Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Top 10 Greatest Chuck Berry Songs.

A week ago today, the great Chuck Berry passed away. He was one of the most influential icons of the music, as well as its first great singer-songwriter.

Of the scores of classics that would flow from his pen & guitar, these are the ten greatest.

10. "Too Much Monkey Business," Single A-Side, 1956; #4 R&B.

If rock & roll long has been the outlet of "awkward teenage blues," it was Chuck Berry who first made it that way. Although he was a married man in his early 30s by the time he was a major star, he could think like a teenager, & turn the woes of adolescence into poetry. "Too Much Monkey Business" was his breakthrough in doing so, articulating the every day trials of going to school, the monotony of low-paying jobs, the annoyances of billings & payments, the frustrations in pursuit of romance. He also filled the allegedly simple music with more words than anyone could cram into a verse until a Bob Dylan plugged in nearly a decade later. Before Dylan turned to folk, you know the young teenage rocker from Duluth was studying songs like this one.

9. "You Never Can Tell," Single A-Side, 1964; #14 Pop / #14 R&B / #23 UK.

The Lost Generation for the Rock & Roll Generation, as a couple of ex-pat Americans get married in France, swapping New Orleans for Orleans. The details of teenage life were still intact--the hi-fi phono, the coolerator with TV dinners & ginger ale--but this was also a signal of a changing of the guards, finding the young characters growing up & getting married; appropriately, it was released the year The Beatles invaded America, as rock was transitioning from its first to second generation. It also had a structure closer to a folk song than Berry's usual blues-based fare. Perhaps this is why it sounded as fresh in 1964 as it did in the famous twist contest scene in Pulp Fiction some 30 years later--its sheer timelessness.

8. "Sweet Little Sixteen," Single A-Side, 1958; #2 Pop / #1 R&B / #16 UK.

Three years before James Brown hopped onboard the "Night Train," Chuck Berry was using rock music to unite the country by calling out cities until they became one big dance party, all centered around a sweet little sixteen-year-old rock and roll super fan. The idea was too irresistible not to lift, & so Brian Wilson used it as the template of surf rock's national anthem, "Surfin' U.S.A.," replacing the cities with beaches & adding six-part harmony. Never one to miss a trick, Berry sued him over it & currently holds a songwriting co-credit. Yet Wilson is not one to hold a grudge--after Berry's death this week, he said that it was Berry who taught him how to write a rock & roll song.

7. "School Days," Single A-Side, 1957; #3 Pop / #1 R&B / #24 UK.

If "Too Much Monkey Business" found Chuck Berry first articulating the language of youth, "School Days" found him perfecting it. Built upon a now-classic call-&-response blues structure (which Berry would use for another major hit in the following decade, "No Particular Place To Go"), "School Days" was two songs in one: A lament of life in the classroom, followed by the freedom of the after-school juke joint. The escape to freedom was reinforced with lines like "As soon as three o'clock rolls around/You finally lay your burden down," shrewdly borrowing a phrase from the old spiritual "Down By The Riverside." But the finest lines come at the end, & they rank among the most iconic in all of rock phraseology: "Hail, hail rock & roll/Deliver me from the days of old!" With "School Days," these words were a self-fulfilling prophecy.

6. "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Single B-Side, 1956.

The party line is that rock didn't get political until the mid-'60s, when Bob Dylan brought the consciousness of folk into the music. But "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" shoots this narrative down. In the midst of the Civil Rights struggle, Berry wrote one of rock's slyest protest songs, & pulling off the rare feat of making it both funny & sexy. While the deeper layer of social commentary might have missed many of his white listeners, his African-American fans knew the song was code for a brown-skinned handsome man. Why else would the central character get "arrested on charges of unemployment"? Best of all was the final verse, which seemingly paid tribute to Jackie Robinson, winning the game like the brown-eyed handsome American hero he was.

5. "Promised Land," Single A-Side, 1964; #41 Pop / #41 R&B / #26 UK.

"This is the map, as 'The Poor Boy' sets out from Norfolk, Virginia, to discover the country: a journey that moves from poverty to wealth, from a bus to a plane setting down at LAX. All pop music that takes America as a subject—whether winding toward tragedy or toward an even sweeter harmony—runs off this mountain. Written when Berry was in prison; he needed an atlas to get the geography right, and when he requested one from the prison library, word went out that he was plotting an escape—which, of course, he was." -- Greil Marcus, "Promised Land: Thirty Records About America," Rolling Stone, May 28, 1998.

I got nothing to add, except, perhaps, I love his evocation of the old slave spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" at the end.

4. "Rock & Roll Music," Single A-Side, 1957; #8 Pop / #6 R&B.

The first great rock and roll song about rock and roll songs. In just two-and-a-half minutes, Berry characteristically covers A LOT of ground: He disses symphonies, clarifies his stance on modern jazz, and overlooks tangos; he praises the backbeat of the drums, the wailing saxophone, & the rocking piano; he goes across the tracks, way down South, a spiritual jubilee, & a honky-tonk jamboree; he dances, he gets shook up, he drinks home-brew from a wooden cup with a bunch of hillbillies. It all adds up to a sound that, like the sax player mentioned in the song, blows like a hurricane. No wonder The Beatles loved this song--& eventually turned it into one of their finest classic rock covers.

3. "Roll Over Beethoven," Single A-Side, 1956; #29 Pop / #2 R&B.

A changing of the guards. As a record, it was pioneering rock & roll, but as a message, it was pure punk rock. For centuries, great music meant Bach, Mozart, & Beethoven, but with everything else in the post-WWII era, music demanded to get bigger, louder, & more modern. More than any other song, "Roll Over Beethoven" extended the new generation's middle finger to the old generation's aesthetics, righteously declaring their own new music would unseat the old. & most astonishingly, it did--at least, as much as a new music can. Rock has taken over classical--&/or all other refined musics--as the mainstream default for listeners of all ages & generations. It was Chuck Berry who was more than just a leader of the new sound, but a modern arts visionary. Tell Tchaikovsky the news, indeed. 

2. "Maybellene," Single A-Side, 1955; #5 Pop / #1 R&B.

"Maybellene" is one of those records that simply changed everything. While Elvis gets credit for being the "hillbilly cat" who stepped into the blues with "That's All Right" in 1954, his song was a regional hit that never made it to the national charts, & is much better-known today. However, Berry's first record, "Maybellene," was one of the biggest hits of his career, & found that it was just as revolutionary for an African-American man to discover country. Built around the one-two country stomp of "Ida Red," Berry appears to have taken the refrain of a love song & wed it to the verse of a car-race song. While it shouldn't work--is Maybellene a car? A girl in his car? A girl in the other car? Someone else entirely?--it does, & all but single-handedly establishes the subject-matter of the car & the sound of the guitar as central to rock & roll music. When "Maybellene" came out, the piano & saxophone were still rivaling the guitar as its signature instrument. After "Maybellene," & the future Chuck Berry hits it enabled, the guitar was enshrined at rock & roll's core.

1. "Johnny B. Goode," Single A-Side, 1958; #8 Pop / #2 R&B.

"The gateway from freedom, I was led to understand, was somewhere 'close to New Orleans' where most Africans were sorted through and sold," Berry wrote in his 1987 autobiography. "I'd been told my great grandfather lived 'way back up in the woods among the evergreens' in a log cabin. I revived the era with a story about a 'colored boy name [sic] Johnny B. Goode.' My first thought was to make his life follow as my own had come along, but I thought it would seem biased to white fans to say 'colored boy' and changed it to 'country boy.' As it turned out, my name was in lights and it is a fact that 'Johnny B. Goode' is most instrumental in causing it to B."

Chuck Berry's signature triumph is a recasting of The American Dream as a rock & roll fantasy, going to the deepest origin of American slavery and using a guitar as the gateway to the sweetest freedom. It is also, not coincidentally, his finest guitar playing; though countless Chuck Berry songs begin with a guitar intro, none drive it home like this one, such that the double (!) guitar solo in the middle feels like a homecoming followed by a victory lap. & while many of his original recordings sound almost loose & sluggish to modern ears raised on the tightness of The Beatles & Rolling Stones covers that helped to familiarize these songs for the last 50 years, "Johnny B. Goode" is an exception--it is a tight, rocking performance that never gets old, often covered but never improved upon.

It is not only Chuck Berry's greatest song, but the greatest rock & roll record of them all.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Top 10 Greatest Chuck Berry Covers.

As I wrote in my Last Thoughts On Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry's songbook is the rock & roll songbook. Only Bob Dylan is more covered than he is, but with 10 years on him, Chuck Berry's covers have the wider scope.

While I'm now listening to a lot of Chuck Berry, & a greatest list of his own best recordings is to come, I thought there was no finer tribute to his life & influence than the ways in which others have breathed life into his art. Hence this list, which attempts to fight through the countless Chuck Berry covers out there to make a definitive Top 10 list.

I tried to go by the quality of the recording (or in the case of The Sex Pistols, lack thereof), not who was doing it. I was very tempted by Bob Dylan's version of "Nadine," David Bowie's version of "Round & Round," & Jerry Lee Lewis's "Little Queenie," but ultimately left them all off because it would have been more about including those artists on the list, as opposed to their versions of Chuck Berry's songs.

Some of these songs were major career-defining hits, others were shelved outtakes or rough demos; some appeared at the dawn of an artist's career, others in the twilight. What they all have in common is a love for Chuck Berry--which is to say, a love for rock & roll itself.

10. The Sex Pistols: "Johnny B. Goode," Demo, c. 1975.

By the time The Sex Pistols emerged in the mid-'70s, the once-raw genre of rock & roll that Chuck Berry helped usher into the world had become lifeless & bloated. The Pistols helped to rebuild the genre by tearing it down to its studs, & here in a classic early demo later released on The Great Rock & Roll Swindle soundtrack, they take on Rock Version 1.0, wherein they attempt to play "Johnny B. Goode," the greatest rock song of all. SPOILER: THEY CAN'T. But if they sound like a bunch of no-talent snotty kids banging around in the garage that's the point. & even though they had yet to release their first single, singer Johnny Rotten's venom is already fully-intact, bluffing his way through the words like they were caustic nails. It was this same hellfire that helped to reignite rock for the next 35 years & counting.

9. The Band: "Back To Memphis," Studio Outtake, 1973.

As if anyone needed evidence of the range of Chuck Berry's appeal, look no further to one of the least-talented rock bands (above), followed by one of the most-talented ones here. Initially recorded for their 1973 album of classic rock covers, Moondog Matinee, this Berry super deep-cut was shelved in favor of a solid-but-unremarkable version "Promised Land." By the late 1980s, however, the reissue powers-that-be were reissuing this song on Band compilations everywhere, after dubbing in fake crowd fanfare to pass it off as a live performance. Here is the undoubted original studio recording, which shows why no one questioned the authenticity of the fanfare--it's the rare Band studio recordings that capture their contagious onstage energy.

8. Johnny Rivers: "Memphis," At The Whiskey A Go Go, 1964; #2 US.

This could be a sequel to "Back To Memphis" if it wasn't recorded nearly a decade earlier. It is also probably the most classic Chuck Berry song that no one realized was originally a Chuck Berry song. A down-home country ballad of a man pleading with a long-distance operator, it was remade into a minor rock classic with Johnny Rivers' live version here (it also interestingly inverts The Band's recording above in that instead of featuring a fake crowd on a studio recording, this is a real live recording that sounds like a fake one). & for those wondering how Johnny Rivers made a list with greater rock idols, perhaps he is a secret weapon of rock covers--when pressed for his favorite cover of one of his songs, Bob Dylan famously said Johnny Rivers version of "Positively 4th Street." So maybe his presence here isn't so strange after all.

7. The Beatles: "Roll Over Beethoven," With The Beatles, 1963; #68 US.

To modern ears, Chuck Berry's original versions can sometimes drag a bit, even when the singing & playing are top-notch ("Johnny B. Goode," of course, is an exception to this). Often, when you name a classic like "Roll Over Beethoven," people are actually thinking of The Beatles cover of it, not because it is necessarily better, but simply tighter, faster, & more modern. In one of George Harrison's earliest vocals, he tries his hand at this classic & announces the arrival of a second generation of rock & rollers. Within a few years, albums like Revolver & Sgt. Pepper would be hailed as artistic achievements that actually would rival Beethoven in a very real way. But here, they're still having fun in a track that was strong enough to kick off their second American album & even be a minor hit on this side of the pond.


6. The Rolling Stones: "Bye Bye Johnny," The Rolling Stones [EP], 1964.

It's not easy picking an early Rolling Stones cover of a Chuck Berry song; there were simply so many. "Carol" was strong enough to be released as a Top 10 hit in France, while "Around & Around" was a fine tribute recorded at Berry's own Chess Records. But their cover of Berry's little-known sequel record to "Johnny B. Goode" is the best to my ears, released on their first EP in 1963. It documents The Stones as raw & hungry, at once near-amateurish compared to the production values of their rival Beatles, yet able to provide a dense onslaught of sound that already full of toughness & swagger. Plus, lead guitarist Keith Richards already establishes himself as Berry's spiritual eager kid brother. They would record bigger & more popular Berry covers in the years to come, but the sheer sound of this one leaves the others in the dust.

5. The Yardbirds: "Too Much Monkey Business," Five Live Yardbirds, 1964.

Long before the likes of Cream, Derek & The Dominoes, & a sprawling solo career, Eric Clapton was a scrawny guitar hero in The Yardbirds. He was nicknamed "Slowhand" because he played his guitar so fast that he'd break strings & have to change them to the sound of a slow handclap; within months, "Clapton is God" graffiti began appearing in the London subway halls (much to Clapton's embarrassment). Before he left The Yardbirds for more greener (or rather, blues-ier) pastures, he left this searing document, taken from their sets at the Marquee Club. This song was their opener & they all but blow the roof off the top of it in the performance. While everything revolves around Clapton, I'm always most tickled by Keith Relf's vocals, solidly singing the words in verse, shouting them in another, & then dutifully reciting them in a detached sense of boredom that cuts to the teenage blues at the heart of the song. Before getting obliterated once again by those guitar solos.

4. The Million Dollar Quartet: "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Studio Jam, 1956.

Long before the likes of Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry was rock & roll's premiere wordsmith. Compared to contemporaries like Elvis or Fats Domino, Berry's songs were epics where the others' were merely three-stanza poems. Berry was a man who truly loved words & putting them together in memorable ways. One realizes this when listening to the famous Million Dollar Quartet jam session where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, & Johnny Cash turned to Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man." For several takes, you can hear them collectively honing in on the song, different people remembering different parts of different verses, until it all comes together here. If one needs any further evidence of strongly Berry was on the rock founders' minds, look no further than the fact that aside from "Don't Be Cruel," this is the only rock song sung by The Million Dollar Quartet for the nearly 80-minute session.

3. Buddy Holly: "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Reminiscing, c. 1956; #113 US, #3 UK.

An opposite take on "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" by no less of a founding rock god. Precise where The Million Dollar Quartet was loose, & rocking where they were almost folksy, Buddy Holly's version of the song reshapes it into a driving rockabilly masterpiece (with a seeming tip of the hat to The Champs' "Tequila," although Berry himself loved a good Latin groove as well). & when the snare drum hits to emulate the high-fly being hit into the stands, it is a subtle use of sound effects that presages songs like "Penny Lane" by a decade. Although not originally released during Holly's lifetime, it saw the light of day just before The Beatles invaded America, even making the Top 5 in the Holly-loving UK.

2. Elvis Presley: "Promised Land," Promised Land, 1974; #14 US.

Elvis's last truly classic recording was also his first great cover of a Chuck Berry song. He had tried in overeager readings of "Maybellene" at the Louisiana Hayride & later in listless recitations of "Johnny B. Goode" in Las Vegas, but only his mid-'60s country take on "Too Much Monkey Business" was close to interesting, & only then because it was the only Elvis recording to feature the word "Vietnam." But in 1974, Elvis showed he still had something left to prove when he attacked Berry's "Promised Land." Perhaps it was because the song contained an idea as big as Elvis--THE Promised Land--that he was up for the challenge, but its rock star travelogue version of The American Dream never sounded better than in Elvis's telling. Cut at Stax Records, it provided Elvis with the last Top 15 pop hit of his lifetime, although it deserved to go all the way to #1.

1. The Beatles: "Rock & Roll Music," The Beatles For Sale, 1964.

The Beatles' cover of Chuck Berry's "Rock & Roll Music" is easily the greatest Berry cover of all time. It encompasses all of the key elements that can be found in the other songs listed above--a sense of rawness, of quality, of reinvention, of tightness, of fun, & of simple, irreverent joy. Like they already had with "Roll Over Beethoven" the year before, The Beatles took Chuck Berry's original & tightened it up, locking it together in a way that the original version merely suggested. The words were never the problem in Berry's original--it was that the music never matched their promise. The Beatles fixed all of that. With Lennon shouting his finest vocal this side of "Twist & Shout," the group shows that even in the wistful, post-A Hard Day's Night period of late 1964, they could still rock out with the best of them.

& in doing so, more than hold their own against none other than their idol, Chuck Berry.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Last Thoughts On Chuck Berry, 1926-2017.

Years ago, I once read that Chuck Berry is the rock upon which rock & roll rests; to this day, I cannot think of a better way to put his influence.

Only The Beatles, Elvis, Dylan, & The Rolling Stones can rival him in influence, & of those 4, only Elvis is conceivable without him.

Simply put, Chuck Berry is rock & roll.

The depth, range, & influence of artists who have covered him is staggering: The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Sex Pistols, Jerry Lee Lewis, David Bowie, The Animals, The Kinks, The Band--& that's just off the top of my head & only counting songs that were officially released on official albums. Throw in live recordings, jam sessions, & bootlegs, & you'd have basically everyone ever.

His music is the blood that flows through the veins of rock & roll; take it away, & the history of the music dies.

The Beatles cut their teeth on his records. They paid credit both directly, with blistering covers of "Roll Over Beethoven" & "Rock & Roll Music," but also indirectly, when Lennon lifted the "Here come ol' flat top, he come groovin' up slowly" from Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" to begin his classic "Come Together." Lennon could be forgiven though; it was simply proof that by 1969, Chuck Berry was simply rock's second mind.

The Rolling Stones' first single was a cover of Berry's "Come On," while one of their early standout covers was "Carol." They also went to Chess Records, the temple where Chuck recorded, & laid down a great version of "Around & Around," which was also covered by The Animals that same year. (David Bowie cut a version of the same song seven years later; it was originally slated to go on the Ziggy Stardust album.) Did I write that Chuck Berry was rock's second mind by 1969? I take that back. By 1965, Mick Jagger took the line "I can't get no satisfaction from the judge" from Berry's "Thirty Days" & wrote what many consider to be rock's definitive anthem.

Those people are wrong, though. Rock's definitive anthem came seven years earlier when Chuck Berry released "Johnny B. Goode."

From the blazing guitar intro through the lyrics and the solo, no one could ever beat it, not even Chuck himself. It was the story of the American Dream told through the eyes of a young guitarist, highlighted by those two-note driving solos that Berry used build rock guitar's (which is to say, rock's) basic vocabulary. Any time you hear someone blasting out those double-note riffs, they are reaching for Chuck Berry's performance in "Johnny B. Goode."

Yet that said, "Johnny B. Goode" was not surprisingly the toughest Chuck Berry song to cover. Both The Beatles & Elvis made passes on it in live performances, but neither could come close. To best illustrate the point, listen to The Sex Pistols set it aflame in an early demo where they can't play it & Johnny Rotten doesn't know the words. They end up shouting "Go! Go! Go!" because it's all they can do. It's a pathetic mess, but in its own raw way, it blows away those versions by The Beatles & Elvis.

Elvis couldn't do a Chuck Berry song justice until he tackled "Promised Land" in 1975, & it was his last truly classic recording. Berry had written it in jail some fifteen years earlier & like "Johnny B. Goode" before it, it too told a version of the American Dream, only this time from East Coast to West, &, as Greil Marcus pointed out when he called it the greatest American song of all time (as in, song about America), rags to riches. It's like one big musical montage that ends with a phone call to the folks back home where it all began.

When Elvis had the famous Million Dollar Quartet jam session with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, & Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry was virtually the only rock on the menu that wasn't someone already in the room. The majority of the session leaned on gospel, country, & blues, but there was a hilarious stretch where they try to remember the words to "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" & piece it together in a gesture of love & admiration, with Elvis strumming away frantically on the acoustic guitar. Once they finally get it, Carl goes into a story about coming off of tour with Chuck Berry.

Chuck Berry touring was an interesting thing by the 1980s, where Berry would show up to a club with his guitar in hand, get his money, then go onstage & play with whatever band was there. Every band knows his songs, he rationalized, because his songs are the rock & roll songbook. A young Bruce Springsteen was in one of these bands in the 1970s; twenty years later, he would back Berry at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Concert in 1995. In the years in between, he released a live version of "Run, Run Rudolph," proving even Berry's Christmas songs were nothing to be ignored.

& then there are the Chuck Berry songs that lead to other songs. Brian Wilson so clearly lifted Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" for The Beach Boys' 1963 breakthrough "Surfin' U.S.A." that Wilson eventually had to give him a co-authorship credit; years earlier, rhythm & blues singer Richard Berry (no relation) used the pidgin English of Chuck's "Havana Moon" as a main inspiration for "Louie, Louie," later immortalized by The Kingsmen in a song that all but invented punk rock.

& then there is the popular memory. Back To The Future (Marty McFly playing "Johnny B. Goode" while the film's greatest line is spoken: "Hey Chuck, this is your cousin Marvin, Marvin Berry! You know that new sound you've been looking for? Well listen to THIS!") & Pulp Fiction (the twist dance contest scene, set to "You Never Can Tell") put Chuck Berry into motion picture history in a way that even his own Hail, Hail Rock & Roll documentary could not. When John Lennon & Yoko Ono cohosted The Mike Douglas Show in the 1970s, they jumped at the chance to have Chuck Berry on, & then jumped at the chance to play with him on stage (it serves as a reminder that for everything that Lennon's presence supposedly represented about the counterculture, he was still most wowed by '50s rock & roll). & when NASA shot a rocket into space representing human culture, Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" was among its artifacts. Saturday Night Live famously quipped that the first response from alien life has been received & it is: "Send more Chuck Berry."

& as some like to tell it, Chuck Berry's 1955 first hit single, "Maybellene," was the first rock & roll record of them all.

The one & only time I ever saw Chuck Berry was 50 years to the day after "Maybellene" was released, in August of 2005, at the nightclub he owned in St. Louis, Blueberry Hill, which oddly named after a Fats Domino song. Even odder was that, after much fanfare about this being the 50th anniversary of "Maybellene," he didn't even play the song. My sister & I had gotten there early, stood in line for a few hours, & sat in the front row. Even though he was in his 80s, he came out like a king & was rock royalty in a way I have only ever seen in person from his contemporaries like Jerry Lee Lewis & B.B. King--those pre-television legends who could really hold a stage.

With his son leading the band, Berry played 10 songs in 60 minutes, 9 of his classics & one Jimmy Reed cover. He was spry, sprightly, having fun, & basking in the glow, & during "Johnny B. Goode," he even duckwalked, to my astonishment. He closed with "Reelin' & Rockin'," never one of my favorites at that time, but a favorite ever since. His band shrewdly pulled up girls onstage to dance (of which my sister was thrilled to be among the first, invited up by none other than Chuck Berry, Jr.), which allowed him to sneak out the back behind the wall of dancing girls. It was the rock & roll equivalent of disappearing in a cloud of smoke.

Now Chuck Berry is truly gone. It may be cliche, but it seems like there is nowhere else to end but with the final verse of "School Day," yet another song that, like so many others, is so vital to rock's repertoire but escaped my stream-of-conscious words above.

As the man said:

Hail, hail rock & roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock & roll
The beat of the drums, loud & bold
Rock, rock, rock & roll
The feeling is there, body & soul

Chuck Berry is dead. Long live Chuck Berry.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Top 10 Band Songs.

The Band--guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson (all of whom sang except for Hudson)--remain one of the most influential bands of all-time, pioneering what has since become known as Americana; ironic since they are 4/5ths Canadian. But then again, it was their outsider status that made them see America as those within never could.

With about a half-dozen "Best Of"s lists out there for The Band, I figured I'd add my own. I could add another 20 songs, but 10 keeps it more manageable; regardless, honorable mentions go to "Yazoo Street Scandal," the stripped-down version of "Twilight," & the lovely "It Makes No Difference," the latter of which makes nearly every other list (& even tops one), but is left off because its alto-sax-&-guitar coda is endless & hasn't aged very well.

With that out of the way, let's get to the list.

10. "Bessie Smith," The Basement Tapes, 1975 (Album Track).

A beautiful ballad that is striking in its seeming desire to be taken literally: When the singer sings that they are going down the road to meet Bessie Smith, you believe him, even if he too has no idea what he'll do once he gets there; meanwhile, Hudson's sense of atmosphere--always The Band's secret weapon--has never been on better display.

9. "Stage Fright," Stage Fright, 1970 (Album Track).

From the seclusion of their beloved Big Pink home to the audience they never quite knew how to face, this is the closest thing The Band ever came to an autobiography, sung by Danko in his most earnest performance at the microphone.

8. "We Can Talk," Music From Big Pink, 1968 (Album Track).

As with rock & roll itself, gospel had always been a secret engine driving The Band, & here it comes to full fruition in the piano-&-organ testimony found here, filled with overlapping vocals & call-&-response; it also features Robertson's sharpest set of vocals, a panorama of milking cows in Sunday suits, flames turning to chalk, and whips buried in the grave.

7. "Ophelia," Northern Lights -- Southern Cross, 1975 (#62 US).

Perhaps the most haunting mystery of Hamlet is whether Ophelia commits suicide, & this song not only runs with it--with the great line "Ashes of laughter/The ghost is clear," it seems to answer it; also features their best use of the ubiquitous horns that appear in the latter part of their career, driving home an icon of Shakespearean tragedy into a joyous funeral band march of the Dixieland South.

6. "The Shape I'm In," Stage Fright, 1970 (#121 US).

The Band always treated this song like it was the hit that it never really was (hence it's the second song in both The Last Waltz & their classic Best Of LP), but no matter--it kicks like the man sprung free from jail it portrays, & features the tragic Richard Manuel singing the most eerily foreshadowing lines Robertson ever wrote him: "Out of nine lives, I spent seven/Now how in the world do you get to Heaven?"

5. "Ain't No More Cain," The Basement Tapes, 1975 (Album Track).

An old chain-gang spiritual with all four vocalists trading verses (the order is: Helm, Robertson, Danko, & Manuel) while Hudson plays some down-home accordion; this is The Band at their most relaxed, natural, demographic, & effortlessly American--which is to say, their most Band-iest.


4. "Don't Do It," Rock Of Ages, 1972 (#34 US, #11 CA).

Their finest performance (& second-biggest hit), which remakes a minor Marvin Gaye song into a rock & roll history lesson: With The Bo Diddley Beat at its base, they add shouted vocals, funky guitar riffs, bluesy piano triplets, & country harmonies, all topped with New Orleans-styles horn charts from none other than the late, great Allen Toussaint.

3. "Up On Cripple Creek," The Band, 1969 (#25 US; #10 CA).

The Band's biggest hit & funkiest track, chockfull of accurate geography, horse races, Spike Jones records, and adultery.

2. "The Weight," Music From Big Pink, 1968 (#63 US; #35 CA).

The Band's most famous song; a quasi-religious pilgrimage through America about the burden of sin & the price of obligation, featuring the Devil, Miss Moses, & Crazy Chester's Dog.

1. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," The Band, 1969 (B-Side Of "Up On Cripple Creek).

The finest rock song about The Civil War ever written--all the more impressive that it was written by a Canadian (Robertson), albeit based on the stories of his Arkansas bandmate (Helm). Like all classic American Civil War epics--The Birth Of A Nation, The General, & Gone With The Wind--it told its tale from the Southern perspective, heightening the "brother against brother" narrative that we love to tell ourselves when the real narrative--SLAVERY--gets too ugly & disturbing. Of the many celebrated lines, such as Virgil Cane seeing Robert E. Lee or the bells ringing in the refrain, the one that always does it for me is "In the winter of '65/We were hungry, just barely alive." A casual listener would assume that this was 1965 (as the song was only recorded four years later), but in fact it is 1865.

& therein lies the magic of The Band: Their utter timelessness; & no song shows it better than this one, which could have been sung in 1965--or 1865.