Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. More Ps? Yes please.
PIXIES – Planet of Sound / Build High (4AD 1008 1991)
They’re touring this autumn. £30+ a pop for tickets to see them run through all the old hits yet again. Thanks, but no thanks, especially since Kim Deal has pretty much nixed any hopes of an album of new material. Trompe Le Monde got a fairly lukewarm reception when it came out, but I thought it was much more consistent than Bossanova. It was trailed as the Pixies metal album when it came out, which may have put a lot of people off since metal was about as fashionable as Daniel O’Donnell at the time. There is definitely a metal aspect to the glorious surf-thrash of “Planet of Sound”. It certainly proved that they’d lost none of their ferocity.
AFRIKA BAMBAATAA – Planet Rock / instrumental (Tommy Boy 823 1982)
It’s probably patronising and inaccurate to say that this was the record that introduced black America to Kraftwerk, but it was definitely instrumental in kick-starting the whole electro scene where rap and hip hop cross-fed with European electronic music. The tune sounds a little dated now, but that’s due more to the rapping (which, in fairness, was an art form in its infancy) than the beats or the tune.
BJÖRK & DAVID ARNOLD – Play Dead / instrumental (Island 573 1993)
David Arnold’s kind of accepted now as the natural successor to John Barry, but I must admit I didn’t have a clue who he was when this came out. Who’s this bloke who’s uppity enough to demand a co-credit on a Björk tune? I thought. It was part of the soundtrack of a fairly ropey Brit-flick called The Young Americans, and sounds like a Bond theme.
LONNIE JOHNSON – Playing with the Strings / Stompin’ ’em Along Slow (Okeh 8558 1928)
A lot of Lonnie Johnson’s vocal blues records of the twenties and thirties were pretty generic and unimaginative. I’ve always got the impression that he just wasn’t that interested in country blues. He was much better when he duetted with Victoria Spivey. Best of all, though, were the instrumental guitar records he made solo and with Eddie Lang. “Playing with the Strings” is one of my favourites of his – the dexterity and speed of the finger-work is astonishing.
THE MONKEES – Pleasant Valley Sunday / Words (Colgems 1007 1967)
How does a self-confessed Beatle-phobe square that up with a love of what was essentially a manufactured band put together for a TV show in a blatant attempt at recreating Beatlemania? I dunno – maybe they just had better tunes. Maybe it was Nesmith’s woolly hat. You can’t deny that “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is a top pop tune, and it’s got a satirical edge to it that the Beatles could never match. Their idea of satire was whining about how much tax they had to pay.
MARVELETTES – Please Mr Postman / So Long Baby (Tamla 54046 1961)
Quiz question. What film (90s or early 2000s) had a scene where the hero (I think) is going into a building, and a trio of neighbourhood girls break into this song? There’s no prizes, it’s just something that has been bugging me. A classic Motown pure pop song. I love the bit where Gladys Horton breaks into just about the worst Jamaican accent you’ve ever heard!
JAMES BROWN – Please Please Please / Why Do You Do Me? (Federal 12258 1956)
What a way to begin a five decade recording career. Even as a callow 23 year old making his recording debut, the melodrama and the showmanship were already there, fully formed. A soul masterpiece.
PINK FLOYD – Point Me at the Sky / Careful With That Axe Eugene (Columbia 8511 1968)
Lost in the cracks of history between the Barrett era and the cosmic space-rock Floydian era were a couple of singles that are largely forgotten. “It Would Be So Nice” perhaps deservedly so, but “Point Me at the Sky” is an awesome song. It was written by Gilmour and Waters, but is very much in the Barrett vein. Perhaps that’s why it’s been effectively disowned by both authors. As far as I know, it’s not (officially) available on any CD. It’s a psych-pop nugget with a gushing trip of a chorus that concerns (in the first part) the adventures of an aviator called Henry McLean and (in the second part) the nightmare of over-population. The lyrics may be a little self-consciously Barrett-like with a touch of trademark Waters misanthropy, but they’re quite witty “And if you survive till two thousand and five / I hope you’re exceedingly thin / For if you are stout you will have to breathe out / While the people around you breathe in“.
JUNIOR MURVIN – Police and Thieves / version (Island 6316 1976)
There were loads of tunes that used the same rhythm track as “Police and Thieves”. Jah Lion’s “Soldier and Police War” is a personal favourite, but the original is still the best. I’ve always found it curious that so many great reggae singers sang falsetto. As well as Murvin, there was also the fantastic Cedric Myton of the Congos. It’s weird how it works with reggae, but sounds ridiculous with rock.
T POWER – Police State / Prospect For Democracy / Radio Start Point (Fade at Will) / Synthesis (Sound of the Underground TPOW001 1995)
Breaking my own rules of inclusion, “Police State” was virtually an album with the four tracks running to nearly 40 minutes. The lead track (all 14 minutes of it) used samples of George Lucas’s first ever film THX 1138 to create a lush but dystopian epic of drum and bass as widescreen art. One of the things that felt so liberating about jungle in the mid nineties is that it could incorporate everything from ragga to minimalism to Kosmische Musik.
ORANGE JUICE – Poor Old Soul / part 2 (Postcard 813 1981)
Before Polydor polished them up and sucked much of the charm out of them, Orange Juice represented everything that was good about indie pop. This was music that was catchy, witty and exciting. It wasn’t loaded with angst or pretension, it was simply joyous and danceable.
SLAM – Positive Education / Intensities In-Ten-Cities (Soma 8 1993)
Orde Meikle and Stuart McMillan’s signature tune is one of those rare dance tracks that sounds as contemporary in 2009 as it did in 1993. Straddling the house / techno divide, it has an irresistible drive to it that sounds as fresh today as when it was minted.
BOB DYLAN – Positively Fourth Street / From a Buick Six (Columbia 43389 1965)
I don’t think anyone has ever been able to do spite in quite the same class as Dylan. From “Ballad of a Thin Man” to “Idiot Wind”, when he gets the hump with someone the onslaught is relentless. The pay-off verse is priceless: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes / Then you’d know what a drag it is to see you”
JAMES CARR – Pouring Water On a Drowning Man / Forgetting You (Goldwax 311 1966)
James Carr, in my mind the greatest southern soul singer of them all, was plagued by mental health issues throughout his life. Perhaps that’s why the hurt came through in his ballads so strongly. It seemed totally real. “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man” – never has a title so aptly summed up the mood of a song.
BERTHA ‘CHIPPIE’ HILL – Pratt City Blues / Pleadin’ for the Blues (Okeh 8420 1926)
I’m a huge fan of Dashiell Hammett – in particular his early Continental Op stories set in the dark days of prohibition era America. When I first heard “Pratt City Blues” on Paul Oliver’s groundbreaking The Story of the Blues double album, it immediately evoked the shady world of speakeasies, moonshine and corruption. Chippie Hill isn’t one of the better known blues singers of the twenties, but in my mind she was one of the best at portraying the down at heel and out of luck.