The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 750 to 741
750. “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk),” Parliament. Songwriters: Jerome Brailey, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins; #15 pop/#5 R&B; 1975. Confusingly titled, since the song was named “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” for the album version, but flipped for the single, this was the moment when Top Forty radio could no longer ignore the inspired insanity of Parliament/Funkadelic. It isn’t George Clinton’s heaviest hunk of funk, but it is a fine example of his ability to develop infectious crowd participation chants and it was the highest charting single from the P/Funk collective. George Clinton, “The chants are like church grooves that get you in that state where you’re receptive to opening up your mind and coming up with positive things. At the same time, you have to be careful that somebody doesn’t program you. You have to do it consciously, knowing that you’re opening yourself up and people can program you when you open up like that. So, that’s why we do a lot of nonsensical stuff that’s just fun.” For George Clinton and his crew, funk wasn’t a diversion, but a necessity – a base level building block on their personally reconstituted vision of Maslow’s hierarchy, sitting comfortably by air and water.
749. “Let’s Dance,” David Bowie. Songwriter: David Bowie; #1 pop/#14 R&B; 1983. David Bowie had his eyes clearly on the pop charts when he hired Nile Rodgers to produce his 1983 “Let’s Dance” album. Rodgers, “We met at his Manhattan apartment, where he showed me a picture of Little Richard in a red Cadillac and said, ‘I want my album to sound like this.’ He just had to show me a picture, and I completely understood. He wanted something that felt like the future but was rooted in rock ‘n’ roll, something soulful, black, and R&B, but morphed and evergreen. David described ‘Let’s Dance’ as a postmodern homage to the Isley Brothers. The song was going to be a major hit and we all knew it. After we were solidly into the recording process, I finally brought in Tony Thompson, who struck the drums so hard that the sound pressure levels dimmed the studio lights with each backbeat.” With invaluable assistance from Rodgers, Bowie learned how to simultaneously swing and rock, under the serious moonlight, on this comeback pop hit.
748. “Cars,” Gary Numan. Songwriter: Gary Numan; #9 pop; 1979. Gary Numan (nee Gary Webb) started performing in English punk bands in 1976 and eventually merged the sounds of punk and Kraftwerk with science fiction inspired lyrics to create his own musical niche. As the leader of the Tubeway Army, he scored in #1 U.K. hit in 1979 with “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” The song “Cars” was a major hit in Canada and U.S., becoming one of the first new wave/ synth-pop singles to reach the mass public. Newman on the lyrical theme of automobiles as a source of isolationist safety, “A couple of blokes started peering in the window and for whatever reason took a dislike to me, so I had to take evasive action. I swerved up the pavement, scattering pedestrians everywhere. After that, I began to see the car as the tank of modern society.”
747. “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” Waylon Jennings. Songwriter: Waylon Jennings; #60 pop/#1 country; 1975. Authenticity has always been a touchy subject in country music and while Waylon’s outlaw image was part of a then new tradition, he still staked his claim for genre legitimacy on “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” taking a swipe at crossover glitz. Producer Jack Clement, who thought Waylon’s guitar and voice were co-equals, gave the two chord song a dramatic air of looming threat. The message – be real or face Waylon’s wrath. The pride of Littlefield, Texas was on a roll in 1975, releasing “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” as well as the Austin dissing “Bob Wills is Still the King,” and hitting the pop charts on his own terms, teaming with Willie Nelson on a re-recorded version of “Good Hearted Woman.”
746. “Hard to Handle,” Otis Redding. Songwriters: Allen Jones, Al Bell, Otis Redding; #51 pop/#38 R&B; 1968. Songwriter Al Bell, “No one was around in the studio but Allen Jones and I came in and we started bandying around lyrics. Otis said he wanted to send up guys who are real cool – badass cool – and lines just flew out, like ‘Here I am, I’m the man on the scene.’ He got rollin,’ really havin’ a ball.” Author Jonathan Gould, “With its high, bluesy melody, ‘Hard to Handle’ comes off as a swaggering sexual boast worthy of Muddy Waters of James Brown.” Redding’s dismissal of drug store lovin’ became a regular part of the Grateful Dead’s set circa 1970 and was a Top 40 hit for The Black Crowes in 1991. The Mae West version from the 1970 comedy film “Myra Breckenridge” is…um…interesting.
745. “Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin. Songwriters: Kris Kristofferson, Fred Foster; #1 pop; 1971. This tale of adventurous drifters who found love and lost it, is strongly identified with Janis Joplin, but several artists recorded it before she did. Roger Miller had a country hit with “Me and Bobby McGee” in 1969 and it was a hit in Canada for Gordon Lightfoot in 1970. The song was also recorded in 1969 and 1979 by Kenny Rogers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, songwriter Kris Kristofferson, Bill Haley, and a Pharoah-less Sam the Sham. The emotional impact of “Me and Bobby McGee” was deepened by the knowledge that Kristofferson and Joplin had a brief romantic relationship, which some listeners translated to the characters in the song. Also, Janis had died three months before the single was released, giving her no more tomorrows, only yesterdays. Kris Kristofferson in 2015, “’Bobby McGee’ was the song that made the difference for me. Every time I sing it, I still think of Janis.”
744. “My Girl Sloopy,” Vibrations. Songwriters: Wes Farrell, Bert Berns; #26 pop/#10 R&B; 1964. The Vibrations were a Los Angeles vocal group who had hits under three different names. As the Jay Hawks, the reached #18 on the pop charts in 1956 with “Stranded in the Jungle” (their original version and a cover by The Cadets were in the pop Top Twenty at the same time). As The Marathons they reached #20 on the pop charts in 1961 with “Peanut Butter.” Then as The Vibrations, they hit the pop charts in 1964 with “My Girl Sloopy,” which was covered by The McCoys in 1965 as “Hang On Sloopy” for a #1 pop hit. “Sloopy” was either co-written or purchased by producer Bert Berns, who often used “La Bamba” and “Guantanamera” (sometimes referred to as the unofficial Cuban national anthem) for musical inspiration. The Vibrations version of “Sloopy” is rambunctiously loose and chaotic with fake crowd noise and a funky Latin percussion sound. Author Joel Selvin, “When the group faced a studio full of top sidemen and heard the badass backbeat they laid down, the Vibrations began to see the beauty of ‘My Girl Sloopy.’ The record turned out to be a masterpiece of production by Berns. He brings the compact, expertly orchestrated piece to two brisk crescendos – shades of ‘Twist and Shout’ – and manages to distill unfiltered Afro-Cuban voodoo for the pop charts. The obviously fake crowd noise turns up the heat on the track. He draws from vocalist Carl Fisher a peerless, loopy performance that straddles the borders of humor, lust, and hard soul, leavened with just the right touch of jive.”
743. “Rocks Off,” The Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; Did Not Chart; 1972. The opening track on the “Exile on Main St.” album is a blasting Stones dance rocker, celebrating the nightlife with unforgettable brass support from saxman Bobby Keys and trombonist Jim Price. Dave Lifton of Ultimate Classic Rock, “Thrilling, chilling and occasionally incoherent, ‘Rocks Off’ doesn’t so much tell a story as create a vibe that sets the tone for the rest of ‘Exile.’ Mick Jagger leers his way through raunchy electric guitars, horns and Keith Richards singing backup in a key only he knows. Nearly everything cool Aerosmith have ever done can be traced back to this one song. And if there’s any song that comes out of a bridge better than Mick and Keith shouting, ‘The sunshine bores the daylights out of me,’ we haven’t heard it.”
742. “2-4-6-8 Motorway,” The Tom Robinson Band. Songwriter: Tom Robinson; Did Not Chart; 1977. British singer Rom Robinson was a member of the folk-rock inspired U.K. trio the Café Society, an act signed to Ray Davies’ Konk Records, during the mid-1970s. Due to poor record sales and artistic differences, Robinson formed his own band in 1977 and had immediate success with the #5 U.K. pop hit “2-4-6-8 Motorway.” Robinson was one of the few openly gay singers of that era and turned a marching chant into a fist pumping pop song about overnight driving adventures. Robinson, “The hook came straight off the gay and lesbian marches that I’d been on as an activist during the early 70s. People were chanting ‘2-4-6-8, gay is twice as good as straight, 3-5-7-9, lesbians are mighty fine.’ So when I was trying to put together a chorus for that song I just thought well I know that, I happen to know first hand that large numbers of people can chant that, and enjoy it, and that it works with a kind of stomping beat. So, I freely acknowledge that’s where the chorus for that song came from.” In the sometimes-forgetfulness-can-be-your-best-friend department, Robinson developed the song after trying to play the chords from “Couldn’t Get It Right” by the Climax Blues Band, but he couldn’t remember them.
741. “Burning Down the House,” Talking Heads. Songwriters: David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth; #9 pop; 1983. The Talking Heads had their biggest pop hit with the new wave funk number “Burning Down the House.” Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth, “This song started from a jam. (Drummer) Chris (Frantz) had just been to see Parliament-Funkadelic in its full glory at Madison Square Garden, and he was really hyped. During the jam, he kept yelling ‘Burn down the house!’ which was a P-Funk audience chant, and David (Byrne) dug the line, changing it to the finished version, ‘Burning down the house.’” David Byrne on pop success, “We felt it was possible to work within a kind of pop song format and kind of do what you wanted as long as you stayed within that format. And having a love of pop music, we felt that occasionally something we did kind of by accident would connect to a larger public.” David Byrne (“Watch out!”) didn’t try to make any cohesive narrative with the lyrics, he simply used lyrical phrases (“You might get what you’re after”) to fit the rhythms of the music.