Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. All the O’s.
LAURIE ANDERSON – O Superman / Walk the Dog (Warner Brothers 17870 1981)
Every now and then a piece of music from leftfield – be it jazz, experimental rock, electronica or the classical avant-garde – breaks into the mainstream without hype, but simply because people like it. “O Superman” is definitely one of those. Eight minutes of looped voice, half-sung, half-spoken commentary and a few dashes of synth for colour. Anderson soon disappeared back into the world of installations, galleries and new music recitals, but I like to think she took a few open minded people with her.
COLOURBOX – The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme / Philip Glass (4AD 605 1986)
Of course it wasn’t official. But I doubt if anybody remembers the tune that was (if, indeed, there was one). It’s got a synthetic brassy bounce to it that still sounds good. The flip was a pastiche of Glassy serialism.
CHICANE – Offshore / mix (Xtravaganza 91000 1996)
“Offshore” has probably soundtracked a million TV shows where the producer wants some chill-out ambience for a tracking shot of summer beaches. Despite this, and the endless remixes and reissues, it still retains its blissed out charm. Too much of this kind of stuff is like aural morphine, but there is a lightness of touch at work here.
CRICKETS – Oh Boy / Not Fade Away (Brunswick 55035 1957)
Due to complicated contractual wrangles dating back to 1956, Buddy Holly had two concurrent record labels during the last two years of his short life. Brunswick had the Crickets, and Coral the stuff recorded under his own name. I’m sure most people who know the songs very well wouldn’t be able to say which were which. I’m damn sure I couldn’t.
CHI-LITES – Oh Girl / Being in Love (Brunswick 55471 1972)
I’ve waxed lyrical about seriously under-rated Chicago vocal group the Chi-lites quite often in this series. They were the kings of seventies sweet soul, but had a political dimension too. That’s not present on “Oh Girl”, a beautiful, plaintive ballad on which Eugene Record worries himself needlessly about what would happen if his woman left him. His friends think he’s too dependent, but he’s in too deep.
CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG – Ohio / Find the Cost of Freedom (Atlantic 2740 1970)
Neil Young’s response to the brutal killing of Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard has become one of the great protest songs. Written, recorded and released within a month of the murders (for that’s what they undoubtedly were, despite the official whitewash), it was a fitting monument to the victims, and has ensured that those particular killings have not been forgotten.
PALACE BROTHERS – Ohio River Boat Song / Drinking Woman (Drag City 25 1992)
Will Oldham’s first single is still one of the finest songs he’s written. It sounds like a woozy, rural drinking song, but with a wistful melancholy to it.
DRIFTERS – On Broadway / Let the Music Play (Atlantic 2182 1963)
Here’s what I wrote about this in my (unpublished) Atlantic book:
The momentum gained from “Up On The Roof” was not lost, and “On Broadway” was a second successive top ten hit for the Drifters. Although Leiber and Stoller were given writing credits for some small melodic and lyrical changes that they made before the group recorded the song, “On Broadway’s” main authors were Barry Mann (born February 9th 1939 in Brooklyn) and Cynthia Weil (born October 18th 1940 in New York), two Brill Building stalwarts who must have seen many a hopeful singer arrive in New York with dreams of fame and fortune only to have them cruelly dashed. Their song captures the essence of that situation perfectly. The first two lines “They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway / They say there’s always magic in the air” contrast starkly with the reality that Rudy Lewis’ young hopeful finds on the ground: “But when you’re walking down the street / And you ain’t had enough to eat / The glitter rubs right off and you’re nowhere.” And again: “But how’re you gonna make some time / When all you got is one thin dime / And one thin dime won’t even shine your shoes”. The third verse, though, shows that his determination and his faith remain undimmed despite the setbacks and the doubts of others. “But no they’re wrong, I know they are / ’Cause I can play this here guitar / And I won’t quit till I’m a star on Broadway”. In the coda this determination seems to change into a kind of desperate self-delusion as the character’s claims become more and more fanciful “I’ll be a big, big, big man / I’ll have my name in lights / Everybody, everybody’s gonna know me, yeah” as if he doesn’t really believe it himself any more, but has to keep saying it to ward off the harsh reality of his situation. A great record is made even better by Phil Spector’s inspired surf-like guitar break. Spector was only at the session by chance – he was spotted by producers Leiber and Stoller and persuaded to join in.
Neil Young recorded a version of the song on his Freedom album (Reprise 25899 1989) which was much darker in tone, with the squalor emphasised and the dreams of the young hopeful virtually ridiculed. As an aside, when Genesis recorded their 1974 concept album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (Charisma 101), Ben E King was drafted in to sing the final two words of the title track in the style of the Drifters hit, despite the fact that he didn’t sing it originally! (to be fair, the singer that did, Rudy Lewis, had been dead ten years by then).
“On Broadway” was cut at Tommy Evans’ final Drifters session as a member of the band, although he would occasionally provide some uncredited vocal overdubs (as did Dock Green) as a favour to manager George Treadwell. The new look quartet was now completed by a former member of the Links, Johnny Terry (two other members of the Links, James ‘Toy’ Walton and Roosevelt ‘Tippie’ Hubbard went on to join a post-Atlantic incarnation of the Clovers).
ADVERTS – One Chord Wonders / Quickstep (Stiff 13 1977)
In 1977, there were those groups who could play, and those who couldn’t. Some of the latter (like the Slits) used this to their advantage, others simply bashed out endless facsimile punk thrashes. The Adverts were barely competent as musicians, but they had a gifted songwriter in TV Smith, and he fashioned some classic tunes, while restrained by the band’s ability to actually perform them. “One Chord Wonders” is pretty much their manifesto, and it still sounds fantastic.
CLOVERS – One Mint Julep / Middle of the Night (Atlantic 963 1952)
These cocktails can be deceptive. One glass and you find yourself with a wife and a bunch of greetin bairns. Classic proto-doowop from Atlantic.
COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA – One O’Clock Jump / John’s Idea (Decca 1363 1937)
The late thirties was the age of swing, with the Dorsey brothers, Harry James, Glenn Miller and countless others ruling the roost. You’ll find them all in the jazz section at your local HMV, but it’s hard to see how they were jazz. It’s an art form that prizes improvisation on a theme, and there was no room for improvisation in these tightly marshalled, huge orchestras. This isn’t a criticism. When you have that many players, discipline has to be key. But things get to sound a bit stiff. The Basie Orchestra arrived on the scene from Kansas City like a breath of fresh air. Rhythmically tight, the musicians were jazz players through and through and weren’t afraid to cut loose. The result is something that sounds much freer and organic and, well, jazzy I guess. “One O’Clock Jump” was both the band’s calling card and signature tune.
ANOTHER PRETTY FACE – Only Heroes Live Forever / Heaven Gets Closer Every Day (Chicken Jazz 1 1980)
Another Pretty Face were Mike Scott’s band before the Waterboys. By the time they released this, their third single, they’d moved away from the power-pop that characterised their previous efforts into something approaching the ‘big music’ that he became famous for, although in a much more rough-hewn form. “Heaven Gets Closer” is the better of the two songs, a gruelling tale of pre-invasion fears and post-invasion reality as observed from a place of rural idyll far from the capital.
ROY ORBISON – Only the Lonely / Here Comes That Song Again (Monument 421 1960)
Loneliness, misery and continually failing relationships – he could be Morrissey’s godfather. But Roy had a voice of wonder, and you could easily forgive his constant gloom when it sounded this good.
PLATTERS – Only You / Bark, Battle and Ball (Mercury 70633 1955)
They only got a deal because their manager Buck Ram, who also managed the Penguins, stuck to his guns and told Mercury “if you want one of my bands, you have to take them both”. The Penguins never had another hit after “Earth Angel”, but the Platters went on to be the biggest vocal group of the fifties. They were masters (and mistress) of the slow, atmospheric ballad in the tradition of forebears such as the Ink Spots and the Orioles. “Only You” is a masterpiece of still, quiet melancholy.
DUSTY FLETCHER – Open the Door Richard / part 2 (National 4012 1947)
Probably the only record on this list that’s actually a vaudeville comedy turn. Fletcher had been doing his routine for years on stage – the bewildered drunk arriving home without a key and trying to raise his flatmate to let him in. In fact, he’d pretty much retired by 1947. Others had co-opted it (Louis Jordan, Jack McVea and Count Basie had all done versions), so National persuaded him to show them how it was done. Punctuated by the chorus coming in every now and then, Fletcher’s version was far funnier than any of the others, and was spread out over both sides of the record to allow him time to fully work his routine. Some people complain that it painted a negative portrayal of African-Americans, but as others have rightly pointed out, that’s like saying Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges were negative stereotypes of white people.
DARRELL BANKS – Open the Door to Your Heart / Our Love (Is in the Pocket ) (Revilot 201 1966)
Banks, like so many of his contemporaries, nailed one absolute masterpiece and then spent the rest of his career trying to follow it up. “Open the Door to Your Heart” is an urgent, pleading tune that has all the ingredients of a great soul dancer – ie rhythm and soul!
LIQUID LIQUID – Optimo / The Cavern / Scraper / Out (99 Records 11 1983)
But you’re not supposed to be allowing EPs, you cry. It’s my blog! Liquid Liquid never did an album, and never really did a conventional single either. Their entire legacy rests on fewer than a handful of EPs. But they were masters of what became known as punk-funk. The clipped rhythms and loose, deep bass hold most of their tunes together. Any other ingredients are sparingly added. “Optimo” and “Cavern” are probably their best known tracks – the former inspiring a legendary club night, the latter instantly familiar to anyone who’s heard Melle Mel’s “White Lines”.
BUZZCOCKS – Orgasm Addict / Whatever Happened To? (United Artists 36316 1977)
United Artists must have been thrilled when they were presented this as the Buzzcocks’ first major label single. Not that it wasn’t a terrific tune – it was – but it had no hope of being played on daytime radio because of its subject, a sexaholic who’s been “making out with schoolkids, winos and heads of state”.
CHARLIE PARKER – Ornithology / A Night in Tunisia (Dial 1002 1946)
Compared to virtually every other jazz great, Charlie Parker’s discography is a complete mess. Although he lived into the era when the LP had become the medium of choice for jazz, he recorded very little specifically for the longer format. Most of his output was in the form of three minute blasts to be put out on 78s. Dial didn’t help by releasing a confusing, relentless stream of records with the same take often appearing several times. And the fidelity often left a lot to be desired. I’ve only listed one Parker single, and I’ve chosen this one because a) it’s relatively well known, b) the tunes are among the best he did and c) it’s great.
PRODIGY – Out of Space / Ruff In The Jungle Bizness (XL 35 1992)
Prodigy meets Max Romeo in a proto-jungle hardcore stylee. Unquestionably their finest moment.
WIRE – Outdoor Miner / Practice Makes Perfect (Harvest 5172 1979)
A love song to a silverfish? I hate those wriggly, scurrying, triangular little beasts. Found a couple in my bathroom recently. Yuk! “Outdoor Miner” was Wire proving they could play pop, albeit by their rules, at a time when they were considered all angular, dry and arty. The single even has a lovely piano arpeggio added in order to stretch the LP version’s 105 seconds to something a little more acceptably single-length. Lovely.
GANG OF FOUR – Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time / He’d Send In the Army (Zonophone 1 1980)
Well, privatization didn’t exactly help matters, did it.