I’m very pleased to revive this segment, revisiting the best songs of that most pivotal of decades, the 1960s. If you are a fan of this series, you have Scott to thank; he sent me a very nice message a few days ago expressing his interest in the series. You should check out his own music site, over here.
240. “With God On Our Side”– Bob Dylan (1964): Dylan’s winning streak from 1963 to 1966, perhaps unparalleled in American songwriting, continues unsullied here. “With God On Our Side” is pure Seeger-style folk, lamenting the tragedy of America fighting war after war, each time claiming divine support. It is one of the smartest challenges to patrio-fascism, as some of my friends call it, ever written. If God’s on our side, then he’ll stop the next war.
239. “Lodi”– Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969): Creedence didn’t do poignant very well, but this song is perhaps the most affecting and moving in their brief turn-of-the-decade belle époque. John Fogerty’s world-weary travelogue in an obscure drive-by town touches the deep places of the soul, no easy task for a band whose best songs were Vietnam critiques and odes to the bayou.
238. “Needles and Pins”– The Searchers (1963): Like #224, this song figured out where popular music was headed and smartly capitalized on it. For a group still working in the Neil Sedaka era, The Searchers anticipated what the British Invasion would sound like, with a strong rhythm section, jangly guitar, and two-part harmonies.
237. “Baby I Need Your Lovin'”– The Four Tops (1964): I probably made this point when talking about a different song of theirs, but it always amazes me how the Four Tops never get the credit that is their due. Never Motown’s highest priorities, they excelled in vocal harmonies and creating atmosphere better than The Temptations or The Supremes.
236. “She’s Not There”– The Zombies (1964): The best 60s band not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Zombies were ahead of their time in manifold ways. During a time when The Beatles weren’t doing anything deeper than “I’m A Loser”, this first-wave British Invasion band created this small minor-key masterpiece with a brooding electric piano part (seriously- listen to that solo), with a frantic existential angst that perfectly predicted where the decade was going.
235. “Blue Moon”– The Marcels (1961): There were a proliferation of doo-wop groups in the early 60s, and The Marcels never really stood out from the pack. Even so, there was still something inventive about this #1 hit, taking a song that was traditionally a ballad (listen to the moody version on Elvis Presley’s debut album) and revolving it around the bass player’s nonsense syllables. They started out as one of rock and roll’s first biracial groups, but the difficulties of traveling in the Jim Crow South in the early 60s put an end to that noble experiment.
234. “Inna Gadda Da Vida”– Iron Butterfly (1968): I had to put this song somewhere. Iron Butterfly’s only real hit has since become a pop culture joke, stemming from its meandering, time-stretching performance and incoherent lyrics. Still, as the sonic embodiment of 60s excess, this number forces its way into the musical pantheon, and it opened the door for The Dead and others to experiment with long jams in the rock medium.
233. “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)”– John Fred & His Playboy Band (1967): This unlikely #1 hit was a pastiche of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” with a production that segued from punchy James Brown horns to psychedelia. I love this song because the one-hit wonder Fred is the only artist from the Sixties to today to be ballsy enough to identify and lampoon John Lennon’s weaknesses as a songwriter. Throughout his career, Lennon lazily wrote nonsense verse, expected to be lauded as a genius, and usually got the praise. Fred’s non-sequitors like “lemonade pies” and “chimney sweep sparrows” satirize Lennon’s LSD-drizzled imagery perfectly.
232. “Dedicated to the One I Love”– The Shirelles (1961): The magic of rock and roll is to give an epic quality to ephemeral teenage romance, in the same way that Homer took what was probably a humdrum skirmish between Greeks and Trojans and turned it into one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. The Shirelles, probably my favorite girl-group of the 60s, take a song originally recorded by the 5 Royales, and give it drama, atmosphere, and urgency to this lyrically quiet and understated ode to romantic fidelity.
231. “Wonderful World”– Sam Cooke (1960): All singing is acting to some extent. As such, the key to being a good singer is to convince the listener of the utter sincerity of one’s position in the song- whether a jilted lover, a psychotic killer, or a wise prophet. For Cooke, an old gospel hand deep into his thirties, and a man with an allegedly insatiable sexual appetite, to play the naive innocent schoolboy, winning his paramour through academic excellence, is a great act of vocal theatre. The song’s brilliance is in how easily Cooke conveys that puppy love when he was well past thirty.
230. “For Your Love”– The Yardbirds (1965): Like The Faces, The Yardbirds were a band that was more influential than listenable, better known for their famous alumni (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton among others) For all of their alleged influence in merging the blues and rock, this was their only major commercial hit. Despite its moody atmosphere, which is actually really cool, it is lyrically awful. Why is it that every major 60s artist, when running out of time to write lyrics, resorted to composing idiotic lines about buying diamond rings? (The Beatles did this all the damn time.) For that matter, why is the only top ten hit from a band with so many great axemen lacking a coherent guitar part?
229. “The Shoop Shoop Song”– Betty Everett (1964): Seriously- why did Betty Everett’s career never take off? She should have been a poor man’s Darlene Love, and instead became a near-one-hit-wonder. The production is comically inept, with needless horn breaks and a marimba solo, and yet it works, because the bad instrumentation makes Everett’s impressive set of pipes stand out all the more. The song works only when a vocalist can assert dominance in the back-and-forth between the backing vocalists, which is why Everett succeeds in her version of the song, and a less talented singer, Cher, doesn’t. It is quite probably one of the greatest girl-group songs, even though it is paradoxically performed by a solo artist.
228. “Cinnamon Girl”– Neil Young (1969): The first great song written by one of the most important and influential rock and roll artists. Young creates a great hazy, fuzzy sound on this track that remains illusory and vague- just who is this Cinnamon Girl? What does this appellation mean? Young’s career would go on to be famously uneven and mercurial, but when he was a journeyman, focused on earning a few hits before he could follow his muse with abandon, he was never better.
227. “Paint It Black”– The Rolling Stones (1966): Like Tito Jackson’s dancing compared to the rest of the Jackson Five, the Stones were always just a half-step behind The Beatles. The Beatles did morose brooding first (“Baby’s In Black”) and used a sitar on a rock and roll piece first (“Norwegian Wood”). But the Stones show their own mettle by synthesizing the two, creating a song of Poe-like despair, its otherworldliness underscored by the strange instrumentation. And unlike The Beatles, the Stones were bold enough to make a song this unconventional a single, and a #1 single at that.
226. “Come a Little Bit Closer”– Jay & the Americans (1964): “Come a Little Bit Closer” cracks me up. It is a funny, funny song with mariachi touches wherein the narrator is wooed by a señorita, only to be accosted by Jose, his paramour’s boyfriend. Rather than risk bodily harm, Jay jumps through the window, only to see Jose and his lady together again. Maybe it isn’t the best song in this bunch, but when it comes on the radio, I can’t wipe the smile off my face.
225. “Please Mr. Postman”– The Marvelettes (1961): When the Marvelettes received their second nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, I was shocked. They are a historical group, the first act from Motown to hit #1 on the charts. But the innate talent just isn’t there. The lead singer doesn’t really take me on a journey, and Motown’s fabled production team doesn’t quite have its act together yet. This is a clever enough song- I especially love the “deliver the letter, the sooner the better” break toward the end- but the seeds of greatness would lay elsewhere in Motown’s stable.
224. “River Man”– Nick Drake (1969): The darling of the Pitchfork crowd, Nick Drake is an artist you will not hear on Oldies radio, and is something of a trade secret for rock and roll afficianados. That’s a shame, because in the late 60s and 70s, he recorded some amazing material and may rightly be regarded as one of the godfathers of the acoustic branches of indie music. If you aren’t familiar with this track, do yourself a favor and listen to it.
223. “The Star Spangled Banner”– Jimi Hendrix (1969): Oh yes. Woodstock is starting. What better way to kick it off than this guitar virtuoso sending an antiwar message while playing the national anthem? It’s a chaotic, violent, distortion filled take from a country engaging in a chaotic, violent war that distorted many of its historic values. You can hear the bombs dropping on Vietnamese villages through Hendrix’s machinations. It’s not the best song in Hendrix’s catalog, but it is probably the most brilliantly conceived song on this list.
222. “I Get Around”– The Beach Boys (1964): In just a couple of years, Brian Wilson would be in the sandbox, losing his mind while expanding the boundaries of popular music. This is one of the last, great manifestations of what The Beach Boys used to be before all that. They were, at first, just doing carefree songs about surfing, girls, and cars, and one of the finest specimens of their early catalog. The production by the Wrecking Crew is first-rate, and Mike Love’s weirdly reedy baritone voice anchors the song as his cousins sing beautiful falsetto around him. It’s raw braggadoccio- the song’s message is basically “I’m awesome because I’ve got a sweet ride”- but Love’s “jock everybody hates” persona fits it perfectly.
221. “Magic Carpet Ride”– Steppenwolf (1968): It always strikes me as a bit odd that Jefferson Airplane got fame and an early Rock Hall induction as the premier psychedelic band when Steppenwolf was arguably better. How is a magic carpet ride any less of a metaphor for a drug trip than following the white rabbit down the hole? They both had two major hits, but Steppenwolf fit their zeitgeist less well, didn’t have a charismatic front-person like Gracie Slick, and thus were a band that was cool as hell at the time, but whose place in history is a little more shaky. “Magic Carpet Ride” is a magnum opus, with a nice, long trippy middle section that was probably cut out of the 45 rpm version, and anchored by great performances on the guitar and electric organ.