The first step in naming the Top 25 Songs of the Rock Era, which happens to coincide with my personal music-listening era, is determining the criteria for a “Top” song.
Obviously, the criterion is not best-selling, or most-played, or even most-requested. If you rank songs by how many weeks they were #1 on the Billboard Top 40, not one of that top 100 would be on my list. Many, of course, weren’t even rock’n’roll: Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In; Mack the Knife; The Battle of New Orleans. Many were minor: Ebony and Ivory (McCartney and Wonder), Night Fever (BeeGees), Physical (Olivia Newton-John). Some were even obnoxious: My Sharona, The Ballad of the Green Berets.
On the other hand, they can’t be too obscure. We all have personal favorites. But unless a song has some general notoriety it’s not fair to judge it against others that get played over and over, giving them the chance to wear out their welcome. And general acceptance is a useful confirmation of personal preference in this arena.
Permit a digression, the first of many. Back at the end of my college days, which was also the end of the AM Top-40 era, I created a scoring formula for rating the all-time greatest hits (a compulsion for order that would eventually find me in law school). I gave points on a 1-5 basis for things like “originality” and whether it was an artist’s first hit. Using this formula, the other details of which I have mercifully forgotten, I judged the top song of the rock era to be a dead heat between the Temptations’ My Girl and the Buckinghams’ Kind of A Drag.
This time, no formulas. But this time, almost 40 years later, there is also a lot more ground to cover. If comparing apples and oranges is hard, what about comparing songs from the doo-wop era with heavy metal? OK, doo-wop was better; but saying that already lands me in the area of personal preference, or at least dates me.
The one test I can think of that applies to songs of all eras is, do I still want to listen to it? If I’m in my car and I reach my destination, will I keep the motor running until the song is over? One step up: would I consider it sacrilegious to turn the radio off while the song is playing? For sure, there are more than 25 songs that meet this test, but this is a good place to start. My heart might beat a little faster when I hear the first chords of Satisfaction, but do I have to stay with it until the end? Not really.
Finally, a word about my age, and how that will influence the selections. Rock songs are associative. They connect us to certain times in our lives: a summer romance (if we’re lucky), a painful breakup, a trip, a friend, a particular year. For that reason alone, no two people will ever have the same Top 25 list.
I was there when the rock era began. Not in the clubs of Cleveland, but at home, not only listening to Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom on WABC Radio, but writing down the top 25 each Saturday morning. I made a marginal note in 1954, when the CrewCuts’ Sh-Boom became the first rock’n’roll record to crack the Magic Circle. At the age of 8, I was already championing rock’n’roll as “my” music.
I made lists through the ‘50s, happily staying home on New Year’s Eve to capture the run-down of the year’s top 100. Then in 1960 I was given a Wollensak tape recorder and began compiling my own archives. I never bought a record, in fact, until 1967, when album rock began to make singles obsolete, and I purchased the first albums of Buffalo Springfield, Percy Sledge and the BeeGees.
The 1970s were the most fertile decade in rock history, but they consolidated the fragmentation that began with the advent of FM radio in the late ‘60s. There was no more Top 40 that anyone cared about; instead, niche formats split the market, and we all listened to different music.
From 1980 on I have probably drifted further from the mainstream, if one can be identified. I have continued to listen to “new” music on the radio, but it’s often the new music of one station. I can’t comment on hip-hop, any more than I can comment on disco music from the ‘70s, heavy metal from the ‘80s, or Top 40 from any year after 1970.
My selections, therefore, will undoubtedly skew to the ‘70s, when I was not yet a father and had disposable income and time; or to the ‘60s, my formative years from 14 to 22.
With that introduction, let the fun begin.