Of late, people have been trying to categorize pop/rock tunes as liberal or conservative, with mixed success at best. And it's not difficult to see why this should be so: pigeonholing doesn't even do justice to pigeons, let alone actual artifacts on the verge of becoming an art form.
So for my own list of songs, I'm going for a category more personal (and perhaps less disputable, since I arguably know me better than you do): Records That Actually Defined Some Aspect of My Existence. Each and every one of these tracks made a substantial impression on the impressionable me, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. Life, and therefore rock and roll, can be like that sometimes.
Big Joe Turner, "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (Atlantic, 1954)
The amazing thing about this record was that we had it. We had very few records when I was a kid, and most of them seemed to be Mitch Miller or some variation on "This Old Man" or Jerry Murad and his goddamn Harmonicats. There was one lone Elvis single, one side of which was "Good Luck Charm." And there was this weirdly rhythmic thing, shouted over piano triplets: "Get outta that bed, wash your face and hands." At the time, I thought this was a rebuke to someone who had fallen down on the job, housework-wise; I knew nothing of sexual innuendo in those days. Still, it was old and weird and incredibly scratchy and I played it as often as they'd let me near the Victrola, which wasn't very often. This was not, however, my introduction to High Musical Weirdness: that's next.
Del Shannon, "Runaway" (Big Top, 1961)
When I was eight, I managed to inveigle the parental units into buying me an actual Japanese Transistor Radio with, as the late Allan Sherman said, "a wire with a thing on one end that you could stick in your ear, and a thing on the other end that you can't stick anywhere because it's bent." This thing could eat 9-volt batteries faster than alligators could eat your pet poodle, and even at 19 cents at the five-and-dime, it was horribly expensive to operate. But it was mine, dammit, and I took the fool thing to bed with me, undoubtedly resulting in the premature deaths of many of those batteries. And the first Sunday night, I decided to stay up a few extra minutes late and listen to an actual classical program: the CSC Concert Hall on WCSC. Cheap AM sections being what they were in those days, with more space between 540 and 900 than between 900 and 1600, I missed 1390 altogether and wound up on some hitherto-unnoticed station, where somebody apparently with his nuts in a vise was wailing: "Why, why, why, why, why, she ran away...." And I wondered just what the hell this was, and I stayed around to listen, and it was another eight years before I noticed anything else classical.
The Rolling Stones, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (London, 1965)
The first record for which I spent my own hard-earned seventy-nine cents, thereby propelling myself into Drooling Collector Geek Mode, from which I have yet to exit.
The Lovin' Spoonful, "Full Measure" (Kama Sutra, 1967)
It took me a while to accumulate a fair number of discs, a longer while to accumulate an unfair number. Given my limited library and my tendency to play local DJ, the B-sides got as many spins as the A-sides. This weird little number, buried on the back of "Nashville Cats," marked the first time that I wondered why it wasn't the A-side. It would not be the last, especially since WTMA, the major Top 40 outlet in town, didn't always adhere to PLUG SIDE notations on promo record labels; I was bopping to the Box Tops' "Fields of Clover" long before I ever heard "Choo Choo Train," the ostensible hit. To this day, I check out B-sides as assiduously as I do the A's.
Glen Campbell, "Wichita Lineman" (Capitol, 1969)
Most of my life, I have despaired of ever being half of an Us: for an all-too-brief period when I was, this was Our song. And if anything, it's more relevant now: no songwriter ever mixed the magical and the mundane quite like Jimmy Webb, and if I learned anything during the few moments when I was actually involved with someone, it's that the magical and the mundane live together, cheek by jowl, like as not stumbling into each other's way.
Led Zeppelin, "Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman)" (Atlantic, 1969)
This marked my transition from pure pop to the ostensibly harder stuff. Appropriately, it was a B-side (of "Whole Lotta Love," as it happens).
The Beatles, "Let It Be" (Apple, 1970)
Different as this was from, say, "I Saw Her Standing There," this qualifies as the first suggestion that maybe I should put aside childish things. Maybe one of these days I'll actually get around to it.
1 June 2006