Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sing, Sing, Sing (With A Swing)

Music lovers love lists, and I am not immune to this trait. I often wile away time ranking and reranking various songs, albums, artists, etc. One such mental list I keep batting around stems from a feature Playboy ran back in 1999 where it asked musicians to rank the greatest songs of the past millennium. Though Playboy certainly meant for the songs to come from the 20th century, the British guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson, a student of musical history, took the exercise quite literally and gave songs dating back to the 11th century. Sadly, Playboy didn't use his list.

Every since I heard of this feature, I have bandied about a list in my mind. Not as broad as Thompson's, I've wondered what my list of ten songs of the past hundred years of popular music would contain. Mind you, this would not be a list necessarily of the best songs (though certainly all of them would be excellent) or of favorite songs, but of ten songs that best represent the past century of recorded popular music.

What a challenge! How many rock songs would I include? Jazz? Blues? Vocals? International? Would I include an Elvis song if I felt a Little Richard song better portrayed the raw energy of early rock? Would I include a song by the Beatles, whom I consider to be the greatest and most influencial rock group of all time, if another song of that era, say "Satisfaction", is better representative of that era? Crosby or Sinatra? Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker? The Ramones, The Clash or The Sex Pistols? Would I include anything from the past 20 years?
Obviously due to the difficulties of these questions and more, I've never been able to pin down a firm list. Multiple songs have come and gone from the list (and some have returned again). The challenge of narrowing ten representative songs is just too great, and yet one song has consistently remained on my list's many permutations:

"Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing)" by Benny Goodman

"Sing Sing Sing", recorded by Goodman in 1937, was written the prior year by the bandleader Louis Prima (quite a musical personality himself — hmmm... perhaps the subject of another blog best known today for his swing hit "Jump Jive An' Wail" and his voice of the orangutan King Louie in the 1967 Disney film The Jungle Book). Though vocal versions have been recorded by many artists including Prima, The Andrews Sisters, and Anita O'Day, it is the Goodman's instrumental version that is the most known.

The song is a high point of the swing era and just sizzles. Goodman's band at the time was a supergroup of sorts with trumpeters Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Chris Griffin (Duke Ellington called them "the greatest trumpet section that ever was"), Jess Stacy on piano, and the incomparable Gene Krupa on drums. The big band swing is followed by a number of outstanding solos including Harry James's blowing session two-thirds through followed by Goodman's fluid clarinet. At the end, Krupa, who has kept a steady tom-tom accompaniment throughout, bursts into a prolonged machine-gun roll with a power seldom seen on swing records. All in all, it's the perfect example not only of big band era swing but also of the brilliant soloing that helps define jazz. For these reasons, not to mention the irresistable groove of the song, "Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing)" has stayed on my list.

Now if only I could decided whether to put the classic 1936 original on my list or the 12-minute essential live version done at the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.

Monday, March 8, 2010


While I was watching American Idol with my family the other night, I was delighted to hear one of the early favorites, Crystal Bowersox, perform the beautiful Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Long As I Can See The Light." Creedence songs are not unknown on the Idol stage, though typically consist of poor covers of “Proud Mary” done in Tina Turner’s style. Hearing this latest performance, I was drawn to listening again to Creedence’s solid late 1960s albums. During the course of just over two years, CCR put together a string of six outstanding albums before dissolving in acrimony with a final clunker, Mardi Gras (1972).

Though originally from California, CCR’s great success was capturing a Southern style, feel-good, roots rock sound. John Fogerty, a tremendous songwriter, wrote several great socially conscious songs, although often not as directly as his San Francisco region counterparts. “Run Through The Jungle, which many associate with Vietnam, was actually a comment on gun culture. “Fortunate Son” dealt with jingoist attitudes toward the war.

One of his earliest protest songs was the bleak album closer on the generally upbeat 1969 album Willy and The Poor Boys. I’m not sure if Fogerty has ever provided a clear meaning of the cryptic lyrics. Certainly, given the era, the song title and descriptions of burning lawns brings to mind the civil rights era. Drummer Doug Clifford in a late 2009 interview for Goldmine provides a broader perspective:

“It’s so powerful, and it’s taking a shot at the powers who were running the whole mess at the time. It sort of set the tone for the following albums, I think.”

Regardless of the true meaning, the song itself sounds eerie and, despite limited lyrics, is able to stretch out its themes over six minutes. The minor key blues, the sparse twang of the bass, and Fogerty’s blistering guitar solos all contribute to an atmosphere that is haunting, probably more so than any other Fogerty song. Though “Effigy” is quite a departure from the rest of the album (which also contains “Down on the Corner,” “Fortunate Son,” and “The Midnight Special”), it is a rich piece that reflects that turbulent time and yet still unsettles listeners today.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Playlist of Years

A playlist of songs with years in the titles (and mostly with a year AS the title) leads to some interestingly different styles that actually blend nicely together. Many of these songs have an understandably nostalgic theme. I try to keep my playlists at about one hour (a good estimate for a workout or a bus commute) so obviously some songs were left out. Among the also-rans were New Order's "1963" and Patti Smith's "1959". Also given the George Orwell novel, the year 1984 had multiple candidates; I actually included two, but did omit David Bowie's "1984" (I assure you) not based on quality. I'm a tremendous Bowie fan, so I'm not too concerned as he'll appear in several future playlists I'm sure.

Playlist of Years
1) "1974" by Ryan Adams
2) "1984" by Van Halen
3) "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" by Richard Thompson *
4) "1979" by The Smashing Pumpkins
5) "1921" by The Who (off Tommy)
6) "December, 1963 (Oh What A Night)" by Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons
7) "Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman **
8) "1941" by Harry Nilsson
9) "1985" by Manic Street Preachers
10) "1970" by The Stooges ***
11) "1977" by The Clash ****
12) "1984" by Spirit
13) "1992" by Blur
14) "1983...(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)" by Jimi Hendrix *****
15) "1999" by Prince ******

A Few Notes/Trivial Observances:
* - The synthesized instrumental "1984" (on Van Halen's album of the same name) normally transitions into the synth-opening of their hit "Jump", but here really transitions nicely into Richard Thompson's outstanding ballad of the motorcycle that brings two lovers together. This is one of my favorite Thompson songs in no small part to his incredible acoustic work.

** - Newman's song of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that ravaged Mississippi and Louisiana was made all the more poignant in the wake of the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. This song also echoes a government idleness here embodied by President Coolidge

*** - The Stooges interestingly have songs called "1969" (which appeared on their self-titled debut) and "1970" (from Funhouse)

**** - The Clash's "1977" was the B-side of their first single "White Riot" and contains that wonderful punk music lyric "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977"

***** - First of all, the transition from Spirit to the ambient noise on Blur's "1992" to Hendrix really works here. Secondly, as amazing as many of the songs on Hendrix's album Electric Ladyland are, this 13-minute song may indeed be the album's masterpiece, a perfect (and trippy) synthesis of acid-fueled psychedelia, blues and hard rock.

****** - Prince's "1999". Well, duh...even I can't avoid the obvious choices :)