Thursday, 31 December 2009

The songs that defined a decade...

A friend of mine recently suggested I broadcast the 'best ever singles' (in sequence) on my radio show. I yawned and suggested it had not only been done many times before, but it was a fatuous exercise - one man's best being another's boredom.

He stated that this time it would be different. It wouldn't be any old top ten, it would be THE top ten, not opinion but FACT, by which he meant not somebody else's opinion but HIS.

Too dulled by red wine to argue, I asked him for his list. He reeled it off, expressing the pleasures of many an onanistic hour spent considering this important matter. Too sharpened by red wine not to argue, we then spent a further pleasurable hour or two debating the merits of his list.

His claims to objectivity were limited by the fact that all of his contenders dated back to his youth - from the mid-sixties to the late seventies. Now there is an argument that states this was the golden era of pop music in which the all that a guitar, bass, drums and the human voice can do was done and what has followed has been little more than repetition to ever diminishing returns. It is an argument I have some sympathy with; I've even been known to make it myself on occasion.

But I also have an observation: when it comes to pop music lists, the compiler invariably focuses on the music made when they were in their teens and twenties. Most of us are unable to keep up with the charts beyond the age of thirty. There are exceptions, but they tend to be parents who want to be their children's friends, rather than assume their rightful role of enemy. These funky families share record collections. My God, they even go to gigs together. They probably also share sexually transmitted diseases.

Yes, most of us maintain the diet of our salad days, and are convinced any other vittles just don't taste as good. We're prepared to proclaim the merits of the early Beatles puppy love singles whilst dismissing the current teenie bop pop as mush for minds yet to grow up, their hearing distorted by hormones. We'll extol the virtues of David Bowie and Roxy Music but choke or chortle over Lady Ga Ga's latest bizarre costume creation. We'll wallow in punk rock nostalgia but bemoan the violence implicit - or explicit - in contemporary rap.

How do we break out of the strait-jacket of our times? If there's one thing I like better than lists, it's rules. Give me a list of rules and I'm a happy chappy, so long as I drew them up myself, of course. So I suggested to my friend we make our own lists of the ten songs that defined each of the last five decades, then spend several more happy and drunken hours arguing over them:

1. The songs should have been popular. What's the point of pop music if it's not a hit? Number ones are preferred, but sometimes the tortoise wins the race, so any chart single will be considered so long as it's a genuine hit.

2. The songs should be insanely catchy. When you hear one, it doesn't leave your head for a week. Come across it forty years later, and it's still there, playing on repeat in some back room of your mind. You should know it even if you think you've never heard it - the best pop music has the properties of a virus, enters by osmosis.

3. The songs should be like nothing else before them. Not just popular but ground-breaking. Look back over the charts of past decades and you'll soon realise how many forgettable singles sold in spades. Invariably, those who made a new sound made it best.

4. The songs should have influenced what followed. Sure, there are some one-offs that no one could repeat, most often because no one wanted to. All the best music has its imitators. We think the music of the past is better than that of today because we only remember what of it is worth remembering.

5. The songs should soundtrack their times. When we hear them, we should be transported back then and there - wear the clothes and know the moves that accompanied the grooves. Pop music is the folk music of today. Therefore, in it's own unconscious way, it should also have something to say about its here and now.

If I don't stop on five rules, I'll have to make it ten, so that will do for now. Let's try them out on a couple of decades that bookend the pop era, see what we come up with...

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