Song 350: AC/DC, “You Shook Me All Night Long” (1980)

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The making of AC/DC’s record Back in Black is pretty well-documented at this point, so I won’t go into it much. In brief, the story is this: Australian rock band releases six (!) records, lead singer dies from alcohol poisoning, band isn’t sure whether to continue. Band gets encouragement to continue (including from dead lead singer’s parents) and releases its most successful album yet (and, it turns out, ever) as a tribute. It is called Back in Black, and it is awesome.

“You Shook Me All Night Long” is the record’s centerpiece. AC/DC diehards probably feel differently, but I don’t care: this song is absolutely amazing, and despite it being on the radio seemingly every few minutes, I never get bored with it. I love the way the guitars start the song both ominously and prettily, like a tuneful calm before a kick-ass storm. When the storm touches down, everything quickly snaps into place, and the guitars shift from abstract and reverb-y to ferociously straightforward. In many ways, “You Shook Me All Night Long” is very simple; in others, it’s an ingenius force of nature: “She told me to come but I was already there” is, for one thing, both the dumbest and smartest lyric in rock. Just a big mess of insanity.

There’s obviously no debating what “You Shook Me All Night Long” is about – sex is great! – but I can’t help thinking it’s also about how great rock ‘n’ roll is. The song seems to revel in its rockness; from those giant chords to the giant vocals; this song is rock in its purest form. Its goal is to rock you, and you will feel rocked.

It’s amazing to think about how AC/DC and their ilk used to be thought of as “heavy metal.” Though this song is one of the band’s most accessible, the rest of their output isn’t much different. That’s not to say it’s bad—just that things sure have changed in 30 years.

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Song 334: John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” (1980)

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I got a new nephew on Thanksgiving Day. The event made for a very exciting holiday, and even though the baby’s mom and dad didn’t get to join us at the table, we all raised a glass to the new addition.

This all got me thinking about songs written for kids, and the pickings are slim. Well, not exactly—it’s more that there aren’t many good songs written for kids. The only great one that comes to mind is “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”, which John Lennon wrote for his son Sean. In typical Lennon fashion, the song is lyrically simple and straightforward: “Have no fear, the monster’s gone,” sings Lennon. “He’s on the run and your daddy’s here.” Because of Lennon’s credibility, those words don’t come across as mushy or overly sentimental. In Lennon’s hands, they’re fact.

The song appeared on the record Double Fantasy, which was released only a month before Lennon was killed. Because of this timing, some of the lyrics are heartbreaking, such as “I can hardly wait to see you come of age/But I guess we’ll both just have to be patient.” The sad irony of this line is made even sadder when considering a lyric that pops up later: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Man.

I always think of John Lennon this time of year. Not only because he died on December 8, but because “Happy Xmas (War Is Over!)” is one of my favorite Christmas songs. His matter-of-fact voice just seems like a good fit for the season, and I think that voice also makes “Beautiful Boy” such a good song. Sean is his son, and he’s damn happy about it. It’s a feeling that every parent can relate to, and his straightforward delivery nails the simplicity of the message.

I’m so excited that my sister and her brother-in-law get to experience that simplicity. Welcome to the world, little man. It’s a good one, I promise.


Song 247: Squeeze, “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” (1980)

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We all need bands that we forget we love. Bands that, when they come on the radio, are a satisfying, pleasant reminder of music we don’t listen to very often. For me, that band is Squeeze.

Why do I forget I love them? It’s certainly not because of any lack of musical talent or songwriting skills. I think it’s because there was something humble about Squeeze, something unassuming and deceptively simple. Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford wrote songs that go down easy but take unexpected paths.

Take, for example, “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)”, a song from the band’s third record. Musically, the song is an airtight pop song, all leaping basslines and choppy electric guitars. But who would have expected a (fantastic) bluesy piano solo? A guitar solo consisting only of octaves? Mixing the stories of William Tell and Robin Hood?

That’s just Squeeze for you. They’re big in the U.K., but they’re best known here for “Tempted,” a booooooring ballad that pales in comparison to their best work. Maybe they’re everybody’s forgotten favorite band.


Song 140: The Pretenders, “Kid” (1980)

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I first heard “Kid” on the Pretenders’ The Isle of View, Chrissie Hynde’s contribution to the “unplugged” craze of the early-to-mid-nineties. Because the song is so dang pretty, it didn’t sound out of place on acoustic guitar, awash with strings. When I heard the studio recording years later, “Kid” sounded equally at home with jangly electric guitars and periodic distortion. That, in my opinion, sums up the appeal of the Pretenders.

Or rather, the appeal of Chrissie Hynde. Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers are the only consistent members of the Pretenders, a band with a history so tragic (two members died within two years of their debut) that it rivals that of Spinal Tap. You’d never know it, though: the band’s sound, equal parts punk and Beatlesesque pop, has changed very little over the years. Both those sounds appear during “Kid,” my favorite Pretenders song. The song’s greatest strength is that melody, so beautiful and sad, and the way it sounds backed by that happy-sounding arrangement. The acoustic version of the song, so slow and quiet, makes it sound like an intimate conversation in the wee hours, and the original sounds more like Chrissie Hynde reassuring you over a beer or two.

This song has yet another example of music perfectly mirroring lyrics. The bridge, which begins “all my sorrow, all my blues,” is paired with the relative minor chord of its key–that is, the minor chord that sounds least out of place when played in its corresponding major key. This is far from unusual in pop music, but when it works, it works; in “Kid,” the sudden shift to the relative minor (played with jarring distortion, no less) is like a quick acknowledgement that, yes, things can be rough. But it’ll be OK.

Chrissie Hynde doesn’t seem to be up to much lately, but I hope she gets back to the studio soon. She has one of the best voices in popular music, vocally and otherwise.