The Guardian nicked my idea! Well, kinda.
Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. ‘Alf of the aitches..
LONNIE JOHNSON & BLIND WILLIE DUNN – Handful of Riffs / Bullfrog Moan (Okeh 8695 1929)
This dates back to a time when having a racial mix of artists on the same record was taboo. Thus white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang adopted a ‘blues name’ alias for the music that he recorded with Lonnie Johnson. Both players were adept in a variety of styles – Lang had played jazz with Joe Venuti and even recorded a Rachmaninov prelude for solo guitar while Johnson had played both jazz and blues. “Handful of Riffs” is typical of their guitar duets, both soulful and technically innovative. They influenced a long line of players from John Fahey to Richard Bishop.
JOHNNY BRISTOL – Hang On in There Baby / Take Care of You For Me (MGM 14715 1974)
Johnny Bristol was in his mid thirties by the time his singing career took off. His past decade and a half had been spent as a producer and songwriter at Motown and CBS. “Hang On in There Baby” is a passionate piece of Philly proto-disco.
JIMMY CLIFF – The Harder They Come / Many Rivers To Cross (Island 6139 1972)
24 year old Jimmy Cliff made his acting debut as Ivanhoe Martin, the hero of Perry Henzell’s 1972 film of Jamaican ghetto life, The Harder They Come. His self-penned title track has become one of the most covered reggae tunes over the years, but none matches the intensity of the original.
BOB & EARL – The Harlem Shuffle / I’ll Keep Running Back (Marc 104 1963)
The early sixties saw a plethora of dance crazes, each inspiring hundreds of records. “The Harlem Shuffle” was something altogether more gritty and real than the endless exhortations to do the twist / the monkey / the mashed potato etc etc. Bobby Byrd (aka Bobby Day) and Earl Nelson had both been members of doowop act the Hollywood Flames in the fifties, but by the time this came out, Nelson was working with a different Bob – Bobby Relf.
BUZZCOCKS – Harmony in My Head / Something’s Gone Wrong Again (United Artists 36541 1979)
This isn’t generally considered to be one of the band’s best singles, but it remains one of my favourites. It’s a rare lead vocal outing for Steve Diggle, whose gruff bark is in stark contrast to Pete Shelley’s romantic pleadings. It gives the song a darker, angrier, more urgent feel – but it still has a fantastic singalong chorus.
ISLEY BROTHERS – Harvest for the World / part 2 (T Neck 2261 1976)
In the mid seventies, the Isleys were usually more concerned with sex and dancing than politics, but “Harvest for the World” is a heartfelt plea for a redistribution of wealth and an end to hunger that could have come straight out of the Curtis Mayfield songbook.
CHI-LITES – Have You Seen Her? / Yes I’m Ready (Brunswick 55462 1971)
Bloke mooches around at the movies and the local park, swaps jokes with the neighbourhood kids, but inside he’s a broken man because the girl he loves has flown the coop. It’s the classic seventies soul heartbreak scenario, with talkie intro and outro. A “Tracks of My Tears” for the afro and flares generation – and an absolute beauty of a song.
BODINES – Heard It All / Clear (Creation 30 1986)
Glossop’s finest have long since faded into obscurity, which is a shame. They only made one album, and that’s long out of print, but they did a clutch of great singles. This is indie pop at its purest – urgent, melodic and with an upbeat melancholy. Most of the Creation acts of the time were obsessed with the sixties – the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Byrds – but the Bodines owed more to Postcard records. LTM or somebody should get on the case and do a proper anthology of the band. They don’t deserve to be forgotten.
TOM WAITS – The Heart of Saturday Night / Diamonds On My Windshield (Asylum 45262 1975)
“The Heart of Saturday Night” is typical of Tom Waits’ early days as a romantic barfly. It’s a bruised, but hopeful, song about the joy of the weekend – the anticipation, the pool halls, the waitresses. On the album, whose title it shares, it closes the first side. The second finishes with its companion piece, “The Ghosts of Saturday Night”, a reflective, glazed early morning peek at the aftermath which is even better.
ELVIS PRESLEY – Heartbreak Hotel / I Was the One (RCA 6420 1956)
This is one of those songs that is so familiar to everyone, that few probably really listen to it properly. What makes it so great is the empty space – the ghostly echoes that evoke a world of limbo between the living and the dead. It’s regularly cited as a key rock and roll tune, but it’s more a slice of American Gothic that owes as much to Edgar Allen Poe as it does to rhythm and blues.
MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS – Heat Wave / A Love Like Yours (Gordy 7022 1963)
Just one of the reasons why the Vandellas were always the greatest of Motown’s girl groups – and by extension, the greatest of the whole genre. It encapsulates the sweat and the joy of a carefree summer night.
DEEP BLUE – The Helicopter Tune / mixes (Moving Shadow 41 1993)
Deep Blue was Sean O’Keefe, a member of 2 Bad Mice and, more recently, Black Rain with Rob Haigh of Omni Trio. “The Helicopter Tune” was a landmark record in the history of jungle. It ditched the rude bwoy / ragga stylings of much of the early stuff in favour of a clinical, cyclical rhythm that had very little in the way of adornment. It’s one of the few records of the era that still sounds like it’s been beamed in from the future.
THEM – Here Comes the Night / All For Myself (Decca 12094 1965)
While it doesn’t have the same snotty urgency that “Gloria” has, “Here Comes the Night” still sounds more akin to the likes of the Sonics and the Standells than it does to any of Them’s mainland UK contemporaries.
DAVID BOWIE – Heroes / V2 Schneider (RCA 1121 1977)
Actually, the seven inch edit that mostly gets played on the radio is rubbish. It starts something like two minutes in. It’s like beginning a novel on page 80! The full six minute version is one of Bowie’s finest records – a dense, claustrophobic, almost desperate piece of self-delusion.
MEMPHIS JUG BAND – He’s in the Jailhouse Now / Round and Round (Victor 23256 1930)
“He’s in the Jailhouse Now” is one of those pre-war hillbilly tunes that exist in loads of different versions, credited to loads of different writers (Jimmie Rodgers being one). It probably dates back much further than the 1920s. This has always been my favourite take. I like the loose and rough raucousness of Will Shade’s mob.