Masterpieces of Pop Music Essay Collection

It has been my intention for many years now to write an essay called “The Masterpieces of Pop” and explore the songs that I consider to be seminal moments or highlights in pop music... and here it is. Now, my definition of pop for this exercise is quite broad; it includes music from genres such as country and western, and soul/ R&B. For my purpose here, “pop” means any music, after the start of rock n’ roll, that was “popular.”

I am proud to present my interpretation of this list of ten popular songs which covers many decades, from the 50s to the 80s. They are not in chronological or alphabetical order. They are not arranged by genre or preference. So with that in mind, I’d like to start with an absolutely haunting song by Roberta Lee Streeter, better known as Bobbie Gentry, called “Ode to Billie Joe.” She wrote and recorded this masterpiece in 1967. With its spare instrumentation—just Gentry on guitar backed by a string section—and Gentry’s measured, plaintive voice, it skyrocketed to number one on the Billboard 100.


This chilling Southern Gothic song has a literary feel, playing more like a Flannery O’Connor short story or a William Faulkner novel. Indeed, the structure is far less like a pop song of that period and more like prose. The compact story concerns itself with a typical farming family in the southern part of the United States receiving the news of the suicide of a young man in town. They continue on with their normal, daily activities while dispassionately discussing the suicide, thus building a sort of damn against the flood of real emotion that would normally be felt in such a situation. This denial seems to be part of a willful effort to play dumb about any possible connection between the dead young man and the daughter in the family, the narrator of our song. Let’s look at the lyrics.

"It was the third of June,
another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin' cotton
and my brother was balin' hay.
And at dinner time we stopped,
and walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered at the back door
'Y'all remember to wipe your feet.'
And then 'I said she got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge.
Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.'

Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas,
'Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense,
pass the biscuits, please.'
'There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow.'
And Mama said it was shame about Billie Joe, anyhow.
'Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge,
and now Billie Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.'

And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night?
'I'll have another piece of apple pie—you know it don't seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge,
and now you tell me Billie Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.'

Mama said to me 'Child, what's happened to your appetite?
I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite.
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today,
Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way…
he said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
and she and Billie Joe was throwin' somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge.'

A year has come 'n' gone since we heard the news 'bout Billie Joe.
Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going 'round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
and now mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
and drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

As we can see, secrets and mysteries abound in this family and in this song. And like any good short story, we are given a glimpse into a life or lives other than our own, and it is up to us to make something of it.

It is clear that everyone in the family knew Billie Joe. In such a small rural area, everyone knows everyone. But our narrator knows more than she can say—and possibly more than the rest of her family knows. Why is she so shaken at the news of Billie Joe’s death? Was she talking to him after church recently? And was it actually her that Brother Taylor saw throwing something off the bridge with Billie Joe? And if it was, what did they throw? None of these questions are answered and if they were, the power and brilliance of this song and its narrative would be destroyed. The contrast between and the colliding of the mundane, dreary, disconnected lives of the family and the enigma, the unspoken secrets and grief, gives this song its tension and is the source of its genius. The domesticity hides enormous pain and grief.

Another brilliant contrast is found in the music itself. At the top of the song, we are introduced to the main texture of the song with Gentry’s lazy guitar sound, invoking scenes of sitting on a wooden porch in sweltering heat, drinking lemonade. But that lull is broken immediately by the haunting moan of the strings. Twice in a row they let out a sickening, mournful, keening yet restrained howl, establishing an undertone that lets us know this is no ordinary country song. The strings are effectively the Greek chorus throughout the song, giving us a sense of anguish, of foreboding, even of horror. When we catch up to our narrator a year after the news of Billie Joe’s suicide, we find that a lot has changed in her family. She tells us that he brother got married and moved away, and that her father caught a virus and died. That alone is fairly shocking considering that we live in an age where people do not die from a simple virus. So the two women are left alone, our narrator and her mother. You would think that the common experience of loss might join the two of them together, but we sense that this is not the case. They seem estranged, even more separate then they were before. Our narrator is totally isolated now, and tells us that she spends her time picking flowers on Choctaw Ridge and then dropping them into the river from the bridge where Billie Joe killed himself. As soon as she sings, “…and drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge,” the strings come in with an eerie, startling whirling sound, a dizzying descending noise that imitates the falling flowers plummeting down to join Billie Joe in the water where he ended his life. And the strings finalize this mystery, closing the book on these lives. Listening to this song is an extremely full, rich experience.

Watch Bobbie Gentry singing a live version of “Ode To Billie Joe” on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1967. Her guitar playing is perfect, the strings are still there, and her interpretation of the song is nuanced and lovely. She performs in front of a set that shows a kitchen much like the one in which the song takes place, occupied by plaster figures of a mother, father and son… an apt metaphor for the stiffness and denial the family lives in. And at the end of the song, our flesh and blood narrator moves to take her place at the table with her inanimate family… a ghostly act that is a perfect way to visually end the song.


http://thetalentedbobbiegentry.com/



Let’s continue our survey of the Masterpieces of Pop with a song from 1974. The band Steely Dan is basically a two-member operation with a rotating cast of studio musicians. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have been at the core of the group since its inception in 1967. They came to fame in the 70s with fantastic hits like “Reelin’ In The Years,” “Do It Again,” and “Peg.” But for me, the greatest Steely Dan song, and a masterpiece of pop, is the cryptic “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.” It seems there was an entire subgenre of rock music in the 70s that I like to call “Cryptic Rock” but “Rikki…” is by no means the most cryptic—just listen to “Blinded By The Light” by Manfred Mann or “The Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart to see what I mean.


A flopanda solo (a type of electric marimba) sets the tone right at the start of the song, acting more like a sound effect than a prelude or intro. With this sound, something is mysterious, odd, amiss. But the song begins, slightly sultry with its measured pacing bass (lifted directly from “Song For My father” by jazz legend Horace Silver), tinkling acoustic guitars and a wood block, rendering it a sort of chilly, urban-rock bossa nova. Lead singer Donald Fagen punctures this texture with one of the most intriguing voices in rock history. A mix of reedy and full, a little crispy around the edges with an appealing lazy vibrato, his vocal lines were recorded twice to give them a subliminal “thickness” that adds weight –both aurally and emotionally—to this enigmatic tale. This little recording trick is very different from the fantastic harmonic overdubs Fagen recorded to accompany himself. (To hear the former, listen to the lines that begin with “You tell yourself you’re not my kind”—to hear the latter, listen to any of the choruses and swoon at the glorious, smoky harmonies.) With Fagen’s entrance, we are immediately introduced to the musical logic of the song. Steely Dan were highly influenced by jazz and it shows in their choice of note and chord progression. The notes never go where one thinks they will. They are peculiar, keeping the listener on the edge, trying to follow the bouncing ball.

But what is he singing?

“We hear you're leaving, that's ok
I thought our little wild time had just begun
I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turn and run
But if you have a change of heart

Rikki, don't lose that number
You don't wanna call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki, don't lose that number
It's the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home

I have a friend in town, he's heard your name
We can go out driving on Slow Hand Row
We could stay inside and play games, I don't know
And you could have a change of heart

Rikki, don't lose that number
You don't wanna call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki, don't lose that number
It's the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home

You tell yourself you're not my kind
But you don't even know your mind
And you could have a change of heart

Rikki, don't lose that number
You don't wanna call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki, don't lose that number
It's the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home

Rikki, don't lose that number
(Rikki, don't lose that number)
Rikki, don't lose that number”


Who is Rikki? Traditionally a male name, the spelling moves us into a gender neutral space. Could be male, could be female. Where is Rikki going? Where has Rikki been? And what exactly is wrong with Rikki? There are some ambiguous clues in the song and I admit that an interpretation depends upon who is interpreting. For a long time, I felt that Rikki was going away to a mental hospital, where the object is to “feel better” so as to be released. The image of someone mailing off a phone number to themselves so they will have it later is such a lonely, disconnected thought...

There is also a possible gay theme in this song, and I am not the only one who has ever thought that: out gay singer Tom Robinson recorded a version in 1984. It is easy to see that our narrator and the male friend he mentions are very interested in spending time with Rikki to, as he coyly puts it, drive on Slow Hand Row or to stay inside and play games, all sexually charged suggestions. Add to that a slick avoidance of pronouns as well as references to “you scared yourself, you turn and run” and “you tell yourself you’re not my kind, but you don’t even know your mind,” and one must admit that such secrecy, subterfuge, and veiled references are reminiscent of a certain common experience in gay culture.

But alas, at the end of the song we are left none the wiser. We are still unclear about who Rikki is, where Rikki might be going, and why Rikki is so skittish. That is if you only allow for the content of the song itself. I hesitate to write this, but we have since discovered in a 2006 article about Steely Dan that the Rikki in question is most likely author Rikki Ducornet—clearly female. Ducornet met Fagen while they were attending Bard College in New York. She was married and pregnant at the time Fagen gave her his phone number at a college party. But as any student of art—whether literature, lyrics, painting, dance, theater or sculpture, etc.—will tell you, “Ultimate meaning often transcends inspiration.” The creation exists on its own, independent of the creator. In a way, such works are universal. It’s not a Masterpiece of Pop for nothin’.

http://www.steelydan.com/



Although “I Only Have Eyes For You” was written by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin in 1934 and has been covered by a slew of artists (including the original recording by Dick Powell for the film “Dames” in the same year the song was written), the definitive version was recorded by The Flamingos in 1959.

Founded as a quartet in 1952, this doo-wop group was a sextet by the time they recorded this immortal classic, and it naturally became their biggest hit. The song is really the ultimate expression of a specific 1950s sound and in fact, the chord progression of doo-wop songs—slow songs in swing time—is now often referred to as “the 50s progression.” When one imagines a couple (he in a white dinner jacket and tie, and she in a “New Look” pink dress with a voluminous skirt) slow dancing under the rotating sparkles from a mirrorball, this is the song that is playing. It is that iconic, and perfect.

It starts with a few hesitant strums of a guitar, until it finds the key of the song and settles in. The soft ostinato piano that keeps leisurely time is accompanied by the vocal stylings of The Flamingos: the smooth quality of tenor Nate Nelson’s lead vocals is punctuated by sudden and unexpected “doo-bop-sh-bop”s from the rest of the group, and the harmony we hear from them throughout the recording is lovely, artful, and sincere. The musical arrangement is spare, with lots of room around each instrument, and the reverb creates an almost eerie sound, as though the song, just for this moment, just for this slow dance, exists somewhere outside of time...

“I Only Have Eyes For You” by The Flamingos is number 157 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s “500 Greatest [Pop] Songs Of All Time.”



"My love must be a kind of blind love
I can't see anyone but you

Are the stars out tonight?
I don't know if it's cloudy or bright
I only have eyes for you, dear

The moon may be high
but I can't see a thing in the sky,
I only have eyes for you

I don't know if we're in a garden,
or on a crowded avenue
You are here and so am I
Maybe millions of people go by,
but they all disappear from view
And I only have eyes for you"




For this next installment of "Masterpieces of Pop," we find ourselves traveling back to the 70s for a magnificent song by the English group 10cc. Called “I’m Not In Love,” the song added tremendous color and texture to the pop landscape of that period. Although the 70s hosted several different genres of music (the rise of heavy metal and disco, and at the end of the decade, the rise of punk, for example), there was a mid-decade tendency toward a specific laid back, smooth rock sound—just listen to songs like “Jackie Blue” by Ozark Mountain Daredevils, “Hello, It’s Me” by Todd Rundgren, “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” by England Dan and John Ford Coley, or the spectacular “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Croft. There is no way any of those songs could have come from any other decade.

But topping this particular genre is 10cc’s ode to denial, “I’m Not In Love.” The narrator spends the entire song insisting that he is not in love although it is obvious to us, his listeners, that he is. It is a charming, witty approach to a classic love song, but instead of coming off as simply ironic, somehow the tone of the song touches on very deep emotions. And what helps that is the then-ground-breaking technology involved in the music itself.


“I’m Not In Love” was written by two members of the quartet, Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, and originally intended to be a bossa nova. But thankfully, the remaining two band members gave their input. Lol Creme suggested slowing the song down and Kevin Godley came up with the brilliant, heavenly chorus that makes this song what it is. The members of the band recorded themselves singing the same note for all of the chords, then mixed and dubbed these multi-tracks down onto a 16 track, and laboriously repeated this process, building up the sound until they had a 256 voice choir. These multi-tracks were then made into endless loops that could be played using the fader on the mixing board, much like a keyboard. Ingenious! Now, keep in mind that all of this was pre-digital, pre-sampler: the Fairlight CMI had yet to be invented! The result of their work is a rich, dense sea of ethereal voices, floating and shimmering, carrying the song aloft on a thick gossamer texture.

“I'm not in love, so don't forget it
It's just a silly phase I'm going through
And just because I call you up
Don't get me wrong, don't think you've got it made
I'm not in love, no, no
(It's because...)

I like to see you, but then again
that doesn't mean you mean that much to me
So if I call you, don't make a fuss
Don't tell your friends about the two of us
I'm not in love, no, no
(It's because...)

(Be quiet, big boys don't cry, big boys don’t cry…)

I keep your picture upon the wall
It hides a nasty stain that's lyin' there
So don't you ask me to give it back
I know you know it doesn't mean that much to me
I'm not in love, no, no
(It's because...)

Ooh, you'll wait a long time for me
Ooh, you'll wait a long time

Ooh, you'll wait a long time for me
Ooh, you'll wait a long time

I'm not in love, so don't forget it
It's just a silly phase I'm going through
And just because I call you up
Don't get me wrong, don't think you've got it made, ooh

I'm not in love, I'm not in love...”



As I mentioned earlier, on paper the concept of the song could be almost comical, but supported by the glorious wall of voices, the introspective tone of the arrangement, and lead vocalist Eric Stewart’s gentle and emotional take on the lyrics, the song becomes a melancholy exploration of denial. It is clear that our narrator is in some kind of anguish, truly struggling with his feelings, trying and failing to push away these emotions that threaten to destabilize his life. It’s touching to be let in on these delicate, private thoughts… and to hear, in the drifting, dreamy, slow motion break in the middle of the song, a female voice whisper to him, as if from a half forgotten memory, “Big boys don’t cry…”, only to be swallowed up by the swell of voices.

http://www.10ccworld.com/



And now in Masterpieces of Pop, we have a two-fer... two songs from the same time period in the same genre that belong together in this essay.

In the late 70s and early 80s, there was a revolution going on in music. It sprung from many different sources and many different places, from the southern United States to New York City, to London. It was expressed in different ways as well, but what it all had in common was that it really sounded nothing like anything that came before it. Punk was vicious, snarling, ferocious but there was also another alternative sound at the time, one that combined electronic elements with rock. Unfortunately, the music industry, and especially music journalists of the time were confused about what it all was. Music journalists are always eager to group things together into some kind of category in order to simplify their writing, and if it wasn't straight-forward rock, and if it wasn't disco (which all but disappeared by the early 80s anyhow), and if it wasn’t “punk," it (whether it was experimental rock, Ska, art-rock, rockabilly, 60s garage band rock, power pop, or most commonly, synthpop) became “New Wave.” Which is a shame because a lot of interesting music got lost by being lumped into a category that many felt to be vapid or too odd (by the early 80s, even some punk bands that were previously called punk were being called New Wave!).

Thankfully, “Warm Leatherette” did not get washed away with the tide. Written and recorded by Daniel Miller in 1978, this Masterpiece of Pop is based on the novel CRASH by English author J.G. Ballard which fetishizes car accidents. Miller takes the ideas in Ballard's book such as alienation, a perverse love of machines, and body modification through injuries in automobile crashes and boils them down to a frighteningly succinct and detached narration. (In 1996, Ballard's book was turned into a brilliant and disturbing film of the same name by David Cronenberg.) Musically, "Warm Leatherette" was influenced by German electronic music like Kraftwerk and Can. But what makes this a Masterpiece of Pop is Miller's interpretation of what is known as "Krautrock:" incredibly minimalist, pared down, stripped of anything that would give a hint of "rock" or even of music produced by humans. This "inhuman" sound is propelled by a very simple series of saw waves played on a $150 Korg 700S synthesizer. Working under the do-it-yourself ethic of punk, Miller recorded it on a four-track in his apartment and released it (under the nom-de-band The Normal) through Rough Trade Records in Portobello Road, London, as a B-side to another song called "T.V.O.D."...but of course "Warm Leatherette" became the hit.

Miller doesn't sing or even speak the horrifying lyrics as much as he "issues" them with a coldness that matches the frigid, industrial machine sound of the music, which speeds along like pistons firing in an engine. But listen closely: under the emotionless exterior is a restrained disdain, a subtle and perverse schadenfreude, a disguised and dark thrill.

"See the breaking glass
In the underpass
See the breaking glass
In the underpass

Warm leatherette

Hear the crushing steel
Feel the steering wheel
Hear the crushing steel
Feel the steering wheel

Warm leatherette

Warm leatherette
Melts on your burning flesh
You can see your reflection
In the luminescent dash

Warm leatherette

A tear of petrol
Is in your eye
The hand brake
Penetrates your thigh
Quick - Let's make love
Before you die

On warm leatherette
Warm leatherette

Join the car crash set"



"Warm Leatherette" is quite a cult classic song and has been covered by many different artists and bands like Grace Jones and Duran Duran, but please allow me to steer you toward a version that equals and quite possibly surpasses the original: in 2006 Trent Reznor, the father of "Goth" Peter Murphy, Jeordie White and Atticus Ross performed a mind-blowing live version here.

It is entirely worth noting that because of his single "Warm Leatherette," Daniel Miller went on to form Mute Records which released recordings by artists as varied as Depeche Mode, Yaz, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Diamanda Galas, and more recently, Goldfrapp.


The 70s/ 80s music revolution featured a passion for 1950s iconography--not to be confused with 1950s pop culture. Witness the cut-and-paste 50s images featured on Paper Moon Graphics cards that were so popular during the 70s/80s, or the 50s high school hygiene films, public service announcements, B-movie monster films, and footage of atomic bombs testings that were edited together and shown at dance clubs or concerts and made into music videos (see "Beautiful World" by DEVO). This interest mixed a sort of post-modern mocking with a genuine sense of identification. In the 50s, the enemies were the Russians in the Cold War or the atomic bomb which manifested as a fear of monsters (or deformed humans) created by radiation. But times always change and social ideas change with them. Although there was still some residual--and very real--fear from the Russians (take a look back in history at Ronald Reagan "joking" that Congress has outlawed Russia and that we begin bombing in five minutes, and at the Frankie Goes To Hollywood song and video, "Two Tribes," both of which I wrote about in a post here), in the 80s the fear took the form of the modern world and ourselves. This time the enemy was within.

With that in mind, another Masterpiece of Pop from this time period is also a song relating to cars, but instead of car crashes or technology being a threat, technology is embraced as a sanctuary from the storm of contemporary culture. Gary Numan wrote and recorded his classic hit "Cars" in 1979 and it quickly rose to number one on the UK charts.

A chilly Moog synthesizer hovers over the more traditional bass and drums in this song about alienation, modern anxiety, and paranoia. Gary Numan's vocal style was and still is robotic, cold, and devoid of emotion which is a perfect expression of the themes in the song.

Numan has always sung about technology and machines--much of his lyrics are comprised of allegories between machines and people, and a diffuse frustration with and disappointment in people, who are generally shown to be inferior to technology. But in a 2001 interview with KAOS2000 magazine, Numan recounts the very real inspiration for the lyrics: "I was in traffic in London once and had a problem with some people in front. They tried to beat me up and get me out of the car. I locked the doors and eventually drove up on the pavement and got away from them. It's kind of to do with that. It explains how you can feel safe inside a car in the modern world... When you're in it, your whole mentality is different... It's like your own little personal empire with four wheels on it."

Although his voice may be devoid of emotion, inside the anxiety and paranoia of the lyrics for “Cars” is a yearning to connect to other human beings despite a seeming inability to do so. It is more than significant that Numan was diagnosed, as an adult, with Asperger's Syndrome, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, a mild form of autism that makes relating to and communicating with other people extremely difficult. His syndrome directly contributed to the evolution of his music and the recurring motifs in his lyrics.



Notice the structure of the lyrics. The song has no chorus.

"Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It's the only way to live
In cars

Here in my car
I can only receive
I can listen to you
It keeps me stable for days
In cars

Here in my car
Where the image breaks down
Will you visit me please?
If I open my door
In cars

Here in my car
I know I've started to think
About leaving tonight
Although nothing seems right
In cars"

Mute Records:
http://mute.com/

Gary Numan:
http://www.numan.co.uk/



In a survey of Masterpieces of Pop, there are several masterpieces to examine when one looks at the phenomenon of Sly and the Family Stone and their remarkable catalog. Headed by Sly Stone (née Sylvester Stewart), this important, groundbreaking group helped to create the genres of soul, funk and psychedelic music from the mid 60s to the mid 70s. Sly and the Family Stone were the first successful American musical group to feature a truly integrated [black and white], multi-gender line-up which included many of Sly’s actual family members and friends. The pioneering sound they created was magical and captured the zeitgeist of the nation, and indeed the world at that time. One can cite so many Sly and the Family Stone songs as potential masterpieces such as “Dance To The Music,” “Life,” “Fun,” “Sing A Simple Song,” “Everyday People,” “Stand!” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” but none of these quite match the brilliance of a deceptively simple tune called “Family Affair.”


Whereas the other potential masterpieces are bright, cheery, energetic songs pulsing with optimism and the noise of life, “Family Affair” is a somber, gritty moment. The band was known for a certain style of rock-soul-funk that was and is still is highly influential (legendary bass player Larry Graham actually invented the now-common slap method of playing the bass guitar), but due to many shifting factors in the band—drug use, personality clashes (most likely resulting from the aforementioned drug use)—and the changing landscape of American culture, the sound became darker, reflecting Sly's paranoid haze and the disillusionment many young people were feeling after they realized the 60s didn’t change much and things were not going to get a whole lot better. Race riots, the Black Panthers, the escalating Vietnam War, the massacre at Kent State…“Family Affair” was born out of this milieu.

A large part of what makes this song a Masterpiece of Pop is its brevity. Coming in at just over three short minutes, the song is composed of a sparse musical arrangement featuring Bobby Womack on guitar, Billy Preston on the Rhodes piano, and Sly Stone on bass. Vocals are shared between Sly (who sing-speaks the lyrics in an off-rhythm, deliberately off-key, strung out, blues-y way) and his sister Rose. Notice that there is no drummer. Greg Errico, the percussionist for Sly and the Family Stone, left the group in early 1971 because of Sly’s increasingly unpredictable behavior. So for “Family Affair,” Sly programmed a drum machine, making the song the very first number-one hit to feature a programmed rhythm track. There is also a wonderful and highly ambient, atmospheric filtered sound to the instruments and vocals. Apparently during recording, Sly became obsessed with re-recording and overdubbing the material which leaves one to wonder whether or not this low-fi tape hiss was an inadvertent side-effect of the process or a deliberate artistic statement.

The song may be short, but like any good poet, Sly managed to pack a lot of meaning into such a small space. There is some speculation about Sly’s inspiration for the song, with one theory positing his increasingly troubled relationships with his own family members in the band as the impetus. Lyrically, the song—in only two verses—deals with two different family situations, whether related by blood or by marriage. But true to this restless, deep new sound, the lyrics are not really about the solidity of family but about the difficulties, doubts, and confusion that can arise in family relationships, testing the strength of the bonds of love. This tight song has no upbeat message, no real resolution, no bright spot to look forward to. Like any good piece of art, no matter what form it may take, we are given information and it is up to us to make something of it. We are left with the situation to deal with, both in the song and, considering the meaning of the lyrics, in our own lives as well. We are left with uncertainty.

The song was released on the band’s fifth album, “There’s A Riot Goin’ On.” “Family Affair” peaked at number one for three weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100. It is ranked #138 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the "500 Greatest [Pop] Songs of All Time."

“It's a family affair, it's a family affair
It's a family affair, it's a family affair

One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you'd just love to burn
Mom loves the both of them
You see it's in the blood
Both kids are good to Mom
Blood's thicker than mud
It's a family affair, it's a family affair
What of it?

Newlywed a year ago
But you're still checking each other out
Nobody wants to blow
Nobody wants to be left out
You can't leave, 'cause your heart is there
But sure you can't stay, 'cause you been somewhere else
You can't cry, 'cause you'll look broke down
But you're cryin' anyway 'cause you're all broke down

It's a family affair
It's a family affair”


Synchronistically, Sly Stone has released a brand new album just today, August 16, 2011. Visit his website for details.

http://www.slystonemusic.com/



In 1977, you couldn’t get away from Fleetwood Mac’s spectacular album “Rumors.” One heard it everywhere, it seemed that nearly every song from the album became a single (not true, but it felt that way), and everyone owned a copy of this insanely popular record. But the most popular and best selling song—not only from “Rumors” but from Fleetwood Mac’s entire career—was the languid, smooth “Dreams.”


Written by band member Stevie Nicks in a ten minute impromptu solo song-writing session, the original demo was simple, and even “boring” as described by fellow band mate Christine McVie. Nicks gave the song to the band’s guitarist and in-progress-ex-boyfriend Lindsay Buckingham who turned it into something very special. Buckingham had and continues to have an uncanny knack for arranging and creating songs with unique landscapes. And the sound of “Rumors” and in particular, “Dreams” really tapped into something in the popular culture of that moment. I can’t exaggerate how omnipresent and important this song and album were at the time.

Lyrically, “Dreams” is a metaphor-laden, fantastical exploration of interpersonal feelings. The tone of this highly poetic narrative seems idyllic but also full of resignation and a world-weary melancholy. This is even more apparent when one understands what was happening within the band. During the period of recording “Rumors,” every relationship was dissolving. Keyboardist Christine McVie and bass player John McVie were divorcing after nine years of marriage. Drummer Mick Fleetwood was ending his marriage to his wife who was not a member of the band. And Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were ending their eight year relationship. The emotional turmoil that was roiling around the band was palpable as couples would no longer speak to one another except to work on songs. Naturally, this kind of break-up sorrow and anger made its way directly into the lyrical content of “Rumors.” After Nicks wrote “Dreams,” Buckingham responded with a musical message of his own: “Go Your Own Way.” But despite the fact that these five musicians were working out their relationship troubles, they set personal feelings aside when it came to the music and rallied around the songs, and “Rumors” ended up being a remarkably cohesive and powerful artistic statement.


This is largely due to Buckingham’s arranging powers. He directed and steered the course of the production of “Rumors” (as he did with their amazing follow-up double album “Tusk,” which was an artistic triumph but a commercial failure). The sound of the whole album, as well as “Dreams,” is akin to the California soft-rock genre of the time. But Buckingham managed somehow to truly capture it, creating one of those musical works that define an era. His guitar work on “Dreams” is nothing short of stunning (unlike most guitarists, Buckingham does not use a pick but his fingernails and fingers instead). It is restrained and haunting, producing a texture that can only be described as perfect for the song. Fleetwood’s drumming gives the song a swinging, laid-back and slightly jazzy feel. John McVie’s bass shows similar restraint, pacing the song with an effortless feel. And Christine McVie’s keyboards and lovely gauzy vocals add the perfect touch. Backing vocal duties were shared by Buckingham, McVie and Nicks, and the harmonic blend is mellifluous and so satisfying. But of course Nicks is the star of the song, with her sweet, plaintive voice (this was before she ruined it on the Tusk Tour and with years of drug use).

Listen to how the gentle, philosophical lyrics support and blend with the easy sound of the song.

"Now here you go again
You say you want your freedom
Well who am I to keep you down
It's only right that you should play it the way that you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat, drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering
What you had, and what you lost
what you had, and what you lost

Thunder only happens when it's raining
Players only love you when they're playing
They say, women, they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean you'll know
You'll know

Now here I go again, I see the crystal vision
I keep my visions to myself
It's only me who wants to wrap around your dreams and
Have you any dreams you'd like to sell,
Dreams of loneliness, like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering
What you had, And what you lost
What you had, oh what you lost

Thunder only happens when it's raining
Players only love you when they're playing
They say, women, they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean you'll know

Oh thunder only happens when it's raining
Players only love you when they're playing
They say, women, they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean you'll know
You'll know
You will know
Ooh ooh ooh, you'll know"



http://www.fleetwoodmac.com/


As we have discovered in past installments of “Masterpieces of Pop,” there was a revolution going on in music in the late 70s and early 80s. The new genres of Punk and “New Wave” (a term invented to describe musical acts that defied being pigeon-holed into a specific niche) were confusing, scaring, inspiring, and provoking young and old alike.

One of the more fun and odd groups to break out of this scene were The B-52s, from Athens, GA. There was a burgeoning alternative music scene in Athens at that time that also gave birth to the band R.E.M.

Formed in 1976, Cindy Wilson and her brother Ricky joined with Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland, and Fred Schneider. They shared a love of surf music, lounge lizard kitsch, and general late 50s/ early 60s pop culture. They named themselves after a popular early 1960s beehive hair style whose bouffant shape resembles the nose cone of a B-52 Stratofortress bomber. And of course this hair style has been sported at various times by Wilson and Pierson.


The B-52s released their eponymously titled debut album in 1979. With its bright yellow cover, period catchpenny font, and tongue-in-cheek “High Fidelity” logo in the upper left hand corner (in imitation of “Hi-Fi” vinyl records from the late 50s/ early 60s) the record was a stunning and fresh homage to the twangy lo-fi guitars of surf music, teen dance culture, go-go boots, teased hair, the Space Age, Flaming Volcano cocktails, and cheap B-movies of that period (this pop culture milieu was simultaneously being explored on film by John Waters). Their dedication to the period even led them to record an impromptu-sounding version of a classic from the era, Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which closes the record.

The entire album seems to be chock full of memorable moments yet clocks in at a shockingly short thirty-nine minutes. “Rock Lobster” was the breakout hit, but that was the easy choice for frat parties. “Planet Claire” with its sci-fi B-movie take on the “Peter Gunn” theme, or “52 Girls” with its phenomenal pairing of Kate and Cindy’s vocal harmonies both come close to being the standout songs from the collection, but it is “Dance This Mess Around” that captures the essence of what The B-52s were all about. Playing like some demented episode of the television show “Shin Dig,” the song is an angst-ridden rant about rejection and popularity. Cindy Wilson wonders why a certain someone will not dance with her, prompting her to cry out that she is “not no Limburger.” Her astonishing vocals, breaking and shrieking, make her sound as if she might lose it any moment, while she and Fred Schneider roll call obscure dances that one assumes the “popular kids” who are in-the-know do at the “popular dance parties” of the time. Among the tooting and bipping Farfisa organ, the ominous bass, and the deranged-asylum-sound of the toy piano, there are references to “Stop! In the Name of Love” by The Supremes and “The Hippy Hippy Shake” by Chan Romero. But the innocence of the source music is wonderfully tinged with the ferocity and viciousness of punk. It was a groundbreaking and startling combination. Like so much music happening at that time, the B-52s were vital, immediate, and intriguingly off-kilter.

“Remember when you held my hand
Say, remember when you were my man
Walk, talk in the name of love
Before you break my heart
Dance on over, yeah,
Roll it over in your mind
Why don't you dance with me
I'm not no Limburger
Just a Limburger

Dance this mess around
Dance this mess around, 'round, 'round

Everybody goes to parties
They dance this mess around
They do all 16 dances
They do the Shu-ga-loo
Do the Shy Tuna
Do the Camel Walk
Do the Hip-o-crit

Ah-Hippy Hippy forward Hippy Hippy
Hippy Hippy Hippy Shake

Oh-it's time to do 'em right
Hey, said doesn't that make you feel a lot better, huh?
Huh?
I said, doesn't that make you feel a lot better?

What you say?
I'm just askin'
Come on!
Shake!
Bake!
Shake!
Bake!

Everybody goes to parties
They dance this mess around
They do all 16 dances
Do the Coo-ca-choo
Do the Aqua-velva
Do the Dirty Dog
Do the Escalator

Ah-Hippy Hippy forward Hippy Hippy
Hippy Hippy Hippy Shake

It's time to do 'em right
Hey! So Fred, doesn't that make you feel a lot better?
Huh?
Said, doesn't that make you feel a lot better?

What you say?
I'm just askin'

Yeah, yeah, yeah...
Stop!
Dance on over
Yeah, yeah

Dance this mess around

Shake, shake-a-bake shake
Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
Dance this mess around
Yeah, yeah, yeah........”


http://www.theb52s.com/



One cannot survey the Masterpieces of Pop Music without looking at the catalog of the Masters of Pop. I refer of course to The Beatles, one of the most influential musical acts in pop music history. Their contributions to the evolution of pop music cannot be exaggerated. The only difficult part is, for the purpose of this series, trying to pick one Masterpiece of Pop from a catalog full of masterpieces.

The Beatles’ catalog can be divided into three phases: Early, Mid-period, and Late. Although many might argue that the early Beatles songs are some of their most influential in terms of the evolution of pop music at that time (the band were the first wave of the “British Invasion” which was the next step in the history of rock and roll after the likes of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis), the songs lack substance. Yes, they were important in the growth of the pop form, but they were a product of the period. Pop songs were in their infancy and the early Beatles sound shows it: quick, catchy, jangly tunes without—or with a very sketchy—narrative. It was only the beat that was important: in fact, the musical movement in Liverpool from which The Beatles emerged was called “Merseybeat,” so named for the River Mersey that runs through the city.

But of course as the group grew, as the individual members grew as people, and as contemporary culture grew, pop music evolved simultaneously. The Beatles found themselves torn between the commercial success of cute but vapid pop ditties and artistic expression, and fortunately for the world, artistic expression won out. They entered into an experimental phase, willing to explore sonically and lyrically, and were influenced by the cultural and psychological revolutions happening at the time. They transitioned from the “live Beatles” to the “studio Beatles” and began creating very sophisticated songs that simply could not be duplicated by a four-piece rock and roll band on a stage. They became mythical and created music that defied genres and expectations. For example, because of their association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, sitars entered their music. Experiments with LSD led to mind-altering tracks that were expansive, liberating, and gloriously transcendent.

The late period Beatles is composed of some equally astounding music, but the output was slowed due to the dissolving relationships within the band. The stress and strain between the members can be felt in the music, however brilliant it may be. The songs created during this final phase can be seen as refinements of and variations on what was created during their mid-period.

In looking at these phases, I had to pass over the awesome psychedelic rock of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Love You To;” I had to pass over the chilling, mind-boggling, sonic wonders of “A Day In The Life,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever;” and I had to pass over just plain ol’ kick-ass songs like “Come Together” and “Hey Jude.” I had to pass them all over in favor of a two-minute and six second masterpiece called “Eleanor Rigby.” On their 1966 album “Revolver” (the first product of their rich, fertile mid-period), The Beatles pushed the boundaries of what a pop song could be by using classical arrangements, and by using traditional rock and roll instruments as well as ethnic and classical instruments. And “Eleanor Rigby” sparkles among the other spectacular songs from “Revolver.”


One of the few songs to be written by all four members of the band, Eleanor Rigby started life in Paul McCartney’s imagination as Daisy Hawkins, who sounds of course, too much like “Sadie Hawkins”… with a comic sense to it. Thankfully, Daisy turned into Eleanor Rigby, who sounds serious, tight, and repressed. The structure of the song is brilliant. We alternately follow two characters, Eleanor and Father McKenzie, both “lonely people” who never meet in their lives. Paul McCartney sings of “all the lonely people”, indicating that there are many more people like Ms. Rigby and Father McKenzie. One can imagine all of these lonely people living in a town where no one speaks to one another, at least not on a real, authentic level; they are separate, emotionally removed from one another in this shell-shocked, post-war British landscape. In this agonizing lament, Eleanor picks up the rice from the floor of an empty church after a wedding, invoking images of Miss Havisham, then waits at a window in her home, presumably doing nothing but staring out, while wearing a “face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” She waits for someone who is obviously never going to arrive. The priest is equally as disconnected, writing sermons that he will give to an empty church (our second glimpse of this empty church), and darning his socks, alone, by what I have always imagined to be candle light. These forlorn characters finally do meet but only because Eleanor has died. Father McKenzie officiates at her funeral, which again, is devoid of people. These images of the pair and their lost, desolate lives are heartbreaking. The narrative is amazingly full, not only because of what is sung, but because of what isn’t. Much like the song with which I started the Masterpieces of Pop series, “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobby Gentry, it feels as if the contents of an entire novel have been expertly and delicately placed within the confines of this perfect two-minute gem, as if Joyce’s ULYSSES or Proust had been distilled down to their essence and poured into a small vial. That is really one of the hallmarks of a Masterpiece of Pop: the issue of brevity vs. content. It is possible to have an entire world of content, a narrative that evokes far more than what is presented, in a two or three minute pop song.

Another quality of a Masterpiece of Pop is that the music supports the lyrical ideas presented in the song. In this respect, “Eleanor Rigby” is truly perfect. Without any musical prelude or introduction, we are thrust into a tense, stark world right at the start of the song, as Paul, John, and George suddenly and shockingly sing—no, they practically keen and wail the chilling refrain, “Ah, look at all the lonely people.” The safety and familiarity of a four-piece rock and roll outfit is nowhere to be found. Instead of a slow, funereal sound that one would expect with such lyrical content, an urgently cadenced string octet, immediate and visceral, brilliantly arranged by Beatles producer George Martin (and, as legend has it, based on the film music of composer Bernard Hermann), relentlessly saws away at our emotions, with violins and cellos weeping and mourning the loneliness of life from which no one can be saved. This tragic elegy is all the more remarkable for a contrasting lack of sentiment in the presentation of its existential expression—there is simply no room for it. In the end, we are all, indeed, buried along with our name. We have no choice.



"Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream

Waits at the window, wearing a face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie, writing the words
of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near

Look at him working, darning his socks
In the night when there's nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came

Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
(Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
(Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all belong?"

http://www.thebeatles.com/

Now, as I said in the first song I surveyed, Bobbie Gentry's masterpiece "Ode To Billie Joe", my definition of pop for this exercise is quite broad; it includes music from genres such as country and western, and soul/ R&B. For my purpose here, “pop” means any music, after the start of rock n’ roll, that was “popular.”

As we have discovered, another measure of a "Masterpiece of Pop" for me are the issues of subject matter and brevity. Every song I have surveyed packs a tremendous amount of meaning, whether outright or by inference, into a small space of four or five minutes (sometimes less!). Just look at the profundity that reverberates out past the edges of the song in pieces like The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," or Sly Stone's "Family Affair," or even something as seemingly simple as "I Only Have Eyes For You" by The Flamingos. A Masterpiece of Pop can and should evoke a sense, a place, a time, an emotion, a psychological state. It should be a signpost to something larger, like any good piece of art, whether a film, a novel, a painting, or a poem, which is what these gems of music are.

And with all of that in mind, the following abstract musical expression certainly deserves a place on this list: the phenomenal "Rock On" written and performed by David Essex.


Essex recorded his first song in 1963 for the Fontana record label (a subsidiary of Phillips in Europe and Mercury in the US) called "And The Tears Came Tumblin' Down" at the shockingly young age of 16. After recording a few more songs and touring with a group called David Essex and the Mood Indigo, he explored an acting career by appearing in a few films. Finally, he got the lead role in a stage production of "Godspell" in 1971. But it wasn't until 1973 that he recorded and released his most famous song, "Rock On." Fueled by his angelic yet sexy looks, and a vague sense of the kind of Glam Rock that was wildly popular at the time, the song shot to #1 in Canada, #3 in the UK, and #5 in the United States.


The song starts with a very eerie bass line approximation of a human heart beat. This heartbeat gets folded into the melodic bass line as the song starts. The addition of cymbals and bongos immediately gives the song a sinuous, sultry, even sinister feeling that sets the tone for the entire piece. Then Essex issues a warning: a moan and a "sshhhh" before launching into a minor-chord, spaced-out ode to the birth of rock n' roll in the 1950s as well as the youth culture and celebrities that grew from it. With references to Elvis ("Blue Suede Shoes"), actor James Dean, Marilyn Monroe (although she is not specifically named in the song, it is assumed that the "blue jean baby queen" who is the prettiest girl ever seen on a movie screen refers to Norma JEAN, aka Marilyn), and early rock n' roll pioneer Eddie Cochran's classic song "Summertime Blues."

Ooooh
Ssssshhhhh

Hey, kid, rock 'n' roll, rock on

Ooh, my soul
Hey kid, ya boogie too, did ya?
Hey, shout, Summertime Blues
Jump up and down in your blue suede shoes
Hey, did ya rock 'n' roll, rock on

And where do we go from here?

Which is a way that's clear?
Still looking for that blue jean baby queen
Prettiest girl I ever seen
See her shake on the movie screen, Jimmy Dean
(James Dean)

And where do we go from here?

Which is the way that's clear?
Still looking for that blue jean baby queen
Prettiest girl I ever seen
See her shake on the movie screen, Jimmy Dean
Jimmy Dean
Rock on
Rock on

Rock on

Rock on
Hey, kid, rock 'n' roll, rock on...



Given the subject matter, one would think that a song called "Rock On" would be a sound-alike celebration of the optimistic energy and exuberance of 1950s rock n' roll, yet it ends up being anything but. Instead of the bouncy, joyful naïveté of those early days of rock, we have a dark, almost cynical hallucination of the time period. And after the failure of the 1960s protest movements to try to turn the world into a better place, after Vietnam, after the Kent State shootings, after the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, after Altamont, and the rise of the Black Panthers, it's easy to see how things got to be a little darker, a little more cynical, and a lot more disheartened. It is exactly this contrast, this conflict, this disconnection that gives the song its unsettling power. The lyrics can be seen as a mourning for what is perceived, in hindsight, as a lighter, less troubled time...given all that came after, we indeed were asking "Where do we go from here? Which is the way that's clear?" This is a song about the destruction of innocence.

The entirely sparse arrangement features so much disturbing space around each instrument. Chilling, mournful strings and an understated bare-bones horn section are the only sounds aside from Herbie Flowers' insidious bass line and the vocals. In fact, a very important part of the texture and success of this song is the echo or reverb which is applied to the bass and vocals. But it is more--or less--than an echo. It is a lurching, throbbing delay...and it gives the bass its distinctive roiling, slapping sound. And Essex' vocals are not so much treated with an echo as much as they are simply doubled, giving the disconcerting effect of a doppelgänger clearly coming from the right channel a heartbeat after the main vocal.

The track unfolds without a true verse or chorus; even the structure of classic rock n' roll songs is disassembled and subverted here. After an unexpected full-stop silence at the 2:21 mark in which the world seems to stop and hold its breath, the song loosens, the strings join in, the drums become more intense, Essex growls the song's title, and the whole thing inches toward a dissolution of control, a sense of tribal abandon, a spooky kind of trance...

http://www.davidessex.com/


To read these essays in their original postings, follow the links below:

Masterpieces of Pop: "Ode To Billie Joe"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
Masterpieces of Pop: "I Only Have Eyes For You"
Masterpieces of Pop: "I'm Not In Love"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Warm Leatherette" and "Cars"
Masterpieces of Pop: “Family Affair”
Masterpieces of Pop: "Dreams"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Dance This Mess Around"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Eleanor Rigby"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Rock On"

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