Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles.
FAIRPORT CONVENTION – Si Tu Dois Partir / Genesis Hall (Island 6064 1969)
In the period between the end of the sixties and punk, for the serious prog-rock, metal and folk-rock fan, the 45rpm seven inch single became a bit of a joke. Some bands (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd) didn’t bother with them at all. For others, a hit single and a Top of the Pops appearance was a bit of a lark, not to be taken too seriously. Fairport’s cover of a Dylan song, in French, with chairback and milk bottle percussion (with an accident when one fell off the table and smashed left in the final mix) was a surprise hit. It’s not a comedy record, just light-hearted and gleeful.
LEE MORGAN – The Sidewinder / Part 2 (Blue Note 1911 1964)
Jazz artists, too, weren’t generally interested in singles. Most that were released were edits of album tracks aimed squarely at jukeboxes. The ten minute “The Sidewinder” by jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan has become one of the best known post-bop standards, with its funky rhythm and catchilly repetitive central riff. In some ways, it’s one of the foundation stones of jazz-funk, acid jazz, fusion and the rest.
PRINCE – Sign ө the Times / La La La La He He He He (Paisley Park 28399 1987)
Stepping back from his tales of sex and Corvettes, Prince unleashed this unassuming little song that dug into the underbelly of the brash and flash eighties for which he himself was part of a symbolic triumvirate of pop stars, along with Jacko and Madonna, who came to represent the ‘me’ decade. The flipside – AIDS, poverty, the still real threat of nuclear catastrophe (remember Ronnie “let’s bomb Russia” Reagan was still president) were marked out, almost without comment. It’s still his most forceful and thoughtful song.
STEVIE WONDER – Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours / I’m More Than Happy (Tamla 54196 1970)
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” represents the end of phase one of Stevie Wonder’s career when he was still just a cog (albeit a vital one) in the Motown hit factory. As his 21st birthday loomed, he held out for a new contract that would give him unprecedented artistic control – something almost unheard of at Motown – and would pave way for his classic period when he would fuse soul, pop, gospel, electronic music and funk into his own unique and brilliant vision.
TORI AMOS – Silent All These Years / Me and a Gun (East West YZ618 1991)
Out of the flood of singer-songwriters who’ve emerged over the last two decades, Tori Amos remains a singular talent, and the two sides of this single go a long way to explaining why. The first, a lush, beautifully orchestrated, literate piano ballad. The second, a chilling a capella recounting a harrowing rape experience.
CARTER FAMILY – Single Girl, Married Girl / Storms are on the Ocean (Victor 20937 1927)
This proto-feminist tune comparing the lots of the wed and unwed woman has become one of the best-loved, and oft-covered Carter Family tunes. With good reason.
NIRVANA – Sliver / Dive (Sub Pop 72 1990)
NIRVANA – Smells Like Teen Spirit / Even In His Youth (Geffen 19050)
Only a year separates these singles. The first a dipped toe into melodic pop rock, albeit with a lyric recalling a pre-school Kurt being shipped off to his grandparents’, and despite TV and ice cream, just wanting to be in his own home. The second a Pixies parody, and last minute addition to Nevermind, that made him a reluctant global icon.
BEACH BOYS – Sloop John B / You’re So Good To Me (Capitol 5602 1966)
Added to Pet Sounds at Capitol’s insistence, “Sloop John B” doesn’t really fit with the rest of the album, but as a single works just fine. A strange choice of song for a 45, it’s actually a Bahamian song about a wild party that took place on the Nassau waterfront the night that the John B was sunk and was originally entitled “The Wreck of the John B”
ULTRAVOX! – Slow Motion / Dislocation (Island 6454 1978)
Another classic from the Foxx era, and an inspiration from everyone from Gary Numan to Duran Duran. Don’t let that put you off, though.
THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH – Smiling Faces Sometimes / You Got the Love I Need (Gordy 7108 1971)
Less a band, more Norman Whitfield’s own experimental lab rats. The man was even more of a control freak than his boss Berry Gordy, and wanting a group a little less combative and more malleable than the Temptations he ended up with the Undisputed Truth. Many songs would be road tested by the Truth before being handed to the Tempts, but they did at least have one major hit they could truly call their own – this dark, paranoid masterpiece.
PLATTERS – Smoke Gets In Your Eyes / No Matter What You Are (Mercury 71383 1958)
SABRES OF PARADISE – Smokebelch II (entry) / Smokebelch II (exit) (Sabres of Paradise 9 1993)
HOWLIN’ WOLF – Smokestack Lightning / You Can’t Be Beat (Chess 1618 1956)
ROBINS – Smokey Joe’s Café / Just Like a Fool (Spark 122 1955)
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the smoking section. The first a 1933 show tune by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach about blind love, turned into an unparalleled piece of weepy melodrama by the rich tenor of the Platters’ Tony Williams. The Sabres of Paradise’s classic come-down instrumental has graced a million TV soundtracks, but still sounds fresh and sober. Wolf growls and howls his way through a typically apocalyptic blues, whilst the Robins encounter a problem when trying to hit on the girlfriend of a large and borderline psychotic café owner.