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Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: The Breeders, ‘Cannonball’ (#489)

Up until the late 80’s, if you referred to something as an indie (independent), what you were referring to was not the act but the record label.  There were the big boys on the block (Warner, EMI, Sony, etc.) and then there was everything and everyone else:  a vast constellation of vanity projects, mom and pop outfits, and outlaw operations.  Where the major labels had major artists and major dollars to splash around on marketing and distribution and the perks of stardom, some of these independent operations weren’t much more than one or two people and a dream, working out of a basement somewhere.

By the late 80’s, though, through a weird confluence of fate and college radio and changing tastes, the term indie started to refer not to the labels but to their alt-rock artists.  By 1993, the year ‘Cannonball’ was released, the indies were a real force, (sometimes) making real money.  These alt-rock indie acts didn’t overtake the mainstream during this period so much as they overlapped it at the margins, existing comfortably — for awhile, at least — in a sub-mainstream all their own.

The Breeders were founder Kim Deal — whom you may remember from the Pixes’ ‘Where is My Mind?’ (#493) — and a rotating cast of dozens, usually featuring Kim’s sister Kelley, who was brought in to play guitar.  (In what must be a Deal family tradition, Kelley did not in fact know how to play guitar when she was recruited for the band.)  The line-up for Last Splash, the album from which ‘Cannonball’ is taken, was their most famous and successful, featuring Josephine Wiggs on bass and drummer Jim McPherson.

Written by Kim, ‘Cannonball’ itself is an odd mix of clever drums, killer bass lines, chunky rhythm guitar with a snaky hypnotic lead, and the Deal sisters’ whispery vocals.  The song reached #44 on the Billboard Hot 100.  This in a year in which Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Whoomp! (There It Is)’ and a UB40 song occupied the top three spots, which ought to give you some sense of the fundamental weirdness going on with pop music during this period.

What is ‘Cannonball’ about?  Honestly, who the fuck knows?  The lyrics taken on their own would support any number of interpretations, all of them equally valid (or invalid).  Kim Deal herself once claimed in an interview that the song was a reaction to the writings of the Marquis de Sade…but given the in-song references to bongs and reggae, and Kim Deal being Kim Deal, she may well have just been fucking around.

Michael Strum: “The distortion grabs you right off the jump, a creative bear hug born (further) aloft by the groovy baseline and then rhythm guitar rolls in like the surf, energetic crashing but also rhythmic. This is Art Rock, beautifully constructed. The rightful heir to Velvet Underground & Nico, and also somehow suggesting / preceding elements of Gym Class Heroes’ ‘The Papercut Chronicles’ from 2005. ‘Driving on 9’ is off of the same album (Last Splash), and that actually recalled Springsteen to me, specifically ‘The River’ and ‘Nebraska’, not because they sound anything alike, but in the way that The Sydney Opera House and Sagrada Familia or St. Basil’s Cathedral are similar, in the care and in the deft beauty of their architecture. ‘Cannonball’ is utterly gorgeous.”

Rolling Stone: Notified by fax that her services in the Pixies were no longer required, Kim Deal called up her twin sister, Kelley, to be her new guitarist (never mind that she didn’t know how to play guitar) and had the last laugh when this absurdist gem became an MTV phenomenon in 1993. “When people were talking about the Breeders being a one-off,” Kelley told Rolling Stone, “I was like ‘No, actually … the Pixies are a side project.’” A little over a year later, the Breeders were on an extended break of their own, but the effortlessly fun trampoline bounce of “Cannonball” is one for all time.

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Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: The Pixies, ‘Where Is My Mind’ (#493)

Mix two parts talent, two parts blind faith self-actualization, and one part stumbling ass-backwards into the loving arms of destiny, and you’d wind up, maybe, with something like the Pixies.

Or homeless.  There’s a good chance you’d wind up homeless.

Band founders Charles Thompson, a.k.a. the once and future Black Francis, and Joey Santiago, make each other’s acquaintance in the mid-80’s when they wind up sharing dorm space at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Technically speaking, they’re not there for music.  Thompson is studying anthropology, and Santiago is an economics major.  Whatever.  The two recognize some mutual interests and begin dipping their toes in the songwriting pool.

Halfway through the Amherst experience, Thompson takes off for Puerto Rico to study Spanish, returning six months later to drop out of college.  He persuades Santiago to drop out as well, and the two “form a band” in Boston in 1986, with Santiago handling guitar and Thompson on vocals.

They place an ad in a local music paper for a bassist who likes Husker Du and Peter, Paul, and Mary, which is a little like asking for someone who enjoys both Slayer and the more rambunctious works of Joan Baez.  The only person who answers the ad is a woman named Kim Deal.  She doesn’t play bass, has never played bass.  She doesn’t even have a bass.  You get where this is going, right?  She’s hired.

Ms. Deal’s husband recommends a drummer, David Lovering, and the line-up is complete.  The band chooses a name at random from the dictionary — the Pixies! — while Charles Thompson gives himself an alias, Black Francis, and they’re off, playing shows in and around the Boston area.  It’s VH1 Behind the Music shit on steroids.

Fast forward a couple years, and The Pixies put out a full-length LP, Surfer Rosa, which features ‘Where Is My Mind?’  The album’s an aggressive combination of loud, obnoxious, and awesome, like The Replacements, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. (another band with roots in Amherst) blended their fucked up DNA in some unholy caldron and cranked the dial up to eleven, Spinal Tap style.  The sound on Surfer Rosa would heavily influence Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, with its alternating loud / quiet dynamics.  The producer of Surfer Rosa, Black Flag’s Steve Albini, would produce Nirvana’s last album, In Utero.

What jumps out about ‘Where Is My Mind?’ — a song about, um…fish? — is how ahead of its time it sounds.  Or how timeless it sounds.  Or something. It doesn’t really have any peers, by virtue of there not being anything else that sounds quite like it. It’s huge, loud, unforgettable, just this side of unhinged.  A howling, megasonic mic drop of a song, one that’s still as powerful and startling as the day it was recorded.  It was never released as a single, because how the fuck could it be?  It was featured at the end of David Fincher’s Fight Club, though, and that’s almost the same thing.

Michael Strum: “This is brilliant. Builds nicely. There’s a phonographic architecture that unfolds and unevils itself skillfully: acoustic guitar building and then the electric guitar joining in with characteristic distortion. Sounds almost discordant but intentionally so, something a friend of mine has said about the Rolling Stones. That degree of looseness is a sign of real musical talent across the group. A good friend of mine who is a Pixies fan doesn’t like this song, which reminds them of ‘Uptown Girl’ or ‘Touch of Grey’ by the Grateful Dead, which seem to be universally reviled by the dedicated aficionado. Like many great songs, ‘WIMM?’ transports the listener to a specific time and place.”

Rolling Stone: No song typifies the freakish pop instincts that made the Pixies stand out in a sea of gloomy Reagan-era bands better than “Where Is My Mind?” Joey Santiago’s lead guitar is catchier than most Top 40 hooks, and by the time Fight Club made this song iconic a decade after its release, it had already formed part of the DNA of countless alternative-radio hits in the years between, from Nirvana to Korn. When an interviewer in 1988 asked about his unique ability to crank out great songs, Black Francis’ answer was typically cryptic: “It’s nice to have space. How much can one brain deal with?”

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Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Carly Simon, ‘You’re So Vain’ (#495)

On its surface, Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ is a clever and gently scathing reproof of an affluent, maybe famous — and certainly famously — self-absorbed former lover:

You’re so vain
You probably think this song is about you

The hook?

It’s widely assumed that the song’s not about just any affluent, famous, and self-absorbed person, but a specific, real-life affluent, famous, and self-absorbed person (Warren Beatty[1]Ms. Simon has said the second verse really is about Mr. Beatty, but that he thinks the rest of the song is about him too.  Amusingly, he agrees, and has said so publicly. and Mick Jagger are the usual suspects).  This assumption has been nursed along with great care by Ms. Simon herself for near five decades now.  She’s doled out conspiratorial hints and winking asides at irregular intervals to various people, and of course none of these clues have ever led to anyone or anything.

All this mystery has resulted in ‘You’re So Vain’ being one of pop music’s most scrutinized songs, pored over and relentlessly scoured for all trace of meaning.

The irony here is that the song was probably never really about any one specific person, nor did it need to be.  It works just fine as an evocation of a type of person.  The enduring mystery over the ostensible subject(s) of ‘You’re So Vain’ may have successfully worn its way into the public imagination, but it’s perhaps done so at the expense of the song’s actual charms.

What all the marketing and conspiracy helped obscure is how clever and sharply observed ‘You’re So Vain’ really is.  Yes, this is a song about a woman putting some egocentric asshole on well-deserved retro-blast…but its disdain is mixed with amusement and regret and genuine loss:

You had me several years ago
When I was still quite naive
When you said that we made such a pretty pair
And that you would never leave
But you gave away the things you loved
And one of them was me

Collectively speaking, we don’t tend to think of Carly Simon as a song-writing heavyweight, but there’s not a line in ‘You’re So Vain’ that doesn’t hit its mark with devastating accuracy (including that bit-of-genius fourth wall-breaking chorus).  How many acknowledged song-writing heavyweights could say that about anything they ever wrote?

And we haven’t even mentioned Carly Simon playing her own piano on the tune, or that sinister opening bass line by Klaus Voorman[2]The same Klaus Voorman who played bass on our previous entry, Harry Nilsson’s ‘Without You’! (“Son of a gun…!”), or Mick Jagger’s uncredited backup vocals, or the snarky, fuck-you strings that make their appearance in the midst of the third chorus.

Well, I hear you went up to Saratoga
And your horse naturally won
Then you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia
To see the total eclipse of the sun
You’re where you should be all the time
And when you’re not, you’re with
Some underworld spy or the wife of a close friend…

Brilliant.

Michael Strum: “I’m not a Jungian disciple by any means, though the pan-cultural success of a Mona Lisa or a Starry Night seems to suggest something of a ‘collective consciousness.’ I think ‘You’re So Vain’ is a cultural touchstone, though I suspect many — if not most — couldn’t ID Simon. There’s a notion from the medical improvement science field that’s germane here —borrowed directly from marketing, I believe — called ‘stickiness.’ The idea is that some ideas are ‘stickier’ than others, more memorable, more shareable, more ‘viral.’ There’s something in ‘You’re So Vain’ that’s remarkably memorable, a combination of sound and lyrics. It’s a powerful song that leaves an impression; it’s almost like…it’s about me? At any rate, C. Simon is an interesting woman with an impressive career. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, she sets a wonderful example of resiliency and strength. She’s a better musician and songwriter than I gave her credit for, and I’m quite pleased with her presence here!

Rolling Stone: The holy mother of all diss tracks, “You’re So Vain” contains one of the most enduring musical mysteries of all time. Just who is so vain that he probably thinks the song is about him? Simon previously revealed that actor Warren Beatty inspired the second verse of the song (“Oh, you had me several years ago/When I was still naive”), but speculation abounds regarding the other man (or men) behind the ire. Either way, the track — boasting omnipresent Seventies arranger Paul Buckmaster’s orchestration and Mick Jagger’s background vocals — is pure soft-rock fire.

References

References
1 Ms. Simon has said the second verse really is about Mr. Beatty, but that he thinks the rest of the song is about him too.  Amusingly, he agrees, and has said so publicly.
2 The same Klaus Voorman who played bass on our previous entry, Harry Nilsson’s ‘Without You’!