In 1972, I was in the living room with my mom and dad watching the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. Johnny Cash was singing a song live from the WLAC-TV studios in Nashville. During the performance, there was a camera shot from behind the Man In Black, and there, in the front row, was my Grandmother and Grandfather Booth. I was so excited. I would have been even more excited had they not cut away from the local feed after the performance, as my Grandfather went on the stage and gave Johnny a check for Muscular Dystrophy from the insurance conglomerate for which he worked. I have a picture of that presentation in my home. It’s hard to sum up Johnny Cash in a few words. He was a special part of American music, representing rebellion and a gentle spiritual side, but his religious songs didn’t proselytize — they dealt with the complexity of human behavior. Moreover, he was always, always cool. So in honor of Johnny, grab your iPod or MP3 player, hit shuffle, and share the first 10 tunes that come up.
Donovan — Hurdy Gurdy Man (Love Is Hot, Truth Is Molten): Of course, I already knew this song (and also enjoyed the Butthole Surfers’ version), a fey psychedelic classic when I got this Australian compilation from the awesome Raven label. This generous comp spans Donovan’s prime ’60s work, from his days as a slavish Dylan imitator until he discovered his own flower power voice. Donovan isn’t great overall, but he did a lot of great work.
Scissor Sisters — Lovers In The Back Seat (Scissor Sisters): This album was a revelation. A band that mixed disco, sometimes in a Pet Shop Boys-ish fashion, and classic ’70s pop, with a strong Elton John influence, and was proud to be pop. I haven’t listened to the whole thing in a while, but I think it may be a classic. The follow up was a bit overdone and I’m anxious to hear album number three, whenever that is. This is just a really good song, probably not too far from Robbie Williams’ better material.
The Kinks — You Still Want Me (Greatest Hits): A rare early Kinks number that doesn’t really have a distinctive personality. This sounds more in the vein of The Searchers, a solid beat group harmony vocal number. It’s nice, but not a Grade A Kinks tune.
Blur — Fade Away (The Great Escape): The Great Escape is my favorite Blur album, because it is the most multi-dimensional of their Brit pop efforts. On this album, the influence of Madness seems pretty strong, as illustrated by this ska-inflected number with a melancholy horn section and a haunting chorus. The trilogy of albums — Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape — is one of the better runs of the era.
Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats — Rocket 88 (The Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll): This three CD compilation gathers early rock sides along with key pre-rock jazz, blues and country numbers. When musicologists debate what is the first rock ‘n’ roll song, this tune is certainly part of that conversation. The up-and-down rhythm on the bass, the swinging drumming and the lively piano and sax are all touchstones of the early rock ‘n’ roll sound. Regardless, an enduring classic.
The Shazam — Oh No! (The Shazam): A great track from the best power pop band of the past 10 years or so. Hans Rotenberry has mastered the punchy pop sound typified by certain sides by The Who and The Move and perfected by Cheap Trick. Of course, none of this would mean anything if the band didn’t have such a big sound, with a beefy rhythm section and great guitar playing. And Rotenberry has scads of personality as a vocalist. Someday, when there’s a Nuggets of Late ’90s/early ’00s power pop, The Shazam will be one of the dominant bands on the collection.
The Move — Wild Tiger Woman (Movements: 30th Anniversary Anthology): Hey, speak of the devil! Here’s the real thing. The early Move was full of masterfully melodic proto-Brit pop songs. Then, as time went on, they began to rock more and more. Sometimes it was with pure brute power, in a way that may have influenced fellow Birmingham rockers Black Sabbath. Other times, there was more of a ’50s vibe, as on this Roy Wood composition. Everything The Move did deserves attention.
The Yardbirds — Here ‘Tis (Ultimate!): My iPod is leaning to the ’60s today. This is an early Yardbirds tune, when they were one of the most authentic blues/R & B bands amongst the British Invasion brigade. This song has a bit of a Bo Diddley feel, though it doesn’t have a classic Bo Diddley beat. This is the blues accelerated, and it blows away about 99 percent of the garage bands working today.
The Sights — The Hott Seat (Are You Green?): This Detroit band was 80 percent garage rock with the other 20 percent being other ’60s rock influences. The debut mixes some great pop hooks with some intense rocking. This song is lifted a bit from Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”, using the basic rhythm as a jumping off point for some guitar freakouts. A fairly decent instrumental and quite short.
Tubeway Army — It Must Have Been Years (Replicas): The album that made Gary Numan a star in England holds up so well. He made the most of his limited voice, making it a vehicle for his paranoid sci-fi fantasies. Replicas is a concept album, which, like most concept albums, isn’t well fleshed out in the lyrics. As Numan explained it, the British government has determined that it must program computers and robots to solve the country’s intractable problems. The computers determine that the real problem is humans, and seeks to kill them all. Cheery stuff. This tune is the best showcase for Numan’s underrated guitar playing. It really rocks.