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.
#016: The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever (J. Lennon/P. McCartney, 1967)
Is there anything new to say about “Strawberry Fields Forever”? About its origins in John Lennon’s childhood haunts and his adulthood grappling with solipsism, its unusual arrangement? Did you know the first part and the second part were two separate takes recorded in different keys and then Lennon made George Martin use studio trickery to join them together? Of course you did! So instead, I am going to talk about the Moody Blues, because they do not show up in our list for another thousand entries or so.
The strange flute-like sounds that open this track are not actually flutes, but a Mellotron. A Mellotron is sort of a crude analog sampler with various patches. When you switch it to the strings patch and play middle C, it essentially plays back a short tape of actual strings playing middle C. If you switch it to oboes and play a high F, it plays back an actual recording to magnetic tape that someone once made of someone playing a high F on an oboe. And when you switch it to flutes and play it like the Beatles do here, you get what sounds much like flutes but not quite, playing in an arrangement and style that actual flutes would and could never really play.
It makes for an unusual sound, and at this point in their careers, the Beatles were hungry for unusual sounds. So Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues gave them a Mellotron as a gift. Pinder is probably the most technically accomplished musician ever to play the Mellotron, partially because he had actually worked for the company that produced them at one point and could repair and modify the temperamental instrument. Because of his mastery of the machine, the Moody Blues were able to base much of their late-’60s, early-’70s sound around the Mellotron. Almost every track on all seven of the band’s albums under their classic lineup prominently featured the Mellotron in some way, showcasing its ethereal pseudo-orchestral magic.
The Beatles, on the other hand, played the Mellotron on pretty much just this one song. They’d revisit it for a gimmick on a few tracks on the White Album,1 but as soon as they had featured it on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” they went, “Well, lads,2 I think we’ve taken this whole Mellotron thing as far as we can go. Time to try something different.” The unique instrument Pinder had dedicated himself to entirely and on which his band had built their sound, and the Beatles pretty much went one-and-done with it. And yet here they are at #16 of the consensus all-time-great tracks, and the Moody Blues won’t appear until “Nights in White Satin” at #1046.
The Beatles were always pulling stuff like this. Donovan Leitch3 hung out with the Beatles in India and taught Lennon and McCartney each how to fingerpick, which was sort of Donovan’s whole claim to fame. One imagines a brief moment of, if not smugness, then at least a feeling of briefly knowing you had one up on the Beatles in this particular area. Then a couple days later, McCartney comes back and says, “Oh, thanks for teaching me that new guitar technique. I’ve just used it to write ‘Blackbird,’ which will go down in history as an immortal classic and surpass everything you, Donovan, will ever record, but which won’t even be in the top 10 of the biggest songs in my own catalog.” And then Lennon goes, “Oh hey, let me show you this new song ‘Julia,’ a minor classic of my own, and thanks for showing me the fingerpicking thing, by the way.”
The Beatles were kind of overachieving jerks, is my point, although they probably didn’t really mean to be.
#017: Elvis Presley – Heartbreak Hotel (M. B. Axton/T. Durden/E. Presley, 1956)
In our science fiction year of 2020, as we use our futuristic communications devices to share thoughts and ideas instantly across the globe but mostly order pizzas without having to actually talk to somebody on the phone, it can be hard to really come to grips with who or what Elvis was. To the Gen X’er, he was a kitchy ghost of the past; to the Millennial, an impression from cartoons, all white suits and big sunglasses and “Thankyew, thankyewverrmuuuch.” Do the later generations even have much of an idea about him unless they’ve seen Lilo and Stitch?
So it is the job of the professional rock critic to create and explain the context for Elvis: how daring he felt to young people, how dangerous he seemed to the oldsters, one of the first singers to explicitly convey that rock ‘n’ roll was about sex. You could always go out and listen to the music yourself, but you probably won’t really get into it. You’ll tap your toes, for sure, because “Heartbreak Hotel” is a catchy tune, but you already know about sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and don’t need this mysterious wiggling stranger and his guitar to explain them to you. Best leave Mr. Presley to the professional rock critics to listen to so you don’t have to.
#018: Michael Jackson – Billie Jean (M. Jackson, 1982)
Oh Christ, Michael Jackson. Where do we stand on him, these days? I think I missed the meeting of the Guild of Professional Rock Critics where we hashed out what the Correct Opinion we are meant to take on him is now. Well, I don’t want to get into hot water in my field. “Billie Jean” was an immense seller in its day and continues to be played on the radio and in clubs today. These are the facts, I suppose.
#019: The Clash – London Calling (J. Strummer/M. Jones, 1979)
Take it from a professional rock critic: if the conversation at a work function or a party turns to music, and you’re afraid of making a bad impression, all you need to do is say you like The Clash. No one can say anything bad about The Clash. Everybody is cool with The Clash. You’re likely as not to find some wag who steps forward with a “The Beatles were bad, actually” take, and if you talk up some obscure or left-field artist, you leave yourself open to accusations of being some kind of contrarian or dilettante hipster. But The Clash is the safest bet around. You don’t even have to know all that much about The Clash because most people don’t know all that much about The Clash. But they know just enough.
Take this song. “London Calling”! It’s also the name of an album! The album that everybody knows! This must be a good song. Nobody is going to argue that this is a bad song. Is it better than every Beatles song, bar two? Is it better than any song David Bowie ever did? Is it better than every hip hop track ever released? Well, it must be: it’s #19 on the list.
#020: The Beach Boys – God Only Knows (B. Wilson/T. Asher, 1966)
Professional rock critics have always produced hot takes, and I am no exception. Of course, we didn’t used to call them “hot takes.” They also weren’t exactly “clickbait,” because you probably would have already bought the magazine or paper when you read the hot take. Back then, we wrote contrarian opinions for far more noble reasons: we wanted to seem interesting among our peers.
So it was, at the beginning of my career, when I was a young man working at one publication that will remain unnamed, that I wrote something critical of “God Only Knows.” I don’t remember what it was, specifically. Probably something accusing the song of being schmaltzy, or a critique of the indecisive quality of the lyrics, maybe even something about Brian Wilson himself. I did not necessarily believe what I wrote; the intent was to be perceived as a teller of controversial and dangerous truths.
I showed this piece to my editor. His face immediately turned red, then purple, then faded to an almost ghostly white. I asked him if he were unwell, but he shrugged it off. He stood up, and so did I, and he took me gently by the shoulder, as if he were going to explain something to me. Then he punched me in the nose. In shock, I fell to the floor, where—despite an almost serene and detached expression on my editor’s face—he continued to rain blow after blow upon me until I was bleeding on his carpet. He absolutely beat the hell out of me.
And he was right to do so. What a lovely song!
Peter Quisterflaang is the author of several books of professional rock criticism, including More Essays About More Songs About Buildings and Food (2001, New Jacques City Press).