To commemorate turning fifty, here’s part one of my personal selection of one song from every year since 1970.
I decided to celebrate reaching a half century with a series of themed articles for this blog. So far, there has just been 50 Songs – A Top 10, but others are also planned.
I should immediately give credit to an ex-boss of mine (hi, Chris!), whose triple CD compilation covered similar ground some years ago.
This task required some work along the lines of making a jigsaw puzzle, as there were certain songs that just had to be included, and certain artists who likewise were compulsory. I’ll explain some of my thinking as I progress.
Obviously, this is far from a list of the fifty greatest songs of the last half century, or even my fifty favourites, but of course I love every song listed here.
I’ve tried to cover a reasonably wide spread of my musical tastes – but it’s pretty heavy on the indie, as well as rock, pop and singer/songwriters, with limited inclusions for reggae, world music, hip hop, country, folk and electronica.
That means there’s no room at all for one genre I do love, soul, but the vast majority of my favourites from that are from the 1960’s (and 50’s to a lesser extent), so only some of my soul loves qualified for inclusion in any case.
I had originally planned to make these selections into a triple CD as a replacement for my usual ‘best of the year’ disc that I send out to friends at Christmas, but my plans have now changed. Instead, you can listen to (almost) all of the tracks by clicking on this evolving Spotify link:
As I’ve only recently discovered the very useful SecondHandSongs website, I’ll also pass comment on notable cover versions of these tunes as I go through.
Part two should follow fairly swiftly after this one, but it may take a little while to make it all the way through to the present day, so bear with me!
1970: George Harrison – Beware Of Darkness
1970 was immediately a very difficult year to decide upon. As any regular (or possibly even occasional) reader of this blog will know, there is no-one who can challenge The Beatles as the greatest, most important act in musical history to my ears.
The fabs of course released their final album Let It Be during 1970, a year that also brought career bests by both George and John (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band), two thoroughly listenable Ringo albums (Sentimental Journey, a collection of standards, and the country Beaucoups Of Blues), and a patchily-brilliant work from Macca.
However, Let It Be is comfortably my least favourite of their LPs (if we ignore Yellow Submarine), so I decided to choose something off All Things Must Pass, surely in my Top 5 solo Beatle records, sometimes despite the typically over-the-top Phil Spector production.
It proved difficult to just pick one song from this sprawling triple album (OK, double plus an extra, rather unnecessary, disc of jams)
The lyrics reflect how spirituality should always override material concerns, reflecting the teachings of the Radha Krishna Temple. My favourite line is probably the curious warning to “beware of soft shoe shufflers”.
I originally had this on vinyl, bought as a teenager. I don’t recall when I replaced it with the CD version, as I superseded that with the thirtieth anniversary edition in September 2001, for £14.99 from HMV in Richmond.
This song has been covered by the likes of Sheryl Crow with Eric Clapton, Sting and Brandi Carlile (just imagine what that sounds like and you’ll be spot on, trust me), a fairly restrained Joe Cocker from 2007 and a faintly Nico-esque version by Marianne Faithfull (recorded as early as 1971, but not released until 1985), as well as one lovely version I do own by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs:
1971: David Bowie – Changes
A really well-known song from my favourite ever Bowie album, Hunky Dory. I think that I first heard this track on the 1976 compilation ChangesOneBowie that I believe I borrowed from the library at some stage in the mid-to-late 1980’s. I would surely have made a copy of it, but it is no longer in my cassette collection for me to confirm this.
I think that I got a tape of the Hunky Dory LP when I was in the sixth form and it became the first CD of his I bought for myself, picking it up from Virgin in Sheffield on a post-university return visit in April 1995, having been gifted Low and “Heroes” for Christmas in 1991.
I could have picked any number of tracks off this album, as there’s truly not a bad song on it, but I went for the killer opener, with some harsh self-analysing lyrics, “So I turned myself to face me but I’ve never caught a glimpse. How the others must see the faker, I’m much too fast to take that test”.
It’s such a Bowie-oriented song that although there have been a fair amount of cover versions, very few have been by anyone of note, the most interesting exception being the always quirky Robyn Hitchcock, though I can’t track this down to give it a listen.
1972: Big Star – Thirteen
One of many stone-cold classic cuts from their debut #1 Record LP which sadly got nowhere near that ranking on the charts. Maybe the follow-up Radio City is even better, but this list is one giant compromise after all.
I got both albums at once, as they were put onto one CD that I bought for £11 from the much-missed Stand Out! in Ladbroke Grove in October 2000 on a day when I also bought Rusty Squeezebox and Wondermints albums from there, as well as three late period albums by the fantastic Phil Ochs.
Many have covered this track, but I think the only other version in my collection is on indie popsters Magnapop’s 1992 self-titled debut album.
The lyrics are a beautiful celebration of teenage life, so much so that I can even forgive this rather clunky couplet: “Won’t you tell your dad ‘get off my back’? Tell him what we said ‘bout ‘Paint It, Black’”.
1973: The Wailers – Slave Driver
I decided fairly early on that there ought to be a reggae tune on this (virtual) compilation. There were a few candidates, but many of them (such as Culture, whom I unsurprisingly discovered via John Peel), overlapped with the punk/new wave years where there was such huge competition for a spot.
Bob Marley was a natural choice, as he was perhaps inevitably my gateway into reggae, initially through the 1984 Legend compilation LP that my sister had.
This comes from the band’s fifth studio album Catch A Fire, and I think I slightly prefer the version actually released at the time to the original unadulterated Jamaican one. Anyway, it needs to be that version to fit into 1973!
Shockingly, I didn’t actually pick up this album until June 2019.
The song expresses the inequity of slavery, culminating in the very cutting line, “Today they say that we are free, only to be chained in poverty”.
1974: Eno – Back In Judy’s Jungle
This is possibly my favourite track from probably my favourite Eno (no Brian!) LP, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).
This his second album featured considerable contributions from Phil Manzanera and Robert Wyatt amongst others, with the recording process enlivened by the development of the Oblique Strategies cards by Eno and Peter Schmidt, who also designed the album sleeve.
So the lyrics are very stream of consciousness-esque, with great lines such as “Twelve sheets of foolscap, don’t ask me why” and “File under ‘Futile’, that should give you its main point of reference”, but they probably don’t sound all that great out of context.
It’s one of very many albums featured in this list that I first heard via a tape off best mate Kris’s vinyl copy, probably sometime in the sixth form. Sadly, it’s one of very few CDs in my collection that I am unable to date the purchase of, but judging by when I bought his other early solo albums, it would have been in the early 1990’s.
Also under serious consideration for 1974 was something off Gene Clark’s fantastic No Other album. However, Eno played such a major role in my musical education/development as a late teenager, through his solo LPs, Roxy Music and his production work for the likes of Talking Heads and Devo that he had to go in.
1975: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Cortez The Killer
This year was a really difficult choice as Patti Smith’s utterly sublime and seminal album Horses was released. However, after much deliberation I decided I had to squeeze Shakey into the list at all costs, and this ended up being the best slot for him.
Zuma isn’t my favourite NY LP, but is without doubt in my Top 10, and he’s someone who although I don’t yet own every single album he’s produced, that’s something that I hope will one day be achieved. Yes, even the likes of Everybody’s Rockin’ (got) and Re·ac·tor (need).
I think this was one of those long-boxed US CDs when I got it from Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus way back in December 1991 for £11.99. While I still have the disc, I didn’t bother the keep the long boxes from CDs like this.
I’ve got a (good) live version of this by Matthew Sweet (recorded with Indigo Girls) on his Goodfriend promo CD companion to Girlfriend that I bought from Minus Zero in Ladbroke Grove in 1993 for the eye-watering sum of £25.
I also own Dave Rawlings Machine’s A Friend Of A Friend that includes the song as part of a gentle medley with Bright Eyes’ Method Acting, though the latter accounts for around two thirds of the ten-minute-plus runtime.
The words (once they come in after more than three minutes) are somewhat naïve and simplistic in a ‘natives were all perfect, the invaders all evil’ way. I particularly find the line “But they built up with their bare hands what we still can’t do today” rather trite.
1976: Pere Ubu – Final Solution
This year was the start of punk, but great records from this revolution were still a little thin on the ground. The nearest contender to replacing Pere Ubu in this slot was Richard Hell’s Blank Generation album, either the title track or Love Comes In Spurts.
Final Solution was their second single, following on from the equally startling 30 Seconds Over Tokyo 7”, also on Hearpen Records from a year earlier.
It featured on the Terminal Tower compilation that I got on tape via my schoolmate Kris, finally getting it on CD from Sister Ray in Soho in August 1998 for the bargain price of £6.99, also snapping up The Fall’s double live album The “Twenty-Seven Points” from Selectadisc on the same road that day.
I have only just discovered that it was also recorded by funk metallers Living Colour as a b-side in 1990. They are not my bag in any way at all, so I really dislike this version with its seemingly interminable guitar fretwankery. Hear for yourself:
Much better is Bob Hund’s Swedish version, which actually hit the Top 30 in their homeland as a single in 1997:
1977: Television – Friction
Another really, really difficult year to just select one track from, with the likes of Bowie’s Low and “Heroes”, My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello, Wire’s Pink Flag, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols and Rumours by Fleetwood Mac also issued, to name but a few (not to mention all the great 7” singles).
However, Marquee Moon stands apart as one of the truly great albums of all time. Last time I bothered to work out my Top 12 (why twelve?) albums of all time (back in February 2001), it didn’t make that list. Perhaps it would now, but I feel confident it would be comfortably ensconced in the Top 30.
Another record I heard via a Kris tape originally, which I fairly swiftly acquired on CD, subsequently replacing a previous version with a remastered one from Sister Ray in November 2003 for £11.99.
Debut LP Talking Heads ’77 was unsurprisingly released this year also, the first of five absolutely classic albums in a row from the band, any one of which could have been featured in this collection. Hold your breath, they will be along sooner rather than later.
I have a good live version from 1985 of this by the Bunnymen on their People Are Strange CD single, a song that was part of the soundtrack for The Lost Boys, with the disc also including covers of The Rolling Stones and The Velvet Underground.
1978: The Go-Betweens – Karen
I probably first heard this in April 1988 when it was included on the Strum + Drum tape given away with the short-lived Underground magazine, although it also featured on The Able Label Singles 12” that Kris taped for me sometime around then.
I’m only aware of two covers of this, one of which is a fairly decent one by Nantes band The Little Rabbits on their Dans Les Faux Puits Rouges Et Gris album that my French friend Baloo taped for me back in 1991.
Nothing can come close to the original though.
The lyrics at the start are somewhat bizarre at times, but the starkness and intensity shine through, with some of the words being absolutely fantastic, such as the gloriously pretentious lines about Karen’s role as an obliging librarian:
“Helps me find Hemingway, helps me find Genet, helps me find Brecht, helps me find Chandler, helps me find James Joyce. She always makes the right choice.”
1979: Buzzcocks – I Believe
Punk absolutely had to feature in this list somewhere, and these Mancunians are probably my favourite band from this genre. I’ve always found The Clash to be vastly overrated (although I still like them), and much as I love the Sex Pistols they couldn’t usurp Pere Ubu or Television.
Quick point – somehow it’s entirely passed me by until right now that the band actually formed in Bolton, although their utterly crucial role in the Manchester music scene over the last forty years means I’m happy still to call them Mancunians (although neither Howard Devoto nor Pete Shelley came from there either).
Many punk bands produced one classic album, or a handful of great singles, but Buzzcocks (along with The Undertones) had greater longevity.
This is the rather wordy (almost) closing track to their third and final original LP A Different Kind Of Tension, which made the UK Top 30.
They released three singles and recorded demos for a fourth album in 1981, but then split up until an initial reformation in 1989.
They’re another act I initially heard mostly through tapes from Kris, though I loved them so much I bought the Product box set in November 1991 for the princely sum of £29 (for three CDs).
I could have gone for their single Everybody’s Happy Nowadays also released this year, or something off Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music, but this is fantastic.
The list of things that Shelley believes in is a rather curious one, and presumably not entirely serious, taking in “the worker’s revolution… final solution… immaculate conception… elixir of youth” and “my mum and my dad”.
So, here ends the first, 1970’s part of this feature. Stay tuned for the 1980s’s, which will hopefully follow fairly soon!