Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. Back after the Christmas / New Year hiatus with the first of the final 14 parts.
JOHNNY ‘GUITAR’ WATSON – Space Guitar / Half Pint-a-Whiskey (Federal 1954)
Amazing before-its-time instrumental rock. I wrote about it here
DAVID BOWIE – Space Oddity / Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (Philips 1969)
DAVID BOWIE – Starman / Sufragette City (RCA 1972)
In which Major Tom gets his mind blown cosmically by the sight of the blue planet from far above to the consternation of the ground control crew. Filled with Meek-ish guitar effects and spacey mellotron, this was and remains a work of genius. By 1972, Bowie had more or less invented glam rock, but was still indulging in his space opera fantasies. The hero of “Starman”, is an alien who fears that his presence might seriously freak out us feeble-minded earthings. In some ways, that’s more or less the plot for The Man Who Fell to Earth.
BEN E KING – Spanish Harlem / First Taste of Love (Atco 1960)
BEN E KING – Stand By Me / On the Horizon (Atco 1961)
Both King and his former group the Drifters had a top notch team behind them at the turn of the sixties with Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, Gerry Goffin, Carole King and Phil Spector all involved at some point. “Spanish Harlem” is a Latin-tinged vehicle for Ben’s extraordinarily pure tenor. “Stand By Me” can be taken as a simple stand-by-your-man song, or more widely, a civil rights’ call for unity. Both songs are undisputed classics.
ELASTIK BAND – Spazz / Paper Mache (Atco 1967)
Almost certainly the most politically incorrect record on this list. Its lyrics basically consist of playground level bullying taunts: “You wanna sit down when you know some clown’s gonna try and pull away your chair / So you stand and stand, stand and stand till, man, you can’t stand any longer / Hey! You know you shouldn’t have never sat down! / That’s right, Uh huh / I said get off of the floor, Get off of the floor, boy / People gonna think, yes they’re gonna think, People gonna, people gonna think you’re SPAZZ!“. It’s not big or clever or even particularly funny. But musically it’s raw as fuck, and makes the Sex Pistols look like well-mannered mummies’ boys in comparison.
CADILLACS – Speedo / Let Me Explain (Josie 1957)
Lyrically, boastful nonsense. Musically a joyous whip around the world of tailfins, soda fountains and poodle skirts.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS HOT FIVE – St. James’ Infirmary / Save It Pretty Mama (Okeh 1928)
A jolly song about finding your girl laid out on a mortuary slab. Armstrong was instrumental in making the song the familiar standard that it is today, and it’s still the definitive version, with the mournful Crescent City brass giving it that distinctly eerie tone. The song’s origins go way back, though, with the title supposedly derived from a 16th century London hospital for lepers.
MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT – Stack O’Lee Blues / Candy Man (Okeh 1928)
The 1895 murder of labourer Billy Lyons by the pimp Stagger Lee Shelton in St Louis was just another pointless killing that barely achieved much attention at the time. And yet, somehow, this particular murder became the basis of one of the most widely recorded songs of all time, one that exists in almost as many different versions as there are recordings of it. Of all the versions, Hurt’s is probably the best. It has all the basic elements of the story, but doesn’t ham it up, or go into histrionics. It’s more like a straight piece of reportage, with his stunning twelve string playing providing all the backing that’s needed. The flip, “Candy Man”, is probably Hurt’s second most famous song, full of quiet swagger. Not bad for a first record.
SLY & THE FAMILY STONE – Stand / I Want to Take You Higher (Epic 1969)
While the Family Stone were more renowned for mixing psychedelic rock with soul, “Stand” is effectively a simple Gospel-influenced invocation to stand up and be counted.
FOUR TOPS – Standing in the Shadows of Love / Since You’ve Been Gone (Motown 1966)
FOUR TOPS – Still Water (Love) / Still Water (Peace) (Motown 1970)
It was apt that the film about the Motown backing musicians the Funk Brothers was called Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Not only does it perfectly sum up their place as the company’s unsung heroes, but the song it puns on is a fine example of their art. Levi Stubbs had the most amazing vocal ability to express heartbreak in such a dramatic way that it sounded paradoxically uplifting, but without the music providing the perfect foil, it could have either come across as flat or overblown. But they always got it just right. “Still Water” is much more laid back, with guest Marv Tarplin of the Miracles providing a guitar line as distinctive as the vocal hook.
DISCHARGE – State Violence, State Control / Doom’s Day (Clay 1982)
At the time, the 2nd gen punk movement was derided by nearly everyone except its adherents. Crass were accepted, more for their ideology than their music, even though they were much more than just noisy 1234 merchants. Discharge had a huge cult following, but were pretty much ignored outside of it. And yet they are now rightly lauded as one of the most influential British bands of the last thirty years, having a huge impact on the US hardcore movement, and then even more so on the likes of Slayer, Metallica and everyone else that followed. I always liked them – the politics may have been a little simplistic, but were by and large spot on. And the records were just so bloody exciting.
LORRAINE ELLISON – Stay With Me / I Got My Baby Back (Warner Brothers 1966)
Who? You may ask. How that question should ever be asked is a mystery to me – with a voice like hers, Ellison should be a household name. But she’s only really known for this one record. Once heard, though, never forgotten. This is soul music at an almost Wagnerian scale, with Ellison’s gritty soprano running the gamut of emotions from quiet reflection, to screaming despair. If I was forced to choose my favourite single of all time, it would most likely be this.
SPOOKY – Stereo / Can’t Remember / Do Not Adjust Your Set / Mono (Generic 1995)
It’s an EP – I’m cheating again. But sod it, this is wonderful. Link.
BETH ORTON – Stolen Car / I Love How You Love Me / Precious Maybe (Heavenly 1999)
Since her first two albums, Beth’s gone more down the singer-songwriter with acoustic guitar route. I prefer her early post-club epics. “Stolen Car” is kind of halfway between the two. Just a great song that showcases her warm, but slightly rough-edged voice at its best.
SUPREMES – Stoned Love / Shine on Me (Motown 1970)
SUPREMES – Stop in the Name of Love / I’m in Love Again (Motown 1965)
I don’t think there was much dip in quality after Diana Ross left the Supremes, it’s just that times had changed and the era of the all-conquering Motown girl group was drawing to a close by then. “Stop in the Name of Love” has all the classic mid sixties ingredients of a dramatic chorus, infectious backbeat and the rest, but that kind of thing simply wasn’t in vogue in the following decade. “Stoned Love” showed that the formula was still capable of producing brilliant results despite the fact that Mary Wilson was the sole survivor of the classic trio.
BILLIE HOLIDAY – Strange Fruit / Fine and Mellow (Commodore 1939)
Her regular label Columbia wouldn’t touch this with a bargepole, but Billie Holiday was allowed to record this for the tiny Commodore imprint. Written by a Jewish, socialist northerner, the lyrics couldn’t have been more touching even if they came from the pen of a victim’s relative. This is a song about the aftermath of a lynching, and as such it is full of anger and despair. But Holiday gives it a great dignity. This is not unchanneled rage, but a fiercely proud performance. The haunting imagery, once with you, never goes away, though.