Six Perfect Songs
By Bernie Langs
I enjoy listening to music of all genres and styles and truly appreciate the efforts of not only good composition and musicianship, but of superlative production in the recording studio. On a visceral, emotional, tactile and maybe even soulful level, I have many favorite tunes that I deem perfect. These are songs I’ve never tired of hearing after years of listening to them. I would include such pop songs as diverse as Midnight Confessions by The Grass Roots that was a hit in 1968, Billie Jean, the Michael Jackson mega-hit with stellar production by Quincy Jones, and the live version by The Cream of I’m So Glad, which boasts a ripping solo by Eric Clapton, which I consider the best in all of live rock recordings. I could make the case for many songs as “perfect”, but I’ve chosen the following six to make remarks on:
SIx: Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zeppelin, has spoken of his obsessiveness in getting imaginative production sounds for his instrument in the studio, but even more importantly of the band’s consistent search for great “riffs.” And the clever, engaging riffing history of this monster band began with the very first notes of their first big hit, Whole Lotta Love and culminated with the ascending guitar notes that makes a later song Kashmir a spiritually inviting mystical journey. Whole Lotta Love has front man Robert Plant singing at full throttle impassioned best. The abstract middle-break instrumental, with fading in and out head-play sounds, was unprecedented at the time. Drummer John Bonham has a great rollout of that interlude, which is followed by the piercing wail of Page’s axe, which in turn segues back to the original riff. Brilliant!
Five: Heroes by David Bowie. Bowie fans will forever be intrigued by his Berlin period, when he retreated in the 1970s to that Cold War city to change artistic direction and wax philosophical. The album Heroes has a fabulous unity of thought and it’s a disturbing one in which Bowie ruminates about the state of human emotion and its quasi-surreal future. The album production by Brian Eno, with assistance from Tony Visconti, is a perfect fit for Bowie’s dark mood. Never before had synthesizers been utilized so fabulously in the rock music genre, melding perfectly with the structure of Bowie’s dense and revelatory songs. The album’s title song, “Heroes,” isn’t just a Cold War simultaneous desperate lament and solitary moment-in-time celebration. It boasts technical musicianship unmatched by any of Bowie’s and Eno’s contemporaries. Decades after most rock music is forgotten, they’ll still be studying David Bowie.
Four: Adagietto of the 5th Symphony by Gustav Mahler. This movement of Mahler’s 5th is simply the most beautiful theme in music history. Theorist Theodor Adorno called passages of Mahler’s symphonies “songs” so Mahler’s passage here fits neatly in this list crowded with rock songs. I first heard the Adagietto at the IBM Gallery of Art, where it was played in an auditorium during the Gallery’s exhibition on the ancient, volcanically obliterated city of Pompeii. Images of the destroyed city and its artifacts were displayed in a slide show in the darkened theater to the sounds of Mahler’s emotionally-charged song. Adorno’s point that Mahler never completely repeats entire themes as practiced by his predecessors, holds true in this case. The passage’s sad strings often do mournfully restart, but Mahler tweaks the presentation as if developing the yearning thoughts. The crescendo is forceful, and, unlike many of Mahler’s themes, resolves beautifully. One finds oneself longing for—what is it? Love? An unattainable soul mate? Understanding? For a better world? It’s all there in this perfect “song.”
Four: Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Street Fighting Man, Honky Tonk Women by the Rolling Stones. Yes, I know that’s three songs. Released in quick succession from 1968 to 1969, only Street Fighting Man was imbedded on an album (Beggar’s Banquet). All three have what’s missing in much of today’s pop and rock music: ingenious melodies, unique guitar riffs (by Keith Richards), entertaining lyrics, and roughshod emotion all tarted up in within tight production. Mick Jagger sings his living guts out, Charlie Watts drives the pounding beat home, and bassist Bill Wyman patiently picks his moments to emerge from the mix to take us all on a ride. The lyrics range from catchy and clever to novelistic in the case of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, which tells the improbable tale of an unlikely protagonist “born in a crossfire hurricane” climaxing with his drowning, where he is “washed up and left for dead.” Top shelf Stones.
Two: Hey Jude by the Beatles. This song, penned by Paul McCartney in 1968, became a natural anthem for a feel good “join together” moment in the aftermath of the Summer of Love. In one of his last interviews, the late John Lennon was asked his thoughts on Hey Jude and he promptly dubbed it a “Paul masterpiece.” John and George Harrison’s harmonic background singing is crisp and beautiful and Ringo’s entrance to introduce the descending middle break is a subtle nod to his joyful personality. Hey Jude has the most beautiful melody in all of rock music, and McCartney sings it to perfection.
One: The opening movement of Requiem by Mozart. In the words of scriptures, “the time has come to set aside childish things.” Rock music will always have an adolescent aspect no matter how serious it tries to be. When the time comes to engage a music of profundity and, in turn, a theme of “dead” seriousness, Mozart’s Requiem is there to be heard. Ne’er a more haunting opening sequence and build-up is to be found in all of the sounds that mankind has made since he carved out his first pipe in a cave. One finds oneself in meditation on the haunting, chilling introductory strings that give birth to the swirling, forceful choir. This magnificent close-to-Godly sound is best heard in live performance where one can be carried away to the heavens.