Tuesday, November 30, 2021

60s 45s

I've recently moved into a new (old) home and in the course of the move revisited my old journals that go back more than 40 (a-hem) years. In a journal from the early 90s, one of the most elaborate that I made, there is a list of the “Top 10 Songs of the 60s,” a list obviously made retrospectively. While each of the songs may not still be my faves, in the car this morning I pondered the merits of my list and the following is my attempt to justify it years later. 

10. I first heard Dionne Warwick on the radio circa 1967. My brother had the Burt Bacharach LP, Reach Out (still one of my favorite instrumentals), and here was Dionne making the songs even better. “Walk on By” is perfect pop. Every note, every bit of phrasing is exactly as it should be, not one hair out of place; no smudged mascara here. One might even call it overproduced, but for me, I can compartmentalize every aspect of the track: the trumpet, the drum brush, Dionne’s phenomenal voice. It is the soundtrack to a 60s bachelor pad. It’s gloss, though, overshadows its melancholy. 

9. Initially, “For What It’s Worth” (Buffalo Springfield) was Stephen Stills’ op-ed about the shuttering of West Hollywood’s Pandora’s Box, a teen club, the closing of which culled the riots on the Sunset Strip in 1966. The song, though, has a far more symbolic edge, representing the dissatisfaction of youth. It remains a subtle protest in the form of a monster hit. 

8. Unlike the radical bent of “For What It’s Worth,” “Bus Stop,” also from 1966, is one of the last of a kinder, gentler youth, Monkee-like; it’s theme, the mating rituals of modern teenagers. It’s a song about falling in love in the rain; nothing more complex than that. It’s like “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” older brother. 

7. Everyone knows I like a good story song, sappy or not (think “Same Auld Lang Syne,” “Taxi,” or “Wildfire”), and “Ode to Billie Joe” (1967) is certainly where, for this writer, it all began. This Southern Gothic ode rivals Tennessee Williams with visuals like a Netflix crime expose, not to mention its ingenious use of interspersed dialogue. Rarely do rock lyrics rise to this level of poetic storytelling. 

6. Baroque Pop was a subgenre of the Psychedelic era; a kind of pseudo-classical pop, and the height of it was The Left Banke’s “Walk Away, Renee.” The single, which would reach No. 5 on the pop charts in 1966, was a tribute to Renee Fladen, the girlfriend of Tom Finn, the Left Banke’s bassist. Oops. The saturated strings and rococo-inspired harpsichord are moving in and of themselves, but anyone can identify with the gloomy romance of rain on empty sidewalks, our narrator’s only sympathizer. Hmm. Rain seems to be a theme. 

5. & 4. Okay, two songs that rival one another as the most beautiful pop songs ever written (and that from a sucker for beautiful pop songs): The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” Each disguises a pervasive melancholy so prevalent as the undertone of the 60s. “God Only Knows” is what the listener wants it to be, a love song, a spiritual, a thesis of unrequited love; it is hopeful and hopeless depending on the time of day or how many drinks ones had. The song’s opening line, “I may not always love you,” is uncertain, cautious, and filled with ennui and trepidation. I may start to cry right now. It’s the sound of youth hoping against hope that love, indeed, conquers all. On a larger scale, “America” is about the lost innocence, not just of Cathy and her chum, but of America in the face of its tribulations. Unlike “God Only Knows,” “America’s” traveling companions only subconsciously understand their troubled nation. They are playful in their observations of gabardine suits and spy cameras. Not to mention that “And the moon rose over an open field” is the most beautiful sentence in all of pop music. If you’re not crying over it, you have no soul. 

3. Switching gears for a bit of soul. Today I would choose “Try a Little Tenderness” or “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” either of which vie for my top pop song of all time, but in the 90s I went through a funky-soul phase and No. 3 on my list was “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965). I cannot even write the line without hearing the trumpets blaring of the JB Band.  Almost everyone with even a passing interest in James Brown (whose name I can’t say without singing Tom Tom Club) knows that an exhausted band on tour recorded the track somewhat bedraggledly (probably not a word). Then came the studio magic. Some unknown someone got the light bulb to twist a knob marked “Speed Everything Up,” and bam, soul was funk. 

2. Many will argue with this one, and I will be easily swayed, but The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” (1966) is psychedelia’s greatest moment. And I say this from an LSD perspective – nothing rivals this song. The 12 string solo is immense and undeniable. The spacy pre-vocorder, pre-synth vocals are what psychedelics were made for – just ask Albert Hoffman (you know, cuz Timothy Leary’s dead). “Eight Miles High” came out of nowhere but its lineage is clear: the dissonant instrumental sections were unprecedented in rock, but not in jazz, where artists such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman shunned traditional harmonic structure in favor of free-form heroics. Out of it comes that solo on a tuned down 12-string Rickenbacker. Sublime. As the challenge is often made on FB, prove me wrong. 

1. “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s simple. All four Beatles. George Martin at his best. An original classical (baroque) score that predates Days of Future Passed). And lyrics that put a smile on crazy ol’ Ezra Pound. It is the perfect sophisticated pop song, a song that elevated rock to something that it had never been. As an English teacher, it rivals the best in poetic verse. Here’s where I’ll go overboard (you know the No. 1 now, so you’ll probably stop reading anyway). Eleanor dies in church, buried along with her name. Even Ozymandias, despite the "lone and level sands stretch(ing) far away," has his name. In Eleanor Rigby's death we see the death of hope itself, the ultimate tragedy. (Ironically, her name lives on.) ER’s story is typical of Paul with its two functioning, unrelated characters brought into ironic proximity in the final scene, as though it were a novel by Bronte, and a precursor to "Penny Lane." One can't help but sense the influence of John upon Paul's particular choices of detailed imagery and idiosyncratic turns of phrase. The song avoids sentimentality by keeping its distance from the subject, presenting the action like a film script: "Look at him working," and uses various tense to imply shift in perspective: Eleanor Rigby "died in the church" (past tense), while in the same scene, Father MacKenzie is "wiping the dirt from his hands" (present tense). When Paul McCartney first wrote "ER" he had the music worked out before the lyrics, as he often did ("Yesterday," remember, started out as "Scrambled Eggs"). Paul often used placeholder lyrics that he'd subsequently abandon. To be specific, the original version began, "Ola Na Tungee/ Blowing his mind in the dark/ With a pipe full of clay/ No one can say."  Okay, I’m done proselytizing. I could write a whole book on Eleanor and Co, but it is my No. 1 on this list and maybe on others. 

How’d I do. Justified?

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