(This is the preface to the 1998 edition)

From "The Heart of Rock and Soul, The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made", by Dave Marsh, 1989.

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Preface

Spin the black circle

Not unexpectedly, when The Heart of Rock & Soul was first published in 1989, its purpose generated some controversy and confusion. I declined the opportunity to create an index of the songs by their number- ranking, because that seemed a sure way to guarantee that fewer people would read the book. As it turned out, while I should probably be pleased that so many reviewers understood the book, a promotional tour that found me talking about virtually nothing but the rankings left me feeling wary of not going through the whole explanation again. Most people just didn't get it.

By far the most common question I've been asked about The Heart of Rock & Soul is what record number 1,002 is. The question irked me, but when you're being asked even irksome questions by people who've taken the trouble to read your work, you develop answers. The true answer is take your pick from a few hundred, but the answer I came up with is that it must be Sam Cooke's majestically modest "Wonderful World," since I don't know how the hell else it came to be omitted. It really should be somewhere in the first quarter of the book, and I wish I had a better explanation than stupid oversight for why it's not. Don't know much listology, I guess.

But I didn't stick it into this new edition. Because this book's true purpose-and it has one-isn't just to amuse me or you by making clever comments and by discovering wondrous factoids about famous, infamous, and obscure pop-music discs, while making sure they are all tidily presented. The aim is to make an argument against critical conventions about what great rock & soul music consists of.

If this surprises you, then you'll be amazed that I never particularly thought Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" was the definitive, greatest record ever made. It became number one partly because I was driving through a snowstorm in Virginia one day and it came on, and at that moment it seemed like the greatest thing I'd ever heard. As I puzzled over why, it became clear that "Grapevine " - better than any other record I had been able to think of (a group that included "The Wind," "Kick Out the Jams," "U Got the Look," and "Born to Run," plus everything in the eventual top twenty)-was a good place to start the discussion, or argument, which is what I expected to have. (As it turned out, a surprising number of people who also take popular music seriously welcomed an attempt to stand the album-rock paradigm on its head.) So a list is the first thing that this book isn't-and never was.

The second thing this book isn't is an attempt to identify the greatest record ever made in any remotely absolute sense. It is a pretty close approximation of my personal pantheon, but even there I fudged more than a few things from the start. (A number of people figured out from the text, for instance, that "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" occupies a place very close to the center of my heart.) I was looking to give a sense of the range of quality. As I told a few interviewers, you could probably reverse the order of the first 250 records here, and I wouldn't have much objection, as long as the argument still made sense, and that could easily be accomplished by writing slightly different entries.

"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" isn't the greatest record ever made, anyway, and for a simple reason (one that I thought more people would have figured out from the onset): there isn't any greatest record of all time.

If we took the kind of music discussed in this book as seriously as it deserves to be taken-as seriously as it was taken by many of the people who made it and a lot of the people who first listened to it, whether they'd admit it or not-we wouldn't even wonder about such a thing. I know there are people who think that Las Meninas by Velazquez is the greatest picture ever painted, and, standing before that mighty canvas, I've been tempted to join them. But even in the Prado, you can walk around the corner from Las Meninas and see Titian's Ecce Homo, which will make you feel arrogant for even thinking that something could be better. You could argue that The Searchers, Psycho, Red River, Le Grand Illusion, or The Tramp is the best motion picture ever made, but if you then went to see The General, Ninotchka, Seven Samurai, or Once Upon a Time in the West, you might feel like a traitor to your own convictions. When you put down The Great Gatsby or The Golden Bowl, you certainly ought to feel like it's the greatest book ever written, because of what it has done to your very being, but how many pages into David Copperfield or The Magic Mountain would you have to get before those books made picking the others seem silly?

Even knowing all this, we would gladly entertain a knowledgeable person's presentation of what he or she felt were the greatest paintings or movies or novels. But if we knew very much about the subject, or simply knew our own minds, we wouldn't worry too much about whether they were "rightv-we'd worry about what the author of that presentation overlooked and disparaged by omission. We'd try to figure out why that person embarked on such a wacky enterprise in the first place. If it was because he or she wanted us to think that their list was a ,true and final dispensation on the topic, we'd toss it aside. If we came to believe that what was going on had some ulterior purpose, was in fact meant to teach us the value of the art at hand in a new way, we might be hooked.

What I meant to do with The Heart of Rock & Soul was to question a lot of our assumptions about what makes good and bad pop music, and for that matter, what makes something art-good, bad, or at all. The list structure is meant to make you wonder what the hell I'm up to, and to give enough clues to lure you in while you're figuring it out.

A list of anything-let alone 1,001 examples of more-or-less the same thing-is inevitably hierarchical. But, for me, the substance of The Heart of Rock & Soul is more like a spiral, beginning at the center (thus, those haunted, seemingly ancient drumbeats that whisper out of the hush in which "Grapevine" begins) and working its way to the fringes. And if you think that Joyce Harris's "No Way Out" is actually less worthy than the other one thousand records I talk about here.. . well, one thing's for sure, adding another 101-or in my fondest dreams another 1,001 and believe you me, I could find that many wouldn't change a thing.


There are other, perhaps better, certainly more material reasons why it would be difficult to update this book. Mainly because the Age of Rock & Soul is dead. I don't mean that some of the records made today fail to fit into the story told by the records discussed here, or even that they necessarily exist outside the musical structures those records represent. In fact, most of them fit those schematics very well. But most of the best new records come, in one way or another, from punk and rap, styles that unquestionably descend from rock & soul, but in ways that are meant to rupture our sense of continuity with what spawned them. This shouldn't be surprising: it's the same kind of rupture that occurred when rock's synthesis of gospel, blues, country, and whatever else it cared to cram in exploded earlier pop music paradigms. Because these records-from roots reggae to speed metal, from Detroit techno to neofolk- rock-are a product of the Western hemisphere, they are inevitably linked to that culture's musical lodestone: the blues. But today's records express that sensibility in a variety of new ways. In some senses, that music is closer to the original rural blues; in many others, it is an attempt to negate the blues tradition.

The persistence of punk, as attitude if not sound, and the rise and rise of rap--the reductio ad absurdurn of rock 'n' roll and the most transformative new black pop style since the fifties-did exactly what they promised to do: they revolutionized the entire musical landscape. *"Streets of Philadelphia," for instance, made by arguably the most conservative rock superstar to emerge since punk, wouldn't have made my list, and it surely would not have been a hit record, without its hiphop instrumental opening. Its virtually static melody and almost (but not quite) monotonic vocal delivery could not conceivably have captured so much attention-even given its putative subject, AIDS, and its true topic, death untimely come-without punk, which, in a much louder fashion, adapted our ears to the kind of music that ends where it begins.

What punk and rap also have in common, of course, is an extreme stress on rhythm-and even that's a considerable understatement. Rhythm is a central aspect of all previous blues-derived music, of course, and the centrality of beats-the idea that rhythmic rather than harmonic development is the purpose of music-making-is probably what most clearly distinguishes Western hemisphere music from European music. (What distinguishes it from African music is . . . a separate book.) Yet even in that context, the degree to which rhythm has become the point of music-making today is extraordinary; in techno, almost nothing else exists, and the "purists" of punk are really talking about beat more than they're talking about ideology (even if most of them don't know it).

The beats preferred by punk and hip-hop are undeniably very, very different: the former is all-but-monotonous in its frenzy, the latter so multifocal that its apparent definition of harmony is as an extension of polyrhythm. The most important element they share, nevertheless, is the extreme and virtually complete emphasis on rhythm. The rock & soul records discussed here are, with some notable exceptions, a great deal more focused on melody and vocal harmony. Another common characteristic of punk and rap is that they are inherently belligerent, and yet both surprise themselves with their ability to express softer emotions and even, sometimes, quieter ideas. (I'm thinking especially of Social Distortion's "I Was Wrong" and Tupac's "Dear Mama" and "I Ain't Mad At Cha.")

So the connections are there, but you have to be some kind of cross between a ferret and a mule to keep hold of them. The Heart of Rock & Soul is an argument that mulish ferreting can pay huge dividends, but you can only take it so far. In the end, I'd rather live in the new world and see what happens than continually harbor old ideas in new packages. That's one important thing the blues sensibility at the core of The Heart of Rock & Soul teaches us to do.


Ten years ago, I wrote in the original introduction to this book that "there is barely a sense of dialogue within genres, let alone among them." Today, all dialogue is internal: hip-hop is rife with internal dialogue to the point where actual feuds among performers and, presumably, segments of the audience have become part of its everyday subject matter. The alternative rockers of the nineties have become quite as clubby and self-referential as the California rockers of the seventies. But across musical frontiers, there remains an absence of dialogue: Sting performs with Puff Daddy not as a collaborator but as an amused onlooker. This isn't all bad. I wasn't really looking forward to the Missy Elliott-Ani Di Franco-Liz Phair-Mary J. Blige supergroup anyhow. But The Heart of Rock & Soul is organized in a way that suggests a dialogue among the records included-placing "Kick Out the Jams" next to "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "1999" was, in my own mind, the masterstroke-and to do that with the new singles would be an entirely artificial enterprise. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder may care intensely what Dr. Dre is up to, and Warren G may be the biggest Metallica fan in America. But it doesn't show up on their records, or anybody else's, so far as I can hear.

The final discontinuity that makes updating The Heart of Rock & Soul irrelevant is what has become of the single itself. This book proceeds from the proposition that there is some common standard among all the kinds of music within it. For forty years, despite the best efforts of record marketers, censorious nitwits, and the most fanatical musicians and fans, that remained true. But in the 1990s it is true no longer. Updating the context in which we hear singles today is extremely relevant to understanding what this book, when first published, was trying to do.

The problem is that there's no longer a standard way to determine which singles are having the greatest impact. For all its flaws-as several reviewers noted, the most frequently iterated sentence in this book is "did not make pop charts - the Billboard Hot 100 served that purpose for about 35 years. The Hot 100 measured a combination of sales and airplay by a standard either proprietary or incomprehensible, I've never quite figured out which (maybe it's both). From the beginning to about the time the first edition of this book appeared, there was a lot of guesswork (some would say manipulation) involved. Since November 1991, though, the Hot 100 has been compiled using figures taken directly from actual radio plays measured by a system called BDS, and from the larger chains and even some independent record stores by a computer-based company called Soundscan. The catch is that to be eligible for the Hot 100, a record needs to be issued as a commercial single. In 1989, as I remarked, the single-in its cassette and CD forms-had become a dinosaur. Today, the single is on life support, issued only in certain genres or for certain artists. There are separate charts for airplay and for sales, in Billboard as well as other magazines (Radio & Records' airplay chart is most often cited as the new standard). But it's the Hot 100 that creates the sense of continuity essential to the argument in the book, and a single has no chance of making the Hot 100 unless it has a commercial release. So, many "singles" (that is, readily identifiable recordings of individual songs, the stuff that we all recognize as hits) that are extraordinarily popular don't register on the Hot 100 at all. There are still hits, but keeping track of them relative to one another has grown into a bewildering task, frustrating if you're trying to get a complete picture rather than just the fragment you need for niche marketing. Or niche listening, I imagine. (In November 1998, a few weeks after this introduction was written, Billboard announced that it would henceforth list singles not commercially released in the Hot 100. Such non-single singles will still be penalized, though, because singles sales remains an element of chart ranking.)

This isn't Billboard's problem, since it is a trade paper whose job is to report the relative success of marketable properties. Singles are no longer marketable properties, but auxiliaries to them. The albums from which those popular-but-unissued "singles" are taken have the trajectories of their commercial (thus, probably, popular) lifespans measured quite accurately by the Billboard 200 album chart. But there's no longer even a solitary standard for great but marginalized singles to miss: "did not appear on pop chart" could apply to Celine Dion's biggest-selling sack of saccharine. You could say that this is the perfect symbol of the destruction of the conceptual universe around which The Heart of Rock & Soul is based.

There's one last dimension of the book that deserves to be mentioned. In part, it's as close as I've ever come to publishing a memoir, or at least a set of notes by me to myself on my favorite music after what was then about 25 years of serious listening. Ten years later, I still listen as closely and as omnivorously as ever, to old music and new. I emphasize sentiment and reconciliation (sometimes versus but mostly just as complements to rock & soul's inevitable doses of rebellion and irony), because, in the dread parts of my own soul, those sort of things are tough to figure out and I want to make sure I never forget them. At that level, The Heart of Rock & Soul may not be much more than an elaborately justified list of favorites. At the same time, its reissue now means a very great deal to me because it is, I think, the truest reflection of who I am-as a critic, as a listener, as a citizen, as a human being. Its values, radical in some areas, deeply conservative in others, are pretty much the ones I use to guide my everyday life. I don't know if this makes any of the book's excesses more forgivable, but perhaps telling you renders such tendencies more comprehensible.

If you share some of that sensiblity, if you're looking for a way to understand what some people not unlike myself took from the popular music of the 1950s through the 1980s, think of this book as an atlas, a collection of "maps" that will allow you to enter a world and see it through a certain set of eyes. But beware. Entering that world is easy; leaving it may prove more difficult. Although actually, looking things over from the inside, which is where I live and breathe, I can't see why you'd only want to come for a visit anyway. But then, this is my world, and I remain a patriot of it.

- Dave Marsh
October 1998

Postscript

To tell you the truth, there are at least 101 records that would have a strong chance of joining or supplanting the current entries. Because we all like lists, and I couldn't stop myself, here's what they are (in my eyes, today, contingent on listening to each of them for the rest of my life). Their order is no mystery; it's alphabetical:
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