top 20 Greatest Artists
20. Bo Diddley
By Iggy Pop
Bo Diddley‘s music is enormous. It’s deeply moving. It has the sultry, sexual power of Africa. There’s all sorts of mystery in that sound. People listen to Bo Diddley recordings and think, “Oh, you can just go bonk-de-bonk-bonk, de-bonk-bonk, and you got a Bo Diddley beat.” But it isn’t that easy. He played really simple things but with incredible authority. I first heard him on a Rolling Stones album, on their cover of “Mona.” It was such a great song; I looked at the credits and it said “Ellas McDaniel,” and I thought, “Who the hell is that?” But when I wanted to get into songwriting, he was the key for me. I didn’t have a lot of vocal range, and I didn’t know a lot of chords on the guitar. So I was looking for a way to write, and there he was, writing very complete, very memorable songs without a lot of fuss. They weren’t florid. He never bothered to change the chord, for one thing — which is very heavy-metal! It’s hypnotic. And, of course, there’s the attitude, a chin-up, chest-out sort of thing. He was a bull; he had a bullish quality to everything he did and everything he played. Vocally, he reminds me of gutbucket Delta blues: Muddy Waters, but brought to town, rocked up. And his voice is so damn loud. It’s just a huge voice, and he’s got a big, deep shout.
Then there’s the way he played the guitar. First of all, Bo’s hands were about a foot long from the wrist to the tip of the finger. He really controlled his guitar. Bo plays his instrument, and the way the rhythm clicks is unique. What seems to pass for guitar more and more now is some wimp with a fuzz box. Somewhere around Hendrix, the line was crossed. Hendrix had both: He had the hands, and he had the fuzz box. Now all they have is the fuzz box — a lot of them.
Bo Diddley had a huge impact on Sixties rock. The Stones covered Bo Diddley, and the Yardbirds did “I’m a Man,” and the Pretty Things did his song “Pretty Thing.” My band in high school, the Iguanas, did a few of his songs, including “Road Runner,” and you can hear a bit of him in the Stooges. You can be damn well sure that Jack White has studied Bo’s records.
I’ve had a little personal experience with Bo. I worked with him in Vegas once, and I kept running into him on airplanes in the Eighties and Nineties — always in first class, always alone, always with a roll bag, his police hat and his sheriff’s badge. I think Bo and Chuck Berry have both suffered the trivialization of people who are covered too much. His influence is everywhere, but his personal career could have used a boost. Some car or jeans company needs to put a track of his in a commercial so a lot of young dudes and dudettes can go, “Whoa — that’s rockin’!”
19. The Velvet Underground
By Julian Casablancas
When you listen to a classic-rock station today, why don’t they play the Velvet Underground? Why is it always Boston and Led Zeppelin? And why are the Rolling Stones so much more popular than the Velvets? OK, I understand why the Stones are more popular. But there is also a part of me that has always felt that it should have been the other way around. The Velvet Underground were way ahead of their time. And their music was weird. But it also made so much sense to me. I couldn’t believe this wasn’t the most popular music ever made.
Listening to those four studio albums now is like reading a good book that takes place in a distant time. When I hear The Velvet Underground and Nico or Loaded, I feel like I’m in Andy Warhol’s Factory in the 1960s or hanging out at Max’s Kansas City. The way Lou Reed wrote and sang about drugs and sex, about the people around him — it was so matter-of-fact. I believed every word of “Heroin.” Reed could be romantic in the way he portrayed these crazy situations, but he was also intensely real. It was poetry and journalism.
A lot of people associate the Velvets with feedback and noise. White Light/White Heat is the kind of record you have to be in the mood for. You have to be in a shitty bar, in a really shitty mood. But the Velvets created some very beautiful music, too: “Sunday Morning,” with John Cale’s viola; “Candy Says”; “All Tomorrow’s Parties” — I can’t imagine that song without Nico singing it, although I thought Maureen Tucker had a cool voice, as well as being a really cool drummer. She had a femininity. I thought she sounded hotter than Nico.
In the beginning, the Strokes definitely drew from the vibe of the Velvets. I listened to Loaded all the time when we started the band, while I was writing my first songs. For four solid months, it was just Loaded and this Beach Boys greatest-hits record, Made in the U.S.A. A lot of our guitar tones are based on what Reed and Sterling Morrison did. I honestly wish we could have copied them more. We didn’t come close enough. But that was cool, because it became more of our own thing. Which is something else I got from the Velvets. They taught me just to be myself.
18. Marvin Gaye
By Smokey Robinson
At Motown, Marvin was one of the main characters in the greatest musical story ever told. Prior to that, nothing quite like Motown had ever existed — all those songwriters, singers, producers working and growing together, part family, part business — and I doubt seriously if it will ever happen like that again. And there’s no question that Marvin will always be a huge part of the Motown legacy.
When Marvin first came to Motown, he was the drummer on all the early hits I had with the Miracles. He and I became close friends — he was my brother, really — and I did a lot of production and wrote a lot of songs for him: “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “I’ll Be Doggone.” Of course, that means that I spent a lot of time waiting for Marvin. See, Marvin was basically late coming to the studio all the time. But I never minded, because I knew that whenever Marvin did get there, he was going to sing my song in a way that I had never imagined it. He would Marvinize my songs, and I loved it. Marvin could sing anything, from gospel to gutbucket blues to jazz to pop.
But Marvin was much more than just a great singer. He was a great record maker, a gifted songwriter, a deep thinker — a real artist in the true sense. What’s Going On is the most profound musical statement in my lifetime. It never gets dated. I still remember when I would go by Marvin’s house and he was working on it, he would say, “Smoke, this album is being written by God, and I’m just the instrument that he’s writing it through.”
Marvin really had it all — that voice, that soul, that look, too. He was one very handsome man. He had sex appeal and his music was sexy. You couldn’t blame women for falling in love with Marvin.
I said before that when you worked with Marvin, it meant you were waiting for Marvin. But Marvin was always worth the wait. I suppose that in a way, I’m still waiting for Marvin.
17. Muddy Waters
By Billy Gibbons
Muddy and his band opened for ZZ Top on a tour in 1981. This was over 40 years after his first recordings, and that band could still play the blues, not just as seasoned pros but with the same enthusiasm Muddy had when he started out. When he sang that his mojo was working, you could tell his mojo had not slowed down at all. He was satisfied, composed, self-contained. If he had an opinion on a subject, he didn’t allow a whole lot of latitude to be convinced otherwise. If he was bitter about the way he’d been treated by record companies, he never showed it. We talked to him a lot as we traveled, when he wasn’t chasing young girls through the airport. He told us a story once about his friends Freddie King and Little Walter walking from Dallas to Chicago. I’ve always had that image in my mind of two guys walking from the South to the North. Everyone else in the great migration took the train. I hope they weren’t carrying their equipment.
People call his sound raw and dirty and gritty, but it wasn’t particularly loud. It just sounded that way. A guitar amplifier in the Fifties was maybe the size of a tabletop radio. To be heard over a party, you had to crank that thing as loud as it would go. And then you left behind all semblance of circuit design and entered the elegant field of distortion that made everything so much deeper. If you didn’t have a big band with 20 guys, you had 20 watts.
I first heard Muddy Waters through two friends of mine, Walter Baldwin and Steve Roberts, in junior high in 1962 or ’63. We grew up together and jumped on every piece of musical madness we could find. Most people in my generation probably discovered Muddy backwards from the Rolling Stones, who got their name from a Muddy song. I heard him just before the Stones got here, but it was all good, whether you discovered it backwards, forwards or sideways.
Anyway, I picked up the guitar because of Muddy Waters as much as anyone. Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Albert King, B.B. King, Freddie King — they all had an impact too, but they all followed Muddy Waters. He started out in Mississippi playing acoustic, using his thumb to play the bass line and a real bottleneck slide for melody on the upper strings. The slide guitar got the nuance of the human voice better than any other instrument. Basically, it was a Robert Johnson thing, and Muddy took it to Chicago, electrified it, added a bass player and a harp with a good backbeat, and you had a party. His bands were always powerhouses, and his voice had an amazing depth.
The remarkable thing is that the blues never died out, ever. It’s been rediscovered every 10 years since the Twenties. Nobody can do what Muddy did, but his energy is still fueling that fire. You can hear his enthusiasm in bands like the White Stripes or the Black Keys. I’d recommend his first album, The Best of Muddy Waters, with the early Chess singles, to anyone. Every track is worthy. The albums Johnny Winter produced in the late Seventies, Hard Again and I’m Ready, are also terrific.
It was all supposed to be disposable. Just noise on a shellac disc. And here we are in the 21st century still trying to figure out how such a simple art form could be so complicated and subtle. It’s still firing brain synapses around the world. You’ve got the Japanese Muddy Waters Society corresponding with fans in Sweden and England, and his music can still propel a party in the U.S. He made three chords sound deep, and they are.
16. Sam Cooke
By Art Garfunkel
Sam Cooke was grounded in a very straightforward singing style: It was pure, beautiful and open-throated, extraordinarily direct and unapologetic. Let’s say you’re going to sing “I love you for sentimental reasons.” How do you hit that “I”? Do you slur into it? Do you put in a little hidden “h”? The attack on that vowel sound is the tip-off to how bold a singer is. If you pour on the letter “i” from the back of your throat, the listener gets that there is no fudge in the first thousandth of a second. There’s just confidence from the singer, that he knows the pitch, and here’s the sound. That’s what Sam was great at. He had guts as a singer.
Sam also threw a lot of notes at you. Today you hear everyone doing those melismatic notes that Mariah Carey made popular. Sam was the first guy I remember singing that way. When he’s singing, “I love you for sentimental reasons/I hope you do believe me,” the next line should be, “I’ve given you my heart.” But he goes, “I’ve given you my-my-mah-muh-my heart/Given you my heart because I need you.” It’s as if he’s saying, “Now that I’ve sung the word, I’m going to sing it again, because I’ve got all this feeling in my heart that demands expression.” He gave us so much that he could have given us less, and that would’ve been enough, but he put in all those extra notes, as in “You Send Me,” where he’s scatting between the lines: “I know, I know, I know, when you hold me.”
He had fabulous chops, but at the same time fabulous taste. I never felt that he was overdoing it, as I often feel with singers today. He stayed rhythmic and fluty and floaty; he always showed brilliant vocal control.
I must have sung “You Send Me” to myself walking up and down stairwells at least a thousand times. It was on the charts right when I was having my first little success with Paul Simon as Tom and Jerry. Our “Hey, Schoolgirl” was on the charts with “You Send Me” and “Jailhouse Rock.” “Jingle Bell Rock” had just come out. I was just a kid, calling on radio stations for promotional purposes, and all I heard was “You Send Me.” Sam was great to sing along with. He was my hero.
There was a deep sense of goodness about Sam. His father was a minister, and he obviously had spent a lot of time in church. His first success came early as a gospel singer, and he expanded into R&B and pop. It looked like he was making the right choices in life until he got shot by the night manager of a motel. You wonder who he had fallen in with.
Paul Simon, James Taylor and I covered “Wonderful World,” which he also wrote. It was a teenage short story like Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” or “School Days.” You’re stroking the teenager’s sense of style with those pop songs. Sam was a master of that idiom. “Wonderful World” was unsophisticated but very Tin Pan Alley.
Sam came along before the album was discovered as an art form. You think of him in terms of songs. My favorites are “Sad Mood,” “Wonderful World,” “Summertime,” “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” and “You Send Me.” I think that “A Change Is Gonna Come” shows where he could have gone if he had lived through the Sixties, doing Marvin Gaye kind of lyrics about the society we live in. It was a tremendous loss when he was killed. I remember thinking, “Oh, that can’t be.” He was such a rising star, a fabulous singer with intelligence. And that brilliant smile.
I used to think he was just a great singer. Now I think he’s better than that. Almost nobody since then can touch him.
15. Stevie Wonder
By Elton John
Let me put it this way: Wherever I go in the world, I always take a copy of Songs in the Key of Life.For me, it’s the best album ever made, and I’m always left in awe after I listen to it. When people in decades and centuries to come talk about the history of music, they will talk about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Stevie came out of the golden age of Motown, when they were putting out the best R&B records in the world from Detroit, and he evolved into an amazing songwriter and a genuine musical force of nature.
He’s so multitalented that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes him one of the greatest ever. But first, there’s that voice. Along with Ray Charles, he’s the greatest R&B singer who ever lived. Nobody can sing like he does. I know: I actually recorded a version of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” when I was young, and I really had to squeeze my balls to get those high notes.
As a keyboard player, I’ve played with him over the years, and he never ceases to amaze me, the stuff he comes up with. He can play anything — check out his harmonica playing. I think I’m a pretty good musician, but he’s in a whole other league. He could play with Charlie Parker or John Coltrane and hold his own.
Stevie’s Sixties hits are amazing — joyful music that still sounds great — but then, starting in the Seventies, he hit a run of albums that’s unsurpassed in music history, from Talking Book to Songs in the Key of Life. I think the elite — the most major of major artists — often have a period when they can do no wrong. It happened to Prince, too, who is like Stevie in some ways. He has got an immeasurable amount of talent — so much talent that sometimes it can seem like he’s kind of lost.
Stevie is an amazingly positive, peaceful man. When you ask him to do something, he is generous. He loves music. He loves to play. When he comes into a room, people adore him. And there aren’t many artists like that. People admire you and they like your records, but they don’t want to stand up and hug you. But this man is a good man. He tries to use his music to do good. His message, I think, is about love, and in the world we live in today, that message does shine through.
14. Led Zeppelin
By Dave Grohl
Heavy metal would not exist without Led Zeppelin, and if it did, it would suck. Led Zeppelin were more than just a band — they were the perfect combination of the most intense elements: passion and mystery and expertise. It always seemed like Led Zeppelin were searching for something. They weren’t content being in one place, and they were always trying something new. They could do anything, and I believe they would have done everything if they hadn’t been cut short by John Bonham’s death. Zeppelin served as a great escape from a lot of things. There was a fantasy element to everything they did, and it was such a major part of what made them important. It’s hard to imagine the audience for all those Lord of the Rings movies if it wasn’t for Zeppelin.
They were never critically acclaimed in their day, because they were too experimental and they were too fringe. In 1969 and ’70, there was some freaky shit going on, but Zeppelin were the freakiest. I consider Jimmy Page freakier than Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was a genius on fire, whereas Page was a genius possessed. Zeppelin concerts and albums were like exorcisms for them. People had their asses blown out by Hendrix and Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, but Page took it to a whole new level, and he did it in such a beautifully human and imperfect way. He plays the guitar like an old bluesman on acid. When I listen to Zeppelin bootlegs, his solos can make me laugh or they can make me tear up. Any live version of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” will bring you to tears and fill you with joy all at once. Page doesn’t just use his guitar as an instrument — he uses it like it’s some sort of emotional translator.
John Bonham played the drums like someone who didn’t know what was going to happen next — like he was teetering on the edge of a cliff. No one has come close to that since, and I don’t think anybody ever will. I think he will forever be the greatest drummer of all time. You have no idea how much he influenced me. I spent years in my bedroom — literally fucking years — listening to Bonham’s drums and trying to emulate his swing or his behind-the-beat swagger or his speed or power. Not just memorizing what he did on those albums but getting myself into a place where I would have the same instinctual direction as he had. I have John Bonham tattoos all over my body — on my wrists, my arms, my shoulders. I gave myself one when I was 15. It’s the three circles that were his insignia on Zeppelin IV and on the front of his kick drum.
“Black Dog,” from Zeppelin IV, is what Led Zeppelin were all about in their most rocking moments, a perfect example of their true might. It didn’t have to be really distorted or really fast, it just had to be Zeppelin, and it was really heavy. Then there’s Zeppelin’s sensitive side — something people overlook, because we think of them as rock beasts, but Zeppelin III was full of gentle beauty. That was the soundtrack to me dropping out of high school. I listened to it every single day in my VW bug, while I contemplated my direction in life. That album, for whatever reason, saved some light in me that I still have.
I heard them for the first time on AM radio in the Seventies, right around the time that “Stairway to Heaven” was so popular. I was six or seven years old, which is when I’d just started discovering music. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I discovered the first two Zeppelin records, which were handed down to me from the real stoners. We had a lot of those in the suburbs of Virginia, and a lot of muscle cars and keggers and Zeppelin and acid and weed. Somehow they all went hand in hand. To me, Zeppelin were spiritually inspirational. I was going to Catholic school and questioning God, but I believed in Led Zeppelin. I wasn’t really buying into this Christianity thing, but I had faith in Led Zeppelin as a spiritual entity. They showed me that human beings could channel this music somehow and that it was coming from somewhere. It wasn’t coming from a songbook. It wasn’t coming from a producer. It wasn’t coming from an instructor. It was coming from four musicians taking music to places it hadn’t been before — it’s like it was coming from somewhere else. That’s why they’re the greatest rock & roll band of all time. It couldn’t have happened any other way.
13. Buddy Holly
By John Mellencamp
Buddy Holly was a complete and utter hillbilly. I’m very proud of that. So much of our musical heritage is from the country. People always ask me, “Why do you stay in Indiana?” Well, I have to. Just about every song, every sound that we emulate and listen to was created by a hillbilly, born out of the frustration of a small town where there ain’t much to do in the evening. That’s one thing that I loved about Buddy Holly.
Buddy Holly was one of the first great singer-songwriters — he wrote his own material and in the end was producing it, too. He came from such a rural area and was able to speak to so many people in so many locations. He was one of the first to get away from the Tin Pan Alley songwriting factory and communicate directly, honestly with his audience.
I was just a little kid when I first heard Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue.” You may not understand what it was like being about nine years old in 1957 or ’58, but it was quite a treat. All of this music was just coming out of nowhere — Memphis and Texas. I was in a band when I was in sixth grade, and we played “Not Fade Away.” You shouldn’t even be in a band if you haven’t played that song. It’s two chords, beautiful melody, with a nice message. Holly’s songs never really left my consciousness. When I set up my iPod, there he was, those same songs that I’ve heard for all these years. They sound just as good as the first time I heard them.
Holly’s melodies and arrangements were a huge influence on the Beatles. With the whirlwind they were on in 1964, the first thing John Lennon asked when he got to The Ed Sullivan Show was, “Is this the stage that Buddy Holly played on?” That shows a lot of quiet admiration. Listen to the songs on the first three Beatles albums. Take their voices off, and it’s Buddy Holly. Same with the Rolling Stones.
Record companies encourage young artists to copy what’s been there before. But nobody was pushing Holly in any direction. That was just all him and his instincts. Those songs are great, and some are only a minute and 25 seconds long. Think about delivering a song like that today. The magic that Buddy Holly created was nothing short of a miracle. The fact that he died at 22 is just ridiculous. That tells you all you need to know about just how focused and visionary he was.
12. The Beach Boys
By Lindsey Buckingham
The Beach Boys showed the way, and not just to California. Sure, they may have sold the California Dream to a lot of people, but for me, it was Brian Wilson showing how far you might have to go in order to make your own musical dream come true.
In the beginning, I was someone who grew up in California and loved the early music that he and the Beach Boys made. Later, I would relate to Brian’s struggle as an artist against a machine that tended toward serving the bottom line — the industry attitude that if it works, run it into the ground. Music meant much more to him than that. He was trying to do something so much bigger than that with his teenage symphonies to God. In the process, he really rocked the boat and changed the world.
When the Beach Boys started, Brian was taking European sensibilities and infusing them into a Chuck Berry format. Those harmonies were based on the Four Freshmen, with a little church element added to it. He put all that on top of Chuck Berry rock & roll, and the result sounded so fresh. I remember hearing “Surfin’ Safari” first when I was in sixth grade. It had the beat, the sense of joy, that explosion rock & roll gave to a lot of us. But it also had this incredible lift, this amazing kind of chemical reaction that seemed to happen inside you when you heard it.
Pet Sounds is the acknowledged masterpiece, and it’s everything it’s said to be, with Brian taking some of the influences he got from Phil Spector and making something all his own. But even before that there’s Side Two of The Beach Boys Today!, which is really just one ballad after another and is for me one of the great sides on a rock album. Those are beautiful numbers — “Please Let Me Wonder,” “Kiss Me Baby,” “She Knows Me Too Well,” “In the Back of My Mind” — that foreshadow Brian’s angst and start exposing his vulnerability. A lot of what you find later onPet Sounds or Smile, you could find in a different form early on.
Today it’s nice to see that Brian’s in a place where he can do what he wants without the pressure of selling or of having to be the support system for so many others. Because he gave the rest of us more than his fair share of good vibrations.
11. Bob Marley
By Wyclef Jean
What separates Bob Marley from so many other great songwriters? They don’t know what it’s like for rain to seep into their house. They wouldn’t know what to do without their microwaves and stoves — to make a fire with wood and cook their fish next to the ocean. Marley came from the poverty and injustice in Jamaica, and that manifested itself in his rebel sound. The people were his inspiration. Straight up. Like John Lennon, he brought the idea that through music, empowerment and words, you can really come up with world peace. But it’s hard to compare him to other musicians, because music was just one part of what he was. He was also a humanitarian and a revolutionary. His impact on Jamaican politics was so strong, there was an assassination attempt on his life. Marley was like Moses. When Moses spoke, people moved. When Marley spoke, they moved as well.
Marley almost single-handedly brought reggae to the world. When I was growing up in Haiti — where my father was a missionary and a church minister — we could barely get away with listening to Christian rock and definitely couldn’t get away with any rap. When I was 14, I slipped on “Exodus,” and my dad, who didn’t speak English very well, asked me, “What’s this song about?” I told him it was biblical, and it was about movement. The minute it reached his ears — the minute Marley’s music reaches anybody’s ears — he was automatically grooving. The vibe goes straight to your brain.
“Redemption Song” transcends time. “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our minds/Have no fear for atomic energy/’Cause none of them can stop the time.” It will mean the same thing in the year 3014. Today, people struggle to find what’s real. Everything has become so synthetic that a lot of people, all they want is to grasp onto hope. The reason people still throw on Bob Marley T-shirts is because his music is one of the few real things left to grasp onto.
10. Ray Charles
Ray Charles is proof that the best music crosses all boundaries, reaches all denominations. He could do any type of music, and he always stayed true to himself. It’s all about his soul.
His music first hit me when I heard a live version of “What’d I Say” on American Forces Network in Germany, which I used to listen to late at night. Then I started buying his singles. His sound was stunning — it was the blues, it was R&B, it was gospel, it was swing — it was all the stuff I was listening to before that but rolled into one amazing, soulful thing.
As a singer, Ray Charles didn’t phrase like anyone else. He didn’t put the time where you thought it was gonna be, but it was always perfect, always right. He knew how to play with time, like any great jazzman. But there was more to him than that voice — he was also writing these incredible songs. He was a great musician, a great record maker, a great producer and a wonderful arranger.
There’s a reason they called Ray Charles “the Genius.” Think of how he reinvented country music in a way that worked for him. He showed there are no limitations, not for someone as good as he is. Whatever Ray Charles did, whatever he touched, he made it his own. He’s his own genre. It’s all Ray Charles music now.
I always learn something from him. It’s music that set a tough standard. For me, two albums that stand out are Ray Charles at Newport and Ray Charles in Person. Then there’s Genius + Soul = Jazzwith the Basie orchestra and Quincy Jones. And of course Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. There’s so much to live up to — these days, you almost have to go backward to go forward.
In 2004, I did a duet with him on one of my songs, “Crazy Love.” It felt fantastic. I always loved his singing, but I also connected with him on a soul level. I just felt his emotion. People like Ray Charles — and Sam Cooke, Bobby Bland and Solomon Burke — defined what soul was for me. It wasn’t just the singing — it was what went into the singing. These were guys who put their souls on the line.
This music is way beyond marketing. This music is global, and its appeal is universal. Ray Charles changed music just by being himself — by doing what he did and translating it to millions of people with the force of his soul. That’s his legacy. I think that the music of Ray Charles will probably outlive us all — at least I hope that it will.
9. Aretha Franklin
As a producer, I almost always addressed phrasing and enunciation with the singer, but inAretha‘s case, there was nothing I could tell her. I would only be getting in her way. Nowadays, singers who want to be extra soulful overdo melisma. Aretha only used it a touch and used it gloriously because her taste was impeccable. She never went to the wrong place.
It wasn’t her gospel training. Most young African-American singers get their musical training in church. Training can give you form, can give you tradition, can give you the cadence. When genius gets good training, it can expedite the process, but training isn’t genius. Genius is who she is.
“Respect” had the biggest impact, with overtones for the civil rights movement and gender equality. It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it’s hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined.
Aretha wrote most of her material or selected the songs herself, working out the arrangements at home and using her piano to provide the texture. In this case, she just had the idea that she wanted to embellish Otis Redding’s song. When she walked into the studio, it was already worked out in her head.
Otis came up to my office right before “Respect” was released, and I played him the tape. He said, “She done took my song.” He said it benignly and ruefully. He knew the identity of the song was slipping away from him to her.
Aretha had a minor career at Columbia before coming to Atlantic. I don’t think Columbia let her play the piano much. It’s always been my belief that when a singer plays an instrument, you should let them play it on the record, even if the singer is not a virtuoso, because they’re bringing another element to the recording. In Aretha’s case, there was no compromise in quality. She was a brilliant pianist.
It is part of her genius. No one can copy her. She’s all alone in her greatness.
8. Little Richard
A lot of people call me the architect of rock & roll. I don’t call myself that, but I believe it’s true. You’ve got to remember, I was already known back in 1951. I was recording for RCA-Victor — if you were black, it was called Camden Records — before Elvis. Then I recorded for Peacock in Houston. Then Specialty Records bought me from Peacock — I think they paid $500 for me — and my first Specialty record was a hit in 1956: “Tutti Frutti.” It was a hit worldwide. I felt I had arrived, you know? We started touring everywhere immediately. We traveled in cars. Back in that time, the racism was so heavy, you couldn’t go in the hotels, so most times you slept in your car. You ate in your car. You got to the date, and you dressed in your car. I had a Cadillac. That’s what the star rode in.
You remember the way that Liberace dressed onstage? I was dressing like that all the time, very flamboyantly, and I was wearing the pancake makeup. A lot of the other performers at that time — the Cadillacs, the Coasters, the Drifters — they were wearing makeup, too, but they didn’t have any makeup kit. They had a sponge and a little compact in their pocket. I had a kit. Everybody started calling me gay.
People called rock & roll “African music.” They called it “voodoo music.” They said that it would drive the kids insane. They said that it was just a flash in the pan — the same thing that they always used to say about hip-hop. Only it was worse back then, because, you have to remember, I was the first black artist whose records the white kids were starting to buy. And the parents were really bitter about me. We played places where they told us not to come back, because the kids got so wild. They were tearing up the streets and throwing bottles and jumping off the theater balconies at shows. At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony — they were “white spectators.” But then they’d leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were.
I didn’t get paid — most dates I didn’t get paid. And I’ve never gotten money from most of those records. And I made those records: In the studio, they’d just give me a bunch of words, I’d make up a song! The rhythm and everything. “Good Golly Miss Molly”! And I didn’t get a dime for it. Michael Jackson owned the Specialty stuff. He offered me a job with his publishing company once, for the rest of my life, as a writer. At the time, I didn’t take it. I wish I had now.
I wish a lot of things had been different. I don’t think I ever got what I really deserved.
I appreciate being picked one of the top 100 performers, but who is number one and who is number two doesn’t matter to me anymore. Because it won’t be who I think it should be. The Rolling Stones started with me, but they’re going to always be in front of me. The Beatles started with me — at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made an album — but they’re going to always be in front of me. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix — these people started with me. I fed them, I talked to them, and they’re going to always be in front of me.
But it’s a joy just to still be here. I think that when people want joy and fun and happiness, they want to hear the old-time rock & roll. And I’m just glad I was a part of that.
7. James Brown
By Rick Rubin
In one sense, James Brown is like Johnny Cash. Johnny is considered one of the kings of country music, but there are a lot of people who like Johnny but don’t like country music. It’s the same with James Brown and R&B. His music is singular — the feel and tone of it. James Brown is his own genre. He was a great editor — as a songwriter, producer and bandleader. He kept things sparse. He knew that was important. And he had the best players, the funkiest of all bands. If Clyde Stubblefield had been drumming on a Motown session, they would not have let him play what he did with James on “Funky Drummer.” James’ vision allowed that music to get out. And the music always came from the groove, whereas for so many R&B and Motown artists at the time it was more about conventional songs. James Brown’s songs are not conventional. “I Got You,” “Out of Sight” — they are ultimately vehicles for unique, even bizarre grooves.
The first big record in hip-hop that used a Brown sample was Eric B. and Rakim’s “Eric B. Is President.” That opened the floodgates for people to sample Brown. I can’t remember ever using a James Brown sample on my early records with LL Cool J or the Beastie Boys, but I wanted to make records that felt as good as Brown’s, and I didn’t want to do it by sampling or copying him. For me, it was about understanding the feeling you get when you listen to those grooves, figuring out how to achieve that with drum machines.
That feeling was something that the Red Hot Chili Peppers and I worked on forBloodSugarSexMagik. We used Brown’s idea that all the musicians didn’t have to be playing at the same time. Let the bass have its moment; don’t be afraid to start a song with just guitar or break it down to just drums and guitar. Those are the sort of dynamics you hear on Brown’s records.
I remember going to Minneapolis to visit Prince years ago, sitting in an office waiting for him — and there was an endless loop of James Brown’s performance in the 1964 concert film The T.A.M.I. Show running. That may be the single greatest rock & roll performance ever captured on film. You have the Rolling Stones on the same stage, all of the important rock acts of the day — and James Brown comes out and destroys them. It’s unbelievable how much he outclasses everyone else in the film.
I first saw James Brown around 1980, between my junior and senior years in high school. It was in Boston. It was in a catering hall, with folding chairs. And it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. His dancing and singing were incredible, and he played a Hammond B3 organ tufted with red leather, with “Godfather” in studs written across the front.
Regardless of what went on in his personal life, his legacy is secure. He certainly did things along the way where you can’t help wondering, “What’s going on?” But the good stuff comes from these one-of-a-kind people. These people are just touched by God. They are special. And James Brown is one of them. His legend will loom large, because the rhythm of life is in there.
6. Jimi Hendrix
By John Mayer
Jimi Hendrix is one of those extraordinary hubs of music where everybody lands at some point. Every musician passes through Hendrix International Airport eventually. He is the common denominator of every style of popular music. Was he a bluesman? Listen to “Voodoo Chile” and you’ll hear some of the eeriest blues you can find. Was he a rock musician? He used volume as a device. That’s rock. Was he a sensitive singer-songwriter? In “Bold As Love,” he sings, “My yellow in this case is not so mellow/In fact I’m trying to say it’s frightened like me” — that is a man who knows the shape of his heart.
So often, he’s portrayed as a loud, psychedelic rock star lighting his guitar on fire. But when I think of Hendrix, I think of some of the most placid, lovely guitar sounds on songs like “One Rainy Wish,” “Little Wing” and “Drifting.” “Little Wing” is painfully short and painfully beautiful. It’s like your grandfather coming back from the dead and hanging out with you for a couple of minutes and then going away. It’s perfect, then it’s gone.
I think the reason musicians love Hendrix’s playing so much is that the language of it was so native to his head and heart. He had a secret relationship with playing the guitar, and though it was incredibly technical and based in theory, it was his theory. All you heard was the color. The math is what’s been applied ever since.
I discovered Hendrix by way of Stevie Ray Vaughan. I heard Stevie Ray do “Little Wing,” and I started working my way backward to Hendrix. The first Hendrix record I bought was Axis: Bold As Love, because it had “Little Wing” on it. I remember staring at the album cover for hours. Then I remember spending months listening to Electric Ladyland, which was very creepy. There’s something dark about it in certain places that maybe Hendrix was too honest to hide.
Hendrix invented a kind of cool. The cool of a big conch-shell belt. The cool of boots that your jeans are tucked into. If Jimi Hendrix is an influence on somebody, you can immediately tell. Give me a guy who’s got some kind of weird-ass goatee and an applejack hat, and you just go, “He got to you, didn’t he?”
Hendrix has the allure of the tragic figure: We all wish we were genius enough to die before we’re 28. People want to paint him as this lonely, shy figure who managed to let himself open up on the stage and play straight colors through the crowd. There’s something heroic about it, but there’s nothing human about it. Everybody is so caught up in his otherworldliness. I prefer to think about his human side. He was a man who had a Social Security number, not an alien. The merchandising companies put Jimi Hendrix’s face on a tie-dyed T-shirt, and somehow that’s what he became. But when I listen to Hendrix, I just hear a man, and that’s when it’s most beautiful — when you remember that another human being was capable of what he achieved. Who I am as a guitarist is defined by my failure to become Jimi Hendrix. However far you stop on your climb to be like him, that’s who you are.
5. Chuck Berry
By Joe Perry
Like a lot of guitarists of my generation, I first heard Chuck Berry because of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I was so blown away by the way those bands were playing these hardcore rock & roll songs like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Around and Around.” I’d looked at the labels, under the song titles. I’d seen the name “Chuck Berry.” But I was fortunate enough, again like a lot of guys from my generation, to have a friend who had an older brother, who had the original records: “If you like the Stones, wait until you hear this!” I heard Chuck Berry Is On Top — and I really freaked out! That feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach, in the hair on the back of my neck: I got more of it from Chuck Berry than from anybody else.
It’s not so much what he played — it’s what he didn’t play. His music is very economical. His guitar leads drove the rhythm, as opposed to laying over the top. The economy of his licks and his leads — they pushed the song along. And he would build his solos so there was a nice little statement taking the song to a new place, so you’re ready for the next verse.
As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is like the Ernest Hemingway of rock & roll. He gets right to the point. He tells a story in short sentences. You get a great picture in your mind of what’s going on, in a very short amount of space, in well-picked words. He was also very smart: He knew that if he was going to break into the mainstream, he had to appeal to white teenagers. Which he did. Everything in those songs is about teenagers. I think he knew he could have had his own success on the R&B charts, but he wanted to get out of there and go big time.
He was also celebrating the music and lifestyle of rock & roll in songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “School Days” — how anybody could make a guitar sound like the ring of a bell. Anytime you put the words “rock & roll” in a lyric, you have to be careful. But he did it perfectly. “Johnny B. Goode” is probably the most covered song ever. Bar bands, garage bands — everybody plays it. And so many bands play it badly. As much fun as it is to play, it’s also easy to destroy it. But it was probably the first Chuck Berry song I learned. It hits people on all levels: lyric, melody, tempo, riff.
It’s funny — when my son, Roman, was 12, he came back from his guitar lesson one day and I said, “What song were you learning today?” He said, “We’re learning ‘Johnny B. Goode.'” That’s the essence of the appeal of Chuck Berry. When you’re a young guitar player now, you’re confronted by all these guys: Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page. But you can sit down and get your guitar to sound like Chuck Berry in a very short amount of time.
The other thing is, Chuck Berry was a showman: playing the guitar behind his head and between his legs, doing the duckwalk. It’s not like you could close your eyes and hear his playing suffer because of it. He was able to do all that stuff and make it look like it was so easy and natural.
I still listen to Chuck Berry Is On Top. The whole thing just rocks out. That’s why I love it — for the same reason I love AC/DC records. They just don’t stop. That was another thing he did: He stayed in that groove. He could have done one or two of those “Johnny B. Goode”-type songs, or a couple like “Maybellene,” then gone off and done whatever. But he stayed in that place, that groove, and made it his own.
I also have a bunch of different compilations, and I hear the direct influence on me. The way he phrases things, that double-note stop, where you get the two notes bending against each other and they make that rock & roll sound — that’s what I hear when I listen back to a lot of my solos. It’s a little bit of technique, but it’s mostly phrasing.
And kids today are playing the same three chords, trying to play in that same style. Turn the guitars up, and it’s punk rock. It’s the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. I hear it in the White Stripes, too.
People will always cover Chuck Berry songs. When bands go do their homework, they will have to listen to Chuck Berry. If you want to learn about rock & roll, if you want to play rock & roll, you have to start there.
I’ve had the fortune to shake his hand once or twice, but I’ve never really had a chance to tell him any of this. It was always in passing, at an airport or something. The last time was in the Seventies. I was walking through the airport, and someone said, “It’s Chuck Berry over there.” Well, I had to go over and shake his hand. But he was tongue-tied. Then he was gone.
4. The Rolling Stones
By Steven Van Zandt
The Rolling Stones are my life. If it wasn’t for them, I would have been a Soprano for real. I first saw the Stones on TV, on The Hollywood Palace in 1964. In ’64, the Beatles were perfect: the hair, the harmonies, the suits. They bowed together. Their music was extraordinarily sophisticated. The whole thing was exciting and alien but very distant in its perfection. The Stones were alien and exciting, too. But with the Stones, the message was, “Maybe you can do this.” The hair was sloppier. The harmonies were a bit off. And I don’t remember them smiling at all. They had the R&B traditionalist’s attitude: “We are not in show business. We are not pop music.” And the sex in Mick Jagger’s voice was adult. This wasn’t pop sex — holding hands, playing spin the bottle. This was the real thing. Jagger had that conversational quality that came from R&B singers and bluesmen, that sort of half-singing, not quite holding notes. The acceptance of Jagger’s voice on pop radio was a turning point in rock & roll. He broke open the door for everyone else. Suddenly, Eric Burdon and Van Morrison weren’t so weird — even Bob Dylan.
It was completely unique: a white performer doing it in a black way. Elvis Presley did it. But the next guy was Jagger. There were no other white boys doing this. White singers stood there and sang, like the Beatles. The thing we associate with black performers goes back to the church — letting the spirit physically move you, letting go of social restraints, any form of embarrassment or humiliation. Not being in control: That’s what Mick Jagger was communicating.
In the beginning, it was Brian Jones’ band. He named them. He managed them — got the gigs and wrote to the paper when they got bad reviews. The attitude and aggressiveness — they first came from him. And the tradition came from him. He was using the blues pseudonym Elmo Lewis and playing bottleneck guitar. Then, on albums like Aftermath, he was playing all of these other instruments: dulcimer, harpsichord, sitar. He was so inventive and important. If anybody gets left out of the Stones’ story, he’s the one.
But Keith Richards has been taken for granted too, relegated historically to permanent rhythm guitar. But his solos were great: “Sympathy for the Devil,” “It’s All Over Now.” And there are the riffs: “Satisfaction,” of course, and “The Last Time,” which the Stones themselves considered the first serious song they wrote. “Honky Tonk Women” is just one chord. Then he started the tunings: the G tuning and the five-string version of the G tuning. There are chord patterns that relate to his tunings — the “Gimme Shelter” effect, let’s call it — where you add a suspended note, and it becomes more melodic and rhythmic at the same time. I play rhythm guitar with the E Street Band in Keith’s style all the time. Anybody who plays rock & roll guitar does.
Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, more than any other rock & roll rhythm section, to this day, knew how to swing. It’s so much a thing of the past now, but in those days rock & roll was something you danced to. You can just picture how much fun it was to be at the Station Hotel in London in 1963: the crowd going crazy, the Stones going crazy, like they were in a South Side Chicago blues club. You can picture it in the music.
There are generations of young people now who only know the Stones iconically. So I’d send them to the first four albums, the American versions: England’s Newest Hitmakers, 12×5, Now! andOut of Our Heads. The next lesson is the second great era: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. They make up the greatest run of albums in history — and all done in three and a half years.
In a lot of ways, the Stones are playing better now than they were in the Sixties. They were quite sloppy in the early days — which I enjoy. Technically, they’re better than they’ve ever been. The trouble is, their power comes from their first 12 albums. There have been a few great songs since ’72, but only a handful. If they were making great records and playing live the way they are now, my God, how amazing would that be?
But live, they’re still able to communicate that original power. You can learn a lot from the Stones still: Write good songs, stay in shape and dig deep down for that passion every night. You should live so long, a tenth as long, and be as good as Mick Jagger. It’s amazing Keith is still alive. There are a few people who have this constitution of invulnerability, although you shouldn’t learn that. Let’s be honest: Excessive drug use hurts songwriting. The good side is, he’s still on the road, rockin’, almost 50 years later. You can’t hold most bands together for four years, let alone 50.
They show that if you stick to your guns, and don’t compromise with what’s trendy, you’re gonna go a long fucking way.
3. Elvis Presley
Out of Tupelo, Mississippi, out of Memphis, Tennessee, came this green, sharkskin-suited girl chaser, wearing eye shadow — a trucker-dandy white boy who must have risked his hide to act so black and dress so gay. This wasn’t New York or even New Orleans; this was Memphis in the Fifties. This was punk rock. This was revolt. Elvis changed everything — musically, sexually, politically. In Elvis, you had the whole lot; it’s all there in that elastic voice and body. As he changed shape, so did the world: He was a Fifties-style icon who was what the Sixties were capable of, and then suddenly not. In the Seventies, he turned celebrity into a blood sport, but interestingly, the more he fell to Earth, the more godlike he became to his fans. His last performances showcase a voice even bigger than his gut, where you cry real tears as the music messiah sings his tired heart out, turning casino into temple.
In Elvis, you have the blueprint for rock & roll. The highness — the gospel highs. The mud — the Delta mud, the blues. Sexual liberation. Controversy. Changing the way people feel about the world. It’s all there with Elvis.
I was eight years old when I saw the ’68 comeback special — which was probably an advantage. I hadn’t the critical faculties to divide the different Elvises into different categories or sort through the contradictions. Pretty much everything I want from guitar, bass and drums was present: a performer annoyed by the distance from his audience; a persona that made a prism of fame’s wide-angle lens; a sexuality matched only by a thirst for God’s instruction.
But it’s that elastic spastic dance that is the most difficult to explain — hips that swivel from Europe to Africa, which is the whole point of America, I guess. For an Irish boy, the voice might have explained the sexiness of the U.S.A., but the dance explained the energy of this new world about to boil over and scald the rest of us with new ideas on race, religion, fashion, love and peace.
I once met with Coretta Scott King, John Lewis and some of the other leaders of the American civil rights movement, and they reminded me of the cultural apartheid rock & roll was up against. I think the hill they climbed would have been much steeper were it not for the racial inroads black music was making on white pop culture. Elvis was already doing what the civil rights movement was demanding: breaking down barriers. You don’t think of Elvis as political, but that is politics: changing the way people see the world.
In the Eighties, U2 went to Memphis, to Sun Studio — the scene of rock & roll’s big bang. Elvis’ music diviner Cowboy Jack Clement opened the studio so we could cut some tracks within the same four walls where Elvis recorded “Mystery Train.” He found the old valve microphone the King had howled through; the reverb was the same reverb: “Train I ride, 16 coaches long.” It was a small tunnel of a place, but there was a certain clarity to the sound. You can hear it in those Sun records, and they are the ones for me. The King didn’t know he was the King yet. Elvis doesn’t know where the train will take him, and that’s why we want to be passengers.
Jerry Schilling, the only one of the Memphis Mafia not to sell him out, told me that when Elvis was upset and feeling out of kilter, he would leave the big house and go down to his little gym, where there was a piano. With no one else around, his choice would always be gospel. He was happiest when he was singing his way back to spiritual safety. But he didn’t stay long enough. Self-loathing was waiting back up at the house, where Elvis was seen shooting at his TV screens, the Bible open beside him at St. Paul’s great ode to love, Corinthians 13. Elvis clearly didn’t believe God’s grace was amazing enough.
Some commentators say it was the Army, others say it was Hollywood or Las Vegas that broke his spirit. The rock & roll world certainly didn’t like to see their King doing what he was told. I think it was probably much more likely his marriage or his mother — or a finer fracture from earlier on, like losing his twin brother, Jesse, at birth. Maybe it was just the big arse of fame sitting on him.
I think the Vegas period is underrated. I find it the most emotional. By that point Elvis was clearly not in control of his own life, and there is this incredible pathos. The big opera voice of the later years — that’s the one that really hurts me.
Why is it that we want our idols to die on a cross of their own making, and if they don’t, we want our money back? But you know, Elvis ate America before America ate him.
2. Bob Dylan
By Robbie Robertson
Bob Dylan and I started out from different sides of the tracks. When I first heard him, I was already in a band, playing rock & roll. I didn’t know a lot of folk music. I wasn’t up to speed on the difference he was making as a songwriter. I remember somebody playing “Oxford Town,” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, for me. I thought, “There’s something going on here.” His voice seemed interesting to me. But it wasn’t until we started playing together that I really understood it. He is a powerful singer and a great musical actor, with many characters in his voice. I could hear the politics in the early songs. It’s very exciting to hear somebody singing so powerfully, with something to say. But what struck me was how the street had had such a profound effect on him: coming from Minnesota, setting out on the road and coming into New York. There was a hardness, a toughness, in the way he approached his songs and the characters in them. That was a rebellion, in a certain way, against the purity of folk music. He wasn’t pussyfooting around on “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Ballad of a Thin Man.” This was the rebel rebelling against the rebellion.
I learned early on with Bob that the people he hung around with were not musicians. They were poets, like Allen Ginsberg. When we were in Europe, there’d be poets coming out of the woodwork. His writing came directly out of a tremendous poetic influence, a license to write in images that weren’t in the Tin Pan Alley tradition or typically rock & roll, either. I watched him sing “Desolation Row” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” in those acoustic sets in 1965 and ’66. I had never seen anything like it — how much he could deliver with a guitar and a harmonica, and how people would just take the ride, going through these stories and songs with him.
When he and I went to Nashville in 1966, to work on Blonde on Blonde, it was the first time I’d ever seen a songwriter writing songs on a typewriter. We’d go to the studio, and he’d be finishing up the lyrics to some of the songs we were going to do. I could hear this typewriter — click, click, click, ring, really fast. He was typing these things out so fast; there was so much to be said.
And he’d be changing things during a session. He’d have a new idea and try to incorporate that. That was something else he taught me early on. The Hawks were band musicians. We needed to know where the song was going to go, what the chord changes were, where the bridge was. Bob has never been big on rehearsing. He comes from a place where he just did the songs on acoustic guitar by himself. When we’d play the song with him, it would be, “How do we end it?” And he’d say, “Oh, when it’s over, it’s over. We’ll just stop.” We got so we were ready for anything — and that was a good feeling. We’d think, “OK, this can take a left turn at any minute — and I’m ready.”
More than anything, in my own songwriting, the thing I learned from Bob is that it’s OK to break those traditional rules of what songs are supposed to be: the length of a song, how imaginative you could get telling the story. It was great that someone had broken down the gates, opened up the sky to all of the possibilities.
I think Bob has a true passion for the challenge, for coming up with something in the music that makes him feel good, to keep on doing it and doing it, as he does now. The songs Bob is writing now are as good as any songs he’s ever written. There’s a wonderful honesty in them. He writes about what he sees and feels, about who he is. We spent a lot of time together in the 1970s. We were both living in Malibu and knew what was going on in our respective day-to-day lives. And I know Blood on the Tracks is a reflection of what was happening to him then. When he writes songs, he’s holding up a mirror — and I’m seeing it all clearly, like I’ve never seen it before.
I don’t think Bob ever wanted to be more than a good songwriter. When people are like, “Oh, my God, you’re having an effect on culture and society” — I doubt he thinks like that. I don’t think Hank Williams understood why his songs were so much more moving than other people’s songs. I think Bob is thinking, “I hope I can think of another really good song.” He’s putting one foot in front of the other and just following his bliss.
But Bob is a great barometer for young singers and songwriters. As soon as they think they’ve written something good — “I’m pushing the envelope here, I’ve made a breakthrough” — they should listen to one of his songs. He will always stand as the one to measure good work by. That’s one of the greatest accomplishments of all.
1. The Beatles
By Elvis Costello
I first heard of the Beatles when I was nine years old. I spent most of my holidays on Merseyside then, and a local girl gave me a bad publicity shot of them with their names scrawled on the back. This was 1962 or ’63, before they came to America. The photo was badly lit, and they didn’t quite have their look down; Ringo had his hair slightly swept back, as if he wasn’t quite sold on the Beatles haircut yet. I didn’t care; they were the band for me. The funny thing is that parents and all their friends from Liverpool were also curious and proud about this local group. Prior to that, the people in show business from the north of England had all been comedians. Come to think of it, the Beatles recorded for Parlophone, which was known as a comedy label.
I was exactly the right age to be hit by them full on. My experience — seizing on every picture, saving money for singles and EPs, catching them on a local news show — was repeated over and over again around the world. It was the first time anything like this had happened on this scale. But it wasn’t just about the numbers.
Every record was a shock when it came out. Compared to rabid R&B evangelists like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles arrived sounding like nothing else. They had already absorbed Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry, but they were also writing their own songs. They made writing your own material expected, rather than exceptional.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney were exceptional songwriters; McCartney was, and is, a truly virtuoso musician; George Harrison wasn’t the kind of guitar player who tore off wild, unpredictable solos, but you can sing the melodies of nearly all of his breaks. Most important, they always fit right into the arrangement. Ringo Starr played the drums with an incredibly unique feel that nobody can really copy, although many fine drummers have tried and failed. Most of all, John and Paul were fantastic singers.
Lennon, McCartney and Harrison had stunningly high standards as writers. Imagine releasing a song like “Ask Me Why” or “Things We Said Today” as a B side. These records were events, and not just advance notice of an album release.
Then they started to really grow up. They went from simple love lyrics to adult stories like “Norwegian Wood,” which spoke of the sour side of love, and on to bigger ideas than you would expect to find in catchy pop lyrics.
They were pretty much the first group to mess with the aural perspective of their recordings and have it be more than just a gimmick. Before the Beatles, you had guys in lab coats doing recording experiments in the Fifties, but you didn’t have rockers deliberately putting things out of balance, like a quiet vocal in front of a loud track on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” You can’t exaggerate the license that this gave to everyone from Motown to Jimi Hendrix.
My absolute favorite albums are Rubber Soul and Revolver. When you picked up Revolver, you knew it was something different. Heck, they are wearing sunglasses indoors in the picture on the back of the cover and not even looking at the camera … and the music was so strange and yet so vivid. If I had to pick a favorite song from those albums, it would be “And Your Bird Can Sing” … no, “Girl” … no, “For No One” … and so on, and so on….
Their breakup album, Let It Be, contains songs both gorgeous and jagged. I remember going to Leicester Square and seeing the film of Let It Be in 1970. I left with a melancholy feeling.
The word “Beatlesque” has been in the dictionary for a while now. I can hear them in the Prince album Around the World in a Day; in Ron Sexsmith’s tunes; in Harry Nilsson’s melodies. You can hear that Kurt Cobain listened to the Beatles and mixed them in with punk and metal.
I’ve co-written some songs with Paul McCartney and performed with him in concert on a few occasions. During one rehearsal, I was singing harmony on a Ricky Nelson song, and Paul called out the next tune: “All My Loving.” I said, “Do you want me to take the harmony line the second time round?” And he said, “Yeah, give it a try.” I’d only had 35 years to learn the part. It was a very poignant performance, witnessed only by the crew and other artists on the bill.
At the show, it was very different. The second he sang the opening lines — “Close your eyes, and I’ll kiss you” — the crowd’s reaction was so intense that it all but drowned the song out. It was very thrilling but also rather disconcerting. Perhaps I understood in that moment one of the reasons why the Beatles had to stop performing. The songs weren’t theirs anymore. They were everybody’s.