Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. There are a lot beginning with I. Here’s the first batch.
EMRY ARTHUR – I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow / Down in the Tennessee Valley (Vocalion 5208 1928)
The song is probably best known these days from the soundtrack of the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Emry Arthur’s version is my favourite. He was a Kentuckyian bluegrass singer, songwriter and guitarist who lost a finger in a hunting accident. Like many musicians of the era, he faded into obscurity during the Depression and made his last recordings for Decca in 1935.
SIMON & GARFUNKEL – I Am a Rock / Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall (Columbia 43617 1966)
“I Am a Rock” is a great song about emotional self-containment. “I have my books and my poetry to protect me; / I am shielded in my armour, / Hiding in my room, safe within my womb. / I touch no one and no one touches me”. Of course, it is merely the delusional self-protection of a man hurt in love, and now recoiling to a place of emotional safety. How tempting, though, to avoid the pain that love can bring.
GUIDED BY VOICES – I Am a Scientist / The Curse of the Black Ass Buffalo (Scat 38 1994)
I think most people agree that Bee Thousand was Robert Pollard’s masterpiece. “I Am a Scientist” is one of the album’s stand-out songs. It’s a ditty that uses the metaphors of scientist, journalist and pharmacist to explore Pollard’s need to communicate his feelings through the medium of music: “I am a pharmacist / Prescriptions I will fill you / Potions, pills and medicines / To ease your painful lives / I am a lost soul / I shoot myself with rock & roll / The hole I dig is bottomless / But nothing else can set me free”
SHANGRI-LAS – I Can Never Go Home Anymore / Bull Dog (Red Bird 43 1965)
Girl falls for boy. Mum disapproves. Girl runs away from home. Mum dies of a broken heart. Girl is distraught. Nobody could articulate teenage heartbreak quite as crushingly as the Shangri-las. Listen to this with dry eyes, and you’ve got no heart.
THE WHO – I Can See For Miles / Someone’s Coming (Track 604011 1967)
Townshend’s predilection for song cycles, rock operas and the like never convinced me (Quadrophenia aside). When he concentrated his craft into standalone songs, the results could be quite magnificent. “I Can See For Miles” is an acid rock masterpiece, albeit with slightly messianic overtones (the seeds for Tommy, perhaps). Keith Moon never sounded better, either.
THE MISUNDERSTOOD – I Can Take You To The Sun / Who Do You Love? (Fontana 777 1966)
The Misunderstood’s recorded legacy is tiny. It’s a pity, because “I Can Take You to the Sun” is probably the greatest advocation of mind expansion from an era full of coded references to hallucinogens. Running from soaring, highly amplified slide guitar to a gentle flamenco-like coda, the song crams a lot into three minutes. The final stanza is full of pity and disappointment felt by the acid prosletyzer aimed at those who mock the creed. “Well I speak of love but you do not see / cause words are words and they mean nothing more / with half a mind you laugh at me / cause I speak of colours you’ve never seen before / You’ve existed in a lie, that will some day show / I can take you to the Sun, to the Sun, / but you don’t want to go”. The last two lines fade into echo, as if the singer is disappearing into his own consciousness. It’s a song that is boldly effervescent, but also psychologically fragile. Very much like the acid experience.
TEMPTATIONS – I Can’t Get Next To You / Running Away (Gordy 7093 1969)
Between 1968 and 1973, the Temptations couldn’t put a foot wrong. “I Can’t Get Next To You” is a typically brazen and funky Norman Whitfield production. The protagonist boasts of his superhuman prowess, whilst lamenting the one thing he can’t do – win the woman he loves’ affection. It’s a brilliantly executed conceit, and uses all five voices of the band like a Greek chorus.
FOUR TOPS – I Can’t Help Myself / Sad Souvenirs (Motown 1076 1965)
Even when he was upbeat and relatively lucky in love, Levi Stubbs couldn’t help sounding like heartbreak was just a heartbeat away. Classic Motown from the Four Tops’ golden era.
WILLIE MABON – I Don’t Know / Worry Blues (Chess 1531 1952)
“She said, ‘You shouldn’t say that’ / I say, ‘What did I say to make you mad this time, baby?‘”. It’s the way Mabon sarcastically puts across that last line that always makes me smile. You can hear him rolling his eyes in frustration at his woman’s irrationality. She may have a point, of course, since he’s threatened to chuck her out or even poison her! But that makes his incredulity all the more funny. And yes, I know that’s wicked, but the song isn’t meant to be taken seriously.
GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS – I Don’t Want to Do Wrong / Is There a Place? (Soul 35083 1971)
One of the universal fears of the soldier away from home has always been the arrival of the dreaded “Dear John” letter. Even though her man’s absence isn’t explicitly explained, this was the era of the Vietnam war and thousands of young wives and girlfriends were left at home, not knowing whether they’d ever see their loved ones again. Inevitably, many yielded to temptation. Gladys Knight articulates this brilliantly. She’s emotionally torn between a new lover, and the guilt of abandoning a man who’s far from home. You can see it from her point of view, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
MARY WELLS – I Don’t Want to Take a Chance / I’m So Sorry (Motown 1011 1961)
Mary Wells was Motown’s first superstar. She was also the first singer to jump ship, a move that proved disastrous for her career. She died of cancer aged just 49. “I Don’t Want to Take A Chance” was one of her first hits for the label, a sweet and slightly coy song about being reluctant to jump into a new love affair, having been burned by the last one.
WILLIAM BELL – I Forgot To Be Your Lover / Bring the Curtain Down (Stax 15 1968)
This is a beautiful and tender love song. In soul, it’s so often the case that the singer only sees the lack of attention he or she gave to their lover when it’s too late and they’ve gone. Things haven’t gone that far yet for Bell, but he realises that he’s been a lot less than perfect and wants to make amends. You can’t help believing that he really is genuinely sorry. It would be a hard hearted woman who couldn’t forgive him.
UNCLE TUPELO – I Got Drunk / Sin City (Rockville 6055 1990)
The first single from Belleville’s finest sons is a song about drinking that is refreshingly free from maudlin self-pity and sentimentally. The town is boring. Life is boring. What else is there to do but sit in a bar all night? “I got drunk and I fell down”. That’s pretty direct and matter-of-fact.
ELECTRIC PRUNES – I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night / Luvin’ (Reprise 532 1966)
Everybody assumed it was about a bad acid trip, of course. But just because of those spooky psych guitars (and one of the most amazing intros ever committed to vinyl), and the obvious hallucinogenic allusions, it’s simply about being haunted by the (imagined) ghost of a former lover. But what a beautiful piece of twisted, mind-squelching music it is.
SUPREMES – I Hear a Symphony / Who Could Ever Doubt My Love (Motown 1083 1965)
This is one of those songs whose key changes keep on taking it up to higher and higher levels of euphoria. It’s pop at its most carefree and joyous.
GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS – I Heard It Through the Grapevine / It’s Time to Go Now (Soul 35039 1967)
MARVIN GAYE – I Heard It Through the Grapevine / You’re What’s Happening (Tamla 54176 1968)
The first version of “Grapevine” was recorded by the Miracles but wasn’t deemed fit for release. Gaye’s was the second, orchestrated and produced by Norman Whitfield. Again, Berry Gordy thought it wasn’t worth issuing. The third version by Gladys Knight and the Pips was issued, and was a big hit in 1967. It’s much more direct and uptempo than Gaye’s reading, almost sounding like a different song. Marvin’s take was finally issued on the 1968 album In the Groove. DJs noticed it, and started playing it to death – much more, in fact, than the album’s first single “You” which barely made the top 40. Eventually, Gordy bowed to the inevitable, and the result was a number one at the end of 1968. Dave Marsh (who provided the inspiration to do this series) rated it as the best single of all time. That’s maybe a little over the top. But there is no question that it was one of Gaye’s finest vocal performances, and the arrangement added a near perfect air of suspicion and fear to proceedings.