Thursday, 31 December 2009

The songs that defined a decade... The sixties.

1. 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' by The Beatles (1964)

This isn't a list of the best songs of the decade, remember, but the singles that defined it. This number was not only The Beatles' biggest selling single, but also the one that broke the American market, the number one of that infamous top five that accompanied their first transatlantic trip. It's also the number in which Bob Dylan heard the refrain as 'I get high...' inspiring him to our boys their first joint. They were quick learners, those Liverpudlians.

2. 'Like a Rolling Stone' by Bob Dylan (1965)

Talking of Dylan, even his most vehement detractors find it difficult to argue against his being one of the defining personalities of the decade. There's an argument for choosing one of his earlier protest songs - 'The Times They Are A-Changin', say or 'Blowin' in the Wind' - but they were never chart hits and besides, as a pop phenomenon this was his pinnacle. At over six minutes in length, it broke all the rules of radio play, its impressionistic and yet accusing language was hardly typical pop fodder, and yet yet it hit the top ten all over the world. More importantly, that opening snare shot kicked open the doors of the minds of a generation to a different way of being, described in sound by Mike Bloomfield's spiky guitar and Al Kooper's swirling organ riff. It regularly, and rightly, tops lists of the best singles of all time.

3. 'Make it Easy on Yourself' by 'The Walker Brothers' (1965)

Many would argue for 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore', an equally great song from the following year, but this was their first hit single and had teenage girls pursuing Scott Walker and his supposed brothers wherever they went. It was composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, probably the best non-performing writing team of the era, for Dionne Warwick and has been recorded by many other artists since, but this is the defining rendition. Scott now spends his time hanging out in betting shops and backstreet boozers or beating lumps of meat in his avant-garde recordings, released in album form once a decade or so, but for all the qualities of his later solo albums, this was his great pop moment.

4. 'I Got You (I Feel Good)' by James Brown (1965)

The Godfather defined the black music of the era - funk, soul and rhythm 'n' blues - and still seems somehow more current than his contemporaries. With 99 charting hits, there's plenty to choose from, but this was both his biggest smash and signature tune, concise in single form but lending itself to extended workouts on stage.The screams, hollers, drum beat and horn riff have all been sampled numerous times. If there's one artist of the sixties who is truly still setting the agenda for the mainstream of today - dominated by r'n'b and hip-hop - then it's James Brown.

5. 'Good Vibrations' by The Beach Boys (1966)

If we're keeping it simple with our Beatles choice, we've got to go for one of Brian Wilson's mini pop symphonies by The Beach Boys to show how musically complex pop was to get within a couple of years of the puppy love songs typical of the early decade. I'm not saying this is my favourite of their songs - that would be 'God Only Knows' - or even my favourite track of theirs of this type - 'Heroes and Villains' - but while many would advocate going with one of their earlier surf sound classics, but this sums up the ambition of the times when the best composers aspired to out-do each other with every release, create a pure pop masterpiece and top the charts both sides of the Atlantic.

6. 'I'm a Believer' by The Monkees (1966)

The first - and best - of the manufactured boy bands were put together as an American rival to The Beatles, and made a clutch of classic singles, written by some of the best songwriters of the day, before claiming their independence and drifting towards the psychedelic obscurity of 'Head'. All four members had musical talent and creative ambition, qualities no longer priorities to those assembling X-factor style pop acts. The Monkees TV series is a repository of sixties fashion, humour and music and still bears watching today. This number, the biggest selling hit of 1967, was written by Neil Diamond, one of the several Brill Building writers who developed successful recording careers in their own right, and demonstrates that even teeniebop pop can be great.

7. 'River Deep, Mountain High' by Ike and Tina Turner (1966)

Phil Spector has claims on being the producer of the decade and many consider this to be his best work, himself included. Ike Turner might be credited on the label, and ran his revue like Spector governed the studio - but was paid to stay away during recording. It's flop Stateside caused Spector to withdraw from the music industry and lose himself in paranoia and conspiracy. In the UK, it reached number three, justifying its inclusion as a bona fide hit. Many other Spector productions were contenders, but this was his peak, despite some contending that backing black voices with a white pop sound had passed its sell-by date by 1966, the height of the civil rights era.

8. 'Purple Haze' by Jimi Hendrix (1967)

With only one slot available for some riff-driven rock'n'roll there are some tough choices to be made. 'Satisfaction' by The Rolling Stones and 'My Generation' by The Who are each contenders. Both bands certainly had a hand in defining the decade, although arguably didn't hit the heights of their creativity or international fame until the seventies. As well as being the greatest guitarist of his generation - indeed, of all time - Hendrix is the bridge between English and American psychedelia and defines the Summer of Love.

9. 'Waterloo Sunset' by The Kinks (1967)

It's been called the most beautiful song of the rock'n'roll era and the greatest ever written about London but even though it is born of urban loneliness, which has never sounded more romantic, its tone is more that of an English pastoral. Almost thirty years later it became the lodestone of the Britpop movement ,but although some came close, none managed to match its perfection and although he kept up his run of classsic singles into the early seventies, Ray Davies didn't either.

10. 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine' by Marvin Gaye (1968)

If Phil Spector epitomised the master-slave model of pop hit production, Tamla Motown established a new business model, run and staffed by black musicians, collectively making records for a burgeoning multi-racial market that broke the traditionally segregated audiences of both radio station and concert hall. Again, there are many contenders from the Motown repertoire, but this one stands out. It was also recorded by The Miracles, The Pips and the Isley Brothers before finally becoming a hit for Marvin Gaye. Berry Gordy hated the track and it might never have been a hit if it weren't for only relenting unprecedented demand from DJs and the public for it to be released off the 'In the Groove' album which was later renamed to bear its title.

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