Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. Some more Ls.
LFO – LFO (Leeds Warehouse Mix) / Track 4 (Warp WAP5 1990)
Inspired by Warp’s early bleep techno releases, Gez Varley and Mark Bell put their signature track together for a pittance. It immediately caused an earthquake in dance music, not least because of the ultra-low frequency bass that aimed at the body rather than the ears. But they were smart enough to give it an effective, if simple, melodic structure and the speak-and-spell vocal gimmick that makes it instantly recognisable. Its success bemused mainstream DJs, some of whom seemed to view it as a personal affront. Nearly twenty years on it’s as vital and fresh-sounding as it was the day Varley and Bell handed the tape over to Warp at a Leeds Warehouse rave (hence the title of the mix).
DAVID BOWIE – Life on Mars? / The Man Who Sold the World (RCA 2316 1973)
With Bowie suddenly a megastar, RCA dug out a couple of old tracks from 1971 and 1970 and issued them as a stopgap single. Unlike most stopgap singles, “Life on Mars?” went on to become one of the most enduring tunes of his Ziggy period. It even served as shorthand for the whole decade as the title for the BBC’s celebrated coma timeswitch cop show. And we’re close to answering the question too – maybe not, but there probably used to be.
WALKABOUTS – The Light Will Stay On / Devil’s Road (Dindisc 152 1996)
I’ve cursed the band’s lack of recognition (at least in the English speaking world) before on these pages. In their long career they’ve moved from grunge fellow travellers to America’s Tindersticks and all points in between, covered Nina Simone and Neu! and crafted dozens of brilliant songs. “The Light Will Stay On”, sung with a yearning resignation by Carla Torgerson, is one of their best and best known songs. It’s both heartache and catharsis rolled into one magnificent ballad.
MADONNA – Like a Prayer / Act of Contrition (Sire 27539 1989)
MADONNA – Live to Tell / instrumental (Sire 28717 1986)
Madonna’s swung back and forth from cultural icon to laughing stock over her 25 year career. At the moment she seems to be everyone’s favourite celebrity to take a pop at. She’s not entirely blameless for the situation, but at the end of the day, she’s got a back catalogue to be proud of (and admittedly a lot that would be better be forgotten). “Like a Prayer” courted controversy, and got it, with its ‘black Christ’ video, but the song’s joyous message of faith and love gets through even to a die-hard heathen like me. “Live to Tell” is an eighties record. The fact that it’s swirled with plastic synths and ridiculously ott snare drums is a bit of a give away. Epic pop ballads don’t come much better, though.
BOB DYLAN – Like a Rolling Stone / Gates of Eden (Columbia 43346 1965)
O’JAYS – Lipstick Traces / Think It Over, Baby (Imperial 66102 1965)
Greil Marcus wrote a book about it, so there’s hardly any point in trying to say something original about “Like a Rolling Stone”. He also wrote a book that took its title from the O’Jays song. I read it many years ago, but have completely forgotten it. So much for an iconic piece of music criticism. The song I couldn’t forget. It has a mellow warmth that seems quite out of time with the soul music of its day.
MIGHTY LEMONDROPS – Like an Angel / Something Happens (Dreamworld 5 1985)
The ‘firework act’ is not a new phenomenon, despite what many commentators would have you believe. For those unfamiliar with the term, it describes the career path of an indie band who have a highly praised and successful debut album, a less successful follow-up and then get dropped before their third, spending the rest of the time as the subject of occasional whatever-happened-to pub conversations. The Lemondrops had a brilliant first single on an independent label, signed to a major, released a debut album that cruelly exposed them as having a single idea, and then hurtled quickly to oblivion. Still, “Like an Angel” is like the Bunnymen meets Sonic Youth and is a more than acceptable legacy.
SANDY DENNY – Listen, Listen / Tomorrow is a Long Time (Island 6142 1972)
Time stops when Sandy sings. Smoky, sensual and sad, her voice always seems to be yearning for something lost, something missing. “Listen, Listen” is lustrous and full, but seems to have an aching hole at its heart.
NIGHTCRAWLERS – Little Black Egg / You’re Running Wild (Kapp 709 1965)
The garage band explosion tat followed the British Invasion in the US, largely fell into two groups. First, the testosterone-fueled, snotty teens whose legacy went back beyond their obvious idols, the Stones, to the likes of the Kingsmen, the Wailers, Link Wray, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Then there were the mumsy Beatle wannabes. It makes the legendary Nuggets box a collection of Dennis the Menaces and Softie Walters. The Nightcrawlers don’t fit into either category. “Little Black Egg” is a charming, but somehow sad ditty with a Byrdsian feel. In the great garage scrap, they were the shy misfits.
TELEVISION – Little Johnny Jewel / part 2 (Ork 81975 1975)
Television were jazz-heads more than rock fans. Verlaine and Lloyd swapped solos like Coltrane and Miles, with no sense of the look-at-me egotism of your average rock guitar solo. Recorded two years before their masterpiece Marquee Moon, “Little Johnny Jewel” shows a band with everything in place, patiently waiting for an opportunity to show the world what they could do. It has the riff a recurring theme, Verlaine’s quirky startled-poet vocals, and solos that complement rather than compete or draw attention to themselves. The recording’s a bit rough and ready, but that’s not a problem.
PRINCE – Little Red Corvette / All the Critics Luv U in New York (Warners 29746 1983)
It may be a cliché, but the idea of cars as manhood substitutes is grounded in reality. I’m only five foot nothing in my socks, but look at my flashy Chevy! Still, he makes the car as sex symbol pretty plausible in this song. He’s bonkers, but you gotta luv him.
ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JAZZ BAND – Livery Stable Blues / Dixieland Jass Band One Step (Victor 18255 1917)
Bandleader Nick La Rocca may have been a racist, an egomaniac, a tireless self-publicist and an all-round knobhead, but you can’t disguise the fact that this was the first genuine jazz record. It opened the doors to a cultural revolution. They weren’t the first New Orleans jazz band, and they sure weren’t the best (although clarinetist Larry Shields was a widely acknowledged master of his instrument), but compared to the other records of the day, this was a blast of pure energy. It predates electrical recording, so the music does sound compressed and fuzzy, but it still sounds good, even now.
STEVIE WONDER – Living for the City / Visions (Tamla 54242 1973)
Stevie Wonder has always had two sides to his music – the personal and the socio-political. Both have a deep vein of spirituality running through them, that can sometimes be uplifting, and sometimes corny as hell. For the most part, though, when he tackled political and social themes, he did so with a measured, optimistic voice. It wasn’t often that he let the anger through. He did on “Living for the City”, a scathing attack on the cycle of poverty, racism and injustice encountered by working class African-Americans throughout the nation’s inner cities.