Introduction: On the consequences of fetishizing the 1960s and distorting the history of popular music
I start this second part of the series (find part one here) with an axe to grind, of sorts. Typically when objections to the hegemony of the 1960s are brought up, it is with a view to recognising the brilliance of later music – especially from the 1990s onwards. My complaint is from the other direction: that the ubiquity and dominance of the 1960s in accounts of popular music history serves virtually to erase artists from before about 1957. I am not denying Bob Dylan or The Beatles their undoubted place in history as two of the most important artists of the twentieth century, but rather decrying the sort of “ground zero” approach taken to music history by the publications that grew in stature around the time of their ascendency. Let’s take Rolling Stone as the most obvious example, and consider their absurdly myopic Top 100 Songwriters of All Time. Note “all time”, not “since 1960”, not “Rock songwriters”, but “all time”. Tom Moon provided a pretty good analysis of everything that is wrong with that list. And, while it is perhaps too idiosyncratic to serve, Evert Clivers provides us with a more comprehensive and historically informed pantheon.
According to the Rolling Stone version of history, music was in the doldrums until Bob Dylan helped the Beatles cry Help! The story goes something like this: before Dylan and the Beatles there was only facile bubble-gum pop songs, and tired, cheesy easy-listening-type crooners such as Perry Como (boo!), after the Beatles there came Pink Floyd and the mighty Led Zeppelin (hooray!). As anyone who read through the first part of my list will know, I don’t agree with that version of history. It not only does a great disservice to the great music from the first half of the twentieth century, but also retroactively serves to weaken and cheapen both the richness of the music from the 1960s, and claims made about its brilliance. The main victims of this short-sightedness are the writers of the standards and “The Great American Songbook” aka Tin Pan Alley. I’m talking about Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, The Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer … you might not know all of these names, but you surely know some of their songs. These people essentially invented the modern pop song: the verse-chorus-verse structure, “the middle eight”, the thirty-two-bar form – the very idea of the 3-minute pop song by which we implicitly judge so many that came later, or else praise for the “innovation” of breaking its rules. These guys were smart and sophisticated, and they wrote clever songs for educated audiences. The idea that the 1960s “saved” popular music by giving it a brain is pretty wrong-headed if one considers the wry and witty love songs written in the 1930s. Rock didn’t make music more socially relevant, it made it more democratic, opened it up to more people. The key difference between The Beatles and the Tin Pan Alley writers isn’t in their inventiveness or intelligence, it’s in their class. If anything rock shifted the intellectual register of popular music down, from educated elites to “the unwashed masses”.
But the pre-war era had its working-class heroes too: that are as equally under-explored and even less known among many rock experts. I’ve already mentioned one or two of the great bluesmen of the 1930s, and you’ll see some more of these liberally sprinkled through my list. There are early folk and country pioneers too, especially of the 1940s, and the list features a couple. Ironically, one of the biggest victims of this myopia is Bob Dylan himself: his vast back catalogue from start to finish is rooted in all of these older traditions, and a working knowledge of them serves to enrich his songs immensely. Listening to Dylan without knowing some of the longer American folk traditions is a bit like watching The Simpsons without picking up on any of the references. A lot of the 1960s blues-rock bands – The Rolling Stones and Cream among the more notable – were essentially Delta blues anoraks. I partly owe my interest in Delta blues to this compilation curated by Keith Richards. It’s a superb introduction to a number of different genres.
Some might argue that this version of history has come about because the records of the 1960s just are better than any other decade. And, yes, by any measure, the years from 65 to 69 especially, are just loaded with important and amazing singles and albums from a great diversity of artists. But the real reason that pre-war music has largely been forgotten while the grandees of the 1960s still adorn the covers of our magazines on a monthly basis is that, simply put, there were more baby boomers than the previous generations, which had been decimated by war. The population was bigger, and lived longer, so it cast the longest shadow – and it’s a shadow that those of us supposedly that belong to “Generation X” know all too well, even if “those damn Millennials” haven’t looked up from their iPhone long enough to notice (I’m sure some of them have: they are alright, y’know, those Millennials, once you get to know them a bit).
I am saying this all here, because I write from a belief that every age, every year, produces great music, average music and bad music. Yes, there can be rich veins and explosions – not all years are created equal, and competition in itself can spur on creativity – but largely, I don’t believe that talent recognises historical boundaries, and great music should be able to speak beyond its context. It doesn’t matter if “Anything Goes” was written in 1934, it’s still a damn smart song. It doesn’t matter if “Dark as a Dungeon”, written in 1946, describes coal-mining conditions that no longer exist, it’s still effective as a lament for working men everywhere.
There is many a man I have seen in my day
Who lived just to labor his whole life away
Like the fiend with his dope and the drunkard his wine
A man will have lust for the lure of the mine
It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew
Where the dangers are double and the pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.
(Merle Travis, “Dark as a Dungeon”, 1946)
Even though it seems lifetimes away, are we so really so far here from the Notorious BIG?
I know how it feels to wake up fucked up
Pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell
People look at you like you’re the user
Selling drugs to all the losers mad Buddha abuser
But they don’t know about the stress-filled day
Baby on the way mad bills to pay
That’s why you drink Tanqueray
So you can reminisce and wish
You wasn’t living so devilish s-shit
(Notorious BIG, “Everyday Struggle”, 1994)
We can talk about the differences between growing up with the guarantee of a tough and exploitive job like mining verses making end’s meat in the ghetto, but the point is these are both street poets. Songs by the every man for the every man. And their power both comes from their immediate context and speaks beyond it.
Let’s get onto that list …
The List – Part 2: 75-51
75. John Lennon
Genre: Pop, Rock
Five to start you off: “Working Class Hero”, “Remember”, “God (Alternate Take)”, “Mind Games”, “Watching the Wheels”
Comment: As I played around with this list, this spot kept changing as the different positions jostled. At one point this “slot” was as high was #32 and at another as low as #96. For the longest time, Jimi Hendrix held it, then Big Bill Broonzy, Jefferson Airplane, Massive Attack, PJ Harvey– all undoubtedly great artists but none of them quite right for my list. Then I thought “would I really, in all honesty, despite all my reservations, take any of them over John Lennon solo?” And the answer is plainly, “no”. Let me get those reservations out of the way first: I don’t like “Imagine”, I really don’t like Imagine (1971) – Phil Spector overblown production, the pettiness of “How Do You Sleep?”, the adolescent dirge of “Crippled Inside” or “Jealous Guy” – it’s just not a good album. “How?” is alright I suppose. But let’s not dwell on the negatives: John Lennon / Plastic One Band (1970) is a nakedly emotional album. I’m not one of those people who de facto gives “best Beatles solo album” to George Harrison because, well, All Things Must Pass (1970) is bloated, I’m not a hippy, and the Apple Jam sucks to high heaven. For me, it’s probably Plastic Ono Band although Paul has a couple in contention. John lays it bare and raw, I can’t imagine how it might have sounded in 1970 when the news of The Beatles breaking up was still fresh. I’ve always loved the directness of “Remember”, a man coming to terms with getting older. “Working Class Hero” still works as a lament for aspects of the now much-romanticised British working-class mentality: “They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool”, indeed. You need to track down the alternate (and definitive) version of “God” from the Anthology (1998), collection:
God is a Concept by which we measure our pain
I don’t believe in magic
I don’t believe in I-ching
I don’t believe in Bible
I don’t believe in Tarot
I don’t believe in Hitler
I don’t believe in Jesus
I don’t believe in Kennedy
I don’t believe in Buddha
I don’t believe in Mantra
I don’t believe in Gita
I don’t believe in Yoga
I don’t believe in Kings
I don’t believe in Elvis
I don’t believe in Zimmerman
I don’t believe in Beatles
I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality
The dream is over
What can I say?
The dream is over
About as definitive a statement of Nietzschean self-interest ever uttered. I’m not one of these Yoko Ono haters, but there’s no denying that her presence on later albums is mostly unwelcome – I guess she wasn’t content to hang around on background vocals like Linda, good for her, perhaps, but not for us. There is plenty of good stuff on the later albums though. I like Mind Games (1975), and – although sometimes gag-inducing – Double Fantasy (1980), sans Yoko stuff, has some great songs, especially the wistful “Watching the Wheels”, in which you wonder if John was getting a bit bored of his self-imposed isolation – it also makes you realise that he was shot basically in the equivalent of his New Morning period (aka Bob Dylan’s reclusive early 70s period).
74. Booker T and The MGs
Genre: R&B, Soul, Funk
Five to start you off: “Green Onions”, “Soul Limbo”, “Outrage”, “Chinese Checkers”, “Hip-Hug-Her”
Comment: As if my love of the electric organ wasn’t evident enough already! Of course, Booker T was an inevitability on a list that also features Jimmy Smith and The Meters. They were a backing band for many of the 60s soul acts. Their own work is almost all instrumental, and impossibly cool, these guys play the smoothest soul in the world. As with The Meters, this is music you can put on in the background, but it’s never less than thoroughly enjoyable. You’ll probably know “Green Onions”, it’s been used in lots of things. British readers will know “Soul Limbo” as the theme from the BBC Test Match Cricket. It’s music to chill out to.
73. Leo Reisman and His Orchestra
Genre: Vocal Jazz, Big Band, Swing
Five to start you off: “You Do Something to Me”, “Putting on the Ritz”, “Night and Day”, “The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re in the Money)”, Stormy Weather”
Comment: Leo Reisman was a bandleader, much in demand on Broadway and in Hollywood during the late 1920s and early 30s. For me, his orchestra define the style of that period better than any other. He had no set vocalist, and so recorded with a rotating cast of “featured” singers. Chief among them, Fred Astaire, who was just ridiculously cool around 1930 sort of time. His smooth voice glides over the music effortlessly. With Reisman, he recorded probably the definitive version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” (1932) from his film The Gay Divorce and “The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re in the Money)” (1933) from The Gold Diggers. Lots of Reisman’s arrangements (as was typical of the period) feature the whole tune played instrumentally for about a minute, with the vocals only kicking in after forty or fifty seconds. This is very well demonstrated on his version of Porter’s “You Do Something to Me” (1929), again in my view definitive: it’s tremendous when Frank Luther’s vocals come in, really deep and low at 00:49. He has probably the best version of Irving Berlin’s “Putting on the Ritz” (1930) with Lew Conrad on the vocals – it’s an example of one the band’s “hot” recordings in which they let the players rip a bit. The trumpeter, Bubba Miley, was famous in his own right having worked previously with Duke Ellington. Conrad is also on vocals for “Moanin’ Low” (1929), another really great track. What makes Reisman great is that he’s an accessible entry point to an era that now feels distant from us, but which had a lot of great music. Because he worked with everyone, and recorded many different songs – I think over 80 hits in total – through his body of work you can get to know not only a lot of the great songwriters of the period, often through arrangements that have never been surpassed, but also with his rotating cast of vocalists, a lot of the great singers too. He also had a quirk sometimes, of putting the songwriters themselves on vocals. For example, Harold Arlen on his own “Stormy Weather”, in again, probably the best ever version of that song. I also like Reisman because much of his stuff is up-tempo. Later on, in the 1940s and 50s, when Frank Sinatra and co got hold of all of these standards, they had a habit of slowing them down, and – for me – sucking the sense of urgency and vitality out of them. I guess they didn’t call them “The Roaring Twenties” for nothing.
72. Blind Willie Johnson
Genre: Delta Blues, Spirituals
Five to start you off: “Dark Was the Night, Cold is the Ground”, “The Soul of a Man”, “In My Time of Dying / Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed”, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, “John the Revelator”
Comment: Blind Willie Johnson recorded thirty songs between 1927 and 1930 for Columbia. I’m not entirely sure why or how. His life story is laced with tragedy. For one, he wasn’t born blind; it is said that after his father caught his step-mother with another man when Willie was seven years old, she blinded him by throwing lye in his eyes out of spite. He grew up singing on the street corners for money. At the end of his life, he’d become a preacher and lived in a House of Prayer he operated in Beaumont, Texas. The house burned down, but since he had nowhere to go, Willie lived in the burned remains where he contracted malaria. He was taken to hospital but refused admittance either because he was black or because he was blind. Either way, if anyone had a reason to sing the blues, it was Blind Willie Johnson. “Dark Was the Night, Cold is the Ground” is one of the most powerful performances committed to vinyl by anyone – it’s spine-chilling, goosebumps type good. “The Soul of a Man”, “In My Time of Dying” (which Bob Dylan covered), and “John the Revelator” (which The White Stripes covered) are all essential recordings. Johnson’s singing was more of a moan or a growl – a light-year away from someone like Fred Astaire recording in this same period – it’s a voice from the other side. There’s something otherworldly about him, there’s an eerie quality to his sound unique among the 30s delta blues singers: simultaneously rich and soulful yet never less than bone-chilling. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” wouldn’t be out of place as the soundtrack to the legion of the dead marching to face God’s final judgement. You’ve got to feel the blues; if you can’t feel Blind Willie Johnson, give up.
71. Kanye West
Five to start you off: “Jesus Walks”, “Drive Slow”, “Power”, “Monster”, “No Church in the Wild”
Comment: Easily the most begrudging entry on my list, and not for the reason you might think (i.e. that Kanye himself is a total knob end). No, it’s because as a long-time hip-hop fan I’ve always HATED it when the indie kids seem to adopt an artist or an album. And when My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) dropped, I just felt my blood boil every time some little Pitchfork oik would pipe up declaring it the best rap album of all time. Let’s just get this clear okay: no it isn’t, don’t be stupid. But none of that changes the fact that Kanye West is best hip-hop producer of the past twenty years. He’s also pretty good as an emcee; he is probably my favourite for using strange pronunciations to twist a word and force a rhyme. At times, this is pretty funny. Consider this from “Champion”, I mean, it barely rhymes at all:
Yes I did, so I packed it up and brought it back to the crib
Just a lil’ somethin’ show you how we live
Everybody want it but it ain’t that serious
That’s that shit
So if you’re gonna do it, do it just like this
Only Kanye West can make “serious” rhyme with “live” and “crib”. As a producer, he has an ear for great samples, especially using vocal snippets, and layering as many as seven or eight different samples into the same track. Witness something like “The People” by Common, which has a sound collage from five different songs. Also, for someone so associated with a soul sound, he has an uncanny knack for finding guitar licks and flipping them into a great beat. Look at what he did to Lamont Dozier’s “Rose” which formed the basis for the hard beat on Shyne’s “More or Less”. Probably my favourite Kanye sampling job is for Jay-Z’s Nas diss track, “The Take Over”, which somehow makes a rap beat out of The Doors’ “Five to One” and then conspires to add elements from David Bowie’s “Fame”, KRS One’s “Sound of Da Police”, and Dr. Dre’s “The Watcher”. He also stands out because at this point he has five nigh-on classic albums to his name: The College Dropout (2004), Late Registration (2005), Graduation (2010), probably his masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) and the challenging, hard-hitting and industrial Yeezus (2013). I don’t like the Neo-Soul, Frank Ocean-y turn in some of his more recent work, but five great albums is about as good as it gets in rap. And yet, still, this is kind of a begrudging placement.
70. Lou Reed
Genre: Glam Rock, Art Rock
Five to start you off: “The Bed”, “Kicks”, “Street Hassle”, “Stupid Man”, “Busload of Faith”
Comment: In the early 70s, David Bowie used his newfound superstardom to raise the profile of two of his heroes. One of them was Iggy Pop, the other, of course, was the former Velvet Underground frontman, Lou Reed. Bowie produced Reed’s most accessible album, Transformer (1973) which spawned a string of memorable songs (which I didn’t list above because I assume you know them): “Perfect Day”, known to a later generation when it was used on the Trainspotting (1996) soundtrack; “Walk on the Wild Side”, which again came to us in the 90s in the form of Tribe Called Quest’s sample on “Can I Kick It?” (1991); and “Satellite of Love”, which has Bowie himself contributing the “poms pom poms” of the soaring chorus. But the truth is that Reed is more “difficult” and harder to get into than Transformer would suggest. He was not an easy man to like, I don’t think. He alienates you, doesn’t let you like him, it’s almost the point. So naturally, he promptly went about trying to sabotage the pop following he’d gained from Transformer on Berlin (1973), an album so depressing it should definitely be banned from psychiatric wards. The cumulative effect of “Caroline Says II”, “The Kids”, “The Bed”, and “Sad Song” on the second side is pretty devastating, but since it tells the tale of a heroin addict committing suicide, you wonder if it’s all a bit squalid. From here, Reed’s output is patchy. When he’s good, he’s good, but when he’s bad, he’s really bloody terrible and at worst embarrassing. Metal Machine Music (1975), famously put out as a joke, is basically an hour of white noise that sounds uncannily like the loading screen of games on the old ZX Spectrum. Albums like Sally Can’t Dance (1974), Coney Island Baby (1975), Street Hassle (1978) all have moments of greatness – check out “Kicks” from Coney Island or the 11-minute mini-suite title track from Street Hassle – but I am not sure if I’d called any one of them “great” from start to finish, and they all also have songs that feel like missteps. On The Bells (1979), he sings with a ridiculous voice, but “Stupid Man” is a really good song. Some people argue that Reed peaked with a trilogy of early 80s albums – The Blue Mask (1982) (I like “The Gun”), Legendary Hearts (1983), and New Sensations (1984) – but I think the holding pattern continues, some great moments, but none of them really “five star” efforts. If anything I find those early 80s albums a bit boring. The fact is that Reed fans can’t agree on what his “second best album” is (assuming Transformer is the best). Every single one of those I’ve mentioned is put in the conversation; since none of them are outstanding, I think this demonstrates the idiosyncratic nature of the artist. For my money, his most enjoyable album from start to finish is actually New York (1989): there’s something about that one, it’s like after years of stumbling around to find the right balance, he finally found a sound that suits his voice perfectly. “Romeo Had Juliet”, “Last Great American Whale”, “Busload of Faith”, and “Sick of You” are all among my favourite Reed songs. I can leave him in the 90s and beyond, when every album is wrapped around a tiresome concept. I bought The Raven (2003) when it came out and wished I hadn’t. His final album, the collaboration with Metallica, Lulu (2011), sadly, is absolutely woeful. Ultimately though, Reed had too many good songs for me not to include on this list.