Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. Continuing with the Bs.
WILLIAM DEVAUGHN – Be Thankful For What You’ve Got / part 2 (Roxbury 236 1974)
William DeVaughn was a one-hit wonder whose main career was as a draughtsman designing, of all things, sewers. “Be Thankful For What You’ve Got” has become something of an R&B standard – it was covered by Massive Attack on Blue Lines, and was a hit all over again for them.
BOMB THE BASS – Beat Dis / Dub (Mister-Ron 1 1987)
COLDCUT – Beats and Pieces / That Greedy Beat (Ahead of Our Time 1 1987)
Two cut-up and mashed house classics from the Steinski school that were both big hits in 87/88. Both were debut singles too. Tim Simenon aka Bomb the Bass and Coldcut’s careers ran parallel paths for a while. Both signed to major labels and moved into a more chilled out R&B direction. Coldcut proved the more durable act in the end, although they are better known for their production work, DJing, radio shows and record label (Ninja Tune) than they are for their music these days.
GENE VINCENT – Be-Bop-a-Lula / Woman in love (Capitol 3450 1956)
Although he’s enshrined as a rock and roll legend, most people would be hard pressed to name more than two or three Gene Vincent tunes – and his best work was all done in a twelve month period around 1956/57. “Be-Bop-a-Lula” opens itself to parody, but it remains one of the best singles of the era.
ARCON 2 – The Beckoning / Skyland (Reinforced 101 1996)
Arcon 2 was the less than prolific drum and bass producer Noel Ram who’s also issued tracks as Leon Mar, Oil and Torus over the years. “The Beckoning” was one of the very best jungle tracks of the era, eschewing the harder, darker side for something more akin to jazz fusion. The eponymous album comes highly recommended too.
MARVELETTES – Beechwood 4-5789 / Someday Some Way (Tamla 54065 1962)
ISLEY BROTHERS – Behind a Painted Smile / All Because I Love You (Tamla 54175 1968)
No apologies for the number of Tamla-Motown tunes that appear on this list. If anyone perfected the art of the pop single, it was them. “Beechwood 4-5789” comes from a time when the Marvelettes were unquestionably the label’s top girl group, before they were eclipsed by the Supremes and the Vandellas. The Isleys were a bit of an awkward fit at Tamla. They were used to writing and producing their own material, and only hung around for a couple of years. They left a handful of classics. “Behind a Painted Smile” was far more popular in the UK where its high tempo suited the emerging Northern Soul scene.
HUMAN LEAGUE – Being Boiled / Circus of Death (Fast 4 1978)
I was never much of fan of the Human League when they went mainstream. “Being Boiled” had more in common with Cabaret Voltaire and Suicide than it did with the Smash Hits friendly hits of the eighties – a kind of steampunk synth pop.
BAUHAUS – Bela Lugosi’s Dead / Boys (Small Wonder 2 1979)
The track that launched a million Goths. At the time there was nothing quite like it. A nine minute debut single, with a three note bassline, dubby rimshots as beats, scratchy, atonal guitar and Peter Murphy’s ominous Boris Karloff impression. It got a new lease of life when it was featured in the dodgy Catherine Deneuve / David Bowie movie “The Hunger”.
FOUR TOPS – Bernadette / I Got a Feeling (Motown 1104 1967)
If you actually listen closely to the lyrics, this is quite a creepy song of obsession and possessive jealousy. It doesn’t come across that way, of course, ’cause it’s Levi Stubbs – a man who seemed permanently on the edge of heartbreak. There’s a bit near the end where there’s a single note fade before Stubbs kicks in with “Bernadette!”. It’s almost impossible to come in at the right time if you’re singing along – it seems to follow no time signature known to humans.
WAH! HEAT – Better Scream / Joe (Inevitable 1 1980)
The best song ever written about the CIA’s plot to overthrow Fidel Castro by staging the second coming of Christ. Wylie was good in those days – he had the tunes to match his mouth. For a while Wah! Heat were the best band to come out of Liverpool. Ever. Didn’t last too long though – maybe three singles.
BILLY BRAGG – Between the Wars EP (Go Discs EP1 1985)
I said I wasn’t counting EPs, but this was a seven inch, and was more an A side with three B sides than an EP. “Between the Wars” is one of the finest tunes that Billy Bragg has ever written. Like Costello’s “Shipbuilding”, it deals with the fact that a war economy brings full employment. The factories, shipyards and mines have full order books, and prosperity abounds for all, but there is always a price to pay.
BULL MOOSE JACKSON – Big Ten Inch Record / I Needed You (King 4580 1952)
Philip Larkin may have thought that sex started in 1963, but old Bull Moose disproves that. This is a masterpiece of double entendre – he’s talking about a ten inch shellac blues record. What did you think he meant when he sings “I cover her with kisses / and when we’re in a lover’s clinch / she gets all excited /when she begs for my big 10 inch…”?
JONI MITCHELL – Big Yellow Taxi / Woodstock (Reprise 906 1970)
As jaunty a tune about impending environmental catastrophe as you’re ever likely to hear – with a verse about getting dumped at the end for good measure.
SMITHS – Bigmouth Strikes Again / Money Changes Everything (Rough Trade 192 1986)
Sometimes Morrissey’s endless self-loathing can get tiresome. It’s better when there’s a chipper self-deprecatory humour to it, as on this track.
PETER GABRIEL – Biko / Shosholoza (Charisma 370 1980)
In 1977, anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, 30, died as the result of head injuries he received whilst in a police station in Pretoria. The regime tried to argue that they were self inflicted as part of a suicide attempt. It was this institutionalised brutality as much as the racism of the Apartheid regime that provoked such moral outrage around the world. Peter Gabriel’s lament for the man was dark, but unsentimental and trod the fine line between preachiness and liberal handwringing superbly.
SUGARCUBES – Birthday / Icelandic version (One Little Indian 7 1987)
This still sounds extraordinary more than twenty years later. A surreal tale of the friendship between an old man and a little girl (in a time when people wouldn’t immediately jump to the wrong conclusion), it introduced the world to Björk, and in some ways, it introduced the world to Iceland. Certainly, little attention had been paid to the country’s arts since the great Viking sagas of nearly 1000 years ago.