Here’s a theory for you, if you’re a fan of modern music, and if you’re the kind of person who has favourite bands or artists. It works for me, see if it works for you.
When you have a favourite artist or band (examples for me include Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan) it is extremely difficult to think of a favourite track or recording by them. For acts that you like, but would not count as one of your favourites (and for me that includes the Beatles and the Rolling Stones) you are far more likely to have a favourite track by them.
For example, I would be hard pushed to restrict my list of favourite Bob Dylan recordings to a number in single figures, but I have a clear favourite, and runner-up, from the Beatles catalogue: “Don’t let me down” and “While my guitar gently weeps”, respectively. Similarly there is no individual Led Zeppelin track that I would place above all the others, but I do have a favourite Stones song: “Fool to cry”.
This is a theory that I have mused upon, and discussed with friends, occasionally over the years. Many years ago an old schoolfriend came round for dinner, to meet a musician friend of mine, a kindred soul who was studying at his alma mater (the School of African and Oriental Studies). My musician friend had taken up the guitar, and played a song that he had just learnt, George Harrison’s “Here comes the sun”. When he’d finished I ran through another Harrison song that I had just learnt to play, “While my guitar gently weeps”. My old schoolfriend told us that it was his favourite Beatles song. I told him that it was runner-up in my list. He asked what my favourite was (“Don’t let me down”). “That’s my second favourite,” he said.
I was reminded of all this at the end of last month, as we drove to my in-laws for a Passover dinner on Easter Saturday. My daughter had chosen a Beatles CD to play on the journey, Disk 2 from “The Blue Album”, The Beatles 1967-70. Among other recordings we heard “Here comes the sun”, “Something”, “While my guitar gently weeps”, “Don’t let me down”, “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da”, “Octopus’s Garden” and “Let it be”.
Like many people of my generation the Beatles have been a constant part of my life. Their songs have never been far away from me, and I first got to know that 1967-70 double album when given it as a Christmas present back in the 1970s. I have dozens of stories about the songs, the recordings, and my own experience of listening to them and playing them. I recounted information about “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da” from David Quantick’s excellent book “Revolution, the Making of the Beatles White Album”. Apparently the other Beatles hated the song, having been forced to rehearse and record it endlessly because Paul McCartney “could not make [it] into the up tune he wanted it be”. The sessions plodded along until, as Quantick writes:
“Ironically and predictably, it was Lennon who intervened and saved ‘Ob-la-di Ob-la-da’. Annoyed with the song to the point of near-fury, he hammered out an intro on a studio piano and insisted quite loudly that this was the way to do the song. And, as it turns out, he was right.”
Every time I hear it now I can imagine Lennon thumping the piano in his fury and saying, “It goes like this!” I also quoted something my brother has told me about Frank Sinatra’s live performance of “Something”. Apparently Ol’ Blue Eyes described it as ”the best Lennon and McCartney song ever”. (Like “While my guitar gently weeps” and “Here comes the sun”, it’s a George Harrison composition.) I offered up my brother’s theory about Ringo’s drumming, that his best work is to be found on George Harrison songs, and it’s certainly one of the things I like most about “While my guitar gently weeps”. I also made sure that we heard “Don’t let me down” nice and loud, more than once, on the journeys to and from North London. It’s an exceptional recording, every bit as good as I remembered it.
Anyway, I digress. It’s easily done with a repertoire as rich as the Beatles. If my theory holds true, then you will also find it very difficult to think of a song that you favour above all others by any of your favourite artists. The theory might even be true in reverse: if you have a favourite song by a specific performer, then by definition they cannot be one of your favourite artists.
I’ll go further. With the artists that you like most there is likely to be a recording that you like less than all the others, a least favourite. There’s a song by Elvis that features on many of his collections and I have never voluntarily played it all the way through. Similarly there’s an opening track on a Bob Dylan album that I have not played for over 20 years. I always skip to Track 2.
I won’t share with you what these least-loved recordings are but will offer instead ten favourite titles by these two artists, arranged (as they say on “Strictly Come Dancing”) in no particular order:
Bob Dylan: “She’s your lover now” / “When the ship comes in” / “You’re a big girl now” / “Where are you tonight?”/ “Boots of Spanish Leather” / “Can you please crawl out your window” / “Positively 4th Street” / “Make you feel my love” / “Up to me” / “I’ll keep it with mine”
Elvis: “Blue Moon” / “Always on my mind” / “Suspicious Minds” / “Tomorrow is a long time” / “A big hunk o’ love” / “I don’t care if the sun don’t shine” / “If I can dream” / “The Wonder of you” / “My Boy” / “Heartbreak Hotel”
For now I will offer a link to just one of these recordings: Elvis singing Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a long time”, which Dylan said at the time was the best cover version of any of his songs. Check it out, and have a think about whether my theory holds true for you.