Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. All the Js today.
SCOTT WALKER – Jackie / The Plague (Philips 1628 1967)
For someone whose French is minimal, listening to Jacques Brel is a frustrating experience. His phlegmish melodramatics aside, the lyrics are key to his songs. Instead, you have to rely on the often bowdlerised English translations. Of all the English language singers who covered Brel, Scott Walker came the closest to nailing the drama and pathos of the originals. “Jackie” is almost a love song to Brel’s ego, albeit laced with plenty of irony, and such was a strange choice for a single – particularly for a first solo single following the demise of the Walker Brothers. But Walker was making a statement. This ain’t pop no more, but art. That may seem a bit precious, but he delivered on the promise with four of the greatest albums of the late sixties.
VAN MORRISON – Jackie Wilson Said / You’ve Got the Power (Warner bothers 7616 1972)
For someone legendarily grumpy, Van Morrison could spin some vibrant and gleeful tunes. “Jackie Wilson Said” is a generous tribute to the great singer that’s upbeat and soulful.
JOHN BARRY – The James Bond Theme / The Blacksmith Blues (Columbia 4898 1962)
This must be the most instantly recognisable movie theme of all time. Nearly fifty years on, it still oozes mystery and drama. More remarkably, it sounds resolutely contemporary. Beyond the iconic introduction, there’s a damn nifty jazz tune in there too.
TOM WAITS – Jersey Girl / Heart Attack and Vine (Asylum 47077 1980)
Tom Waits’ last album for Asylum, Heart Attack and Vine, was probably the closest he ever got (or is ever likely to get) to making a mainstream rock album. The guitar isn’t often to the fore in Waits’ music, but it was through much of this record. “Jersey Girl” is a yearning love song that’s so Springsteenesque that the man himself covered it.
BJÖRK – Joga / mixes (One Little Indian 202 1997)
I’m pretty sure “Joga” only came out in the UK as a triple CD box set with a VHS, and on promo. Elsewhere it got a standard release. I’ve always found One Little Indian’s bewildering. There seem to be a ridiculous numbers of limited editions, promos, white labels, mixes and live albums issued in every format imaginable. It seems a bit cynical to me. To the song, though: it’s one of the highlights of Homogenic, her most consistent album to date. The dramatic volatility of Iceland’s geology runs through this tune like a mineral seam.
CHUCK BERRY – Johnny B Goode / Around and Around (Chess 1691 1958)
Probably the ultimate rock and roll record. Not only that, “Johnny B Goode” lay down the blueprint for rock music from the Stones to punk and beyond.
DUKE ELLINGTON & HIS ORCHESTRA – Jungle Nights in Harlem / Old Man Blues (Victor 23022 1930)
It’s not generally considered A list Ellington, but “Jungle Nights in Harlem” has always been one of my favourites of his. My dad had a budget RCA Camden album of Ellington at the Cotton Club (something out of character from the usual easy listening stuff that he owned) which featured this among other better known sides. This was the tune I returned to most. I guess it’s a Charleston – it’s certainly red hot rhythmically, with an unforgettable horn melody.
AZTEC CAMERA – Just Like Gold / We Could Send Letters (Postcard 813 1981)
Roddy Frame was something daft like fourteen years old when he recorded his first Postcard 45. “Just Like Gold” is good, but the B side is awesome. It’s world weary and nostalgic and yet upbeat and bright at the same time, with some terrific acoustic guitar work. I don’t think he ever wrote a song that matched it.
JESUS & MARY CHAIN – Just Like Honey / Head (Blanco Y Negro 17 1985)
For about a year they were the most amazing group on the planet. The screeching feedback and Spector-ish echo of their songs was a marriage made in heaven. The tunes were straight out of the Beach Boys / girl group era that predated the more knowing and less innocent music that followed on from the British invasion. “Just Like Honey” was the band’s fourth single, and took the tempo down a few notches, replacing the squeal with a big beefy wall-of-sound production. In effect, it was the sign of things to come. The second LP Darklands was mostly in this vein, and lacked the noisy thrills of the debut. They never recaptured the magic.
TEMPTATIONS – Just My Imagination / You Make Your Own Heaven and Hell Right Here On Earth (Gordy 7105 1971)
Smack in the middle of their psychedelic soul period, the Temptations made a brief return to the lush balladry that they’d started out with. “Just My Imagination” has a smooth sweet soul sound, that is as dreamy as the protagonist’s fantasies about the girl who passes by his window every day.
PRISONAIRES – Just Walkin’ In The Rain / Baby Please (Sun 186 1953)
As their name suggests, the Prisonaires were a group of prisoners incarcerated in Nashville’s Tennessee State Penitentiary. Three of the five were lifers including lead singer Johnny Bragg who’d been indicted for six counts of rape in 1943 when aged 17. Radio producer Joe Calloway came across them when doing a news item from the prison, and alerted Sam Phillips at Sun. The reflective, haunting “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”, written by Bragg, was a moderate hit for the group. When covered by Johnny Ray it became one of the biggest selling records of the fifties.