Friday, July 30, 2010

7/30/10 - Songs of the Summer, #35-36: "Rock Your Baby" and "The Hustle"

The Master List

Top Song of 1974: "Rock Your Baby" by George McCrae

And disco arrives to the party. Or rather, starts the next phase of the party. The immediate appearance of the four-on-the-floor beat (here carried by the bass, not the drums) signals that rock is on its way out as a summer pop chart topping genre, and that dance music is ascendant. With the odd blip coming in the '80s, that's pretty much how things would continue until hip-hop/R&B took the dance music mantle.

As an example of the type of music that inspired the "Disco Sucks" movement, what's startling about "Rock Your Baby" is how innocuous it is. It's no more vapid than, say, "Purple People Eater." It's a solidly constructed pop song, and McCrae puts some serious falsetto on display. The way that his voice floats over the airy bed of keyboards and short, bright guitar riffs, all floating along on bouncing sea of bass, give the song a feeling of a cruise ship ride in perfect weather - all nonchalant relaxation.

What's different about it is that the grit and sloppiness of rock, evident from "Rock Around the Clock" all the way through "Bad Bad Leroy Brown", is gone. Even tight, safe-sounding pop/rock like "I Feel The Earth Move" has a visceral immediacy to it that "Rock Your Baby" lacks. The edges (the percussive piano chords of "I Feel The Earth Move", the hint of gospel desperation in the backing vocals of "Tossin' and Turnin'", the raw sexual primacy of Elvis's vocal delivery), are all sanded down.

Top Song of 1975: "Do The Hustle" by Van McCoy

And here I claimed that disco was appearing. I stand corrected. This is the first straight-up out-of-central-casting Disco with a capital D song. It's got all the signifiers; the four-on-the-floor drums, the string glissandos, the funk guitars that float in and out, the whispered over-the-top woman whispering "Do It" while the crowd shouts "Do The Hustle!" It's almost time-capsule stereotypical; the seventies answer for "Heartbreak Hotel."

All I can say is, there's a reason that the '70s got a lot of grief for the musical developments. After a frenzied pace of musical innovation that saw rock artists go from three-chord rockabilly songs about drag racing to things like Pet Sounds and The White Album, this song sounds almost painfully simplistic and retrograde. Rock managed to stand on its own, the sound of disco is the sound of music being moved back to the background - necessary for dancing, but no way would you put it on in your headphones and soak it in.

That's my rock and roll bias, though. I can hear the way that this marks a radical shift in its own right - "Do The Hustle" may not point the way forward quite as elegantly as "Rock Your Baby", but it still serves notice that what constituted pop music was taking a sharp turn. The strings point the way towards a re-incorporation of synthesized sounds, and the instantly recognizable disco rhythm announces that henceforth if you want to chart in the summertime, your chances are a lot higher if someone can dance to your music, and not just boogie a little bit to some gospel piano.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

7/29/10 - Songs of the Summer, #33-34: "Lean On Me" and "Bad Bad Leroy Brown"

The Master List

Top Song of 1972: "Lean On Me" by Bill Withers

What makes a standard? What separates the songs that exist in the ephemeral pop present, with its surface pleasures and easy discardibility, from those that find their place in the foundation of a culture? Is it the intent of the writer/performer? That's a cynical interpretation, holding that the hitmaker is somehow more craven and less worthy of respect than the artists out to make a Statement, when in reality the songs that become standards are often just as driven by crass commercialism as the hitmakers. Nobody creates art to stuff it in a drawer - art is, after all, meant for an audience.

Nonetheless, sometimes you get songs like "the Macarena", or "Red Rubber Ball", which disappear as soon as they hit their expiration date, and sometimes you get songs like "Lean On Me", which get called up to the majors and gets added to the cultural songbook, subject to endless revisions, recollections, and re-interpretations:

Part of it, surely, is the universality of the sentiment. The altruistic message of "Lean on me" is just on the right side of preachy, and captures, along with the gospel trappings, the aching feeling of wanting to help someone that might not be inclined to accept it. It's a touching acknowledgment of the kind of basic human vulnerability that usually finds its expression in weepy singer-songwriter ballads, not warm, funky, inviting songs like this one.

Bill Withers has a great voice for the song, too - this is a song that can easily get oversung, and frequently does; perversely, that has the effect of making the sentiment at the heart of the song seem false, more Hallmark greeting card then an impulse toward tender human connection. Withers sings it clear and without histrionics, getting right to the heart of the song's message and inviting listeners in. It's the difference between a neon sign on a flashy bar at night and a friendly neighbor on the front porch serving lemonade in the summertime.

Top Song of 1973: "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce

First of all, watch that clip, even if just for a second. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a mustache of the highest order. I've got a pro-Croce bias, due to my parents listening to him a whole lot around the house while I was growing up. So "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" is one of the backing tracks of my childhood, which means I'm already predisposed to by nostalgia at the very least to like it.

What stands out, listening to it in retrospect, is how the whole song is entirely dependent on the songwriting. Although this is a live version, it's true for the recorded version as well. Croce's voice is pleasant enough, but not distinctive. His backing band does an adequate job fleshing out the song, with the basic catchy piano riff anchoring the whole thing, and the women echoing the "Bad!" "Bad!" lines during the chorus, which is really where the song sticks in the brain, but overall this is very, very basic pop-rock.

This isn't a knock: it points to the power that good songwriting can have in the pop-rock idiom. The song is flawlessly constructed: the chorus is the catchiest part, and fun to sing along with. The verses tell a clear, coherent story, creating a vivid character, and delivering him to his fate with a refreshing moral clarity. The barroom piano gives it energy, the acoustic guitar fleshes out the sonic palette, and the whole song hangs together with exemplary economy. It's harder than it looks to write a song like this, but when someone does they usually have a hit on their hands, as Croce did.

(Plus, the mustache can't hurt).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

7/27/10 - Songs of the Summer, #31-32: "American Woman" and "I Feel The Earth Move"

The Master List

Top Song of 1970: "American Woman" by the Guess Who

Here, in "American Woman", comes the first echo of "Wild Thing", and the last summer #1 from the hard rock branch of the rock and roll tree. Here, too, marks the end of a certain furious pace of innovation in rock 'n' roll, because there's much less innovation/evolution from "Wild Thing" to "American Woman" than there is from say, "Heartbreak Hotel" to "I Get Around".

"American Woman" also illuminates one of the issues that I have with classic rock radio. A few entries ago, I wrote about songs that have been played on the radio since they first became hits; most of the time, these are straight up classics, but every so often you get a song like "American Woman" that seems to get continual airplay through simple inertia. It was a hit, it sounds like rock and roll, so slot it in between "Pinball Wizard" and "Hotel California". Classic rock then just becomes an overtly narrow band band of culture, not any sort of sonic organizing principle. So it ossifies into oldies radio, just of different vintage. The opportunity is there to bring in similar sounds, but really it's just the same handful of songs over and over, which do those songs no favors as they quickly become tiresomely overexposed.

But I think I'm out of step when it comes to this song, because Lenny Kravitz recorded a cover of it that was also a gigantic hit, so it has to be the song itself. My sense is that it's the guitar riff syncopated against the "American woman" vocal phrase, which has the same kind of primal thump that "Wild Thing" utilizes so well. Sometimes all you really need is a great, simple guitar riff - "American Woman" has got that. It's just that so little of the song other than that riff stands out in any way.

Top Song of 1971: "I Feel The Earth Move" by Carole King

Speaking of American women, here comes one of the periodic female cameos on this list, Carole King. There's no getting around it; men have a stranglehold on the summer hits list, especially once the rock 'n' roll era comes around. So it's a bit of a breath of fresh air to find such a frank statement of female desire, with the pounding keys underpinning the bluesy chorus emphasizing King's carnality and the lyrics, all apocalyptic imagery of a world coming apart due to the narrator's fierce desire.

The refrain that opens the song is so good, in fact, that to my ear it almost overshadows the weaker "ooh baby" section, where King switches back to a gentler major key and backs off of the aggression. I get the tension between the two parts, and that it makes the refrain hit even harder when she brings it back, but it almost seems like it belongs in a different song. Unlike "American Woman", there's more here going on than just one good riff - the melody is catchy, the lyrics vividly capture a certain kind of volcanic desire, and there's a push-pull between the two sections of the song that keep the tension balanced, even if I'm not sold on the execution of the bridge.

King's percussive piano playing on this song is a style that, in my opinion, isn't used enough in rock music. The appearance of a piano in a rock song usually signals that it's either a sappy ballad or a "rollicking" country-ish song, but the piano is actually a percussion instrument, the closest in feel to the drums of any other standard rock 'n' roll instrument. When Ben Folds Five has their brief window of success in the '90s, it always felt unfair to me that their hit was a ballad, when more than any other artist since early Elton John Folds really explored the piano as a percussive rock instrument. And speaking of Sir Elton, he also briefly dabbled with the style that King plays in here - his 11-17-70 live album is a revelation. Plus, Little Richard and all. I get that it's hard to tour with a grand piano, but hey, I'm a selfish listener. I'd like some more pounding piano, please.

Friday, July 23, 2010

7/23/10 - Songs of the Summer, #29-30: "Mrs. Robinson" and "Get Back"

The Master List

Top Song of 1968: "Mrs. Robinson" by Simon and Garfunkel

How you feel about Art Garfunkel potentially goes a long way toward determining your status as an optimist or a pessimist. Really, it's the same issue presented by the case of Ringo Starr; how, as a person striving for success in a day and age where massive fame and money signifies both (whether rightly or wrongly), do you view someone that hit a cosmic jackpot out of proportion to his talents?

Because, talent-wise, there's no doubt that Art Garfunkel is a very good singer, but he's not bringing as much to the table as Paul Simon, not by a long shot. A good vocalist in his own right, Paul Simon is a fantastically talented songwriter, and Art Garfunkel is not. Which is fine. Talent is not distributed fairly in the world; a truth that most people come to grips with at some point in their lives. But how cruel for Art Garfunkel, who had to come to grips somehow with the fact that his childhood friend and longtime musical partner was just flat-out more talented than he was? And that despite being billed as Simon & Garfunkel, Art was in no way Simon's equal. A crucial ingredient to the folk-rock sound, and surely a strong voice in their collaborative partnership, but hardly a McCartney to Simon's Lennon (or vice versa).

So, what to make of Art Garfunkel, who has a phenomenally successful recording career mostly by dint of being friends with Paul Simon? Lucky break, karmic dues, or yet another sign of the universe's injustice? Ringo Starr was hardly the best drummer to come out of England in the '60s, but he fit the sound better than Pete Best, so he gets to be an icon. Such is the power of a well-written song, which can propel those attached to it like passengers of a rocket.

Mrs. Robinson is a lot funkier than it gets credit for, and I'm waiting for a rapper to snag the percussive opening acoustic passage along with the "doo doo doos". It's also got a pile driver of a chorus, and hits that peculiar Paul Simon sweet spot of being relatively inscrutable but seeming like it makes sense.

Top Song of 1969: "Get Back" by the Beatles

Speaking of Ringo's the Beatles's only summertime #1, from the last days before they deconstructed the Voltron of rock and roll to transform back into four British individuals charting their own course in a popular culture that they themselves transformed.

The Beatles are very difficult to write about. As a rock and roll fan who came of musical listening age in the '80s/'90s, I was already subject to a thousand different variations and responses to the Beatles's core blueprint. Trying to get a bead on them is like being on the 50th floor of a skyscraper and getting a glimpse of the foundation.

Maybe my favorite recent piece on the Beatles is Chuck Klosterman's review of their re-released work; he takes the conceit of treating the Beatles as a "1960s band so obscure that their music is not even available on iTunes", and proceeds to review their collected works as though he'd never heard of them before.

Particularly apropos:

"It is not easy to categorize the Beatles’ music; more than any other group, their sound can be described as “Beatlesque.” It’s akin to a combination of Badfinger, Oasis, Corner Shop, and everyother rock band that’s ever existed. The clandestine power derived from the autonomy of the group’s composition—each Beatle has his own distinct persona, even though their given names are almost impossible to remember. There was John Lennon (the mean one), Paul McCartney (the hummus eater), George Harrison (the best dancer), and drummer Ringo Starr (The Cat). "

For another in-depth look at the Beatles free from the encrusted myths around the band, George Starostin, a linguistics graduate student with a side passion for '60s/'70s rock has an excellent write-up here. Fair warning: the page color will give you a headache, but the writing is sharp and insightful.

Most other writing about the Beatles holds them up as paragons of '60s youth culture, the apex of everything rock and roll, etc. Or else takes the tired contratian POV that the Beatles weren't that great. Which they were. They were that fucking great.

"Get Back" is extraordinarily catchy. The guitar hits at the end of each verse line and in the middle of the chorus perfectly end the melodic phrases of each. The refrain is simple but richly allusive ("Get back to where you once belonged" could be about the characters in the song, about the Beatles themselves, about '60s youth culture, or some combination of the three). Paul McCartney is a great singer. The rockabilly licks from George are perfectly complementary to the feel of the song. Ringo holds it down with his shuffle on the drums. It's the Beatles. They knew what they were doing at this point.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

7/22/10 - Songs of the Summer, #27-28: "Wild Thing" and "Respect"

Top Song of 1966: "Wild Thing" by the Troggs and "Respect" by Aretha Franklin

"Wild Thing" is another stone-cold classic, and marks the first appearance of what would later become hard rock. The Troggs are no Led Zeppelin, but "Wild Thing" has some of the qualities that would later lead down the pathway to Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and on into Van Halen/GNR, etc.

First, the primitive sound, which is created by all the space between the guitars, bass, and drums. Listen to this contrasted with "Satisfaction", which has a fluid syncopation between the lead guitar (filling the space between each vocal line with a short melodic lead), the drums (which dance in and out of the mix around the bass, taking only a brief solo spot near the end of the chorus. Sonically, the song is relatively dense - there's only a few parts where everything drops out just for Jagger to sing over the drums.

"Wild Thing" is all pounding quarter notes during the verses, power chords underpinning the sneering lead vocal. And then the point counterpoint of a simple two chord call and response where everything drops out for the vocals. It's like "Satisfaction" with another layer or two stripped out. Richards said that he envisioned the main riff for "Satisfaction" being played on horns; it's impossible to imagine anything in "Wild Thing" being replaced by a horn section.

The primitive simplicity would be sped up by the Ramones and others and turned into punk, but the stop-start dynamics and blues pounding would lead down to songs like "Smoke On The Water", et all. AC/DC is the ethos of "Wild Thing" perfected - in '66, the Troggs were like the first shot across the bow fired by the S.S. Caveman Rock and Roll.

Top Song of 1967: "Respect" by Aretha Franklin

Another classic. It's easy to see how this turned into an unofficial feminist anthem. Compared to the most recent two female-sung songs on the summer charts in previous years ("It's My Party" and "The Locomotion"), this is take-no-quarter firebreather of a gospel raveup. Prime Aretha is less a singer than a force of nature; the power of her vocals belies the whole "just a little bit" lyric: she may say she's only asking for a little respect, but the way she comes at this song it sounds like an ironclad demand for a whole lot of it. It was Aretha's idea to cover the song, and her idea to add all the "Sock it to me"s, and in general she pretty much owns the song.

But a word about the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The Drive-by Truckers sang about the duality of "The Southern Thing" so memorably on their landmark album Southern Rock Opera, and this song is a good example of it. Only three years earlier the famous Birmingham church burning that killed four young girls rocked Alabama and the nation; even now, as Patterson Hood observes, Alabama carries the cultural imagery of Bull Conner and George Wallace. Less is made of the fact that Alabama musicians put down everything but the piano on "Respect", as well as many other songs recorded by black artists of the period. Even I make references to Alabama as the Deep South with a knowing smirk, though I've never been there, and I hardly have the right. There in the texture of "Respect" is the history coalition that America has always wrestled with, and its presence on oldies radio and at wedding dances show either progress, or blindness, or the inevitable mix of both.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

7/15/10 - Songs of the Summer, #25-26: "I Get Around" and "{I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"

Top Song of 1964: "I Get Around" by The Beach Boys

I remain convinced that the Beach Boys are severely underrated. Critical opinion on them has swung back in their favor, and certainly the Elephant 6 collective did a lot to give them some retroactive cred, and Brian Wilson is always referred to as a genius, but somehow the Beach Boys' place in the '60s rock canon has always felt a little tenuous, more subject to the changing cultural winds and less a sturdy pillar of a musical movement like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. My guess is that the factors explaining this are fourfold:

1. They're not the Beatles. No one is, but trying to match and top the Beatles served as Brian's creative challenge through the mid-'60s. He might have done it, but he was hampered by the fact that he was outnumbered two to one (it's astonishing that the Beatles had the songwriting talents of Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison at their disposal. Imagine if the Who had another songwriter on Townshend's level).

2. Their name is juvenile and misleading. It made a lot of sense when they were being marketed as adolescent music to surf and drive around to (or the evocation of that mood, anyway), but connotatively speaking, it boxes them into a certain phase of life that they moved beyond halfway through their career.

3. Their lyrics are mostly terrible. Look, rock music isn't poetry. But lyrically, almost all Beach Boys songs are pretty trite and insipid. The genius is all in the melodies, arrangements, and harmonies. This woudn't be so bad; no one accused Chuck Berry of being some profound deep thinker lyricist, but the Beach Boys songs with really good, resonant lyrics are few and far between (off the top of my head, I'd say "In My Room", "Wouldn't It Be Nice", and "Help Me Rhonda").

Once you account for those three strikes, though, it's easy to see why the Beach Boys deserve a place in the '60s rock canon. Vocally, and arrangements-wise, they were operating at a level that few bands have ever touched. A song like "I Get Around", although the subject matter is banal and the lyrics are paint-by-numbers, is absolutely packed with harmonies; three parters, four parters, multiple melodic lines stacking up on top of each other, each one carrying a different hook and a memorable harmony separate from the main vocal, which is insanely catchy in its own right. And each individual voice is distinctive and tonally pleasing. It's like "Sh-boom", but supercharged to a level of exponential complexity. And all of this complexity is hidden beneath the surface of a seemingly simplistic pop/rock song. It's an amazing trick - the song gets more complicated the deeper you listen to it. The Beach Boys are summer music through and through, and "I Get Around" is a high-water mark.

Top song of 1965: "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones

"Satisfaction" is a difficult song to write about. Like the Elvis songs, its impact is blunted by the way that it's become part of the cultural fabric. What was once the sound of danger and threatening sexuality is now the sounds of suburban lawn mowing and ponderous "This was the '60s" voiceovers in dull documentaries. It's hard to believe that the song couldn't be played on British radio because of the whole "can't get no girl reaction" line, what with the fact that "Baby Got Back" and "Hot in Herre" are coming down the pike. The most trenchant analysis comes from the two that wrote it:

So, it's the song that truly made the Rolling Stones, and it is the ur-Rolling Stones song. The Jagger quote above shows a sophistication of his understanding of how to make it in rock and roll, and points to some of the reasons the Stones have managed to endure as long as they have. Catchy title + catchy guitar riff + great guitar sound + catching the zeitgeist? That's a formula for success to this day. Although the guitar riff might need to be a synthesizer. It's this core understanding of their own strengths that have enabled the Stones to outlast all of their '60s peers. The Beatles, Beach Boys, and the Who all evolved musically at a pace that hastened their own destruction, while the Stones always kept sight of what lay at their core: a three note riff, distortion, a catchy title: it's only rock and roll but they like it.

Listen to the way that Jagger sneers out the first line - it, along with Richards's riff, is the key to the song. Rock in the '60s staged a hostile takeover of the pop charts because all of a sudden the veneer of professionalism was stripped away - no longer anonymous songwriters providing material to practiced chanteuses, or smooth-voiced crooners, but young, bored, and frustrated young men with raised sneers and a rejection of everything that didn't please them. Everyone, everyone can relate to Jagger's opening line, and, more importantly, the way he sings it, and more importantly than that, the way the itchy, nagging guitar underscores the sentiment in dirty red ink.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

7/13/10 - Songs of the Summer, #23-24: "The Locomotion" and "It's My Party"

The Master List

Top Song of 1962: "The Locomotion" by Little Eva

Into the heart of oldies radio, we are. I'm fascinated by songs, like this one, that seem like they have been and always will be played on mainstream FM radio. Some hit songs are huge, and then disappear without a trace. My nemesis from the last entry, "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini", for example, seems to have little cultural cachet except as a bit of '60s cultural debris. "The Locomotion" is probably being played on the radio this very moment, and probably playing over the PA system at a roller rink, etc.

I first noticed this with "Under the Bridge", the Red Hot Chili Peppers song from 1991. As soon as the song achieve smash hit status, it basically never stopped being played on the radio. Unlike other hits from the era, which I noticed started to disappear after a period of peak saturation, "Under the Bridge" seemed like it had hit some other plane of hit; the kind that never really fades from view. These become part of the overall cultural fabric, destined to be repeated until they're so much aural wallpaper. Usually these songs are great songs, because otherwise they don't have endurance, but even a great song can lose some of its power when it becomes part of the cultural background, instead of standing out in the foreground.

Such is the status of "The Locomotion", a song I knew entirely without ever voluntarily listening to it. Sonically it's got a lot of the Phil Spector wall-of-sound elements - horns all squashed together, dense, thick drum sound, a cascading chorus of backing vocals, and a woman's voice sitting on top of it all, sounding somehow far off in some echoey sonic chamber, vying with the piano for space in the mix.

Melodically, the hook is in the backing vocals (the "come on baby do the locomotion" refrain) that come sweeping in once the chorus hits. It's a pretty undeniable song, so much so that I'm already tired of it without ever choosing to listen to of my own volition.

Top Song of 1963: "It's My Party" by Lesley Gore

The early '60s then, marks two girl-group sounding songs as the back-to-back summer hits. This is another song that shows up a lot on oldies radio, and it's not hard to see why - the "it's my party and I'll cry if I want to" line, repeated with descending harmonies, is another "Purple People Eater" sized mind-devouring hook.

I remember my awareness of Lesley Gore coming through They Might Be Giants, who often cover the sublime "Maybe I Know" live. I remember being struck by the raw melancholy of "Maybe I Know"; the way that it stripped bare the kind of despairing emotions that TMBG songs occasionally trafficked in - it fits their sound better than I expected, because of the way that the it resonates with the absurd melancholy of some of TMBG's more overlooked material. And melodically, it's ridiculously catchy, such that the listener is caught in the melodic undertow - you're singing along with it before you even realize that it's all about being left alone and heartbroken.

"It's My Party" pulls a similar trick - the title refrain is both a kiss-off and a statement of grand self-pity; a complicated set of true emotional responses to the by-the-numbers betrayal of the verses that elevate the song to something more than just another girl-group lament of lost love. It's not a straight-up declaration of power, because the tears are those of the narrator's unmooring, but there's something affirming about bursting out in tears at a celebration; the emotion at the center of so many girl-group anthems spilling out and causing a ruckus.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

7/8/10 - Songs of the Summer, #21-22: "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" and "Tossin' and Turnin'"

The Master List

Top Song of 1960: "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini"

This is the first song of all of the ones I've written about that I truly dislike. There have been some songs that haven't really been my jam, there have been some that had parts I liked and parts I didn't, but this song irritates me in a way that's new to the songs on the list. Even moreso than "Purple People Eater", this song is clearly written as a novelty, and the rib-nudging "One, two, three, four..." sections are too cutesy by half. The delivery of the vocals also seem to carry a kind of smirking tone, and the song in general feels like the guest at a party that thinks he or she is the most charming individual around, but has no idea that what he thinks is charm comes across as overbearing.

The central hook is designed to be just as insinuating of Purple People Eater, but I actually find that the song tends to evaporate from my brain seconds after listening to it. Its attempts at playfulness come off as leaden, which may be due to the fact that lyrically it's really about shame and embarrassment, which kind of gets in the way of the chirping beach vibe that it seems to be sonically going for.

Instrumentally, too, the song seems hacky. The steel drum feel is all a little too reminiscent of Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band. It's the first instance where the sounds of slick professionalism start to detract from the music on the summer songs I've written about so far.

Top Song of 1961: "Tossin' and Turnin'" by Bobby Lewis

The sounds of faith restored. After listening to "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" multiple times in a row, putting on "Tossin' and Turnin'" felt like taking a cool drink of water on a hot day. The sound explodes out of the speakers; it's a glorious mess of gospel, blues, and another raw blast of early rock and roll.

The a capella entry "I couldn't sleep at all last night" jumps out just ahead of the instruments, and then it all comes crashing in: the gospel-inflected backup singers, the primitive banging of the drums, and the snaking bassline compose most of the sonic landscape that isn't Bobby Lewis urgent, pleading lead vocal. The sound is vital and immediate, and you can already start to hear how rock music benefits from an overload of the sonics - the sound feels like its stretching against the boundaries of the speakers, and the song is better for it.

"Tossin' and Turnin'" also marks the first summer song appearance of the gospel backing vocals undergirding (or soaring above) the chorus, which is one of my absolute favorite rock tropes. When used poorly, it can be bombastic, but when used well, as it is here, it can inject a song with the rapture of religious ecstasy. When that song is all about carnal desire and frustration, the blend of profane and sacred, sexual and transcendental joy become a potent cocktail indeed.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

7/7/10 - Songs of the Summer, #19-20 - "Purple People Eater" and "The Battle of New Orleans"

The Master List:

Top Song of 1958: "Purple People Eater" by Sheb Wooley

A scant two or three years after rock'n'roll appears on the summer charts, novelty rock makes its first appearance with Sheb Wooley's "Purple People Eater", about an alien from outer space who dreams of being a rock star. Didn't take long before everyone wanted to be Elvis, even fictional interstellar space creatures.

To its credit, "Purple People Eater" boasts an absolutely inescapable earworm of a hook - in terms of the songs on the summer list, the only hook that got as stubbornly stuck in my head was the opening line of "Sentimental Journey", and even that's a distant second to the way that the "one-eyed one-horned flyin' purple people eater" refrain burrows into the brain. It's also a triumph of absurdity - Wooley wrote in an hour, and it has the tossed-off absurdity of a five-year old describing a month-long trip.

Hilariously enough, the Time magazine article describing the genesis of the song is partially a screed against the then-fashionable production trick of speeding up vocals to create hooks in hit songs, something that Kanye West would adopt as a calling card before stepping out in front of the mic. Swap in auto-tune, or drum machines, or any other prone to evaporate sonic fad, and, well, the more things change...

Top Song of 1959: The Battle For New Orleans by Johnny Horton

The Wikipedia entry on this song is nearly too amazing to be true: the song was written by a school principal in Arkansas who set the events of the pivotal battle of the War of 1912 to music to get his students more interesting in learning history. Then Johnny Horton recorded a version with fewer expletives and historical references and enjoyed the hit of summer 1959, and the top country song of the first 50 years of the billboard charts.

What stands out about that is the way that even up until the end of the 50s, the world of pop music was still a bit of a Wild Wild West. Sure, you had professionals like Lieber and Stoller supplying Elvis with material, but you could also record a song written by a principal set to an old folk melody with a martial drumbeat and have the song of the summer. Following up, of course, a song written by a 37-year old actor based on a joke told by a friend of his kid. Fast forward Jimmie Driftwood and Sheb Wooley to 2010, and they'd be churning out quirky YouTube videos. They'd be OK Go at best, not Rihanna.