What the greatest songs of all time tell us about the times

Notes on the Rolling Stone 500, thoughts on The Talented Mr Ripley, and some news about The Ruffian.

Prince at the 2007 Super Bowl.

Rolling Stone recently published a list of the greatest 500 songs ever made, to much wailing and dissenting on social media.

A bit of background: the 250-strong electorate includes Rolling Stone writers plus a panel of artists, musicians and producers, curated for a demographic mix (I sense RS is very concerned not to be seen as a male boomer brand). Each participant put together a list of their 50 favourites, which sounds like quite a lot of work, and the overall list is computed from that. You can imagine there’s also sorts of second guessing and tactical voting going on but anyway.

The best way to think about a list is as a snapshot of where the culture is in time, rather than as an eternal declaration. While I’m not emotionally invested in the actual ranking, like some are, I am interested in how tastes have changed since 2004, which was the last time they did this exercise. For one thing, there are post-2004 songs on it: the highest ranking one being, somewhat controversially although not to me, Dancing On My Own by Robyn, at #20. For another, you get to see how the cultural stock of older songs and artists is falling or rising.

I might not have taken much notice of this list but I happened to listen to Rolling Stone’s podcast about it. It’s a discussion between a group of their writers, including the excellent Rob Sheffield. They start off peeving that people were upset by the list (what did they expect, that’s part of the fun, surely?) but then they get into it. Do listen, but in the meantime, here’s a few things I picked up.

  • Respect by Aretha is #1, propelled there no doubt by the post-Floyd zeitgeist, although it’s always high up in these lists, and deservedly so.

  • Boomer anthem Imagine by Lennon is going strong at #19. The pod panel observe that while it’s achingly uncool to like this song if you’re over 40, for millennials it just is what it is, a great song with a nice sentiment. (And it’s a public good, in the sense that everyone knows how to sing it; cultural common knowledge has value in itself.) There are quite a few old songs on the list that are more popular with young people than with older people. The history of pop is becoming one vast jukebox, unmoored from generational attachment.

  • Purple Rain by Prince (#18). Apparently Prince was opening for Bob Seger and set himself the goal of writing an arena rock song that could get thousands of people singing along. Boy did he deliver. (Prince’s ability to take on what you might call “white rock” and return it with interest is embodied spectacularly in this famous clip.) Everything about Purple Rain, from the guitar to the vocal performance - that step change in intensity to “honey I know, I know…” - is incredible. Rob S highlights the moment Prince speaks directly to the audience/the listener - that means you too.

  • Back to old songs that young people love: Bohemian Rhapsody (#17) is one of the biggest climbers in the list. According to Brittany Spanos, the youngest panelist on the pod, it will only go up in years to come as more millennials get a vote. It’s been assisted by the huge success of Bohemian Rhapsody the movie, which, I was amazed to discover when researching a piece about Marvel, is the only top ten grossing hit from the last few years which isn’t part of a blockbuster franchise. If it were possible to buy stock in bands (and surely it will be soon) Queen would be a good investment.

  • One of the most heartening placements in the list is Waterloo Sunset at #14. The Kinks are not a global band/brand on the scale of Fleetwood Mac or The Beatles or Queen. The song hasn’t featured in a smash movie or TV show, and it doesn’t capture a fashionable political sentiment. It’s there simply because it’s bloody beautiful. I always associate it with Britishness and London so it’s nice to see how universal it is.

  • There are some great juxtapositions on the list. Crazy In Love (#16) is neighbours with I Want To Hold Your Hand (#17). As one of the panelists points out, the driving emotion, the mood, of both songs is precisely the same: pure ecstatic joy in love. I’d add that the opening/defining riffs in each song are quite similar; both convey the feeling of something straining to explode (I’ve linked to both above so you can see what I mean).

  • The two Beatles songs in the top 20 are IWHYH and Strawberry Fields Forever (#7), neatly capturing the polar opposites of the band’s range.

  • Superstition (#12). Superstition sits next to Gimme Shelter by the Stones (#13), and are the highest placed songs of each artist. Both capture something about the mood we’re in. The backstory to this one is interesting. Stevie Wonder improvised the song’s central keyboard riff and most of the song while jamming with Jeff Beck in the studio. Stevie then agreed to let Jeff have the song. Berry Gordy said HOLD UP THERE SON. Fun fact: Superstition set the record for the longest one-word song title ever to hit US number one. It held the record for thirty years or so until Beyoncé broke it by one letter.

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BAMBER BRIDGE
Thank you for all the great responses to my piece on the Battle of Bamber Bridge. One reader was reminded of an incident that took place in a country pub in Hampshire, in 1944. Three people were killed, including two Americans and the landlady of the pub. He was told about it by his mother, still with us. “My mother was a young girl living in the village at the time and saw the aftermath the following morning, including bullet holes and an impression in the grass where they had laid one of the bodies.” Another reader left a comment on the piece which I’ll reproduce here: “My mother, during the war, drove ambulances, and trained others to drive ambulances. Stationed at Oxford, she was at the John Radcliffe hospital (then in town, off Walton Street) she witness a white US Sergeant racially abusing a black GI. She want and asked the GI if he was OK, and they struck up a friendship, and she and he would go to the movies once a week. After the war, they corresponded for a while. He the son of a Mississippi share cropper, Mum the daughter of a well-to-do rag trade Manchester businessman. We were taught clearly not to discriminate on grounds of race, colour or creed.”

MISCELLANY

  • Handy one-paragraph summary of what’s going on with the global economy.

  • The ad industry nerds among you will know that agencies spend a lot time trying to justify the commercial value of a strong brand story or purpose. As often happens, it takes an outsider to do it really well. In this piece, Kevin Kwok, a Silicon Valley tech investor, describes how start-ups use “narrative leverage”.

  • The always-interesting Eugene Wei on the still untapped potential of online social networks.

  • Farhad Manjoo on the moral panic over Instagram and Facebook. And read this excellent piece by a scientist pointing out that the evidence social media is harming young people is thin to say the least. I’m not a fan of Facebook but a lot of the attacks on it are baseless, exaggerated, or just plain confused.

  • So, I don’t agree with Professor Galloway’s rhetoric on social media here but I do think it’s interesting that digital advertising is wasteful for big brands (less so for small businesses I think). Galloway argues that adtech has not only gutted the responsible media industry, it’s done so on a false prospectus.

  • “Aggressive status-seeking is rooted in offline frustrations.”

  • Really good 2001 piece on Roger Federer’s coming-of-age.

  • Interview with a woman who gave up the career she trained for - classical singer - in order to be a tram driver in Basel. She’s very happy to have done so. Striking difference in how she relates to her co-workers.

  • Stunning short essay by Brian Eno from 1992, on smell, music and the nature of culture. So unfair that a great musician can also write so well. Read it and also listen to this recent podcast interview he did with Rick Rubin. It’s long but frankly I could listen to him all day; he talks just as well as he writes, and the number of fresh insights and ideas he throws out is astonishing. Eno has a phenomenal mind.

  • If you live in London, go see Athena at the Yard Theatre.

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WHAT I’VE BEEN READING
I’ve just finished The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. It’s a tightly plotted, convincingly drawn, frighteningly perceptive story that somehow make you (well, me) root for a psychopath. I then had to watch the film again and can report it is also excellent. It looks ravishing - those clothes, those settings, the light - it has an unimprovable young cast (Jude Law, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and the phenomenal Philip Seymour Hoffman) and moves in perfectly judged rhythms (Anthony Minghella, the film’s screenwriter and director, worked with the great film editor Walter Murch).

The screenplay is a masterclass in adaptation: Minghella streamlines the story so that he can tease out and develop the themes of the book that he’s most interested in - identity, sexual sublimation, class. The result is a rich stew that improves on the French take, Plein Soleil, although it’s possible that Alain Delon looks even cooler than Jude Law. (I highly recommend this comparison of the two.)

Going back to the book: earlier this year I re-read The Great Gatsby, and it strikes me that Ripley might have started out as a kind of dark joke on it: what if Nick Carraway develops a sexual obsession with Gatsby, kills him and becomes him? Gatsby/Greenleaf are similar-ish names, and in both books there’s a great emphasis on how clothes, shirts in particular, make the man, and on the difference between acquiring wealth and being born to it. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is himself an impersonator, a poor boy pretending to glamour, like Ripley. Highsmith encourages us to ask whether Greenleaf’s charm amounts to much more than the money that his name alludes to.

It’s as if she snagged on that phrase from Gatsby about personality being “an unbroken series of successful gestures” (an observation made by Nick) and thought, if that’s true, then a personality can be copied - and maybe a person too.

ROLL UP, ROLL UP

Am I excited hell yes.

But let me get a caveat in first. I mourn the loss of the original vision for the project which was (I think) a movie, to play in theatres, rather than the three episode, six hour documentary that will stream on Disney Plus. The former would have won converts; the latter, I fear, will play only to the converted. A movie would have made a bigger and more lasting cultural imprint. Plus, so much of the spirit of The Beatles, at least to my mind, is communal. I feel robbed of the chance to watch them get up on that roof and start playing in a cinema full of weeping, cheering fans, old and new.

More on the Beatle theme - sorry, but there’s just a lot of it around at the moment - I read the New Yorker profile of Paul McCartney. It’s worth reading because David Remnick is such a fine craftsman. But it’s a rather tepid appreciation and, to my mind, a missed opportunity. When Remnick puts his heart and soul into a profile, as he did with Aretha Franklin and - one of my absolute favourites - Leonard Cohen, he can produce something spectacular. This one feels merely diligent.

Here’s the tell: at one point Remnick observes, offhand, that Dylan’s output over the last forty years is “immensely richer” than McCartney’s. Now, I don’t agree with this, but I won’t argue that case here, because my problem is not so much the assertion itself as the way it’s made: in passing, unsupported, unargued. It suggests to me that Remnick hasn’t actually listened to McCartney’s solo work, in any depth, otherwise he’d have more to say. If you’re writing a profile of any artist but especially one of this stature, you should know their work inside out.

The worst thing is that it has the smack of “we all know” about it, of received wisdom. Ultimately I think Remnick ducked the main challenge of writing about McCartney, which is to defamiliarise him. McCartney is much better known than Franklin or Cohen; millions of words have been written about him, he’s given more interviews than anyone else alive, and the result is that we feel like we know him, we know what he’s about. But that’s an illusion. Great artists, like great songs, can always be re-interpreted, and there’s much more to say about McCartney than is commonly said (I tried to say some of it here). Remnick has executed a competent cover version of an over-familiar standard instead of reinventing it.

AND FINALLY
So I’m thinking about adding a paid tier to The Ruffian, which would mean reconfiguring it somewhat. I love writing it and I’d like to do more with it. I want to do more of the longer pieces that I’ve done recently (Bamber Bridge, Raducanu, Central Park) and experiment with new formats. But I can’t really do more or even keep going without charging.

Substack advises writers to keep a mix of free and paid output, and that suits me because I want to reach as many of you as possible. So my tentative plan is to keep those longer, irregular pieces free, and make the more regular mix of notes, takes and links for paid subscribers only. I haven’t decided on a fee yet but it will probably be between £5 and £10 per month.

Nothing for you to do just yet, dear Ruffians, although I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, just hit ‘reply’. Oh and keep spreading the word. Thanks!

How to buy CONFLICTED - links to your favourite booksellers (UK and US).

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