With the chugging inevitability of a Status Quo record, here comes Stef’s guide to the greatest classics of all time.
In part one I waxed unlyrical about the songs that everyone has been conditioned into thinking are classics, when they’re actually not. For reasons best known to radio and the music industry, these tired fossils have been wheeled out time and again to undeserved fanfare.
But what about the good stuff? The records that really do change the face of music or that have almost universal appeal without being a fad or up their own bottoms?
This is where it gets interesting.
Firstly, we need to decide on what makes a truly classic song; one that deserves the title and isn’t just popular, timely, or has a big marketing budget? It has to be amazing of course, it has to connect with people at some level — be it fun, energetic, melancholy, political, whatever — and it needs to be recorded or arranged impeccably. Above all it needs to cross predefined musical boundaries, dare to be different, or bravely take music in new directions to become the de facto standard.
Starting with the obvious ones:
Blue Monday – New Order
As soon as that Oberheim DMX drum pattern kicks in (from the 12”), you know you’re in for something special. Nobody apart from Donna Summer had used that pattern before and nobody (thankfully) has used it since, except in covers of this brilliant piece.
The kick itself is fairly weedy, but the syncopation and frequency split with the bassline is sheer genius as it allows the two to co-exist without interference. Today’s compression-heavy producers could learn a trick or two from Sumner, Hook et al, understanding the frequency spectrum instead of just shoving everything through the Finalizer, or resorting to sidechain compression and ducking to squash everything into the same space (which, incidentally, sounds atrocious when broadcast on FM radio).
Coupled with the odd song structure, bizarre lyrics and awesome 12”, this track has that indefinable magical quality that makes it hard to turn off partway through. Even when you know what’s coming, you have to listen again just to believe it. Astounding.
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
The most eclectic mix of styles I’ve ever heard in one record that somehow work together when they shouldn’t. With the grace and flow of a mini-opera, this piece with its crescendos and pianissimo and silhouetto of a man is brilliantly audacious.
The journey from the vocal introduction, through flaming guitar licks, to the delicate piano ending is a turbulent adrenaline rush of an unprecedented magnitude, and yet remains humbling by the time the final gong hits.
No song is simultaneously as big and as small as this one: a testament to the sheer attention to detail and gift that all the musicians, producers and engineers brought to the recording sessions. Queen have made some dross in their time, but this definitely isn’t one of them.
Song 2 – Blur
With possibly the most obscure lyrics in the set — and I still forget them each time I hear the track — this is just mental. A short, sharp, wall of sound that packs a hell of a punch for its two minute runtime.
It’s simply a fun track. You can feel they had a blast writing and recording it. Blur fans love it. Non-blur fans like it. Pretty much everyone agrees — grudgingly or not — it’s a great tune, and that’ll carry through regardless of the twists and turns that music will take over the next few decades, so people will keep coming back to it as it is passed on to each successive generation.
Frédéric Chopin – Nocturnes Opus 9 No. 2
Things could get confusing here because I’m going to call this a classic, which some may think is because it’s been around for hundreds of years and is therefore Classical. It’s not. In my opinion, 98% of pure classical music sucks. It was the bland, unmemorable pop music of its day: crank the handle, follow the rules, and out pops another minuet or fugue.
Chopin, however, was a Romantic — the era that Beethoven kinda spearheaded when he rejected the precise, mathematical, soulless classical movement and decided that music should have feeling and emotion again. The Russians stole the thunder here, but Chopin had a run of good stuff (though a whole album of Chopin tends to get boring).
This one stands out by a mile. It’s brimming with major and minor goodness, wonderful chord progressions, and a healthy dose of accidentals to keep it fresh throughout. Emotive, memorable, even fairly easy to play compared with some, it’s got it all and is still being used today (by Muse, for example) some 180 years after being written. What more of an accolade is there?
Angel – Massive Attack
An absolute scorcher. Dark, moody, used in countless promos and trailers, it just eschews class, drawing influence from many disparate musical styles and fusing them perfectly.
It’s very difficult to pinpoint why this is so good. I could blather on about how the music is both organic and electronic in equal measure. How it builds and ebbs and flows effortlessly to its culmination. How it evokes thoughts of isolation, fear and loneliness yet makes them feel beautiful and desirable. But I won’t.
The bottom line is that it was so far ahead of its time in the late 90s that it still appeals to people now, and I bet my cat it’ll continue to do so for a long time yet.
Mad World – Gary Jules / Michael Andrews
I have nothing against the Tears for Fears original, apart from the fact the music is incongruous to the lyrics. It simply doesn’t feel right to have a synth-led backing to such haunting lyrics. It wasn’t until this pair reinvented it for the excellent Donnie Darko film that it reached its potential.
The result is sublime. Such angst, such despair, and yet such hope. It’s the anti-Imagine. Heck, it’s what Imagine should have been. The minimalist piano, scratchy cello, and thought-provoking lyrics sparring beautifully in the sound space. When the lyrics are this good, they need to breathe, and that’s what Jules and Andrews did.
I loved it the moment I heard it and, eleven years on, it still sends shivers down me. This cover version is used to trail stuff on TV or in console games; and it’ll still be used in another thirty years, or more. I think there’s something timeless about piano and cello together (ask Ellie Goulding’s producers when they cleverly arranged Elton’s Your song for her) and it deserves every piece of praise directed at it.
Firestarter – The Prodigy
No round-up of classic tunes would be complete without this masterpiece. Blending punk, dance, jungle, and the fat beats that are Liam Howlett’s signature, it is pure, unadulterated genius at work.
Very few records can be pegged as “game changers”. This one can. Its rawness and lack of pretence are its primary charms; and although nobody dare imitate it, its effect can be felt in many records since, even as far as Kasabian’s Switchblade Smiles.
Firestarter has had an immense influence on music. I’m confident it’ll live on — both in its own right and the spark in the belly of many records to come — and its considerable wake will continue to be felt for aeons.
Rise of the classic
I can hear the cries now: is that all? Well no, there are many more I could use. I omitted Lose Yourself by Eminem, which is one of those hip-hop tracks that appeals to a much broader spectrum than your typical rude boy or grimehead. That’s testament to Jeff Bass’ bar-raising production, and it deserves classic status.
I’ll admit I was also a bit 60s, 70s and 80s shy in my shortlist. I could have added ELO’s Mr Blue Sky for its sheer grandioseness and ability to capture the attention of three- and ninety-three-year-olds alike. Money by Pink Floyd deserves mention not only because Roger Waters is an amazing talent, but because of the way it makes a 7/4 time signature seem natural. Maybe Aerosmith and Run DMC should be in the list too, for forging two styles of music so seamlessly and sparking the rock/rap music revolution.
Surely Nirvana? Nope. Foo fighters? Nope. ABBA? Nope. REM? Possibly with Losing my religion but it’s borderline. Something ballsy by the Sex Pistols? Probably. Or the Beastie Boys? They’d probably (narrowly) miss out because of the poor production, although to be fair it’s their sound (well, like Run DMC, really Rick Rubin at work) and they stuck to it, which takes guts.
I’d also refuse entry to The Chain by Fleetwood Mac, even though it’s a brilliant, brilliant record. It’s not strong enough to be a classic just because the riff is iconic. Same goes for Insomnia by Faithless: the album version is awesome, the various mixes and edits far less so, but its stand-out riff overshadows the rest of the song to the detriment of the overall piece. Bon Jovi would probably (only just) miss out too, despite Wanted being particularly good and Dry County stealing the show with its message about living life instead of moaning about what it deals you.
Proving it’s not just about music I like, I’ve missed Rage Against The Machine from the list. Killing in the name is perhaps one of my all time favourite records for relieving tension but it’s not (quite) a classic. Nine Inch Nails too: Trent Reznor makes fantastic, quirky, dirty, sexy, daring stuff that genuinely amazes me, but none of it has changed the face of music, nor does his music appeal to people outside the group that are “into” his stuff. Sorry, Trent.
And I could probably go on for days about a large portion of the instant pop classics penned by Cathy Dennis that deserve every ounce of praise bestowed upon them, even if the careers of those who performed them (Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears, Rachel Stevens, S Club 7/8, Will Young, Katy Perry, …) have mostly been mercifully underwhelming.
Suffice to say, anyone who resorts to cheese or manufactured music just to sell more records and be ‘successful’ to artificially boost their chances of being labelled a classic are waaaay down the list. A true classic has to be different enough or tough enough to stand on its own and scream “to hell with you sheep, I’m over here. And I’m taking music with me!”
So what about this lot? Have I got it right? Am I way off base? Let the custard pies fly.