Tough category, primarily because there ain’t been much in the way of true rock-n-roll since, well the late 60’s or early 70’s.
And rock-n-roll is. . .well, the real thing anyway, is a fusion of African American blues, jazz, gospel, and country musical traditions all wound up into the rhythm and blues—race music—of the 40’s and 50s with a dash of folk. The first widely played of such was probably the rockabilly music of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis and Doo-Wop artists such as the Platters and The Coasters. A good sampling was the soundtrack of American Graffiti, released in 1973.
And this movie informs about what we mean culturally by the term rock-n-roll. Nevermind the “official” definition, it is the backdrop of life, the music of cruising. In the early-to-mid seventies in Fort Smith, this took place primarily between the Hardees on Grand and KISR radio on Greenwood. It was the music of fun, of wasting time, of rebellion, love, angst, pride, and loss.
If the music makes you want to turn out the lights and listen to it, it may be very good—Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd come to mind—but it ain’t rock-n-roll for this usage.
It ain’t disco neither.. In the old days, B. D. (Before Disco), you could hear quite the eclectic mix of sounds on the pop radio stations (disco so fragmented the market, that now it is hard to hear that type of mix anymore). The standard I am using is simple: if it could have been played on KISR in the late 70’s format, it is rock-n-roll, otherwise, it is not.
When I worked in a Madcat’s, a record store in the late 70’s, we used to while away a few of the hours of boredom (which usually occurred on Tuesday afternoons in February) thinking up lists like this, so there is some history and practice in this, and probably a prejudice towards 60’s and 70’s music.
So on to the list:
1. and 1a. Layla Derek and the Dominoes (the two part rocker and piano solo) and Clapton (the changed unplugged version). The guitar work, the piano, the sheer pain in Clapton’s voice as he pines over George Harrison’s wife, make the original a standard of the genre. Try to listen for the transition from the guitar to piano; probably you will be lost in the song, but if you miss it, replay the track. It’s worth it.
2. Free Bird—the almost interminably long live version by Lynerd Skynyrd, which my son claims is the test of all tests for a drummer’s stamina. Poignant, proud, sad and exultant lyrics with some of the best melody for a strong rock ballad.
3. Imagine, Lennon’s gift to the world, his view of what the world could be and an ideal, which, if we are honest, we should all strive for. Timeless, true and challenging.
4. The French Inhaler by Warren Zevon loss of glamour and life, haunting words: “How you gonna make your way in the world woman when you weren’t cut out for working, and your fingers are slender and frail” at the beginning and “when the lights came up at two and I caught a clear glimpse of you, your face looked like something death brought with him in a suitcase, you pretty face, devastated. . .” Yes, this is an odd choice, by Zevon was an incredible talent and this song infects you. It made this list because it is about loss.
5. Paint it Black, Mick and the boys with a dark fun song, perhaps the Stones at their best (or Sympathy for the Devil, I alternate).
6. Alice’s Restaurant Massacre by Arlo Guthre. Ok, I am not sure this fits as rock-n-roll, but it did tick off the establishment so much when it came out, it really just has to be on the list. The story of a draft-avoider in the Vietnam period. My grandmother loved this song and wanted me to play it a lot. My father, not so much.
7. Smells Like Teen Spirit probably the best thing Nirvana ever did. Seemed to give every kid something, what, I am not sure, but something. And just a great sound.
8. Yesterday, McCartney’s gift to posterity. Sad and very very lyrical. Perhaps the most covered song of all time for a reason. This is another odd choice for a listing of rock-n-roll because, while the Beatles were a rock-n-roll band, they made a lot of other music as well, of which this is a prime example. A similar song, which almost got put here is Nights in White Satin by the Moody Blues( this one is on the all night 50,000 watt radio station at three in the morning and you are driving a desolate highway in south eastern Colordo and a truck – a big rig – pulls out of the all night cafe and almost hits you because its driver is wrapped up in this song, remembering the first time he heard it and remembering the first time he touched a woman this song was playing . . .and you pull over and cry, remembering your first time. Not many songs are like that. This one is.) And yes, I know this is not the original album cover . . I Wish I had one with the original cover though.
9. The End, Jim Morrison’s generation shattering anthem of the 60’s. After the Doors, we never really looked at our parents, or anything, really, the same way again.
10. All I Wanna Do by Sheryl Crow. . .sitting in a bar wasting time, talking to Billy while the real world goes by. A fun song, with a quick hook. In the same vein is the B52’s Love Shack. Just fun.
Yes, I KNOW there are at least a thousand other songs that many will say are better than these, and I would probably agree with most. Where, for example, is Elvis’s Hound Dog or Suspicious Minds (my favorite Elvis song), or Great Balls of Fire (is there a more exciting song?) by Jerry Lee or Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues or anything by the Who or Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Dylan, Cream, Queen, Deep Purple, Steppenwolf, AC/DC, or, for crying out loud—Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida?
Leaving off the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and any of the corporate rock bands was intentional.
Regardless of what Rolling Stone or anyone thinks, there is no one single best song ever, but there are just a whole lot of great ones.