Monday, July 16, 2007

885 Most Memorable Musical Moments, part one: Songs That Changed Everything


Hello Philadelphia! And Harrisburg, Lehigh Valley, Worton/Baltimore, and listeners world wide on the web! In the grand tradition of countdowns of the 885 greatest songs, albums and artists, WXPN now brings us the 885 Most Memorable Musical Moments, a catalog of the music, people, events, books, images, technology and all other things that have shaped rock and roll as we know it.

In conjunction with the balloting and countdown, XPN has asked a few terrific bloggers (and us) to contribute some ruminations on moments that affected the world generally and ourselves in particular. It’s our privilege to participate, and we start with Songs That Changed Everything, recordings whose impacts go far beyond their three and four minute lengths. The list below is far from definitive or comprehensive, but all of the songs, in their own way, are essential.

Elvis Presley, “That’s All Right” (1954). This song was not a hit or an overnight sensation, but it was the beginning of an accidental revolution, the unanticipated, inconceivable product of the confluence of a guileless kid, a savvy producer and two backing musicians born for the occasion. Elvis Presley was a 19-year-old nobody when he stepped inside Sun Studios on July 5, 1954, and there was no expectation that a single, much less a career, would result from the session designed to produce a gift for his mother. But when he launched into Arthur Crudup’s 1946 rhythm and blues chestnut, guitarist Scott Moore and bassist Bill Black joined in, and Sam Phillips captured it all on tape, simultaneously preserving and creating history. It was the perfect fusion of black and white, urban and country, past and future, and it changed the culture. Forever. (Michael)

Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode” (1958). Let’s answer a question with a question. How important is this song? Well, how important is the electric guitar? Before “Johnny B. Goode,” there had been other prominent rock guitars – Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Scotty Moore. But the dominant instrument in early rock and roll and the jump blues from which it sprang had been the piano. Think Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. Chuck Berry did nothing less than change the music’s definition with an epic whipsaw riff and a lyric that mythologized a backwoods six-string prodigy. The Beach Boys appropriated that riff for use in their early singles. The Beatles were built on its foundation. And the Rolling Stones made a career out of continually rewriting it. It is the wellspring from which all else flows. (Michael)

The Ronettes, “Be My Baby” (1963). From the opening kick drum, this is a (the?) perfect pop record. Phil Spector invents such a singular “Wall of Sound” that “Spector-ish” becomes an adjective… George Martin and Brian Wilson were taking notes. The pinnacle of girl group pop and teenage symphonies to god. (Trip)

Bob Dylan, “Blowin in the Wind” (1963). It’s hard to over-estimate the influence this song and the Freewheelin’ album had on popular music. Dylan completely rewrote the lexicon for pop songwriting, serving as the inspiration for just about every songwriter that followed. He raised questions that presaged entire movements, and yet by not tying the lyrics to a specific time and place, rendered them universal. And no matter when you discover Dylan, you are convinced the world can be changed with just a voice and a guitar. (Trip)

The Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964). America, meet the Beatles. Here it is, their first stateside number one, and the song that capped the momentous February 9, 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. As a moment of immediate impact, it blows everything else on this list away. As a song, it demonstrates the Fabs rocking out with their first unforgettable guitar figure, purely electric (metaphorically, not literally) in a way they hadn’t been before. It also marks the beginning of the dominance of the rock group as leaders of the medium, the triumph of the collective over the individual, gangs of friends trumping matinee idols. (Michael)

Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964). Inspired by Dylan’s early protest songs, Sam Cooke one-ups him with a flawlessly delivered statement of purpose that serves as a message of hope for the nascent civil rights movement. “It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die”… not many lines are more devastating than that. (Trip)

James Brown, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (1965). As much as any song I know, this one divides the world of popular music into what came before and what came after. The melody is slight, the verses negligible, the chorus barely there at all. This is all about rhythm and repetition, one diamond-hard figure played over and over again, with each instrument, including the voice, becoming part of the rhythm section. Brown elevates the vamp to prominence, in the process inventing funk, and through it, hip hop. Gershwin and Porter wouldn’t recognize what the Godfather did here. There was no melody to hum, just a wicked beat to dance to. Veteran rock critic Dave Marsh once wrote “the only way ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ could be more bone-rattling would be if James Brown himself leaped from your speakers, grabbed you tight by the shoulders and danced you around the room, all the while screaming straight into our face.” (Michael)

Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965). This song shattered boundaries because of the combination of three things. First there is the sound, with the gunshot snare drum crack that starts everything, the power of Al Kooper’s organ, the sting of Mike Bloomfield’s guitar, and the hard cutting edge of Dylan’s voice. Simultaneously violent and supple, it demands attention. Next is the length, more than six minutes of rolling and tumbling, the kind of epic previously unimagined as a pop single, but necessary to convey ideas far more complex than “She Loves You,” released just a year before. And finally, of course, there are the words. Much is made of this being the starting point of rock and roll literacy, but that bridge had been crossed many times by the likes of Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson. Instead, it’s the beginning of rock and roll audacity, striking imagery far removed from the Tin Pan Alley tradition. “Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people/They're drinkin', thinkin' that they got it made/Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things/But you'd better lift your diamond ring, you'd better pawn it babe.” Now that was new. That didn’t belong to any previous tradition. That was rock and roll. (Michael)

The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965). The riff is a call to arms, a statement of purpose, and perhaps the most famous motif in rock’s history. That alone makes it a watershed moment, as every guitar-bass-drums combo from that point forward would play by the Stones’ rules. But the song also changed the psycho-sexual politics of the game, casting aside the Beatles’ chaste longing for something darker, truer and more deeply human. The themes are frustration, alienation and ambivalence, and the delivery is knowing and salacious. Beyond “I’m trying to make some girl,” the song says nothing explicit about sex, but sex is implied in every syllable. And let’s take a moment to acknowledge the architecturally perfect bass work of Bill Wyman, the most woefully underappreciated man in rock and roll. How important is this song? Try imagining the world without it. (Michael)

Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (1967). The Queen took Otis Redding’s song about traditional gender dynamics, turned it inside out, and fashioned a declaration of independence for women. A far cry from “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” or “Stand By Your Man,” it’s a demand for nothing less than equality in a relationship, and by extension, in society, opening the floodgates for strong female artists and songs about empowerment. More than just a feminist manifesto, though, it’s the quintessential soul single. The drums pop, the bass bounces, the guitar cuts deep, and the greatest singer we’ve known nails it to the wall and dares anyone to defy her. (Michael)

The Byrds, “Hickory Wind” (1968). Some songs strike like lightning, their force immediately felt. Others incubate underground, like a pod from some science fiction movie, their impact fully understood only ten or fifteen years later. This one falls into the latter category. Gram Parsons was a relatively unknown 21 year-old when he joined the Byrds in 1968 and helped transform their trademark jangly folk-rock sound into one steeped in traditional country music. This Parsons song, a gorgeous ballad that typifies the band’s metamorphosis, originally appeared on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which confounded fans upon its release. Gram’s stay in the Byrds was brief, and he was soon making classic, if commercially underappreciated, records with the Flying Burrito Brothers and on his own. He died in 1973, a prophet without honor in his time, but he was reborn in the 1980s as the spiritual totem of the burgeoning alt.country movement, and “Hickory Wind” is where his brand of Cosmic American Music first resonated in the greater consciousness. Artists like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Wilco and Son Volt can trace their existence back to this point. (Michael)

The Archies, “Sugar, Sugar” (1969). What can I say? I freakin’ love this song so kiss my ass. It was the first single I ever bought (along with Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”… “what could I do?”) at Woolworth’s in 1969 for I believe the princely sum of 49 cents. I’m still crushed that they weren’t a real band – that was some heavy shit to lay on a 12 year old. This song is directly responsible for my lifetime affliction of musical ADD that constrains most of my listening choices to selections clocking in under 3 ½ minutes. (Trip)

David Bowie, “Moonage Daydream” (1972). My favorite song from a record that, as noted by Richard Cromelin in his Rolling Stone review, I’d give it at least a 99. “I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you / I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock n rollin’ bitch for you” – I totally believed him. Ziggy Stardust opened my mind to a world beyond The Beatles, The Stones, Motown and James Taylor. I am forever grateful. (Trip)

Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run” (1975). In 1975 I was 18 and spent the summer waiting each day for Philly dj Ed Sciaky to spin his advance copy of this song. It was worth it. Springsteen crystallizes all that had come before – Presley, Holly, Dylan, The Beatles, Chuck Berry, Van Morrison, Phil Spector – into quite possibly the grandest 4 ½ minutes in all of rock. The 1,2,3,4 count off at 3:05 makes rock and roll real again and paves the way for the punk explosion. (Trip)

Bob Marley and the Wailers, “No Woman No Cry (Live)” (1975). Before Bob Marley and the Wailers played London’s Lyceum in 1975, rock stardom was reserved almost exclusively for Brits and Americans who increasingly conveyed themes of sexual and pharmaceutical excess in their music. But after, a new consciousness began to take hold. Hailing from the Caribbean and heir to African tradition through the deification of Haile Selassie, Marley brought news of the Third World to the fore, complete with authentic reflections on revolution and survival. He also conveyed a deep sense of intimate communication, never demonstrated more forcefully than on this song, a slow-building, soul-stirring offer of comfort. Marley opened the mainstream to new rhythms and new themes, though his influence was felt most forcefully in death. For the millions who discovered the Wailers on the posthumous collection Legend, “No Woman No Cry” was the portal to a new world of experience. (Michael)

Patti Smith, “Gloria” (1975). “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”… one of the greatest opening lines in any art form. Patti Smith emerges from the downtown arts scene to reinvent rock and roll and empowers women for generations. She means it, man. (Trip)

Kraftwerk, “Trans-Europe Express” (1977). The heart of a seven-song suite that constitutes an album of the same name, “Trans-Europe Express” casts a shadow over a wide-ranging and disparate number of styles. Its hard mechanical beats and cold metallic synths were appropriated by rappers (Afrika Bambaataa), new wavers (Gary Numan), punk rockers (Blondie) and more techno, trance and dance acts than could ever be listed here. It is android music with humanity, a sort of organic artifice. And as clinical as that sounds, it conveys real feeling and warmth, the kinds of things for which these Teutonic titans aren’t best known. (Michael)

The Sex Pistols, “Holidays in the Sun” (1977). I was just nine years old when this first arrived, and my only contemporaneous recollection of the Sex Pistols came from some TV news report trumpeting them as angels of the apocalypse, coming to destroy the fabric of our culture. And as appealing as that sounded, a lack of funds, understanding parents or a forward-thinking local record store kept me from acquiring Never Mind the Bollocks until my late teens. But I’ll always remember the moment I walked out of the shop, got into the car, unwrapped the cassette, and popped it into the deck. The first song on the first side began with this mass of people clapping in rhythm, soon joined by a stomping kick drum and then four big windmill chords. Then came a drum fill. And then my life changed. Steve Jones’s guitar came exploding out of the speaker, and I had the sensation of hurtling through space. That ridiculous speed, those jagged angles. It was sheer physical rush, like skydiving on heroin, but without the life-threatening consequences. I have never been the same. (Michael)

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message” (1982). “Broken glass everywhere/People pissin’ on the stairs/You know they just don’t care.” With that jolting opening line, the days of “now what you hear is not a test/I’m rappin’ to the beat” were gone forever. Hip hop was no longer just happy-party, throw-your-hands-in-the-air, MCs-playing-the-dozens music. It was the poetry of the streets, infused with a gritty reality and a palpable sense of menace. This is where Public Enemy, N.W.A., KRS-One, Tupac and a whole generation of rappers were born. But the song’s legacy isn’t merely its socio-political posture. As my six-year-old daughter will attest, the track bounces like a super ball, its expert production providing a template for waves of disciples. It takes little imagination to hear the Notorious B.I.G. ripping it up over Flash’s fat bass and drums. A masterpiece. (Michael)

R.E.M., “Radio Free Europe” (1983). It wasn’t the first, but this song invents Amerindie rock. Melding pop hooks, folk rock with their own punk ethos, R.E.M. inspires about one million bands. The first record I ever ordered via mail order… thanks Trouser Press! (Trip)

Prince, “Little Red Corvette” (1983). A perfect amalgamation of soul, r ‘n’ b, rock, pop and video smarts that announces to the world at large an auteur for the ages. Answers the question “What happens if you cross James Brown, Elvis and Hendrix?” The only artist besides Springsteen I’d pay to see in a hockey rink. He literally can do it all. (Trip)

Steve Earle, “Guitar Town” (1986). “Hey pretty baby are you ready for me / It’s your good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee”. That line serves as a siren’s call to a new Nashville, where Bruce Springsteen, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan are equally revered. I’d never given country music a thought prior to this record – I’m sure I never would have heard Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings or Townes van Zandt without Guitar Town. Music for me is before and after Guitar Town. (Trip)

Run-D.M.C. & Aerosmith, “Walk This Way” (1986). A phenomenal cross-pollination of genres that enhanced one growing legend (Run-DMC, the current "Kings of Rock") and resuscitated the fortunes of another (Aerosmith). At the 2:15 mark of the landmark video, Run-DMC smashes the barrier between rock and rap forever and makes rap palatable for a billion fratboys, unwittingly setting the stage for Limp Bizkit, Staind and Godsmack (boo) and Kid Rock and Eminem (yay). (Trip)

Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991). The first time I heard this song (when it debuted on MTV’s 120 Minutes) it did nothing for me. The second time, it set its hooks in deep. From then on, I heard it everywhere – buzzing inside my head, in record stores, in bars, coming out of car windows, and on seemingly every radio station, regardless of format. The song with the surrealistic lyric and explosive, corrosive chorus should have put people off. Instead, it crystallized the spirit in the air and heralded a change. For one of the few times in my life, maybe the only time, I understood that we were in a moment of cultural shift as it was happening. The song simultaneously gave life to new commercial radio formats, and signaled the death of hair metal. Poison? Dead. Cinderella? Dead. Winger. Dead. And for a moment, it seemed like the good guys had won, the triumph of great music over rivers of dreck. But it turned out to be more complicated, as the industry attempted to cash in by churning out dozens of bands who replicated Nirvana’s sound but could never capture their essence, armies of empty flannel shirts. Still, for a few glorious months, “oh well, whatever, nevermind” seemed to make the most perfect sense. (Michael)

The Hold Steady, “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” (2005). I never lost my passion for rock and roll, but by my mid-thirties, it had been muted. The trappings of adulthood – marriage, children, a never-ending list of home repair projects – demanded the focus that had previously been spent on the music. And after you’ve done enough living, it’s hard to recreate the wide-eyed wonder with which I’d first taken in Springsteen or the Replacements. I continued to love rock and roll, but was resigned to no longer being consumed by it. I remember, in my teens, asking a friend’s cool rock-loving aunt to name her favorite band. “I’m too old to have a favorite band,” she shrugged. Two decades later, I realized that I had reached cool rock-loving aunt age. Enter The Hold Steady. I bought Separation Sunday on the strength of a review read somewhere, and the vigor of my youth instantly meshed with the wisdom of age. Here it was, no-bullshit, four-on-the-floor, two-guitars-bass-drums rock and roll, with the sharpest, smartest, most relentless words just pouring out on a whiskey-and-gravel voice. And this song, with this verse, slays me every time: “Tiny little text/etched into her neck/Says ‘Jesus lived and died for all your sins/She’s got blue-black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back/Says ‘Damn right He’ll rise again!” Yes! Yes! Yes! I’m simultaneously 17 and 37, shouting along, pumping my fist, and thinking my ass off. God bless you great gentlemen of The Hold Steady for allowing rock and roll to consume me once more. (Michael)

2 comments:

lahuitrefrite said...

I've always hoped that the nephews think of me as the "cool rock-loving aunt."

Good choices, gents. I especially liked the inclusion of the Archies and THS (of course).

Big Star said...

Hope you are going to do more songs as I enjoyed reading this. Two songs I think should be included

The Kinks - You Really Got Me (1964). Listen to this song against its contemporaries and you'll hear something completely different. A barbed wire guitar solo that Led Zepplin later turned into heavy metal.

Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (1979). It's the beginning of Goth Rock and seriously depressing lyrics are suddenly cool. Nobody in art school would know what to do w/out these guys.