Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles.
THE BYRDS – So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star / Everybody’s Been Burned (Columbia 43987 1967)
They had a bit of a nerve poking fun at the Monkees when just a couple of years earlier only McGuinn played on their own debut single. Still it’s a fun piece of satire. The flip is one of the best things the Byrds ever did, a dark but hopeful Crosby ballad.
BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE – Soldier Blue / Moratorium (RCA 2081 1971)
Ralph Nelson’s 1970 western Soldier Blue was unlike any other before it. Shockingly violent and, for once, the good guys were definitely not the US Cavalry. Based on a true massacre that happened in 1864, it was also as much about Mai Lai and the Vietnam War. Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree herself, invested the song with both anger and bitter sorrow and yet it is just as much a celebration of the natural wonders of a country and her own ancestry.
DUKE ELLINGTON & HIS ORCHESTRA – Solitude / Mood Indigo (Columbia 35427 1940)
Ivie Anderson is one of the most underrated jazz vocalists, and she shines on these two Ellington ballads, both of which have become standards crooned by virtually every nightclub and torch singer since.
PETER GABRIEL – Solsbury Hill / Moribund the Burgemeister (Charisma 301 1977)
Fresh out of Genesis, Peter Gabriel launched his solo career with this, still one of his most poignant songs. Solsbury Hill itself overlooks Bath in Somerset, and the song captures that very special pleasure of sitting somewhere still and peaceful and watching the lights and bustle of the city night below.
JESUS & MARY CHAIN – Some Candy Talking / Psychocandy / Hit (Blanco Y Negro 19 1986)
By 1986 the screech of feedback had largely been excised from the Mary Chain’s records, replaced by cavernous echo. With it went a lot of the vigour and excitement, but that didn’t matter so much on songs as good as this, with its booming Spectorish sound.
LEE HAZLEWOOD & NANCY SINATRA – Some Velvet Morning / Oh Lonesome Me (Reprise 651 1968)
How trippy is this? Essentially it sounds like a verse taken from two completely different songs intercut. Hazlewood’s bit is dark and rumbling like Johnny Cash meets Link Wray while Sinatra’s is hippy-dippy flower child stuff, well away with the faeries. It’s like a cocktail of quaaludes and acid.
JEFFERSON AIRPLANE – Somebody to Love / She Has Funny Cars (RCA 9140 1967)
When Grace Slick joined the Jefferson Airplane she brought this song along from her previous band the Great Society, written by her brother-in-law Darby Slick. The Airplane version is tighter and punchier with a chorus so strident it’s almost accusatory.
EDDIE COCHRAN – Somethin’ Else / Boll Weevil Song (Liberty 55203 1959)
STANDELLS – Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White / Why Don’t You Hurt Me? (Tower 257 1966)
By 1959, most of the first generation rock and rollers seemed to be mired in gloopy ballads and sounding little different to the pre-rock generation of singers like Johhny Ray and Frankie Vaughan. Eddie Cochran, on the other hand, still had a raw spirit about him: still sounded like someone a teenaged girl would think twice about introducing to her mother. That’s why he was so popular with the punks nearly two decades later, along with his friend Gene Vincent. The Standells, too, had that snotty fuck you attitude. But as they say in the song “You think those guys in the white collars are better than I am baby? / Then flake off!” True blue-collar working class pride…from a bunch of LA rich kids. Oh, well.
BLUR – Song 2 / Get out of the Cities (Food 93 1997)
The indignation this caused from my Pavement loving underground rock friends always made me laugh. It’s noisy and fun. What’s not to like?
LEFTFIELD – Song of Life / mixes (Hard Hands 002 1992)
A nine minute progressive house monster that pretty much defined the genre and still stands as one of the best tracks of its kind.
THIS MORTAL COIL – Song to the Siren / 16 Days (4AD 310 1983)
Originally This Mortal Coil were convened as a one-off project for this single, but its success was such that they ran to three albums, each with a constantly changing cast of performers. Liz Fraser hadn’t really tackled a proper lyrical song before, her voice more used as another instrument in the Cocteau Twins. But she gives Tim Buckley’s classic song a ghostly innocence that is absolutely captivating. The backing is so subtle that she’s almost on her own, but there’s no sign of nerves – she’s absolutely lost in the song. An amazing performance.
JOSEF K – Sorry For Laughing / Revelation (Postcard 814 1981)
Famously a band who seemed happier the flatter their records sounded; a band who scrapped their first album because it sounded too warm and produced and instead put out something tinny and stark. Paul Haig’s bored drone of a voice isn’t the most appealing instrument, but it gives this song a dry sarcasm. And it’s pretty much the touchstone record for the C86 generation.
LAVERN BAKER – Soul on Fire / How Can You Leave (Atlantic 1004 1953)
She’s better known for appealing, but ultimately disposable pop ditties like “Tweedle Dee” and “Jim Dandy”, but Lavern Baker was happiest singing the blues. If anything, though, “Soul on Fire” is deep southern soul a decade too early.
DAVID BOWIE – Sound and Vision / A New Career in a New Town (RCA 905 1977)
A long long way from Ziggy in just four years. “Sound and Vision” was the introduction to Bowie’s leftfield masterpiece Low and about as traditionally pop as the album got. Which isn’t very.
SIMON & GARFUNKEL – The Sound of Silence / We’ve Got a Groovy Thing Goin’ On (Columbia 43396 1965)
Dylan had gone electric, the Byrds were having big hits doing jangly folk-rock. It made sense for Simon & Garfunkel to add drums and rock arrangements. Unfortunately they weren’t working together at the time, and Paul Simon was touring folk clubs in Europe armed only with his trusty acoustic. Producer Tom Wilson stepped in anyway, gave the track a new “with it” backing and Columbia watched another of their folk acts have a huge hit. Simon might not have liked it, but he could hardly complain at the new levels of exposure, and the duo quickly reconvened.
MEMBERS – Sound of the Suburbs / Handling the Big Jets (Virgin 242 1979)
They came from around ten miles away from me, and lyrically this song captured perfectly the tedium of North Surrey / East Berkshire Sundays. Nothing else to do but kick a football around with your mates. Nothing on telly, nothing on the radio (except David Rodigan’s Sunday show on Radio London) and school next day.