THE ONE HUNDRED GREATEST ROCK SONGS OF ALL TIME

 

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It is difficult to put rock music in perspective. Sure, smart people have written about rock music, and rock music is very popular, and has been so popular for so many years that old rock songs are still popular.

It could be said, that for the last three generations, rock music has become America’s poetry—shaping the sensibility of millions of young—and even old—people.

Why, then does rock still seem mindless, schlocky, obscene, and low-brow?

Because most of it is.

If literature is a polite form of sex, rock music is an art form which some feel veers too close to sex to be a socially healthy alternative to it.

But with rock’s continued popularity, it is fast becoming our religion, our poetry.  It is now America’s elevator music, shopping-mall music, American Idol music, nostalgic radio and TV music, and has not stopped being our Top 40 music, even as Country and Rap sells millions. All popular American music, even jazz, is just a form of rock music.  A jazz solo sounds like an electric guitar solo; folk, country, jazz, and rap fit under rock’s umbrella—not the other way around.  It is all rock music, really.  Sonically speaking, American art is rock.  Classical music peaked in the 19th century, when America was still a relatively small and backward place; it may not be long before classical music will be a subset of rock music—and such is already the case in many musical listeners’ minds. Rock may not be the best kind of music; but right now it is the biggest sponge.  Rock is currently the place where all roads lead.

The look of rock has certainly been vital to its fame in a modern, media-saturated society.  The personalities, the costumes, the personal stories, the videos, the pyrotechnics, the idols, all that extra-musical material every rock fan is familiar with, is part of rock’s popularity; but rock songs still exist as rock songs: they have their profound impact, in the dark, emitted from a tiny speaker.  It is finally the sound, the song, in its harmonic and emotional aurality that matters.

But why—how—has rock, this silly electrified music, scaled the heights of culture?  Four basic reasons.

The best of it absorbs all other music, from classical, to jazz, to folk.

It has no avant-garde.  It has not yet fallen victim to the zany and the pretentious.

It lives outside the academy.  To see how dead rock music can be, watch American Idol, a display of what happens when rock is systemized, archived, sent to school, judged.

It strikes a perfect balance between writing/creating and playing/performing: both are equally important.

When rock has nothing left to rebel against, when rock has nothing left to absorb, will it finally die? And what will take its place?  Right now, rock music stands alone.

The criteria for The List are as follows:  Interesting All the Way Through. Rock songs thrill immediately; many good ones begin brilliantly but then we lose interest once the beat of the song is established. Great lyrics, Melody, harmony, originality, sound quality, emotional power, are all crucial.

A good List should seem inevitable, yet surprising.

A good List should not be enslaved by stars and big names, but obscurity should be avoided as well.  We are talking about popular music, after all.

If some favorites are not included, one should at least feel that every type has been represented, and often in terms of origins and templates.

 

 THE LIST:

1. WHEN THE MUSIC’S OVER  –THE DOORS— Jim’s screams; a mini-symphony from the Beethoven of Rock bands.

2. BE MY BABY –THE RONETTES— Chorus agrees with singer so sweetly and exuberantly, for two minutes the world and love seem one.

3. GREEN FIELDS –THE BROTHERS FOUR— The ultimate ‘white blues’ song. Has a hushed power. Released in 1960.

4. MRS. ROBINSON– SIMON & GARFUNKLE— The energy, polish, and delicacy of late 60s S & G songs are unmatched.

5. LATHER– JEFFERSON AIRPLANE— Very few songs can truly be called mind-blowing; haunting, artistic, weird.

6. DAY IN THE LIFE– THE BEATLES— The musicians took over the control board: the final effort of an era’s performers turning profoundly and self-consciously inward. More than a song: the world’s greatest entertainers descend into the despondently poetic.

7. SEA OF LOVE –PHIL PHILLIPS— If Bach were alive in the 1950s…if Puccini were a hep cat…a catalogue of art music in two minutes.

8. CRY — JOHNNY RAY— Was he the father of rock n’ roll?  This magnificent recording came out in 1951.

9. I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER –ARETHA FRANKLIN— Urban gospel jazz classical sweetness.

10. HOW SOON IS NOW –THE SMITHS — This song has it all: brain-filling sound, lyric, singer, intangible menace-melting-into-cool.

11. SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT –NIRVANA— A moment when rock looked at itself, said Oh Fuck and squirmed back.

12. LIGHT MY FIRE –THE DOORS— For about 100 days these guys were rock music and no one else was.

13. WILD THING — THE TROGGS— With a recorder solo! In terms of insouciant understatement, most iconic rock performance ever. Hold me tight.

14. WHAT’S GOIN ON? –MARVIN GAYE— Maybe the greatest pop singer ever. A delirious—and serious song.

15. LIKE A ROLLING STONE — BOB DYLAN — He made angry lyrics an art form; looking back, folk to rock was a big challenge.

16. SPACE ODDITY –DAVID BOWIE— A song that does many things; one of the great Wagnerian efforts of mature rock.

17. HOUSE OF THE RISING SUNTHE ANIMALS— On the back of an electric keyboard, a classic folk tune reaches rock immortality.

18. STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN –LED ZEPPELIN— No matter what anyone says, this band’s best song. Melody, dynamics, atmosphere.

19. WILD WORLD — CAT STEVENS— The best of the ‘sincere’ singer/songwriter phenomenon from a male perspective.

20. ME AND BOBBY MCGEE –JANIS JOPLIN— She emoted in a way that was almost too good to be true.

21. VIVA LA VIDA –COLD PLAY— They could have had hits in the 60s!

22. SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL –THE ROLLING STONES— They actually wrote a lot of pretty pop songs.

23. SHE LOVES YOU –THE BEATLES— It was the simple sophistication of ‘she’ loves you rather than ‘I’ love you. It was joy.

24. KANSAS CITY –LITTLE RICHARD— A British Invasion starter. A 1955 record issued in 1959 in the U.K. where Little Richard was huge, never having set foot there.

25. NOTHING COMPARES 2 U — SINEAD O’CONNOR— Big, slow beautiful ballad that came out of nowhere in the moribund 90s.

26. WHITER SHADE OF PALE — PROCOL HARUM— Help from Bach and Chaucer; a song that keeps on giving.

27. JAILHOUSE ROCK — ELVIS PRESLEY— Performer, not writer; good at choosing songs, but a truly great song never chose him.

28. STANDING IN THE SHADOW OF LOVE — FOUR TOPS— A hit-making machine for Motown, all went to the same high school in Detroit.  There was uplift, but also an exquisite sound of moral desperation in their songs.

29. WALK ON THE WILD SIDE — LOU REED— This was rock becoming self-consciously cool, almost as it always had been.

30. JUST SAY I LOVE HIM — NINA SIMONE— Genre-wise, “Forbidden Fruit” (1961) which contains this tender song, is jazz/blues/folk. The underrated album is a monster.

31. DON’T LET THE SUN CATCH YOU CRYING– GERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS— One of the sweetest recordings of all time.

32. WATERLOO SUNSET — THE KINKS— Ray Davies writes and sings; his brother pushes the song into another zone with his guitar; successful bands usually contain family, love, rivalry.

33. HE’S A REBEL — THE BLOSSOMS—  Loving the rebel.  Credited to the Crystals, a girl-group not available on short notice to record it.

34. SCHOOL’S OUT — ALICE COOPER— What most people think of when they think of rock music.

35. ELENORE –THE TURTLES— Before rock turned dangerous, it grew into what it was simply as an innocent (?) love-drug. “So Happy Together” would work as well.

36. IT’S ALL IN THE GAME — TOMMY EDWARDS— The tune was composed in 1911 by a future Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge, Charles Dawes.

37. BILLY JEAN — MICHAEL JACKSON— A song impeccably produced by Quincy Jones, who worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, and Lesley Gore.

38. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER — BUFFY ST. MARIE— This anti-war song, written by the sexy Native American singer, was covered by Donovan.  Her version is much better.

39. CALIFORNIA DREAMING — MAMAS AND PAPAS— Folk rock can be a great way to speak.

40. I WANNA BE SEDATED — THE RAMONES—  Punk has its anthem.

41. DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HURT ME? — CULTURE CLUB— Melancholy cool at its best.

42. WHAT THE WORLD  NEEDS NOW IS LOVE — JACKIE DESHANNON— A perfect example of sophisticated, urban, socially holy, feel-good, sentimentality.

43. BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER — SIMON & GARFUNKLE— There was an inescapable magic about these two.

44. MAGGIE MAE — ROD STEWART— A raggedy rock classic.

45. HURDY GURDY MAN –DONOVAN — The backing band for this great hippie singer’s 1968 hit (and he had many) was the future Led Zeppelin.

46. HEY YA! — OUTKAST—  It was nice to hear this in 2003.   This is how it’s done.

47. I’M A BELIEVER — THE MONKEES—  The emergence of this ‘audition for TV show’ Beatles-clone band inspired the Beatles to go deeper.

48. TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM — THE TEDDY BEARS— Freud could say Phil Spector used music to get women to worship the father.

49. PINE TOP’S BOOGIE WOOGIE — PINE TOP SMITH— The template for all forms of popular rock exists in this 1928 recording. “And when I say, get it, I want you to shake that thing.”

50. SPIRIT IN THE SKY — NORMAN GREENBAUM— A one hit wonder which really is a wonder.

51. UNDER THE BOARDWALK — THE DRIFTERS— We don’t have to talk about the heroin overdose death of the lead singer the day before the song was to be recorded. Just a great song.

52. SOMEONE LIKE YOU — ADELLE — A woman holding her heart in her hand. Magnificent.

53. EARTH ANGEL — THE PENGUINS — An art song of sentimental naivety.

54. NEW YORK MINING DISASTER 1941 — THE BEE GEES — Nothing bubblegum about this.

55. WHAT’D I SAY — RAY CHARLES — If this song doesn’t make you want to jump out of your skin, you’re not alive.

56. I PUT A SPELL ON YOU — SCREAMIN JAY HAWKINS — What can one say about this?

57. ICKY THUMP– THE WHITE STRIPES — The art of controlled hysteria with poetry inside.

58. I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU –THE FLAMINGOS — A gorgeous declaration of love, as 1959 covers a 1934 tune.

59. SHE’S NOT THERE — THE ZOMBIES — Moody, soft, melodic, and to the point. Rock that dazzles.

60. WE ARE YOUNG — FUN — The chord progression of the chorus is epic.

61. TIME — PINK FLOYD— A special-effects-saturated, self-examining exercise in English self-pity at the center of the best-selling album of all time.

62. AT THE HOP — DANNY AND THE JUNIORS—  The most efficient twelve-bar blues ever.  1957. When templates were perfected.

63. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN — THE SEX PISTOLS — This was a new kind of music: real limits were being pushed. Rock has many, many houses.

64. THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED –DON MCLEAN — The danger here is sentimentality, but the moral, historical, self-reflexive story telling is important.

65. STAYIN’ ALIVE –THE BEE GEES — No one saw this coming: a band of melody becoming a band of beats.

66. HEY JUDE — THE BEATLES — A hopeful A.M. radio era anthem before all the F.M. splintering began.

67. DANCING QUEEN –ABBA — The well-tempered clavier meets disco.

68. MACK THE KNIFE –BOBBY DARIN —  Kurt Weil had his own invasion.

69. YOUNG FOLKS — PETER BJORN AND JOHN— Some day ‘catchy’ may be the most important term in the world.

70. SLOW RIDE — FOGHAT — A great example of a rocker’s rock song.

71. AQUALUNG –JETHRO TULL — The ‘Sgt. Peppers/Tommy’ era was extraordinary: Globe Theater rock.

72. NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN — THE MOODY BLUES — One of those haunting ‘classical music’ rock tunes which sound good even when its simple chords are strummed on an acoustic guitar.

73. TEMPTATION EYES — THE GRASS ROOTS — Life is too short to be snobby towards The Grass Roots.

74. ARE YOU EXPERIENCED — JIMI HENDRIX — Hendrix was a fanatic about sound, almost in a John Cage sort of way.

75. FREE BIRD — LYNYRD SKYNYRD — The song became a joke, but only because it was good.

76. BORN TO BE WILD — STEPPENWOLF — All the elements of a great rock song and the first to really sound like a machine, among other things.

77. THE END — THE DOORS — Early rock n’ roll was Greece, the Doors, Rome.  The rest is imitative.

78. LOUIE LOUIE — THE KINGSMEN — One of those mysteriously great hits which seem like many great songs inside of one.

79. MY SHARONA — THE KNACK — Nearly the parody of a great rock song.

80. SMOKE ON THE WATER — DEEP PURPLE — Something important about this song. No, never mind.

81. ROCK LOBSTER — B-52S — The best example, perhaps, of New Wave’s goofiness.

82. BENNY AND THE JETS — ELTON JOHN — John/Taupin was like one of those old music & lyric writing teams.

83. NORWEGIAN WOOD — THE BEATLES — The best world music riff of all time.

84. AS TEARS GO BY — THE ROLLING STONES — If you can please with a slow tune, it proves you’re not just a dance band.

85. LOVE WILL TEAR US APART –JOY DIVISION — Of Ian Curtis his band mates said, “we didn’t realize he meant it.”

86. I CAN SEE FOR MILES — THE WHO — The Who had remarkable parts which came together in a mix good and bad precisely because they tried so hard to be pop and rock.

87. JOY INSIDE MY TEARS —  STEVIE WONDER— A comfort song as only Stevie Wonder can bring, from the pretentiously named 1976 double album, “Songs in the Key of Life.”

88. MAYBELLENE — CHUCK BERRY — Let’s face it: so much of rock music can be annoying.  And also iconic.

89. JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH — BLACK EYED PEAS — The new hedonism of rock adds competition: my party in my video has more naked, beautiful people than yours.

90. HEY THERE DELILAH — PLAIN WHITE T’S — The best love song of the 21st century so far?

91. STORMY — DENNIS YOST & THE CLASSICS IV— It’s a little hard to find this song, but for simple, unpretentious songwriting it’s as good as it gets. Epitomizes 70s ear candy.

92. LET’S STAY TOGETHER –AL GREEN — Every woman in the world loves this song.

93. VACATION — THE GO-GOS — This genre, which includes Katrina and the Waves, Cindi Lauper, Blondie, the Bangles, the Vapors, Shocking Blue, the Breeders is quite a lot of fun.

94. CHASING CARS — SNOW PATROL — One of the best things rock can do is create tension which makes passionate insouciance memorable.

95. IRREPLACEABLE — BEYONCE — Not a love song.

96. DREAM BROTHER — JEFF BUCKLEY — A meditative urgency which rock can do so well.

97. CALL ME MAYBE — CARLA RAE JEPSEN — Sort of a love song.

98. WHITE RABBIT — JEFFERSON AIRPLANE — The structure of this song is a rabbit hole. A masterpiece.

99. GOOD NIGHT IRENE– THE WEAVERS — This 1950 hit, a white group playing a black man’s (Leadbelly) music, could make a case for the song that began it all.

100. ODE TO JOY, FOURTH MOVEMENT, NINTH SYMPHONY– BEETHOVEN — Here’s a secret: this is when rock music really began.

 

 

 

 

 

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32 Comments

  1. jld186 said,

    May 10, 2014 at 12:17 am

    California Girls and Good Vibrations the Beach Boys

  2. jld186 said,

    May 10, 2014 at 12:17 am

    Sweet Jane The Velvet Underground

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 10, 2014 at 10:30 pm

      Sounds very much like Dylan. I think one Lou Reed on the list is enough. The whole Dylan-esque genre is largely missing: Neil Young, CSN & Y, the Byrds, etc A top 200 is required.

  3. jld186 said,

    May 10, 2014 at 12:18 am

    Train In Vain The Clash

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 10, 2014 at 10:42 pm

      London Calling is their only song I really like and that sort of wheezes half-way through. They have a certain ‘sound and fury’ which wearies me pretty fast, like they’re running a sprint in a marathon. That’s the problem with so much of rock: it burns out with its own excitement, especially if it thinks it has something important to say.

      • noochinator said,

        May 15, 2014 at 7:44 am

        Yes, the best rock songs clock in at around 2 minutes and 20 seconds, the best sitcoms clock in at around 22 minutes (a 30 minute show without the ads), and the best movies clock in at around 80 minutes…. That’s about as much populist art that a sane person can take in one dose….

        • thomasbrady said,

          May 15, 2014 at 1:26 pm

          Yes, duration matters.

          As Poe said in Philosophy of Composition: a poem appealing to both the critical and the popular taste should be about 100 lines.

          Look at the BMI list of most requested and played pop songs of all time: most are quite short.

          Though I believe “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” in the top 20 of ‘most played’ in the 20th century, are closer to 5 minutes in length, though perhaps they are under 4 minutes, I’m not sure.

          Perhaps, the formula works this way:

          Popular songs only: 2-3 minutes.

          Popular and critically acclaimed songs: 4-5 minutes

          • noochinator said,

            May 16, 2014 at 11:34 am

            This one clocks in at 2:44 — one commenter asked, “Is this what heaven sounds like?” and another responded, “This is what cocaine sounds like”:

          • noochinator said,

            May 16, 2014 at 11:39 am

            This one 2:20 — not time enough for much boredom to set in, nor to take a breath:

  4. jld186 said,

    May 10, 2014 at 12:28 am

    Purple Rain Prince

  5. jld186 said,

    May 10, 2014 at 12:29 am

    Barnaby, Hardly Working Yo La Tengo

  6. Drew said,

    May 10, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    I like Scarriet’s picks on this one. Very diverse – yet very rocking.

    Rock’n’Roll and all of it’s “shock the bourgeoisie/anti-patrician” offshoots is music of the lower chakras, gut-music, 3 or 4 chord fuzzed-up anthems to carnality punctuated by bestial grunts, plebeian hoots, hillbilly yells, pimp-strutting shrieks, lecherous leering slavering animality, and undulating serpentine harlotry. Ooooooh – how revolting it truly is – because it commodifies revolt, repackages the same old inarticulate teenage rebellion OVER & OVER & OVER, intensifying it slightly each time, tweaking it for each distinct youth subculture and acting as if it actually had more significance than it does (remember – I also love the music – bear with me -we’re analyzing here…). Rock music is an opportunistic infection – and a power-aggrandizing freak show. It monopolizes your attention with its pounding adrenaline-rushing excitement but then can’t figure out what it wants to say to you. We mistake its verses for Wisdom and Truth – especially when high or drunk or tripping. But in the end, it’s just words and rhythms with a lot of “ooh yeah” and “woah baybeh” and “c’mon now child” – or worse. It messes up your diastolic cardiac-rhythms and induces slight panic and disorientation that you mistake for liberation and enlightenment.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 10, 2014 at 10:25 pm

      Drew,

      Nicely said!

      • Drew said,

        May 10, 2014 at 11:16 pm

        It’s from a blog post about Rock Music that I have had on my dashboard for a long time. Scarriet’s top 100 just may force me to publish it finally !

  7. Drew said,

    May 10, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    I really really love the drums in Dancing Queen – along with that melodic shift up to the “You” in “You can dance – You can jive / Having the time of your life…” ♪♫♪♫♫

  8. Anonymous said,

    May 10, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    Dang – this Scarriet site just TOO exciting – can’t keep away!

  9. thomasbrady said,

    May 10, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    Funny I was just thinking this morning, I forgot the Beach Boys. But then I thought, weren’t the Beach Boys just Ray Charles What’d I Say for white surfer dudes in California?

    To make a truly representative list I did not simply choose a sampling of the best known acts.

    I know everyone talks about how important Pet Sounds is, and what a genius Brian Wilson is, etc etc but you know what? I think Beach Boys worship is a little much. True, one might say this about all rock, but I’m going to say the Beach Boys belong in the top 200, not the top 100, but as a kind of American alternative to early 60s Beatles, I suppose one could make a fairly good argument, but so far I like my List, even though I left out songs and artists I admire and artists some might think I’m crazy to exclude.

  10. thomasbrady said,

    May 10, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo is a nice one. It makes me think of The Boys Are Back in Town and Jessie’s Girl and 867-5309 Jenny and Walk This Way and it is the kind of ‘low brow boys nite out song’ that the List is missing: the closest would be Slow Ride or My Sharona or maybe At The Hop. I would love if the List could include The Boys Are Back In Town or 867-5309 Jenny because that’s a niche the List is missing. I guess My Sharona will have to be the ambassador for that shit. Same audience. Smoke on the Water, too.

    If you are playing at home, you may replace My Sharona with Tommy Tutone’s 867-5309/Jenny

  11. Drew said,

    May 11, 2014 at 1:08 am

    All of it freakin’ ROCKS bro…

    (just like a well-penned poem)

  12. powersjq said,

    May 12, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    Tom,

    Whatever quibbles one might have with the List as given (and I confess to having a few), I think your criteria for its generation very close to a critical (in the sense of belonging to a Critic) definition of good taste in pop music. Insofar as they can be adapted–mutatis mutandis–to other art forms, they seem to me a kind of skeleton definition of Good Taste in general.

  13. thomasbrady said,

    May 12, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    That’s a real compliment coming from you, Powers.

    I could easily jot down another hundred right now…

  14. May 13, 2014 at 1:39 am

    […] SCARRIET’s Top 100 Rock Songs of All Time forced me to finally publish this draft I’ve had sitting […]

  15. Drew said,

    May 13, 2014 at 1:42 am

    This Scarriet post, plus the pathetic image of the Lizard King curled up in fetal position, forced me to publish a little screed on Rock’n’Roll:

    http://connecthook.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/rockn-roll-revaluation-vs-revolution/

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 13, 2014 at 9:15 pm

      Thanks, Drew. Rock can certainly be viewed as a kind of cultural fascism. I have mixed feelings about it…periods where I get into it, and then decide maybe I should stick to Classical Music…I go back and forth…

      Is it true rock music ‘kills’ plants and classical music makes them thrive?

      I’d like to hear more about the diastolic rhythms…

      I wonder if anyone has scientifically analyzed a ‘hook?’

      When I listen to “I’ll Be Around” by the Spinners, that 2 note hook absolutely ‘slays me,’ as they say. It works like a drug.

      I hate the mass identification of rock music. I rarely go to concerts and prefer listening privately…

      • Drew said,

        May 13, 2014 at 10:57 pm

        I am honestly ashamed that 3-chord tunes can elicit such a thrill in my sin-sick soul. Songs like “Louie Louie”, “Can’t Explain”, old Kinks, Punk Rock…
        There are certain groups who have elevated this plebeian popular art form to a greater aesthetic dimension – but they are a departure from the norm. There is something disturbing in Rock’n’Roll’s power to seduce the soul and lead it down the primrose path. I kinda wish my parents had exposed me to more Classical music during my formative years.
        Of course, I still love Rock music. I am just more discerning and wary of it now that i have suffered and grown old.

        It really can work like a drug. You are so right.

  16. noochinator said,

    August 7, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Speaking of FM radio (at least tangentially), here’s some quotes from a legendary NYC free-form radio jock Steve Post (1944-2014), author of the 1974 memoir Playing in the FM Band:

    “I believe people are essentially brutal, murderous, lying bastards who put on masks of civility to make society work.”

    “Just when you think you’ve scraped the bottom, you find you’re only scratching the surface.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/05/nyregion/steve-post-sardonic-wit-on-wnyc-is-dead-at-70.html

  17. noochinator said,

    August 31, 2014 at 1:51 am

    Hilarious piece by James Lileks, titled “A Low Point for High Culture”:

    Anyone who wanted to feel old, fusty, cranky, and despairing of the end of High Culture could scan recent cultural news and feel as if he had clambered into a handbasket and boarded the high-speed rail for Hades. Example A:

    The Seattle Symphony performed a version of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s rap classic “Baby Got Back.”

    It is not my place here to detail the catalogue of Sir Mix-A-Lot, except to note that his other hit, “Put ‘Em on the Glass”—a deathless exhortation encouraging the placement of mammaries on a hard, transparent material—is unlikely to be scored for full orchestra. If he’d composed “Baby Had Back, but She Done Went on Atkins,” it might be played by a chamber orchestra, seeing as it would concern a subject not philharmonic in its dimensions.

    Lyrically, it concerns the singer’s physical preference in a mate. To paraphrase: The object of my affection has myriad attributes, but I cannot utter a falsehood: Her fundament is not only capacious, it ranks the highest among the attributes I prize.

    Or, as he puts it: “I like big butts and I cannot lie.” Well, no one was asking him to. He’s not under the hot lights with someone working his kidneys with the spine of a phone book. In fact if there’s one thing you can note about modern culture, it’s the ease with which people confess these things without inducement.

    Many have responded to critics of the concert with an eye roll: Lighten up, it’s just fun. True. And like much modern fun, it is vulgar, low, and common. The fellow who arranged the event is Gabriel Prokofiev, and if you’re wondering: Yes. Grandson. He composes both orchestral and electronic music. From his blog about the performance:

    “It opens with a declamatory introduction, with big orchestral outbursts inspired by the rhythms of some of his most famous lines of rap performed orchestrally. For example, from Posse on Broadway, there is ‘I’m the man they love to hate, the J.R. Ewing of Seattle.’ Then his infamous line: ‘I Love Big Butts’ . . . which becomes a central motif in the work, at times becoming an insistent haunting call.”

    An idée fixe, then. A leitmotif. We are not so far from the greats after all.

    It’s the latest example of a post-‘60s belief: pretending high and low culture are not points on a continuum, but occupy the same spot. Classical music wasn’t “relevant,” because modern youth, the most terribly important generation in the history of the species, could not be expected to listen to anything that did not directly affect their emotional state and limited apprehension of Western Civ. So rock was pronounced a serious art form, instead of the peppy popular warblings of some jolly buskers.

    Some rock bands stepped up to fill the assumptions: Procol Harum cut an album with an orchestra; Emerson, Lake & Palmer recorded a piano concerto and toured with it, much to the dismay of the audience, which had come to hear the Aaron Copland covers. Focus, a bunch of hairy Dutchmen with classical pedigrees, hit the airwaves with “Hocus Pocus,” a tune noted for wordless manic yodeling, but the lead singer also released a solo album consisting of classical flute pieces. It would not be inconceivable at a concert for someone to shout “FAURÉ’S PAVANE! YEEEAAAAHHHH!!”

    Anyone who listened to “progressive” rock expected complex, ornate pieces with baroque details and fleet-fingered virtuosity. For a while it looked as if rock music could take up the mantle dropped by the modernists, who had retreated into screechy angular din that sounded like mating calls for Cubist donkeys. It was melodic, complex, had enough angst for the adolescents and complexity for the grad students. And it was awesome if you were stoned. But Bach it was not.

    Which brings us to Example B: Over in Colorado, once a state you associated with cowboys, oil, rugged terrain, and flinty folk who could smell snow a-comin’down the pass, the Colorado Symphony had a “Classically Cannabis” event last May. Reefer and Bach.

    What’s the prob? Why, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was based on Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, in which the narrator gets loaded, dreams he murdered his beloved, observes his own guillotine execution, then attends a witches’ orgy, which is pretty METAL, dude.

    Granted. Hector probably wrote it hopped up on goofballs, but it is difficult to appreciate his work under the influence of opiates, and surely more difficult to play it. Although someone who has ingested lots of meth could probably play John Cage’s 4’33” in under two minutes.

    Putting the “high” in “high culture” will not be the end of the Republic, but if orchestras want to perform in a smoke-choked hall it’s an admission that modern audiences cannot be expected to appreciate a symphony with a clear mind, but must be eased into an appreciative state with chemical assistance. Because the glories of Beethoven’s Ninth are just missing something, really.

    Granted, sometimes when you’re listening to a Philip Glass piece, feeling as though you’re being pecked to death by starlings, a glass of wine would be nice. But in general the classical repertoire isn’t about enhancing consciousness, it’s about explaining it. Orchestrating funky-bumpy rap does not elevate the common, or popularize the venerable tradition of massed instruments performing complex works of timeless entrancement. It signifies exhaustion of serious people and serious art.

    Oh, they said that about Gershwin, bringing jazz to Aeolian Hall, and now we worship Rhapsody in Blue. True. But do you know what the difference is? No? Then you’re just the sort of person they’re looking to entertain.

  18. thomasbrady said,

    August 31, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    Vulgarity is a legitimate subject for high art. High art is not superior because it avoids vulgarity.

    • noochinator said,

      August 31, 2014 at 3:53 pm

      A better methinks mix of populism and art: Willie Stargell narrates texts by M.L. King, Jr. in Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World :

  19. noochinator said,

    August 5, 2015 at 8:36 am

    Here’s someone who should have auditioned for a rock station instead of a classical one:

  20. thomasbrady said,

    May 9, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    Somewhere on that list should be “Venus” by Shocking Blue.

  21. noochinator said,

    May 10, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    Like to dedicate this one to Emmanuel Macron, newly-elected prez of France. Best of luck, Manny, you’re gonna need it!


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