McClintock; Did Not Chart; 1928. The biographical notes about Harry McClintock read like pure fantasy, as though he was a flesh and blood Forrest Gump. He left his home in Tennessee at a young age and joined a circus. He traveled the world on ships, working as a stevedore, was in the Philippines during the Spanish American War, and found himself in China during the Boxer rebellion. He also worked as a union organizer, as a cowboy, on railroads, and as a minstrel performer. “Haywire Mac” is best known for constructing the hobo paradise on “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” (“In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs/And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs”), a song that was featured in the 2000 film “O Brother Where Art Thou.” McClintock conveys the image of a lovable ne-er do well in “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” the kind of scruffy, pre-WW II ramblin’ man who would make you laugh while eating the food off your plate.
479. “The Impression That I Get,” The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Songwriters: Dicky Barrett, Joe Gittleman; #23 US Radio Songs; 1997. The Boston ska punk act The Mighty Mighty Bosstones formed in 1983 and were signed to a major label a decade later. They had their breakthrough chart success with “The Impression That I Get,” an anthem about, of all things, never having faced hardships. You can envision gravelly voiced lead singer Dicky Barrett brushing off his shoulders as he sings about his problem free lifestyle. From the Stereogum website, “’The Impression That I Get’ was a three-minute capsule of everything the Bosstones did well. It had a needling guitar line, a horn riff that would burrow its way into your brain and stay there forever, and a huge, widescreen chorus that made for a fun big-room shout-along.” Dicky Barrett, who also worked as the announcer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “If you play the type of music that we play, ska with other influences, I think that you kind of do it because you love it. You’re not trying to figure out what’s popular or what people are gonna latch onto. I love this music, I want to play it. Then, if people like what you’re doing, that’s icing on the cake.”
478. “Television Light,” Marshall Crenshaw. Songwriter: Marshall Crenshaw; Did Not Chart; 1999. “Television Light” is a classic Marshall Crenshaw, guitar hooked melodic rocker, although the violin solo is a change of pace. The lyrics are about, of course, not getting the girl. Perry Gettelman of the Orlando Sentinal, “Crenshaw contemplates the narrowly averted wreck of a romance, and the melody soars and descends like the scary mix of relief and remorse you feel when you try to change lanes without looking and just barely swerve back in time. The delicate string arrangement seems to haunt the chorus, spinning around Crenshaw’s vocal.” Amy S of Classic Rock History, “The songs he’s created are power pop masterpieces: predominantly 4/4 beats with deceptively complicated guitar work, catchy hooks, and lyrics that are smart enough to appeal to an educated crowd but not so obtuse that the masses brush him off as pretentious. On ‘Television Light,’ first you notice the longing lyrics, then how smoothly the verse transitions into the hook of the chorus, and then the intricately layered percussion. Crenshaw has gotten better and better at writing songs of introspection, and ‘Television Light’ is a perfect example of that.”
477. “ When You Say Nothing at All,” Alison Krauss and Union Station. Songwriters: Paul Overstreet, Don Schlitz; #53 pop/#3 country; 1944. Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz were having an unproductive songwriting session during the late 1980s and penned this song about implicit communication. At first, they didn’t think too much of their composition, but Keith Whitley told them it was an instant classic and his version went to #1 in 1988. Alison Krauss recorded “When You Say Nothing at All” in 1994 for the “Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album” project, an album of Whitley covers by contemporary country acts. Krauss sings her version with a perfectly understated fragile beauty, projecting the strength and comfort she receives from her speechless, yet steadfast, companion. For a performer who started on the bluegrass circuit as a child prodigy fiddle player, she has superb natural instincts on how to modulate her fluid soprano voice. (I considered leaving this entry blank, as a low rent performance art tribute to the song title).
476. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” The Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; #42 pop; released in 1969, peaked on charts in 1973. Mick Jagger, “’You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ was something I just played on the acoustic guitar—one of those bedroom songs. It proved to be quite difficult to record because Charlie couldn’t play the groove and so Jimmy Miller had to play the drums. I’d also had this idea of having a choir, probably a gospel choir, on the track, but there wasn’t one around at that point. Jack Nitzsche, or somebody, said that we could get the London Bach Choir and we said, ‘That will be a laugh.’ It’s a good song, even if I say so myself. It’s got a very sing-along chorus, and people can identify with it: No one gets what they always want. It’s got a very good melody. It’s got very good orchestral touches that Jack Nitzsche helped with. So it’s got all the ingredients.” Keith Richards, “’You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ was basically all Mick. He’d written it on guitar, it was like a folk song at the time. I had to come up with a rhythm, an idea. I’d float it around the band and just play the sequence here and there.” Marianne Faithfull, “Obviously I also contributed to ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and ‘Dear Doctor; – junk songs. I know they used me as a muse for those tough drug songs. I knew I was being used but it was for a worthy cause.”
475. “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” The Four Tops. Songwriters: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1966. The Four Tops were formed by a quartet of Detroit high school vocalists in 1953. They recorded sporadically without success until signing with Motown a decade later and being paired with the Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting trio. Lamont Dozier, “From the start, we knew ‘Reach Out’ was for Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops. I wanted the song to explore the kinds of things women were going through and for Levi to come off as understanding and supportive. I also wanted the lyrics to be phrased in a special way—as though they were being thrown down. Back in ’66, we were listening a lot to Bob Dylan. He was the poet then, and we were inspired by his talk-singing style on ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ We loved the complexity of his lyrics and how he spoke the lines and sang them in places. We wanted Levi to shout-sing ‘Reach Out’—as a shout-out to Dylan.” Duke Fakir of The Four Tops, “Eddie (Holland) realized that when Levi hit the top of his vocal range, it sounded like someone hurting, so he made him sing right up there. Levi complained, but we knew he loved it. Every time they thought he was at the top, he would reach a little further until you could hear the tears in his voice. The line ‘Just look over your shoulder’ was something he threw in spontaneously. Levi was very creative like that, always adding something extra from the heart.” The Four Tops begged Gordy not to release “Reach Out” as a single, feeling that the piccolo and flute instrumentation combined with the hoof beat drum pattern was too weird for radio. Of course, it became their biggest hit/signature song.
474. “You Make Loving Fun,” Fleetwood Mac. Songwriter: Christine McVie; #9 pop; 1988. Lyrically, Christine McVie’s blissful account of her affair with a Fleetwood Mac road crew member is nothing special. However, the construction of the song, with its tight guitar lines and lilting backup vocals, all built on top of a driving rhythm section foundation, is superb. Fleetwood Mac’s collaborative gift in the 1970s was the ability to develop painstakingly precise smooth pop rock with results that sounded completely unlabored. Christine McVie in 2019, “In the 70s, we were gods and goddesses. (The 1977) ‘Rumours’ (album) was huge. We were a lot younger and for a time it was a brilliant. It’s definitely more sober now.”
473. “Youth Against Fascism,” Sonic Youth. Songwriters: Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley, Ian McKaye; Did Not Chart; 1992. Sonic Youth eschewed their typical cryptic lyrics on “Youth Against Fascism,” instead yelling out support for Anita Hill and denouncing Christian liars, war pigs, and skinheads. Ian MacKaye of Fugazi/Minor Threat added some impromptu guitar work, while waiting in the recording studio for a dinner order. JR Moores of The Quietus, “There’s a lot to love about this track, from Kim Gordon’s stomping two-chord bassline to the improvised guitar attack courtesy of guest star Ian MacKaye. But one of the things I really like about ‘Youth Against Fascism’ is the lyrical restraint shown by Moore in verse number three. As repulsed as the singer is by the attitudes of skinheads, racists, Christian liars, the KKK and other assorted political numpties, Moore refuses to award them the strongest, coarsest reactions they crave. The neo-nazi is a ‘sieg heiling squirt,’ an ‘impotent jerk,’ and a ‘fascist twerp.’ His non-swearing slurs make his targets seem far less powerful, threatening and manly than they perceive themselves to be.” Moore sang “It’s the song I hate” repeatedly, because he wasn’t enthralled with the original demo jam that was the starting point for the composition.
472. “Tainted Love,” Soft Cell. Songwriter: Ed Cobb; #8 pop; 1982. “Tainted Love” was released as a B-side in 1965 by Los Angeles singer Gloria Jones and stayed in obscurity for almost a decade. British Northern soul DJ Richard Searling popularized the original version for his club audiences in the mid-1970s, leading to the slamming (Bam! Bam!) Soft Cell synth pop cover version. Soft Cell vocalist Marc Almond, “(Soft Cell instrumentalist) Dave (Ball) introduced me to the record and I loved it so much and we wanted an interesting song for a encore number in our show. Dave loved Northern soul and it was a novelty to have an electronic synthesizer band doing a soul song. When we signed with our record company, they wanted to record it. They told us to put bass, guitar and drums on it as they said it was too odd. They put it out anyway and the next thing it was gathering radio play and then it was #1. I was fascinated that it was originally by Gloria Jones, the girlfriend of Marc Bolan and I’d always been a T-Rex fan.” Author Toby Cresswell, “Most synthesizer artists at the time were making clinical, clever, and sweet tunes with the new technology. Soft Cell made the synthesizer as dirty and sexual an instrument as any other. Almond brought a sleazy sexiness to the song. The listener was invited to let their imagination wander in the knowledge that everyone dreams of the forbidden.”
471. “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World,” Ramones. Songwriter: Dee Dee Ramone; Did Not Chart; 1976. While some rock critics and fans thought that the Ramones’ references to Nazis were a bit unsettling, Johnny Ramone later gave this explanation, “The early songs, well, what would we write about – girls? We didn’t really have any. We weren’t artists or anything, so we wrote about simple things we could relate to. We thought Communists and Nazis were funny. We thought sniffing glue was funny too, but we didn’t even know that people were still doing it. (Note – original drummer Tommy Erdelyi/Tommy Ramone and lead singer Jeffrey Hyman/Joey Ramone were Jewish). The downhill momentum rush of “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” has a love conquers all theme, combined with the band’s usual gabba gabba hey, pinhead aura.