So I did this for country music over the summer, and now it’s time to do it again at the end of Rocktober. Guys: the impulse here is to be cagey, and to say “these are the blah blah of hedge blah blah blah.” I am not hedging. If aliens land tomorrow and say “what is this rock music of which you speak” the answer is these twenty-five songs.
Unless I change my mind.
A couple of notes: the Big Three (Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones) are not represented here. That is not because they don’t have great songs – it’s because their songs have been taken from rock music and claimed, essentially, by “the idea of popular music as a thing”, which isn’t really a genre. If it would make you feel a little better, you can pretend that “Like a Rolling Stone” is #3.5, “Ticket to Ride” is 8.51 and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is 13.5. Also the eagle-eyed among you will notice that the majority of these songs were recorded between 1975 and 1985. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the chief among them is that the people that get there first get the opportunity to be signifiers instead of symbol-adopters, and that helps in “greatness.” That also neatly cuts off the modern production era, which I feel generally does more harm than good to rock music, although as you can see it’s not like great rock songs aren’t made every day.
Furthermore the reason that stupid song you like isn’t on here is because there are only 25 songs that are on here, and frankly, yours wasn’t important enough.
“TV Eye” is on a better album, and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is the “Smoke on the Water” of punk-oriented novice guitarists, but honestly, nothing tops this song in any respect. While most of Raw Power sounds blown-out and coke-addled (too bright, too much top-end, no drums, the songs are too long), that’s how “Search and Destroy” should sound. And that means, by extension, it’s how rock music should sound.
The fundamental problem with punk rock is that a lot of it was silly. The exceptions exist – a few of them are even on this list (and, really, just go listen to “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” if you want to know from silly) – but for the most part, they all just aped “Search and Destroy” to varying degrees of success. Well after punk had turned into hardcore and right about when hardcore had begun to decay, The Replacements came up with, basically, the same way of saying the same thing. Where Iggy’s was a threat, Paul Westerberg’s was a sigh. Where Iggy assumed, pessimistically, that you had already forgotten him, and had left him with no recourse, Paul, optimistically, believed that if you just looked him in the eye you’d see for yourself. Tellingly, that’s also all of the action that Paul commands, until he gives up on asking you to figure out and just tells you “I’m so unsatisfied.” “Unsatisfied” is grammatically incorrect2, it’s the most aggressive song on Let it Be and it’s played on an acoustic guitar, and it doesn’t even really have enough lyrics. It’s a staunch refusal to be anything but itself, and as such it’s head and shoulders above almost everything else.
Of course, the beauty of rock music is that it can convey a whole bunch without being specifically about anything at all. “Monkey Trick” is, like most Jesus Lizard songs (most of which are great) built on a crazy non-riff of a bass guitar part, with other instruments added one at a time through the intro. The Jesus Lizard were a phenomenally tight band of incredible players, all of whom work together to, essentially, get blown away by David Yow. And of all the David Yow show-stealers, this is the show-stealingest. It is, therefore, the best.
At a recent show, between the opener and the headliner, “Surrender” was played, and the venue full of people pretty much unilaterally failed to react. That would have passed without being notable had the last song before the band came on not been “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Everyone stopped what they were doing and sang along to the latter. This is, of course, the proper reaction to “Surrender,” not “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s probably not fair to say that it’s indicative of every single problem that people sing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody”3 and not “Surrender”, but I will say this: it would be a sign of better music going a lot further with Joe Schmoe if people liked “Surrender” as much as they do “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Anyway. In addition to sometimes being silly, rock music is often at its best when it’s dumb. “Surrender” is the dumbest clever song (or the cleverest dumb song) ever written.
For awhile there, The Velvet Underground and Nico was the VU album that got all the press. I cannot explain this, except to say it’s probably a vestige of the seventies, when Nico and Andy Warhol were a lot easier to write about than the band itself. It’s a great record, but White Light/White Heat is better. Where VU&N was planned and composed (and then poorly recorded), WL/WH seems like parts of it couldn’t possibly have existed until they were recorded. In the case of “Sister Ray,” that’s largely true. John Cale plays that organ like he hates it, and the rest of the band pounds on the song until it’s basically unrecognizable, and they do all of this without any of the even-then-ossified signifiers of “rock” aggression. For eighteen minutes. How can it not pummel a place into your heart?
Crazy Rhythms is the only Feelies record that sounds like it does – everything after it became a lot more like the Velvet Underground than like their jittery, high-tension early material4. Many of its songs build and build to something like a release that just gives way to more tension, until its penultimate track. The careful, studied material gives way to “Raised Eyebrows,” one of the most joyful blasts of expression ever recorded. The song mostly does away with traditional structure in favor of a constantly-building repetition, with each section being more cathartic than the last. By the time of the first “I said ‘oh’, said ‘oh,’ said ‘oh’” you want to jump around, and by the guitar solo thing that ends it, jumping around isn’t enough. If the song were any longer, it would literally cause explosions. It’s nothing less than life-affirming.
There is definitely a place in rock music for the craftsman. Heretofore most of the words have been about loud expression, and not about the actual craft of the thing. Paul Westerberg and Lou Reed were, as songwriters, as good as anyone5, but their place here (and much of what made their pre-solo-career bands great) is largely because of their ability to make themselves heard in the first place. Alex Chilton was never forceful, and seemed almost pathologically unable to make himself heard. “September Gurls” is a lament. It’s not insistent, even when it’s spelling out the details of the up-and-down relationship that is caused by one of the titular gurls.
Most people took the wrong stuff from Jimi Hendrix. The potential of Jimi Hendrix was that a guitar, having been completely unmoored from its rhythm-section roots, could be used in exactly the same ways as a voice – it could be used as a lead melodic instrument, it could be used to carry the melody, it could be used as an instrument of rhythm. The best uses of the guitar in the hands of Hendrix were nontraditional – the “scat-singing” style guitar playing that marked “Foxy Lady” or “If Six Was Nine” is a nifty effect that lies somewhere between rhythm guitar and lead guitar, satisfying the itch of either, but it’s using his instrument to represent a panoply of nonmusical sounds that gets swept under in the wash. In order to figure out how best to conjure the variegated noises that his guitar made to represent a sonic environment6, Jimi became extremely mechanically talented – his fingers were able to do things that other guitar players could scarcely conceive of, in the pursuit of turning the guitar into as direct an expression of the sulfurous sounds in his head as possible. Witness: “Machine Gun,” in which the guitar itself becomes the voice of the protestor, and increases to be the titular weapon, artillery and the resultant explosions, the absolute chaos of armed combat, chanting, paranoia, and finally screaming. The result is an open-ended use of nonmusic from a musical instrument in the form of a rock song (and is, thus, one of the earliest and most effective rock-based pieces of noise music, about which more….well, constantly all the time on this blog). Of course, what people took away from Jimi Hendrix was not that sense of open-ended possibility, but the idea of playing a whole bunch of notes really fast. People are boring.
Of course, some people did get the lessons of Jimi right, there just weren’t that many of them. One of them is Greg Sage, who was less impressionistic in his playing, and more expressionistic: his guitar wasn’t meant to represent any particular item in the war against young people, it was meant to represent the feeling of the war against young people. For over ten minutes of a constant, pummeling rhythm (it does not change tempo, and that bass player must be the most patient person in the world), Sage hollers a bunch, then the song falls apart into a guitar wash out of which pop a weird spoken interlude, a traditional meedly-meedly guitar solo that is eventually swallowed in feedback, and then, somehow, re-coalesces (symbolically, and powerfully, with the a return to the lyric “they’re coming at you from the left side/from the right side/down the middle/til you don’t know who you are”) into the earlier motif for a final hollering run-through, ending with Sage screaming the title over and over. It sounds completely unlike anything rock music had done to that point, but is an absolutely perfect distillation in hindsight.
An underrated stratum of rock song is the “mission statement” song – “We’re an American Band,” “Repetition,” “Detroit Rock City,” “Jocko Homo” – the song that announces: this is us, and this is what we’re about. They tend to be the best songs in a band’s catalog when they exist, and the odds are good (they’re fifty percent of the songs mentioned above, in fact) that they’ll be the only worthwhile song in a band’s ouevre. When the band is as great as Fugazi was, and when the mission statement is the statement of an actual mission, you get all of the cool stuff about a sing-alongy statement of purpose, and all of the near-religious fervor that accompanied so much of Fugazi’s output.
Wire’s first three albums are the best three-album stretch in any rock band’s career, ever. Over the course of that set of records, they covered everything from the straightforward gang-shout punk of “12XU” to the psychedelic weirdness of “On Returning”. Each of the three albums is peppered with occasional pop-music interludes, and none is more effective than the one hundred and four second masterpiece “Outdoor Miner”. It’s extraordinary in its beauty, perfection in its melody, and a model of efficiency in its basic construction and its brevity. And it’s about a leaf miner beetle. So basically it’s the most rock and roll thing ever.
So sometimes you have to find two to three like-minded people with instruments and try to hope you can all find the same wavelength and ride it to being a rock band. But imagine you only found the one person, and the only instruments you had between you were an extremely primitive rhythm machine strapped to a weird electric organ thing. What would you do? Well, you would probably give up and wash your hands of the matter. Lucky for the world Alan Vega and Martin Rev weren’t you. The answer turns you to be: you pretend you’re Elvis, you rage at anyone who doesn’t believe you, and you write songs about comic books. Singularly un-rock in their formation and instrumentation, Suicide actually got closer to the impulses and drive of the first rock and roll musicians than just about anybody else.
“Echoes” is a tree viewed from the bottom. The roots of the song are established, then there’s a long trip through the trunk, then something of a guided tour through the branches that, eventually, spirals back inward to return to the trunk, this time seeming thinner and less safe. David Gilmour would, eventually, be something of a master of the very planned, very specific record, and that sense of composition (and Roger Waters’ increasing misanthropy) would power Pink Floyd to the stratosphere, fame-wise. But there’s nothing really like “Echoes,” which prefigures not only Pink Floyd’s later epics (impressive as they are), but most of post-rock in general.
Oh come now. Certainly I don’t have to explain The Ramones to anybody.
Rock music is, as a result of it being an entirely electrical medium, capable of dynamic shifts of both a suddenness and force that isn’t really possible in other forms. While a lot of bands (and, really, a whole lot of the bands on this very list) rely on extraordinary volume itself, there is also a very real place for that kind of suddenly-shifting dynamic in the canon. Slint didn’t invent the extreme shift, and they didn’t invent spending several minutes building tension for a big release. What they did do was create a document that is a singular argument for the power of four young weirdoes with some guitars and some drums to do something that sounds so powerfully otherworldly (and so otherworldly powerful) that it seems like they did it first.
I’m always surprised that singer/organist Gerry Roslie is such a normal, unassuming guy. This list is populated by people screaming their fool heads off holding a microphone, and a whole lot of that kind of thing starts with The Sonics8. “Strychnine” has that super-cool Halloween-y riff, then espouses nihilism for a couple of minutes, then end on Roslie screaming and screaming and screaming. I can’t imagine what this must have sounded like in 1964, but that seems less important than the fact that it still sounds like it does now.
Where “September Gurls” was something of power-pop’s ground zero, “What You Do To Me” is more of its thesis. Where a lot of bands had worked in minimalism, especially in Scotland, during the eighties, Teenage Fanclub went more, writing one damn riff and one damn chorus. And then performing it, over and over, for two and one-half minutes. It has four chords, one section, and twenty words. And it never once needs any more than that.
Saxophones, in general, have no place in rock music. Lots of people have nice things ot say about Clarence Clemons, certainly, and the dude from the X-Ray Spex seemed to be having a lot of fun. But that’s just about it. It’s largely a missed opportunity: the cool thing about a saxophone is if you blow hell into one end, you get hell out the other end. They’re a fantastic instrument for converting something as seemingly banal as ordinary breath into a bunch of terrible noises. James Chance knew this. James Chance also, somehow, as a conservatory-trained midwesterner who is all of five and a half feet tall, managed to convince himself that he could be the James Brown of violence. “Contort Yourself” features both (James Chance and his saxophone) screaming fit to literally beat the band. Like, individually. With fists. I don’t know what kind of dance he’s commanding us to do, but I want to go on the record as saying that the shriek that turns into a gasped “hit it” that comes after “contort yourself five times” is the single greatest moment of studio vocals in the history of recorded music.
There are arguments to be made about what is and is not a “good” song, and what makes a “well-written” song that are had in other places, and they’re had by other people. “Summertime Blues” is the best argument going for that not being a question worth asking: Eddie Cochran’s version sounds like a whiny goddamn kid. The Who made it sound like it meant something. Whatever may have been in the song, if the writer doesn’t recognize it enough to make it happen, it wasn’t his to take advantage of. But even if this song (or, hell, the entirety of Live at Leeds) were nothing more than Keith Moon’s drum tracks, this would still be the nineteenth greatest rock song ever.
Because of the aforementioned electrification, and because of the readily-apparent cosmetic differences in the sonic character of the instruments and playing styles, it’s possible for rock bands to get by on almost nothing more than a really cool sound and one pretty good idea. Mudhoney made a whole bunch of music of varying quality, but it was all on the back of this one time they got every single thing exactly right. There’s nothing musically exceptional about “Touch Me I’m Sick.” It gets by entirely on that ear-splitting guitar sound, and that incredible riff. It isn’t hurt by the fact that it’s impossible to tell if that chorus is a joke or not, also.
The promise of punk rock was that anyone could do anything they had a mind to in the rock context. The practicality of punk rock was that a lot of it became pretty heterodox in an alarming fashion. But it still left the idea that there could be power found in unlikely combinations. In the case of “Dig Me Out,” it meant a riff that spins rather like a top (doubly so in the sense that it almost seems like it’s not quite going to make it to the end), a drummer who, somehow, was not actually Keith Moon, and quite possibly rock’s greatest singer delivering quite possibly her greatest vocal performance. “Dig Me Out” is further engaging by that initial riff actually being the riff that powers the song, which means that the listener spends about half of every pass through being tipped off kilter and then snapped back by each chorus.
So what does it take to make a truly all-time great song in this, our modern world? All the good ideas have been taken, the idiom has been plundered by hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people. There is, as the good book would have it, nothing new under the sun. The answer: ignore all of that. Turn all the way up. Figure out a way to deliver a deep, unilateral truth, then shout it as loud as you can because your guitar is way too loud. And even if you can’t play drums, play them anyway. I don’t want to worry about dying. I just want to worry about those sunshine girls.
Some songs sound like blatant attempts to become the most cavemanish, primitive act possible. Primitivism in rock music is, to many, a highly-sought commodity. I’m not always sold on its merits, except for when it shows the path to exceptional work (c.f. Pop, Iggy; Smith, Mark E.; and Ramones, The). “You Really Got Me” presents a pretty incredible argument for it, though: a barely-fleshed-out (but insistently catchy) melody, a two-finger riff, and an obviously-spliced-in “OH NO NO”9, thus making it a general failure to use the studio to their advantage. It’s so simple it would have to be immortal.
Of course, sometimes there’s just as much to be said for futurism. “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”, is the a-side to the greatest debut single ever. Even today, only half of the elements (Peter Laughner and Tom Herman’s guitars, Scott Krauss’ drums) sound like they belong in a rock band to begin with. While David Thomas sings about the Doolittle Raid, the song’s secret weapon swoops around much like one of the planes in question – Allen Ravenstine played a fantastic EML 200, which he used to blanket the band in swaths of sounds. It was a marriage of noise elements to rock music that’s been chased ever since.
Rock music also has a unique capacity to get famous despite its own sonic character. You’ve all heard “Rock Lobster”, and think of it, most likely, as a semi-punchline. But listen to it: in the deep south (Georgia) a party band forms, the two homosexual members of which were old enough to have come out of the notorious free-love club scene that was, even then, being ravaged by AIDS. The disease that makes them fear for their lives is currently going unacknowledged by the public at large, and by the government itself. (AIDS would, six years later, take the life of guitarist and chief riffologist Ricky Wilson). So, in the style of “Vilkommen,” or, y’know, Nero, The B-52s threw a party in the ocean. Rock music can be a lot of things, but perhaps none of those are more important than its ability to create a venue for its practitioners to be heard. And when it was clear that no one was going to listen to the important things, it was time to be heard by saying “that’s not what we choose to define us, we’re throwing a party under the sea.” So listen to it again. Listen to the weird underwater noises, listen to Fred Schneider’s actual screaming. Listen to Ricky Wilson play his guitar in that stiff, martial surf rhythm, demanding your attention while it marches into the sea. They were determined to either be Moses or Virginia Woolf – they were going to lead you across the sea, or they were going to die trying. Turns out they kind of did both.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Oasis – Live Forever, The Jesus and Mary Chain – Reverence, Gene Vincent, Be-Bop-a-Lula, Pulp – Common People, Husker Du – Divide and Conquer, The Smashing Pumpkins – Tonight, Tonight, Sonic Youth – Death Valley 69, Led Zeppelin – Dazed & Confused, Shellac – Prayer to God, Gang of Four – Damaged Goods
1 this is not the footnote where I talk about how much of the Beatles’ canon is actually music made by a rock band. This is not that footnote because the only person in the world who has ever been interested in that question is me. And maybe Joe Carducci.
2 although he does use the correct form, “Dissastisfied”, before the whole thing is over.
3 a few years ago it was “Under Pressure.” Look, here’s what I’m going to say about Queen – feel however you need to feel, but also bear this in mind: I’ve never had a conversation with someone about Queen that didn’t include more talk of 1) their guitar player’s post-graduate education and 2) Freddie Mercury’s death of AIDS than their music. They’re a band that everyone claims to love that, honestly, no one can talk about as a band. That not only seems suspect, it makes being in public and hearing one of the three Queen songs everyone is, apparently, obligated to lose their fucking minds over one of the most annoying things in the world. A couple of people in the band were very talented, and they used that talent to write pseudo-novelty songs. While there’s nothing wrong with this, there’s also absolutely nothing special about it and GODDAMMIT JUST SING ALONG TO “SURRENDER,” YOU MORONS. Also Rick Nielsen is every bit as good a guitar player as Brian May, Robin Zander is admittedly not as good a singer as Freddie Mercury, but he’s better than just about anyone else, and Queen’s rhythm section is a terrible mess, while Cheap Trick’s rhythm section is absolutely world class. This is a comparison that I’m the only one making.
4 their incredible drummer, Anton Fier, played so hard at early shows that he would actually vomit with the effort. He left after Crazy Rhythms, but that’s him pounding the shit out of his drums on “Raised Eyebrows”.
5 maybe those are bad examples, because Lou Reed and Paul Westerberg were, as songwriters, each capable of being as bad as anyone.
6 see also: his similar take on “The Star-Spangled Banner”
7 actually, I like Wish You Were Here and Animals more than Atom Heart Mother, but that sort of ruins the rhetorical point I’m making, here.
8 well. It starts with jump blues, and before that revival sing-preaching, but I’m mostly talking about in a rock context, here.
9 the purpose of the splice is to cover up Dave Davies telling Ray Davies to “fuck off”. It not only doesn’t cover it up, but it creates a sort of separation that makes it easier to hear on the subsequent remasters. Good job Ray.