Top Ten Songs About Trains

The train. One of the key components of pre-rock folk, country and blues music managed to carry over into the rock era as an inspiration and at turns cruel and sympathetic character.

The distance, and hence escape, offered by trains has piqued the creativity of songwriters ever since the first steam-powered beasts began rumbling across the American landscape.

There is also something crucial in the inevitability of the train’s journey — the locomotive snakes its way across mountains, through canyons, shaking off the snow and slicing through the rain. Masculine power meets the sleek feminine beauty of the cars — like the heavy guitar attack of rock and the playful, nimble melodies of the best pop music.

The car may be rock and roll’s preferred method of transport — it is, after all, the most efficient way to get your date to the movies, and then there’s that big handy back seat for after — but the train is rock music’s spiritual chariot.

1. “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” by Bob Dylan

In his foggy 1965 persona, Bob Dylan remembers the tradition of the rail through a spidery, post-LSD gaze.

Train imagery floats through this song, pulling us into the world of the narrator who leans on the window sill of his train car, watching the scenery pass and wondering if he will die on the next hill. A train follows a certain, pre-determined track… but that doesn’t mean they can’t go astray or get lost altogether, especially from the point of view of a fixed observer.

Great train-as-psychological-metaphor song.

2. “Nightrain” by Guns N’ Roses

This train is loaded to the gills, careening wildly out of control, and its riders are loving every minute of it.

Partially a tribute to cheap wine, and partially a tribute to any other substance that gets you out of your head, Guns ‘n’ Roses play and Axl sings as if their lives depend on it (as they do on all of Appetite For Destruction).

Loaded like a freight train
Flyin’ like an aeroplane
Feelin’ like a space brain
One. More. Time. Tonight!

The band’s life in L.A. around this time was as manic, unfollowable and insane as it could possibly have been, and this song is about the inebriation that had become a 24-hour reality for them. Fierce, unrelenting and genuinely scary. And, oddly, appealing…

3. “Little Black Train” by Woodie Guthrie

Woody’s version of this old folk song features his wavering baritone wrapping itself around a remarkable melody and a universal message (train as spiritual metaphor): death (the ‘little black train’) is coming for each of us, and you can not ‘beat the final ride’. Woody accompanies himself with a lightly picked acoustic guitar.

This song proves that the simpler the instrumentation and structure of a song, the better it can invoke an actual, simple emotion. Death will, of course, claim us all; remembering that helps one enjoy life to its fullest. That dynamic, the same one that makes life so much fun, is the same one that keeps this from being a sorrowful lament. It just is, that little black train. You know it and I know it, but let’s not forget it, the song says.

4. “Train In Vain” by The Clash

A spectacular song that was almost left off of London Calling but turned out to be a surprise hit.

An unexpected bouncy beat and neat three-note descending melody, repeated over and over, provide a funky (well, almost) foundation for some extremely loose, emotional vocals.

“Stand by me” the singer pleads, as the band jigs along behind him. This is one that just seemed to gel effortlessly for the band.

5. “Train Round The Bend” by The Velvet Underground

Lou Reed revels in the cacophony of this song, as it represents the diversity, noise and chaos of his beloved New York City.

The lyrics deal with a city boy who has spent some time in the country, “trying to be a farmer” without luck. He longs to be back in the city, and can’t stop fetishizing Gotham.

“Train Round The Bend” is equal parts humorous anecdote, impenetrable fable, and junkie babbling. “Nothing that I planted ever seemed to GROW” he recalls, frustrated at the whole exercise. The lesson? Stick with what you know!

6. “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne

One of the most famous ‘train’ songs in rock, as well as arguably Ozzy’s biggest 80s hit. This song is train-as-metaphor-for-insanity — not just riding this train but watching it gleefully (if helplessly) as it goes “off the rails”.

The album cut features Randy Rhodes on guitar, and it is a mass of creaking, heaving wallops of fleet-fingered electricity, all pinned on an excellent main riff. Ozzy’s inimitable voice reports on his state of mind at the time: he really was going crazy, it seemed; his lifestyle certainly was. (Ask Mötley Crüe for more information about their infamous tour with The Prince Of Fucking Darkness around this time.)

7. “Mrs. Train” by They Might Be Giants

Appearing only on an EP, this song is clever because its tempo slowly (very slowly) accelerates as the song progresses.

The change is linear, and the first time you hear it you may not realize it at first. But by the end, as the band struggles to keep up and the singer mashes his words together, you’ll be having as much fun as they are.

The lyrics are typical TMBG weirdness:

I don’t want to be the first in line to see Mrs. Train …
I’m not in any rush to head the line
And so the line has a missing head …
I don’t want to be the first in line to see the missing head

Only tangentially related to actual trains, this song is what happens when you try to write a pop song about trains without looking back to rock history to do so. Absolutely free, fun, and unique. Be annoyed by its catchiness, if you want, but try to have the same heart rate by the end that you did at the beginning. Especially if you’re singing along!

8. “Downbound Train” by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce sounds here like he is trying to shake off something very heavy, something oppressive that he just can’t wriggle away from. As his life falls apart and his woman leaves him (with the fist-in-the-gut bluntness of her ‘Dear John’ explanation: “We had it once / We ain’t got it no more”) he likens his situation to that of a downbound train.

The difficulties and challenges of ‘regular’ (i.e., non-rock star) people has always been Bruce Springsteen’s bread and butter and raison d’être. Here he borrows the title of a Chuck Berry song to tell a harrowingly simple and direct tale of a man in crisis. This song is, again, train as dark inevitability.

9. “Subway To Venus” by Red Hot Chili Peppers

A subway counts as a train, right?

The Chili Peppers are as furious and funky as they ever were on this song from the first album they made after guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose and forever altered the chemistry of the band.

There is no introspection here, and no time or room to take a rest: the band is too fast and they are jumping around too much, so watch out! Listening to this may confuse your body — do you play air guitar while thrashing your head, or do you pogo around and make Anthony Keidis-style hand gestures with crazed, wide eyes?

How fitting that the only song on this list that rides the train to outer space should be… an underground subway. It’s all about fun on the “Subway To Venus”.

10. “Slow Train” by Bob Dylan

Having ridden an unbelievable wave of activity and notoriety in the 60s, then somehow matched it in the 70s (though the industry was bigger and the drugs were harder by then), Dylan burned himself out by 1978 and found himself seeking solace in Jesus.

Much has been written about this controversial period of his life, but from it came an undeniably great album. Its title song is a gentle warning; its insistency is like the click click click of a moving rain itself: Jesus is coming back, might as well get your things in order. Whoever you are.

This song has a dark air about it, reflecting not only the self-assurance of the lyrics and message but, inadvertently, the heavy atmosphere of psychic exhaustion that generally flowed from the album’s other tracks. Such was Bob’s state of mind after the excesses and length of the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Pristine production and impassioned performance add up to one of Bob’s best albums and one of his most envelopingly dark yet comforting songs.

The All-Time Worst Beatles Songs

They deserve their legendary status. They were as good as their strongest supporters will tell you — often better, in fact. Their existence seems so inevitable now, so many years later, with every note and every “Yeah!” of every song still coursing through the veins of millions around the world. The Beatles appealed to every type of person in every place, and their unbelievable music is as fresh now as it was when it was new.

How did they create music so accomplished, and unrestrictive, and so consistently dynamic amidst the absolutely unknowable (to us non-Beatles) hurricane that was Beatlemania and the massive, incessant scrutiny that went with it? They couldn’t even follow the example of any former huge pop group stars with that level of fame because there weren’t any. That they could tune all that out and focus on the task at hand in the studio deserves as much credit as the music itself.

But they didn’t always get it right, and they weren’t always flush with new ideas when it came time to hit the Record button at Abbey Road Studios. They were masterful editors, but not perfect. Lots of dross was jettisoned as album sequences were decided and song takes chosen from — there will be plenty of discarded ideas when experimenting as heavily as the Beatles did, after all — but some clunkers remain on those albums. Some half-realized ideas, or poor ideas to begin with, or faithful documents of situations that turned out to be unpleasant, remain.

These less-than-stellar tracks benefit from their placement beside the other 98% of the catalog; rather than being weakest links, the Beatles’ weakest links are strengthened by the coattails of the classics.

This is a list of Beatles tracks that don’t rise to the level one might expect. Only originally released tracks are included — studio run-throughs, live takes and stuff left on the cutting room floor don’t count, so for that reason (and the fact that I like “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”) the Anthologies are excluded, as are the BBC sessions. Also, the famous track “Revolution IX” isn’t on here because it is so unusual, and like the self-consciously ridiculous “Good Night” that follows it, it may not be the most pleasant to listen to but I wouldn’t have The White Album any other way.

1. “Revolution 1” by The Beatles

The fast, fuzzed-out single version of this John Lennon song is one of the greatest things the Beatles ever recorded, even if it was at the behest of the record company, who thought this take was too slow and boring.

Chalk one up for the corporation: they were right. The White Album take of “Revolution” that opened side 4 of the original vinyl was a real downer compared to the single. If it were another song, the tempo, instrumentation, and entire laid-back but solidly electric vibe of this song would be fine, maybe even great; but it will inevitably be compared to its other version, and will invariably lose.

John attempted a Meaningful Grandeur with this song, in its simple chord structure (whose twist, the descending “ain’t gonna make it with anyone a-ny-hoooow” part, gives goosebumps in the sped-up tempo of the ‘other’ version) and its overtly political lyrics. And there is a certain elegance to the White Album version. But being surrounded by such deathless classics as George’s “Long, Long, Long” and “Savoy Truffle”, and John’s own “Cry Baby Cry”, “Revolution I” is a pain in the ass.

2. “Here, There And Everywhere” by The Beatles

It would be easy, and unfair, to simply populate this list with Paul’s fluffier Beatles moments (though the temptation is strong). So I’ve tried to choose some carefully, the worst offenders.

Alongside the stunning, stinging LSD popcraft of the rest of the Beatles’ best album, “Here, There and Everywhere” stands as the greatest argument for peer pressure of all. At the time, Paul was the lone Beatle not to have taken LSD, and as he watched his friends coming up with “Love You To” and “She Said, She Said”, surely he must have felt left out.

Especially when one of his major contributions to Revolver was this schmaltzy, pointless cup of sugar. Paul’s reputation for such perfectly-crafted garbage is entirely deserved; it’s even stranger when one realizes that that same Beatle was responsible for Sgt. Pepper, the Abbey Road medley, “Helter Skelter” — and, from the same album as this track, the amazing “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One”.

Paul indeed succumbed to the dark side, dosing himself soon after this album was released and embarking on a (small-scale, all things considered) drug-led trip around the Summer of Love and beyond. He never lost his tendency to revert to string-laden boredom, though. How odd that he took such legendary exception to Phil Spector’s adding strings and harp to Let It Be’s “The Long And Winding Road” (I never got that myself — Paul, of all people).

When I was a kid and listened to this song, I kept expecting the opening lines to be:

To lead a better life
I need a better wife!

An opportunity missed. This song is merely an unwanted breather between the gold nuggets on the rest of Revolver.

3. “This Boy (Ringo’s Theme)” by The Beatles

This is an exercise in three-part harmony, and in that it is good. But stupid lyrics (even for early Beatles) and a boring, predictable musical structure give this song a status of “pleasant but uninspiring”.

Like “Act Naturally”, this track ended up being a somewhat cynical ploy to hype Ringo Starr’s “lovable loser” persona, which apparently came in large part from his naturally (if misleadingly) “sad” facial expression. But this was in name only; the song was not written for nor sung by the drummer, only the parenthetical mention of his name on the album tied it to him.

The song’s best part, the soaring middle section sung convincingly by John, almost saves the track. But, alas, it too feels somehow too comfortable, too expected. Interesting, but ultimately Beatles-by-numbers.

4. “Within You Without You” by The Beatles

This song gives Sgt. Pepper a lot of its scope, no doubt. The album has rockers and lush ballads, sunny psych-pop and hard rock, and this track featuring a feast of Indian instruments adds an exotic, unusual dimension to the proceedings.

But it pales considerably next to the far more successful “Love You To” and “The Inner Light”, George’s other Beatles-era forays into real Indian music (“Norwegian Wood” was a sitar guest-starring with the Beatles, not an Indian song per se). Somehow, “Within You, Without You”‘s hippie musings (which actually have held up extremely well, even after the party) and gentle, oozing melodies belong on another band’s album. It’s excellent, in its way, but it’s not for the Beatles.

George would later say that his LSD intake was so great in the latter half of ’67 that he didn’t remember creating Magical Mystery Tour; this song marks the beginning of this disassociation. He quickly returned from the beyond, putting his experiences in perspective and finding his muse again, but here he is searching, striking out boldly but somehow not finding himself. Not yet, not here.

5. “Act Naturally” by The Beatles

I know Ringo had to have at least one song per LP. I even support the idea. His voice is warm, his humor is always evident, and he is impossible to dislike.

But this cover of a country song just falls flat. Ringo was (and is) a true blue country & western fan, and his choice of song for the Help! LP was almost certainly from the heart.

Ringo sings admirably here, and the band chugs along lamely but supportively. The lyrics, a navel-gazing set of self-recriminations that the singer is wallowing in, rather than lamenting, are typical country fare; here, they seem to be a crass exercise in furthering Ringo’s “lovable loser” persona, self-promotion that the Beatles never seemed at all interested in otherwise.

The Beatles wrote better stuff for Ringo; Ringo would write better stuff for himself before the breakup (the much more successful C&W; “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Octopus’s Garden”) but “Act Naturally” was a poor idea. The Beatles and their drummer learned their lesson, if not immediately (see “What Goes On”).

6. “Baby You’re A Rich Man” by The Beatles

This track is not unlistenable, and can sometimes be quite enjoyable. But it never escapes being monotonous and overly noisy. Headache-inducing, in the worst of times.

As the 1966-7 Year of Discovery wore on, everything got excessive. The drugs, the pursuit of newness at the expense of basic rationality, most of the music — even the Beatles started to lose their way, if only slightly.

Magical Mystery Tour was maybe not the best project the group could have embarked upon, but amid the success of Sgt. Pepper, the death of Brian Epstein, and the trips to India to find themselves™, even the Beatles appeared suddenly rudderless.

The album that accompanied the TV special of the same name had some of the Beatles’ best tracks — the pre-Pepper single “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”, “I Am The Walrus” — as well as some pleasant psychedelic moments (the group-composed jam “Flying”, George’s swirling, dense “Blue Jay Way”).

But John Lennon’s “Baby You’re A Rich Man” was a monotony of shouting rather than singing; repetition rather than raga; promise rather than profundity. John’s lyrics, where they do diverge from the main themes of “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” and the song’s title, are actually excellent.

How often have you been there?
(Often enough to know)
What did you see when you were there?
(Nothing that doesn’t show)

But one can’t shake the heavy feeling that these lyrics don’t relate to anything, aren’t from the inspired part of the composer’s brain but rather the rote, experienced part. Sometimes, being one of the beautiful people means coasting on your laurels. “Baby You’re A Rich Man” is indulgent and annoying.

7. “Rocky Raccoon” by The Beatles

The sprawling, genre-hopping White Album is thrilling because of its array of musical styles, not in spite of it. Paul’s contributions were about the strongest here of any Beatles album.

But this irritating, faux-everything acoustic “Americana” ballad just reeks of insincerity. Any American kid could feel the real lure of cowboy life more deeply than Paul did on this unconvincing tale of a love triangle in the “Black Mountain Hills of Dakota”, a phrase that doesn’t even make any geographical sense and throws up red flags even before the song gets underway proper.

I’m all for letting artists slide in the name of poetic license, and I have no problem with genre exercises and musical exploration, but “Rocky Raccoon” is oddly offensive for its pursuit of style over substance, particularly as it fails in its style. Freddie Blassie’s 80s novelty song “Pencil-Necked Geek” achieved a more believable cowboy vibe, for God’s sake.

I used to not mind this song at all, and maybe even like it, but as time has gone on I’ve soured on it considerably. The alternate take on Anthology 3 made it even worse, exposing further facets of the inauthentic guise Paul struggled to adopt on this most aggravating of tracks.

8. “What Goes On” by The Beatles

Well, it’s quite a bit better than Ringo’s take on “Act Naturally”, but this tedious track from the otherwise untouchable Rubber Soul shows that the Beatles still didn’t have their heart in this style of music. The only Beatles track credited to Lennon/McCartney/Starkey, this Ringo vehicle is the very definition of unfinished.

Too-long phrases (“teeeeeeeearin’ me apart”, just get on with it!) sit uncomfortably beside very able but lifeless harmonizing from the more gifted singers in the group. The guitar licks are excellent, and their chirpy staccato twang is by far the best thing about “What Goes On”; other than that bright point, though, this is the embarrassed cousin of the album’s other tracks. Some Beatles songs failed because they dared to try for the sun, but this one didn’t accompany Icarus on his trip; it didn’t even get off the couch.

9. “Yes It Is” by The Beatles

Very similar to “This Boy”, both in musical style, tempo, and reason for being on this list, “Yes It Is” at least features better lyrics than poor Ringo’s boring ‘theme’. A despairing lament about the sadness the singer feels upon seeing a red sweater, which reminds him of what his ex-girlfriend was wearing when she left, “Yes It Is” features great volume-pedal guitar accents.

But the song appears to simply be an excuse for said six-string accents; without them, this would be exceedingly boring. Like the Beatles’ experience as a rock band in the clubs of Hamburg gave them a basic skill set that carried them effortlessly throughout their careers, their best songs were excellent even without gimmicky instrumentation — the Beatles’ versions were fantastic, but the songs themselves would be great sung by any ol’ person who could play an acoustic guitar. Not so “Yes It Is”.

The Beatles and George Martin usually knew full well when they were adding an interesting audio dimension to a good song, and when they were trying to polish a turd, and usually chose wisely. “Yes It Is” sort of sits on the threshold of those two approaches, and because its underlying structure is dull, the finished product remains similarly dull. Fun to revisit occasionally, but not likely to make the cut when I’m listening to the Beatles on shuffle in iTunes.

10. “Only A Northern Song” by The Beatles

More musical excess from George. Hilarious lyrics aside (even better on the Anthology outtake), “Only A Northern Song” drags on way too long, a crowded, clanging dirge without a hook or even any scenery to break up the trip. For a band and musician that helped usher in the British style of psychedelia, the Beatles and George Harrison sure weren’t very good at it anymore by 1968.

Having helped pioneer feedback, tape loops, backwards guitar, and a host of other studio innovations, here George takes all the best ideas of the preceeding two years and turns them inside-out, ruining nearly every one of them in the process, applying them haphazardly on a track that doesn’t pass the acoustic-guitar test.

Random tape loops can be a great thing, as they were on “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”; here they sound awful. Curious bridges and obtuse middle eights and jarring changes in structures and styles can work within a single track, as they did on “A Day In The Life” and “Penny Lane”; here you just want it all to end. If you’re going to be goofy, at least enjoy it, as on “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”.

And what about the lyrics? They defend the song’s right to be “out of key” with chords “going wrong” and the band’s right to be “not quite right”. Some kind of metaphysical description of proceedings that may be impressive from a philosophical point of view, but all those attributes are indeed applicable to this song, and not in a good, enjoyable way.

At first not so bad, halfway through “Only A Northern Song” you just want the damn thing to go away.

Counter-List: Ten more Beatles songs you love to hate

Or hate to love… Perhaps more intented to complement Mr Morrow’s list, to which I shall make reference in due course: the definition of naffness is, after all, a very personal matter.

No Beatle exempted, evaluating the length of their career, and limiting myself to just one cover version (not an easy task in itself), here you have them — the unfabbest of The Fabs. With the caveat, of course, that I still cherish them every bit as much as their more praiseworthy contemporaries.

1. “Revolution 9″ by The Beatles

Yestermorrow — and many others — may defend this on the grounds of its daring experimentalism, but that don’t alter the fact that it’s an irritating piece of pointless pretentiousness (unless the point was to see just how far John Lennon could wedge his head up his own back passage).” #1″ is counted ‘in’, however, precisely for being one of the most truesy bluesy things the band actually released -even if it did lack a little polish.

Paul was miffed that John didn’t involve him, when he’d been the first to get interested in the whole ‘avant-garde’ approach. God forbid, he’s currently threatening to unleash his own long-lost example, “Carnival Of Light”, on us! You’d’ve thought that George and Ringo could have at least objected, but they probably couldn’t be bothered — and it’s most likely what George Martin had at the front of his mind when he reflected that maybe the double LP should have been limited to being “possibly their very finest single album”.

Random snippets of radio programmes and conversations, snatches of music and the droning repetition of a studio engineer announcing Take “Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine” ain’t rock nor pop nor nothing else the Beatles were about. It’s not even really that clever, compared to their incorporation of such techniques into classics lke “Walrus”, “Fields” or “TNK”: even “Baby You’re A Rich Man”, come to that. Lennon could’ve had the good grace to save it for Two Virgins or something.

A hell of a bum trip to lay on your fans, especially having probably convinced them to turn on in the first place!

2. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by The Beatles

What was it — 187 takes — and for what?!! Oh bloody hell, oh blah-di-blah, what a bloody waste of time and effort…

I quite liked the Marmalade version on the radio when I was five or six — what else can you expect of an innocent yong bairn? But to consider that this weightless waffle was put out by one of the greatest powers in popular music, at one of their peaks of power, is little short of scandalous. Everyone knows that Macca always wanted to appeal to everyone at the same time, but who he was hoping to appeal to with this is anybody’s guess. While “Rocky Raccoon” at least had something of a tale to tell, if Des and Mol had actually existed, I’m quite sure they’d’ve topped themselves over being celebrated in such trite manner.

Paul recalls that he thought it up meandering down a mountain track in Rikishesh. Shame he didn’t find a stone to leave it under. “An’ if you want some fun,” go look somewhere else.

3. “Till There Was You” by The Beatles

The cover. The beginning of Macca’s long and winding trail of mush. “Granny shit”, John called the genre. Rock ‘n’ roll was invented to alienate your parents, and the Pop which the Beatles were creating was equally incomprehensible to them.

And then there’s this: which even your maiden great aunt would coo over. It seems incredible that they got away with playing it in the Hamburg clubs, and its inclusion on the Decca demo could well explain its rejection. There were, of course, other early inklings of this disturbing tendency of Paul’s: though usually with something to redeem them. “A Taste of Honey”, for example, is saved by his double-tracked vocal, and “P.S. I Love You” can be pardonned as an apprenticeship piece.

This, on the other hand, simply stinks. How he ever persuaded to George to play that plinkety-twee solo remains a mystery as inexplicable as the dawn of the universe. Jeez, he even warbles through the “music and wonderful roses.”

Crooner fodder like this signalled a direct line to “Scrambled Eggs” and “Here, There and Everywhere” in McCartney’s quest to be the great all-round entertainer. The latter is reprieved from damnation, however, by Lennon’s repeated affirmation of it being his favourite Paul track. And I don’t think he was taking the piss…

4. “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” by The Beatles

“Come, give me your hand” — being as close you can get to ‘I wanna hold it’ in German. The band was forced to record this, along with the equally ludicrous “Sie Liebt Dicht” for release as a single in Deutschland in early ’64. It was thought that the mania growing around the group would not extend there if they didn’t sing in the vernacular (or at least an over-syllabled, phoetically-scripted approximation). Mein Gott!

It was the sole time in their career that they were prepared to screw ‘professionalism’, and simply didn’t show up at the studios in Paris. George Martin had to storm into the hotel suite like an angry truant officer and pack them into a taxi with a flea circus in their ears in order to get the job done.

Even he sheepishly confessed later that it really hadn’t been worth it.

5. “Blue Jay Way” by The Beatles

Other listers may use the word ‘dense’ as reason for this song’s exemption from ‘worst’ status: I use the same adjective to justify its inclusion. Like the fogbank recounted in thge tale, it’s inaccessible and nigh on impossible to get through.

‘Based on actual events’, this is a clear indication that most anecdotes do benefit from a little embellishment. “Within You, Without You” remains Pepper’s centrepiece, as a supreme symbol of the times which spawned it, but here without the prop of his Eastern philosophy, Harrison seems as lost as his friends in LA. He had the excuse of giving the finger to Northern Songs if he was just having a laugh with “Only a…”

As “Blue Jay Way” drones on and on, you find yourself applying the words of the refrain to the song as a whole:

“Please don’t be long, or I will be asleep…”

6. “Don’t Pass Me By” by The Beatles

Poor old Ringo had evidently been overindoctrinated by the country plod of “Honey Don’t”, “Act Naturally” and “What Goes On” when he finally (de)composed his first song; written, as John astutely observed, “in a fit of lethargy.”

“Banging about on the piano” after his early return from India, maybe the fact that he only stayed for half of the trip explains why he only managed to come up with half a song. Sorry man, “You were in a car crash and you lost your hair” doesn’t come over surreal: just daft. Pretty much like that wheedling fiddle behind it. Never the most ‘natural’ singer in the world, he didn’t even bother trying on this one.

It’s tempting to write the man off totally as even the Beatles’ fourth composer and also include “Octopus’s Garden” on the list. The latter is saved though by the undeniable avuncularity which would ultimately lead to “Thomas The Tank Engine” and the bubbly noises over the solo!

7. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by The Beatles

Maximising his controlling role in the group amidst the augmenting apathy, Paul had this locked in his sights as their next single. It is unique in The Beatles’ canon in being the only track which all three of the others have slagged off publicly. They all had a point, whether you’re repelled by its triteness (like John), its “fruity” negativity (George), or — as Ringo put it — just being another of those overindulgent wastes of time and tape which “went on fer fuckin’ weeks.” Don’t s’pose he was overly-chuffed at having to clonk the specially imported blacksmith’s anvil, either.

So busy was he trying to jolly it all along, Macca seemed to remain blissfully unaware of the urge everyone else must’ve been feeling to grab Silver Hammers of their own. They could have claimed ‘self defence’, I’m certain. Tacky Vaudeville backing, with an incongruous overdubbed Moog synth meandering in and out. A stupid story with one of the most predictible surprise endings ever contrived.

Any barrister would have to concur with Max’s cudgelled judge; there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for this type of cruelty and abuse. Guilty, guilty, GUILTY!

8. “What You’re Doing” by The Beatles

By the release of Beatles For Sale, the band were already firmly established as the most important act in history; with Lennon/McCartney being cited as the greatest songwriters in existence. Their relentless re-invention of what constituted Pop Music was always notable for their negation to do the same thing twice, even at the height of Beatlemania. Except, that is, this time.

“What Youre Doing” is a clear re-hash of the infinitely superior “Every Little Thing”. The timpani and/or kick-drum gimmick was a typically interesting and innovative piece of experimentation on the earlier track: here, it simply drags. And, as if hoping to dissimulate the auto-plagiarism, so many ‘dynamic’ twists are employed that the song just kinda loses itself. Much has been made of Paul’s rhyme-scheme but, like the overly-syncopated beat, it comes across awkward and self-conscious. And, though more up-tempo, the harmony tricks are as every bit as cloying as those employed on “This Boy” or “Yes It Is”.

As a giveaway to Billy J Kramer, or even Freddie and the Dreamers it may have been acceptable, but not on a Beatles album.

9. “Dig It” by The Beatles

Forty-nine seconds does not comprise a song: even if — or especially if — the writing credit reads Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starkey. It’s nothing more than a snippet from a series of impro sessions with Billy Preston, when it was becoming painfully evident that the band weren’t going to ‘Get Back’, but were [more than ready to ‘Let It Be’.

The ‘lyric’ in its entirity:

Like a rolling stone, like a rolling stone
Like the FBI and the CIA
And the BBC, B.B. King and Doris Day
Matt Busby — dig it, dig it dig it

Lennon manages to deliver it with a great raw passion and the backing’s pretty raunchy too. But it just ain’t a song: you’re never going to find yourself whistling this at the bus stop! Dig out “Dig It” as part of the jam(s) on the plethora of bootleg releases to put it into a more fitting context.

10. “Your Mother Should Know” by The Beatles

“Sing it again” and again and again… Same old ‘granny shit’ all over again. Of course, having the chance to direct an entire schmaltzy dance routine for it must have had Paul rubbing his hands with even more zeal than ever. Sounding more or less exactly like “a song that was a hit before your mother was born” even back then, now, a couple of generations on, any notion of ‘retro-charm’ has long-since expired. It really highlights just how haphazard the whole Mystery Tour project was.

Predictably, its very existence was the result of hoursworths of takes and retakes overdubs and remixes. Again, you’re left wondering if they truly had nothing else which they could’ve used the time and effort for. Brian Epstein made his final visit to the band during one of the sessions. No comment. Rather than “lift up your heart”, contemporary listeners must have been more inclined to lift up the turtable arm.

A Masterful ‘Mister’ List

Considering that “Mister [abbr Mr(.), pl Messrs(.)]” is rightly a title, it’s only right that the Misters on this list are also titles: so passing lyrical references to “some silicone sister with her manager’s mister” or bosses called “Mr McGee” — or even “Dylan’s Mr Jones” — are therefore inadmissible.

The title (like the co-derived “Master”) has etymological roots in Old English, Old French and Latin alike, originally coming from the word “most”; as in ‘most powerful’, ‘most influential’, ‘most skilful’, ‘most respected’, etc. These qualities are also essential criteria for a song’s selection.

A number of very worthy gentlemen are conspicuous by their absence. I could’ve happily run to a Top 15: it’ll be interesting to see if their illustrious names crop up in ‘comments’. Nevertheless, it’s been nice to write up a few artists who haven’t been touched on the site (yet), revisit some particular faves — and to poke a couple of reminders in Mr Admin’s general direction. Oh, and it’s a good opportunity to wish everyone a splendid 2009.

As much as an order of merit, I think it’s a great little playlist. Enjoy!

1. “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan

Mr Dylan’s dense, surrealistic story-song takes the top spot: not only for his majestic original (and those mesmerizing contemporary live takes), but on account of “Mr T’s” wide and enduring influence. Many are they who have fallen under his dancing spell and gone following him: to infinity and beyond.

It may be overstating the case to cite the dream-weaving percussionist as the sole reason for the “jingle-jangle morning” which was the dawning of The Byrds’ career — but not much! The acid-test for a truly great song is how it comes out covered in different styles. With this one, apart from unleashing McGuinn’s Rickenbacker on the world, you get Judy ‘Blue Eyes’ Collins and Melanie ‘Dippie Hippie’ Safka taking different slants on the definition of Folk; while William ‘Star Trek’ Shatner strove “to boldly go” where musical rationality had never gone before. There have been versions in Russian, Turkish and Japanese, all of which are infinitely more intelligible than the good Capt Kirk’s — though nowhere near as entertaining. It has to be heard to be believed and you probably still won’t believe it even when you’ve heard it:

I wouldn’t pay it any mind,
It’s just a shadow you’re seeing
That he’s chasing…

Mr Tambo has left more than just “vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme” in the annals of literature, also. Talking of “Acid Tests”, Tom Wolfe’s research notes for The Electric Kool-Aid investigation of The Merry Pranksters cite the character (and his creator) repeatedly, often blurring their edges. Hunter S Thompson, chronicler of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which was dedicated to Dylan), and another great blurrer of edges, had the song played at his funeral as his ashes were shot out of a cannon, “far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow”.

Beatles confidante Neil Aspinall also chose it for his send-off; a somewhat less extravagant affair — but played, nonetheless, by Pete Townshend.

2. “Mr Big” by Free, from the album Fire and Water, 1970

Not just ‘Big’, bloody enormous — and an enormous omission from the music-nerds archives, it must be commented.

(The) Free were amongst the best and most influential of the host of great British groups of their time. And though their full potential was never fully realized; folding, reforming and finally forced apart defiinitively in ’73, largely on account of guitarist Paul Kossoff’s heroin-induced unreliability, their legacy more than stands the test of time. Kossoff never lived to see it, though: he OD’d just two years later.

This track is a monumental example of their talent, as is the LP which spawned it (their third). With a ballsy assuredness forged by two years of almost incessant gigging, “Mr Big” is a perfectly poised package of pure cool power. Co-written by all four members of the band, their fusion of sounds also make it one of their most outstanding achievements. ‘Supergroups’ may take the title as their name, and even try the song — but some period pieces are better left unpolished.

Simon Kirke’s characteristically laidback timekeeping and flashing embellishments leave Koss to play in, out, off and around Andy Fraser’s chunky-funky basslines. Their fusion is impeccable throughout, but the shared solo is the icing on the cake. And last but not least, Paul Rodgers — ‘The Voice’ still in its prime. No pissing around, let’s get down to the grain:

So Mr. Big*
You’d better watch out*
When only you a-hang around me*

* Insert grunts/interjections of your choice

3. “Mr. Skin” by Spirit

On account of his celebrated shaved pate, “Mr Skin” is the alias of Spirit’s drummer — and Randy California’s stepfather — Ed Cassidy.
“Mr Skin, we know where you’ve bin” recounts his reputed weakness for the odd post-gig groupie or three. Offering a choice of “pain or sudden pleasure”, it can only be assumed that his marriage to Mrs Wolfe was of the ‘open’ kind.

David Blumberg’s saucy horn arrangements are outstanding, as elsewhere among the wonderful weirdness that makes up Sardonicus. David Briggs’ production is also spot-on. Actually written by singer/percussionist Jay Ferguson, who left the band soon after the album’s release (along with bassist Mark Andes), the song was released as a single in the States three years later. One of them weird rock ‘n’ roll things, I guess. Doesn’t really matter: Randy and Ed were always the true spirit of Spirit.

They played it when me and Stevie finally got to see ’em (Bristol ’88). We ended up chatting with Randy in the bar afterwards — a beautiful down-to-earth guy, for all his onstage extravagance — rest his soul. Yet, when Ed the Head came hunting for his errant stepson (having only had time for a quickie at most, it should be pointed out) neither of us had the nerve to approach him!

Great band — and a great song about a true lock legend: 85 years young, and still in touch with the world — and very probably still chasing the girlies!

4. “Mr Pitiful” by Otis Redding

Meticulously co-constructed with Steve ‘The Colonel’ Cropper in 1964, “Mr Pitiful” provided Otis with his first top-ten hit, en route to the megastar status which he would tragically enjoy for so short a time. The song appears on the cumbersomely entitled The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads, but — as with most of his material — it’s even better checked out live (preferably with visuals). Everything always under control: just try not to be wowed by the skin-tight backing, those hermetic horns, that voice! The Commitments gave it a good shot, but there was only one Otis.

I wanna sing this song with you
An’ I wanna sing this song to everyone
‘Cos I want them to know what I’m talkin’ about…

As much as any of the old blues doods, or Chuck or Ray or Little Richard, Otis Redding was an essential part of the cross-fertilisation of ‘black’ and ‘white’ music(s) which helped to give rock, pop, soul — whatever — its full psychedelic spectrum. The Beatles and The Stones rated him alongside god (like just about anyone else you could care to name from the period), and he was one of the first to show that the “Respect” was mutual, putting his inimitable seal of endorsement onto tracks like “Satisfaction” and “Day Tripper”. Maybe I’ll never crit a whole album, but boy oh boy did the man sing some songs! Top Ten, anyone?

5. “Mr Soul” by Buffalo Springfield, from Buffalo Springfield Again, 1967

From ‘Mister Soul’ to “Mr Soul”. Neil Young’s lysergicized retake of “Satisfaction” was a pretty minor hit at the time, rather than “the event of the season”. It was, however, a surefire indication that all was not peace ‘n’ love in the Buffalo herd that celebrated summer, Steve Stills not even attending the sessions. “Down on a frown,” Neil didn’t play on any of the Stills stuff either, but I digress.

The track opened their second LP in any case. The glorious muddle of guitar sounds and breathlessly questioning lyrics are an early example of classic NY for years — decades — to come. (Ritchie Furay’s cracking backing also warrants a mention here). Mr Young also contrived to use it at the close the album: the first couple of lines, mixed out of the screams of a Beatles show crowd, introduce “Expecting To Fly”. The song is his most re-recorded composition, including the vocoder version on Trans and various live interpretations.

Is it strange I should change?
I don’t know, why don’t you ask her?

6. “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” by The Beatles

The most meritorious “Mister” from The Beatles’ selection. There’s not enough “Mustard”, “Postman” belongs more properly to The Marvelettes, “Moonlight” could be on someone’s ‘worst’ list…

Albeit unintentionally, “Mr Kite” fitted the original but quickly-dropped ‘acid-retro’ concept of Pepper to perfection, and is one of the most adventurous escapades on ‘the great experimental album’. Having lifted the lyric virtually word for word from a Victorian poster, Lennon challenged George Martin to give him “the smell of the sawdust” for the horse-waltz.

Five sessions later, having tried and rejected loops and splices of all shapes and sizes, Martin went for the ultimate experiment. He had engineer Geoff Emerick chop up all the tape segments with a big pair of scissors, toss ’em into the air and stick ’em back together at random.

Like Messrs K and H, their production was second to none. “A splendid time is guaranteed for all!”

7. “Mr. Brown” by Bob Marley

Who-oo-oo-oo is Mr Brown?
Mr Brown is a clown who rides through town in a coffin…

The reaper himself, voodoo hoodoo, or just some bad-news weirdo? No one seem to know: him come an’ him go, “controlled by remote”, causin’ “botheration.” And, by supernatural means or otherwise, him sneak his way onto pretty well all of the abundant early Marley compilations in circulation.

Recorded on the Wailers’ home island and produced by Scratch Perry, before moving to Chris Blackwell’s London Island, these primitive recordings have a character all their own. You can almost feel the Jamaican sunshine and smell the ganja filtering from your speakers.

Bob meanders the vocal (replete with spooky noises) through a wonderfully fat ‘n’ farty organ riff — and dig the tinkling piano which appears and disappears along with the protagonist. A great vibe, the whole band “skankin’ as if dey had never known the one dey call Mr Brown.”

8. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” by Traffic

Messrs Winwood, Capaldi, Wood and Mason were responsible for some of the most innovative music to come out of England at the end of the sixties, and never were they more experimental than on their debut album. With its mishmash of musical styles, from hippie pop to rock to blues (taking in a little jazz, folk and soul along the way) and an instrument list to challenge the Sergeant, it’s an oft-overlooked classic of the same vintage.

The almost-title track is perhaps one of its lesser-known treats, blending together pretty much all the elements, reputedly during a 1am session. Steve Winwood’s hauntingly spaced-out plea that “Dear Mr Fantasy, play us a toon” brings in a laidback rock ‘n’ roll blues, also referenced in the lyric. The multi-textured intensity builds with masterful restraint (god how I love that harmonica sound!).

Then it just goes completely, magnificently mental for the last minute and a half or so; every man for himself, but never losing anyone else. You can find some great live clips elsewhere in cyberspace: Stevie solo, as well as with Traffic. Self-professed devotees Stills and Nash have also recorded a blinding version.

9. “Dancing With Mr. D.” by The Rolling Stones

We’ll stay with the blues, albeit of a distinctly darker shade. What else could you expect for a graveyard heelkick with Old Nick in person? As if Their Satanic Majesties’ previously stated “Sympathy” hadn’t got the band into enough hot water, this one didn’t get ’em a lot of airplay in the Bible Belt either. But what would they’ve cared!

A Raunchy Richards Riff keeps it grindin’ along (well, it’s kinda hard to imagine ol’ Lucifer going for mambo, innit?) Jagger’s at his cheesiest, sleaziest best; Mick Taylor slides his soul away; there’s a mountain of percussion to back up Charlie: and there’s Hopkins and Preston on keyboards…

Slick and sexy, it’s a perfect bridge from the far rawer Exile sound to their increasingly sophisticated subsequent productions. Or simply the dawn of a new golden age of the band’s diabolic decadence.

Dare you not to dance!

10. “Mr. Cab Driver” by Lenny Kravitz

Written in response to a redneck taxi-man who refused to pick him up on account of his colour, “Mr Cab Driver” maybe also takes a potshot at the record execs who’d been giving Kravitz much the same treatment round the same time, insisting he was neither ‘white enough’ nor ‘black enough’ to be marketable. Having established himself, quite nicely thank-you, with the Let Love Rule LP, he was certainly justified in including his famous retort: “Fuck you, I’m a survivor!” This was the third single from the album, cleaned up for radio and the cool black+white promo vid with a ‘beep-beep’ taxi horn.

Lenny gets his point across with humour and panache — and more than a passing nod to fellow New-Yorker Lou Reed. It bounces along in a funky/rocky kinda way, and there’s a rap-like feistiness to the delivery: though he never resorts to the menace of Molotovs or machine guns. No point really: everyone knows that in the long run, “Mister Cab Driver” — like every other class of bigot — ain’t “never gonna win…”

Alright, John?

The name of John, together with its diminutive form of Johnny (or Johnnie), may have gone a little out of style in recent years; but historically it has been one of most popularly given male monickers. Little wonder, then, that it has cropped up so frequently in the annals of popular music from the earliest of times.

Folk and Country traditions frequently employed ‘John’ as as an incarnation of ‘Everyman’: an archetypal representation of the human condition, embodying all of its triumphs and temptations, doubts and despairs. It’s been borne by men from all social classes, and all walks of life, including 23 Popes, 4 US Presidents and 2 British Prime Ministers (though only one King — and a bad one at that!). The title originally derives from the Hebrew ‘Yochanan’, meaning ‘God is gracious’, which maybe explains why Americans use it to refer to the toilet…

In London, the name is a commonly-used synonym for ‘mate’, or ‘pal’ — as exemplified in Alexei Sale’s excruciatingly irritating “‘Ello John, Got A New Motor?” And, speaking of annoying, “Jilted John” also deserved to be (and has been) stood up! The Piglets’ 1971 hit “Johnny Reggae” has been deleted on account of its creator, Jonathan King, turning out to be such a truly repugnant swine.

A worthier candidate for inclusion would’ve been Springsteen’s “Johnny 99”, from Nebraska. Sorry Boss, but the list only allows for ten songs! Similarly, much as I dig “Johnny’s Garden”, Manassas have also been forced to give ground: while Van Morrison’s “John Donne” went and ‘raved off’. And, never wishing to repeat myself, “John and Yoko” and “Johnny Too Bad” have been duly omitted, too. I don’t like repeating myself, you see. The other short-form ‘Jack’, also a name in its own right, is counted out the grounds that it could doubtless generate a list of its own.

John(ny) as part of the song’s title is an essential criterion for inclusion: therefore, inter-lyrical allusions to him are inadmissable, regardless of whether he be the “Leader of the Pack,” an underground medicine-mixer, a former dockworker, or simply messing about with Sally up the alley.

So here you have ’em: my top ten Johns — alright?!!

1. “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry

The indisputable King John of Rock, with that unmistakable intro, quintessential speaker-bending riff, seminal solo — and a rags-to-riches storyline which has inspired innumerable aspiring players to pick up a gittar for the first time.

Released as a single in 1958, it was by no means the first example of the genre, nor even Chuck’s first incursion; but, to quote the ‘Hall of Fame’ website, “While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together…” And nowhere did those pieces come together better than here: so much so, that it’s the only example of the style to have been included on the Voyager Golden Record, currently being carried by both of NASA’s deep space probes to infinity and beyond. “Go, Johnny, go!!!” Who knows, we could be getting a visit from a bunch of duck-walkin’ aliens some day…

While the lyric is a stylized autobiography (his St. Louis birthplace switched to Louisiana), the title’s inspiration is said to have stemmed from Chuck’s telling his hard-drinkin’ piano player, Johnny Johnson, to behave himself a little bit. Ironically, Johnson didn’t actually get to play on the song, which was written two or three years before it made vinyl.

Wikipedia cites no less than 70 cover versions as evidence of its sublime enduring simplicity — an interesting list in its own right — and that figure doesn’t take into account the multitude of impromptu encores or highschool band renditions which have issued from amps of all shapes and sizes over the past half-century, for better or for worse. Variations on the theme are also rife, starting with Chuck’s own revisitings, “Bye Bye Johnny”, “Go Go Go”, and his instrumental ‘concept album’, Concerto in B. Goode. Literary and movie references are similarly abundant.

“Oh my, that little country boy could play” …and still can: 82 years young, and continung to do his thang — a true veteran!

Here, however, we have him in his vintage prime:

2. “Sloop John B” by Beach Boys

This was the first track to be recorded for the legendary Pet Sounds album, and the only one on it not to be written by the band. “John B” started out as a Bahamian sea shanty, recounting the regular run-ins between colonial sherriff John Stone and the notoriously drunken crew of the real eighteenth century ship which gave the song its title. It had been previously recorded by proto-folkies The Kingston Trio and The Weavers. I first learnt it in my junior school choir: a bit of a strange choice, looking back, given the subject matter:

Drinking all night,
Got into a fight:
Well I feel so broke up,
I want to go home!

Bandmate Al Jardine first suggested the song to Brian Wilson, who was not originally keen on the idea. Nevertheless, after working out a poppier arrangement, and realizing its potential as a vehicle for the band’s trademark tight harmonies, he threw himself into the project with all the obsessiveness that would go into the rest of the LP.

Thirteen musicians and fourteen takes were required to provide the backing track, with BW, as usual, presiding at the sound desk. Its epically restrained build-up is a testament to his compulsive control: everything, from the flute and clarinet parts right down to the glockenspiel, is meticulously mixed into place. Always loved Dennis Wilson’s drumming on this track, too — one of those cases where ‘less’ is so much more…

The vocal (with a little extra guitar) took three sessions: Mike Love and Brian Wilson eventually sharing the double-tracked lead, with backing harmonies by Den and baby brother Carl: not forgetting Al Jardine — somewhat surprised to have not been offered a solo!

Brian may have sung “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”, but — as everyone knows — it was all gonna get a whole lot messier from thereon in… Good, then, to see him and the rest of the lads having such a lark in the promotional clip:

3. “John, I’m Only Dancing” by David Bowie

Bridging Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, this non-album single was released in the UK in Sept ’72.

Having publicly declared his bisexuality in an NME interview at the beginning of the year, and blatantly flaunted his androgyny on both sides of the Atlantic during the subsequent Ziggy spectacles, here Bowie took it a stack-soled step further; flirting outrageously with a girl at the disco, while reassuring his lover (John) that there’s really nothing in it:

She turns me on,
But don’t get me wrong:
I’m only dancing…

“Oh Lordy!” Though it made a respectable no. 12 in the British charts, RCA deemed it to be far too shocking for the young Americans of the day, and the song wasn’t actually issued in the Land of the ‘Free’ until the ChangesOne compilation in 1976. Meanwhile, back in Blighty, the BBC’s Top of the Pops declined to air Mick Rock’s provocative promo:

An alternative ‘sax version’ was put out in ’73, with a funked-up reworking entitled “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” released the following year.

‘The Spiders From Mars’ (Ronson, Bolder and Woodmansey) do a typically sterling job behind the acoustic guitar of the “Starman” to create its Glam-Bam R&B; stomp. Fantabulous feedback finish: only “The Jean Genie” could’ve possibly lived on its back! And as for that lusciouously camp vocal delivery ” — Touch Me!!! — ” what can you say? Absolutely outrageous:

Bet your life he [wa]s putting us on!

4. “Not Now John” by Pink Floyd

Fuck all that, we’ve gotta get on with these!

Discreetly modified to “Stuff all that” for the single release, I still chuckle to recall Radio 1’s John Peel (RIP) airing the album version one evening, with a typically laconic “Oops — I hadn’t realised!” Yeah, yeah…

The first 45 to be lifted from The Final Cut, it’s the only song on the LP to feature a Dave Gilmour vocal (a switch-duet with its writer, Roger Waters; very ably aided and abetted by a trio of lady backing singers). It’s also one of the few tracks therefrom which doesn’t actually have you wanting to hang yourself…

An outraged rant against Thatcher’s post-Falklands political posturing, fronting up to everyone and anyone, from the Japs and the Gooks to the Ruskies — well, “maybe the Swedes”, at least. The lyric is drenched with acidic irony:

We showed Argentina,
Now let’s go and show these:
Make us feel tough,
And won’t Maggie be pleased!

Musically, it drives along like the tilt-hammers of the factories she was systematically silencing at the time. The military menace which always felt imminent during her long romance with ‘Hollywood Ron’ also has its echoes. Nick Mason threatens to mash his tubs as he battles with Waters’ belching bassline, and Gilmour’s searing solos seeth with cynicism. No Rick Wright here, having being ousted during The Wall sessions: Status Quo’s Andy Bown stands in on keyboards. Then there’s the slower sections, loaded with all the bitter resignation and increasing desperation of any-old-John as UK unemployment went soaring towards the four million mark: “it could be the news or some other abuse…”.

It may all seem a long time ago now, but for those of us who are old enough to’ve lived through the Iron Lady’s reign of terror, it remains a frighteningly accurate snapshot of the times. With a typically innovative video to accompany it, the single made the Top Ten both in Britain and America.

Which only leaves us with the crucial question that closes the song:

“Oi — where’s the fuckin’ bar John?!!”

5. “Uncle John’s Band” by The Grateful Dead

“Well, the first days are the hardest days”; and, having established themselves as the galaxy’s leading exponents of extended acid-rock improvisation with their previous albums, the opening track on Workingman’s Dead must’ve come as quite a shock (or a welcome relief) to those expecting more of the same! True, their 1967 debut LP had given some indication of the band’s country-bluesy-folksy roots, but in no way did it hint at the intricate sophistication which they serve up here.

Wo-oah, what I want to know is:
How does the song go?

All over the place! Jerry Garcia’s exquisite acoustic melody twists and turns in and out of Robert Hunter’s words to perfection. The hermetic vocal harmonies, complete with an a cappella section, were inspired by Crosby, Stills and Nash (who would later acknowledge the nod with live covers) and revealed yet another facet of The Dead’s dexterity. And, just as CSN — along with Y — were arch-commentator/critics of their times, the lyric here succintly sums up the uncertainty of the sixties-seventies cusp:

Ain’t no time to hate,
Barely time to wait,
Wo-oah, what I want to know is:
Where does the time go?

Up in smoke, perhaps: but the song — and the album as a whole — was pivotal in introducing the group to a wider audience than their tripped-out Deadhead tribe. Yet, there remains the eternal hippie optimism of better things to come, as good ol’ Uncle John arrives, like a psychedelic Pied-Piper in reverse, to “come to take his children home.” And, of course, none of that ‘beautiful people’ idealism is lost, either:

Wo-oah, what I want to know is:
Are you kind?

“Goddam, I declare,” this little piece of blasphemy cost them some air-play on the Bible Belt, and its 4 1/2 minute duration also caused a few problems for the radio schedulers, leading to limited chart success. There was an edited mix; but, as Garcia himself dubbed it ‘an atrocity’, it’s probably best left to posterity…

“Uncle John’s Band” remained an integral part of their live repertoire for years to come: here’s a 1980 version, the voices not quite so sweet as on the original, perhaps — but this extended workout is an excellent example of what The Grateful Dead were always all about, just the same (don’t miss the end!!!):

6. “John Wayne” by John Martyn

This “brill off the wall track” (thanks Top!) is the final showdown from the highly polished 1986 album Piece By Piece. Very different from the smooth sophistication of the rest of the record, its menacing grandeur was said to have been inspired by a less-than-scrupulous former manager who, in true cowboy style, would “Come to measure you: fix you up!”

Martyn’s always amazing guitarwork combines with the booming bass, creepy keyboards and spine-tingling percussion to eerily evoke The Duke’s swaggering presence as he proceeds to clean up (or clean out) the town. Best thing you can do is to take his advice — “Get on your horse” and ride off into the sunset! The shots are called from the outset:

You know you’ve got it coming,
I’ll tell it to you straight:
I’m coming for you very soon,
I’ll never hesitate…

Big John M stuffs his feet boldly into Big John W’s boots, adopting what he himself described as his ‘strangled duck vocal’, a long ride from his usual silky delivery, with a full bottle of Scotch and one single take being all that was required to acheive the desired effect. A regular component of his live shows at the time, it scared the living shit out of me when I saw him play it: similarly fuelled, naturally!

“I believe I am J-o-o-o-h-h-h-n Wa-a-a-a-ay-y-y-ne,” he bellows, and — man — you’d better believe it too!!!

Judge for yourself (and “don’t you dare look behind you…”)

7. “Big Bad John” by Johnny Cash

Originally performed by Jimmy Dean (an old country-singer-turned-sausage-maker, not the Rebel Without A Cause), back in 1961. I go with the later Cash rendition ‘cos it’s the one I remember being enthralled by on the radio as a kid, but haven’t included a YouTube link, as there’s a howling dispute goin’ on as to whose versions are actually included, in which I have no wish whatsoever to become embroiled…

This John is a shadowy out-of-towner who enlists as a mineworker, and a veritable giant of a man: “He stood six foot six [1.83 metres] and weighed two forty-five.” That’s 14 1/2 stone for British readers, or about 110kg for Europeans — but, whichever, “Ev’rybody knew you didn’t give no lip to Big John! (Ooo-ooH).” Not just because of his imposing physique, neither, but also on account of the rumours of his havin’ killed a rival with his bare hands, over a “Cajun Queen” back in Louisiana.

That sayed, he didn’t go round lookin’ for no trouble: “He stayed all alone an’ he didn’t say much” and, as the plot unfolds, he turns out to be a genuine hero. One fateful day, a pit prop cracks, trapping twenty miners “in that man-made hell”. An’ who d’y’all reckon comes to the rescue now, heftin’ up that busted ol’ timber so as to open an escape for his workmates; only to have the whole darn thang cave in right down on top of him an’ go an’ kill him stone dade? You got it: “Big Bad John! (Ooo-ooH).”

OK, the deep (south) drawl-over narrative and clippety-clop accompaniment may not be rock’n’roll enough for everyone’s taste, to say nothing of the persistent “Ooo-ooH” vocal refrain; but the way the narrative unravels here is nothing short of masterful. The whole concept of the ‘story-song’ owes a massive debt to them good ol’ Country Boys (along with the Folkies), with The Man In Black right at the front of the queue.

“One helluvaman — Big Bad John!”

8. “Farmer John” by The Premiers

I first got to know this song through Neil Young’s great grunged-up rendition on Ragged Glory and, unusually for me as an inveterate reader of sleevenotes, hadn’t realised until recently that it wasn’t actually his song. In the absence of a link to that version (though I’m pretty damn sure it was featured on his Weld live video), we’ll go with The Premier’s classic 1964 garage cut, available on at least one of the Nuggets compilations.

This wasn’t the original, either. It was written and recorded in 1959 by the dynamic duo of Don and Dewey. Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris went on to collaborate extensively with John Mayall and Frank Zappa, playing electric violin. The Searchers had also cut a Merseybeat version in ’63 (like looking for “Needles and Pins” in a haystack, you might say…). More recently, The White Stripes have regularly included it in their live sets.

But I digress… The Premiers were a five-piece Californian outfit, formed in 1962 by brothers Lawrence and John Perez. They were inspired to record the song on the back of The Kingsmen’s hit with “Louie Louie”, with which it shares the same stompalong three-chord structure. If anything, “Farmer John” is even more fun, with its loutishly infectious “woah-oh-woah” refrain, sleazy sax, and a groovy party atmosphere provided by inviting a bunch of girls from a car club into the studio! Though they never repeated its top-twenty success, the band did go on to open on stage for the likes of The Kinks and The Rolling Stones.

Smitten by the farmer’s champagne-eyed daughter (“I love the way she wiggles, she wiggles when she walks”) PC it most certanly ain’t, but who gave a fig about all that back at the start of the Swinging Sixties, anyway?!! Certainly not them screaming car club chicks, that’s fer sure… Listen an’ love it: “woah-oh-woah!!!”

9. “John Wesley Harding” by Bob Dylan

You just have to love ol’ Bob fer his sheer, bloody-minded cussedness, dontcha? 1967, Summer of Love, everyone going for multi-textured psychedelic opuses: so what does Dylan go and make, right at the end of the year, as the official follow-up to Blonde on Blonde? A sparsely instrumented country-style album, made in Nashville in just three sessions, that’s what!

There are those who blame it on his bike crash the previous year, but I think it’s simply yet another manifestation of his eternal ‘rolling stone’ restlessness to do something different. As the man himself would later point out, “I didn’t know how to record the way other people were recording, and I didn’t want to.”

The first track from the eponymously entitled album is a brief resume of the life and times of a real-life Texan outlaw, though recounted with considerable artistic licence. To begin with, his surname is misspelt, having had no ‘g’ at the end. Also, while Dylan claims that “There was no man around who could track or chain him down,” Hardin actually spent 17 years of a 25-year sentence in Huntsville Jail, during which time he qualified as a lawyer. Two years after his release, he was shot in the back of the head by a semi-retired lawman. Another thing: as Bob informs us that “He carried a gun in every hand,” I’ve always wondered just how many the man actually had…

As I said before, there’s nothing fancy about the arrangement: Bob’s laid-back vocal, acoustic guitar and harp; accompanied by Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenneth Buttrey’s drums. Mind you, given JW Hardin’s ten-year career as a guntoter, with an alleged 42 kills to his name, how come the song only managed to clock up 3 verses and 3 minutes? Dylan himself explained it away a couple of years later in Rolling Stone:

“I was gonna write a real long cowboy ballad. But in the middle of the second verse, I got tired. I had a nice little melody I didn’t want to waste, so I just wrote a quick third verse, and recorded that…” He also claimed that its opener and title-track status was a deliberate ploy to avoid it being labelled as a filler!

10. “John Barleycorn” by Traffic

What, with ‘John’ being such a solid old name, little wonder that he’s cropped up so regularly in folk songs, traditional or otherwise. The Byrds’ “John Riley” (also sung by Joan Baez and Judy Collins, to name but two) has already been considered elsewhere onsite; and, were I to include John and Beverley Martyn’s “John The Baptist”, I could be accused of over-zealousness.

So, “John Barleycorn” it is. An Olde Englysh Ballad, dating back to at least the mid-sixteenth century, it’s been recorded by folksters from every faction, from Fairport to Tull. Traffic’s version appeared on their 1970 album John Barleycorn Must Die, with their titles often confused.

The LP was originally intended to be a solo effort from Steve Winwood, the band having folded the previous year: and Winwood’s subsequent project, Blind Faith, having lasted for less than twelve months. Nevertheless, relations with Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood were patched up, and Traffic went back into circulation. Though Stevie’s acoustic guitar and lead vocal are sublime, it’s difficult to imagine how the song would have sounded without Woods’ fluttering flute part, or Capaldi’s close-harmonies.

“John Barleycorn” is the personification of the bearded cereal crop most commonly used to make beer and whisky. That the “three men from out of the west” “vowed that he should die,” merely means that they were going to cut him and grind him and mash him up, in order to make him a little more palatable. As the last verse says, no-one does whatever they do quite so well “without a little barleycorn…”

I’ll drink to that!