My standard icebreaker with anyone from a cab driver to stranger at a party is, “What was your favorite music when you were 16?” I love to hear people talk about their enthusiasms. When I like something, I’m given to listening to it on repeat for hours. I can’t always say what it is about a particular song that makes me want to do that, and I think that’s part of the adventure: We can be surprised. I’m always looking for the next thing to love. I also don’t believe in skeletons in the closet. I think one shouldn’t be ashamed about liking anything. The fine folks here at MAGNET sent me a list of 15 songs and have asked me to write about 10 of them. I turned it to 11. —Matthew Caws
The Breeders, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”
As a fervent Pixies fan and as someone harboring a rock crush on Kim Deal, I bought the Breeders’ debut as soon as I could and rushed home to listen to it. Pod delivered on all imagined promise. From the mysteriously sexual cover (4AD’s visual mastermind Vaughan Oliver doing a fertility dance wearing a belt of eels) to Steve Albini’s explosively present production that falls just this side of lovely, the album seemed to occupy a world similar to the Pixies’, though further from the Bible and aliens and with sludgier tempos. Track three starts with a lighter lighting something before Slint drummer Brad Wal- ford (recording here under the nom de sticks Shannon Daughton) enters in a crescendo. From there on, and getting out before the original’s theatrical doo-wop end chorus, their take on the Beatles is a knockout, kicking the chorus up a few notches of intensity while dialing the singing back, in what would turn out to be classic Breeders fashion. Though the Beatles are the most covered group in history, the bands that I was listening to almost never seemed to play their songs. (Nothing comes to mind apart from the Feelies’ “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey.”) I may be wrong about that, but it was my impression at the time and contributed to my feeling that the Breeders were being audacious, and pulling it off. There are only three times I’ve heard a song that was not yet a hit and knew incontrovertibly that it would be an enormous one before getting through the first listen. One was Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” heard on a car radio. Another was “Yellow” on then-unheard-of Coldplay’s first album while driving in the tour van with everyone else sleeping, having been given a promo copy at a college radio station we’d visited that day. But by far the most striking occurrence, and the only live one, was hearing “Cannonball” for the first time when the Breeders played Town Hall in New York in 1993. It was like hearing and see- ing perfection unfold in real time.
The Cars, “Drive”
I’ve listened to this song more closely when I’ve heard it recently. I was alienated by it at first, finding it forbidding in some way. Let me be clear about my relationship to the Cars: I adore them. My older sister bought all of their records as they came out, and I stared at the band photos while listening. They looked cool and the songs were giving me everything I wanted and more: mega-hooks, cold-frosted sound, short visual phrases and hot-rocking guitar solos. The fact that I would, 15 years on, meet Ric Ocasek while walking out of the Knitting Factory and give him our first demo tape; that he would invite me over to his Gramercy townhouse two weeks later (I was so excited I missed the street sign’s pole and locked my bike to nothing); that he would turn out to be one of the warmest and most generous people I’d ever met, and that he would end up producing our first album, is still completely and totally bonkers. In my teens, as I heard “Drive” come out of every radio, I could tell it was an indisputably beautiful song and melody, but its sadness was so clear that I reflexively tried to keep my attention away, probably assuming I wasn’t into the high-gloss state-of-the-synth production. Diving in now, the orchestration of those synthesizers is a wonder. It’s kind of the East Coast version of Don Henley’s “Boys Of Summer,” released the same year, with fewer guitars and less hope. And more indoor time, too much of it in a bar at the end of the night. And colder weather. Ben Orr’s dramatic vibrato carries “Drive” like a torch song. I hope the story took a turn for the better somehow.
Bob Dylan, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”
So much has been written about Bob Dylan that a book was published in 2014 entitled The Dylanologists, which is, among other things, a book about people writing books about Bob. I’m not a scholar, so I’ll keep it simple: I love his music. He would definitely be my desert-island artist. The first live playing I experienced was my Aunt Peg (who later gave me my first guitar) singing “Blowin’ In The Wind” to me when I was a toddler. Years later, while parking my first band’s van at night, “Desolation Row” came on the radio. I’d never heard it. It was freezing out and I needed to get back in the building, but the song kept going. I was totally mesmerized and waited the 11 minutes until the end. Though shorter at seven minutes, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” has that same quality that runs through Dylan’s whole catalog: a bounty of imagination, a generosity of energy, wit and feeling, one brilliant line after the next. Each of the nine stanzas is a perfect and cohesive detail-rich vignette. Each could be a scene from a different story, or all part of one. This isn’t the kind of thing I could venture a guess about. I just stand in the wind tunnel as the song blows around and past me.
The Ramones, “I Wanna Be Sedated”
Ramones fandom, event one: 1980, best friend Philip’s older brother Michael asks us 13-year-olds if we’d like to listen to some records in his room. We say yes, of course. This feels like a special event because Michael is usually away at boarding school, and in an apartment otherwise full of old paintings, his walls have modern art and rock ’n’ roll posters on them. He sits us down and plays for us, in order and in their entirety, Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Ramones’ Rocket To Russia and the Velvet Underground’s Loaded. I am marked by every minute of the experience and feel a new reality start to open. Event two: 1982, walking along 8th Street and turned talking to a friend, I bump into someone much taller, face-first right into a striped-shirt and leather-jacketed chest. Joey Ramone evad- ing a bee. Event three: 1997, we record “Sick Of You” for We Will Fall, an Iggy Pop tribute record. The record company calls and asks if we’d back Joey up for his version of “1969” at the release party, and could we also learn “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Cue incredulous and giddy band hysteria and a week straight of playing those two songs. Practice at Context Studios. We’re nervous and probably grin- ning. Joey arrives and is beyond sweet. His friend, producer Daniel Rey, is along playing guitar and (very understandably) counts off the song at Ramones concert speed. Our drummer Ira doesn’t start, insisting we play it like the record, the way we’ve been practicing it, which is much slower at this point. Joey smiles after we run through it, says it reminds him of the old days. He really said that. The record release show goes really well. After we play, Joey says, “If you guys want, learn your six favorite Ramones songs, and at the end of your next show in town, I’ll get onstage and sing them with you.” We happen to have a show at Coney Island High two weeks later! That night there are some new faces in the audience, and people look happy and expectant; word must have gotten out. We play our show and then tell the audience that we want to bring out a special guest. After that it’s a blur in my memory. I mostly remember ecstasy. “1969,” “Judy Is A Punk,” “Cretin Hop,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Do You Remember Rock ’N’ Roll Radio?” “Bonzo Goes To Bitburg,” “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Forgot to talk about the song I guess. It’s one of the best ever.
The Runaways, “Cherry Bomb”
The Runaways, “Cherry Bomb” Legend has it Joan Jett wrote this song on the spot for Cherry Curie to sing during her audition to be the Runaways’ singer. On the spot. Watch Jett in the promo video. Good lord. There’s no right answer to the question, “Who’s the most rock ’n’ roll?” But it’s harmless fun to ask it, and the few seconds you get to see her play are the beginning of a fine case that she’s as good an answer as any. I love that pop and rock music occupy such an enormous space of possibility—storytelling, social commentary, love, lust, hardship, pure celebration and everything in between—but in terms of its details, I love that a hook can come in any form, from a melody to a beat to a lyric to, in the case of “Cherry Bomb,” half a syllable: “ch.” Did it come from David Bowie’s “Changes” five years before? Was it the vocalization of Jett’s palm-muted chugging playing style? Doesn’t matter. It’s catchy, and the song rocks. Like Dee Dee Ramone over on the other coast, Jett is a deft master of the simple chordal riff and indelible melody, neither of which are easy to write. It hadn’t occurred to me until recently how much they sound like a blueprint for the Sex Pistols, especially instrumentally.
Lou Reed, “Dirty Blvd.”
I met our drummer Ira when bassist Daniel and I used to go see the Fuzztones play in the mid-’80s. I met him again when I was interning at the Magic Shop recording studio on Crosby Street. My main duties were making coffee, getting the door and putting all microphones and cables back in their place at the end of the night. I didn’t end up becoming an engineer (my curiosity about electronics was lagging behind my interest in music), but I had some really great experiences and learned a lot in different ways. Ira was the Smithereens’ drum tech, and they’d come in for a month to make an album and we reconnected then. Lou Reed came in to play some guest guitar for a couple of days. I remember his amp and effects rig—this is aside from any speakers—being literally the size of a standard refrigerator. We weren’t to address him. One night I was charged with bringing cassettes of the day’s session to his apartment on Christopher Street. I knocked on the door. He opened it wordlessly, took the tapes and closed the door. I didn’t mind; he seemed complicated, and that was fine. A few years later, I sat with him in his office and interviewed him for Guitar World, who he always granted an interview with. My given mission was to get him to talk about anything but gear. I asked him about lyrics and early rock ’n’ roll music. He was a real sweetheart. Why am I telling you these things that have nothing to do with the song? Maybe because, like Dylan, Reed is such a towering figure over modern music’s landscape (and mine) that I hardly know what to say, and if you’re reading this magazine it’s likely you love him, too. The third verse of “Dirty Blvd.” is all too relevant now: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on them/That’s what the Statue Of Bigotry says/Your poor huddled masses/Let’s club ’em to death/And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard.”
Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights”
On a rainy afternoon in May 1990, I got a call from my friend Tom Shad. “Meet me at Avery Fisher Hall. We’re going to see a show, we’re going to scalp tickets. It’ll probably be 50 bucks each, but I promise you it’ll be worth it.” “What are we going to see?” “Just trust me.” Tom was a consummate musician whom I’d met when both our bands (I was in the Cost Of Living and he was in Cowboy And Spin Girl) were on a compilation called Eastern Shores. He was plugged into the Hoboken and Boston scenes, both of which I was fascinated by (he’d go on to play in Dumptruck with Seth Tiven, Kevin Salem and future Helium drummer Shawn Devlin), and immediately made an impression on me with his breadth of knowledge. I decided I should trust him and put on my rain jacket. A hundred dollars later, we sat down in the sixth row, right in the middle. Out walked 23 women in colorful folk costumes. With a nod from their conductor, they all began to sing at once. The sound was shocking. With almost no vibrato, they formed dense, droning and sometimes dissonant chords that they’d hold before turning on a dime, while soloists took turns embellishing with stunning complexity. It was loud and otherworldly. The melodies were sad, but the whole was so beautiful that you couldn’t help but feel joy. This was the Bulgarian State Radio And Television Female Vocal Choir. I’m grateful to Tom to this day for the experience. A compilation from 1975 called Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares had been recently re-released and a follow-up volume two had just won a Grammy. I bought both at the newly opened CD(!) store down the street from my house. I also bought a Kate Bush album that day, The Sensual World. I’d heard a few songs of hers and was curious, and the cover grabbed me. Back home, what should I hear on track nine, “Rocket’s Tail,” but a smaller version of that same sound from the week before! Kate was backed on that track by the Trio Bulgarka. I quickly became obsessed with that song (if you’re a David Gilmour fan, you’ll want to check out the outro) and also with “Love And Anger,” which I sang to myself so regularly from then on that we ended up covering it 20 years later. I’ve ventured out to other periods in Bush’s career, but I’ve always returned to The Sensual World. There’s no denying countless other songs of hers, including, of course, debut single “Wuthering Heights.” Something that I love about her music is how, despite the high-wire nature of her best melodies, I’m convinced they came to her fully formed, in one go. Maybe it’s the powerful sense of place in her songs, making one think she could imagine herself there and just start singing. Some songs get paired in my mind like sister cities. This one’s partner has always been Michael Penn’s “No Myth.” They reference the same book but, more importantly, both have unmistakable and serpentine chorus melodies. Another pair of sisters are Elvis Costello’s “Veronica” and XTC’s “Mayor Of Simpleton,” both top-shelf examples of British pop released a year apart. Bonus triplets: “My Perfect Cousin” by the Undertones, “David Watts” by the Kinks and “Geoffrey Ingram” by the Television Personalities, all different takes on the kid who has it all. Here is a degraded TV spot on Kate and the Trio Bulgarka in the studio.
Death Cab For Cutie, “You Are A Tourist”
Seeing Death Cab For Cutie play at Brownies in New York on tour supporting second album We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes happened at just the right time for me. It was May 2000. Dropped by Elektra Records after our second album, The Proximity Effect, hadn’t seemed to them worth releasing in the U.S., I was working in a record store, writing songs and trying to figure out a path forward. Death Cab were loud, catchy, literate and complex without being fussy. I bought their albums at the merch table near the exit and went home inspired and energized. Two years later, our third album, Let Go, would come out on their same label, Barsuk Records, two of the tracks having been mixed by guitar player/producer Chris Walla. He was sick that day and on a short break between tours, so it was very generous of him to do (on the cheap as well!). Of possible interest to recording enthusiasts: Chris spent two hours getting sounds and volume and compression levels on our song “Happy Kid.” He then hit play on the multitrack and record on the two-track. That’s it; he didn’t touch a fader or mute button. I was standing right there. It’s not a flat arrangement, either; there are plenty of dynamic shifts. Chris went on to produce our follow-up, The Weight Is A Gift. The whole band made us feel really welcome on the label, our home for 15 years now, even taking us on tour. We’ve become good friends, and we’re really glad to know them. “You Are A Tourist” is a perfect example of what the band does best. They manage to sound powerful and meditative at once. The band chugs along like a warm machine, drummer Jason McGerr bringing an edge of funk that percolates without starting a separate party, as complex playing so often does. Bassist Nick Harmer joins him in pushing the groove while adding hooks, Chris brings the atmosphere and repeating themes, and Ben Gibbard offers the melody and message. An old Brooklyn music friend, Howard Fishman, recently wrote this about Cat Stevens in The New Yorker, and I think it could just as well be said about Death Cab and Ben in particular: “Indelible melodies, beautiful production, emotionally committed performances, and, most of all, a gentle wisdom, a repudiation of the status quo, a sense that we were not alone. Here was someone who was trying to make sense of life, too; he may not have had the answers, but he was looking for them, and we were encouraged to join him. Here was a friend.”
Guided By Voices, “The Official Ironmen Rally Song”
The first song I heard by Guided By Voices was “My Impression Now” on the Fast Japanese Spin Cycle EP. Aside from being a fantastic song, what really struck me was the bass playing. The first 45 seconds are magic, all deft support, sweet touches and an additional killer melody. After that it falls apart a bit before pulling it together for the finish. What makes the song’s opening so special is that it’s clear that whoever was playing bass was making it up on the spot and hitting a moment of deep and lucky grace. They could have done another take, but I know from experience that the beginning would never have been as good. That move, not redoing it, made me believe in them. I was hooked. I’ve since fallen for literally hours of their songs. Their shows are a non-stop hit parade. Like Ron Sexsmith, Robert Pollard is one of those writers who seems to have hit an absolutely inexhaustible vein of memorable melody and can marry those melodies to words that will stick. I’m sure I’ll forget lots of music, but I know that if in 20 or 30 years I read, “To dine alone/To build a private zone/Or trigger a synapse/And free us from our traps,” I’ll be able to sing it straight away. Our fourth member, the amazing Doug Gillard, is back playing guitar with them, but we’re happy to share. Long may they run!
There’s a great podcast called Song Exploder that focuses on one song per episode, talking to the artist and sometimes the engineers and others involved about any and every aspect of that song’s writing, construction, recording, etc. Individual tracks are singled out, demo versions are listened to, etc. Phoenix did one recently for the title track of their new album Ti Amo. I had a feeling they’d have some pretty sweet processes going, based on their sound, but they exceeded my expectations. They sample every note of every synthesizer in their collection, share a server with all their music files so they can trade off and all work on the same track at once, run cheap dictaphone mics through fancy gear, etc. These guys are advanced. I imagine them turning in their albums ahead of schedule while managing to have a nice lunch every day sitting outside somewhere. “1901” is one of my faves, along with the whole album it’s on, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. What’s striking is how well-arranged their songs are. Landscapes and sounds change at just the right time, the tones are always sweet, and everything stays exciting. “Love Like A Sunset” I could listen to on loop. They win the award for best English lyrics by a French band, sharing that distinction with Stereolab (if Laetitia Sadier makes the latter count). They also make exactly the kind of music I’d want to dance to if the club we played turned into a rock disco after the show.
Nada Surf, “Popular”
Were other folks who’ve done this column offered one of their own songs? [Nada. —ed.] Ack, what do I do? Am I not being a good sport if I don’t write about it? Do I seem self-centered if I do? This was a last-minute assignment, I’m writing on a deadline and can’t spend much time on this choice, so here we go. This was the only song most journalists wanted to talk to us about for at least the first five years of our career, but a lot of time has gone by now. What might someone want to know? It was 1993, and I was working the graveyard shift at an investment bank called Bear Stearns, 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. five days a week, typing and making pie charts. Miserable job but good pay, which I invested in the band. It also gave me plenty of hours that felt like free time if I was willing to forego a little sleep. I was fooling around with a four-track one afternoon, trying to write a guitar part that sounded like Sonic Youth. I got something going that was part of the way there, not dissonant exactly, but circular and a little haunting, with two notes ringing in repetitive unison. Next to me on the table was something I’d just picked up at the Goodwill store on the corner, a teen advice book by Gloria Winters called Penny’s Guide To Teen-Age Charm And Popularity. It had “Glamour Editorial Department” stamped on the inside and cost me 25 cents. There was counsel in it about how to end a relationship: “Three important rules for breaking up: Don’t put off breaking up when you know you want to, prolonging the situation only makes it worse. Tell him honestly, simply, kindly but firmly, don’t make a big production, don’t make up an elaborate story … “ (I don’t have the book with me right now and can’t check if that quote is verbatim, but that was the spirit of it). What struck me as strange was how on the one hand this was sensible advice, but on the other was presented so plainly, with no allusion to the difficulty of teenage (or any) love. The advice got stranger from there: “You can date that same person again after a month; they will appreciate your fresh approach.” “Being attractive is the most important thing there is. Wash your hair at least once a week.” I started to think there was a song in there. I tried to imagine what kind of chorus someone who bought into all this would sing. “I’m head of the class/I’m popular/I’m a quarterback/I’m popular/My mom says I’m a catch/I’m popular/I’m never last-picked/I got a cheerleading chick.” We started to play the song at shows, asking our more dramatic friends to come up out of the audience to read passages from the book on pages we’d marked for the verses, signaling them to pause while I’d sing a chorus. When it came time to record, I tried reading from the book, but it felt too stiff. I put it down and just started making it up. I’d looked at the pages so much that a lot of what I said was verbatim. We had our school friend Catherine Talese come over to read some passages as well. The idea was that my voice would be buried on one side, hers on the other and the words would only really be discernible on the chorus. A more muddled version of something like the Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” or Pavement’s “Fame Throwa.” When Bryce Goggin was mixing our first recording of it, I explained what I was imagining. Ten minutes later, he called me back into the control room. He’d turned Catherine’s vocal off, had put mine in the middle and turned it up. “Oh, no, no, wait, turn me down!” But he kept his finger on the fader and made me listen. Over the volume, he said, “That’s a pop song.” He was right. We were sending up a half-imagined culture, but on our first tour after the song’s release, football players and cheerleaders were down front partying. We stopped singing it for a while, when it was the only song anyone knew, but now I like to do it every night. I still think it’s funny. It’s a lot of words, though!