We take if for granted that pop culture moves at lightning speed. Memes and trends have lifespans akin to fruit flies’. It’s hard to imagine something being consistently popular for more than a few weeks, let alone decades like Simon & Garfunkel have been. Even harder to wrap our infinite-scroll addicted brains around is something staying popular for centuries. Centuries. This song has been iterated and reiterated for so long, we don’t even really for sure what period it dates from. As far back as the middle ages, maybe. Our culture may appear frenzied, on the surface, but old folk traditions die hard. Tunes that were spread and passed down through generations in times when most folks didn’t know their letters remain entrenched in the culture. It makes you think about the implications of our collective social evolution. Society and technology may change each other in unimaginable ways in the space of a single lifetime, but people will cling to and remember useless things like a song across a timespan of countless generations. Cultural memory exists outside the whims of technology. Technologies rise and fall like empires. If it feels that societal change comes slowly and with great pain, that people’s habits and beliefs aren’t keeping up with the pace of technological development, that we aren’t living up to our own potential to evolve and improve as a global community and as a species – remember that we’re all carrying memories from forebears whose names have been forgotten and whose lives passed with no form of record. We’re still living, unconsciously, with the culture of our ancestors, still singing the same songs they sang.
How does some 60’s kitsch grab you? Nancy Sinatra didn’t get much love from the anti-establishment youth set in her day, but she’s come to be appreciated as a bit of a cult artist. Her music was a far cry from what the rock demimonde was doing. Her image was too campy, and then there was her background. Her duets with Lee Hazlewood, especially, were easy to dismiss as some kind of airport-cocktail-lounge Americana, but those songs have become cult classics. If you listen closely, you may hear an element of camp but you won’t hear any schmaltz. They’re quite bizarre cultural artifacts, but they’ve aged well, beyond all expectation. Nancy Sinatra will probably have to die before she gets her due as an artist and cultural figure, but she’s already being rediscovered by discerning nostalgists.
“It is like Beowulf and it ‘takes me out to the meadow’. This song can make you leave home, work on the railroad or marry a Gypsy. I think of a drifter around a fire with a tin cup under a bridge remembering a woman’s hair. The song is a dream, a riddle and a prayer.” – Tom Waits
Bob Dylan needs no introduction and defies interpretation. (That’s the literal definition of “Bob Dylan”) I’ve certainly got no special qualifications to add to the oceans of commentary already out there. I don’t really want to read any more of it, either. If anyone should have their commentary noted, why not Tom Waits? He’s more qualified than anyone.
The Beatles recorded quite a few covers early in their career, and it always felt like it was a bit beneath them. Those guys could write mega-hits in their sleep, sometimes literally. The Beatles doing other people’s material is like Rene Redzepi busting open a box of Easy Mac. Even when the original writer is a luminary such as Chuck Berry. I’m in no way comparing the quality of Chuck Berry’s songwriting to a boxed macaroni product. If Chuck Berry’ music was a food item, it would be something deceptively simple and invigorating, like a perfectly grilled steak. However, master songwriters don’t need to lean on material that’s not exactly up to their own level of sophistication. The Beatles in 1966 were way past writing three chord rock songs about the joys of rocking, as was Chuck Berry himself. None of which really detracts much from the basic fun of a basic song about dancing, just as most us never stop enjoying Easy Mac.
There’s nothing more uplifting on a bleak day than some classic Motown. Some of the charm of revisiting vintage performances by groups like The Four Tops is the vintage-ness itself. The wholesome, smiling, nattily dressed singers on their empty TV soundstage, shaking a leg for the cameras – nobody performs like that anymore. They may look dated, but the sentiments and the music hasn’t aged. Love songs like this one stay evergreen because they are simple and from the heart. Suits fade. Great performances never do. Levi Stubbs was one of the great soul vocalists, and the soul he brought to what could’ve been just a silly pop song is what makes classic Motown…well, classic. And classy.
This. Either you get it or you don’t. There’s no particular cosmic secret to it or anything. It’s a just a joke. You’re either in the spirit of it or you’re not. Bob Dylan is divisive like that, and this one of his most intensely love-it-or-hate-it moments. I can definitely understand that if you don’t happen to be a fan of incomprehensible lyrics or people who sing like drunk frogs, Dylan can be excruciatingly annoying. Which also happens to make him appealing to people who enjoy the knowledge that the things they’re into are annoying to others. That may be part of the reason why, in his heyday, his followers dubbed him the voice of his generation. Because the young generation really made it a point to confuse and irritate their elders; it feels so revolutionary and radical when the things you enjoy are closed off to outsiders who just don’t get it, man. But that’s just a common trait of being young and eager to break the apron strings. That’s why there’s been so many annoying subcultures based on annoying things. Bob Dylan, for his part, found the phenomenon of being the voice of anyone but himself extremely annoying, and spent a great deal of time and energy trying to alienate his own fanbase. He didn’t mean for his funny joke song to represent the enmity of generational groups and the cultural disjointment caused by radically changing values. It just happened to.
You might not thank them for it, but The Who invented concept albums. Before they delved all the way into long form narrative songwriting, they started with a mini-opera in six movements, which clocked in at a relatively modest nearly-ten-minutes. That alone should remind you just how incredibly weird The Who really were. They don’t get nearly enough credit for how avant-garde they were. Perhaps their memorable habit of smashing things was too much of a distraction and overshadowed their more intellectual innovations, though it also put them among the godfathers of punk. How many people can take credit for paving the way for both punk and prog-rock? But besides being trailblazers in the field of onstage violence and offstage misadventure, they also blew open the limitations of pop songwriting. Pete Townshend wanted to tell stories that were more complex than the usual three-minute pop song structure was thought to allow, so he threw away the three-minute pop song rulebook. Even the Who’s three minute pop songs weren’t the usual pop song stuff; they were frequently clever and humorous, but they told stories that were darkly subversive. A Quick One came out in 1966, and knocked around in various iterations, the best of which, I think, is the long-buried Rock and Roll Circus performance. It tells, in six distinct segments, what appears to be a straightforward story of marital infidelity. It wasn’t until decades later that Townshend revealed that the song was actually his attempt to articulate memories of childhood sexual abuse, under the loose cover of a typical cheating-spouse narrative. That certainly explains the high level of emotional intensity packed into those eight minutes. Only something vividly personal could feel that angry and cathartic. That feeling of anger and catharsis made for a few legendary live performances, but it was unsustainably draining. The Who stopped playing a Quick One in 1970 and didn’t play any part of it again until their reunion in 2014 – it was just too painful.