Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. Last load of Ls.
Halfway through now. 500 down, 500 to go. As I mentioned in the first part, this little undertaking stemmed from a response I compiled to a similar list by Dave Marsh getting on for ten years ago. I rediscovered it, tweaked it, and began to unleash it on the world. As far as my mini sketches about each record go, I do a little background checking, but I deliberately don’t reacquaint myself with the tunes before I scribble my nonsense. I figure that if I can’t remember a piece of music that clearly, then it can’t be that great in the first place. Of course, the opposite is definitely not true, as anyone who gets really annoying tunes stuck in their head will know! But after pressing the publish button, I often rush straight to the collection to dig out some of the tunes that I’ve written about. I hope that some of you do too.
PRIMAL SCREAM – Loaded / I’m Losing More Than I Ever Had (Creation 70 1990)
In which Andy Weatherall took an average jangly indie band by the scruff of the neck, shook out the tweeness and stripped them down to their underpants.. “Loaded” still has a lazy, narcotic charm. Unfortunately the band thought that this made them the next Stones, and have proceeded to churn out mountains of guff since, with the occasional unpolished gem sometimes turning up.
LORI & THE CHAMELEONS – The Lonely Spy / Peru (Korova 5 1980)
One of the great could-have-been bands. It was a project by Dave Balfe and Bill Drummond that only ever produced four songs spread over two singles. Each was a little belter. All were mini stories (exotic romances or Le Carré like thrillers, set in places like Japan or India) crammed into three minute pop tunes, all with a noir-ish atmosphere. Think Goldfrapp’s first album for a rough comparison. The Moscow set “The Lonely Spy” has more than a bit of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold about its ultimately tragic plot.
LEFTY FRIZZELL – Long Black Veil / Knock Again True Love (Columbia 41384 1959)
This is one of a few songs that I first heard on Nick Cave’s Kicking Against the Pricks album. I think his cover is equally good, but wasn’t a single. Lefty’s was. It’s a country weepie with all the essential ingredients – murder, adultery and honour. The protagonist sings from beyond the grave about how he was tried and executed for a murder he didn’t commit – his alibi being that he was sleeping with his best friend’s wife at the time. But he feels that to use it would be to betray her, so he silently accepts his fate.
HANK WILLIAMS – The Lost Highway / You’re Gonna Change (MGM 10506 1949)
Why do people who don’t generally like country music revere Hank Williams? I think it’s down to the poetic simplicity of his songs. There’s no gloss, no veneer, no melodramatics. He could be funny (“Move It On Over”), but he could also express existential despair succinctly and simply. “Lost Highway” is beyond grief and bereft of self-pity. It is a man detached from life, so weighed down by regrets, that he just drifts along, a lost soul with no thoughts for the future. It comes across as a warning to others not to be led astray, although his sins are never spelled out. It sounds that it was written as thinly disguised autobiography – especially in the light of the fate that awaited him.
SISTER SLEDGE – Lost in Music / Thinking of You (Cotillion 45001 1979)
I was in my mid teens, a huge fan of Joy Division, Magazine, the Pop Group etc. But I also had a (then) pretty unfashionable love of soul music. “Lost in Music” was pretty unique in the disco canon in that it was the lyrics that spoke to me more than the tune or the rhythm. I totally understood Kathy Sledge and how it was to be obsessed with music, to be able to relate to it more than with any other art form – or person. You get more grounded as you grow older, and fortunately more socially proficient! But my love of music is still a massive part of who I am, and I still regard this as a kind of personal theme tune.
KINGSMEN – Louie Louie / Haunted Castle (Wand 143 1963)
One of the things that’s so great about pop music in particular, is that sometimes a record that is so wrong on every level can end up as a masterpiece. The Kingsmen were an early garage band, dominated by their organ. This rough and ready live recording of an old Richard Berry song features a mumbling singer who seems to have forgotten most of the words, sounds drunk and is utterly unintelligible. The band can barely play either. But its appeal lies in that raw, primitive ineptitude. The riff is dumb and repetitive, but irresistible.
SUPREMES – Love Child / Will This Be The Day (Motown 1135 1968)
DIANA ROSS – Love Hangover / Kiss Me Now (Motown 1392 1976)
Early Supremes songs had simple themes, even if they were poetic and lyrically clever – girl meets boy, girl loses boy or girl gets boy back. “Love Child” moved into the realms of corny melodrama. Beneath that, there is a pretty conservative moral message. What shames the protagonist isn’t her past of extreme poverty, but the fact that she was born out of wedlock, and the song is essentially a plea to her lover to do the decent thing before they do anything that could make her baby suffer the same immoral fate. It’s all a bit Moral Majority. Eight years on, Diana the diva is fully formed. “Love Hangover” starts off seductive and slow but then breaks into a breathless, funky disco. It’s just about the sexiest disco tune this side of Donna Summer.
PET SHOP BOYS – Love Comes Quickly / That’s My Impression (Parlophone 6116 1986)
There was an almost Roman decadence about the eighties. While the outposts of the Empire (ie the north) were suffering grinding poverty, unemployment, and the destruction of their entire industrial and social fabric, the imperial capital was a sea of excess – yuppies, cocktail bars, sports cars and wads of cash being flashed around. It’s ironic that bands the Pet Shop Boys who came to soundtrack this orgy of consumption, were from the north and politically the antithesis of everything that was going on. They were fully aware of their odd position, and both celebrated and satirised the ‘me decade’. Ultimately, they just had a knack for producing lush, slightly melancholy but classic pop songs. Like this one.
ROBERT JOHNSON – Love in Vain Blues / Preachin’ Blues (Vocalion 4630 1937)
In the officially authorised version of the history of rock ‘n’ roll, Robert Johnson is cast unquestionably as the ‘greatest blues artist of all time’. I hate these sort of sweeping statements that make subjective opinions on art stand on par with unarguable facts such as water is wet. Johnson’s total output of 29 songs aren’t all classics by any stretch of the imagination. Some, like “Terraplane Blues” and “Phonograph Blues” are exactly the same tune with different words. You could argue that the reason that he was raised above all others was a) because he was dead, and his life was mysterious, short and came to a dramatic end and b) John Hammond issued loads of his tunes in 1961 on album, making them available to hungry blues fans. I’m not saying he wasn’t great, just that sweeping statements need to be tempered by a bit of perspective. “Love in Vain” (to come back to the subject) is one of his most beautiful songs. It’s weary, mournful and sad – I guess the essence of the blues.
RUTH ETTING – Love Me or Leave Me / I’m Bringing a Red Red Rose (Columbia 1680 1928)
There was an HBO mini series a few years back called Carnivale that I stumbled upon quite by accident on DVD. Set in the height of the great Depression, it followed the progress of a travelling carny, but was focused on the eternal battle between good and evil, represented by a young carnival worker with healing powers and a demonic preacher. Definitely worth watching if you get the chance. To the point. One record that was a recurring motif was this song by Ruth Etting. It was often heard playing on a scratchy 78. Ghostly, and sad, the words “I’d rather be lonely than happy with somebody else” seemed particularly haunting. I downloaded the tune when I’d tracked down who it was by (it’s out of copyright, so I wasn’t being naughty). It’s captivating. Ruth Etting was a stage musical actress and sang the song in the play Makin’ Whoopee. When released in 1928, it was a huge hit. Many people will know the song through Nina Simone’s version. I’ll have to confess I’ve never heard that one. Can’t imagine it’s better than the original.
CLOVERS – Love Potion #9 / Stay Awhile (United Artists 180 1959)
After three hitless years, Atlantic dropped the Clovers, only for the group to bounce back one final time with this little comic gem. With his sex life little more than a memory, our hero goes to see a gypsy who gives him the titular love potion. The effects are a little stronger than he expected, and he lands in trouble when he grabs a cop and kisses him. It’s silly but sprightly. Something the Clovers had done well in their earlier Atlantic days before they were given ever more gloopy and embarrassing ballads to sing. I was to be a brief coda to their career, unfortunately.
TEDDY PENDERGRASS – Love TKO / I Just Called to Say (Philadelphia International 93116 1980)
Once the voice of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass went solo and became the Godfather of eighties soul crooners like Alexander O’Neal and Luther Vandross. I never really liked that stuff – too glossy for me. But “Love TKO” is both sumptuous and soulful. Oh, and miserable too. It’s a typical song about being dumped, but Pendergrass conveys the pain, and the production has an almost noir-ish late night feel. It has more in common with Sinatra’s classic Capitol collections of unadulterated gloom than it does with synthetic eighties soul.
O’JAYS – Love Train / Who Am I? (Philadelphia International 3524 1973)
Trains play a big role in soul music, and also in Gospel. I guess it stems from the great migrations of African Americans from the plantations of the south to northern cities like St Louis, Chicago and Detroit in the first half of the twentieth century. “People Get Ready” by the Impressions uses the train as a metaphor for the favourite old Gospel topic of the Israelites exodus, something that stikes a very obvious chord of recognition. “Love Train” is a secular take on the same concept, and a fabulous uplifting track to boot.
JOY DIVISION – Love Will Tear Us Apart / These Days (Factory 23 1980)
Some songs just are. To try and explain them, is to somehow drain them of their power. I don’t think it’s Joy Division’s greatest song. It also crops up frequently in all sorts of parts of the media. I rarely play it, but then I don’t need to – I know it note for note.
EMMETT MILLER – Lovesick Blues / Big Bad Bill (Okeh 40465 1925)
Nick Tosches’ book Where the Dead Voices Gather is a superb piece of music archaeology, biography and polemic rolled into one. The central figure is a vaudevillian and blackface comedian called Emmett Miller who recorded a couple of dozen 78s over a fifteen year period. They range from seriously unfunny skits on black characters that are quite shocking in their racism, to prehistoric country croons. Tosches makes strong, often controversial, arguments about the role of minstrelsy in the half century or so following the American Civil War, but also strong arguments for Miller’s role in the evolution of country music. On that latter score, “Lovesick Blues” is exhibit A, a bruised yodel that clearly predates Jimmie Rodgers. It’s a gateway to a past that we can never truly comprehend.