In what probably looks like a calculated business maneuver but is actually just the result of incoherent ramblings on the colder, cloudier days we get this time of year, I’ve launched two new series on this blog. One is the “Where Have You Been,” which features the trusty, hilariously awkward sound bite from Ween’s “I Play it off Legit,” and maps out the founding geographies at work in certain songs. The other is “Top 10 if.” Basically, the premise is that if this is your favorite song, this, according to my expert opinion, will be your other 10 favorite songs on the planet, other than the selected one at hand.
I start with really by far my favorite song on Electric Ladyland and truthfully one of the few tracks I like on that album, but nonetheless a completely exemplary swatch of wah-wah pedal, a main progenitor of which Hendrix had definitely been in the ’60s. It’s also a song with a lot of history (and could maybe go on “Where Have You Been?” eventually), having been partially written and then scrapped for a year, causing a delay of the entire album, but then I think spiced to perfection in the end result, complete with gorgeous background vocals from some “colored girls” and a whole lot of lonely desperation on the part of the emotionally charged singer and guitarist.
10 Bob Dylan – “Meet Me in the Morning”
Even though “Midnight Lamp” isn’t really a blues song (it’s actually far more creative than conventional blues and features an intriguing key change that even I as a passable music theorist would need some time to figure out), you can’t really be a Hendrix aficionado and not wield some affinity for blues, so I thought this an appropriate selection. If memory serves correctly, Blood on the Tracks featured pretty prominently in Rolling Stone’s recent 500 best albums list, and for me “Idiot Wind” has to take the crown but this also might be the best blues song Dylan ever recorded, with ripe harmonica, gorgeous guitar runs and of course, genuine longing and mourning.
9 Jethro Tull – “Look into the Sun”
To me, 1969’s Stand up is Jethro Tull’s undeniable primary masterpiece, them being the only current band that need apply for “best band not in the rock and roll hall of fame,” and “Look into the Sun” is a good example of its strengths. As an album, it establishes a bulbous, continuous orchard of genuine melody and undeniable emotion, most of it snappy in its rhythms and eccentric instrumentations but “Look into the Sun” a bow into downtempo balladry and sonically elite acoustic/electric guitar tandem.
8 Frank Zappa – “Apostrophe”
The title track on my favorite Frank Zappa album is positioned seventh out of nine and is an instrumental, flanking the scathing indictment of faux-mystics that is “Cosmik Debris” and the mournful paean to “Stink-Foot.” With this being the case, it seems almost inevitably doomed to miscellany, but is anything but, in fact representing some of Zappa’s best guitar work of his career, and yes, some effect that I’m pretty sure is a Fender Crybaby or something of the ilk, to appease, the “Midnight Lamp” burners of the world.
7 Procol Harum – “The Devil Came from Kansas”
Procol Harum, those dirty thieves in the night… if anything could break your heart it would be that these guys, in addition to the venerable single “Whiter Shade of Pale,” only recorded two full LP’s in their career (none of the members’ solo stuff really quite measures up, in my opinion, not to say it’s terrible). On their two full-length records, the self-titled debut and this one, A Salty Dog, nary a bad song can be found, making the selection of this tune a bit arbitrary but still fun for the snazzy key changes and all the curious imagery of middle America (these guys were British) to compliment the bona fide midtempo melancholy.
6 The Who – “We’re Not Gonna Take it”
Not to be confused with the ever-popular hair metal song which I assume has the same name as this one, this would be the final track on the band’s epic rock opera Tommy. The track itself, too, is epic, spanning seven-plus minutes and twirling itself into a wicked decelerated second half, to stretch the album out to its ultimate stature. Anyway, the sort of inner revelation that seems to be at work in its many phases and in the final adage of “Listening to you / I get the music / Gazing at you / I get the heat”, etc., seems pretty aligned with Hendrix’ masterpiece for its heightened, potentially dangerous tincture of self-awareness and unabashed exaltation of music for music’s sake, that’s at least implicit in the Hendrix tune.
5 ZZ Top – “Jesus Just Left Chicago”
To be honest, I’m kind of a bad ZZ Top fan. But hey, I have a pretty good excuse. It’s called Eliminator, an album that sadly came out the year I was born, and boldly embodies the pungent malady of selling out to MTV. It’s hard to remember, then, that this was once the best blues-rock band in America, belting out classics like “La Grange”; “Cheap Sunglasses” and this one, which, like “Midnight Lamp,” isn’t really blues but is kind of blues-Y for its full indulgence in guitar sound and technique.
4 Bo Diddley – “I’m Looking for a Woman”
Here’s another song of loneliness by an African-American rocker of the genre’s formative period, so at the risk of sounding condescending or like I’m treating these men like museum exhibits, I’m going to lump them together, tenuously. I have certain things in mind like the fact that they both probably had similar influences, like the original Delta blues men such as Son House and Blind Lemon Jefferson, gospel music and Chubby Checker tinging their muses as well, and had a similar knack, I think, of expressing themselves with guitar in a way that was as physically cathartic as it was artistic.
3 Howlin’ Wolf – “Evil”
Now, in Howlin’ Wolf we have what any informed party would consider a seminal voice in Delta Blues — a man whose songs possessed a simplicity that smacks of confidence and purpose and also belies the flourishing, exciting sounds he was capable of creating on his guitar. This song has been covered on record by Canned Heat but I vastly prefer the Howlin’ Wolf original version (Wikipedia lists Willie Dixon as the original composer). Actually, I was just online attempting to find what kind of guitar Howlin’ Wolf played on in this session, and in general, but then listening back to this song I realized this session featured such a wide array of musical instruments, from incessant, maniacal piano stabs, to prominent bass guitar to the Wolf’s own harmonica, that it’s almost best just to sit back and try to process everything that’s going on, even on a surface level. Still, again, this music has a straight-forward simplicity about it that can’t help but come across as divine and purposeful.
2 Cream – “Sitting on Top of the World”
I guess I just thought of a lot of these songs as Howlin’ Wolf jams but lo and behold here’s another one that he was actually covering, unbeknownst to me, with one Walter Vinson credited as the original songwriter on Wikipedia. Well, Eric Clapton is completely ferocious, not that I have to say that, but Cream novices might be surprised by how close Jack Bruce comes to rivaling him in emphatic classic rock fury. Also I love how they slow things down for this version, like an authentic trick back into the Delta swamp for some murky, painstaking mania.
1 Captain Beefheart – “Autumn’s Child”
Don Van Vliet, also known as Captain Beefheart (his troupe would galivant as Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, unofficially), grew up immersed in the arts, settling on guitar after accumulating an enthusiasm for Robert Johnson, Son House and the likes. Safe as Milk is his band’s first album and actually features more singing than most of his other projects, with much of his later stuff clogged with a vanguard but slightly grating spoken-word style of vocal. It also happens to be going away my favorite thing he ever did, a shoe-in for “most approachable” and celestial particularly for this unexplainably gorgeous and thoroughly awe-inspiring piece of music that closes the album. Just listening to it I hear a lot of Stand up in its sonic infrastructure and precise instrumentation, that album of course to follow two years later, very much in its footsteps, in my estimation. Another funny thing is that even though this is his first album and Van Vliet was only 26 at the time, he almost sounds like this old, desperate man shouting from a mountaintop with supreme confidence and knowledge of his own desire, or of the subject of his own desire. There’s plenty more to talk about, like that abrasive drum production and the riveting structure, but it’s the type of tune that has to be heard to be truly known and processed. I’m getting a little overwhelmed even entertaining the concept of doing verbal justice to this Frank Zappa protege, true to form.