Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. Into the last 500.
BOBBY DARIN – Mack the Knife / Was There a Call for Me? (Atco 6147 1959)
I remember the first time I heard the original arrangement from Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, many years after I knew this one. It’s hypnotic and cyclic, but sure don’t swing. Louis Armstrong added that element, and Bobby Darin gave it the full Vegas treatment, which is an odd thing to do to a song about a brutal murderer. Considering Darin’s profile at the time was pure teenybop fodder, it took considerable cojones for Atlantic to go with it as a single. Their faith was repaid with a mega-hit on both sides of the ocean. It’s hard to imagine how out-of-the-box it must have seemed for Darin to go from “Splish Splash” to this. Rather like Westlife doing Brel.
STONE ROSES – Made of Stone / Going Down (Silvertone 2 1989)
Twenty years on, the over-inflated claims on the brilliance of a good, if patchy, album stick in the craw. Especially coming from journalists who were probably 5 when it came out. The Stone Roses were overhyped then and they’re overhyped now. Admittedly, Oasis came along and were fawned over ten times as much for music about a thousandth as interesting. Anyway, “Made of Stone” is a jolly good pop single, with a snappy chorus. Ian Brown even hits the right notes in the right order most of the time.
WALKER BROTHERS – Make It Easy On Yourself / But I Do (Philips 1428 1965)
Honestly, there’s no law against loving Tilt and the Drift and loving these three minute melodramas too. The fact that they are sung by the same person, doesn’t mean that you have to compare them. “Clara” is not meant to be a pop song any more than “Make It Easy On Yourself” is meant to be a piece of sound art. Sometimes you want to bypass the intellect, and go for a good old-fashioned tearjerker in the grand tradition of being dumped with nobility intact.
COCKNEY REBEL – Make Me Smile / Another Journey (EMI 2263 1975)
A dead heat for me whether Steve Harley’s original or the Wedding Present’s frenetic cover gets the prize. I’ll go for the former since he wrote it. It’s perky, a bit Beatle-y, neither of which are particularly high recommendations in my book. But it’s hard not to love it – great acoustic guitar solo, too. Ever heard the band’s song “Sebastian”? That’s just mad; totally overblown but pure genius.
FLEETWOOD MAC – Man of the World / Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight (Immediate 80 1969)
Fleetwood Mac in their original British blues incarnation. Obviously. Though I’d love to hear Stevie Nicks have a go at the B side. Ever since I was a moody adolescent I’ve found “Man of the World” to be almost unbearably poignant. It’s one of those reflective, deeply personal songs like Jackson Browne’s “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate” and the Smiths’ “Back to the Old House” that reveal glimpses of hidden anguish without any self-pity. It never fails to bring me out in goosebumps.
NENEH CHERRY – Manchild / mix (Circa 30 1989)
Raw Like Sushi was by far the most successful British hip hop album in its day, giving the genre a much needed shot of down to earth feminism. Whilst most of it was celebratory or angry, there was also this tender balladesque song that focused on male vulnerability. Her point being that female empowerment doesn’t have to go hand in hand with male emasculation. Everybody should respect themselves whatever their gender or social status.
MUDDY WATERS – Mannish Boy / Young Fashioned Ways (Chess 1602 1955)
I don’t think anybody could accuse of Muddy Waters lacking self-respect. This is male pride and prowess in its rawest form. Given the era that it comes from, the ‘boy’ in the title and his repeated declamations that he’s a maaayun (he pronounces it something like that), has to be alluding to the practice of white southern bigots of calling their black neighbours ‘boy’, whatever their age.
TINDERSTICKS – Marbles / Joe Stumble / For Those… / Benn (Tippy Toe 2 1993)
Tindersticks arrived fully formed. There was no period of growing up, they just appeared as weathered, emotionally battered middle aged men when they were still in their twenties. Stuart Staples’ lovelorn mutter always divides opinion. I think that it couldn’t be more suited to the music. If he’d been classically trained to sing from the chest and with clear diction, he wouldn’t be half the singer he is. The only problem, though, is that sometimes it requires a lot of concentration to hear the words. And they’re always worth hearing. “Marbles” is like a modernist poem, free from rhyme but with a beautiful rhythm to the language. It’s dream-like, alluding to a ménage à troi that’s never quite spelled out and that culminates in some quite shocking violence. “Before he knew, pushed, falling down curved stairs / Our message lost and our plans forgotten / Surrounded by men in suits, and black shiny shoes / Moving in, kicking, stamping /Bland expressionless faces / A handful of marbles thrown in a dustbin”
PROFESSOR LONGHAIR – Mardi Gras in New Orleans / She Walks Right In (Atlantic 897 1950)
John Peel often mentioned that he was a sucker for songs with whistling in them. Me too. Old Roy Byrd aka Professor Longhair was a mean piano player. He could beat out a steady dance rhythm, a blues melody and growl in his Louisiana drawl and absolutely lift the roof off the juke joints. “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” is almost the definitive crescent city record. A bit of jazz, a bit of blues, a bit of Cajun and a lot of fun. And he whistles too.
TELEVISION – Marquee Moon / mono version (Elektra 12252 1977)
Punk rock – two chords, two minutes, get it off your chest – who cares if you can play. Along comes “Marquee Moon” – ten minutes, more than half of which are guitar solos, and it’s damn obvious that they can play. And Television were welcomed with open arms. Weird. Actually, not really. This is a long way from prog-rock or cock-rock. It’s a jazz record, pure and simple. Admittedly it’s much more tightly structured (I’ve seen the reformed group play it twice live, and Verlaine do it once with his solo band, and there’s some improvisation involved, but not that much), but essentially Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd play off each other like Miles and Coltrane. You could easily score it for trumpet and sax, and it would be as effective. Let’s not forget Billy and Fred who lay down a rock solid rhythm for the other two to launch from. A marvelous piece of music that sounds just as good each time I play it.
CHUCK BERRY – Maybellene / Wee Wee Hours (Chess 1604 1955)
Louis Jordan once said that rock ‘n’ roll is just white boys playing rhythm & blues. Chuck Berry didn’t agree, and one listen to “Maybellene” will show you why. The rhythms are the same, the basic structure is the same, but the guitar work is a long way from the blues and that’s what makes it rock. “Maybellene” was a bit of an old banger of a car, so I guess it didn’t take Chuck too long to put her out to grass after this was a hit.
ROBERT JOHNSON – Me and the Devil Blues / Little Queen of Spades (Vocalion 4108 1937)
I’m not sure if the myth about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads in order to be able to play the guitar like no one else could was something that was widely believed during his life, or whether it was cooked up after his early death. He did lend plenty of ammo to those who preferred the legend to the truth: “Crossroads Blues”, of course, and this. If you look beyond the title and the first verse about Satan knocking on his door, it’s actually a nasty little song about wife-beating and murder. If a contemporary hip hop star came out with lines like “And I’m going to beat my woman / ‘Til I get satisfied“, I don’t think it would go unnoticed. The thing is with Johnson, you never know quite where he’s coming from. Is she the devil? Is he the devil? And is it him or her who doesn’t care where they’re buried because “my old evil spirit / Can get a Greyhound bus and ride“?
DE LA SOUL – Me, Myself & I / Brain Washed Follower (Tommy Boy 926 1989)
Any of the singles taken from Three Feet High and Rising could be on the list. Some of them are.
FAIRPORT CONVENTION – Meet on the Ledge / Throwaway Street Puzzle (Island 6047 1968)
Richard Thompson was a teenager when he wrote this, and he was already gloomily contemplating his own mortality. I used to think it was about suicide, but it’s not. The ledge is the moment of death, sure, but it’s the end of the road of life, not something you willingly hurl yourself off. Some don’t make it that far and are “blown off this mountain with the wind“. Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews’ time in the band only overlapped for a brief moment, but their voices worked really well together, as this song proves.
MARVIN GAYE – Mercy Mercy Me / Sad Tomorrows (Tamla 54207 1971)
What’s Going On? didn’t really offer any answers, but it did at least ask the right questions – war, the growing gap between rich and poor, the abandonment of the underclasses and the destruction of the environment. But it was a pop record, not a political manifesto. It’s good when musicians engage with the world around them, rather than just offer escape. Environmentalism was a pretty new concept at the dawn of the seventies (it wasn’t even called that then). Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring hadn’t even been around a decade yet. So it was important that songs like “Mercy Mercy Me”, “After the Goldrush” and “Big Yellow Taxi” existed. It helps that it’s a luscious song, too, of course.
NICK CAVE – The Mercy Seat / New Day (Mute 52 1988)
Seven minutes long, the last five of which are a repetitive mantra that combines the protagonist’s continual plea of innocence with a step by step description of the execution process – the mercy seat, of course, being the electric chair. Then right at the end there’s an admission of guilt as a blink-and-you’d-miss-it afterthought. It’s a pummeling sequence where he seems to almost revel in the details of his death. Johnny Cash did a marvelous version – his weary, age-cracked voice contrasting starkly with Cave’s cocky young punk. He sounds broken, where Cave sounds defiant.
GRANDMASTER FLASH & THE FURIOUS FIVE – The Message / instrumental (Sugar Hill 584 1982)
No less than the moment when rap grew up. Previously, topics seem to be exclusively the size of the rapper’s cock, the size of his wallet, his prowess on the mic, or just exhortations to party. “The Message” was about something real – kids the from the slums throwing their lives away in a vain pursuit of the good life. It’s direct and simple, even if the rapping style of Melle Mel and chums sounds as quaint and outmoded as a Shakespeare soliloquy. At the time, it was jaw-dropping. Even now, it’s lost none of its power.
ORCHESTRAL MANOUEVRES IN THE DARK – Messages / Taking Sides Again (Dindisc 15 1980)
If 1982 vintage rap sounds dated, what about 30 year old electropop? Who cares. It’s a great tune. I loved that weird shoulder dance that Andy McCluskey used to do on Top of the Pops. I would practice it with my crappy bass guitar in my room, but I could never quite get it off pat.