Thursday, November 30, 2006

Not the Top 1043 Classic Rock Songs of All Time!

Start with this: "Hey Jude" is 4th in the list of the Top 1043 Classic Rock Songs of 2006, according to the listeners of Clearchannel's Q104.3 FM Thanksgiving weekend poll, and "Let It Be" checks in at #10. These two late, sentimental McCartney ballads I take as signs of the deteriorating state of the Beatles' relationship, their inability to continue the creative studio work that had poured out over the previous three years, the fading of that multilayered instrumental brilliance that inhabits most of their later work, and a lack of collaboration that depleted even the infectious harmonies that were their trademark since "Please Please Me". Yet these soporific cuts sit 1000 places or so higher, in the collective estimation of New York's "classic rock" audience, than such energy-charged compositions as "We Can Work It Out" (next to last on the list at #1042), "Taxman" (1032), "She Said She Said" (1026), and "Nowhere Man" (978).

So apparently the slow and mournful ballad still reigns supreme, as it has for forty years, since songs like Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" (still tripping the light fandango at 285) and Chicago's "Color My World" (as time goes on it drops off the radar) typically topped lists of this sort. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" checks in as the third best song of all time(!); nobody seems to have noticed yet that it is by far the worst of their three songs (or is it four?) , with lyrics based around a tired cliche and an excessively long guitar break that lacks spontaneity. I've often wondered whether anyone would notice if the guitar breaks in "Freebird" and "Hotel California" were switched. The Eagles' singalong ends up all the way down at #12 "of all time" in spite of the best efforts of Q104.3 DJ's to play it so often that we hear it in our dreams. Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage/Eclipse" (35), surely the least inspired number on their most inspired album, "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" (31), and "Wish You Were Here"(13), all of which the station seems to have on a short tape loop, are not without many virtues; but again, it is curious that these lethargic anthems receive more votes than any of the equally tuneful but more energetic numbers on the same albums, like "Have a Cigar", "Money" or "That Great Big Gig in the Sky" (to say nothing of their more decidedly progressive earlier numbers - say, "Interstellar Overdrive").

And that's just the beginning. The biggest issue for me, as I suspect it would be for the vast majority of rock and roll fans I have known closely over several decades, is how the plethora of aesthetically challenged noise from the late 1970's and 80's that dominates this list would even make it onto a list of the top 1,000,043 songs of all time. Okay - I have come to accept, if not love, a precious few of these unavoidable numbers, like Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" (52), Boston's "More Than a Feeling" (51), and Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" (116). But these are exceptions that prove the rule. Well, rules. There are slightly different ones for the various subspecies of bad Top 40 music from this era. In the heavy metal corner the rule is: "Don't sing, scream; play the guitar very loud and fast but without taste; and don't have anything to say that is not typically said in bathrooms, at raucous parties, or between drivers vying for a lane". And this class is represented in the list at frequent intervals by their leaders, Kiss, AC/DC, Metallica and Osbourne, with occasional support from respectful followers like Ted Nugent or Queensrysche.
(AC/DC is so ubiquitous here that they offer a one-band reason not to listen to this annual Thanksgiving weekend countdown, unless you envy the fate of our feathered friends on this holiday.)

Right behind this crowd is a large supply of groups for whom the rule is, "Write pretentious and musically uninspired pseudo-progressive songs, overloaded with keyboards and block harmonies, with an occasional acoustic guitar sound to give the mix a touch of quaintness". Under this heading please find entries by groups like Styx, Rush, Journey, and Kansas. (You can argue with one or another of my choices but you know what I mean.) This is the sort of stuff caused me and my friends in the late 70's and 80's to largely drop out of the radio audience. Now when I hear the introduction to Rush's "Tom Sawyer" (127) the challenge is still to change the station before I am subjected to the vocals, an option that does not always present itself in less self-important music. On the other hand, no one would think an airing of "Dust in the Wind" or "Come Sail Away" even notable enough to do anything more than take a bathroom break (thus resembling a car or soft drink commercial in more than just a musical sense). Actual card-carrying progressive groups like Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, or the less popular Gentle Giant and Nektar, are nothing more than shadows in the Top 1043; almost the entire burden of prog is held up by Pink Floyd, though some of Genesis' more pop-ish recordings did receive a few votes. (Forget about seeing anything from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway or Starless and Bible Black or even Close to the Edge here; what do you think this is, a ranking of creative talent?)

Third, there is the oeuvre of those singer-songwriters who at one point or another won grammys for "Best Pop Artist for Adolescents Who Never Experienced Music in the Sixties" : the ubiquitous Bob Seger, as well as Robert Palmer, Meatloaf (whose album covers suggest he would like to be classed with those evil heavy metal guys, but whose music actually sounds more like a twisted version of Elton John), Van Halen, Bon Jovi (how did he lose the "Jon"?), Bryan Adams, Dave Edmunds, and a bunch of others. Wait - where is the guy who started all this? It appears he nearly flew like an eagle right off the chart. Poor Steve Miller barely clocks in with a song or two somewhere way down in the 800's, I think. What happened? Did someone wake up and recognize that this overplayed pop was neither the successor to Elton John and David Bowie nor the predecessor to Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, but rather a path through the woods and into the swamp? No matter how often this material is aired - and I think there are at least a half dozen songs each by Seger, Miller and Palmer (sounds like a law firm?) that I have heard often enough to recognize them by any 3-second excerpt - they do not improve with time. There were great singer-songwriters in that era and even in that genre - Bruce Springsteen is one; John Cougar (how did he lose the Mellankamp?) is another; Tom Petty yet another. At their best, these artists turned basic rock and roll into something more, reflecting in both music and lyrics a real spirit that spoke to more than the alienated suburban or small town youth who might have been their initial intended audience. So pop can do what pap does not: rise above the puerile vista from which it originates to say something more universal, and do it with crisp, original tunes that don't always sound like they were composed in an hour.

Slightly less debilitating than all this is the significant place held by what might generally be called "hard rock" groups, those which perhaps do not quite constitute a reason to take rock very seriously, but nevertheless make respectable efforts at writing serious but unpretentious songs. I'm referring to groups like Aerosmith, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Toto, Heart and a few others. They each offer some form of guitar-driven rock and roll, with sufficient momentum to draw you into the motion of their songs without quite convincing you that you have received everything you came for. If your concept of rock was formed by the British invasion, stimulated by acid rock and finally solidified by Led Zeppelin, Yes and Pink Floyd, you don't come away from a song like "Walk This Way" or "Cold As Ice" or "Hell Is For Children" or "Hold the Line" feeling like the musical ideas were brought off with as much creative energy as they could have been; but neither do you leave feeling gypped.

Well, I know this will generate some interesting comments, especially if anyone like the heavy metal aficionados I've met gets wind of this blog, but somebody other than Tipper Gore has to say it: the vast majority of this stuff is commercialized, white teeny-bopper junk, and it is a complete mockery of the whole concept of rock and roll to haul it out as belonging in the top anything other than "top overplayed undertalented pop tunes of all time". I am certain that there are entire albums full of songs that did not even make it onto this list, all of which are better than every AC/DC song. There are many groups that have one or two very fine albums, but are rather represented here by lesser work or nothing at all. Blue Oyster Cult's eponymous first album is one of the great accomplishment's in rock history; Queen's Sheer Hear Attack is work of creative genius from beginning to end; Grand Funk Railroad's Closer to Home sports consistently great songwriting, guitar-playing and vocals throughout; 10cc's The Original Soundtrack is a nearly flawless production with great songwriting and some of the most brilliant studio work ever; I can't look through the entire list (Clearchannel has made that very difficult by breaking it up into 50-song pages; they have not responded to my email request to offer a download of the complete list so I could search it), but nothing from any of these disks finds its way to the top 200 spots, and most are not represented at all. Queen, for example, is represented as usual by their overblown Bohemian Rhapsody, a schizophrenic song that barely hangs together, down from last year at #14; their second highest ranking song is the ridiculous "Fat Bottomed Girls" (90). Several other Queen songs of dubious merit appear before "Killer Queen", the most accessible but not necessarily the best song on Sheer Heart Attack, which checks in at #277 - just behind a slew of unregenerate late 70's pop and metal from AC/DC, Van Halen, Bob Seger, Rush, Kansas, Def Leppard, Metallica and Kiss (all between 258 and 272). Would one be unjustified in thinking that the goal of this list is to bury those artists who have actually at some point turned out rock music of lasting value beneath their own lesser efforts or those of trite, commercial recordings?

And that is to say nothing of the under- or mis-representation of the work of bands like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, or, to go to another era, The Smiths, R.E.M., the Clash, the Pschedelic Furs, the B52's, the Talking Heads, or, moving backwards, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, the Four Tops, Jefferson Airplane, Tommy James and the Shondells, and other bands with enough great songs between them to fill all 1043 slots. The 1960's are represented mainly by the Beatles, Stones, Cream and Jimi Hendrix - who could argue with these choices, but again, aren't there 1043 songs from 1967 alone that belong on this list before a song like "Bat out of Hell" (67)?

Let's talk about Led Zeppelin.
I would replace about half of the top 50 in the list with practically any song from their first three albums, or Presence, or In Through the Out Door." Stairway to Heaven" reliably lands in the #1 spot on this list and others like it, year after year; and "Kashmir" usually makes it into the top 20 as well. "Stairway" is again a slow ballad for at least half the song, though one can hardly deny the power with which it builds toward he final climax. I suppose it is this erectile-orgasmic structure that attracts people to the song, rather than the content, which I take to be a warning about drug addiction, though it could easily be taken as an invitation to climb that stairway. (I guess it depends on whether you think having your shadow taller than your soul might be a positive state of being.) But for my money there are a dozen or so Zep songs I'd rather listen to. (What? Okay - "Good Times, Bad Times", "Dazed and Confused", "Ramble On", "Since I've Been Loving You", "No Quarter", "Achilles Last Stand"... several more.) Plenty of Zep in the list, no complaint about that, no doubt thanks to the station's constant programming of Zeppelin, including a "Get the Led Out" show that goes a little deeper than usual into their catalogue. Zep is perhaps the one group that almost no one can fail to appreciate. They were also supposedly among the worst plagiarists in rock, having been sued by Willie Dixon and others. (I recently heard a concert by acoustic guitar legend Bert Jansch, in which he played an old tune of his that I was not familiar with; and to put it bluntly, the guitar part was a dead knockoff of Page's "Black Mountain Side". Which came first? I can't say for sure, but my money is on Jansch.) They were also accused (by Bill Graham of Filmore fame) of being among the most violent and mean-spirited bands in the business. (See Graham's autobiographical Bill Graham Presents, Chapter 15.) But musically they had almost everything - consistently inventive songwriting, brilliant instrumental work, frequently interesting lyrics, even a harmony or two (at least on their first and last studio albums) - and more than that, rhythmically and musically gripping song lines than run rings around a thousand imitators.

Okay, last essay: Elton Joel and Billy John (did I get that right?) Two guys who made piano-driven rock respectable, wrote dozens of excellent songs (and a good number of lesser ones, but everyone makes mistakes...) Last year I believe Billy Joel had more songs in the Top 1043 than anyone else; this year I'm not sure, but he is certainly in there frequently. One might wonder, how can the same people vote for all those Led Zeppelin songs and all those Billy Joel songs? It doesn't make sense. But I'm not so sure about that. You see, I believe that actually, a large number of people who vote in these polls do represent something like what David Hume called "the standard of taste". That is, they are not just frequent listeners to rock music, but critical ones, and can distinguish a tune that skillfully combines the various elements that go into making a rock song from one that maybe makes you hum along or tap your feet for a minute and then thankfully goes away. For when I hear "The Stranger" or even, say, "Allentown", I feel something of the same excitement as when I hear a great Zep song: I want to congratulate the songwriter (and his or her collaborators) and say, "Great song, great job, really well done". And what more can you ask? There's a reason why rock can embrace Led Zeppelin and Billy Joel (or, say, Bob Dylan if you prefer), Yes and Elton John; why John Lennon's quiet "Imagine" checks in at #15, just four places behind Zep's psychotic "Kashmir" :
as an art form, it allows tremendous flexibility in the nature of the underlying composition, but is pretty unforgiving in how you bring it off. Thus almost the whole second disk of Zep's Physical Graffiti seems to me pretty useless, the first disk consistently brilliant. Same style, but one group works, the other doesn't. Same with Elton John and Billy Joel: when it works, like almost the whole of Captain Fantastic or The Stranger, it doesn't really matter whether it sounds more like Frank Sinatra than Aerosmith, "it's still rock and roll to me". Now, having said all that, I do wonder why the representation of these two songwriters is not switched; for while Joel perhaps has more hits (though I'm not sure about that), John surely has many more consistently good albums, some of which could be transported wholesale into my top 1043 of at least some time (let's say, the 1970's). And again, it seems that being more of a rocker, which Elton John surely is, does not guarantee you a higher place in the 1043 Classic Rock list. For it's not about rock; it's about recently overplayed pop. And there Billy Joel definitely comes out on top.

Why make a big deal out of this? I mean, we know that rock is big business, that musical style is influenced if not controlled by the Sony-BMG-Virgin-etc. oligopoly, that voting in these "top so-and-so" lists is strongly influenced by what the stations choose to play, which is in turn influenced by what they think will attract listeners who will buy what their advertisers have to sell, and all that. Why even pay attention to Clearchannel's putative "top 1043" list when we know there is a ton of manipulation going on, and that the list reflects not quality or taste but crass commercialism? Well, for one thing, out of the endless dross of popular recordings, we might note how much great music has actually managed to find its way here in spite of the commercial environment; why indeed we now see Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Green Day creeping into the list. This needs as much explaining as why we can't seem to get Meatloaf or AC/DC out of it. Another thing to wonder about is the racial divide: relatively few songs by nonwhite artists make it onto the list, but on the other hand, Hendrix lives (as we used to say) - and why not, when the station programs three or four of his hits constantly - and one can find the occasional Bob Marley tune and some Motown hits.
Marvin Gaye's pathbreaking work on What's Going On? is finally recognized at position 955, which hardly does justice to one of the landmarks in popular music history. But compared with the programming of "classic rock" radio one might be tempted to call the list a model of integration. Contemporary pop stations like Z100 play music by white bands like Green Day or the All-American Rejects in a fairly even mix with Black rap, hip-hop and R&B artists; and while one can't say that the Top 1043 list is exactly a rebellion against the racial divide imposed by the music industry after the 1960's it at least suggests that this is not an audience-driven phenomenon.

In short, then, what I want to say is just that while the commercialization of rock radio seriously distorts anything like a "Top 1043" list, it cannot completely kill the spirit of the rock listener who appreciates rock as a contemporary musical art form. As should be obvious, by "art form" I don't mean just the most complex orchestral compositions, or those lighter numbers that approach the sound of a Schubert song or a Mozart aria. Rock of all types can have the spirit of art, which is in the end mainly a deep concern for the craftsmanship of the final product. From "Layla" (2) to Nirvana's "Come As You Are" (1037) it is clear that no amount of idiotic programming which emphasizes safe bets and superificial musical and lyrical ideas is going to stifle the spirit of creative energy that keeps rock going after six decades. It would be nice, however, to think that after the revolution (as we used to say) we will be able to get rid of pseudo-lists like this and have "classic rock" stations which dare to delve into the thousands of great, unplayed cuts that lie in the stacks waiting to be heard.

Clearly we're not there yet. As I drove through Brooklyn on Saturday I tuned in to our illustrious classic rock station, and what do you think were the first two songs I heard? I'll bet you got at least one right: "Stairway to Heaven" and "Born to Run" (7). Without apology, in fact with a discourse by the DJ on why it is so important that "Stairway" remain number One. So, as we wind on down the road, it looks like there are some challenges ahead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unbelievably biased. The list was fan voted for a reason, come out with your own list if your less-than-adequate taste in music is not up to par with what the mass public considers the 1,043 greatest rock songs of all time.