With the last post, we finally made it past the halfway point. Lots of great songs were covered in spots #201 thru 400, and things are only going to get better. Please join me as I unveil the next twenty spots in the Top 400 Songs of the 1960s:
200. “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag”- Country Joe and the Fish (1967): The live take recorded at Woodstock is an absolute riot to listen to, but the studio version has its merits as well. Borrowing a leaf from Tom Lehrer in using ragtime to satirize contemporary social issues, the track skewers the military-industrial complex and the poorly thought-out goals for American involvement. One of the most divisive tracks on this list, it is something every member of the counterculture would have loved, and every member of the Silent Majority would have reviled.
199. “It’s Your Thing”- The Isley Brothers (1969): Talk about a reinvention! After hitting it big with “Twist and Shout” and just plain “Shout!,” the Isleys were, for a brief time, a take-it-to-the-bank favorite for dance music. By decade’s end, they came back from relative obscurity, and created this song, once against guaranteed to get people moving on the dance floor. I’m sure James Brown considered demanding some royalties the first time he heard this.
198. “Matty Groves”- Fairport Convention (1969): If you haven’t listened to Fairport Convention, do yourself a favor and give them a try. Maybe start with their most famous album, Liege and Lief. With rock and roll pedigrees, this group of Englishmen attempted to rediscover and reinvent the music of their home country. With “Matty Groves” they took a classic tale of cuckoldry and infused it with drama and atmosphere.
197. “Monday, Monday”- The Mamas and the Papas (1966): This song is quintessential 1960s, and one of the great efforts from one of the most quintessential 1960s acts. Even as their easygoing hippie demeanor belied the simmering interpersonal drama, the Mamas and the Papas served up this acoustic, orchestrated track, replete with one of the most famous false endings in pop history.
196. “Midnight Confessions”- The Grass Roots (1968): The Grass Roots still constitute one of my favorite guilty pleasures to this day. With a heavy-handed producer, loads of material from outside songwriters, and outside musicians playing on their records, they were only slightly less fabricated than the Monkees. But gosh- those songs are some of the best ear candy of the late 60s and early 70s. “Midnight Confessions” was one of their first big hits, with alternating lead vocals and punchy horns that anticipated Chicago.
195 “Wishin’ and Hopin'”- Dusty Springfield (1964): Lulu. Cilla Black. Petula Clark. All artists were cut from the same cloth- and yet one of their number, Dusty Springfield, left all of them in the…well…dust, breezing into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and becoming a serious contender for the 100 Greatest Rock and Roll Artists of all time. Why? Versatility. Springfield ambitiously hopped between Memphis-style excursions, girl-group retreads, and pieces like this one, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place from someone like Barbara Lewis. And most importantly, she never tried to out-Aretha Aretha, possibly the definition of failure for female singers in the 1960s.
194. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”- Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1968): If I could have three music-related wishes, I’d bring back John Lennon from the dead, I’d bring back George Harrison from the dead, and then I would impose a total moratorium against using 1960s pop songs in commercials. I never, ever, ever should have heard this song for the first time in a mid-90s Burger King commercial selling flame-broiled whoppers.
193. “Conquistador”- Procol Harum (1967): You could never accuse Procol Harum of lacking ambition. Gary Brooker cooked up this track with a complex orchestral track that is expertly woven into conventional rock and roll backing. Every time you hear of a rock and roll band doing a series of concerts with a philharmonic, Procol Harum more or less invented the concept- along with pretentious lyrics like “your death-mask face”.
192. “I Can’t Get Next To You”- The Temptations (1969): We are clearly moving into funky, less-polished Temptations Mark II in this track. The Temptations’ secret weapon was always the interplay of their voices- impossibly high tenors, resonant deep voices, and some soulful, distinctive parts in between them. Every Temptation gets a turn at the microphone in this number creating one of their most urgent tracks. With a little help from the Funk Brothers, they manage to find a sweet spot between soul and the psychedelic.
191. “Dead Man’s Curve”- Jan and Dean (1964): For a while, Jan and Dean dominated the nascent surf scene and were its most visible icons in what began as a deeply local movement with nary a national following. Then the Beach Boys hit, and suddenly Jan and Dean seemed like that old Calecovision, gathering dust in your basement. This was something of a comeback attempt, with a hint of angst and fatalism that is leftover from the “Leader of the Pack” era. The song also proved sadly prescient; Jan ended up in a car accident near the very curve in the highway that inspired this song, leaving him in a coma for weeks.
190. “Land of 1,000 Dances”- Wilson Pickett (1966): Pickett’s exciting R&B stylings made him a standout, and I think he is somewhat overlooked as a grandfather to what became funk music. I absolutely love what passes for the song’s chorus, just Pickett scatting the syllable “Nah”- followed by an entire chorus of backup singers. Perhaps the strongest testament to the song is that it receives airplay while many of the dances it commemorates (the Watusi, the Mashed Potato) do not.
189. “Those Were the Days”- Mary Hopkins (1968): The Beatles’ ill-advised creation of Apple Records, a cheap tax write-off they came up with after Brian Epstein died, had a number of catastrophic effects. The bureaucratic headaches and corporate mismanagement created in its wake were far more responsible for the band’s breakup than Yoko Ono ever would be. But because they were The Beatles, they were able to attract top-notch talent to even a chaotic, poorly run record company. Maybe the best record from this first crop of Apple recordings was this track, both sweetly sad and eminently joyful, based off of a Russian tavern song.
188. “I’m A Believer”-The Monkees (1966): The Monkees’ most commercially successful song, it is easy to forget how ubiquitous the group was in 1966, decimating their competition, including The Beatles, who offered relatively weak singles like “Day Tripper” and “Paperback Writer” that year. This track, written by Neil Diamond of all people, is a masterpiece of pop songwriting with zero artistic integrity at a time where it was considered, for the first time in the 20th century, an expectation of popular musicians. Sure, the Monkees don’t play a single note on it- not even Davy Jones’ tambourine- and sure, it was handpicked for them by their svengali, Don Kirschner. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the sunniest and most memorable tracks to come out of the decade.
187. “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”- Darlene Love (1964): Love labored long and hard in the shadows of the “Wall of Sound”. Phil Specter, a mad experimenter who viewed singers and musicians as a means to his vision, became notorious for issuing records under the Crystals’ name that did not actually feature any known members of this girl-group. “He’s A Rebel”? That’s Love singing lead, languishing in obscurity. Thankfully, every holiday season you can hear Love- under her own name- belting out this track from this Christmas album released by the artists in Specter’s stable. It’s little more than Love riffing off of “Chriist-maaaaas” backing vocals, but it is no less magnificent to behold.
186. “In the Court of the Crimson King”- King Crimson (1969): Depending on how you feel about Procol Harum, this track is the lead-off song from perhaps the first progressive rock album ever made. Greg Lake- later to feature in Emerson, Lake & Palmer- makes it work, with solid lead vocal work and impressive bass chops. It sets the parameters for everything music aficionados love and hate about the genre- it is long, ponderous, mythological, features extended solos, betrays zero soul, and is entirely undanceable.
185. “For Once in My Life”- Stevie Wonder (1968): Child stars have a propensity to crash and burn. Stevie Wonder, having achieved his first #1 hit in 1963 as a pre-teen kept getting stronger and better, in spite of all odds. He had a small armada of hits by this time, and he was only 18. But this is perhaps his first song that touches greatness, or was capable of becoming a standard. I mean, Sinatra asked to record this song! And it worked just as well crooned by Ol’ Blue Eyes as it did with a soulful harmonica solo in the middle when Stevie released the original.
184. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”- The Temptations (1966): Having enjoyed a revival in the 1980s film The Big Chill, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” feels a bit more airy and less constrained and micromanaged than a lot of other Motown hits of this era. The sense of space is particularly striking during the verses, with the soul equivalent of the monochromatic drone in Indian music.
183. “Words”- The Bee Gees (1968): The gold chains and white suits were still almost a full decade away. Here, The Bee Gees were still young prodigies, writing tuneful songs with some of the best melodic twists of their time, and lush orchestration.
182. “Love Is All Around”- The Troggs (1967): What a remarkable turnaround! The Troggs, a barely-literate garage band responsible for “Wild Thing,” managed to also pull off this love song, one of the very sweetest of the Oldies era. It is a bit overwrought, with saccharine strings, and awkward syntax like “on my love you can depend,” but it has generated a great many covers over the years (perhaps, most memorably, in a Christmas-themed version in Love, Actually.)
181. “Darling Be Home Soon”- Lovin’ Spoonful (1966): The Spoonful, helmed by John Sebastian, were always ahead of the curve in the songwriting stakes. While “Summer in the City” and “Do You Believe in Magic” are the most well-remembered today, this track- a minor hit from mid-decade- is one of their very best accomplishments. The narrator, still a teenager, reflects on his growing sense of mortality and vulnerability.