For one evening’s entertainment at my Harvard 50th Reunion, four of us presented 30 songs to be voted on by our classmates in order to arrive at a Class of ’68 Top Ten (see “’60s Top Tens,” above). Each of us took seven or eight songs to champion. Here are the ones I put into nomination:
Like A Rolling Stone I’m humbled to be able to talk about the #1 all-time greatest song in rock history, according to Rolling Stone Magazine. (Maybe the name had something to do with it?) Bob Dylan is without question the greatest songwriter of the pre-Bruce Springsteen era, and Like A Rolling Stone is his unquestioned masterpiece. It marks the transition of Dylan from folk singer – at which he was pretty good – to rock star. Just as significant it broke the three-minute barrier for songs on the radio. I remember being in Elsie’s, picking up roast beef sandwiches for the Crimson editors, when this song came on the air. I couldn’t leave, for six minutes. This paved the path for long songs to come, from Light My Fire to MacArthur Park to Stairway to Heaven.
The lyrics also broke ground: far from the usual love song, it’s a vicious revenge song, telling the saga of a princess on a steeple who falls and is on her own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. Books have been written about just this song, and tomorrow you can get a taste of a Harvard course on Bob Dylan. He turned rock’n’roll into an intellectual art form, and here’s where he did it.
My Girl Whereas it took Beethoven four notes to write the most famous introduction in classical music – ba-ba-ba, bum – it took the Temptations only three notes to produce the sweetest, most tantalizing, most recognizable introduction in rock: ba, bum-bum. Then the song absolutely soars with a perfect opening line: “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May.” How can you not be happy when you hear this song? The great Smokey Robinson wrote lyrics of unalloyed happiness: “I’ve got all the riches one man can claim.” The Temptations were smoothness personified in their dance steps while they sang – or lip-synched – and the horns played a trumpet fanfare that makes the nerves tingle. My Girl was a #1 hit in the spring of our freshman year, and it captures the innocence of that time.
Do You Believe In Magic This is simply the happiest, most hopeful song of our era. It hooks you from the opening note and races along without a letup. Perhaps best of all, it’s a paean to rock’n’roll. For some reason, every song that has the words “rock’n’roll” in its lyrics is a good one – the same is true for “rain” and “bells.” Not so much the word “groovy” – that dates this song; but the rest is magical: “the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me, yeah.” John Sebastian and the Spoonful grew out of the Greenwich Village folk scene and went on to have the record for most consecutive top ten hits in the ‘60s, but nothing would top this song that virtually exploded off the radio into your mind, in a feelgood way.
The Sound of Silence Named the “quintessential folk-rock” song, Sound of Silence has a special connection to the coffee-house scene we discovered when we arrived at Harvard. Released as an acoustic number in 1964 it bombed. Then a late-night DJ at WBZ started playing it and listeners at Harvard and Tufts started calling for it. Sensing its potential, the record producer that helped Dylan go electric added electric guitars and drums – without Simon & Garfunkel’s knowledge – and the new version went to #1 in Boston before sweeping the country. It also helped establish Paul Simon as the second great Rock Poet, after Dylan. “People talking without speaking; People hearing without listening” – hello, t.s.eliot.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice Everyone loves the Beach Boys, the soundtrack of growing up in the ‘60s. They glamorized surfing, cars, love and California. Wouldn’t It Be Nice, though, was something different from their macho teenage posturing; it was both more mature and more innocent. The trademark harmonies were there, but the composition and instrumentation were more sophisticated, more orchestral, more haunting. The lyrics perfectly captured the fantasies of my parietals-bound sophomore mind: “You know it’s gonna make it that much better/ When we can say goodnight and stay together.” A year later, when the Rolling Stones sang “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” it sounded more like sexual assault. The Beach Boys instead offered a magical dream of mutual consent: “We could be married/ And then we’d be happy/ Wouldn’t it be nice?”
Walk Away Renee Teenage heartbreak. What an empty feeling, a pit in the stomach, when you break up with a girlfriend – or worse, when she leaves you. And what comfort a good rock song, plaintive in a minor key, can provide, solace for the afflicted, balm for the broken heart. Walk Away Renee captured this feeling. The strings, the haunting flute, the images: “your name and mine, inside a heart upon a wall.” In My Fair Lady Freddie sings in rapture about The Street Where You Live. Here, the Left Banke sings, “The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same.” I cry inside when I hear this song. It captured my feelings perfectly – except I never dated a girl named Renee.
Whiter Shade of Pale From those opening chords, we’re back in the Summer of Love, 1967, when we were self-important about-to-be seniors. The group’s name sounded Latin, the melody was lifted from Bach, the Miller’s Tale came from Chaucer, and the sonorous organ was more serious than guitar and sax. Here was the start of Progressive Rock – bands like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues that would soon play with symphony orchestras. The lyrics were sheer poetry: meaningless but endlessly evocative. It was said you had to be stoned for them to make sense. But what images: “the ceiling flew away,” “sixteen vestal virgins,” and best of all: “her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale.” Huh?
This April the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame inducted the first five singles from performers not in the Hall into its pantheon. There was Louie, Louie; Born to Be Wild; and Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale.
By the spring of ’68 the era of top-40 rock as we knew it was coming to an end. There was psychedelia, ProgRock, the advent of FM radio, revolution and Vietnam – teenage love songs just didn’t cut it. The Monkees’ final #1 hit, Daydream Believer, is a melancholy epitaph, a postgraduate look at life. Instead of excitement at getting the girl into bed, the singer is now being woken up by the 6 a.m. alarm and having to shave. The romance is still there – “you once thought of me as a white knight on a steed” – but now it’s relegated to a daydream belief.
Recruited to play a band like the Beatles on a TV show, the four Monkees turned out to have musical chops of their own, and they graced us with an upbeat catalog of pleasant hits our last two years at Harvard.