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Building Blocks of a Classic Rock Library, Part III

Bill Kanner continues exploring his rock ‘n roll foundations…

AR-KannerBuildingBlocks450.jpgI believe that music is the one art form capable of evoking vivid, complicated memory. When we look at a great painting or sculpture, we can enjoy it, be excited by it, be moved by it, perhaps remember another time we’ve seen it. But music can bring forth memories of people, places, experiences, odors that other arts cannot induce. We remember song lyrics from long ago when other things from the same time period are lost. I remember the words to a song I heard in 8th grade, but I don’t remember the name of my 8th grade homeroom teacher. Below is Part III of a three-part list, a compilation of 33 songs that provide a starting point for a Classic Rock library. Most, I believe, will be pretty universally accepted. However, there may be a few (perhaps more) that are more influenced by personal experience and memory than musical significance. I invite readers to dispute my choices and substitute their own. Let’s hear them…

AR-KannerDoors450.jpg11) The End – The Doors – The group is considered psychedelic Rock for a reason. This one’s a truly terrifyingly bad trip. After a repeated Indian influenced musical phrase, Jim Morrison’s voice comes in almost sweetly and sings: This is the end, beautiful friend/ This is the end, my only friend/The end of our elaborate plans/The end of ev’rything that stands/The end That is, perhaps, the most calming part of a more than 11-minute nightmarish rumination on life, death, murder and Oedipus. The song first appeared on The Doors’ self-titled first album and the audacity of actually putting the song out there signaled something new, daring and more than a little dangerous in the air.

10) Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles – George Harrison did not write prolifically when he was a member of the Beatles, but his compositions that made it to vinyl are distinct and often uplifting. “Here Comes the Sun” is a musically interesting song, featuring harmonium Moog synthesizer and syncopated vocals. As a celebration of life and nature, its buoyancy contrasts with the anthemic resignation of McCartney’s “Let It Be.” I find that I am always smiling at the close of the Harrison song.

AR-KannerPinkFloyd450.jpg9) Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd – While Floyd’s albums “Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wall” have become iconic as long-form benchmarks, the 1975 song, “Wish You Were Here,” stands as an ambitious, ambiguous lament for one gone. Interpretations–with conflicting corroboration by the song’s creators, David Gilmour and Roger Waters–include the “you” being Syd Barrett, a Floyd founder who had left the band several years earlier, and the singer himself pleading to be more of a participant in his own life. The song has been used many times in both public and private memorial services and concerts, perhaps most noticeably in the “Concert for New York City – 9/11 Memorial.”  

AR-KannerQueen450.jpg8) Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen – Anyone who has seen footage of a Queen concert, or better yet, attended a performance, understands the band’s magnetic hold on both the audience and the imagination.  Freddie Mercury banging a piano or striding across the stage commands attention in the same way a Shakespearian hero dares you to look away.  That being said, Bohemian Rhapsody is a unique experience–spellbinding, mystifying and terrifying. Its meaning is ambiguous at best and nonsense at worst. The band itself has honored a pledge made long ago not to explain its songs. Mercury has been quoted as saying the song has no meaning. In that evanescent quality, it is like many works of art, leaving its meaning to be defined by the observer. The nearly six-minute song is divided into five distinct sections: Intro, Ballad, Opera, Hard Rock and Coda. I find it unique and endlessly fascinating both in music and lyrics.


7) Let’s Spend the Night Together – The Rolling Stones – “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” released in early 1967, a little more than three years after “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” is a sea change in pop music, not just Rock n’ Roll. Pop music has always had a strong sexual element–Cole Porter’s brilliant “Let’s Do It” was written in 1928–but for the first time, sex was out in the open. The Beatles could be dismissed as “Four Musicians in Search of a Haircut,” but The Stones were dangerous.

The Ed Sullivan TV show had been a prominent part of The Beatles intro to America and The Stones followed that path. Their first appearance was in 1964 and their fifth–and most controversial–was in 1967. In 1966, the group sang “Satisfaction,” which it could be argued was about something other than sex. The appearance a year later could not/would not be masked. The group wanted to sing “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” Sullivan said, “No!” and the compromise was to change the lyric to “Let’s spend some time together,” which is what the audience heard. What the audience saw, was Jagger rolling his eyes as he sang the lyric. Sex was out of the closet–and on national TV.


6) Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen – Springsteen began working on the song in 1973 and it was released as both a single and on the album of the same name two years later.  Springsteen had been singing it at live gigs for some time before he took it into the studio. “Born to Run” is a “let’s get out of town” love song notable for its passion, thinly veiled sexuality, and constant drive. After his first two albums produced lackluster sales, Springsteen needed a hit–and this was it. The single rose to 23 on the Billboard Hot 100–note that Bruce Springsteen has never had a Number 1–and the album climbed to 3 on the Billboard 200. Springsteen is an interesting artist in that he is willing, perhaps eager, to reexamine earlier work and his later takes on “Born to Run” have differed significantly from the 1975 vintage performances.

5) Layla – Derek and the Dominos – One of the three great love songs inspired by Pattie Boyd. (The others are “Wonderful Tonight” and “Something.”) Derek is, of course, Eric Clapton. The Dominos included Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon. Gordon, normally the band’s drummer, wrote the incredibly lyrical second movement, “Piano Exit,” of the song and is heard on the piano.  Layla also features Duane Allman, so there is exciting interplay between two of the greatest rock guitar players of all time.  The first time I heard the song, it was noise; with repeated listenings, it’s genius.  


4) I Want to Hold Your Hand – The Beatles – Not the best, most complex or most sophisticated of the Fab Four’s offerings.  Released at the end of 1963, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” heralded the arrival of the British Invasion and the end of “Moon, June, Spoon” pop.  The U.S. release featured a “B” side of “I Saw Her Standing There.” Not bad!

3) Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin – While I more than like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, I am not a Zep fan. However, as a chronicler of Classic Rock, I cannot deny the band’s importance. It virtually created Heavy Metal, and when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame declares that Zep was as influential in the 1970s as The Beatles were a decade earlier, attention must be paid. But which song to choose? Rather than select on the basis of which kind of spinach I disliked least, I feel it only fair to let folks who like the sound make the choice. So, for the past 19 years, NYC’s premier Classic Rock radio station, Q104.3 (WAXQ) runs a “Countdown” of what their listeners think are the greatest Classic Rock songs of all time.  The “Countdown” runs over the Thanksgiving weekend. And for its nearly two-decade run, the Number One song every year is “Stairway to Heaven.” So, like it or not, the song belongs in the collection.

AR-KannerHeyJude450.jpg2) Hey Jude – The Beatles – Originally released in England as a single at the end of August 1968, “Hey Jude,” has taken its place among the very top rock songs.  While it is now understood to be a plea by Paul for John’s young son, Julian, to accept the break-up of his parents’ marriage, it appeared to be enigmatic when it debuted.  Although a shorter version was cut for AM radio play and juke boxes, the single is more than 7 minutes long and one of the songs that forced AM radio to air tunes longer than 3-4 minutes, as listeners moved to FM for the longer version. The fade-out coda, or tail, is longer than the song itself, yet the song feels incomplete without it. The song had a nine-week run at the top of Billboard’s “Hot 100” in 1968. And for the last 20 years has consistently placed near the top on lists of the greatest Rock songs of all time.  

AR-KannerSkynrd450.jpg1) Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd – There are some who think “Free Bird” is the greatest Rock song ever written. The song first appeared in 1973 on the band’s self-titled first album and was released as a single a year later. The album version runs more than 9 minutes and the single 4:41. Live versions have run to 14 minutes. According to Allen Collins, who plays lead and acoustic guitars on the studio version of the song, “Free Bird’s” opening line is a question his girlfriend (later wife) Kathy asked him: “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” The single became Skynyrd’s second Top 40 hit, rising to number 19. “Free Bird” is considered both a prime example of the “Power Ballad,”–a Rock tune conveying deep emotion or profound message, such as Badfinger’s “Without You’–and Southern Rock. In live performances, the band often dedicates the song to the memory of Duane Allman.


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