Listen to this track by former Wrecking Crew stalwart, one-time stand-in Beach Boy, and unimpeachable Southern Pop hit-maker Glen Campbell. It’s “Wichita Lineman”, a huge hit from his 1968 record of the same name, Wichita Lineman, his twelfth. Written by Jimmy Webb specifically for Campbell, this song perfectly suits the singer’s talents as a vocalist with a sense of the cinematic in his delivery which adds to the epic scale of the material.
The song topped the pop charts all over the world in the fall of 1968, supported by a cadre of top flight sessioners including James Burton and Carole Kaye on guitars, Jim Gordon on drums, soaring strings arranged by producer Al DeLory, and Jimmy Webb himself playing the organ. Besides his emotionally connected vocal, Glen Campbell utilizes his years of experience as a sessioner himself by playing the desolate baritone guitar solo that seems to add streaks of shadow to the twilight-coloured landscape that sets the scene in this song.
Here it is: “Wichita Lineman” is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded and for so many reasons. Even when it was released, the song seemed to defy categorization, and with a late-in-the-day melancholy that lends it undeniable gravitas. Webb’s skill at creating these kinds of effects at the songwriting level are important to note; the song never returns “home” to the tonic established at its beginning, which adds to its deep well of wistful sadness. Ultimately though, the credit for the emotional punch of this song must go to Glen Campbell himself, reinforcing a vital principle that is common to the arsenal of every skilled vocalist who seeks to tell a story; the ability to convey a vivid portrayal of a character that listeners can relate to immediately. Read more
Listen to this track by New York-based hard rock paragons Living Colour. It’s “Cult of Personality”, their biggest hit to date and most recognizable track taken from their 1988 album Vivid. The song was a top twenty song on Billboard’s Top 100, winning the band a Grammy for best hard rock performance, and with a smattering of other awards besides. Since its release, the song has been used across multiple media for many years, from use in video games to (rather ironically considering its subject matter) WWE entrance music.
Despite its sheer scale, the writing of “Cult of Personality” came out of a simple jam during a rehearsal when guitarist and bandleader Vernon Reid played the central riff while playing an entirely different song. From there, a signature hit was born, with central themes spanning the course of a tumultuous twentieth century. It namechecks world leaders with jarring contrast. Joseph Stalin and Gandhi are lined up right next to each other. The voice of Malcolm X starts the song, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt closes it (with a brief interjection from JFK). That’s a pretty broad cultural spectrum.
In an increasingly polarized political landscape all over the world by the end of the eighties, where did this song place on that spectrum? Besides the immense central riff that’s been mentioned, I think this is the song’s central strength; that it doesn’t choose sides along any political lines. That’s not really the point of it. Instead, it tackles a bigger subject, which is all about human perception, our tendency toward myth-making, and other tendencies that make it easy for the right person to use them to influence our judgement when it comes to the facts, pushing us in certain directions for good or ill. How relevant is that today? All too much. Read more
Listen to this track by supremely gifted American pop song artisan and singer-songwriter in her own right Carole King. It’s “It’s Too Late”, a smash single coupled with another song, “I Feel The Earth Move”, as a double A-side, and featured on her classic 1971 record Tapestry. The song was co-written with lyricist Toni Stern, who penned the words after a break-up with a mutual friend of King’s, fellow singer-songwriter James Taylor.
Carole King herself had written for many other artists from Bobby Vee, to The Chiffons, to The Monkees, a role that took up quite a bit of her time from the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s after only a few solo singles under her own name by the beginning of that decade. By then, she’d evolved considerably as a writer and performer. “It’s Too Late” reflects a more mature perspective on the end of a relationship compared to many of the break-up songs she’d written in the previous decade. It adds a level of musical sophistication too, with jazz-inflected guitar and soprano sax adding additional voices to King’s resigned lead vocal and lush piano lines.
But very importantly, it’s also a key song that comes from a woman’s point of view during a time when certain social changes were only just beginning to make their way into the broader cultural conversation. Read more
Listen to this track by Atlanta-based hip hop collective Arrested Development. It’s “Tennessee”, the first single taken from their smash-hit debut record, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days In the Life Of … released in the spring of 1992. The group are widely known as being pioneers in southern hip hop and authors of the aural counterbalance to the rise of West Coast scenes during the early nineties, with their debut record as a fine example.
In contrast to the violence and nihilism of a lot of rap at the time, Arrested Development traded in more celebratory themes, while still acknowledging the same burdensome weight of history on black communities in America and the anger and sorrow it justifiably creates. Under the creative leadership of Speech and Headliner, the group concocted a potent blend of musical styles from soul, gospel, dub, funk (this song samples Prince’s “Alphabet Street” prominently), blues, and jazz.
Importantly, this song in particular eschews the braggadocio, posturing, and often very understandable cynicism of a lot of the rap coming out of the West Coast that dominated the field at the time and embraces a brand of vulnerable candour in its place.”Tennessee” is downright humble, being in the form of a prayer. Yet the themes built into this song are not to be dismissed as lightweight. In fact, it evokes much of the same darkness and struggle as is found in any example of socially aware hip hop of the time. Read more
Listen to this track by Kelowna, British Columbia folk-and-psych-pop purveyors The Grapes of Wrath. It’s “All The Things I Wasn’t”, the lead single from their 1989 album Now and Again, their third and most commercially successful album to date. At barely two minutes and not exactly fitting in with the over-the-top production style which was rampant at the time, this tune was an unlikely top twenty hit in Canada. Even the band weren’t convinced that it would do the business for them after their label insisted it be a single. I guess sometimes “the money” is right. Stopped clocks and all that.
This was a big tune, seeming to channel a late-sixties folk rock vibe and full of images of isolation and loss. The warmth of the production which is marked by restraint and space that anticipated the very same that would be very common in the following decade of the 1990s, and reflecting what I consider to be a golden age in Canadian pop music from the late-eighties to the mid-nineties, with many bands putting out unique records that also garnered serious radio play. This tune certainly appealed to my post-teen sensibilities. There’s something about the onset of early adulthood that brings out the melancholy in a lot of people, I suppose. And this song has melancholy to spare.
I think if you’d asked me at the time what this song was literally about, I might have been hard-pressed to tell you. That would have been missing the point anyway. The fact is, this tune and the rest of this album represented something very personal, and at a crucial time in my own life. Read more
Listen to this track by post-Beatles Paul McCartney songwriting vehicle and bona fide top forty behemoth Wings. It’s “Silly Love Songs” a smash single that appeared on the band’s 1976 LP Wings At The Speed of Sound. The song proved its own thesis by spending five non-consecutive weeks on the number one spot of the Billboard 100. It would be McCartney’s twenty-seventh number one song, helping to place him in the Guinness World Book of Records as the world’s most successful songwriter by 1979.
By this time, McCartney and Wings were on an upswing with a number of hits behind them and with many in front as well before the band ended in 1981. However even during this peak period where chart action was concerned, the songwriter was not without his critics. Even his former songwriting partner John Lennon had levelled an opinion that McCartney had gone soft, writing lightweight, crowd-pleasing love songs rather than turning his talents to more substantial subjects. This song was a self-aware reaction to that. Crowd-pleasing? What’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?
Having said that, there’s something else going on in this song that I think a lot of rock fans had complained about where McCartney was concerned by 1976; that it just doesn’t rock in the way that, say, “Helter Skelter” or Back In The USSR” does. I think there’s plenty to unpack there that reveals something about McCartney the writer, and maybe something about his audience, too. Read more
Listen to this track by stylistically slippery Los Feliz-based musical vehicle for songwriter Mark Oliver Everett, Eels. It’s “Saturday Morning”, the lead single as taken from 2003’s Shootenanny, the fifth release under the Eels moniker. The album followed relatively quickly on the heels of 2001’s Souljacker, and shares some of its harder, fuzzier edges.
By this time, Everett was in a particularly busy period with multiple projects on the go all at once. He was planning a magnum opus of a record that would eventually be released in 2005 as the thirty-three track album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. That project would feature some of the most intricate and delicate arrangements of his career. At the same time, he recorded this album which was done in a contrastingly short period of time in a matter of a couple of weeks, live off of the floor. Somewhere in there, he also wrote the score for the film Levity. Whew!
Knowing what was on his plate at the time, it would be easy to chalk this particular song up to Everett’s own driven work ethic. Yet, this song alluded a time in the past before his career as a professional songwriter and musician even began, and to a state of mind to which many of us can relate. Read more
Listen to this track by serial hit single pure pop vocalist and future Solid Gold/Psychic Friends Network TV personality Dionne Warwick. It’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”, her ginormous 1968 hit song as written by herculean songwriting team Burt Bacharach and Hal David with whom Warwick famously collaborated during the 1960s and into the early seventies. The song appears on her LP Dionne Warwick in the Valley of the Dolls.
Lyricist David penned the words to this song after Bacharach wrote the melody. He decided to write about the town of San Jose, California where he’d once been stationed in the navy, having good memories of his time there. Warwick was initially unconvinced of the song’s hit potential. After all, she was following up “I Say A Little Prayer”, yet another huge smash hit, so the pressure was on. Bacharach and David convinced her to record it anyway, and it scored her a third consecutive number one song on the Billboard charts.
Even after decades of performing it, and despite the success it represented for her, Warwick never really warmed to it. She considered it to be fluff. Yet, this song isn’t all that it seems. It’s one of those songs that sounds happy, but isn’t, full of all kinds of pain and heartache under its supremely breezy exterior. Read more
Listen to this track by rotating cast of musical characters in orbit around one-time Rotten singer John Lydon; Public Image, Ltd. It’s “Rise”, a single and top twenty record as taken from the imaginatively titled 1986 LP, Album (or Cassette, or Compact Disc, depending on format…). The album was the fifth released under the name Public Image, Ltd. since forming in 1978. By this period, it was more like a John Lydon solo record with some very notable, and very unexpected players featured on it.
The musicians on this song alone are a fair distance away from the musical world with which Lydon was generally associated. Stylistically, they’re even pretty far from each other in terms of genre, coming in from parallel stylistic universes to make a (perhaps) surprisingly complementary set of noises together while still retaining their own signature styles. This internal cohesion is largely down to the involvement of producer, bassist, musical director, and co-writer of this song Bill Laswell, well known for his knack for finding common threads between genres and musician’s styles to create something seamless out of them.
What does singer John Lydon himself bring to this song in the middle of all of that, a charting hit that reached #11 on the UK pop charts? Well, perhaps unexpectedly from the guy who wailed “no future for you!” at one point in his career, I think this song is about hope for the future itself. But, it’s hope with a cost. Read more
Listen to this track by languid Santa Monica lo-fi outfit Mazzy Star. It’s “Fade Into You”, their hit single that features on their 1994 breakthrough album So Tonight That I Might See . This song remains to be their signature tune, noted for the sleepy, soporific vocal performance by singer Hope Sandoval.
After a decade in the eighties of big glossy production-driven records, a song like this that seems to evoke the spirit of desolate early seventies folk-rock seems like an unlikely formula for success. This approach fit pretty well to the new decade, with a lot of bands then freed up to reference older musical streams after the eighties’ emphasis on hyper-newness and burying the past was over. Even if that’s true, Mazzy Star came by those influences pretty honestly before it was fashionable anyway.
Joining Sandoval in the band was guitarist David Roback, late of Paisley Underground band The Rain Parade and follow-up band Opal, the latter of which Sandoval was also a part. That scene largely ignored (and was ignored by) the mainstream in the eighties, with references to the warm tones of sixties and early seventies psych and folk arenas more so than to the jittery new wave, sparkly dance pop, or bombastic arena rock of the time. So what helped to make this song a sleeper (and sleepy!) hit by the following decade? Just this, I think; everyone loves a mystery.