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Archive for the ‘Rock and Roll’ Category

75. “Michelle” (Rubber Soul): It’s the evolutionary descendant of a Paul McCartney party piece crossed with the success of “Yesterday” and repeated listenings of Nina Simone. “Michelle” is rightly considered a standard, with its slow, meandering tempo and some harmonies that are deep in the background, but rewarding of a careful listen.

74. “With a Little Help From My Friends” (Sgt. Pepper’s): Context is everything. This was the last full piece recorded for Pepper, and on it’s own, the track is inexplicable. Placed aside the title track, it allows Ringo to inhabit the Billy Shears persona (who is, at any rate, exactly like Ringo–luckless but ever-cheerful.) In an album that was in danger of being pretentious, “With a Little Help” establishes early on that the lads are just having a bit of fun. It’s a crucial tone-setter, and the wisest use of Ringo’s vocals on a Beatles record.

73. “Eight Days a Week” (Beatles for Sale): I’ve seen Beatles tribute shows about a dozen times or so in my life. If there was one song most often played in these kinds of shows, it’s “Eight Days a Week.” It’s not hard to see why. Aside from being catchy and jangly, it has a decisive ending (e.g. it doesn’t fade out), and invites audience participation with the hand claps.

72. “Long Tall Sally” (EP, Penniman-Johnson-Blackwell): At last, the world is set to rights. Pat Boone’s cover of “Long Tall Sally” was awful, white-bread, inoffensive, and an affront to what rock and roll should be. Pat Boone has opined that he deserves credit for bringing rock and roll into the mainstream. Bullshit. He watered it down, bowdlerized the raunchy lyrics, removed what made it rock and roll, and got insanely rich doing it. Compare it to the pure labor of love that is this cover version. Paul McCartney is having the time of his life impersonating Little Richard, and the band leaves nothing on the table. Small wonder this was a highlight (and frequent closer) of their live sets.

71. “She’s Leaving Home” (Sgt. Pepper’s): This has always struck me as perhaps the most British of Beatles songs. Part of it is the slang– “motor trade” as well as the Edwardian images of dressing-gowns and clutching handkerchiefs. Moreover, it evokes a particularly English style of parenting that often lacked the collegiality of American families and was rent with class-consciousness. The tragedy isn’t losing their daughter; the tragedy is losing her to a working-class laborer. It’s a beautiful song–with John’s counterpoint (“we gave her most of our lives”) serving as necessary contrast to Paul’s melody. With George Martin away when this was recorded, the orchestration loses a lot of his subtle touches–in short, it’s overdone. Yet it remains a standout even on a legendary album.

70. “Day Tripper” (single): Usually, whoever wrote the greater part of a Lennon-McCartney song sang it. Not so here, with John’s cheeky song about a groupie being more suited to Paul and his higher register. It’s a basic riff rocker, but it is one of the finest examples of the genre. Given how summery the track is, it’s hard to believe that this was a winter release in conjunction with Rubber Soul. And like a lot of those tracks, it’s folky and observational. The way the group has grown as an ensemble since their first couple records is apparent here, and the song is a nice artifact of the period immediately before exacting mastery of the studio became their modus operandi.

69. “Sgt. Pepper Reprise” (Sgt. Pepper’s): Unpopular opinion: the reprise is better than the title track. You can almost see John, Paul, and George playing their guitars in a lineup. Note the breathless pace, its efforts to tie the album together thematically, and how well it sets the table for the epic “A Day in the Life.”

68. “I’ll Be Back” (A Hard Day’s Night): What a bold decision it was to close their third album with this track. Four of their first five (British) albums close with an uptempo cover version that seems like the band spending the last of their energy and going out with a bang. Instead, this slow, intricate number ends A Hard Day’s Night, with a focus on acoustic guitar and harmony that pointed the way to the stylings that would come to dominate Beatles for Sale.

67. “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey” (White Album): One of the great, if under-appreciated, rockers in the band’s catalogue. Lennon delivers- cryptic lyrics, with a jolting guitar line that sounds like it’s out of time with the rest of the song. Don’t let the long and ridiculous title fool you– it’s one of the best tracks on The White Album.

66. “Octopus’s Garden” (Starkey, Abbey Road): There’s a sadness and a melancholy to “Octopus’s Garden” if you listen carefully. The song is fundamentally a wish about escaping unpleasantness and conflict, and there was no shortage of this in the Beatles family when Ringo wrote this during the “Get Back” sessions. And yet, the song exudes a joy of its own: all four Beatles lovingly contribute to the song, perhaps out of affection for Ringo. Whether it’s George’s fluid guitar work, the underseas sound effects, or the fraternal harmonies, it’s lovely to see the band put so much love into a track as their recording career reached its end.

65. “It Won’t Be Long” (With the Beatles): It’s amazing how many great Beatles songs were never released as singles. This could very easily have been a big hit at the height of Beatlemania. Alas, it’s emphatic “yeah!”-oriented chorus would have drawn suspicions that the band was running out of creative steam and reusing the gimmick that made “She  Loves You” so popular. As an album opener, it’s a delight. The band’s love of girl-groups are evident with Paul and George’s echoing of John’s “Yeah”, and Lennon confidently moves the song from its vulnerable verses to its instant chorus, complete with a mock-doo-wop coda.

64. “Hello Goodbye” (Magical Mystery Tour): Sure, it’s a dumb song. I’ll admit that its lyrics are little more than lists of opposites. I will maintain until the day I die, though, that it is an eloquently crafted pop song. Note the subtle touches of surrealism and psychedelia: guitars dropping in and out of the mix, strings dropping in and out of the mix, and one of the great false endings of Sixties pop. For all that we remember the band’s albums today, hit singles kept their momentum going forward in public consciousness, and this song did the trick during the fallow period following Brian Epstein’s death and trickling into the Magical Mystery Tour fiasco.

63. “Money (That’s What I Want)” (With the Beatles): There were three– count ’em– Motown covers on the band’s second studio album. As such, the band played a role in further popularizing the sound of Detroit and bringing it into the most suburban of enclaves, while still respecting the tenor and the tone of the music. This one ends With the Beatles with one of the standout vocal performances of Lennon’s career. It’s desperate, and it is a desperation bound to contempt of his subject. Listen to that throwaway “I wanna be free!” during the final choruses.

62. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (Abbey Road): Plodding, urgent and relentless, this song took me a good long while to appreciate. There is a depth of erotica in this song, the deepest of sexual longing that John felt for Yoko. It descends into madness with moog synthesizers hissing at the very end, almost sounding like a rocket going off. John was perhaps the band’s least talented guitarist, but he delivers some of his finest work on a Beatles track here. It’s a wholly unexpected way to end the consistently excellent first side of Abbey Road.

61. “Things We Said Today” (A Hard Day’s Night): This track, nestled in the middle of Side 2 of A Hard Day’s Night shows Paul’s development as a songwriter. Acoustic, introverted, and playing between minor and major keys, it’s also one of the most sophisticated Beatles tracks of its era.

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90. “Dig A Pony” (Let It Be): This track continues an unfortunate trend that would continue throughout the 70s: Lennon writing abject nonsense, expecting that literati would bail him out and proclaim toss-off work as genius. It mostly worked here, with lines like “pick a Moondog,” and “syndicate any boat you row.” If you put that aside, however, this is one of the only times that the “Get Back” sessions succeeded in the manner in which they were intended. As a bare-bones rocker that builds tension, drips soul, and works beautifully as an ensemble piece, it truly plays out like the Beatles returning to–and indeed, elevating–their roots.

89. “Oh! Darling” (Abbey Road): The Beatles were enamored of Fifties pastiches during the final leg of their journey together– “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is very much in that same vein. The pitch-perfect vocals, Paul’s melodic bass-playing, and barrelhouse piano make this a strong exercise in doo-wop channeled through Little Richard. Paul’s vocals, indeed, were rarely as uninhibited as they were in recording this track.

88. “Helter Skelter” (White Album): And here we have perhaps the most raucous song in the Beatles’ entire catalog. This whole song feels like its rewriting the laws of gravity, heavy yet fluid, like a different band somehow inhabited the Beatles’ bodies while they recorded “Helter Skelter.” To this day, I still find it a little bit frightening to listen to this track at night.

87. “Think For Yourself” (Harrison, Rubber Soul): It’s impressive how much George’s songwriting improved in just a handful of months between Help! and Rubber Soul. George is, again, sour–essentially dismissing a former lover–but it works beautifully in the song’s medium. In America, with a different track list, Rubber Soul was marketed and consumed as folk-rock, and this song stands up with the very best of that genre, with tight harmonies from John and Paul, with some tasty fuzz bass heavy in the mix.

86. “Don’t Let Me Down” (b-side): It’s hard to believe that John and Yoko were together for less than a year when this track was recorded. John’s visceral need for her fills every pore of this song–made poignant by the fact that she’s filling the role of companion and confidant that his mates in the band once had. While most of the “Get Back” outtakes sound like the songs are controlling the band, the band is holds the reins confidently. Billy Preston’s rock organ fills some tasteful flourishes, and John sings with a soulful desperation he rarely matched at any point in this career.

85. “The Long and Winding Road” (Let It Be): I once saw this track listed among the worst #1 hits of all time. I don’t agree, especially given that it’s up against “Hey Paula,” “You Light Up My Life,” “Don’t Forget My Number,” and “Never Gonna Give You Up.” But my God was this song poorly served. Strings and a chorus drown out what was intended as a slow R&B number in the spirit of Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin. Worse, Ian MacDonald digs deep in the tracks when writing Revolution in the Head to find some unforgivably bad bass work by John–MacDonald falls just short of considering it sabotage when presented as finished work. In spite of the track’s tortured history, there’s no denying its kernel of greatness, written in the midst of Paul’s season of the soul-searching that also birthed “Let It Be.”

84. “Birthday” (White Album): Sure, this number is dumb. Certainly, Ringo’s drum solo is fascinatingly bad. Indubitably, it serves as an example of what happens when you base a song around a riff and do nothing to move beyond it. But this is the only time the band sounds like they are actually having fun recording The White Album. I can’t penalize that.

83. “Yellow Submarine” (Revolver): It might be one of the most famous of all Beatles songs. Due to its prolific presence on children’s records, it was probably the first Beatles song many of us heard. While it lacks the true escapism and the heart of “Octopus’s Garden,” it is still an arresting children’s song that can also be read as a journey into the mind. And like “Birthday,” the band’s glee at letting loose in the studio is very much palpable, especially Lennon’s mad call-and-response to Ringo’s vocals in the third verse.

82. “Love You To” (Harrison, Revolver): If “Norwegian Wood” gave us some Indian flavors to what is otherwise a Western folk ballad, “Love You To” is closer to a true Indian-style composition, with fuller instrumentation. It radically departed from Top 40 norms with classic South Asian improvisation at the beginning and the coda, and the use of the drone, it’s melody never straying from a mere five-note range. It is still vintage George, concluding “I’ll make love to you, if you want me to” with shades of the same indifference betrayed on “If I Needed Someone.” I’ve always found it fascinating that one of George’s songs on Revolver was a rejection of Western materialism, and another basically groaned about his tax bracket. We are composed of multitudes.

81. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (Let It Be): I have to admit that I’m a sucker for songs that have distinct movements that combine into one at the very end. “Silly Love Songs” is one. “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” by The Guess Who is another. This rare technique works delightfully, taking two songs that would have been half-baked on their own and merging them into something greater. Paul is optimistic while John bemoans his “hard year,” Paul gets to scream, George plays some confident lead guitar that never overwhelms the song, and Billy Preston–in the background far more than in other tracks from this session–keeps it all together.

80. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (Sgt. Pepper’s): The opening salvo of an album many consider the greatest of all time. Paul and George Martin pull out all the stops to establish the Edwardian nostalgia that pervades the rest of the album (and yes, Sgt. Pepper does have coherent themes and motifs, although skeptics will try and argue otherwise.) From brass bands, to music hall clichés about their audience being lovely and wanting to take them home, it is a self-aware act of table setting to songs that look back on the English pastoral. Also– kudos to Paul for some lead vocals that are much more difficult than they sound– listen to the track’s vocals in isolation some time. You’ll be surprised at how high-pitched they are.

79. “Don’t Bother Me” (With the Beatles): George’s first composition on a Beatles record is a hidden gem of their catalog. His sullen, solitary song is more self-aware, allow the author to permeate the song, to an even greater degree than Lennon-McCartney’s material at the time. With an unusual chord sequence, liberal use of minors,  and a spartan percussive track, it might be the most complex Beatles song recorded in the year of our Lord, 1963.

78. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (Sgt. Pepper’s): Again, the key to Sgt. Pepper is seeing it as equal parts psychedelic journey of the mind and exercise in Edwardian nostalgia. Nowhere are these dual identities more clear than in the track that brings Side One to a close. With lyrics taken nearly verbatim from an old circus poster, a fairground atmosphere is created through a litany of ingenious effects, descending into madness at the very end. It’s interesting that four songs from this era- Sgt. Pepper, Kite, the Sgt. Pepper reprise, and Magical Mystery Tour– are all acts of salesmanship, selling a show, a tour, a carnival.

77. “I’m Looking Through You” (Rubber Soul): Good on the British version, great on the folky American LP. I do wish that they had another day or two to keep working the song– the electric guitar part is jarring and incongruous, although it provides some needed contrast. Maybe get Brian Jones to come in and play a mandolin or something. McCartney is taking a page from Lennon, writing more introspective songs drawn from real life instead of inventing the romantic conceits that defined the first handful of Beatles albums.

76. “For No One” (Revolver): Just listen to that plaintive French horn solo on this song. Although it is filled with clever piano exercises, it’s one of the most beautiful instrumental passages on any Beatles track.

 

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If you aren’t listening to the new podcast “Who Cares About the Rock Hall?” you should. Its approachable, informed, and conversational style make it a delight for both novices getting into Rock Hall hobbyism as well as more seasoned folk who have been following it for some time. Two comedians, Joe Kwaczala and Kristen Studard, hash out Rock Hall news and controversies, premised on Joe’s fascination with this institution butting heads with Kristen’s ebbing skepticism about why it matters. I think they are more harsh toward the Moody Blues than I would be, but that’s my only criticism, and not a very substantive one at that.

They produced a standout episode this week. Kristen and Joe scored a real coup in getting Roy Trakin, a former Nominating Committee member, as a guest. Mr. Trakin was on the committee from the classes of 1999-2006, and again from 2011-2015. Trakin cut his teeth in the New York alternative media before going on to become a music writer, editor, and copyrighter. I was impressed throughout the podcast at Roy’s professionalism. If you put me in front of a mic and ask me to talk about the Rock Hall, I’d probably start by ranting about how much I hate Kiss. Trakin didn’t really take any cheap shots at artists, even when it seemed he didn’t like them, or didn’t approve of their credentials. He also gave listeners some juicy tidbits into how the secretive Nominating Committee works. Here are some of them:

  • His reflection that Jann Wenner, Jon Landeau, and Seymour Stein are the “movers and grovers” on the committee, especially since Ahmet Ertegun died. He listed Little Stevie Van Zandt, Questlove, and Tom Morello as some of the more influential voices presently.
  • Roy noted that he was the one who lobbied for Blondie and Hall & Oates to make the ballot. (Most of us assumed it was Questlove in the latter case, although it’s probable that they both spoke in support of them.) Given his work in the New York underground scene in the Seventies, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he also was responsible for getting the New York Dolls on the ballot several years ago.
  • In maybe the biggest shock, Roy admitted that Hall & Oates’ management payed for his airfare to New York to attend the meeting. He was going to lobby on their behalf anyway, but that’s still a striking scenario.
  • This also suggests that you do need to be in New York in person for the meeting. This arrangement might favor committee members who operate out of New York and have the means and time to attend every year.
  • Trakin reflected on how Jann Wenner would “bounce in and out of the meeting.” It makes sense in a way, since they all gather at the 6th Avenue headquarters of Rolling Stone, but one shouldn’t suggest that he doesn’t play a role just because he isn’t formally on the committee.
  • Roy described the meeting as taking place for one day, for 3-4 hours, with sumptuous catering from the Carnegie Deli. In the old days, each person made a case for three bands, with arguments getting more elaborate to the point of including powerpoints and other audio-visuals as the years went on. From there, you rated up to five acts– which was eventually revised to simply listing up to five unranked acts. And the ballot was derived from there. (Today, each person gets to list only two acts, making the process more of a discussion by contrast.)
  • Trakin discuses manager and business impresario Irving Azoff as “the hidden guy.” He certainly helped Journey and Bon Jovi get in. There was also a brief discussion of Azoff’s involvement with the Doobie Brothers, which makes me even more likely to include them in my predictions this year.
  • Finally, their guest favored a “veteran’s committee” since so many of the early rock and roll acts are moving out of living memory.
  • Maybe the most moving part of this podcast was when Roy, Joe, and Kristen talked about how the Hall of Fame and the efforts that go into it comes from a deep desire to see rock and roll go on and endure. Because of where we are in the eschaton, we lose a sense that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may very well still be around after all of us are gone, and may one day be a principal way that rock and roll’s history and significance is commemorated. It’s a sobering thought, one that lends gravity to the process of gatekeeping.
  • There was also some good reflections on how one gets a Rock Hall-caliber résumé in this day and age. Our consumption and enjoyment of music is fragmented into disparate genres, with Spotify channels, the self-curation of youtube, the decline of radio, the rise of indie, and mixtape culture all contributing to a single outcome: it’s difficult for one artist to have a cultural impact with the same breadth as, say, Elvis, Michael Jackson, or The Rolling Stones. Even acts of the last decade that seem successful by acclamation– Jay-Z, Arcade Fire, Taylor Swift– are niche in some respect.

All told, that was a great episode, and I learned a lot from it in terms of the mechanics of how the Rock Hall operates, as well as the spirit in which it is intended.

 

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Gentle readers! Our journey through the primrose path of Beatles lore reaches an important milestone with this post. We finally cross the threshold into the top one hundred tracks by this iconic band.

105. “I’m Only Sleeping” (Revolver): As I’ve said before in an earlier post, one of my peculiarities is that I find McCartney’s whimsy more charming than the average listener, and I find Lennon’s laziness more irksome as well. This song is, of course, emblematic of the latter category, where Lennon’s inertia has been misread as creative genius by generations of critics whose faculties have privileged authenticity over craftsmanship. Not a bad song in any respect, but it doesn’t deserve to be included in poetry anthologies (and I have, indeed, seen it included there!) A lot of its heavy lifting was done by George Harrison’s exquisite backwards guitar parts as well as EMI’s engineering staff.

104. “Yes It Is” (b-side): It is easy to peg this as derivative of “This Boy” with its three-part harmonies and its excellent Lennon lead vocal breaking out at key points in this song. The song breaks out of its predecessor’s shadow with its matured and almost gothic sense of outliving one’s love, creating a haunting and Victorian effect.

103. “Please, Mr. Postman” (Five Different Motown Guys, With the Beatles): What a great way to end the first side of their second record. The Marvelettes play coy on their seminal version of the track, which became famous among music trivia buffs as Motown’s first #1 record. In Lennon’s hands, the song gains a fierce, almost primal urgency that would have raised eyebrows and elicited pearl-clutching had a woman in 1963 sung it with equal abandon and sexual desperation.

102. “Two Of Us” (Let It Be): Phil Spector’s leaden production left this track thankfully unblemished, save for Lennon studio chatter at the beginning. (Did you ever notice how snide Lennon commentary comes at the beginning or end of every song McCartney wrote for the album?) This song is well-loved because the tune Paul wrote for Linda became, over the years, one that represented John and Paul’s friendship. The sentiment, I fear, has led us to overvalue the song, which even in its sincerity and simplicity is undercooked. With George Martin at the controls and time to develop in a less dysfunctional atmosphere than Twickenham Studios, this song could have been something really special. As it stands canonically, it seems more like a really good Anthology 3 outtake.

101. “Long, Long, Long” (Harrison, The White Album): This track took years- decades, I think- to grow on me. Part of it, I think, is the investment of concentration this song demands. This goes double, given that it has the misfortune of following “Helter Skelter.” You need to turn your stereo up to pick up on the track and discern George’s soft, ethereal voice that seems to come from another plane of existence. The last thirty seconds are haunting with wine glasses pealing and an otherworldly moan disorienting our the listener. Note to John: if you want to be experimental in 1968, this is a better way to do it.

100. “Julia” (The White Album): Others might like this track more. I’m ranking it just a bit lower for an admittedly dumb reason: I put the whole Beatles catalogue on Spotify, and when I put it all on random play, “Julia” comes up an improbable number of times, and usually when I need an uptempo tune. Be that as it may, John aims for–and achieves–a beautiful, plaintive simplicity here. In fact, it’s the only track in the band’s entire canon where John is the only Beatle to appear. For all of the other songs that try to make sense of his own mind or his own relationship with his brothers in the band, it’s clear here that he is moving on to Yoko as the fulcrum of his identity, despite (or perhaps because of) the song’s maternal allusions.

99. “The Fool on the Hill” (Magical Mystery Tour): “Nowhere Man” is treated as a classic. “Fool on the Hill” is treated as filler that should never have made the “Blue Album” greatest hits collection. True, “Nowhere Man” came first and is certainly the better song, but Paul captures the nature of the wise, eccentric genius, a man of sorrows rejected by his contemporaries. Like a certain song Paul write with the Wings, he argues that there is a certain wisdom in apparent silliness. Although the third verse sounds unfinished (“they don’t like him…”) it remains a thoughtful, well-crafted song written in the midst of post-Pepper burnout.

98. “Across the Universe” (Let It Be): The history of this track is a tortured one, written and recorded on the fly for a charity record before making it to the Let It Be album, despite its absence during the Twickenham sessions. Along with “Long and Winding Road” this was damaged by Phil Spector’s production. The inherent beauty of the song that began in Rishikesh are washed out in strings and choruses. Lennon is writing prose that sounds deeper than it is, and as Ian MacDonald wrote, the song would be much better served if it had a bridge or a counterpoint for emphasis. Despite all this, John achieved something beautiful here that none of these flaws can mitigate.

97. “Get Back” (Let It Be): One of the band’s weaker singles, “Get Back” is also tied to the abortive sessions from which it came. We get a rare John lead guitar part, and some standout work from Billy Preston on the organ that commend the song. But from a lyrical angle this song represents some of the least forward motion of any A-side they came up with.

96. “Within You, Without You” (Harrison, Sgt. Pepper’s): Following up on “Love You To,” George delves deeper into Hindu rhythms, instrumentation, and philosophy. George Martin, as usual, delivers the near-impossible by transliterating an Indian music passage into something playable by a Western orchestra. The lyrics, though, are both mystic on one hand, but deeply scolding on the other. Behind the beautiful melody, George is looking down his nose at self-deceivers, those who “gain the world but lose their soul.” Leave it to George to make the rich Hindu cosmology seem dour and puritanical. This song was my first introduction to anything remotely resembling Indian music– in a way, it was the very first baby-step on a path that led to me studying the history of India as my minor field in history, teach India’s history at my university for a short while, and eventually visit India as part of a delegation sent by my school. I programed my in-flight entertainment to play “Within You, Without You” to play the moment we touched down in New Delhi. Life flows on.

95. “Love Me Do” (Please Please Me): Look, it’s impossible to talk about this song without considering its historical significance. Yes, the lyrics are simple and barely even workmanlike. But consider, for a moment, the balls of brass it must have taken for a band in 1962 to release one of their own compositions as their first single. And consider how radical it must have been to hear a bunch of Northerners on the radio who put the harmonica front and center. Maybe this wouldn’t have passed for barroom blues anywhere in the USA, but considering how the UK lacked that heritage, this song was an earth-shaking introduction of American rhythm and blues onto BBC programming. That’s enough for me to put it in the top 100.

94. “No Reply” (Beatles for Sale): Look up any collection of writing on the Beatles, and I guarantee you that if they talk about “No Reply,” they’ll bring up the story of publisher Dick James congratulating John and Paul on finally writing a track that sounds like a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. With “I’m A Loser” it’s credited- wrongly, I think- as the next milestone in the Lennon-McCartney trajectory. It’s a delightfully bold choice, though, to start an album with a track like this, considering that buoyant rockers started each of their first three LPs.

93. “Martha My Dear” (White Album): Simple, elegant, and whimsical, this song might not be great in isolation, but it’s the perfect tonic to the experimental, cynical, and/or existential songs that dominate the White Album. It’s also a testament to Paul’s growing aplomb as a piano player and George Martin’s reputation as an arranger.

92. “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (single): This song eagerly takes up John’s favorite subject– himself. The references– indeed, the self-comparisons– to Christ got the track kicked off the radio and wallowing in minor controversy. Recorded with just John and Paul in the studio tracking on the various instruments, it sounds nothing more like what the band played in all those Live at the BBC covers. The lightly tropical feel, the Chuck Berry guitar lines, Paul’s high harmonies– this is the kind of track the band could do in their sleep by now. As a “Back in the USA”-style travelogue, it highlights the Bed-In phase of his relationship with Yoko while doubling down on his demand that world media pay attention to him.

91. “Paperback Writer” (single): Three members of the band were experimenting with acid by the time this song was recorded. Paul, the only one who hadn’t done LSD by this point, keeps everything in line with his solid bass playing while John and George are barely suppressing giggles in the background. As an ensemble piece, though, this track owns, with Ringo in particular in his finest form in 1966. And yet, like “Get Back,” this doesn’t really chart any new waters after the similarly riff-based “Day Tripper” that came out some months earlier. For a band in 1966, this was the best way to do acid-rock: ethereal and psychedelic, but with a crucial measure of self-control that was wholly missing from latter-day Bay Area bands.

 

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We’re almost there- the top 100 is in sight. My sense of The Beatles lately has been refreshed, partly by reading Rob Sheffield’s delightful Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World. My counting was off (having forgotten “Think for Yourself” somehow) so I’m adding in a #120a.

120a. “Good Day Sunshine” (Revolver): The first versions of a handful of Beatles albums that I ever owned were cassettes. And these cassettes– with the gold inserts, for those of you who were there at the time– often had sequencing that slightly (or significantly) altered the track sequence from the “canonical” UK releases. Revolver was perhaps the most significantly changed, with “Good Day Sunshine” bumping “Taxman” from its customary spot as the opener. I always liked Revolver a lot better this way: the warm piano fade-in, the buoyant energy, the song un-selfconsciously welcoming us before the headier material came in.

120. “Sexy Sadie” (White Album): This bitter parting shot at the Maharishi surprisingly holds back the characteristic Lennon acid. Instead, it makes its subject ridiculous, gender-swapping their former guru, introducing the rickety barrelhouse piano and employing background vocals that hearken back to the love of girl groups that informed that band’s first two albums. It’s a far cleverer choice than Lennon’s original lyrics of “Maharishi…you little twat.”

119. “I Will” (White Album): “I Will” should have been a White Album throwaway by all counts. McCartney’s sincerity is saccharine even by his lofty standards, and its lyrics (“your song will fill the air”) imitate the worst of Tin Pan Alley. The Anthology changed all that. Paul, George, and Ringo sit in a garden in Friar Park talking about writing songs in Rishikesh. George plays a snippet of “Dehra-Dun,” which was never officially released, and Paul recalls writing “I Will.” Without much prompting, George fiddles around on his ukulele until he gets the chord sequence. Ringo bangs out a beat on his knees. Paul and George try and remember the lyrics of one of the deepest of Beatles deep tracks. And it hit me: the Beatles were waiting lonely lifetimes for each other.

118. “All I’ve Got To Do” (With the Beatles): By only their second album, Lennon-McCartney had become adept at equaling their idols at their own game. This track is the second one off of their second album with an earnest lead vocal and soulful harmonies that hitch up as the chorus reaches its climax. It’s obviously an homage to Smokey Robinson, whose material is also covered directly on the album. And John and Paul already manage to write a song as good as almost any Smokey album track of similar stature.

117. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Sgt. Pepper’s): I’ve tried to avoid controversial rankings just for their own sake, but this is one legendary Beatles song where I just don’t see the appeal. The title is arresting for sure, but it serves as evidence that as far as drugs were concerned, The Beatles were a much better pot band than they were an acid band. Listen back to Lennon’s vocals— he’s completely disinterested, he’s checked out. You can write this off as being transfixed or seemingly otherworldly, but I’m not buying it. John corrected the oversight with a stellar performance on Elton John’s cover eight years later.

116. “Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey Hey” (Lieber-Stoller-Penniman, Beatles for Sale): One tidbit that emerges from Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In is how Paul was constantly imitating Little Richard as a teenager. He commanded all of the Little Richard covers since they were The Quarrymen. John Lennon took the Chuck Berry covers. George took the Carl Perkins covers. That was the rule. Paul had already scratched his itch to do his Little Richard routine on “Long Tall Sally” so the band is able to give a more nuanced and authentic- but perhaps less energetic and memorable- performance here. Lennon and Harrison’s pure glee at imitating the juke joint background vocals is palpable. Maybe it’s not as good as the original, but it’s a faithful and loving adaptation.

115. “Good Morning, Good Morning” (Sgt. Pepper’s): George and Ringo are in the background for most of Sgt. Pepper, but they help elevate this song tremendously. George gets to deliver one of the only true guitar solos on the record, and Ringo’s drumming is key from a storytelling perspective. He determines where the record pauses, speeds up, where its comedic elements are (listen to where he uses the cymbals on the verses). Listen to that double-time shift in the bridge (“People running ’round, it’s five o’clock”). By the way, for all that Lennon disparaged McCartney for writing songs about “Boring people doing boring things” this song is also a prime offender. But it’s so English, so transcendent, that I can’t fault it.

114. “I Should Have Known Better” (A Hard Day’s Night): By now, The Beatles were capable of writing songs to their strengths. Lennon’s earnestness and harmonica fills. The minor-key switch in the bridge. One strength it curiously doesn’t employ is the band’s harmonies. It’s rare to find an upbeat song in their early catalogue without them, but here it is– just John’s double-tracked lead vocal, with Paul and George occupied entirely by their instruments.

113. “You Won’t See Me” (Rubber Soul): This is an above-average McCartney ballad (although traces of Lennon influence can be detected on the bridge.) Here’s what makes me place this track relatively high: it’s one of the first Lennon-McCartney songs that uses a piano effectively. Listen to their first five albums, and they struggle to use the instrument well: Martin’s playing is too clean and clinical, but Paul and John haven’t quite gotten good at the instrument yet– and why should they? You couldn’t haul a piano up on stage at the Top Ten Club. Paul’s playing is now confident enough to give the instrument the responsibility of establishing the song’s groove.

112. “Drive My Car” (Rubber Soul): This song was recorded under the gun as the Beatles desperately tried to finish an album for the Christmas market. After attempting a song about diamond rings (shades of “If You’ve Got Trouble”?), they instead pulled off a minor miracle with this track. Clever and subversive (although marred by some dreadful double-tracking), it’s mild innuendo and its knowingly juvenile “Beep-beep” chorus makes it clear that The Beatles have moved beyond the moptop era.

111. “Roll Over Beethoven” (Berry, With the Beatles): George must have played this iconic guitar part hundreds of times in Hamburg and Cavern performances by the time they finally committed this Chuck Berry classic to record in 1963. Again, with those first four albums, the track assignment wants to market the band as personalities, with George earmarked as the kid brother. It works beautifully for this song– you can imagine a barely 20-year-old George popping quarters in the jukebox and writing a letter to his deejay. The believability– the conceit of the juvenile narrator, is what makes this track, in my opinion, surpass Berry’s original.

110. “Don’t Pass Me By” (Starkey, White Album): Ringo’s partisans among the Beatlemaniac community had been waiting for years and years for a song of his own to make it to a record. When it finally happened, it turned out to be a jaunty country-and-western ditty. If left under-produced, this could have been a woeful and derivative “What Goes On.” With an assist from George Martin, Ringo’s best qualities shine: his sad and luckless persona is given ballast by extra echo and an Appalachian fiddle. Say what you want about Ringo as a songwriter, but both of his efforts were either in- or close to- the top half of this ranking.

109. “I’m Down” (b-side): Remember what I said about McCartney’s need to imitate Little Richard at the drop of a hat? Inspired by the positive reception of their “Long Tall Sally” cover, McCartney tried to write his own version of a Little Richard song. It’s not an unqualified success– there’s some traces of casual misogyny, and it’s paint-by-numbers approach lacks the leering observance of Rev. Penniman. But when one things of this song, it’s hard not to imagine The Beatles performing it at Shea Stadium, in front of 60,000 mad, screaming souls, with Lennon losing his mind and wailing on a primitive keyboard.

108. “Yer Blues” (White Album): John is just trying a bit too hard here. It’s one of the harder and edgier songs in the catalog, but it rips off the most cliched of blues melodies and as the Mr. Jones reference betrays, Lennon is trying to outdo Dylan at his own game. But it has an intensity- a sense of the band being a band- otherwise missing from the trying White Album sessions.

107. “If I Needed Someone” (Harrison, Rubber Soul): On the eve of Rubber Soul’s release, Lennon claimed that “we’re writing comedy numbers now.” The tracks on this album aren’t without their humor– witness the boho love interest of “Norwegian Wood,” the leading lady of “Drive My Car.” I think this song is funnier than either of them. George’s songs are consistently sour, reluctant, reserved, and peevish. This song is a buoyant, beautifully played, immaculately harmonized pastiche of these very qualities. I mean, George had his choice of hundreds of groupies in any city the band might visit, so “carve your number on my wall and maybe you will get a call from me” could only be written by a rock star with no shortage of available partners. So get in line and take a number, babe.

106. “All You Need Is Love” (Magical Mystery Tour): This is the first #1 hit (in the USA anyway) to be ranked in this project, and the only one of them to fall outside of the Top 100. Why, you ask? This track is a classic case of Lennon writing insincere gibberish and the world receiving it as excellent lyricism. “All You Need Is Love” rings hollow given the worldwide violence of 1967, but the track is salvaged by one of George Martin’s finest, and most eclectic scores. It’s also perhaps the Beatles most “meta” track aside “Glass Onion,” with shout-outs to “She Loves You” and “Yesterday” along the way. Nevertheless, few songs inadvertently hurt the counterculture more than this one.

 

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One of my longtime readers suggested that I put up a list of songs that have yet to be ranked on my Beatles countdown. I think this is a good idea– given that some of the posts were published months apart from one another, it can be difficult to keep track of where things are. So, with 120 songs left on the board, the ones that remain are…

Please Please Me: I Saw Her Standing There, Please Please Me, Love Me Do, Twist and Shout

With the Beatles: It Won’t Be Long, All I’ve Got To Do, All My Loving, Don’t Bother Me, Til There Was You, Please Mr. Postman, Roll Over Beethoven, You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me, Money (That’s What I Want)

A Hard Day’s Night: A Hard Day’s Night, I Should Have Known Better, If I Fell, And I Love Her, Can’t Buy Me Love, Things We Said Today, You Can’t Do That, I’ll Be Back

Beatles for Sale: No Reply, I’ll Follow the Sun, Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey, Eight Days a Week, Words of Love

Help!: Help!, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, You’re Gonna Lose That Girl, Ticket to Ride, I’ve Just Seen a Face, Yesterday

Rubber Soul: Drive My Car, Norwegian Wood, You Won’t See Me, Nowhere Man, Think for Yourself, Michelle, In My Life, Girl, I’m Looking Through You, If I Needed Someone

Revolver: Here, There & Everywhere, Eleanor Rigby, Love You To, Yellow Submarine, Good Day Sunshine, For No One, Got to Get You Into My Life, And Your Bird Can Sing, I’m Only Sleeping, She Said She Said, Tomorrow Never Knows

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, With a Little Help From My Friends, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Getting Better, She’s Leaving Home, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, Within You Without You, When I’m 64, Good Morning Good Morning, Sgt. Pepper Reprise, A Day in the Life

Magical Mystery Tour: I Am the Walrus, The Fool on the Hill, All You Need is Love, Hello Goodbye, Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields Forever

White Album: Back in the USSR, Dear Prudence, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Blackbird, Long Long Long, Don’t Pass Me By, Sexy Sadie, Helter Skelter, Yer Blues, Birthday, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey, Julia, I Will, Happiness is a Warm Gun

Yellow Submarine: Hey Bulldog, It’s All Too Much

Abbey Road: Come Together, Something, Oh! Darling, Octopus’s Garden, I Want You (She’s So Heavy), Here Comes the Sun, Because, You Never Give Me Your Money, Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through the Bathroom Window, Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End

Let It Be: Two of Us, Dig A Pony, Across the Universe, Let It Be, I’ve Got a Feeling, The Long and Winding Road, Get Back

Past Masters: She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, This Boy, Long Tall Sally, I Feel Fine, Yes It Is, I’m Down, Day Tripper, We Can Work It Out, Paperback Writer, Rain, Lady Madonna, The Inner Light, Hey Jude, Revolution, Don’t Let Me Down, The Ballad of John and Yoko

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So on Twitter, I posed a question to my fellow Rock Hall followers: who should be added to the committee? The Nominating Committee has been a bit more fluid in recent years, with mainstays like Robert Hilburn, Dave Marsh, Craig Werner, and Touré leaving, and new voices like Questlove, Amanda Petrusich, Sandy Alouete, and Dave Grohl being added.

I had a few ideas of my own, and my colleagues had some terrific suggestions as well. Here’s eleven people that the Rock Hall may want on their radar going forward. Whenever possible, I tried to limit industry executives in favor of musicians and scholars.

  1. David Byrne: Reader Nick Bambach suggested a guy who was already on my short list: David Byrne of the Talking Heads. He just finished a solo tour that included a stop at my alma mater, SUNY Buffalo. Byrne’s oeuvre, of course, was among the first to lucratively combine highbrow rock with world music influences, and his literary output has been quite good as well. About five years ago, he released a strikingly well-argued volume, How Music Works. If we are going to put more musicians on the committee, why not start with someone whose cross-generational collaboration and eclectic taste makes him stand out?
  2. Ann Powers: One of my longest-tenured readers, Tom Lane, put forward this singular suggestion. Powers noted that serving on the Nom Com would be a potential conflict of interest, given her role at NPR (where she works in the music department alongside former Nom Com member Lauren Onkey.) Powers was behind maybe the single most impressive act of music journalism last year, the Turning the Tables project which delineated the 150 greatest albums by women. At the heart of the Nom Com’s duties is figuring out: what is canonical? Powers adds immeasurable insight to that question.
  3. Carl Wilson: Not the former Beach Boy (God rest his soul) but a Slate music critic. Maybe the piece of literature that most put Wilson on the map is Let’s Talk About Love, an insightful, personal, and erudite exploration of class, taste, and criticism that uses, of all things, Celine Dion as a means to grapple with these issues.
  4. Annie Zaleski: Suggested by RobL, Zaleski is a freelance music writer whose recent work has included the liner notes for the 25th anniversary edition of REM’s seminal Out of Time. Her work has shown up in A.V. Club, Vulture, and Salon, and she has her finger on the pulse of all things Cleveland. As someone on the younger side of Generation X, she’ll also help break things away from the Baby Boomer deathgrip on the Rock Hall.
  5. Lin Manuel Miranda: Why not? Miranda rewrote the way that Top 40 and Broadway could overlap, and masterminded the most impactful soundtrack for a musical in at least a generation or two. Presently, his Hamildrops project sees new releases riffing on his work from artists closer to the rock milieu, such as Weird Al Yankovic and The Decembrists.
  6. Kim Gordon: There’s never been a female musician on the committee. Ever. Let’s fix that with one of the driving forces behind Sonic Youth. As someone inspired by Patti Smith and MC5, a contemporary of post-punk and alternative, and influenced everyone from Kurt Cobain to Deerhunter to Sigur Ros.
  7. Jeff Chang: Why does hip-hop matter? Few understand the issue with the depth of inquiry possessed by Chang. His Can’t Stop Won’t Stop was one of the very best scholarly assessments of hip-hops rise to prominence and its growth and development as a global cultural vernacular.
  8. Chris Molanphy: He’s now on the larger voting committee, as he revealed on a podcast a couple years ago. But I think Molanphy should be further promoted. His take on why we bother grousing about the Rock Hall and what purpose it serves- called “The Right Way to Complain About the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”– was one of the pieces that inspired my ongoing research project on the Rock Hall and public pantheons.
  9. Daphne Brooks: She teaches African-American studies at no less a locale than Yale University. Brooks’s work doesn’t entirely study historically black music- she’s also written a volume on Jeff Buckley. Still, a lot of her best work is on the historical, racial, and gendered context that informed 60s soul music, and she even wrote the liner notes to a boxed set of Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic recordings. If you read this oral history interview, you’ll get the sense of a talented listener and an incisive intellect at work.
  10. Rob Bowman: A number of readers urged me to pick at least one musicologist, and I am happy to oblige. Bowman’s work explores STAX and Memphis soul in learned depth to figure out, in his words, a “musical exegesis” of its components.
  11. Rhiannon Giddens: Giddens is a jaw-droppingly talented singer of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who has also ventured out into a solo career. On her own or with the CCD, she’s been nominated for a raft of awards, and won a Grammy for the best folk album. She was, just last year, named a MacArthur Fellow. As the organization put it, “Giddens’ drive to understand and convey the nuances, complexities, and interrelationships between musical traditions is enhancing our musical present with a wealth of sounds and textures from the past.” She will help link R&B to its roots in Americana, folk, and roots music.

 

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