Rock 'n' Roll was a part of me’
- Nik Cohn
There’s a scene in Educating Rita where Frank is trying to find Rita and ends up pissed at the disco. He’s dancing and smoking spliff with some students and the track playing in the background is just amazing. Whenever I watch the film I always have to rewind that bit several times (I can dance exactly like Michael Caine). I always suspected it was an obscure Human League track (are there any?). When I eventually got round to looking it up I discovered it doesn’t feature on the official soundtrack release (neither does the brilliant pub singalong). Other interested minds persevered and it turns out it was originally released as the B-side to the 7" of the movie theme by keyboard maestro David Hentschel. Lo and behold, the track, ironically called ‘I Can’t Dance’ (sorry Michael) is there in its entirety on youtube. God bless the internet.
But it didn’t stop there. Mention was made of a remix and this I also managed to find as a free MP3, mixed into a glorious nine-minute epic by disco-bod Glenn Rivera. I was ecstatic and have played it every day since. ‘This is going straight into my top 100 songs ever,’ I proclaimed, and that’s where it started.
For the record, 100 songs is just not enough, and moreover this list is not my favourite 100 songs of all time. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ isn’t here, nor ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘Manchild’, ‘Be My Wife’, ‘Sheila Take A Bow’ or ‘Sir Duke’. The ground rule, because there had to be one, is that each artist could only appear once. (I bumped Jeff Buckley’s ‘Last Goodbye’ for his duet with Liz Fraser and don’t think it was easy).
Turned out to be a very strange list in the end. Seems I pretty much like really sad songs or ones that make you shake your moneymaker, and not very much in between. Even Del Shannon’s early 60s beaut ‘Runaway’ is here in part for the line ‘And I wonder, where she will stay, my little runaway..?’ Sniff. I’m also frightfully more mainstream and gay than I thought, there’s no Donna Summer or Abba, but whither the greasy guitar bands I was reared on? No Wedding Present for Christ’s sake. Or Teenage Fanclub. No punk even, despite it being the best single-release genre of all. I did try to shoehorn ‘Bodies’ by the Pistols in at one point, just cos, and then I remembered Sam Cooke and, well, what can you do? Even Blur and Blondie have been mercilessly bumped for a one hit wonder and a dollop of doo-wop. No Leonard Cohen either (contender for greatest lyricist of all time) but an album track by Frente there, and largely because of the lyrics (‘I suddenly hear the worst words explode into love at my ear …’).
There are a couple of shockers, I don’t really know what to say about Boston other than I’ve been playing air guitar to it for most of my life and I can’t let it go now. Nothing by The Carpenters, Fleetwood Mac, Dusty, Neil Young or Pet Shop Boys. Countless others noticeable by their absence, but this is all about the song and in the pop world the one-off gem is just as vital as the consistency of a great songwriter, which is why John Lennon’s solo career simply can’t hold a candle to something like Kim Carnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ and you all know it.
The songs aren’t in any kind of order other than vague groupings I have given to some for ease of reference. So here you have it, I can’t explain it, but oh how I love the madness of actually wondering, ‘Do I like ‘Get Me’ by Dinosaur Jr more than ‘A Little Respect’? Well do I??’ My last move was to swap Sonic Youth’s ‘Bull In The Heather’ for Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’. What might this mean?
Lots of tracks are here for personal reasons of course but that’s what makes an ordinary person’s Best Of better than one more Rolling Stone trawl through the ‘classics’. Each song represents a little stitch in the tapestry of my life (yawn), who knows, without one of them the whole thing might start to come undone …
Here’s the Spotify playlist to go with it, which has a few holes in of course, and that’s it. Oh and I ain’t ashamed of nothin’ I did …
I Can’t Dance – David Hentschel (Glenn Rivera Mix)
There’s A Place In Hell For Me And My Friends – Morrissey
I originally chose ‘Lost’ then ‘A Swallow On My Neck’ (which might be my favourite ever love song). I prevaricated over ‘The Ordinary Boys’, ‘Don’t Make Fun Of Daddy’s Voice’ and ‘Sunny’, then almost settled for ‘Last Of The Famous International Playboys’, but eventually it had to be this, the closing track from second studio album proper, Kill Uncle. A wry, terribly sad piano ballad composed by undervalued genius Mark Nevin that’s utterly non-representative of the album or Morrissey’s output thereafter, is over in less than two minutes, has no proper verse or chorus but which stands alongside the very best of Billie Holiday or Leonard Cohen for lessons in plaintive and painful swansongs.
Atmosphere – Joy Division
The death scene in 24 Hour Party People has cemented the status of this song for me, the windchime noises one minute in and Ian saying ‘Don’t walk away…’ are forever sad and beautiful.
When I was a kid there were two kinds of music you were ‘warned about’, music that made you scared when you heard it, then excited, and finally addicted. The first was acid house and all the beepy mainstream variations thereof which inevitably led to drugs and ultimately death. I can’t communicate the excitement of hearing Evapor8 – Altern8 for the first time. Those four big belching electric bass notes are haaardcoooore. I thought just watching the video would make me want to overdose on acid and Ecstasy in a cave in Cumbria. I’d only just turned 14, it was unlikely. Watch it below. They eat cereal and buy a tank.
Everybody In The Place – The Prodigy was a scarier and more mental prospect than the previous cutesy ‘Charly’ and is still my favourite of their tracks. I tried to replicate it on our keyboard at home while dancing like Keith. I was marginally more successful with the latter.
The other scary devil music was hip-hop, not gorgeous love and peace rap like Eye Know – De La Soul (my first loves) or even slightly tougher fare from Run DMC (my second loves but absent from the list) but the real Black Power no-shit party-hard sound of the projects, and I loved it to death. Almost in the list was Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A. which was that band’s calling card and which still sounds the shit today. N.W.A. were slightly more of a party posse but it was tracks like Rebel Without A Pause – Public Enemy that gave hip-hop the tough political edge that for a time saved it from being diluted in the mainstream, where it has never really belonged. ‘Rebel’ is one of those amazing early hip-hop tracks that’s a microcosm of Black America, there’s a dozen spoken and played samples on it, black American history is screaming and wired and condensed into three minutes. ‘Rebel’ usually takes a backseat to ‘Fight The Power’ and ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ as favoured tracks from It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back but for me the screeching clarinet/sax sample and those drums just nail this one. The former is from the intro to this and the latter is from here, 5.40 in and just … wow …
Listen carefully to the almost discordant piano from Everybody Dance – Chic and tell me that Sweet Harmony – Liquid isn’t its rightful successor on the dancefloor. It’s my funeral and I want these bitches played back to back.
I Want You Back – Jackson Five
This song could make roadkill dance.
Everything Counts - Depeche Mode
My first memory of the Mode is seeing them do ‘Shake The Disease’ on Top Of The Pops. Because of Martin’s hair and the bit where he sings ‘Understand me…’ like a lovely lady, I think I thought they were the Thompson Twins. I was only seven. A few years later at senior school some older boys from sixth form had a band called, I think, Imbalance, and they played this and I thought they were geniuses in the making before I discovered it was by Depeche Mode. I filled in the gaps and tentatively began to let keyboards into my life.
Tumbling Dice – The Rolling Stones
Clued me up to the Stones where ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘Satisfaction’ had failed.
Heaven Help Us All – Stevie Wonder
Upwards of a dozen Stevie songs belong here but having gone around several houses I went back to this one, written just as Motown started to become political and interesting and first heard by me on my favourite piece of vinyl, Motown Chartbusters Vol. 5, which also houses politico-soul gems ‘War,’ ‘Ball of Confusion,’ ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ and ‘Forget Me Not’. ‘Heaven Help’ is a checklist of societal ills that compels us all to look at one another and only the uplifting gospel choir and heartrending key change stop this from being a paean to despair. Magic.
U-Mass – Pixies
Almost picked the sublime ‘Velouria’ but this track is just as good and packs a little more historical punch. Listen to ‘U-Mass’ then ‘Teen Spirit’ then ‘Cannonball’ and see how Frank Black provided the perfect template for quiet-loud guitar forever. It also has the words ‘cock’ and ‘cunt’ in it.
All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun – Jeff Buckley and Liz Fraser
Two of my favourite voices of all time together in a song that should be so much more famous than it is.
Postcards From Italy – Beirut
Late entry from precocious tearjerker. When you play it try to imagine a very elderly couple dancing together in the street of a tiny Greek village, remembering their youth. That’s what I do. Gets me every time. Thankyou Katie.
Samson – Regina Spektor
‘I loved you first…’
Make It Easy On Yourself – The Walker Brothers
The last act of kindness to someone who’s about to leave you, even the choir-of-angels backing make him into a martyr. It really is all about the sad songs.
In My Life – The Beatles
Typical me that I’m a McCartneyite through and through but my favourite Beatles song is actually this one by Lennon and dear Paul hasn’t made the list so you can stop scanning for ‘The Frog Chorus’ right now.
French Disko – Stereolab
From back when John Peel routinely threw dynamite sticks of pure thrills into our lives.
Explode – Frente!
I’m not kidding, I love it that much.
Since Yesterday – Strawberry Switchblade
Early Top Of The Pops memory and actually a touching break-up song dressed up behind those pretty pop ribbons.
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Oh god what a Q magazine choice, right? When I was thirteen we got Sky TV, then soon after we got rid of it again. During this brief multichannel holiday my sister and I graduated from watching the DJ Kat show before school to religiously watching MTV where this seemed to be the only video they owned and you could sometimes get two viewings in during breakfast. It soundtracked entire days for me in 1991 and opened up all kinds of avenues, some of which were dead ends (Stone Temple Pilots) and some of which I’m still walking now (Sonic Youth, Pixies). At Glastonbury 2003 Scratch Perverts blew up the dance tent with it. Come on, it still sounds as good as it ever did.
The Drowners – Suede
The beginning of it all.
God Only Knows – Beach Boys
My tongue-in-cheek but sad funeral song (‘God only knows what I’d be without you …’) and Carl Wilson at his most angelic.
Light My Fire – The Doors
Kick-started teenage obsession with Jim Morrison and thereafter all things sixties. I could recite his poems by heart and watched Oliver Stone’s The Doors weekly. My first counter-culture hero proper and the first time I felt born at the wrong time, see rest of life from then on for further examples.
Got To Be Real – Cheryl Lynn
Say what you like (it’s disco-lite, it’s too gay, it’s been Sex and the City’d to death) whatever, I loved it first. This bitch has got me out of the door many times when all I really wanted to do was stay home and self-harm to Bauhaus.
Wuthering Heights – Kate Bush
Pop songs about books! And it’s even better than the novel! Much as I adore Morrissey, when people say that he introduced literacy into pop music, I always recall: ‘You had a temper like my jealousy, too hot, too greedy’. It’s hardly ‘Ooh baby, baby yeah’ is it?
Italian Fireflies – Black Strobe
Taught me everything I needed to know about overdoing it on the dancefloor in very dark clubs.
Push It – Salt ‘n’ Pepa
Sea Of Love - Phil Phillips
Mars – Fake Blood
It’s still up there.
Love In The First Degree – Bananarama
At the school disco me and Joff would dance in a circle with the girls to this, the ‘Nanas greatest moment, and actually do the proper moves from the video while getting ripped to the tits on popping candy and Lilt. Cue zero dropped jaws when the pair of us came out.
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – The Smiths
‘Whatever happens to the world The Smiths will never die’ read the famous graffiti in the toilets of the Brighton Dome. This was the first Smiths song I heard and I instantly fell in love with it and them and him, then thirteen years later it was the song I actually fell in love to, on a dancefloor, almost at first sight, just like in a film. I can’t play it yet. Any day now …
Lullaby – The Cure
Contains some of the finest lyrics ever written. I bet Angela Carter loved this song.
Wear Your Love Like Heaven – Definition Of Sound
It’s possible a cassette still exists somewhere of me and my sister singing along to this with home-made percussion instruments with Mum shouting ‘Tea!’ in the background.
The Tracks Of My Tears – Smokey Robinson And The Miracles
My most-played seven inch single.
For Love – Lush
Before their slightly unfortunate ladette makeover circa Britpop, Lush occasionally made such sparkly noises that the Cocteau Twins themselves might covet it and this is their finest, plus one of the best indie singles ever.
Stay With Me – Lorraine Ellison
This was one of Cilla’s Desert Island Discs you know.
Hide And Seek – Imogen Heap
Emerge – Fischerspooner
In the slutty heyday of electroclash this track cut to the chase and perfected that throbbing two-tone bassline that everyone had been itching to dance to (see also Ladytron’s ‘Seventeen’, I-F ‘Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass’). I’ve had more inspired and jubilant moments clubbing to this than I could ever remember.
Hush The Warmth – Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
Back during ‘The Madness’ I would go to my therapist, walk home exhausted, buy some chocolate, have a fag, try and stay awake till the end of ER then curl up under my duvet and put this song on repeat until I felt safe. Still works.
Karma Chameleon – Culture Club
I can’t remember a time before this song and I don’t know why but despite its blatantly jangly upbeat ways I still think there’s something touching about it, that first minor chord in the chorus makes me wobble.
Can’t Cry Hard Enough – Judy Collins
About which more here.
One Day In Your Life – Michael Jackson
God love him.
Bacharach's Diva Corner ...
I only realised after the final count that three of Burt's ladies were here. These versions are not interchangeable, poor Dionne couldn't quite cut it with any of them I'm afraid.
Anyone Who Had A Heart – Cilla Black
Cilla's finest, even more so than 'Alfie', she can't work out whether to go posh or not but the tremulous power of her lungs simply pours forth.
A House Is Not A Home – Shirley Bassey
Lest we forget that the lady Bassey can do plaintive and restrained as much as pure bombast, listen for the last wobble as she turns the key, and pleads ... incredible. Also has my favourite surreal pop lyric ever: 'a chair is not a house'. Quite.
I Say A Little Prayer – Aretha Franklin
Not just for the vocals, she's done better, but for the way she has to hold herself back just to keep it all in, she doesn't even sing the chorus herself, she just chips in until eventually she has to yell. And for the romantic humdrum of the life she describes, the bus, the make up, the coffee, the quiet yearning for him, whichever unsuitable bum he turns out to be. Sigh.
This Is How It Feels – Inspiral Carpets
Carolina In My Mind – James Taylor
My erstwhile karaokoe opus.
No Woman, No Cry – Bob Marley
Nag Nag Nag – Cabaret Voltaire
Sounds like it was recorded in a cardboard box with Fisher Price instruments.
Vapour Trail – Ride
Even better than My Bloody Valentine.
My Funny Valentine – Ella Fitzgerald
Somebody once sang it to me and meant it. Awww.
Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks
Back To Life (However Do You Want Me) – Soul II Soul
Caron Wheeler and Jazzie B made Britain cool again way before Britpop. I always imagined myself walking through Ladbroke Grove while this played from every car and open window. Unlikely, given that I was an eleven year old white boy in Blackpool, but this record hasn’t worn itself out a jot for me.
Birdhouse In Your Soul – They Might Be Giants
It Takes Two – Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock
Raspberry Beret – Prince
You Got The Love – The Source featuring Candi Staton
Spawns legions of unforgivably drab funky upfront vocal bollocks to this very day, but the blueprint is epic.
Piece Of My Heart – Erma Franklin
All my favourite bits of this song happen in the first thirty seconds, that lazy booze-sodden piano, Erma’s barely there first words then the sidle up to the first high note of ‘yoouuuu…’. You’d never guess an Aretha-esque hollerin’ chorus is just round the corner.
Bette Davis Eyes – Kim Carnes
Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper
Joga – Bjork
It’s a magical spell.
Blue – Joni Mitchell
'Acid, booze and ass, needles, guns and grass...'
Same Old Scene – Roxy Music
Hands down fave Roxy track.
Are ‘Friends’ Electric? – Tubeway Army
No, we love you anyway.
Buddy Holly – Weezer
A New England – Kirsty MacColl
That’s Us / Wild Combination – Arthur Russell
This was probably the first decent gay love song in decades. Arthur was ten kinds of musician and could play everyone at their own game. He only came into my life recently, this song means he’s with me for keeps now.
My Baby Just Cares For Me – Nina Simone
Painfully populist choice I know, but for all the sad majesty of ‘Sunday In Savannah’ or ‘Wild Is The Wind’ this song showcases what Nina really was, a tremendous multi-genre pianist who was shoehorned into being a singer. The cod-classical middle piece that somehow eventually trills its way back to the plinky-plonky main theme is her genius fingers at their very best.
Changes – David Bowie
This took even longer than my Morrissey choice. It’s partly down to the quote at the start of The Breakfast Club, partly because Idecided it had to be something from Hunky Dory, my favourite Bowie album, and partly because I don’t think anyone would believe me if I’d put ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’.
I Wanna Be Your Dog – The Stooges
My favourite intro of all time in which the squalling guitar feedback of the naughty rock ‘n’ roll Stooges is suddenly brought sharply into line by John Cale’s rhythmic sleigh bells and single Velvet’s piano chord. At heel boys.
Father And Son – Cat Stevens
Venus In Furs – Velvet Underground
I knew this song long before the rest of VU’s work and I confess I was sorely disappointed that it didn’t all sound like this. I’ve never really gotten over it. This is bohemian music perfected, hurt-cat violins soundtracking dark sexual practices. This is all their sunglasses and leather and androgyny and anti-flower-power powers distilled to shiny screeching tinfoil cool. Pass me my Beatle boots, my Breton shirt, my heroin.
Runaway – Del Shannon
Will You Love Me Tomorrow – The Shirelles
No ‘Still’ in the title, and no question mark either, that’s me told. Goffin/King’s greatest ever thing, the pinnacle description of teen courtship anxiety and the transience of romance, plus if you listen to it as though they’ve just gone all the way for the first time in the back of his Chevy you’ll understand why she’s so worried about what she just gave away.
Satellite Of Love – Lou Reed
I know what you’re thinking, this is just an excuse to get another Bowie song in the list. Yeah, it is actually, it really is tremendously good though, and what would Lou and Dame Bowie be without each other anyhow?
More Than A Feeling – Boston
Oh come on. It's been watched nearly four million times on YouTube and only a million of those were me.
Outdoor Miner – Wire
Art-rock five-chord haiku majesty from one of most important and original bands in world ever dot com.
Weekend In New England – Barry Manilow
Listen to it as though it’s about two gay men who can’t be together. Barry didn’t write it though, Randy Edelman did.
Georgy Girl – The Seekers
The Clash are not on this list because of this song. Deal.
I Can Give You The Starlight – Mary Ellis
Mary Ellis sings like an actual saw. This particular Ivor Novello gem nearly smashes all your windows on the high notes and is supremely exhilarating and I can’t believe Spotify has it.
O Holy Night – Mahalia Jackson
She will make you believe in Jesus if you let her.
Chalet Lines – Belle & Sebastian
The best song ever written about getting raped at Butlins.
You’re So Vain – Carly Simon
So much is unique about this song; the witty Catch 22 of the premise, the weird horror-movie bass on the intro, the peculiarly literate diction of apricots and clouds in my coffee and the wife of a close friend, the thrilling knowledge that it’s all real life, the way it goes quiet on the sad bits, the way it’s so frank and the way it works those seventies harmonies that were tighter than their jeans, it’s all so good.
Where Angels Play – The Stone Roses
I always preferred ethereal numbers such as this and ‘Going Down’. This song, all chugging and spangles, easily stands alongside anything off the first album.
Needle In The Hay – Elliott Smith
Ed Harcourt didn’t make it but Elliott did and I always think of them as something like kindred spirits. ‘Needle’ has the most hypnotic guitar, it seems to fight itself all the way through and the vocals are uncharacteristically right there in the mix, he seems to be in the room with you. If only he could be.
When Will I See You Again? – The Three Degrees
Somewhere In My Heart – Aztec Camera
I Only Have Eyes For You – The Flamingos
First heard in Lady And The Tramp and loved ever since, those echoing vocals are a production masterwork, they make everything sound so black and white and far away.
Motorcycle Emptiness – Manic Street Preachers
A Little Respect – Erasure
Is there a club where this wouldn’t work? I even like the Wheatus version.
Aerodynamic – Daft Punk
Another one plugged by Peel I seem to recall. I even had to put down The Exorcist, which I was reading at the time. ‘Is that a guitar?,’ I remember thinking. It’s like how people in the past thought the future would sound. Brilliant.
Ol’ Man River – Paul Robeson
The notes come from somewhere under his boots, where the ghosts are. I think he is simply wonderful, an all-time hero, a cultural giant. This song is over seventy years old. Re: the whole slavery thing, it’s just not the same when Judy Garland sings ‘Tote that barge, lift that bale’, is it?
Soul heartbreakers... A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke These Arms Of Mine – Otis Redding
Melodically related, at least they seem so to me, the chord changes alone in these songs do for me, but those voices … it’s something else to try and describe them. The evocation of all the struggles to come for Black America makes the former particularly moving, as does the fact beautiful Sam never lived to see the record chart. The line ‘It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die’ nods, perhaps unconsciously, to the Robeson line from above, ‘I’m tired of living and scared of dying’ and brings two vocal giants momentarily together. As for ‘These Arms Of Mine’, the relative albatross of ‘Dock Of The Bay’ can take a backseat as far as I’m concerned to this restrained but monumental heartbreaking two and a half minutes. Somebody once played this to me in bed when I was nineteen and I smile about it still.
Downtown – Petula Clark
The sound of city streets on headphones at night, Leicester Square, Oxford Road, La Ramblas, Second Avenue, wherever you are, it really does make you feel better.
Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue – Crystal Gayle
Yeah, it do.
Together In Electric Dreams – Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder
Uplifting Casio Utopia.
The judge's decision is never final ...