Song 150: The Isley Brothers, “It’s Your Thing” (1969)


Now that I know a little about the history of “It’s Your Thing,” it seems to be one of the great kiss-off songs. The Isley Brothers were unhappy with their place in the Motown ranks, so they engaged in a lengthy battle with label head Berry Gordy to leave. When they finally did, they abandoned the relatively safe, smooth sound of “This Old Heart of Mine.”

In some ways, it’s hard to believe that “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)” and “It’s Your Thing” are by the same group. They’re both superb songs, but they seem like they’re worlds apart. One is smooth and easygoing, the other is rough and feisty. Sure, they’re separated by three years, but the gap sounds more based on identity than time: this is the kind of band we are now, and we’re taking our new sound elsewhere. The song’s refrain seems to be aimed not only at themselves (we’re gonna do what we want to do) and at their former boss (do what you have to do, Gordy, but we’re out of here).

Whatever the history, this song is impeccable. Just listen to how it’s arranged, with those gloriously chunky guitars in the right channel and the piano on the right, and with all the other parts working together to make the machine run. I think this song is much more interesting than their Motown work, sublime as their old songs may be.


Song 100: The Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun” (1969)


Writing about the Beatles is kind of like posting a photo of a sandwich on Facebook. We’ve all had sandwiches, and we all know what it’s like to listen to the Beatles. But if you’re writing about pop music, you’re going to come around to the Beatles sooner or later, and here we are at my hundredth post (!), so why not? And let’s be honest: the Beatles are a very, very good sandwich.

For most of my childhood, I underestimated the Beatles in the same way that old people did in the early sixties: they were just those guys who sang “yeah yeah yeah” and flopped around a lot. Then my sister borrowed Sgt. Pepper from a friend, and I was confused. Wait, these are the same guys? They sound so … crazy! That was when I was about 12 years old. For the last 21 years, I’ve been obsessed with them.

I was a George fan early on, because he always seemed like the quiet underdog lingering in the shadows, honing his craft while Paul and John stood in the spotlight. It’s his songs that I come back to most often; even early ones like “I Need You” and “If I Needed Someone” showed that Harrison had the songwriting skills, if not yet the confidence, to match up with Lennon and McCartney. (And he was the funniest guy in A Hard Day’s Night, which is no mean feat.)

And if there’s one thing that “Here Comes the Sun” has, it’s confidence. It sounds strange to think of this gentle little song that way, but it takes a pretty sure-footed writer to put “doo doo doo doo” in a song. And Harrison must have been confident in his song to make the lyrics so simple. Elsewhere on Abbey Road, there’s a little boy killing people with a hammer, a friendly octopus, and a creepy old man who sleeps in the park, but in “Here Comes the Sun,” there’s one idea: things are getting better.

This might be an assumption based on what I already know about George Harrison’s interests and beliefs, but there’s something spiritual about the simplicity of this song. Every song’s refrain is a kind of mantra, but “here comes the sun” is a phrase that particularly lends itself to self-encouragement. The hard times are done, the good times are coming; just hold on. Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun.

As I’ve gotten older and things have gotten inevitably (and wonderfully) more complicated, songs like these become more important to me. Not only is the message encouraging because it stresses warmth and positivity, it also stresses simplicity. Things may be complicated, but they’re actually pretty simple: outside your addled state of mind, the sun is coming out.

Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun.

Song 61: Led Zeppelin, “Ramble On” (1969)


I owe much of my musical taste to my sister Elizabeth. She’s the one who introduced me to Ill Communication, who borrowed a copy of Sgt. Pepper from someone, who had all three Hendrix albums. And, yes, she loved Led Zeppelin.

She still does, of course, because who loves Led Zeppelin and later decides it’s just not for them? Robert Plant’s banshee voice, Jimmy Page’s heavy but endlessly spry guitar, John Paul Jones’s head-turning bass runs, John Bonham’s… John Bonhamness. They could be a folk troupe, a bunch of proto-metal badasses, a band of drugged-out philosophers. I had a hard time choosing one Led Zeppelin song to write about, but I settled on “Ramble On” because it finds the band being all these things at once, beautifully.

Everybody loves IV (or ZOSO, or whatever you want to call it), but for my money, II is the one to beat. It’s lean and mean, with lots of bombast but no extraneous material. On “Ramble On” alone, there are acoustic guitars, a beat that sounds like it’s being patted out on someone’s leg, that ferocious chorus, and those dreamy solos. It’s a lot to cram into four-and-a-half minutes, but they do it, and it doesn’t sound disjointed in the least. Hell, they even throw in some Tolkein references, and it works.

I always thought of II as Led Zeppelin’s least fussy record, so I was surprised to learn that the band recorded it in many different settings, with a variety of equipment and resources. The record was a huge success, repeatedly knocking Abbey Road from the top of the charts. It’s hard to imagine the two albums sharing the same era, let alone the same sales sheet.

Song 57: Dusty Springfield, “I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore” (1969)


I’m not sure I could add anything to the volumes of words already written about Dusty In Memphis, that slow-burning collection of soul and R&B songs sung by the great Dusty Springfield. We all know “Son of a Preacher Man,” and the rest of the record, with its warm horns and lush strings, is just as good.

My favorite song on Dusty In Memphis may be “I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore,” a ballad about ignorance being bliss. Well, not bliss exactly—the narrator here doesn’t want happiness, she just wants to be able to ignore what people think about her. “The talk is so loud, and the walls are much too thin” is such a succinct description for our more vulnerable moments, those times when we want to drown out what people think about us (or what we think they’re thinking about us). I like this song because it’s not only a little short story, but it’s also an apt metaphor for what we all go through, like the apartment building in the song is a metaphor for our own minds. Does that make me sound like a crazy person? Probably!

This one was written by the great Randy Newman, who will surely reappear on this blog. Besides being a very well-written song, this one doesn’t remind me much of Newman’s work, though maybe that’s indicative of what a malleable, accommodating songwriter he could be in his tunesmith-for-hire days. Either way, this is a great one, and Springfield’s voice, full of desperation and resignation, is a good fit.

Song 21: Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit In the Sky” (1969)


My dad would have been 67 today.

He died eight-and-a-half years ago, of multiple myeloma. I think of him every day, especially now that I have a daughter. He would have loved Lilly, who is funny and kind, just like her grandfather.

Whenever this song came on the radio, he would roll down the windows and crank the volume.

Happy birthday, dad.

Song 1: The Jackson 5, “I Want You Back” (1969)


Is there a more perfect pop song than “I Want You Back”? Even the first few seconds are pure adrenaline: the piano slide, the guitar octaves, the handclaps. It’s solid through and through, but also airy and carefree. It’s unbridled confidence, which is amazing considering 1) it’s sung by a ten-year-old and 2) it’s about a person begging for forgiveness. Oblivious to obstacles, unwilling to accept no for an answer–that’s pop music for you.

The arrangement of “I Want You Back” is simple but brilliant. That immortal bassline snakes around, and that chiming guitar never stops playing G#, the song’s key, providing the foundation. Michael yells, the strings swell. It’s everything great about music, and it’s all over in exactly three minutes.