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Songs That Did Or Did Not Change The World

Rolling Stone magazine. God love 'em. It's kind of like Saturday Night Live - you keep expecting them to go away, but somehow they hang in there, putting out a certain brand of something that keeps drawing us back year after year no matter how much you think it's nothing but a dirty habit. Despite all the, you know, meaninglessness of these "greatest" lists Rolling Stone seems to do about once a week, they continue to grab attention. It's force of habit. They're Rolling Stone. They do lists.

Well, so do we, dammit. Ours is called Playlist, with the big difference being our lists are rarely about the "greatest" of anything, and are usually just collections of random shit that seem to fit well together for whatever reason. But because the master of lists has spoken, we will honor the occasion with our own breakdown of Rolling Stone's "40 Songs That Changed the World," which is in honor of the venerable mag's 40 years of Baby Boomer voice-giving.

Actually, we only did the first 20 on the list. No excuses, but we're just kind of numb. We got to Joni Mitchell's "Help Me" and figured the game was up, at least for now. Check back for future Playlists where the randomness will continue.

young_elvis.jpg1. Elvis Presley, "That's Alright." There's an inescapable logic here. Since this is the first record that came from Elvis' first Sun Records session, I guess that automatically means it's the world-changingest song ever. But that holds true only if you're a skeptic about Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock," which doesn't even make the Rolling Stone list even though both songs were recorded in 1954. I think most people would say "Clock" was the first rock 'n' roll song, but of course, they'd be wrong. That would be Haley's "Rocket 88," recorded way, way back in 1951, and which Billboard rightly calls "the first rock 'n' roll recording by a white artist." So if you wanted to pick a Sun sessions Elvis song that would represent his impact on the world, I'd go with "Hound Dog," a much bigger hit than "That's Alright," which I think gets the nod purely because of a mistaken notion that it was the first of the first.

2. Ray Charles, "I Got a Woman." Well, it's hard to argue with this one. Perhaps the greatest of Charles' Atlantic Records classics, also recorded in 1954, it was probably the first R&B song to totally crash the apartheid of the "race record" system. It was the Jackie Robinson of music. It was the first "soul" record. It truly did change the world. Nice pick.

3. Chuck Berry, "Maybelline." If white folks were showing some soul by accepting Ray Charles, why not a black rock 'n' roller, too? Um, well, sorry Chuck Berry, that honor would go to the much less threatening (and talented) Little Richard. Chuck's personal life was too dangerous for all the little Nelsons and Johnsons out there in suburbia. I think where he really changed the world was by his influence on white musicians, especially in England, especially in Liverpool.

4. Bob Dylan, "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall." Once again, this is a rock music critic's pick based on how a song changed not so much the world at large, but the tastes of other rock 'n' rollers. Which is fine, I guess, but if that's the case, then the "40 Songs That Changed the World" moniker is hype. Dylan's "Rain" is a representative song from an album that marked his emergence in 1963 into a folk music phenomenon, but once again, if you're talking about a direct effect on Baby Boomers (and thus "the world" in Rolling Stone terms), there wasn't much here. If you're going to pick a song from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, why not "Blowing In the Wind," which did indeed have a big effect on the world? Maybe it was too obvious.

5. The Kingsmen, "Louie Louie." The first truly annoying rock 'n' roll record. Yeah, it changed the world. For me to poop on.

phil_ronettes.jpg6. The Ronettes, "Be My Baby." Love him or hate him, Phil Spector was what it was all about in mainstream early-to-mid-'60s rock. Johnny Ramone once said about him, "Producers are nothing" after he failed to deliver a punk rock hit for the Ramones. But that's not true, at least it wasn't in the Ronettes era. Back then, rock 'n' roll was a producers' medium (see the next song). The artists were still too young to know what they were doing in the studio.

7. The Beatles, "I Want to Hold Your Hand." George Martin still doesn't get enough credit, strange as that may sound. He's called the fifth Beatle, but he was actually probably the third-or-so Beatle in 1964. The hand-claps he engineered so made this song. The crispness of the vocals, the miked-up drums . . . all George Martin. Go get the new Beatles mash-up Love if you don't believe me.

8. Martha & the Vandellas. "Dancing in the Streets." I'm thinking this song changed the world because, what, it invented disco? It was a signature hit for Marvin Gaye and Motown? Or was it because it later became background music for the Black Power revolution? If it's on the list because Motown needed some representation, then why not "My Guy" or "Baby Love," both of which hit No. 1 in 1964? Or even Martha's "Heat Wave," which unlike "Dancing in the Streets," reached the top R&B spot? It is a mystery. Also, where are Supremes on this list?

9. Rolling Stones, "Satisfaction." Just a monster. This did indeed change the world. I mark this song as the moment rock 'n' roll (and thus the Baby Boomers) became aggressive and pissed off about the world, especially Vietnam. This is when a massive generation, for better and worse, grew up, and we've been living with the consequences ever since.

10. Bob Dylan, "Like a Rolling Stone." Rock 'n' roll Dylan. Now it was official - everybody bows to rock.

11. The Beatles, "Strawberry Fields Forever." The record that showed that showed everyone that, no, drugs are a good thing, setting the stage for the Summer of Love. It also was a seminal record in that it showed that new recording technology was not to be feared, but embraced. The dawn of studio trickery.

velvet_underground.jpg12. The Velvet Underground, "Heroin." Only to be immediately followed by Warhol world, which proved that too many drugs are not a good thing. The Velvet Underground's world-changing effect was in lifestyle more than music. They were a happening and an attitude more than a band. Kind of like Pink Floyd was in the beginning. Again, rock critics love this band because of the profound effect it had on other bands. But "Heroin" had no direct effect on the world. None. You can say the VU inspired punk rock, but then save this for Rolling Stone's next list, the 100 Most Influential Proto-Punk Songs.

13. Jimi Hendrix, "Purple Haze." The guitar makes its debut as a weapon of mass destruction, becomes an "axe" and generations of rock heroes have been choppin' ever since.

14. Aretha Franklin, "Respect." Sock it to me, mama. This song changed world because it really launched the women's movement in 1967. Aretha had a lot of credibility because she grew up in the church and paid her dues, and her mastery of the soul medium was truly astounding.

15. Led Zeppelin, "Whole Lotta Love." Heavy metal has changed the world in many ways, although I think not many of them good. Still, this song proved that rock 'n' roll could become meaner, louder and more, um, rockin' than anyone ever thought. If that's your idea of good time. Heaviness introduced a strain into rock 'n' roll that broadened its appeal to people who didn't necessarily believe in "love." A turning point.

JB_Sexmachine.jpg16. James Brown, "Sex Machine." This is when James Brown got militant. All the revolutions - sexual, racial and political - were in full swing now (1970). This record changed the world because it showed white America once and for all that being black and proud was going to be the end result of the civil rights and black power movements. There was no going back now. Apartheid, even in the South, was doomed.

17. Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On?" Soul meets protest in the first R&B "concept album." Truly a reflection of its time. I guess you could say it changed the world in that it provided a gentler, more reflective and quasi-religious counterpoint to the angry social revolution that JB espoused the year before. What Gaye really did here, I think, is to set up the '70s ethos of rejection of violence and embrace of individual fulfillment.

18. John Lennon, "Imagine." If only this song really had changed the world. Obviously it didn't, because its central message of rejecting religious extremism has been lost in a world that seems to be backsliding into a new Dark Ages where God is invoked as justification for all manner of horrors.

19. David Bowie, "Ziggy Stardust." Between Bowie, Queen and Elton John, the final taboo of the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll troika, homosexuality, came a'tumblin' down. Ziggy was a clarion call from sexually decadent England to Middle America proclaiming the right of anyone to be fabulous. Another nice pick for a song that actually made a difference out on the prairie.

20. Bob Marley, "I Shot the Sheriff." Island magic gets discovered in a big way. I think reggae became so popular with '70s white kids because it was a nice, laid-back kind of black music, an alternative to soul, which had gotten pretty angry at The Man. Bob Marley had all the soul, but little of the anger.


1. From Robert Pruter:

You wrote a terrific essay in your commentary on the Rolling Stone list. Such lists are bound to elicit differing opinions, and I have a few on some of your comments.

Rolling Stone is correct in naming "That's Alright." It was by Elvis Presley, who was in the forefront in launching the rock 'n' roll revolution. There is a good argument for "Rock Around the Clock," but it was not by Elvis, and that is the problem. You are on far weaker ground in naming "Hound Dog," it was not a Sun release, and it came out on RCA much later after Elvis made is debut on the world stage. Elvis already had a string of regional and national hits by then.

I don't think you can make arguments on what was the first rock 'n' roll record either. There was a book that came out a few years ago that named 50 first rock 'n' roll records. In any case, "Rock Around the Clock" became a hit in 1955. In 1954 the Crows' "Gee" and the Chords' "Sh-Boom" as the first cross-over hits from R&B are usually considered the first rock 'n' roll hits.

I think "Louie Louie" was chosen by Rolling Stone, because it was first big hit in what later was called garage, which was sort of a predecessor to punk, etc. I can see the reasoning in that. I like the pick because it was investigated by the FBI for supposedly lewd lyrics, at the request of the Indiana governor, and the FBI played it at different speeds, and concluded that the record "was unintelligible at any speed." What a great recommendation for a rock n' roll record.

Rolling Stone picked a good one in "Dancing in the Streets". It was more evocative of the era, capturing more of the impact of Motown than Mary Wells' "My Guy" or any of the Supremes songs.

James Brown as the father of punk really dates back to his 1965 hit, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." If you don't want to go back that far, a powerful argument could be made for his 1967 hit "Cold Sweat," which turned a lot of heads and really launched funk as a genre.

Anyway, my two cents... and thanks for an interesting essay.

Comments? Send them to Don Jacobson. You must include a real name to be considered for publication.


Posted on April 24, 2007

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