Like so many before me, I was raised on classic rock radio. Every 4th of July, my local N.Y. station would do its Firecracker 500, playing a listener-voted countdown of the "best" classic rock songs of all-time. It was always the same tunes in a slightly different order with "Stairway to Heaven," "Layla" and "Freebird" consistently in the top 10. They were classics before I was born, and a hundred years from now, our cybertronic descendants will still be downloading them anally while they fight the Robot Wars. But classic rock radio also embraced hundreds of other songs that I accepted as classics simply because they were always there. But for each of the songs on this list below, there came a day when I said, "Hey, wait a second, this is a terrible song. You lied to me classic rock radio!"
So after laboring over this for a few weeks and starting countless flame wars by polling my Facebook friends, I've settled on my final five. Here are my rules for inclusion:
1. It has to be a song played frequently on classic rock radio even today. (This of course varies by location so hush if none of these get play on Azerbaijani radio or wherever you live.)
2. It has to have no objective musical, lyrical or sociological justification for being a classic. It's hard to find a song that's a classic that still meets all three criteria. For example, KISS' "Rock and Roll All Nite" is a truly awful song, but it's not on this list because even if it's lyrically stupid and musically retarded, it is the song most representative of the big dumb fun KISS sound, and that has some worth in itself. There have been (and there will be) bands who aspire to that kind of KISS aesthetic, and that's enough to keep it off this list.
OK then. Let the disagreements and contempt begin. Spoiler alert, leaving comments about how all music is subjective and a matter of taste makes you look like a bigger douche than I am. And I'm about to look like a huge douche as I crap all over five rock radio classics:
What a riff! DA, DA, DA, da-da, da-DA! "Smoke on the Water" is hailed as a hard rock classic, but its main accomplishment has been tricking a bunch of mullet-wearing, no-talent teenage guitarists into thinking they're cool because they can play the simple bar chords in 4/4 over this lumbering turd. Listen to this song again, as if for the first time. Doesn't really kick nearly as much ass as you remember, does it?
But the riff, Gladstone! What about the riff? Well, Cracked has already told you that this monster riff is kinda lifted from a Gil Evans piece. "Well, so what?" you say. "Deep Purple deserves credit for taking a jazzy little piano piece and rocking it up!" Yeah, not so much because it was really Iggy Pop and the Stooges that did that two whole years earlier. Deep Purple just put back in the note the Stooges had removed. And if you listen to the Stooges' version, it still rocks a hell of a lot harder than "Smoke on the Water."
"Son of a bitch!" some of you are still screaming in your trailer parks. " 'Smoke on the Water' set a template for big hard chord-based riff rock!" No. No it really didn't. Maybe you're thinking of The Kinks. They did it earlier and better. And for big dumb chord riffs, I'd have to go with Black Sabbath's "Iron Man." Deep Purple's contribution? Adding farty organ and mediocre vocals, plus some lyrics about watching Frank Zappa's shit burn up at Montreux.
"Wild World" is probably Cat Stevens' most famous song, and I have to admit I used to love it. Even today, I recognize it as a very appealing melody. But last month, as I heard it playing over the strains of whiny babies and bickering couples at The Cheesecake Factory, something occurred to me: It has truly dickish lyrics. It might seem like a heartfelt and mature response to a break up, but look just below the surface.
Not so bad? Well, think about it. It's the true story of a 19-year-old girl who decides she wants to break up with her 22-year-old dude. Except the girl was actress/model Patti D'Arbanville and the boy was singer/songwriter Cat Stevens. You might be surprised to learn that Cat was only a few years older than the girl he's singing to, considering he seems to be talking down to her like she's some functionally retarded monkey whose talents include smiling and seeking out pretty clothes. I guess what irks me the most is that Cat just seems too cool to actually get upset. Or too evolved to flat out call her a bitch.
If you're a songwriter and a beautiful girl leaves you, you're supposed to beg her to stay. Y'know, like the Temptations'
Or you drown in misery like Harry Nillson in "Without You." (Yeah, I know he didn't write it.)
Or maybe you want to be more clever, like Pink Floyd's "Don't Leave Me Now" -- a song that begs a woman to stay while exhibiting all the singer's terrible traits that drove her away.
Hell, there are tons of options. But what you don't do is passive-aggressively imply that she's a shallow party girl bitch who's just too stupid and naive to realize how awesome you are, while pretending to be a wise old soul who wishes her the best. And if you read those lyrics again, that's exactly what you're doing isn't it, Cat? Deal with it. Patti was way out of your league. She looked like this:
And you look like a cross between a Monkees reject and a Rabbinical student.
Oh, but I guess she should have loved you for your art? Have you heard the other song you wrote for her? "Lady D'Arbanville"? Y'know, the one where you're a lord and she's your lady and you're checking her out and kissing her even though she's dead? Yeah, that one. I can't imagine why she wanted to leave. You were such a catch.
Look, I'll admit it. I've never been a terribly huge Doors fan, but I don't pretend they hold no significance. The Doors are important mostly for their use of organ in a rock context and, of course, because Jim Morrison was one of the coolest frontmen of all time. So yeah, "Light My Fire"? Not on the list, the organ intro is too important. "Break on Through"? Nope. That's probably the band's shining moment as a lean hard rock band. "The End"? No. Not even "The End." It may be dripping in spacey false profundity, but it's Morrison being Morrison. And Jim Morrison was so cool that even today there are dark-haired teens staring solemnly into their mirrors, affecting other-worldly looks of ancient Native American wisdom and malaise just to be a little bit like him.
But "L.A. Woman"? Sorry. No. It doesn't succeed at any level. It's a standard blues stomp that The Doors fail to infuse with anything special.
Krieger's guitar flits about like a mosquito that's too cowardly to actually bite you. And Manzarek's keyboards have never been wimpier. They honky tonk around, weak and thin, like the soundtrack to some movie about a disco queen looking to have a dance fight in an Old West gay bar. And not even Morrison can save it. His vocals are an ode to vowel sounds as he gobbles up his consonants like they're a basket full of psychedelics.
"But Gladstone," you say while sharpening your butterfly knife on the skull of the last fool who dared disrespect The Doors, " 'Mr. Mojo Risin''! What about 'Mr. Mojo Risin''?!"
Yes, you're right. Jim Morrison sings that famous doors lyric "Mr. Mojo Risin'" in this song. And guess what? That phrase is an anagram for "Jim Morrison" Holy Fuck! No way. That's amazing. You're right. This song totally can't suck now. In fact, it makes me wonder how The Who had so many great songs when Roger Daltry never sang about a "Realy Dog Gtr"or why people like Led Zeppelin when there are no Robert Plant lyrics about "Tron Plate PBR."
Aerosmith has written some of the greatest songs in hard rock history. "Walk This Way," "Sweet Emotion" and, of course, "Dream On" to name a few. But for several years in the late '70s and early '80s, they decided to start sucking full time, while engaging in excessive drug use. And then in 1987, Aerosmith released Permanent Vacation, and we were so glad to have them back. "Dude Looks Like a Lady," "Rag Doll" and even the cheesy "Angel" were great. Indeed, we were so happy that we sort of didn't even notice it when they began sucking it really hard again. It wasn't until 1998 and their mega-cheese, Diane Warren-penned crap "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" that we realized, wow, apparently Aerosmith just got tired of being awesome. How did this happen?
Well, all the signs were there in 1993, even though "Living on the Edge" is still all over classic rock radio.
From its whiny, jangling opening vocals of lyrical vapidity ("There's something wrong with the world today") to its overblown, yet ball-less, chorus, it's six minutes and 21 seconds of pure mediocrity. Steven Tyler, who typically exhibits a metal singer's range and a rapper's metric alacrity, merely phones in generic B-plus rock vocals more fitting for Bad Company or your boss' rock band -- the one whose demo tape he keeps trying to play for the receptionist in a failed attempt to get laid.
OK. Here it is. Maybe, just maybe, one of the worst songs ever written. All the great bands of the '70s have their opus. Led Zeppelin had "Stairway to Heaven." Aerosmith had "Dream On." Kansas had "Carry on Wayward Son." And Styx thought they had theirs with "Come Sail Away." But there's one important distinction between "Come Sail Away" and those other songs: "Come Sail Away" is the only one the Devil plays in hell while sodomizing pedophiles.
And unlike most things that suck this hard, its suckitude is subtle. It creeps in slowly like a boring elevator conversation, but by the end, it has devoured each and every one of your internal organs like a musical cancer that leaves only your brain and auditory nerves intact so you can hear every single note until the sweet release of death.
Let's break it down!
Its start off almost pleasingly. Some piano and reflective lyrics. A song looking back on the past and using the ocean as a metaphor for life.
And then ...
"On board I'm the captain, so climb aboard."
OK, that's a bit clumsy. Too much "board" going on, but not fatal. Still melodically pleasing, and the pipe organ comes in after that, proving this is a song aiming to be an epic. Don't believe me? Angels. The song has a "gathering of angels." Oh, and look, guitars. Is this song going to rock? Yes, guitars. Big Who-type power chords and the whole band singing "come sail away." We have an anthem, ladies and gentlemen. Ladies and gentlemen, we have an anthem.
And then ...
Uh, what's going on at three and a half minutes in? Oh, right, this song came out in 1977 and Styx realized that pretty pianos followed by Who power chords weren't enough for rock immortality. They needed prog-sounding keyboards like Emerson Lake & Palmer's "Lucky Man" or the song they're completely aping, The Who's "Baba O'Riley." Just a shameless, derivative and indulgent middle passage.
And then ...
Lyrics so awful that I laugh every single time I hear them. Turns out those angels he was singing about weren't angels:
"I thought that they were angels but to my surprise
They climbed aboard their starship and headed for the skies."
Do you get it? Yes, they were aliens. Why? Because it was the late '70s and aliens were cool, that's why. But this raises a more hilarious question: If Dennis DeYoung knew they were aliens why the hell did he tell us they were angels at the start of the song? Is he singing in real time? It's not really what we call a surprise ending. It reads more like just a mistake. As if the next lyric could be "Oh, yeah, and by the way, that thing wasn't a boat. Turns out I was just on a waterbed tripping balls."
Pictured above: Not angels.
But whether they be angels or aliens, they want the singer to sail away. So basically, let's sum this up: Reflective man vows to do his best in life, has a false vision of angels and is then abducted by aliens. And you thought "Mr. Roboto" was retarded.
Check out more from Gladstone in My Break Up Letter To Regina Spektor and Excerpts from Gary Condit's Book 'Humping Is Not Murder'.