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.


The Modesto Kid said...

I think "Come Dancing" is my favorite Kinks song to hear covered. My favorite performance of it was by a subway guitarist I heard back in 97 or so. (Also for some reason I always get it mixed up with "Ob-la-di" -- not sure why, they are not all that similar.)

Holly A Hughes said...

Interesting comment -- I always think of this as a song only Ray could sing, it's so personal. And yet, I can see why it would be a tempting song to cover, with that beckoning refrain. (Wish I'd seen that guy in the subway!).

I'm really intrigued by your comparison to Ob-La-Di. Ob-La-Di does have the same bouncy rhythm and patter lyrics, though the tempo's much slower. But the two refrains are almost perfect counterpoints -- listen to the horns in the background of Come Dancing, aren't they practically playing the Ob-La-Di chorus?

Vivalabeat said...

I was reading this post thinking I couldn't pick a favorite song because they're all nice although I don't listen to them very often. Then I saw No. 50. ;) I love this song, it's one of my most favorite singalongs, I love Ray singing it now (although he skips a bit about 'the day they knocked down the palais'), I just love it. Well, you know. ;)

hot stix said...

YES!! Great list today...this is the era where I started buying my own records (or tapes, as it usually turned out). I remember falling in love with the Kinks because of the video for 'Come Dancing' took me a few more years before I realized that it was the same band who did 'All Day and All of the Night'....gimme a break, I was only 8!

wwolfe said...

I love your thoughts in the longer "Jack and Diane" write-up. Especially this: "Is there anything more American than disappointed dreams?" That's a honey of a line. Plus, I'm glad someone else dug that Bobby Brooks reference as much as me - I think I became a mellencamp fan when I hear that perfect little lyrical detail.

Bob in CT said...

Finally an appearance by The Kinks, and a mention that there's more to come (not that I ever thought you wouldn't have multiple Kinks songs on the 100 Best list). Now the question is how many other Kinks songs will join "Come Dancing" in the top 50?

"Moondance" is just one part of one of my favorite albums of all time. The album is a rarity where every single song is a great listen. Too many people only know the title track, but every cut is a winner, including gems like "Caravan", "And It Stoned Me" and "Into The Mystic".

"Someday, Someway" is an excellent choice by the vastly underrated Marshall Crenshaw. He should have had more big hits over his career, but he's still producing great music to this day.

My favorite Dire Straits album is "Making Movies", particularly side one, but your choice of "Sultans Of Swing" is perfect for this best singles list.

Holly A Hughes said...

I realize now that I've been craving chili dogs ever since I re-read my "Jack and Diane" write-up. And y'know, even if I did get a chili dog, it'd be disappointing because it wasn't from Tastee-Freeze.

Indeed, how many Kinks songs will surface further up the list? We still have several days to find out...