Six (Not So) Easy Pieces: Picking the Perfect Rock Songs

Back in 2006, I recall reading many intriguing reviews of Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain on Music. It’s been on my Amazon wish list ever since, and writing about music as much as I do, I occasionally have friends ask me if I’ve read it, or tell me I should read it. The latest reminder came from a friend who wrote the following email to me and a few of our mutual (music loving) friends:

In his brilliant book… Levitin relates the tale of how an elderly colleague and he used to dine every Wednesday and discuss music. During one of these dinners the colleague, an octogenarian, confessed that he did not understand rock music, but wanted to be able to. He asked Levitin to choose six songs that would capture “all that was important to know about rock and roll music.” Levitin chose the following songs:“Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard), “Roll Over Beethoven” (The Beatles), “All Along The Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix), “Wonderful Tonight” (Eric Clapton), “Little Red Corvette” (Prince), “Anarchy in the UK” (Sex Pistols).
What would you guys choose, and why?

Before I share my friend’s list, and my own, a few comments about Levitin’s. It manages to underwhelm because it is at once too safe and yet also too…ambitious? Not sure if that’s the right word, but in my opinion, Levitin fell into the same inevitable trap most music aficionados will have difficulty avoiding. Trust me, once you try, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Levitin does an admirable job of trying to span time and genre: he includes the obligatory pre-Elvis rock staple; in this case, a seminal tune by Little Richard, the man who, along with Chuck Berry, arguably did more than anyone else to invent rock and roll, or at least provide the blueprint for the type of music that became rock and roll when people like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and a billion other British white boys tried their damndest to evoke and imitate that distinctive sound.

Sure enough, he picks one from the Beatles, and he happens to pick one of the worst songs by the Fab Four: a rather limp cover of the great Chuck Berry. Why not just list Berry’s version? That would seem to at once give Berry his well-warranted props and also avoid embarrassing how lame the Beatles sound by comparison… particularly when there are many dozen essential, inimitable songs the Beatles would go on to create, all of which, in their own ways, did as much to define and expand the possibilities of rock music as anyone who has ever picked up an instrument. So two issues: are we properly concerned with the stepping stones and giving adequate acknowledgment to the forefathers? After all, without their guidance the British Invasion would have never made it across the pond. But if we go down that road, we would certainly be obliged to include at least a song apiece by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino. Not to mention Jerry Lee Lewis. So, if we are trying to distinguish between the blueprints as opposed to the archetypes, shouldn’t we focus purely on the six songs — recorded by whoever, whenever — that “capture all that was important to know about rock and roll music”?

Returning to Levitin’s list, his desire to include different genres is laudable, but that brings up myriad issues: he goes after punk (Sex Pistols) and synthesized pop-funk (Prince) and… well, hard to say what ground he’s covering with Clapton (mawkish soft rock?), and it’s difficult to find fault with any list that ever includes Jimi Hendrix. But what about country-rock? Or heavy metal? Or folk? Or blues, which is like the oxygen without with the primitive rock amoeba could never have oozed onto shore. Or… well, you get the picture. The only way I can see avoiding this dilemma is by copping out and constructing multiple lists that address the prototypes (Chuck Berry et al.), the genre-spanning mavericks (The Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin, just to name a few), and the various incarnations that incorporated the fads of the time (from prog-rock to death metal). And that would be a worthwhile exercise, but the task at hand is to, as accurately and with as much integrity as possible, identify the six songs that best define rock and roll. Pretty simple, huh? Simple and impossible.

Here is my friend’s list:

“Rock and Roll Music” (Chuck Berry), “Think” (Aretha Franklin), “Eleanor Rigby” (The Beatles), “Meeting Across the River” (Bruce Springsteen), “May This Be Love” (Jimi Hendrix), and “Kashmir” (Led Zeppelin).

That is a pretty solid list. It is, in many ways, more satisfying, in my estimation, than Levitin’s. But even my friend (understandably) attempts to cover the basics (with Berry), the essential soul element (Aretha), and the heavyweights (The Beatles and Led Zeppelin) — and while those are two of the more influential songs by either band, perhaps the ultimate dilemma is paring down both of those band’s catalogs to pick just one song: the best Beatles song? The most important Led Zeppelin tune? The one song by either band that most satisfactorily speaks for what rock music can be? Good luck with that.

But as anyone who has read Utopian literature can attest, (or anyone who has a favorite sports team or preferred religion, for that matter), one person’s nirvana is another person’s perdition. So perhaps any list will say more about the person making it, and the person responding to it, than the actual songs themselves. Plus, it’s not as though there is any truly objective mechanism to determine which songs signify the sine qua non of rock and roll. Plus, how rock and roll is it to agonize over what songs actually define rock and roll? Perhaps the ultimate point (at least for the types of dorks who enjoy making and comparing lists like this in the first place) is to react and respond; there is no Aristotlean list, or any type of Platonic ideal. Rock, after all, is dirty, imperfect, and mutable. The only thing that counts, in the end, is authenticity.

And with that, here is my imperfect, dirty, but very authentic list:

(I can’t even begin without a caveat: my first list included John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen”, because to me, this one has all the elements; this is the primal DNA, bringing in boogie-woogie, jazz, blues, and folk element: this is the sound so many early rockers hoped to imitate, even the ones who didn’t realize it. But anything that is not purely rock and roll simply cannot be included on this particular list…)

1. “Maybellene” (Chuck Berry)

Despite what was said above, any list of essential rock songs simply cannot fail to include Chuck Berry. End of story. Plus, of all the early Berry hits, this one brings in some serious backwoods country elements, a healthy dose of jazzed up style, and the unmistakably gritty blues guitar — a signature sound, in short. Also, and importantly, the combination of cars and girls, a formula perfected by Berry, is in full effect here: this is not a rock and roll song, this is rock and roll.

2. “Fortunate Son” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Yeah, boy. Creedence had already dragged folk and blues through the bayou and paid their obligatory dues at the altar of psychedelic inspiration, and once that was out of their system, John Fogerty locked in and began writing tight, compact, perfect rock songs. He is firing on every cylinder here: the piss and vinegar of the chorus, the sociopolitical import of the lyrics (same — and true — as it ever was, more than four decades later), and the irresistible groove: it is angry, indignant and indelible — and it’s all over in two minutes and 19 seconds.

3. “Rocks Off” (The Rolling Stones)

It was a down-to-the-wire decision to pick this one or the runner-up, “Brown Sugar”. Either one would suffice, but this one (almost impossible when considering “Brown Sugar”) actually does rock more… and it has “rock” in its title. “Brown Sugar” is a bit dirtier (sonically and lyrically) and has one of the ultimate rock and roll riffs of all time, but “Rocks Off” has every element of what makes the Stones the consummate rock band: the whole history of music is crammed into virtually everything they recorded between ’68 and ’72, and it’s all on ugly, beautiful display here. You really could offer this one up to someone who has never listened to rock music and simply say “Here you go”. There is no guarantee that they’ll like it, but there is no question that after only one listen, they’ll get it.

4. “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen)

Kind of like Beethoven emulated Bach and ended up, in many ways, being better, Bruce Springsteen wanted to sound like Roy Orbison (including name-checking him a few lines into this, the first song on his masterpiece Born to Run), and wound up transcending him. This is the complete package: the harmonica, piano, guitar and glockenspiel (!), this song is an entire lifetime in under five minutes. It also has one of the best beginnings and endings of any song, ever. And if Chuck Berry was singing to hopeful sock hoppers just getting their driver’s licenses, the Boss was talking to young adults who had already graduated, but were still capable of dreaming.

5. “London Calling” (The Clash)

Punk? Please. The Clash always represented the melting pot that rock music, at its best, can be. Joe Strummer is God. The Clash was the only band that mattered. Any further questions?

6. “Tattooed Love Boys” (The Pretenders)

In part because it was impossible to pick between “My City Was Gone” and “Middle of the Road” (or “Back on the Chain Gang” for that matter… holy shit, was Learning to Crawl a fantastic album or what?), but also because of the many, many songs that kick much ass by the great Pretenders, it’s hard to top “Tattooed Love Boys”. While Chrissie Hynde was undoubtedly the baddest bitch on the block, she is also an uncommonly gifted writer, and her vocals go toe-to-toe with anyone (male or female) who has ever stepped up to a mic.

Anyone who knows me can guess that I’m already disappointed with my own list. How could I not be? The inherent limitation of picking only six songs is infuriating. It also, I reckon, is the point. It would be less interesting, or perhaps less fun, to have more flexibility. And then: how much easier would this task actually be if you had ten songs? 20? In some ways, it might be even more difficult because then the (unavoidable) omissions would seem even more glaring. (What, no Sabbath? No Skynyrd? No Halen? No Who? No Beatles? No Doors? No Floyd? No Zep? No Heart? No Beach Boys? No Neil Young? No Joni Mitchell? No Rush? No R.E.M.? No Smiths? No Bad Brains? No Sleater-Kinney? No…? I know…)

So: the only way this exercise is worthwhile is to share it. And see what other people think. I’ve shown you mine; show me yours.