Several years ago I did a thing on Freaky Trigger called “Thousand“: this involved playing through the 1,000 MP3s I’d collected at that point – a very small number it seems now – and writing about them in real time: one play per song, one draft, hit publish, that’s it. It was a notebook more than anything else and not especially worth revisiting – since my blog didn’t even have comments at the time I don’t know what I was trying to achieve!

I liked the idea of that kind of on-the-hoof writing though and have looked for another opportunity to do it with a little more point and structure. The Pitchfork 500 seems like a good one: it’s a book laying out a history of pop from 1977 by way of 500 songs chosen by the editors. They’ve made every effort to make the book more than just a list – it’s implicitly also a story (of how music developed) and a statement (of what matters in music) and a musical experience (it’s sequenced as a playlist). It’s ambitious and thoughtful and if it’s wrong sometimes it deserves the honour of people working out why it is. So I think you should buy it. I also wrote a dozen of its 500 entries, so I’m not completely neutral here, but I have no inside knowledge about how the book was put together.

This series of posts – which will be intermittent, as I don’t often have uninterrupted two-hour writing/listening chunks – is simply me listening to the 500 songs, in order, and jotting down what I think. I’m also reading along, and sometimes that’s informing the notes I make. Where I’ve nothing to say about a song I will indicate that I’m skipping it.

Hope you enjoy it.


As a kid into Bowie I used to hate “Heroes”: I thought it was bogus. Not just bogus like all Bowie is on some level bogus but in a deeper way – a play-acting at sentiment, a deliberate corniness which was a betrayal of the alienated art-school Bowie I admired (and related to more comfortably). These days I can respond to the corniness and pretend it’s face-value and enjoy the record though Bowie does mug it up something rotten at the end.

Americans tend to mean it more: this is something I expect to notice a lot. Iggy Pop on “The Passenger” is affecting not to mean it – he has a half-blank half-Elvis stare/sneer thing going on but there’s a snarl beneath the skin which feels genuine, makes the record exciting.

These are good songs to start the book with – they’re about distance and observation: Bowie encasing lovers in quotation marks, Iggy behind glass. They’re critical songs: in order to overturn the old you need to identify it, which is a critical impulse.

Some years ago my friends and I found a karaoke booth at a theme park. You could record your song and while it was being recorded it would be broadcast outside the booth. We hatched a plan to ask to record Bryan Adams and instead we’d recite the lyrics to “Street Hassle”. Well, probably just the “that bitch will never fuck again” bit. We were 18, 19. I never liked Lou Reed that much, I found his attitude offputting and if I’m being honest I found him scary and the things he sang about scary. I pretended at the time to like “Street Hassle”: now I honestly do like it, or the middle section at least. Not because of Lou Reed, because he sounds like Dave Q, who is very funny to listen to.

It’s just possible that Dave Q sounds like Lou Reed, I suppose.

In the quintet of acts the Pitchfork 500 fingers as in at the birth of modern music (or at any rate the book’s music), Kraftwerk are the odd ones out. All the others – Bowie, Reed, Pop. Eno – worked together, or at any rate they all worked with Bowie. Kraftwerk just inspired him. Also, Kraftwerk weren’t cool at the time – they were a novelty, cranks, barely noticed. Was “Trans-Europe Express” even reviewed much in 1977? The powerful things about Kraftwerk are obvious – the rhythms, the sheen, the beautiful ice-cold vocals. But they sneak something else in too – the critics who thought they were naff and dumb in their heyday were in some sense right: those ascending chords are a step into cheese, pulled back by the hypnotising rhythm so you don’t stop and think hold on, there’s something tacky going on here. Kraftwerk, seemingly the most aloof of the book’s founding fathers, also pull vulgarity into the mix. Another reason to thank them.

And finally Eno: the most romantic of them all, always chasing after such fleeting experiences, trying to recapture a rainy afternoon, or a fever dream, or a place or later just a scent. On paper ambient music is such a lovely idea, in practise it’s always hard work because all music can do the ambient thing of slipping out of your range and bubbling back up. Familiarity makes everything into “1/1”, which has to work so doggedly on its drift.

So to distract myself, a summing up (1% of the way in!). Bowie + Pop + Reed + Kraftwerk + Eno = what? Artifice + Aggression + Realism + Mechanics + Texture as principles of what would end up being post-punk? Fair enough, of course the lines are blurring already: Lou Reed and Kraftwerk are great theatre; Iggy’s pulsebeat runs on machine principles; “Street Hassle”’s third movement is full of texture. And none of these things are new of course (Electric Dylan has all 5, kind of). But that’s OK: the book’s point isn’t to decry the stuff that came before, it’s just to say that the sequel was every bit as cool as the original.

(To get the full mixed-media effect, 2/3 though “1/1” I put on the news. It was about a murderer, and to be honest didn’t really enhance the music.)

The Ramones have endured 30 years of people going on about how simple and immediate their music is: when immediacy is that thoroughly anticipated it can hardly qualify as such for a new listener, which is probably why I’ve never ‘got’ them. “Rockaway Beach” is OK.

My favourite bit in “Psycho Killer” is the excellent “say something once, why say it again” gag, after David Byrne has said the same thing three times in different ways. It’s also the bit in the song which offers the keenest portrait of what makes the title character a mentalist, his bristling uptightness. “I hate people when they’re not polite!”. At the end the song’s guitars start falling apart into shards, which Television, in a fine bit of sequencing, pick up. [Talking Heads]

Television are like Kraftwerk: a band that look like the music they make, lean and romantic. Like the book, I dunno how useful “punk” is as any kind of filter for what they did – this is art-rock, and rooted further back still: the graveyard Cadillac is a really primal rock’n’roll image, and this is like an ascetic “Night On Bald Mountain”: Verlaine’s solo sounds like its feeling its way through the gravestones, hesitant at first. The skinny chord bludgeon at 8’13” is my favourite bit – bony fists pounding on the gates – and then the sweet release of escape, before a pause and the hag-haunted melodies return.

Patti Smith’s “Rock N Roll Nigger” is thrilling, agitated, kind of awkward and unrecoverable. The lyrics say they wanna go outside of society, the piano says they want to go right back in (at least as far as where Fleetwood Mac is). Smith enjoys going “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger”, that’s for sure.

Already things are getting more complicated than even Bowie or Reed might have thought: “God Save The Queen” is flirty and thuggish and ridiculous and visionary and needed to be stopped by the man (or did it). Johnny Rotten is enjoying himself quite as much as Patti was, chanting “no future”: now he means it, now he doesn’t, ball’s in your court. [The Sex Pistols]

The Clash want to mean it but they’re not sure how. “White Man In Hammersmith Palais” gets reviewed in the Pitchfork 500 as a straightforward dressing-down and reggae move but I think its doubts go a lot deeper – Strummer knows the new groups don’t have the right to sing this music any more but does he, uncomfortable Palais tourist? Does Ken Boothe, busy disappointing him? Where are the young soul rebels hiding anyway? (By the way, the forbidden word here, sung with special relish, is “Hitler”.)

This is something I think’s missing a bit from the book – inevitably, since the history it’s presenting is one where these originators are very much the Good Guys: the enormous insecurities you can hear in punk and post-punk, the ideological roil, the sense that moves being made might turn out to be disastrous. And if we say, well, we know they weren’t so that’s OK, what are we losing?

i.e. Us to Buzzcocks: “It’s fine Pete, we’re from the future, you should have fallen in love with them after all.”

Subway Sect carry the insecurity in every wobble of Vic Godard’s voice. [“Parallel Lines”]

X-Ray Spex see it as an opportunity, a gap to dash through. When I was younger I thought “Oh Bondage!” was a kind of punk swear, like “Oh Jesus!”. I guess it is.

After Lora Logic’s punch-through saxophone the noisy melodrama of The Adverts seems muddy and overwrought, and their self-reflexivity more like self-indulgence. “We don’t give a damn” sounds like a total lie. Stop worrying about whether you’re understood and just make brilliant noise!

Wire’s economy always has an air of “we’d rather not be here thx” even when they’re brilliant (as on “Ex—Lion Tamer” and the way it conjures the implicate ghost of a monster pop song in 45 seconds of guitar harmonies). And they still manage to fit in a bit of rock’n’roll scatting – “uh uh uh uh uh uh”.