Even though “I Got Ants In My Pants” isn’t James Brown’s most famous song, it could be his thesis statement, his overarching life message that would have made a perfect memoir title. He was perhaps the best all-around entertainer we’ve ever had, and he couldn’t keep still, physically or creatively. James Brown indeed had ants in his pants. Many of them, at all times.
The song is also a perfect representation of Brown’s musical abilities. Not only does it feature his trademarks “ow!”s and “good God!”s, it has his trademark clockwork funk band clicking away, punctuating his messages with horn blasts and climbing basslines. Then there’s that chorus, the out-of-nowhere “I need you, yes I do” refrain, which has an indelible melody despite being mostly spoken.
That chorus, in fact, is what I love most about “I Got Ants In My Pants.” Brown really didn’t need it—the song is a hell of a jam without it—but it pops up anyway, adding shade, color, and a little melodic satisfaction on top of the punchy energy. It’s perfect.
Brown’s big songs are famous for a reason. From “I Got You (I Feel Good)” to “Sex Machine,” you can’t argue with what the public found most appealing. They’re masterworks. But it’s “I Got Ants In My Pants” that makes me smile most, because it’s James Brown in a three-minute nutshell. When I watch my two-year-old dance around while the song plays, it’s a reminder that good music—especially when it has this much goddamn funk—is apparent to everybody.
When “Love and Happiness” starts, you’re not sure where it’s going. Al Green is soulfully mumbling about love, but it doesn’t sound happy; there’s an electric guitar playing chords that belong in a folk lament about the sorry state of the working man. When guitarist Teenie Hosges’ foot breaks the song with five determined taps, you think, OK, the “happiness” of the title is going to kick in. This is going to be fun.
But no: this song is in a minor key, and it is dark. Of course, it’s an Al Green song, so it sounds warm and full, not stark and empty. But it still sounds heavier than you’d expect a song called “Love and Happiness” to sound. Green’s message about love comes through in images and fragments, as if it’s the only way to describe such a complicated concept. Love’s not a bad thing, it’s just not simple enough to accurately describe in a three-minute pop song. Though countless have tried and succeeded.
Despite how it seems, I try not to repeat ideas, words or phrases on this thing, but I’ll be damned if I can come up with a better word for Al Green’s sound than “warm.” The rhythm section fills every corner of the space, and the horn blasts are never meant to surprise. Green got a lot of mileage out of this sound over the years, and deservedly so. When Talking Heads took Green’s “Take Me to the River” and made it sound more sinister, they didn’t change much; this is testament to Green’s ability to arrange a song so it conveys a variety of feelings.
I first heard “If I Needed You” on Lyle Lovett’s 1998 record Step Inside This House, which consists of songs by fellow Texans. Van Zandt has always seemed to be a songwriter’s songwriter, with musical paeans on record by Lucinda Williams and other prominent musicians. (Steve Earle once called Van Zandt “the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”) Van Zandt died on New Year’s Day in 1997, after finally succumbing to decades of substance abuse. He left behind some beautiful songs.
I always think “If I Needed You” is a simple, straightforward song until I hear it again, and I realize that it’s oddly specific, as if full of inside jokes: Who are Loop and Lil? What does “since I showed her how” referred to? Yet I like this approach; it makes the song feel like it’s a couple minutes out of this person’s day. I’m not totally sure how this story works—is “the lady” in the third verse also the woman he’s singing to, or is she the one that replaced her?—but I also don’t really care. I think the vague story works in the song’s favor, making it real, despite fanciful lines like “I’d swim the seas for to ease your pain.”
It’s also (always) possible that I’m not interpreting the lyrics correctly; maybe this is as straightforward as music comes. Either way, again, I don’t care much. Townes Van Zandt’s beautiful melody and lyrics are enough for me.
It’s funny how being with a kid can make you realize just how much fun something is. This includes all kinds of things, from writing with chalk to stomping around a room. It also includes dancing while Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride” is played very loudly on the stereo.
Yes, that’s right, “the stereo.” Is it unnecessary in the age of iPod docks? Yes and no. It’s bulky and heavy, but it’s also what I need to listen to vinyl. And even songs that aren’t on record, like “Free Ride,” just don’t sound right coming out of tiny speakers. This song sounds best at peak volume, with those bass guitar thumps during the main riff causing something in the room to vibrate and the tambourine and cowbell jangling and clicking as hard as they can.
Like many people my age, I know “Free Ride” best from Dazed and Confused, that masterpiece about the weird, difficult gap between childhood and adulthood. Like that movie, and many other “classic rock” songs worth their salt, “Free Ride” seems rooted between frivolity and substance, a combination of technical prowess and smoking in the boys’ room. It’s deceptively simple—get in the car, because what else are you gonna do?—but it’s also impeccably arranged, from every jangly guitar to every “yeah yeah yeah.” It’s guitar rock at its finest.
Now go find a two-year-old.
Elton John has so many songs, so many hits, duds, and otherwise, that he has made some of my favorite songs and some of the songs I most despise. On the hate side of the spectrum is the evil monstrosity known as “Crocodile Rock,” a song for whom my hatred is so well-known that my sister requests it at weddings just to make me angry. Oh, “Crocodile Rock.” We will meet someday, and I will maim you and your shrill refrain with no hesitation.
On the other hand, John has made some incredible songs over the years. Two of my favorites are on Honky Chateau: “Rocket Man,” whose chorus is one of the most satisfying that I can think of, and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” a beautiful song that may just be the best thing Elton John and Bernie Taupin ever did, which, in nearly 50 years of collaboration, is saying something.
John and Taupin pull off a neat trick in simultaneously de- and re-romanticizing New York (and urban life in general). “A rose tree never grows in New York City,” sings John, who sounds heartbroken that the lyrics of Ben E. King’s song about Spanish Harlem “are just pretty words to say.” He then goes on to apply flowery (but not overly flowery) language to everything he sees, from the Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters to the class divide dictating that “rich man can ride, but the hobo, he can drown.” It’s all very forlorn but very sincere, debunking the American dream of “making it” while crediting the things that actually make life worth living: people.
I love the instrumentation on this one, especially the mandolin that comes in and out like an occasional background vocalist. Everything is subdued and just expressive enough, as if John and Taupin composed a gospel number that they were trying hard to restrain. It seems to teeter on the edge of torch song territory, only to build ever so slightly.
Honky Chateau is a funny record, with the beautiful ballads “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and “Rocket Man” sitting alongside the rambunctious “Honky Cat.” But considering that it was already John’s fifth album, with 25 more to go (and counting), it’s just one part of a remarkable lifelong achievement. Keep going, Elton John. Keep going.
As obscure as the band may be, Cymande’s work has had a lasting influence, especially on hip-hop. “Bra” alone has been sampled by De La Soul, Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. “Bra” is one of those amazing songs that seems to have arrived fully formed. It was likely the result of some improvising and meticulous arranging, but when that bassline starts, the guitar slides in, and the horns announce themselves, there seems to be nothing accidental or unplanned about this song. It is the sound of an immediate good time.
“Cymande” is a calypso word for “dove” (which was also the name of another Cymande song). The band’s members hailed from Guyana, Jamaica, and St. Vincent, and their sound melded the sound of African music with funk, rock, reggae, and soul. Their songs probably sounded (to those who actually heard them) more innovative at the time; after Paul Simon, Talking Heads, and other artists who did something similar, this combination doesn’t sound as surprising.
Luckily, Cymande’s songs are impressive even without that surprise. “Bra” experienced a minor resurgence thanks to Spike Lee, who used the song in his films Crooklyn and 25th Hour (the latter featured it prominently, to great effect). I can’t imagine why, with its fun, reassuring sound and that infectious break, it hasn’t been a monster hit all along.
“Superstition” brings us to two recurring themes here at 365 Songs: it sounds fantastic on vinyl and he was HOW OLD when he recorded it?? 22. Stevie Wonder was 22 when he recorded the Talking Book album. God help us all.
Of course, nobody is as talented as Stevie Wonder, as a songwriter, as an instrumentalist, as a performer. He can do all of those things amazingly well, and he’s had that ability since he was a child. Oh, and he’s blind.
Anyway, “Superstition.” One of my fondest memories from college was when we discussed this song in Ear Training class, a course in which John Corrie talked about music in a way that somehow encompassed world history, the human brain, and pop culture. As a group, we transcribed various songs by ear, including Wonder’s “Sir Duke” and “Superstition.” I don’t remember much about the transcription for the latter, but I do remember Corrie’s love for this song, and how, in his voice that recalled Niles Crane, he quoted his favorite line from the song: “‘Wash your face and hands.’ Just wonderful.”
And it is, isn’t it? There are more ominous lines from the song, like “thirteen month old baby broke the looking glass” and “the devil’s on his way,” but for some reason, “wash your face and hands” is the creepiest of them all. As Lizzie pointed out tonight, “Superstition” is such a strange idea for a song, which is true, but I’ve always just accepted it at face value. There’s this song about superstitions. Of course there is, because Stevie Wonder’s singing it, and he’s playing a mean clavinet while doing it.
Lizzie also thought that I should include the fact that until last night, I thought the end of the chorus was, “superstition in the way.” Me? I don’t think it’s necessary to include it.