Dec 08

500: 1-16

FT25 comments • 1,300 views


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”.


  1. 1
    Alan on 3 Dec 2008 #

    (I’ll sort out that series sidebar glitch later BTW)

    I started doing this exact same thing last night! SOMEHOW i found a collection of all 500 songs neatly packed up for me and i put the first 100 on my ipod this morning.

  2. 2

    cranks possibly, but Kwerk were NOT considered negligeable — cf eg lester bangs’s 1975 kraftwerkfeature — and in 1978 “the man-machine” was given lead LP review treatment in nme, and paid considerable respectful attention in sounds (which was culturing the most advanced “post-punk” at that time)

  3. 3
    Tom on 3 Dec 2008 #

    OK! It’s been ages since I read it but that Bangs Kraftwerk piece has a contrarian air to it, not that Bangs didn’t see the things he saw in Kraftwerk, but that if anyone else had been seeing them he wouldn’t have been so gleeful about pointing them out. It’s a piece that seemed to me to come from a context of neglect.

  4. 4
    Martin Skidmore on 3 Dec 2008 #

    This is mostly key music in my life – I was 17 when punk broke here, and saw lots of these bands live on their first tours (three in a row there in one show – Clash, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect). I would find it almost impossible to think freshly about these acts and tracks. I do think the book’s selection sounds very dodgy indeed, in that it seems to be ignoring disco, for instance.

  5. 5

    probably as well to distinguish between the US and the UK context — my guess would be that the US was much more a context of neglect here than the UK

  6. 6
    Tom on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Re. #4: This instalment cuts off just before the disco section – the book is designed in chronological sections filled with roughly genre-fied chunks. So there is disco (and reggae and hip-hop and pop and all sorts) to come.

    (I had intended to get into the disco bit but the phone rang!)

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 3 Dec 2008 #

    re #1 I wish the songs would wend my way….

    The ‘book’ link in the original post took me to Amazon where I was inormed that people buying the book had also bought the Mamma Mia DVD which sounds slightly incongrous.

  8. 8
    Tom on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Haha I think that is my and my wife’s Xmas present shopping. Guess which one her mum is getting. :)

    There is a torrent of the songs doing the rounds. A small indie goblin informs me that a few of the songs are the wrong versions though.

  9. 9
    Alan on 3 Dec 2008 #

    #7 – the 3GB you are looking for. clues:

  10. 10
    koganbot on 3 Dec 2008 #

    In regard to Americans meaning it and the Brits not:

    It’s possible that David Byrne wasn’t actually a psycho killer.

    It’s possible that the Ramones’ music isn’t simple and immediate. Also, apparently no one in the band belonged to the SS.

  11. 11
    Simon on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Don’t know if you’re aware, but Garry Mulholland’s This Is Uncool worked on pretty much the same idea as Pitchfork’s book – 500 songs from “punk and disco” to publication (1976 to, I think, 2003) with each summarised and put into context. It’s always been available on Amazon, and likely still available in good bookshop chains.

  12. 12

    “meaning it” is less about BEING the thing than it is about “giving a comedy-free performance” as the thing* — byrne is (arguably) less of a counter-examples than the ramones are

    *ie, if you compare robert de niro as a mafioso in the godfather with steve martin as a mafioso in my blue heaven — in “meang it” terms, de niro is and martin isn’t

    (that said i remember fondly a tony parsons interview with the ramones in which he argued that, yes yes they are only jokily playing at being pinheads, nevertheless PINHEADS IS WHAT THEY ACTUALLY ARE)

    (also: i still rather agree with koganbot that the “meaning it” poles are more complex than merely US vs UK)

  13. 13
    koganbot on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Kraftwerk weren’t cool at the time

    Unless you were someone who went to discos or hip-hop clubs or listened to disco radio or read Creem or unless _____.

    Where are you locating “cool”? If you mean “people who think hard and publish their thoughts,” if that’s not Lester in ’77 then I don’t know who it is – in any event, among the Fusion-Creem people and also Xgau at the Voice it’s been a given since the mid-Sixties that you don’t simply dismiss or ignore the stuff that doesn’t register as Rock and Significant, so in ’77 you’re not overlooking Fleetwood Mac or Donna Summer or Kraftwerk or the Emotions or Rod Stewart etc. no matter what you think of them, and without such refusal to overlook you don’t get punk (coined as a musical term in Fusion and Creem in ’70-’71 by Nick Tosches and Dave Marsh, respectively).

    And you already know this, so I wonder why you bandy the problematic term “cool” as if it weren’t problematic?

  14. 14
    koganbot on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Stones still pwn the discussion – I think a whole hunk of Bowie and Ramones lyrics are variations on Heart Of Stone Under My Thumb Back Street Girl Street Fighting Man Sympathy For The Devil. I also think the Sex Pistols changed the discussion by being the first group since the Stones to really scare the socks off people (though “change” and “since the Stones” seem to be at odds with each other in that sentence, don’t they?).

    What I get from the supposed distance in Bowie and Ferry, not to mention in later years Lisa Stansfield and Girls Aloud and god-help-her Amy Winehouse (who’s a self-consciously mannered performer even if she accidentally crossed the distance between mannerisms and self) is an attempt to falsely claim control over style. Whereas Beyoncé and Mariah may like to project through style that they’re in control, but they don’t claim to a perspective on style, I don’t think.

  15. 15

    the stones scared people because they were (in addition to everything else) musicians — part of the fear was a fear of where their allegience lay (in robin carmody’s sense — with american pop culture — as well as in the sense of “with black people”)

    the pistols (i think i would argue) scared people because they WEREN’T musicians — or rather, because they appeared to be (unafraid of being taken for) real hoodlums

    between these two moments, i think there occurred in the uk (but NOT in the US) a collapse of confidence in the idea of music as a value in itself — hence the glamsters reaching out of music towards other (still reliable, as they felt it) art forms (film and pop art if yr bein kindly; mime and catwalk fashion if yr bein catty)

    “falsely” is unclear in 14: does it mean ‘dishonestly” or “deludedly” or “deliberately ambiguously” (probably all three at difft times, with early roxy and soulboy-era bowie the place where it gets to be all three at once, maybe) (in both cases going back over stones territory, yes, but with other realms of would-be mastery being invoked)

  16. 16

    collapse of confidence: not everywhere in the uk, either — not in all pockets of the counterculture as it fragmented in subcultural tribalism — but the subcultures where the anxiety didn’t at laeast partly hold sway were the ones with a rep at the time for least broad alertness*

    ie the soon-to-be-born new wave of british heavy metal!

  17. 17
    Mark M on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Re: 10 – Mr Byrne would be the oddest choice to illustrate the US-UK divide not only because a) he doesn’t code as what the rest of the world perceives as American but b) because technically he’s not American (“I still have a British passport. It’s kind of a point of pride.”)

  18. 18

    […] while going through The Pitchfork 500 (the first of a series of posts that I hope he can continue): So to distract myself, a summing up (1% of the way in!). Bowie + Pop + Reed + Kraftwerk + Eno = what? Artifice + […]

  19. 19
    Tom on 3 Dec 2008 #

    Re #12 and #13 – because of the way the format works (when the music stops, so does the writing – bar correcting typos etc.) you’re getting my bad and sketchy thinking at the same time as my good – so commenting and exposing said thinking is highly worthwhile!

  20. 20
    koganbot on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Mark, I think you’re underestimating the extent that the Stones were taken to be hoodlums in ’65 by fans as well as enemies and also the extent to which what they were doing was not considered music (don’t know how many fans were musos but certainly the population at large were not Stones fans anyway and I don’t recall musicianship being the first word that came up in the public discourse about the Rolling Stones). That said, the gap you cite was stronger by ’75, though the Stones weren’t particularly the group that the anti-musos would fixate on (Cream and the Proggers more likely). There was a bit of “can’t play their instruments” in the U.S. aimed at MC5 and Alice Cooper and Grand Funk and Dolls and Stooges and Ramones, though as I recall the divide it was more “they’re showbiz not music” rather than “they’re incompetent not competent.” But then it’s hard to locate the Stones on the anti-showbiz side of the line, or for that matter on the anti-glitter-glam side. And impossible to locate Dolls et al. on an anti-Stones side. (Of course, it was something of an achievement, I’m sure, not to notice that the Sex Pistols were musicians who sounded somewhat like the Stones.)

  21. 21
    koganbot on 4 Dec 2008 #

    “falsely” is unclear in 14: does it mean “dishonestly” or “deludedly” or “deliberately ambiguously” (probably all three at difft times, with early roxy and soulboy-era bowie the place where it gets to be all three at once, maybe)

    Probably more “deludedly”; I think there’s a genuine attempt to assert control over style by saying it’s there for our manipulation but we are too fast to get trapped into any style; so we’re using style, it’s not using us. I think Bowie especially was very haunted by the failure of the ’60s to create new styles that remained viable; I wouldn’t say that the failure of ’60s ideals is particularly at play for Stansfield and Girls Aloud and Winehouse. Um, I wonder where Madonna would land in all this?

  22. 22
    koganbot on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Where would you put punk in relation to shapeshifting stylization? Seems to me that there’s a lot of it through ’78, not so much afterwards.

    Would a disbelief in the power of Music also be a disbelief in the existence of Cool? Either you locate Cool somewhere outside of Music and its countercultures/subcultures or you have a very ambivalent attitude towards the notion of Cool altogether. Of course, “cool” may be the Superword par excellence, even more than “punk” is, since it’s hard to think of cool as being anything other than a step outside yourself into a better perspective, so cool always recedes with the horizon. Cool is likely to be local and ephemeral. I don’t particularly see Lester or Johnny as having located cool within themselves, though they don’t necessarily have a lot of say in the matter.

  23. 23
    Izzy on 4 Dec 2008 #

    ‘Psycho Killer’ just came on shuffle – I’d never noticed that gag before. Tom, you have enhanced my life. Excellent stuff!

  24. 24
    vinylscot on 4 Dec 2008 #

    Enjoyed your brief comments on most of 1-16, Tom. Hope you can keep going all the way to 500!

    It inspired me to spoil the surprise and find out what the other 484 are, and unfortunately I find it to be rather uninspiring and more than a little obtuse (I admit that perhaps reading the book, rather than the list on its own could possibly help, especially with regard to how the songs were picked)

    As the rather over-critical reviewer on Amazon suggests, there will be gullible people out there who will buy this book and base their views on the music of the last 30 years on its content.

    I find this sad, especially with the ready availability of music making it so much easier to make your own mind up!

    I’ve always thought that way, and liked much that was scorned by others (ELO, Cheap Trick, JJ72, Supernaturals, etc.etc.) while positively despising some of the music put forward by critics as “Indispensable” (“Forever Changes”, Tim Buckley, Nick bloody Drake, and so on)

    The list is OK for bringing attention to some songs you may not know, possibly due to one’s age or the American slant to the list, but that’s all it is, a starting point.

    It is also rather annoying, having lived through all this, that the practice of separating the genres leads you to think they’ve missed something out in their chronological(ish) list, only to find they’ve put it in under a different genre. (Did the genre-splitting result in quotas and/or tokenism? – e.g must there be 50 folky songs to make up the quota even though maybe only 25 are among the top 500 songs? Is “Rawhide” really Scott Walker’s best song, or was there just a space available in a genre for it?)

    It is in no way commercially or aesthetically the best 500 songs of the past 30 years. I can see no way anyone could argue otherwise.

    (I’m actually quite surprised at Pitchfork calling the book that – perhaps it is tongue-in-cheek, which would be more in keeping with the ethos of the site, in which case most of what I’ve written above may be bollocks!)

  25. 25
    vinylscot on 5 Dec 2008 #

    Above comment should have read “Is “Rawhide” really Scott Walker’s best song in the past 30 years?” Almost everything on “Tilt” and a few tracks on “The Drift” are better. (Just thought I’d clear that up to save someone pointing out that so many of his tracks are more than 30 years old..)

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