The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century 510 – 501
510. “Pancho and Lefty,” Townes Van Zandt. Songwriter: Townes Van Zandt; Did Not Chart; 1972. Townes Van Zandt was raised by a wealthy Fort Worth family; Van Zandt county in East Texas was named after one of his forefathers. Diagnosed with manic depression and a severe alcoholic, Van Zandt started performing in Houston in the mid-1960s, mixing a blues based sense of despair with the outlaw ethos of a natural contrarian. He became a legendary figure on the Texas singer/songwriter scene, viewed as a dark figure who could out drink, out write, and out charm any of his Lone Star competition. “Pancho and Lefty” is his signature song, a melancholy, cinematic classic of outlaw betrayal. Emmylou Harris revisited the kindness of the Federales on her 1977 cover version and it became a #1 country single for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1982. Van Zandt, on the song getting him out of a tight spot, “We got stopped by these two policemen and they said ‘What do you do for a living?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m a songwriter,’ and they both kind of looked around like ‘pitiful, pitiful,’ and so on to that I added, ‘I wrote that song ‘Pancho and Lefty.’ You ever heard that song ‘Pancho and Lefty?’ I wrote that,’ and they looked back around and they looked at each other and started grinning, and it turns out that their squad car, you know their partnership, it was two guys, it was an Anglo and a Hispanic, and it turns out, they’re called Pancho and Lefty. I hope I never see them again.”
509. “The Last Time,” The Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; #9 pop; 1965. Keith Richards on re-writing the 1954 Staples Singers’ single “This May be the Last Time,” “We didn’t find it difficult to write pop songs, but it was VERY difficult – and I think Mick will agree – to write one for the Stones. It seemed to us it took months and months and in the end we came up with ‘The Last Time,’ which was basically re-adapting a traditional Gospel song that had been sung by the Staple Singers, but luckily the song itself goes back into the mists of time. At least we put our own stamp on it, as the Staple Singers had done, and as many other people have before and since: they’re still singing it in churches today. It gave us something to build on to create the first song that we felt we could decently present to the band to play.” Still, with Richards’ ringing guitar riff and the energy of the 1965 Rolling Stones, “The Last Time” sounded fresh and vital.
508. “My Guy,” Mary Wells. Songwriter: Smokey Robinson; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1964. “My Guy” was the commercial peak from Mary Wells, who left Motown in 1965 and later suffered from drug addiction. The song serves as another testament to Smokey Robinson’s understated genius. Author Susan Whitall, “You need to look no further than the career of Mary Wells to see the physical manifestation of the shift at Motown from bluesy, gutbucket music to the sweeter pop that would put the company on the charts and into the black. Her ascent also revealed the importance of Smokey Robinson in creating the Motown sound, because it was Robinson who steered her away from the funky wail Gordy was encouraging in early Wells songs. Robinson encouraged Wells to sound sweet and shy, closer to her personality than the blues mama Gordy had in mind.” Rock critic Jason Ankeny, “On the surface ‘My Guy’ is a buoyant ode to undying devotion, sweetly simple in its head-over-heels enchantment, but the shy seductiveness of Wells’ vocal belies the idiosyncrasies of the lyrics. Punctuated by underhanded compliments like ‘No handsome face could ever take the place of my guy,’ the song turns itself inside out, making so much of the guy’s shortcomings – and Wells’ willing acceptance of them – that it takes on radical new meanings, provoking any number of questions on the vagaries of attraction.”
507. “’Heroes’,” David Bowie. Songwriters: David Bowie; Brian Eno; Did Not Chart; 1977. David Bowie’s highly regarded 1976 “Station to Station” album was a transitional work, as he moved from his plastic soul era to a more electronic sound inspired by the German bands Kraftwerk and Neu! The 1977 albums “Low” and “’Heroes’,” both recorded in Berlin, were further adventures into bleak and atmospheric synthesized based music. Inspired by a love affair happening in the shadows of the Berlin Wall, Bowie gave one of his most impassioned vocal performances on “’Heroes’.” The sound is dense and athemic with layers of synthesizers from Brian Eno and pitched feedback from guitarist Robert Fripp. Producer Tony Viscounti, “Writing the lyrics, singing the lead vocal and then the backing vocals was all done within the space of about five hours. That doesn’t always happen, and since then I’ve regretted telling this story to other groups I’ve worked with who think they can do the same thing. Very few people can write the lyrics on the spot in the studio and then perform a great vocal in just a few takes. Bowie’s one of the few people on this planet who can actually pull that off.”
506. “The Boy in the Bubble,” Paul Simon. Songwriters: Forere Motloheloa, Paul Simon; #86 pop; 1987. Paul Simon on the “Graceland” album, “In the summer of 1984, a friend of mine gave me a tape of ‘township jive,’ the street music of Soweto, South Africa. It was a happy instrumental music that reminded me of 1950’s rhythm and blues, which I have always loved. By the end of the summer I was scat-singing melodies over the tracks. I thought that the group, whoever it was, would be interesting to record with. And so I went on a search to find out who they were and where they came from.” “The Boy in the Bubble” is a strange mixture of tragedy and hope, with Simon singing in almost a stream of consciousness about technology, death, and the promise of better days. Journalist Jesse Kornbluth, “’The Boy in the Bubble’ begins with Forere Motloheloa’s accordion, a seductive invitation that lasts exactly nine seconds. It’s followed by four bass drum slams that echo like gunshots. But no sooner has that blunt demand on your attention chilled your heart than the percussion transitions into a strut, and ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ becomes a jaunty, danceable tune. Why aren’t we shocked and disgusted (by the violence described in the lyrics), why don’t we turn away? Because of the happiness delivered by the rhythm and melody, an unprecedented blend of South Africa and Southern Louisiana. And by a line that matches the radiance of the music: ‘These are the days of miracle and wonder.’ I can’t think of a song that delivers a more dazzling array of information in the first 45 seconds — or of an album that has brought joy to so many listeners in spite of its serious lyrics and unfamiliar music.”
505. “An Empty Glass (That’s the Way the Day Ends),” Gary Stewart. Songwriters: Gary Stewart, Dean Dillon; #64 country; 1988. Gary Stewart was not your standard issue Nashville factory line singer neither vocally nor in attitude. He proudly and rather openly loved drugs. Cocaine, painkillers, and speed were just part of his normal diet. Check out 1981’s “Honky Tonk Man” on YouTube. It sounds like a man singing from the substance abuse section of a psychiatric ward. He dropped out of the music business during the mid-1980s, primarily surviving on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and off brand sodas. He returned to the recording studio with the 1988 album “Brand New.” The Dean Dillon/Gary Stewart composition “An Empty Glass” is one of the best drinking songs in the history of country music and just think about how much territory that covers. Stewart sings this number with a knife in the heart agony that compares favorably to George Jones’s best work. Stewart’s late career album releases for Hightone Records didn’t result in a commercial comeback, but just the fact that he was alive and kicking was a reason for celebration.
504. “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” The Clash. Songwriters: Joe Strummer, Mick Jones; Did Not Chart; 1978. Joe Strummer was lyrically hopscotching with little continuity on this Top Forty U.K. hit, including verses about a disappointing reggae gig, income inequality in Britain, and fashion driven punk bands. However, the merger of reggae and rock was a noteworthy step forward musically and foreshadowed the expanded stylistic palette that the band would employ in the 1980s. Strummer, “I was trying to talk about the revolution, and how we weren’t ever going to have one, because who had an answer to the British Army? I was really getting at the division between the black rebels and the white rebels, and the fact that we gotta have some unity or we’re just going to get stomped on.” This was one of Strummer’s favorite compositions, he would later perform the song with his late 1990s/early 2000s world music band The Mescaleros and it was also played in his funeral in 2002.
503. “That’ll Be the Day,” The Crickets. Songwriters: Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison, Norman Petty; #1 pop/#2 R&B; 1957. “That’ll Be the Day” was the first hit for Buddy Holly, although it wasn’t released under his name. He had recorded the song for Decca Records in 1956 and, although it wasn’t released at a single at the time, contractually Holly couldn’t record the song again. Therefore, Norman Petty released “That’ll Be the Day,” the first song John Lennon learned to play on guitar, by the Crickets on the Brunswick label. The title was nicked from a John Wayne film and the hit version wasn’t originally planned for release. Jerry Allison, “We were cutting ‘That’ll Be the Day’ just as a demo to send to New York, just to see if they liked the sound of the group — not for a master record. So we just went in and set up and sort of shucked through the song.” Jerry Allison on the band’s early influences, “I’d spend the night with Buddy, and we’d get up at midnight to go listen to the car radio. We loved Lonnie Johnson, Leadbelly, Big Mama Thornton.”
502. “Here Comes the Rain Again,” The Eurythmics. Songwriters: Annie Lennox, Dave Stewart; #4 pop; 1984. Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart were former lovers and members of the U.K. pop band The Tourists, who scored two Top Ten singles in their native country in 1979 and 1980. They formed the Eurthymics in 1981 and had an international breakthough hit the following year with “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” They had their second U.S. Top Ten single with 1984’s moody, atmospheric “Here Comes the Rain Again.” Dave Stewart, “Here Comes the Rain Again’ is kind of a perfect one where it has a mixture of things, because I’m playing a b-minor, but then I change it to put a b-natural in, and so it kind of feels like that minor is suspended, or major. So, it’s kind of a weird course. And, of course, that starts the whole song, and the whole song was about that undecided thing, like here comes depression, or here comes that downward spiral. But then it goes, ‘so talk to me like lovers do.’ It’s the wandering in and out of melancholy, a dark beauty that sort of is like the rose that’s when it’s darkest unfolding and blood red just before the garden, dies. And capturing that in kind of oblique statements and sentiments.” Rock critic Robert Ham, “A marvel of arranging and performance. Surely, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys lamented that Stewart and Lennox beat them to the punch of matching up the trill of arpeggiated Moroder-like synths with Gainsbourg-like string parts. As well, the song feels like it is just one extended chorus, one sustained outpouring of emotion.”
501. “Sunday Morning,” Velvet Underground. Songwriters: Lou Reed, John Cale; Did Not Chart; 1966. Producer Tom Wilson was concerned that “The Velvet Underground and Nico” album lacked a marketable single and that Nico (former model Christa Päffgen who was shoehorned into the band by Andy Warhol) didn’t have enough lead vocals. Lou Reed claimed the inspiration for “Sunday Morning” came from a Warhol request: “Andy said, ‘Why don’t you just make it a song about paranoia?’ I thought that was great so I came up with ‘Watch out, the world’s behind you, there’s always someone watching you,’ which I feel is the ultimate paranoid statement in that the world cares enough to watch you.” When it came to record the projected single, Reed made no friends in the room by insisting that he was going to sing the lead vocals. The always inventive John Cale played a celesta, an orchestral percussion instrument, providing a light tone to counterbalance Lou’s ominous vibe.