In Quisterflaang’s Canon, longtime professional rock critic, journalist, and author Peter Quisterflaang reviews the most critically celebrated songs of all time as compiled by aggregator acclaimedmusic.net. Quisterflaang does not make himself open to contact through conventional means but will appear in the comments below to discuss his invaluable contributions to the discourse.
#006: Chuck Berry – Johnny B. Goode (C. Klein, 1958)
In “Johnny B. Goode,” barnstorming rocker Chuck Berry tells you the origin and history of an entirely different barnstorming rocker. So skillfully did Berry paint his picture that when he would play this at concerts, the audience would often leave mid-song, so eager were they to see if this Johnny B. Goode might be playing elsewhere in town that same night. Berry was a tremendous musical talent but tragically flawed at the art of self-promotion.
At any rate, this is one of the first, if not the first, rock ‘n’ roll song about a rock ‘n’ roller. Later songwriters, such as whatever the name of the guy from Bad Company is,1 would write songs like “Shooting Star” that take this a bit further, chronicling the rise of a musician from obscurity to stardom, but adding an additional verse where the guy burns out and his career tanks and he kills himself or something. I do not find “Shooting Star” on acclaimedmusic.net’s list of the 10,000 greatest songs. I am sure this is an oversight.
#007: The Ronettes – Be My Baby (J. Barry/E. Greenwich/P. Spector, 1963)
The Ronettes at #7! Take that, white male-ness of the rock canon!
Now that we’ve established that, I am going to talk about this track exclusively in terms of its white male producer and co-songwriter, Phil Spector.
Can I tell you my Phil Spector story? All professional rock critics have one. I was in LA many years ago having lunch2 with Rick Rubin3 when who should come to the table but Phil Spector? Anyway, he says, [REDACTED FOR ONGOING LEGAL REASONS] and of course I laugh (even though it wasn’t very funny), but then he invites me to [REDACTED FOR ONGOING LEGAL REASONS], where I also met [REDACTED FOR ONGOING LEGAL REASONS]. So then Phil suggests [REDACTED FOR ONGOING LEGAL REASONS], which, you know, I’m game for because it would be rude to turn him down. All of a sudden, [REDACTED FOR ONGOING LEGAL REASONS]. Unfortunately, I think the horse probably had to be put down later.4
Anyway, what song is this? “Be My Baby”? Nice one.
#008: Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through the Grapevine (N. Whitfield/B. Strong,5 1968)
Motown producer Norman Whitfield tried recording this song with various artists on the label in varying arrangements, seeking the exact right combination of song, performer, and music. It appeared that he had struck gold with this version, which combined Marvin Gaye’s almost supernaturally beautiful vocals with a soulful, sneaky tempo. Indeed, this version topped both the pop and R&B charts for seven weeks and is perhaps the most iconic single Motown ever produced.
Yet, one could not help but feel there was still something missing, something keeping it from attaining its ultimate perfection. Whitfield himself tried recording it again and in a different style with the Temptations; Creedence Clearwater Revival thought it might benefit from being about eight interminable minutes longer. It was not until 1986 that someone posed the question: “Would this song be improved if it was sung by anthropomorphic claymation raisins?” The answer was: YES.
#009: Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (A. Cleveland/R. Benson/M. Gaye, 1971)
I’m not surprised to see two Marvin Gaye tracks this high on the list, not even necessarily back-to-back, but I do think there has been a mistake and that “What’s Going On” should be above “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” After all, “Whats Going On” is about things! Social unrest! Political strife! Getting hassled for having long hair! These are the kinds of things professional rock critics respond to. I can write about that sort of thing. Not many people are aware of this today, but the ‘60s and ‘70s were turbulent times, and only the professional rock critic has kept this period of American history from being tragically forgotten.
In short, the preference of this list for “Grapevine” is suspicious and wrong. Have we considered whether the California Raisin Advisory Board has greased the wheels for its inclusion so high on the list? Must investigate.
#010: The Who – My Generation (P. Townshend, 1965)
I don’t think it’s very clever at all, actually, for you to point out that this snarl of teenage angst and rebellion against the conservative system was written by a man who6 is, today, a millionaire in his 70s. I don’t think there’s anything remotely funny in imagining present-day Roger Daltrey singing “Hope I die before I get old” at some live concert and then the next week going down to his doctor7 to get a refill on his medications and being mildly chided to include more roughage in his diet. God, why does everyone make this song into a depressing monument to the ceaseless and agonizing march of time? You smug, ironic young people. Townshend and Daltrey are Gershwin Award recipients! Does that mean nothing to you?
Peter Quisterflaang is the author of several books of professional rock criticism, including Oasis: Why Were They Even A Thing For A While There? (2014, Luchador Press).