Saturday Single No. 73

Originally posted May 24, 2008

My use of the word “single” in the title of this weekly feature, as regular visitors to this valley know, is perhaps misleading: The songs presented here on Saturdays have not always been issued as singles. Some of them no doubt have been, either on 45s or on CDs. But if so, that’s coincidental. The point of the weekly discussion is to focus on a single track. And of course, sometimes I cheat there, as I occasionally present a pair of recordings for what seems to me to be a good reason. I don’t think I’ve ever done three at a time; if I did, I’d likely call it something different, maybe “A Three-Ring Circus.” (And the internal lights go on: someone is finally at home in my cranium on this sleepy Saturday, and that idea may be too good to just mention here and forget about. A circus may be in this blog’s future.)

Last week, I presented here the list I left at a board called Groovy Fab, my list of the best ten albums from the years 1950-1976. And I ended the post with the song “Comin’ Back To Me” from Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album, which I’d ranked No. 6. (As the notes added to last week’s post indicate, I had a brief colloquy with the Half-Hearted Dude, who suggested that Otis Redding’s Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul and an album by Aretha Franklin might have found a place on my list. I replied that Otis Blue and Aretha’s Lady Soul would have made the list if it had been fifteen places long, and I added that No. 11 on my list was Marvin Gaye’s classic album What’s Going On.)

At about the same time, a member at Groovy Fab asked readers to list their favorite single. Most folks listed three, so I did as well: “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers, “We” by Shawn Phillips and “Long, Long Time” by Linda Ronstadt. I then added, “Honorable mention to ‘Wild Horses’ by the Rolling Stones. And if the Beatles had ever released ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’ as a single, there would be no doubt about my No. 1.”*

(Four of those five are no doubt familiar. The Shawn Phillips song was on his 1972 Faces album and was released as a single in 1974 without making the Top 40. I posted it here once, and will likely find a reason to do so again some day.)

Having listed ten great albums and three favorite singles at Groovy Fab, I got to wondering what would happen if I combined those concepts? If I made a list of my favorite single tracks from those ten albums in my list, what would I find?

Well, “Summer Rain” would be there, but what else would we find? And even as I write that question, I do not know the answer. I’m going to make these decisions on the fly here, because – as I have noted in these precincts at least once – it’s more fun to do things without a net. And here’s the list I presented last week:

1. Abbey Road, the Beatles, 1969

2. The Band, The Band, 1969

3. Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan, 1975

4. Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen, 1975

5. Exile on Main Street, the Rolling Stones, 1972

6. Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane, 1967

7. Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd, 1973

8. Déjà Vu, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970

9. Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East, Allman Brothers Band, 1971

10. Realization, Johnny Rivers, 1968

Boy, a tough one right at the top. I love the “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” medley that almost closes Abbey Road. (“Her Majesty” actually closes the record, of course.) I don’t think Paul McCartney has provided us many vocal performances better than on “Oh Darling.” And I have what must be a juvenile affinity – easy to ignore, thank goodness – for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” But the best track on the record remains the first one I ever heard: John Lennon’s “Come Together.”

I got The Band as a Christmas present long before I ever heard Music From Big Pink or any of the legendary performances of The Band with Bob Dylan, so the twelve tracks on the group’s second album were all I knew of the group for a very long time. As good as “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” are, they’ve also become a little tired, so that cuts the number of great songs down to ten from twelve. But three truly stand out to me, and the sad elegy of “Whispering Pines” and the mournful “Unfaithful Servant” are eclipsed only by the autumnal regret and frustration of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).”

I wrote a bit about Blood On The Tracks earlier this week, and readers might reasonably conclude that my favorite track from the album is “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” They’d be right. Second place? Maybe “Tangled Up In Blue” or “Shelter From The Storm,” but more likely “If You See Her, Say Hello.”

I know that many Springsteen fans think that “Thunder Road” is the apex of Springsteen’s body of work. It’s a good song and recording, without a doubt, starting quietly and slowly insinuating its way into your ears and heart. But I’ll go with the booming, throbbing title track: I’m way too old for the kind of running the narrator and his girl are considering, but every time I hear “Born To Run,” the record is powerful enough to make me wish for an instant that I’d done more running toward the edge and less staying safe in the middle when I was younger.

The singles from Exile On Main Street were “Tumbling Dice” (No. 7) and “Happy” (No. 22) but they were hardly the only great tracks from this sprawling, bluesy and decadent album. Out of an absurd excess of riches, I guess I’d choose “Stop Breaking Down,” mostly because it’s one of the greatest covers ever of one of Robert Johnson’s sublime blues.

I shared “Comin’ Back To Me” from Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow here last week, and nothing had happened in the past week to change my belief that it’s the best song on that great album.

Now we come to the problem with true concept albums, at least those whose tracks tend to blend into one another: On further review of an earlier statement, only two tracks from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon can really stand alone as separate entities without sounding utterly incomplete: “Money” and “Time.” I’d earlier thought the same thing of “Us and Them,” but I have changed my mind. “Us and Them” might be the heart of the album – and a stunning song – but it works imperfectly as a stand-alone because it blends so seamlessly into “Any Colour You Like” and the album-ending duo of “Brain Damage/Eclipse.” “Money” has never done much for me, so we fall to “Time,” which works as a single track because of its alarm-clock beginning and its fade-out before the start of “The Great Gig in the Sky.” “Time” is also sublimely depressing in its assertion: “No one told you when to run. You missed the starting gun.”

I once selected Graham Nash’s sweet “Teach Your Children” – from Déjà Vu – as one of the ten songs I’d take to a desert island. It’s still a great song, probably the best thing Nash has written in a long career, but does it still hold up, when directly compared to the other songs on a great album? Well, I think so. Neil Young’s “Helpless” comes close, as does Stephen Stills’ “Carry On,” the album’s opener, and the group’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” But I’ll stick with “Teach Your Children,” quite possibly the only song I’d still choose from that desert island list of twenty years ago. (I need to find that list and share it here; it would be interesting.)

The Allman Brothers Band’s 1971 Fillmore East album – released in numerous configurations in the years since the advent of the CD – remains the group’s high point. By September of that year, Duane Allman was gone, and the group went into the second phase of its existence. It might be understandable to select one of the longer tracks, either the twenty-two minute “Whipping Post” or the thirteen-minute version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” But to me, the band’s brilliance shines most in the album’s first track, the group’s concise and superb version of Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.”

I listed “Summer Rain” from Realization as my favorite single of all time, so there’s no point in digging into the album any further.

That’s a pretty good list of single tracks:

“Come Together” by the Beatles

“King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” by The Band

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” by Bob Dylan

“Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen

“Stop Breaking Down” by the Rolling Stones

“Comin’ Back To Me” by the Jefferson Airplane

“Time” by Pink Floyd

“Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

“Statesboro Blues” by the Allman Brothers Band

“Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers

And pulled from that list, partly on a whim and partly because it’s possibly the least familiar track on the list (maybe tied with “Comin’ Back To Me”), “Stop Breaking Down” by the Rolling Stones is this week’s Saturday Single.

Rolling Stones – “Stop Breaking Down” [1972]

*Long-time readers will note the absence from my list of top singles the Association’s “Cherish.” To put it simply, I blew it while making my top three list at Groovy Fab. As I assemble this post for the archives, more than three years after writing it, “Cherish” remains at the top of my list of favorite singles, but my comment about “Back In The U.S.S.R.” still stands. Note added June 29, 2011.

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