Sunday, February 28, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 31-35

After the British Invasion petered out, I had to find my own way musically -- what a drag! As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, I was just the right age for brooding poetry, packed with social meaning. All right, all right, everybody in my college freshman dorm listened to exactly these same songs. That doesn't mean they weren't good songs, before they turned into cliches . . .

31. "The Sounds of Silence" / Simon & Garfunkel
"Sounds of Silence" was the Song That Would Not Die. I heard it first as a gentle acoustic number on Simon and Garfunkel's 1964 album Wednesday Morning 3 a.m.; as a wannabe folkie, I had all those early S&G records -- I even learned to play the guitar so I could fumble through various tunes. "Sounds of Silence" was clearly one of the stronger songs on the album, a melancholy meditation on the lack of communication in modern society. (Paul Simon says it was inspired by the Kennedy assassination, though that never registered with me -- was that what he meant by "the vision that was planted in my brain / Still remains / Within the sound of silence"?). Then a few months later, in September 1965, it emerged as a radio hit, with electric guitars and drums added, to make sure you wouldn't miss the swell of emotion on "'Fools said I 'you do not know / Silence like a cancer grows." I've read that it was remixed without Simon's permission while he was off in London, pondering what to do now that his folk duo had failed. He may have been surprised by the amped-up version, but he didn't refuse to cash the checks when it climbed to #1 on the charts in early 1966. The political preaching of the song found a ready audience: "And the sign said the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls / And tenement halls / And echoed in the sounds of silence." Pretentious? We didn't know the word in 1965. Simon and Garfunkel quickly reunited, and in January 1966 they rushed out a new album, titled -- what else? -- The Sounds of Silence. Now jump forward to late 1967, when I began to see the trailer for a new movie: a young man in chinos, sitting aimlessly on the edge of a fountain on a college campus, accompanied by Simon and Garfunkel's hushed echoey vocals: "Hello darkness my old friend . . . " Man, I knew I had to see that movie. The Graduate laid down the template for my adolescent view of life; how apt that "Sounds of Silence" would be part of it.

32. "Wild World" / Cat Stevens
In my Indianapolis high school in 1971, Tea for the Tillerman was the album you had to own to even pretend to be cool. (We weren't hip enough to know the term "hip.") Cat Stevens' folky tracks were just a little snide, a little fey, full of longing for the open road and brooding about the generation gap -- perfect for college-bound suburban kids. I loved so many tracks from this album: "Miles From Nowhere," "Sad Lisa," 'On the Road To Find Out," "Father and Son" (the titles alone give you a good idea of this album's themes). Many people first fell for these songs in the classic black comedy Harold and Maude, but not me -- I liked Harold and Maude BECAUSE it featured Tea for the Tillerman songs. As the album's single, "Wild World" was a shade bouncier than the other tracks, but not much. I suppose you could call this a break-up song -- in verse one the singer wistfully says to his girlfriend, "Now that I've lost everything to you / You say you wanna start something new / And it's breakin' my heart you're leavin' / Baby, I'm grievin'" -- but it's a peculiarly bloodless break-up song. He's not angry, he's not even fighting to get her back. He's more like an older brother, gently advising her about the perils of life, because he doesn't want to see her hurt. (Most guys I know DO want their exes to get hurt.) Cat Stevens was the original Sensitive Male, inventing it as he went along. The arrangement is delicate, mostly piano and acoustic guitar (the chorus adds drums), with the slightest suggestion of reggae in the beat -- no wonder Jimmy Cliff scored a UK hit with his cover. Although Cat seemed to be warning us about the bigger world's dangers, for the half-dozen of us who actually left Indiana for college, it was like catnip. "Ooo baby, baby it's a wild world / It's hard to get by just upon a smile" -- the subtext to me was always, BRING IT ON!

33. "Fire and Rain" / James Taylor (1970)

I saw James Taylor in the spring of 1971 at the Coliseum in Indianapolis; I'd been mainlining his albums for almost a year, I couldn't wait to see him live. Tall, skinny, with long brown hair and a droopy mustache, dressed in faded blue denim -- he was a folksinger, yeah, but so much younger and more with-it than the Peter Paul and Mary types. His acoustic guitar playing was nimble indeed, but he wasn't above throwing drums and electric guitars on his tracks. I knew by then, of course, that James had briefly been in a mental hospital as a teenager; like most kids my age, I thought that was cool, proof of his sensitive soul. So as I pored over "Fire and Rain" -- and indeed I pored over it for months -- I was looking for the inside story. Verse one was clearly about a friend's death ("Just yesterday morning / They let me know you were gone / Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you"). Verse two is set in the depths of melancholy; naturally drugs were part of the equation ("My body's aching and my time is at hand"). In verse three, he's trying to get his head straight, taking long walks and making phone calls; the last line, "Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground" we all thought referred to a plane crash (not knowing about Taylor's failed earlier band, The Flying Machine). And then there was that apocalyptic chorus -- "I've seen fire and I've seen rain," a reference to electroshock therapy and the cold showers that follow it. From these fragments, I made up my own movie -- that Taylor had been in love with a fellow mental patient who had committed suicide, and the evil doctors had schemed to erase his memory of her with anti-depressants and incessant psychotherapy. (I must have just finished reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.) Yet that night, as I watched James Taylor sit on a stool performing this song -- flinching at the spotlight, gazing warily at the crowd -- I realized that this song was really just one long stream of navel-gazing self-pity. I should have turned off James Taylor completely at that moment, but of course I didn't. Something about his voice, that remarkable mix of cragginess and sweetness, had its hooks too deep in me by then; it still dives right past all my defenses. And I'm always struck by that moment of genuine sorrow and tenderness at the end of the chorus: "I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend / But I always thought that I'd see you again." That's put so exquisitely, so simply -- well, it still makes me cry.

34."It's Too Late" / Carole King (1971)
The opening act for James Taylor that night at the Coliseum was Carole King, a pairing inspired by the fact that James Taylor had just released a cover of Carole's song "You've Got A Friend." We were all so primed to see James Taylor; we had no idea who Carole King was. But I have to say, James set himself up with a hard act to follow. With a cloud of frizzy ringlets, wearing some sort of embroidered hippie blouse and a huge flowing skirt, Carole King took the stage by storm, pounding that piano commandingly, rocking out to tune after tune that we realized we knew. So THIS was the woman who'd written all those early 60s hits like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" and "Up On the Roof"? She won us over immediately, then launched into a string of newer songs that were instantly lovable. The very next day I ran out to buy Tapestry, her second solo album after years of being "just" a songwriter. Of course it went to college with me, and I swear, it was the one record that every woman in my freshman dorm owned. All those years of being a music fan, and I realized how few of the songs I'd taken to my heart were written by women. Carole King stepped in just in time, like a big sister laying down her lessons in life. "It's Too Late" offered so much more nuance than your usual break-up song. "Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time / There's something wrong here, there can be no denying / One of us is changing, or maybe we've just stopped trying." For psychological acuteness, that can't be beat; I still think of it every time I lie in bed, fretting over a recent fight. And the resignation at the end of a flawed relationship (probably her split from ex-husband and creative partner Gerry Goffin): "It's too late, baby, now / It's too late / Though we really did try to make it / Something inside has died, and I can't / Hide and I just can't fake it." (A triple internal rhyme!) Here my friends and I stood, on the verge of "real" life; Carole King had been there and done that. On my list of Important Life Albums, Tapestry remains a constant.

35. "American Pie" / Don McLean (1972)
Is this a good song? I have no idea, and I'll bet if you were of a certain age in 1972, you don't know either. The thing was, it was being played everywhere -- at least on college campuses -- and we were all abuzz, trying to decode the cryptic references in the song. I don't suppose Don McLean had any idea how irresistible this would be to a generation who'd been weaned on rock and roll the way we Beatle Babies were. Rock music mattered to us in a way it hadn't to previous generations. For starters, we all knew that "the day the music died" was the day that Buddy Holly and Richie Valens died in a plane crash -- the fact that some of us had never heard of Buddy Holly until that moment didn't mitigate the haunting impact of that line. But then we had to puzzle out the rest. Who were the jester, the king, and the queen? (Bob Dylan, Elvis, and -- what girl singer?) Who were the father, the son, and the holy ghost? (Wikipedia tells me it was Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allan Ginsburg -- again, people I had never heard of in 1972). Good that he mentioned John Lennon ("while Lennon read a book by Marx") as well as "Helter Skelter" (thereby referencing both the Beatles and Charles Manson in one fell swoop). And there were the Stones, appearing as Jack Flash and Satan. But there was so much else, and we ate it up, singing lustily along to the chorus, "And we were singing / Bye bye Miss American Pie / Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry / Those good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye, and singing / This'll be the day that I die / This'll be the day that I die..." We ALL knew those lyrics, and we fell into them with relief, having gotten lost as hell in those interminable word-crammed verses. McLean even snuck in tricks like slowing down the tempo and hushing the volume for later repetitions of the verse. Yes, he had a lovely folkie voice; yes, he played the guitar just fine. None of that matters. Like the Paul Is Dead hoax, "American Pie" knit our generation together in an underground movement, information passed from one kid to another, often at night over guttering candles with a joint smouldering in the ashtray. I still can't hear this song without getting a shiver up my spine.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 36-40

By coincidence, all of today's songs were from late 70s or early 80s New Wave. I had just moved to New York, I had money to go to clubs and concerts, and I proceeded to do so with total abandon. These aren't just singles for me -- I bought the artists' albums too, I saw them perform live, and my associations run a lot deeper than the Obvious Hits.

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

36. "Steppin' Out" / Joe Jackson (1982)
Oh, Joe, Joe, Joe. We'd heard his earlier hits, pleasing pop tracks like "Is She Really Going Out With Him?", but when Night and Day came out, I realized we were in the presence of An Important Artist.

37. "Psycho Killer" / The Talking Heads (1977)
Having moved to Manhattan, I settled into a pack of music-loving friends -- all editorial peons at various magazines in Midtown -- who'd meet up after work on summer evenings and head for Central Park and the Dr. Pepper Music Festival at Wollman Rink. On August 16, 1979, we were dying to see the Talking Heads perform their geeky brand of art-school rock. More Songs About Buildings and Food had just dropped; we were mad for it, especially their herky-jerky cover of Al Green's "Take Me To the River." That night, however, it was this song -- their 1977 debut single -- that really riveted me (the Summer of Sam was only two years past; it still touched a nerve). Though there were three other band members on stage -- Chris on drums, Jerry on organ, waiflike Tina on bass -- you really couldn't tear your gaze away from David Byrne, like a stick-figure in brown trousers and short-sleeved plaid shirt. It wasn't so much that he had stage presence; it was more the utter lack of stage presence, as he clutched the mike stand, stared at the crowd with his enormous Seth Brundle eyes, scrubbed a few harsh notes out of his guitar, and yelped these strange lyrics in a strangulated voice. "Psycho killer!" he gasped, "qu'est-ce que c'est?" (I'd be lying if I said that David Byrne's French was as enticing as Paul McCartney's in "Michelle"). Then, over nothing but persistent drum thuds, he stammered like Otis Redding on angel dust, "Fa-fa-fa fa fa-fa fa-fa-fa fa, better / Run run run run run run run away." Who had any idea what it meant? But that didn't stop us from singing along like mad, and flinging our heads up and down in ritual New Wave spastic dance jerks.

38. "Love Shack" / The B-52s (1989)
I always associate these two bands, though on the surface they were total opposites -- uptight arty intellectuals (Talking Heads) versus giddy drama queens (the B-52's). Maybe it's because we saw them both in the same week in 1980, again at the Dr. Pepper Festival in Central Park (and me with a completely different boyfriend). One thing you have to say for the B-52s, they're always fun to watch, with Fred Schneider doing his lounge lizard act in front, beehived Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson bouncing around madly on either side. I always felt somehow that they were my friends, kindred spirits, like so many of us outsiders who came to New York to have fun as much as to make good. I too grieved in 1985, when Cindy's brother Ricky Wilson -- whose dynamic guitar work supplied most of the band's instrumentals -- died of AIDS-related illness. The B-52s could have packed it in after that; they'd pretty much done the novelty act to death. But wonder of wonders, they didn't; Keith Strickland just moved from drums to guitar and the carnival kept on going. Instead of high-concept songs about outer space, novelty dances, and crustaceans, they just relaxed into their Southern dance groove. Although the album Cosmic Thing came along much later, to me it's the fullest expression of who my friends the B-52s really are. In "Deadbeat Club" we joined the girls as they danced in the garden in torn sheets in the rain; in "Love Shack" we jumped in the back of Fred's car ("Hop in my Chrysler, it's as big as a whale / And it's about to set sail!") and cruised down some back country Georgia road to a dilapidated juke joint. There's no story, just impressionistic details flung around (if this were a film, it'd be shot with a handheld camera) -- there's a line outside, a secret knock at the door, and everybody inside is peeling off their clothes and dancing with total abandon. A tinny surf guitar jangles, and there's party glitter everywhere -- mattress, highway, front porch, hallway. Fred, Kate, and Cindy hand the vocal duties back and forth, their overlapping phrases really more percussion than anything. "The whole shack shimmies!" Fred exclaims; "Everybody's movin', everybody's groovin' baby," Kate and Cindy croon in harmony; "funky little shack, FUNK-y little shack," Fred raps out. They begin to tap quietly on the door, but the tom-toms build and build, and they're knocking louder and louder ("bang, bang, bang, on the door baby"), until Fred cries, "You're WHAT" and Cindy sasses back, "Tin RROOOFF, rusted!" And no, that phrase didn't mean she was pregnant -- Cindy claims she just made it up, picturing the rusty roof of the original cabin. It's all delirious nonsense, but sung with deep affection. "Love Shack" turned out to be their one big mainstream hit. But even in 1980, the band we saw in Central Park was the same whacked-out crew of kids from the love shack, cruising north in the Chrysler. The party still hasn't stopped.

39. "Whip It" / Devo (1980)
The term "novelty song" should have applied to this out-of-left-field 1980s hit -- but we New Wave insiders knew that its high-concept kitsch was the Next Big Thing.

40. "Roadrunner (Once)" / Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (1976)
Funny that I had to go all the way to England to hear this eccentric, magical record by Boston's own Jonathan Richman. The nascent New Wave scene in London went mad for this single in 1977; being the only person in the room who'd actually driven on Route 128 and gone to the Stop and Shop gave me major cachet. It was like some eerie late-night connection . . . .

Friday, February 26, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 41-45

Ah -- a tale of Five Obsessions. Five fleeting obsessions perhaps, but powerful while they lasted.

41. "Get Back" / The Beatles (1969)
The Beatles, of course, are one of the major obsessions of my life. But I'm thinking of a more particular obsession here -- my obsession with the film Let It Be. In May 1970 my friend Karen Butcher and I went to the Vogue Theatre in Indianapolis (then a real movie theater, not a music club like it is now) to see Let It Be the weekend it opened. We saw every showing that first Saturday, in fact, hiding out in the bathroom between screenings so the ushers wouldn't throw us out. Slipping back into our red plush seats in the dark, we avidly drank in every mumbled line of dialogue, every grainy shot of Our Boys. That climactic scene on the rooftop of the Apple headquarters on Savile Row riveted us, as the band played an unannounced LIVE BEATLES CONCERT in the middle of the London working day. (Can you imagine opening your office window and hearing that?) Karen and I were no casual Beatles fans -- throughout that next summer, we'd spend countless evenings sitting on Karen's front porch, holding imaginary conversations with our future husbands John Lennon (Karen's) and Paul McCartney (mine). (I'm not sure how we killed off Linda Eastman and Yoko Ono, but I'm sure it was bloodless and legal.) We lived in that movie. Of course, we already knew "Get Back" -- it had been released as a single way back in the spring of 1969, even before Abbey Road. With its chugging locomotive rhythm track and blithe McCartney melody, not to mention Billy Preston tripping all over on the keyboards, it teased us with riddling character portraits -- loner JoJo rambling from Tucson to California, transsexual Loretta Martin -- everyone trying to get back to where they once belonged. Hearing it resurface in Let It Be was like meeting an old friend. Now, years later, I know that the Beatles actually recorded Let It Be first, planning it as a back-to-basics reunion titled Get Back; it was still in production when -- having moved on to Abbey Road -- they decided to split. Shrewdly, they finished Abbey Road, then recast the Get Back material as their farewell, Let It Be. All along, we fans were kept in the dark, ignorant of how carefully the break-up was being orchestrated. But by the time Karen and I sat in that movie theater -- watching them on that rooftop, Paul with his bushy black beard and John in his round spectacles and short fur coat, peeling off a rare guitar lead -- we knew we'd never see them again. And at the end, John's sardonic sign-off -- "I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and I hope we pass the audition" -- well, crikey.

42. "Message In a Bottle" / The Police (1979)
Let's just get it right out there: Sting was the hottest guy in rock music in 1979. Those wary eyes, that sulky sneer . . . and there I was, with my longtime weakness for bassists. Against the hard-edged sounds of punk, metal, and disco, the reggae groove of the Police almost single-handedly kept the roll in rock 'n' roll for a couple of years. It's hard to believe that a three-piece combo could create a sound this full; that melodic, lounging bass line was essential. Their tracks were tight, lithe, muscular, but never felt stripped-down. Add to that the reverbed, minor-key spookiness of tracks like "Roxanne," "Don't Stand So Close to Me," and "Walking on the Moon," and there was really no way I could resist. By the time they hit it big in the US, the Police were cranking out sunnier, blander easy-listening tracks like "Every Breath You Take" and "Everything She Does Is Magic," and I lost all interest. But when this song came along -- their first #1 hit in the UK, from their second LP Reggatta de Blanc -- I was completely under its spell. Fine songcraft, developing the image of a castaway shipwrecked on some desert island (in the Caribbean, from the sound of it), sending out an "SOS to the world" in countless pleading bottles. Sting's mopey wail fit this song perfectly, declaring, "Love can mend your life but / Love can break your heart" (our first clue that the island is a metaphor for heartbreak -- the old John Donne "no man is an island" line). And then after the instrumental break, in the third verse, the money shot: "Woke up this morning / Don't believe what I saw / A hundred million bottles / Washed up on the shore." Can't you just see them, camera panning out to show them all, bobbing in the surf? A lesser songwriter might have turned this into a happy ending, but not Sting -- he interprets it: "Seems I'm not alone / In being alone / A hundred million castaways / Looking for a home." Everybody's lonely, the message goes; everybody hurts. But me personally? All I could think about was mopping the tears of poor shipwrecked Sting, brushing the sand from his blond hair, tasting the salt on his sun-bronzed skin. . .

43. "If This Is It" / Huey Lewis & the News (1984)
Another case of fangirl lust. Huey Lewis wasn't my usual type -- I favored long-haired skinny Brits, not clean-cut virile preppie types from California -- but that hoarse edge to his voice snagged my heart. (His resemblance to Jeff Bridges didn't hurt, either.) Huey Lewis flirted at the edges of New Wave hipsterdom -- his original band Clover, sans Huey, backed Elvis Costello on his first album -- but his essential talent was for clean radio pop, with enough of a retro gloss to cash in on the Eighties' 1950s nostalgia. For a while there, Huey & Co. were just cranking out the hits -- "The Heart of Rock and Roll," "Power of Love," "I Want a New Drug," "Heart and Soul" -- all lively, well-crafted tracks that got tons of radio play. No less than four hit singles were released from their megatuple platinum LP Sports; it would've been the year's #1 album if not for Thriller. In the early 80s MTV exposure was also critical, and the video for "If This It It" is a classic, a stylish sitcom set on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. (Remember the band, buried in sand up to their necks, doing the doowop harmonies on the chorus?) It was all mainstream as hell, and you know me, mainstream is not usually my thing. Besides, in 1984 I got engaged and then married; naively I assumed that the fangirl part of me would now be locked up in a streamer trunk, along with the faded corsages and torn ticket stubs. But there we were, in September 1984, on our honeymoon, a tour of quaint New England inns (no Poconos heart-shaped tubs for us!). And every time we turned on the car radio -- I'm telling you, every time -- there was Huey's pleading rasp, urging me to reconsider, "If this is it / Please let me know / If this ain't love, you better let me know!" I didn't reconsider, of course; I had no reason to. No matter how many times Huey cajoled, "Girl don't lie, and tell me that you need me / Girl don't cry, and tell me nothing's wrong." (Oh, how he growled with frustration on the "rl" of "girl!). I'd look out the car window, press my knees together. But I knew that the fangirl was still in the back seat; she wasn't going ANYWHERE.
44. "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat" / Herman's Hermits (1965)

My first post-Paul McCartney crush, fed by a crush of hype in Tiger Beat and Sixteen magazines. But oh, Peter Noone was adorable in 1965, with his crooked front tooth, his shiny gray eyes, and that sleek mop of fair hair. He may have been a manufactured teeny-bopper phenom, but he was MY manufactured teeny-bopper phenom, and he actually had the singing talent -- not to mention the acting chops -- to pull it off. Hell, he's still out there flogging these oldies. (And still adorable.) Herman's Hermits actually had two careers -- an initial run in the UK with a string of respectable R&B numbers, then a crossover to the US when they increasingly specialized in goofy English music-hall songs like "Mrs. Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter" and "Henry The Eighth." Released in January 1965, "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat" marked the crossover -- it climbed to #2 on the US charts, but in the UK it was only the B-side to "Silhouettes." All I knew was, it was track one on their second US album, Herman's Hermits on Tour (I've still got my battered copy, with its cheesy cover graphic of the band inserted into a hot-air balloon). Producer Mickey Most was taking no chances; "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat" features the same stompy beat and cheery girl-group-style harmonies as the Hermits' debut single "Something Good." The song was written to order by John Carter and Ken Lewis, incidentally the backing vocalists on the Who's "Can't Explain," who also sang in their own group The Ivy League -- remember "Tossing and Turning?" I loved Herman's guttural Manchester vowels as he sang, "Cos you're the one I lo-ove," but the best part is that little cry at the end of the bridge, when he sings, "I get the feeling, you're ooooh-wee (ah!)" He'd cock his head, hook his thumbnail on that crooked tooth, and all us little fanbabies would just dissolve. . . .

45. "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" / Stevie Wonder (1974)
If Jeff Bridges gets the Academy Award for Crazy Heart this year -- and oh, how I hope he does -- it won't just be because he was brilliant in Crazy Heart, though of course he was. It'll be because he's been brilliant in every single damn movie he's made since his 1971 debut in The Last Picture Show. Same thing here with Stevie Wonder. No single Stevie Wonder track stands out enough to make it into my Top Ten, but Stevie is so close to my heart, he had to be on here somewhere. For sheer musicality, nobody (except maybe Paul McCartney) can equal the guy. But which single to write about? "Uptight (Everything's Alright)"? "Superstition"? "Livin' for the City"? "I Wish"? "Part-Time Lover"? It's an impossible choice. But in the end, the Stevie Wonder LP I loved most was 1973's Innervisions, at the apex of his amazing streak from Talking Book through Songs in the Key of Life. It came along the spring of my junior year, when I had just started editing the college newspaper, was proposing my senior thesis, was in the thick of deciding where my life should go (like I've EVER figured that out.) Some days the only way to survive was to lock my dorm room door and put Innervisions on my turntable. By the time "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" came along -- side two, track four -- I'd be lost in Wonder. That crazy tango intro, with Stevie muttering some jive-ass hustle ("Paris, Beirut, Iraq, Iran ... you know, I speak very very fluent Spanish!"), morphing magically into a smooth-as-silk samba. "Everybody's got a thing / But some don't know how to handle it / Always reachin' out in vain / Accepting things not worth having" -- gee, was that my life or what? And there was Stevie, with those long, caressing, overlapping lines of the jazzy chorus, reassuring me: "Don't you worry 'bout a thing, mama /Cause I'll be standing on the side /While you check it out." Lyrics aren't Stevie's strength (again, like Paul McCartney) but even an English major like me can forgive a little verbal fuzziness when the sentiment is so beautiful. Stevie in the studio must have been like a kid in a candy shop, delighting in how many musical textures he could pile on, pouring it all into one richly complicated groove. And soaring above it all, his soothing vocals: "Everybody needs a change / A chance to check out the new" (or "loo," as I always heard it). "But you're the only one to see / The changes you take yourself throo-oo-oo-oo-oo-ough," ringing the chord changes on that "through." I can feel myself relax, even now; I can breathe again. Better than yoga, Stevie.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 46-50

For some bizarre reason, today's five songs -- all from the late 70s and early 80s, on the threshold of rock music's downward 80s spiral -- are mostly songs I haven't written about before. I can't figure out why. I mean, jeez, look at them! Oh, sure, I've written about the Kinks, Marshall Crenshaw, and Van Morrison before; it's just that these particular songs somehow escaped blogging heretofore. Time to remedy that directly.

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

46. "Moondance" / Van Morrison (1977)

Going off to college nowadays, kids can expect to share a common set of cultural references with their new classmates -- they all grew up with the same Happy Meal toys, the same Playstation games, the same Nickelodeon cartoons, the same websites. But when I went off to college, American culture was still regional; a Midwestern girl like me often had no clue what the New England kids were talking about. In Indianapolis, we'd just barely heard "Brown-Eyed Girl" by a British band called Them; the name of their Irish lead singer, Van Morrison, wasn't on my radar. But in the early 70s Van, now a solo act, was huge in the Boston area, particularly his 1970s album Moondance and 1971's Tupelo Honey. Everybody from the Northeast seemed to know the title cut from Moondance, and played it endlessly in the dorms; in that album-oriented age, it didn't matter that it had never been released as a single. Fast-forward now to November 1977, when the record company, stymied by Van's three-year writer's block, finally packaged "Moondance" as a single. I had just moved back to the States after two years in England, and hearing this song on the radio reassured me that I hadn't missed much while I was away. Which was of course not true -- the radio was otherwise infested with Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel, not to mention the Bee Gees, Barry Manilow, and (shudder!) the Eagles. In that context, no wonder Van's eight-year-old record sounded timelessly great, its Celtic soul sound distilled with laidback cool jazz. The saxophone part on this was like honey (Van, a saxophonist himself, composed the melody first, working it out on a sax); even better is that nimble Jeff Labes piano solo in the middle eight. And best of all is the sinuous prowl of Van's singing -- leaping for the high notes, snuggling with the lows, flirting outrageously with the syncopated beat. Towards the end, Van just gives up and becomes a saxophone. "A fantabulous night to make romance," indeed. "And every tiiime I touch you, you just tremble inside / And I know how much you want me, that you can't hide" -- jeeeeSUS.

"Jack and Diane" / John Mellencamp (1982)
By 1982, I was living in New York, having abandoning my Midwestern roots -- except when I heard John Cougar Mellencamp's song on the radio, transporting me in an instant back to my Indiana home.

48. "Someday, Someway" / Marshall Crenshaw (1982)
Amid all the New Wavers, punks, and hair bands of 1982, the crisp retro power-pop of Marshall Crenshaw was like an effervescent jolt of sanity. I'll credit my work buddy Amy McKinley with first bringing Marshall's debut LP into the Scholastic magazine offices, but it was an easy sell -- we all went nuts over it. "Someday, Someway" was the official single off of Marshall Crenshaw, but honestly, every track on that record could have hit radio gold. ("Cynical Girl," anybody? "The Usual Thing"? "Rocking Around in NYC"?) It's perfect car music, perfect drive-in music, perfect dance music, perfect sing-along-at-the-bar music. The jangly guitar, the rockabilly beat, the handclaps, the background ooohs, and Marshall's reverbed sweet tenor -- divine. There's a glorious adolescent urgency to it, as he puzzles over how to please his girlfriend -- in the first chorus, he sighs, "Someday, someway, / Maybe I'll understand you," but by the second chorus, he's shaking his head, lamenting, "Someday, someway, / Maybe you'll understand me". But, god bless him, he's in it to win it, as he declares in the bridge and third verse:
You've taken everything from me,
I've taken everything from you
I'll love you for my whole life throo-ough, oooh --
Now after all you've done for me
All I really want to do

Is take the love you brought my way
And give it all right back to you.
It may seem simple, but it's really genius songcraft-- has anybody ever done more with interchangeable pronouns? Years later, I'm still nuts over Marshall Crenshaw's music, as he's grown and deepened as an artist -- he's one of my lifetime top ten. (Click here for a recent vid of MC singing this classic.) Unfortunately, this was the peak of his singles success, but hey, I had to get him on this list someday, someway.

49. "Sultans of Swing" / Dire Straits (1978)

I'd like to say I was an early Dire Straits fan, but to be honest, the only album of theirs I ever bought was -- like everybody else in America -- 1985's Brothers in Arms, with its MTV-primed hits "Money For Nothing" and "Walk Of Life." But those songs now seem dated to me, while the tender nostalgia of "Sultans Of Swing" is fresh as yesterday. Dire Straits' debut hit -- in fact, the demo track that won them their first record contract -- "Sultans of Swing" is a lovely little observational song, set in a pub in south London (probably around Greenwich) where the resident jazz band is performing to a crowd of maybe half a dozen unappreciative drunks. And there's Knopfler, in the back of the room, mesmerized by their musicianship -- "the band is blowing Dixie / double four time" -- focusing in turn on each band member (Guitar George, Harry) and their pure devotion to the music, whether anybody's listening or not. Now, admit it -- when you're in a cocktail lounge, don't you feel sad for the pianist when nobody applauds his songs? I know I do. Yet the band soldiers on, proudly announcing at the end of the night -- as the barkeeps wipe the last pint glasses and the drunks reel for the door -- "We are the Sultans of Swing!" (Apparently this was the name of Alan Freed's band in the 1950s, before he became a famous payola DJ.) The song itself isn't done in jazz style -- after all, Knopfler had to craft a track that would show off his own guitar-playing chops, that long continuous line and those diving swift-fingered riffs -- but already he'd figured out his trademark storytelling style, with husky half-spoken vocals. It works so well here, drawing us into the intimate circle of the pub, spotlighting the musicians, getting into their heads. Here Knopfler was, at the start of his music career, and already wistful about it. I loved hearing this song on the radio, especially late at night. But I never bought the record -- like those drunks in the pub, I didn't appreciate the band enough. Maybe that's why I bought Brothers in Arms, as payback for the song I really loved.

50. "Come Dancing" / The Kinks
And speaking of tender nostalgia -- here's Ray Davies' brilliant evocation of post-war Britain, through the eyes of young Raymond watching his older sister head out on a date to the local dance palais. Don't worry, there'll be other Kinks songs on this list -- much as I love "Come Dancing," in the universe of Kinks songs it's not my peak. But it deserves a spot on this singles roster because, as their first major radio hit since "Lola," it sparked a mini-Kinks renaissance in my heart. I'd felt estranged from My Kinks during those arena rock years, as if they had betrayed me -- but the themes and sound of "Come Dancing" proved to me that Ray hadn't really abandoned his North London roots. The wistful longing for the past, distress at urban redevelopment, those were vintage Kinks elements. Ray's delivery is pure music-hall patter, and the arrangement feels vintage too, though it's a pastiche of sounds -- the steel-band riff for the neighborhood's newer immigrants, echoed by the big band horns of the 40s, with rock-and-roll guitars sneaking in the occasional 60s power chords. It's like time-lapse phonography, the musical equivalent of the changing real estate: "They put a parking lot on a piece of land / When the supermarket used to stand. / Before that they put up a bowling alley / On the site that used to be the local palais." Of course, since this is Ray Davies, there are a plethora of wonderful lines like "He'd end up blowing all his wages for the week / All for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek" or "My sister's married and she lives on an estate. / Her daughters go out, now it's her turn to wait." But c'mon, the best part of all is that spoken-word interval, where Ray recalls crouching at the top of the stairs, spying on his sister's goodnight kiss. Ah, Ray, always the voyeur.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 51-55

Hovering here at the middle of my list are a curious bunch of songs, each one testing the boundaries of its era's shifting musical tastes -- American bands aping the British Invasion sound, Philly soul artists updating their streetwise groove, or a girl group trying to stand out from the pack. Usually I detest calculated hits -- but here are five songs too clever and fun to resist.

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

"We Ain't Got Nothing Yet" / The Blues Magoos (1967)
In 1967 every major band in London was dropping acid and trying to express the psychedelic experience. As it turns out, the template was laid down by this upstart bunch of kids from New York City.

52. "She's About A Mover" / Sir Douglas Quintet (1965)
The late great Doug Sahm recorded under many names over the years -- it was almost impossible to keep up with them -- but when this early ensemble scored his first nationwide hit, the name sure fooled me into thinking they were another British band. Dig this video -- there's nothing about it to suggest that these long-haired guys in their skinny suits were from Texas, at least not until Trini Lopez spills the beans at the end. This stripped-down little rocker even has that sort of primitive Mersey sound, with its offbeat Farfisa chords, clangy guitars, and mumbled bluesy vocals. The lyrics are minimal -- mostly a lot of things like "Whoa, yeah, what I say, / Hey, hey!" and, for a chorus, "She's about a mover!" repeated over and over, toggling back and forth between two notes. (What is a "mover," anyhow? Inquiring minds want to know.) The thing has like four chords total, so it's no surprise that every garage band I knew included this in their repertoire -- once they'd mastered the Shadows of Knight's "Gloria," that is. But there's an art to making a record this ecstatic and fun, and Doug Sahm had that art down cold. Every time this song came on the radio we'd yelp with joy and turn the volume up. Years later, I still do the same whenever I hear any Doug Sahm record. A sorely neglected genius.

53. "98.6" / Keith (1967)
Every time I take my temperature, I think of this song. Don’t you? Honestly, without this song for a mnemonic, how did previous generations ever remember what a normal temperature should be? It’s the only hit that Keith (real name James Barry Keefer) ever had, but he certainly hit the jackpot with it. The central conceit is dead simple: The singer’s temperature is back to normal now that he’s happy in love (“Your lovin’ is the medicine that saved me / Oh, I love my baby”). What could have been a formulaic pop song, however, turned out to be anything but. It was written by the Brill Building team of composer George Fischoff and lyricist Tony Powers, who also wrote Spanky and Our Gang’s “Lazy Day” (hear the resemblance?). Fischoff’s bouncy melody, with its skipalong beat, was perfectly suited to Keefer’s suave Philly-soul voice, but the real key to success was Powers’ lyrics, which tapped into the hippie era's madcap flower-child giddiness. “Good morning sun, I say it’s good to see you shinin’,” Keith begins exuberantly, “I know my baby brought you to-oo-oo-oo me / She kissed me yesterday, hello you silver lining / Got spring and summer running throo-oo-oo-ough me.” (Notice how compression jazzes up those familiar nature images.) There’s a wonderful contrast between the good-timey sound of the verses, with their jubilant horns and softshoe tempo, and the hushed chorus, tautly confined to a few notes and a heartbeat pulse, as he checks his temperature again (“Hey, ninety-eight point six, it’s good to have you back again…).” My favorite line, though, comes in the second verse, where Keith proclaims, “You know she got me on another kind of highway / I want to go-oo where it ta-aa-aa-akes me!” Is that sexy or what?

54. "One on One" / Daryl Hall and John Oates (1983)
I suppose I could blame MTV for hooking me on these 80s groovemeisters, with their well-groomed shag haircuts and big-shouldered pastel suits. But the real history is a bit more complicated . . .

55. "Leader of the Pack" / The Shangri-Las (1964)
I know there were classier girl group songs -- the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" for one, or the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," or the Exciters' "Tell Him." But I was too young in the early 1960s, and probably too white, to be a serious girl group aficionado. By the time "Leader of the Pack" vroomed into the charts, however, Beatlemania had transformed me into a voracious pop music fan, gobbling it all up. Among the East Coast girl groups, the Shangri-Las specialized in a tough-girl image; this romance about star-crossed love with a biker (I pictured him as a James Dean hottie) was right up their gritty alley. With all the sound effects -- the revving motorcycle, the screeching tires, the shattering glass -- it verged on being a novelty song, though that wouldn't have bothered me; it riveted me with its themes of death and breaking class barriers (I think this was the first time I'd ever heard the phrase "the wrong side of the tracks"). But more than anything else I was sucked in by its narrative technique. We overhear the girls chatting on the sidewalk:
"Is she really going out with him?"
"Well, there she is. Let's ask her."
"Betty, is that Jimmy's ring you're wearing?"
"Gee, it must be great riding with him. Is he picking you up after school today?"

Real dramatic irony in a pop song!
And then Betty takes center stage to wail her tale of woe: "I met him at the candy store / He turned around and smiled at me / You get the picture?" to which her girlfriends, nodding, reply, "Yes, we see." (That conversational set-up was another Shangri-La trademark.) A few months later, though, when a band called the Detergents released a parody called "Leader of the Laundromat," I was ready to laugh at the melodrama of "Leader of the Pack." Ah, how fickle the public can be!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 56-60

For better or worse, my musical tastes were born out of the British Invasion, so it's no surprise I'm hitting a run of mid-60s English rock in the heart of my list -- and no surprise that I've already written about so many of today's songs. Some of these bands belong to that elite group of artists who've nabbed more than one spot on my list (guess which); others are more in the category of one-hit wonders, but as my write-ups explain, don't dismiss them so quickly.

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

56. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" / The Animals (1965)
The last great Animals single to be recorded with Alan Price on organ -- and oh, it's a sizzler.

57. "Sunshine Superman" / Donovan (1966)
So many great Donovan tracks, it was hard to choose just one. (I'm prepared now for the onslaught of comments telling me which Donovan tracks you thought were better.) But in the end I had to go for "Sunshine Superman" because it encompasses everything we loved him for -- folkie innocence, hippie psychedelia, and a nifty world music groove.

58. "Time of the Season" / The Zombies (1969)

Thank goodness I've got links for the rest of today's songs -- that leaves me plenty of room to write about this song. As many of you know, I go weak in the knees whenever I think about the Zombies. They weren't around very long -- in fact they broke up a full year before this single was released. Fun facts to know and tell: Wikipedia tells me that it was rock & roll zelig Al Kooper, who'd recently become an A&R exec at Columbia Records, that pushed to lift this track from their 1968 farewell album Odessey and Oracle and put it out as a 45. How cruelly ironic, then, that it turned out to be their best-selling single ever, at least in the U.S. (The Zombies were one British Invasion band that didn't really catch on over here, though I can say I was a Zombies fan from the get-go.)
Talk about the Spookiness Quotient -- this song is simply drenched with it. Some songs just deserve to be heard in the dark, late at night, and this is one of them. That mysterously tip-toeing bass line, the descending triplet on the organ, strange little percussion accents like bumps in the night -- dig that one repeated tic, a lightning-swift combo of block clap, cymbal, and gasp (sounds like somebody's being whipped down in the dungeon). Above all, it's Colin Blunstone's other-worldly voice, doubled and echoed until it sounds like it's coming from some parallel dimension. And on the second verse, all those overlapping voices, falsettos and booming baritones, coming out of the woodwork like a spirits at a seance: "What's your name? (What's your name?) / Who's your daddy? (Who's your daddy?)/ (HE RICH) Is he rich like me-ee? / Has he taken (Has he taken) / any time (any time) / (TO SHOW) To show you what you need to live?" It's like an allusive, coded conversation, something heard through a wall maybe; we have no idea what they're talking about. In the bridge, the imaginary voices take the lead: "(Tell it to me slowly!) / Tell you what?/ (I really want to know). . . " Then they all chime in together in thick clotted sacral harmonies for the refrain: "It's the time / For the see-ea-son for loving," ending on a VERY disturbing chord. After which, off goes Rod Argent's lunatic, inspired organ solo -- I've got to think that Al Kooper was grooving on that. The baroque textures of this song tap into so many dark psychological states -- it makes me think of time travel, of drug trips, of haunted houses, of black magic, of kinky sex, of mad wives locked in the attic, of evil clowns and malevolent ventriloquist's dummies coming to life. You know, like The Twilight Zone on acid, with a script by Ray Bradbury, directed by David Lynch, starring Jeremy Irons and Amanda Plummer. Gothic and stylish, a pure class act.

"Concrete and Clay" / Unit 4 + 2 (1966)
Ah, just listen to that cowbell intro. A fluky hit, catapulted from obscurity by pirate radio stations (raise your hand if you saw the film Pirate Radio, a.k.a. The Boat That Rocked), this irresistible little swinger was best listened to on a transistor radio snuggled underneath your pillow. Few songs transport me back as totally as this one does.

60. "A World Without Love" / Peter & Gordon (1964)
The fact that this song was written by Paul McCartney is one-hundred-percent beside the point. I adored Peter Asher, and the heavenly harmonies on this record were pop perfection.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 61-65

By some great serendipity, here in the early 60s of my list comes a cluster of five mid-60s classics from the British Invasion. Major artists? Maybe not (I'd make an exception for Georgie Fame, but only the basis of his later jazz albums). But major British Invasion hits? Indeed they are.

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

61. "To Sir With Love" / Lulu (1967)
I'll admit, my love for this song is inextricable from my love for the film it appeared in, an Inspiring Teacher drama starring Sidney Poitier, Suzy Kendall, and teenaged Lulu herself. I still cry whenever I see it; even this clip makes my eyes well up. While Lulu had been a star in the UK ever since she was 15, belting out a hit version of the Isley Brothers' "Shout," this was the song that really broke her into the U.S. market. In the movie, she sings it in the closing scene, when a pack of troubled urban secondary-schoolers gather to thank the teacher (Poitier, natch) who helped them turn their lives around. (Bonus points if you recognize the band playing in the first part of that clip as the Mindbenders.) For a natural diva like Lulu, there was plenty of drama to play with in those lyrics by Don Black (a movie-theme specialist, who also wrote "Born Free") -- "Those schoolgirl days / Of telling tales and biting nails are gone" or "If you wanted the sky I would / Write across the sky in letters / That would soar a thousand feet high." But perhaps more important was that emotive melody, written by Mark London, the husband of Lulu's longtime manager Marion Massey. London knew exactly how to showcase their girl's brassy, rich contralto -- octave leaps, swift swoops up and down the scale, long sustained notes packed with crescendo and vibrato, heartfelt warbles of melisma. And Lulu, god love her, made it all sound so easy, effortless, spontaneous. "But how can you thank someone / Who has taken you from crayons to perfume?" THIS is how you do it.

62. "Georgy Girl" / The Seekers (1966)
Another movie theme song, from another brilliant 60s British movie -- slightly earlier, in arty black-and-white. (Have I ever mentioned that this is my #1 favorite era in cinema?) Another girl singer, too -- Judith Durham -- with a voice that nearly rivaled Dusty Springfield for clear hard power. Back then, when I played this 45 constantly on the fold-up stereo in our basement rec room, I never noticed that this song was in fact written by Dusty's brother Tom Springfield, her old partner from the folk trio the Springfields. Tom also wrote the Seekers' earlier hits, "I'll Never Find Another You" and "A World Of Our Own" (I'd love to know Dusty's reaction to having her brother feed hits to Judith Durham); for the lyrics on "Georgy Girl," he turned to musical comedy actor Jim Dale. With its perky whistling motif, "Georgy Girl" sounds more like cabaret, or at least folk music, than backbeat rock 7 roll. The Seekers weren't British but Australian -- the first Aussies, in fact, to score Top 5 hits in the US, UK, and Australia -- and like many people, I often confused them with the Searchers. In general I think the Searchers were a much better band, but this one single gets me more than anything the Searchers ever did. Maybe that's because I so loved the movie, with Lynn Redgrave playing an impulsive, cheerful, slightly overweight girl harboring a mad crush on the gorgeous boyfriend (Alan Bates) of her icy roommate (Charlotte Rampling). Now there was a movie I could identify with. Despite its plucky melody, we all knew this was a desperately sad song. "You're always window shopping / But never stopping to buy / So shed those dowdy feathers and fly! / A little bit" -- what an anthem to grow up with.

. "A Summer Song" / Chad & Jeremy (1964)
It really does blow my mind that in the course of one year -- 1964 -- I could have so many crushes on different British musicians. Oh, Chad, with your golden mop and black-framed glasses . . .

64. "Michelle" / David and Jonathan (1967)
Truly, this is not a shameless way to sneak yet another Paul McCartney song on here. I honestly did love David and Jonathan's cover of "Michelle," and besides, the Beatles didn't release this one as a single. In case your memory of this has been obliterated forever by the Beatles' album version (I know mine has), here's a video:

Okay, okay, OKAY, it's not better than the Beatles' recording. It clips along a little faster, and David and Jonathan's voices are smooth and banal compared to Paul's. They weren't really singers, after all; they weren't even named David and Jonathan (corny Bible reference), but songwriters Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook, who also wrote "You've Got Your Troubles" for the Fortunes. Rog and Rog teamed up here with George Martin to help the Beatles extend their brand, maintaining their full frontal assault on the record charts. Martin added background oohs and a touch of strings, transposed Paul's acoustic finger-picking to what sounds like a harmonium, and had Rog and Rog harmonize the whole way through. It's just slightly slicker than the Beatles track -- but for a genius track like "Michelle," that slickness is no improvement. On the other hand, you'd never know that if you hadn't heard the Beatles' version yet, which I hadn't when this first hit the airwaves. And I have to say, it does feels more Parisian -- I could almost hear accordions in there, and visualize Apache dancers in a smoky Left Bank cafe. McCartney, always keen to score points for sophistication, was striving for that French bohemian sound, which is why he asked his pal Ivan Vaughn's wife Jan to supply a few French phrases -- "Michelle, ma belle, sont les mots qui font tres bien ensemble." Paul hadn't a clue what it meant. I'd just started studying French in grade school, though, and it was lovely to imagine that Paul was sending me secret messages in "our" second language. The fact that he'd had to employ David and Jonathan to slip that message to me made no difference at all.

65. "Yeh Yeh" / Georgie Fame (1965)
Sorry, Mr Lennie, but you do not know whereof you speak. It should be apparent by now that I have a sneaking affection for jazz-inflected rock, and here's the guy who led me to it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 66-70

Here in the middle of the list, we're in serious Sixties Earworm territory. From the poppiest pop to the deepest soul, here are five songs that defy you not to sing along. (C'mon, you know you know the words.)

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs].

66. "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy" / Manfred Mann (1964)
Being a baby boomer is way too broad a category -- let's narrow it down a little. It's significant that I was old enough in 1964 to experience the British Invasion, yet I was still young enough that I was completely ignorant of where those British bands were stealing their music from. For me, this WAS the original.

67. "I Think We're Alone Now" / Tommy James & the Shondells (1967)
Sneaking around and doing things behind your parents' back -- that's what being a teenager is all about. Just because I wasn't misbehaving in 1967 didn't mean I wasn't ready to, given half a chance.

68. "Come and Get It" / Badfinger (1969)
I know what you're gonna say -- she's sneaking in another Paul McCartney song. But honestly, when this record first came out I didn't know McCartney had written it, as the theme song for his mate Ringo's new movie The Magic Christian. I should have guessed, though. As the first non-Beatles artists signed to the Apple Corps record label, Badfinger was hyped big-time as the Beatles' heirs apparent. (Watching that green apple on the label spin around and around was definitely one of this single's charms.) The Beatles, who were heading for Splitsville themselves, had a LOT invested in these guys -- no point in leaving anything to chance. Paul produced the record as well, and as insurance he renamed the band from the Iveys to the hipper-sounding moniker Badfinger (a Neil Aspinall suggestion). Ultimately I think that the Beatles legacy unfairly overshadowed Badfinger; despite their string of melodic, addictive singles ("No Matter What," "Day After Day," "Baby Blue," "Without You"), they rarely got credit for what a fine band they really were. Just listen to this debut single -- Tom Evans' buoyant lead vocals, the tight, beautifully blended back-up harmonies. (I was always torn between singing along to the high harmonies or the melody.) Sung against that bouncy timekeeping piano, the melody is always slower than I remember it, lagging lazily just behind the beat -- a genius tempo, actually, for a song about sitting back and waiting. I guess we never really knew what the "It" was that he was inviting people to take. If you saw the movie, you'd know it was money (the Magic Christian being like a hippie version of that old TV show The Millionaire), but trust me, it works equally well as a song about drugs or sex -- "If you want it, here it is / Come and get it / But you better hurry 'cos it's going fast." Wishful thinking, probably.

69. "Love Potion No. 9" / The Searchers (1964)

So much new music hit my ears in 1964, and it was definitely not all of a piece. Take this classic Leiber and Stoller number, for example -- first recorded in 1959 by the Clovers, it was already a standard when the Searchers covered it in 1964. But did I know that? No, I did not. To me, it was clever and witty and brand-new. I was still young enough to enjoy the occasional novelty tune, and this one was right on the cusp of being a novelty number. Three verses and a bridge, with a neat, if primitive, plot -- the singer asks for help with his pathetic love life from a fortune-telling gypsy ("with the gold-capped tooth," though I thought it was "gold tattoo"). He's definitely in the Loveable Loser category: "I told her that I was a flop with chicks/ Ain't had a date since nineteen-fifty-six" (in the re-recording, his 3-year celibate streak was inevitably changed to an 8-year drought). She gives him a potion, he gulps it down, and then he goes merrily bonkers, until he kisses a cop on the corner beat, who then breaks his potion bottle. This is not a song that you had to take seriously, and maybe that's what I liked about it -- plus it didn't depend on a sex-infused subtext that would shoot right over my adolescent head. This one's pure slapstick comedy -- "She bent and turned around and gave me a wink / She said I'm gonna mix it up right here in the sink / It smelled like turpentine and looked like India ink / I held my nose and closed my eyes [beat, beat] / I took a drink!" It's like Jerry Lewis meets Jekyll and Hyde. And the Searchers executed it perfectly, with their brisk drumbeat and crisp surf guitars -- a perfect Tin Pan Alley piece of pop comedy.

70. "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" / The Righteous Brothers (1964)
I remember seeing The Righteous Brothers on Shindig! and being surprised they weren't black -- not disappointed, mind you, just surprised. I'd never heard the term "blue-eyed" soul. But hey, I was already lapping up all those British beat bands' covers of Motown and girl group singles -- I couldn't deny Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield the right to sing R&B. As it climbed to the top of the charts in early 1965, no doubt American record companies breathed a sigh of relief that some American acts could still stave off the British Invasion. The ace in the bag -- as producer Phil Spector must have known -- was those booming low vocals by Medley, something no British band was equipped to compete with. Of course, a swoony Barry Mann melody helped, and Cynthia Weill's mournful lyrics -- "You never close your eyes anymore / When I kiss your lips," sung at the bottom of Medley's range, then jumping up an octave to continue, "And there's no tenderness like before / In your fingertips." By the time they got to the chorus, when Hatfield's tenor joined in on harmonies, we were already slain. "You've lost that lovin' feeling, now it's / Gone / Gone / Gone / Whoah-oh-oh oh" -- dig how those "gone's" toll away like the bells of doom. It's such a great song, and so much fun to sing. In college, my friend Mary MacManus and I did a pretty mean version of this while we worked the dishwashers in the dorm kitchen -- as I recall, the dining room would fall silent to listen, then burst into applause. At least that's how I remember it -- don't you dare tell me different.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 71-75

I realize that most of these are "transition" songs -- singles that crept into my heart during down times when my big music manias (British Invasion, New Wave) had spent themselves. Indianapolis was more of a Motown city than you might expect, so it was inevitable that some soul classics would land here, as much a part of my musical DNA as the British beat stuff is. Jump from there to the 1980s to find an oddball pair of MTV-enhanced songs, among the last singles I ever owned in the Decade That Killed Rock Music.

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

71. "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" / Bill Withers (1971)
By 1971, Motown fare already felt too slick -- R&B and rock were moving closer and closer to each other, and they didn't need to be kept in separate boxes anymore. When I hear Bill Withers' debut hit, though, it still feels like a real sea change to me. I was a senior in high school, a founding member of our school's crunchy-granola Human Relations Forum; we thrilled to this song, believing that Sam Cooke's longed-for change was finally gonna come. Withers' voice had a creased and weathered quality so different from the mellifluencies of Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson; this song was produced by Stax mainstay Booker T (released on Sussex Records), but the personnel also included rockers like Steven Stills on guitar and Jim Keltner on drums. Even more important, "Ain't No Sunshine" had a restless, provocative bite -- those morose verses, with their glum plodding bassline (Donald "Duck" Dunn?) and repeated melody -- "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone / It's not warm when she's away / Ain't no sunshine when she's gone / And she's always gone too long, anytime she goes away." Who knows why she's away -- a quarrel? infidelity? or is she just a free spirit? He's so down in the dumps (hear the grief-stricken swell of those minor-key strings), he can't even tell us. And of course, the best part: "Well I know I know I know I know I know" repeated 27 times, sung with shifting syncopation on one loooooong breath that finally peters into a croak. We just had to sing along with the "I knows," every time, it was so damn cathartic. Apparently Withers -- who when he recorded this still had a day job in a toilet-seat factory -- sang it this way in the studio as a placekeeper, intending to write a "proper" chorus, Holland-Dozier-Holland-style. Thank god Booker T was there to stop him.

72. "Standing in the Shadows of Love" / The Four Tops (1966)
The Temptations may have been Motown's most reliable hitmakers, but I'm sorry, in a smackdown between the Temptations and the Four Tops, I'd always choose the Four Tops.

73. "Tears Of A Clown" / Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1970)
(No, not "Death of a Clown" -- sorry, Dave Davies fans.)
So why "Tears of a Clown" and not "Tracks of My Tears" -- Smokey Robinson's 1965 mega-hit, one of the greatest soul recordings ever made? I really struggled with this one.
Frankly, in my mind the two songs always run together -- "Tracks of My Tears" has basically the same theme (that great line "my smile is my make-up I wear since my break-up with you"). In fact this was originally conceived as a follow-up to "Tracks of My Tears," taking that laughing/crying dichotomy one step further -- working that clown imagery, even throwing in some strains of circus calliope and a reference to Pagliacci (for those few Motown fans who also listened to grand opera?). But while "Tracks" may be slower and more earnest, "Tears of a Clown" seems way more poignant to me. I was won over by that winsome melody, courtesy of co-writer Stevie Wonder (the only Motown artist I loved more than Smokey Robinson); it's perfect for Smokey's high breathy voice. "Now if there's a smile on my face / It's only there trying to fool the public / But when it comes down to fooling you / Now honey that's quite a different subject" (that "public/subject" rhyme kills me). Brisk and perky as the song seems, there's just enough creepy desperation in the arrangement -- listen to those shrill piccolos competing with a lagging bassoon -- because, I dunno, what's creepier and more haunting than a sad clown? I can just imagine this guy dancing as fast as he can, juggling all his balls in the air, even as his heart is breaking. I'll admit that "Track of My Tears" has been forever tainted for me by Linda Ronstadt's cover. But ultimately, as with so many songs on this list, it's all a question of timing. When "Tracks of My Tears" came out, I was lost in a British Invasion fog, but by 1970 my ears thirsted for Motown again. And of course, a year later Motown would leave Detroit and the whole soul thing would split wide open...

74. "Come On Eileen" / Dexy's Midnight Runners (1982)
Just listen to all the surprises in this song. That sappy Celtic folk fiddle opening ("Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms"!!), switching in a heartbeat to a chugging rock & roll jig that was yet somehow ska-flavored -- strange and wonderful. "C'mon Eye-leen!" Dexy yelps in the background -- love the Irish pronunciation -- and then he and his mates work their way up a scale singing "Too-ra-loo-rye-ay." It was just this side of a novelty number. But why shouldn't an Irish rock song sound like it came from Ireland? (It's no accident it lasted for 11 weeks as #1 on the Irish charts.) Dexy invokes the spirit of "Poor old Johnny Ray," whose music spoke to an earlier generation -- but how can modern kids relate to those elders, with their "beaten-down eyes / Sunk in smoke-dried faces, they're so resigned to what their fate is." He needs a new untarnished sound, something for his generation, and thank god New Wave music had expanded the available vocabulary. Naturally he's got an ulterior motive -- he wants Eileen to shrug off those old Catholic morals and sleep with him. ("At this moment / You mean everything," he pants; "With you in that dress / My thoughts I confess / Verge on dirty.") He's pulling out every trick he can think of. Keys change, tempos change; the syncopated jig gives way to a march, and then it crashes to a halt for that bridge -- "Come on [beat] / Eileen, too-rah-ay!" begun as a lumbering chant, then accelerating into absolute frenzy. I loved this song even before I saw the video, but the video sealed the deal -- a grainy black-and-white beauty directed by Julian Temple, with Dexy and Eileen wandering around gritty urban streets in sleeveless tanks and loose denim overalls. I guess I wasn't surprised that we never heard of Dexy's Midnight Runners again -- what were the odds they'd catch lightning in a bottle twice?

75. "Wrap It Up" / The Fabulous Thunderbirds (1986)
Kim and Jimmie helped me get through 1987 -- the year we lived through major apartment renovation with a colicky newborn baby. I'm sure our neighbors hated this song, though; we played it often, and loud.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 76-80

Okay, now we're starting to hit a groove. I've already written about most of these before -- they're all the sort of numbers that make you break out grinning the minute they dial up on the jukebox. The secret? They all share one vital component: Intros so distinctive, you know within two seconds what song you're hearing.

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

76. "Killer Queen" / Queen (1974)
Three fingersnaps, then Freddie Mercury's arch voice prances into "Killer Queen," backed by fastidious wrist-flicking piano chords. This song hit in 1974, the year my brother let me take his car to college, which meant I spent a lot of time driving and listening to the car radio. Every time this came on I'd crank it up, lean closer to the speakers, and work to decipher a few more of these lyrics. Wicked funny.

77. "Build Me Up Buttercup" / The Foundations (1968)
That great bouncy rhythm line -- bomp de-bomp, bomp bomp de bomp -- laid down by keyboards, bongos, and tambourine, and we're out of our seats already.
I swear, for the longest time I didn't even know that the Foundations were an English band. But then, they were a multiracial outfit -- more British Empire than British Isles -- and let's be honest, the PR machine that pushed Herman's Hermits and Peter & Gordon would never have done the same for a band with a West Indian horn section and a lead singer from Barbados. It didn't help that their roster kept shifting -- Clem Curtis, the mellow lead singer on 1967's "Baby, Now that I've Found You" had been replaced by the more youthful-sounding Colin Young in 1968 when they recorded "Build Me Up Buttercup." Written by Mike D'Abo (of Manfred Mann) and Tony Macauley, "Buttercup" was the song that really hit in the U.S.; that was the single I bought, and it was on constant rotation on my turntable for several months.
You can't help but sing along to this baby, right out of the gate with Colin Young's frantic cry "WHY do you build me up?" Even better is singing it in a group, chiming in on the echoes ("build me up," "let me down," "worst of all," "say you will," "I need you"). I remember singing it raucously in the backseat of my parents' car, with Beth Wood, Betsy Morris, Patsy DeFusco, and Margie Pugh. High spirits and good times rule, with those staccato horns rat-tat-tatting the accents on the end of every line. Forget the fact that his girlfriend's messing up his head -- "'I'll be over at ten' / you told me time and again / But you're late / I wait around and then. . . ", he wistfully reports. But he's so hooked, there's more joy than anguish in his voice as he declares, "I'll be home / I'll be beside the phone, waiting for you / Ooooh ooh ooooh Ooooooh ooh ooh" (those ooh's are ESSENTIAL). It's a karaoke favorite, for very good reason; no wonder this song has been covered so often, by bands who don't even bother to change the arrangement, and who sound just as good as the Foundations did. I love how the Farrelly brothers used it at the end of There's Something About Mary, with all the cast and crew singing lustily along. Pure pop heaven.

78. "Girl Don't Come" / Sandie Shaw (1964)
In that catalog of British girl singers from the 60s, tall langorous Sandie Shaw never cracked the American market like Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Cilla Black, or Lulu did. Still, this one glorious single shimmered through. That cool trombone intro, how it sliced through the British Invasion haze with a note of sophistication. . .

79. "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)" / The Rolling Stones (1974)
I know I'm gonna take flak for this, but all my life I've fought liking the Rolling Stones. I knew at least one song had to be on this list -- c'mon, The Stones -- but which single could I publicly admit to liking? I had to zero in my brief Stones interlude, sandwiched between the demise of the Beatles and my growing infatuation with the Kinks. For this one album only, I was a whole-hearted, unclouded Stones fan. I hear those first guitar chugs, followed by that long sassy twang, and I can't help thinking, "My boys!"

80. "Kind of a Drag" / The Buckinghams (1967)
Yes, I too loved "Don't You Care" and "Susan." But that opening fanfare -- who could resist?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 81-85

These five songs aren't quite guilty pleasures -- though they're all by artists that some rock snobs spurn. I'll defend them to the death, though, and not just because of nostalgia for the time in my life when I first heard them.

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

81. "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" / Gerry & the Pacemakers (1964)
In 1964 we were all waiting to figure out who the next Beatles would be (turns out it was more of the Beatles). Even then, though, I'm pretty sure I knew it wouldn't be Gerry & the Pacemakers, despite the fact that they were also managed by Brian Epstein. Still, Gerry Marsden had a soulful pop voice, well suited to ballads, which soon replaced perky numbers like "How Do You Do It" in their repertoire. As a coda to the whole Merseybeat phenomenon, 1965's "Ferry Cross the Mersey" was poignant, even for us who'd never been to Liverpool. But my vote goes to "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying," which came out a year earlier. It was the Pacemaker's first U.S. hit, and amid the tsunami of other British Beat bands frantically trying to cash in on the Beatles' US success, the tenderness of this song really stood out. I'll admit, that arrangement was totally movie-music schmaltz -- those quivering strings, that oboe counterpoint -- but still it comes off as totally sincere. I've read that Marsden wrote it after breaking up with his girlfriend; after she heard the song, apparently, they got back together and eventually married. I don't know if that story's true or not, but I desperately hope so. I remember watching Gerry sing this on Shindig, adoring his Liverpudlian vowels, taken in by his huge puppydog eyes. Ultimately, I just couldn't work up a crush on Gerry Marsden -- not with Paul McCartney around -- but this song still brings a lump to my throat.

82. "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" / Steely Dan (1974)
You either get Steely Dan or you don't. Plenty of other cheesy jazz-rockers came along later to muck up the waters, but these guys invented the sound -- the dense aural environment, underlaid with a slapping, commanding groove. I loved Donald Fagan's nimble and intelligent keyboards, but what really spoke to me was Walter Becker's snarky lyrics. It's toss-up between this number and "Reeling in the Years" ("those weekends at the college never turned out like you planned / The things that pass for knowledge I don't understand"), but in the end I vote for this on the Spookiness Quotient -- that ominous ticking bass line, the faintly scolding lyrics, the lapidary call-and-response of the chorus. The singer's pleading with a girlfriend -- not even that, a girl he's briefly dated; with a whiff of desperation, he reminds her of "our little wild time" and going "out driving on Slow Hand Row" (that's some evocative name for a lover's lane). "Rikki don't lose that number," he entreats her -- I picture something scrawled on a matchbook or a cocktail napkin -- adding, "Send it off in a letter to yourself" (mnemonic tips from Dr. Becker!). Chords falter and diminish as he speculates, "You might use it if you feel better / When you get home . . . " He knows she won't, but a guy can hope, can't he? ("And you might have a change of heart . . . " the line wanders upward, followed by a twiddle of piano). I've always thought that it was his phone number he wanted her to keep, but just today it occurred to me that it could be something else -- an abortion doctor, maybe? Whatever. It's like being thrown into a Raymond Carver short story, and scrambling to figure out what's going on. One thing I knew for sure: if I was Rikki, I'd keep that number.

83. "Smooth Operator" / Sade (1985)
Jazz again -- really smooth jazz, in fact, sizzling over a Latin beat. When this song came out, mind you, we were in the throes of MTV's glory days of video; the sound is inextricable from the exotic vision of gorgeous Sade, with her skimmed-back hair and luscious red lips, poured into a cocktail dress. She was so poised, so reserved, so elegant -- more Audrey Hepburn than Debbie Harry -- I instinctively identified with her. The wary, wounded quality of her voice fit perfectly with this allusive story about a jet-set wheeler-dealer ("diamond life, lover boy"). Not that we get many details, though -- he could be a pimp, a drug lord, or James Bond for all we know. She doesn't trust him, and I'm guessing it's from bitter firsthand experience, as she croons: "A license to love, insurance to hold / Melts all your memories and change into gold / His eyes are like angels but his heart is cold." (Dig that icy quarter-note pause before "cold.") Sade's voice is like satin, like honey, her diction crisp, her phrasing sensuous yet delicate. Congas thump, maracas sussurate, a sax moans in the night. "Coast to coast, LA to Chicago, western male / Across the north and south to Key Largo, love for sale" -- it's so Eighties. But delicious.

[And by the way -- how cool is it that Sade's brand-new album just zoomed to number 1? The lady takes a decade off from performing, and her audience is right there waiting for her to return. No crazy promotional blitz (take note, Madonna and Lady Gaga), just a solidly crafted set of songs with her long-time loyal band. It proves that when the older audience respects and cares about an artist, they'll buy records in droves. So how come the record companies waste so much time and money only wooing the fickle youth market?]

84. "I Don't Want to Go Home" / Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (1976)
Warning: You won't find Bruce Springsteen anywhere on this list. But I've got nothing against Jersey boys -- and here's a selection to prove it.

85. "Maggie May" / "Reason to Believe" / Rod Stewart (1971) Hey, I didn't know better. And even if I did, I'd probably still fall for this gravelly debut by whiskey-voiced Rod Stewart.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 86-90

I'm surprised to discover how few of today's five singles ever got covered on this blog before. I assure you, each one had its heyday on my record player (and yes, I do mean record player). Bear with me as I make up for lost time!

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

86. "Have I The Right?" / The Honeycombs (1964)
Remember, in 1964, we had no idea which English band would be the Next Big Thing. We listened to all of it, drank it in, bought the singles -- and waited to see how it would all shake out. The Honeycombs were a British band -- check -- from North London, named after their female drummer Honey Lantree, who was also a hairdresser (Honey Combs, get it?). I was snared right away by the exuberant backbeat bounce of this song, enhanced by a prominent drum track, a tambourine rattled right onto the mike, and heavy footstomps on the studio stairs, recorded by producer Joe Meek. ("Come! right! back! I just can't bear it / I've got this love and I want to share it!") Add some cheese-grater guitar and a whiny organ and there it was, an irresistible bit of pop candy. Lead singer Denis D'Ell's voice was a little Tommy Steele-ish -- even more so once they'd sped up the original recording -- but that chipper, boyish quality was tremendously appealing, especially with all the little growls and yips he threw in. "Have I the rrright to touch you? / If I could yooou'd see how much you / Send those shivers rrrunning down my spine." Two minutes and 59 seconds of youthful desire -- exactly my cup of tea.

87. "You Were On My Mind" / We Five (1965)
For some reason, in my mental jukebox "Have I The Right?" is always followed immediately with "You Were On My Mind." This despite the fact that it came along a year later, from an American band (We Five was from San Francisco), had a female lead singer, and was folk-rock instead of BritBeat (if I'd been a folkie I'd have recognized it as an Ian and Sylvia song). But it's the same sort of uptempo, upbeat charmer, with lots of drums -- in fact, "You Were On My Mind"'s entire first verse is practically a capella, sung with just a snare and high hat. Verse two adds a few asterisks of electric guitar strums, with more guitars layered on gradually as the song builds and builds. The harmonies swell, guitar riffs spin off like Telstars, and a marvelous time is had by all. The plot is simple: "Well I woke up this morning / You were on my mind / And you were on my mind . . ." She's got troubles, she's got worries, she's got "wounds to bind" -- but she doesn't bother us with details. She goes to the corner, she comes home again, she walks away her blues. She copes, briskly and cheerfully, probably because of that guy who's on her mind. What's not to love?

88. "Killing Me Softly With His Song" / Roberta Flack (1971)
Coming fresh off of her first big smash hit, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," Flack owned the airwaves for a while with this song, and she deserved to. It came along smack dab in the middle of my coffeehouse intellectual phase -- well, as much of a coffeehouse intellectual as I could be as a high school senior in Indianapolis -- when an arty jazz-soul hit by a black sister with an enormous Afro was just the ticket. It has a great backstory, too: Written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox (composers of the "Happy Days" TV theme song) and singer Lori Lieberman, it was inspired by Leiberman's rapture after watching a pre-"American Pie" Don McLean sing at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. (I suspect that's info I picked up from Casey Kasem's Coast to Coast radio show.) On her own recording, however, Lieberman overemotes; the thing that made this a hit was Roberta Flack's smoky, bell-like voice gliding over a samba beat. I love those overlapping, repeated phrases: "Strumming my pain with his fingers / Singing my life with his words / Killing me softly with his song / Killing me softly / With his song, telling my whole life / With his words, killing me softly / With his song. . . . " She sounds dazed, transported, stunned to her core, the way a girl sometimes is after sitting in the dark, riveted soul-deep by a stranger on stage. We've all been there, ladies.

"Tempted" / Squeeze (1981) I listen now to Squeeze and can't fathom why they never really registered on my radar. It was just this one big hit, but oh, what a sweetie.

90. "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" / John Lennon (1974)
Post-Beatles John Lennon took himself way too seriously -- all that primal scream crap -- it would have driven me right into the arms of Paul McCartney if I hadn't already been firmly snuggled there. I longed for the old playful, funny John to resurface, and he finally did on this 1974 single -- John's only #1 solo hit -- from the Walls and Bridges album. It's telling, I think, that this song came out of John's 18-month-long "lost weekend," when he went off with May Pang to sort himself out. Pang has said that it was inspired by John's habit of channel-surfing late at night, a habit I totally identify with. It rockets along on a high-energy groove, courtesy of Elton John, who contributes backup vocals and a boogie-woogie piano; best of all is the screaming sax, a Bobby Keys special. Studded with a few Lennonesque koans ("don't need a watch to tell the time," "don't need a gun to blow your mind"), it's one long party of a song, bursting with joy and optimism. I love that coaxing boogeying bridge: "Hold me darlin,' come on listen to me / I won't do you no harm / Trust me darlin,' come on listen to me, / Come on listen to me / Come on listen, listen." Whenever this song came on the radio, I'd squeal and turn it up -- and it still never fails to lift my spirits.