Quintessential Songs: Reducing a Band's Essence to Just One Song (PART 1)

Recently I was having a conversation on Twitter with someone about the Rolling Stones when their great song "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" was brought up. The fellow I was chatting with mentioned that, to him, this was the quintessential Stones song. Since it's one of my favorite Stones songs, I could totally see his point, but it also got the wheels in my head turning. Does every band that any of us like have that one song that perfectly encapsulates everything about them? And could this be a fun and interesting way to help each other discover new music by grabbing our interest with that first, special song? I allowed my imagination to get away from me a little bit more and the longer I mulled this over, I decided to have some fun with it. 

So here's the challenge:

Imagine that you've just met a time traveler...they could be from 100 years in the past or from 100 years in the future. Or maybe you've met an alien being from another planet who has no idea what music is. Regardless of the scenario, pretend that you are confronted with this person and have to describe what music is (doesn't have to be rock music, it can be any genre). You're explaining it and they're just not understanding what it's all about. You think to yourself "you know what? It'll be easier if I just play them some music...that will convey it better than mere words can." However, they don't have a lot of time before they have to be on their way...you've only got time to play them ONE SONG from each artist, so you need to make sure it counts.  This one song needs to:

- encapsulate the artist's essence and overall sound
- be memorable enough that it will stick in their head after just one listen
- if the artist has distinctly different eras to their music, it should cover enough of them such that it can bridge most, if not all of them in the one song

Sounds tough, right?

After a lot of thinking and analyzing, here are the quintessential songs I've come up with for some of my favorite artists, with explanations why (and audio) to help my arguments. If you like some of these bands, please share your picks in the comments section, as well as your picks for other bands not mentioned here. This is Part 1 of what will be as many posts in the series until I run out of ideas, so here goes!

The Rolling Stones: I have to start with the band that was the impetus for this entire exercise, don't I? I thought long and hard about this because "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" as discussed above would be a great choice: it's got an iconic Keith riff at the beginning, a sexy groove, sneering vocals from Mick, and a killer jam during the second half. However, it's not my choice for their quintessential song mainly because it's not too well known outside of serious Stones fans. That's not to say that the quintessential songs should be the most popular ones, but they should have enough mass appeal such that someone uninitiated could pick up on why after just one listen...after all, that's the reason the song is popular in the first place, right?  With that being said, my choice is...

Jumpin' Jack Flash. Released as a non-album single in 1968, for me this song (which narrowly beat out "Satisfaction" and "Gimme Shelter") has all of the ingredients that capture what the Stones are all about: an instantly recognizable riff, a slinky groove, a catchy chorus ("well it's aaaaaaaaaaall right now...") strutting, cocky vocals from Mick, and a darkness and swagger about the lyrics.  It's also has one foot in the experimental 1960s Stones approach that they were soon to leave behind while the other foot is firmly planted in the powerful blues/roots rock approach they'd reach their zenith with over the next five years. In short, it captures everything great about the Stones as they were exiting the singles-driven Brian Jones era and entering the album-driven Mick Taylor era. 

The Beatles: This was a really tough one because, I mean, how do you only pick ONE song to explain to someone how great the Beatles are? Beyond that, they had so much artistic growth in such a ridiculously short period of time that it's almost impossible to choose just one track that encapsulates everything they did. The early years were marked by infectiously catchy and exciting pop songwriting, the middle years had more complex songs, arrangements, and pioneering recording techniques, and the final years had a more stripped down but no less innovative approach. Beyond that, the sheer number of insanely popular and beloved songs means that there's a huge amount of stuff to choose from. That being said, I thought long and hard about this and came up with my choice, which is...

Hey Jude. Perhaps it's no coincidence that this is also my favorite Beatles song of all time, but I think it really does capture the essence of the band.  Play, or even just say, those first two words of the song to anyone and they'll instantly know what you mean. Hell, all of my kids knew this song when they were so young that they could barely speak. It's got a beautiful melody, uplifting lyrics, a great arrangement, and an anthemic chorus that you can't help but sing along to every time you hear it (go ahead and try to resist...I dare you!). Seeing Paul play this (and singing along with the entire crowd) when I saw him in concert was one of the highlights of my life, and that's no joke. It hearkens back to the pop craftsmanship of the early years, the stripped down sound of the later years, and an ambitious production (strings and horns at the end) as in the middle years. Plus, John Lennon was on record for after stating that it was his favorite song that his longtime collaborator ever wrote...coming from John, that's got to count for a lot, doesn't it? (Songs it narrowly edged out: too many to list!)

The Who: There's a lot of ground to try and cover here with this band if you're going to reduce it down to just one song. There's the early, high-energy R&B stuff (1964-65), the mid-1960s power pop with all of those great, classic singles (1966-68), the rock opera/stadium anthems of the 1969-73 period, or the more introspective, cynical, and experimental later era stuff (1975-78). For me, there is and has always been one Who song that perfectly captures the essence of the band, and tough as it is to pass over classics like "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Pinball Wizard," "My Generation," "Love Reign O'er Me," "Slip Kid," and "Who Are You" among many others, the ultimate Who song for me is...

Bargain. First of all, this song has been hailed by critics, fans, and the band themselves as containing one of, if not THE best ensemble performances of the Who's entire career as captured on record. As Pete Townshend once said of this song, "I didn't play the guitar on that one...it played me." It's the perfect balance between the hard rock they were masters of and the melodic introspection Pete was always able to inject into his songs. And of course, you have Roger Daltrey getting inside the heart, mind, and soul of the main character, delivering the vocals with incredible passion and power. The chorus is instantly recognizable and hits you like a ton of bricks ("I call that a bargain...the best I ever had...the best I EVER HAD!"), and the quieter middle section sung by Pete Townshend is so beautiful and moving, musically and lyrically, that it's enough to make you cry. And that, to me, is what makes this the quintessential Who song: it goes from ass-kicking rock to tear-jerker back to kicking your ass again in the span of a few minutes. It doesn't hurt that in addition to Daltrey's and Townshend's tremendous performances, Keith Moon and John Entwistle turn in one of the performances of their lives. John's bass guitar is all over the place, melodic and powerful, while Moon is a monster on the drum kit but is at the same time incredibly tasteful and plays to the song. His double-bass drum flutters and the workout he gives his entire kit during the outro is exciting as all get out, and the final strummed guitar chords and synth melody still give me chills after all these years. Everything great about the Who, all in one song...that's the whole point of this post, isn't it?

 (I had to include this live version from San Francisco in December 1971 because it's just so damn good!)

The Kinks: Along similar lines, the Kinks' career was so long and so varied that there are numerous distinct eras that need to be taken into account. There's the early R&B and proto-punk rock/heavy metal of early singles like "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night." There's the mature, groundbreaking string of brilliant hit singles from 1965-1968 like "Tired of Waiting For You," "See My Friends," "Waterloo Sunset," "Sunny Afternoon," "Autumn Almanac," "Days," and more. There was the string of brilliant albums beginning with 1966's Face to Face and running through 1972's Everybody's in Showbiz. There was the concept album phase of the early to mid-1970s, their hard rock/arena rock phase of 1977-1984, and the gradual petering out of their career from the mid-1980s until 1996. Ray Davies was one of the most brilliant and prolific songwriters of his, or any, generation (and his brother Dave was no slouch in this department either) and managed to steer the Kinks on an always unpredictable course over their thirty-two year career. And as a fan of all of their material, I found it incredibly hard to choose just one song to encapsulate everything about this great band. How do you pick just one song to cover all of the ground that they did over such a long career? Surely some aspect of their essence, their sound will be left out, right? Keeping all of this in mind, and thinking long and hard about this, I came up with...

Lola. An obvious choice, perhaps, but hear me out. I was trying to come up with one of the more obscure, but no less excellent, Kinks songs to fit the bill and while several came close, all roads kept leading back to Lola. For me, it's the right song for a number of reasons. It has an instantly recognizable and iconic riff at the opening of the song. It straddles the hard rock side of the Kinks' music with a bit of theatrical camp. It has classic Ray Davies lyrics that are not only cerebral and thought-provoking, but very humorous. It's got great harmony vocals from Dave (which I've always found to be absolutely integral and vital to the Kinks' sound), as well as a great band performance from all involved. And the chorus is catchy and, at this point, known by just about anyone in the English speaking world whether they even know the song or not. It also fits perfectly within the Kinks' ethos of being a great standalone single, yet also fitting in context perfectly on the album it was lifted from.  Finally, the seemingly humorous (and true!) tale of a man falling in love with a woman who may or may not be a man in drag hints at deeper things, such as questioning and reaffirming what it is that makes the singer masculine. The ambiguity when Ray sings "well I'm not the world's most masculine man, but I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man, and so is Lola" is classic Davies: is Lola glad he's a man, or is Lola a man, too? It's left unresolved and for the listener to decide. In my mind, the answer to this open-ended question has always been "yes"...as unresolved as the question itself. That's the mark of a great song, and for me Lola is quintessential Kinks.

Led Zeppelin: Yet another band who had distinct phases to their career, although perhaps in a different way to the Kinks, Who, or Beatles. While they definitely incorporated different elements into their sound and effectively utilized dynamics and acoustic instrumentation, they never strayed too heavily from their heavy blues and folk roots. Still, they were definitely a 1960s band that evolved as the 1970s went along, unlike the one-dimensional heavy metal bands they subsequently inspired. That being said, it was still quite difficult for me to distill their musical essence down to just one song because there were so many facets to Led Zeppelin: hard rock, blues, Celtic/English folk, and more. Beyond that, there are signature elements of their sound, from Robert Plant's powerful vocals and Jimmy Page's virtuoso guitar work, to John Paul Jones' brilliant bass guitar and multi-instrument work and John Bonham's fantastic drumming. In addition, Bonham and Jones were one of the finest rhythm sections in the history of rock...one of the few that really locked in and could swing. I had to keep all of this in mind when making my decision, which ended up being...

Over the Hills and Far Away. No, I didn't go for the obvious choice of "Stairway to Heaven"...great song, but overplayed to death. As for other signature Zeppelin songs like "Black Dog," "Whole Lotta Love," "Immigrant Song," "Achilles Last Stand," and others in that same vein, they didn't have as much of the famous light and shade that Zeppelin traded in. Honestly, this song beat out "Kashmir" and "Ramble On" by a very slim margin: "Kashmir" just doesn't feature enough of Page's guitar or Jones' bass, while "Ramble On"...well, it's a GREAT song but I just feel "Over the Hills and Far Away" beats it by a nose. In my opinion, it's got it all when it comes to Zeppelin: a quiet acoustic intro that builds up, a hard rock main body of the song, Plant singing in his best, most powerful wail, driving bass and drums from the Jones/Bonham rhythm section, a great Page electric guitar solo, and a gentle acoustic outro. Plus, it's catchy and melodic, two things Led Zeppelin almost always was (and for which they don't get nearly the credit they deserve). It may not rock as hard as their heaviest moments, but Led Zeppelin was never only about being heavy, and to me "Over the Hills and Far Away" is the perfect cross-section of everything that makes Led Zeppelin great.

The Doors: For the last entry in Part 1, I've decided to pick a song from one of the greatest American rock bands to come out of the 1960s, and again, a personal favorite: The Doors. Besides being one of the biggest bands of the era, the legendary band from Los Angeles had one of the most unique line-ups and sounds in all of rock, consisting solely of guitar, organ, drums, and vocals. No bass guitar at all in the band except on some of their studio tracks. The bulk of the bass parts on record, and all of them on stage, were handled by keyboard player Ray Manzarek's left hand on a Fender Keyboard Bass; at the same time, he played his intricate and complex keyboard/organ/piano melodies with his right hand. Beyond Ray's talent, they had a solid and talented drummer in John Densmore who had more of a jazz background than in rock, but he had a very unique style and sound. The same can be said for guitarist Robby Krieger, who was not a blues and rock based guitarist like the vast majority of his peers, but rather was rooted in classical, jazz, and flamenco guitar. He played without a pick, had a one-of-a-kind style, and wrote the majority of the band's music (along with Morrison). While their various albums had subtle shades and shifts in sound, at their core the Doors were a blues-based psychedelic band with more classical and jazz leanings than anyone around at the time. With all of that said, and with all of their music to choose from, I perhaps still took the obvious way out by choosing their first #1 single...

Light My Fire. Written mainly by Robby Krieger (with significant input from Jim Morrison), the Doors breakthrough single from 1967 is widely considered to be their signature song and in my opinion, is the ultimate Doors song. Starting with a machine-gun crack of John Densmore's snare drum, it's got every element of the Doors sound wrapped up in its 7-minute duration. First, there's Ray Manzarek's throbbing keyboard bass and classical flourish lead melody line that drives the entire song. There's Krieger's bluesy/jazzy fingerpicked guitar licks filling the spaces between throughout, playing more of a supporting role to Ray's keyboards. Densmore's Latin-influenced jazzy drumming and rock-steady backbeat underpins it all and is the foundation the other three rest upon. Jim Morrison's vocals, ranging from his hushed baritone before he gets into his throat-tearing screams, build excitement before he ends the song by whipping himself into a frenzy at the end of the song. The lyrics range from a simple professing of the singer's desire for his girl's love to some slightly darker, almost mysitcal elements as to what needs to happen so that they can "set the night on fire." Sandwiched in between the beginning and ending verses is a long solo section that takes up half of the song and is a showcase for both Manzarek and Krieger, the former playing a hypnotic bassline with his left hand while his right hand solos masterfully, the latter playing a very jagged and dissonant solo that sounds nothing like all of the blues noodling of his fellow American guitar contemporaries. While the Doors had loads of great songs throughout their career, for me, "Light My Fire" is the song that has all of the elements that made the Doors one of the biggest American rock bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

So concludes Part 1 of this series! It was a lot of fun and made me really think about what it is about each of these bands that appeals to me when it comes to their music. If you're a fan of any of these bands, what do you think of my selections? Agree/disagree? And for your own favorites, what would your one song be to show an uninformed listener what they were all about?  Part 2 will have more of these song choices from other bands, so I hope you'll stick with me as we go through this exercise!



  1. That's a tough one, I'd have to give it more thought, but I'd consider:
    The Doors--Love Me Two Times
    Zepplin--Stairway to Heaven
    Kinks--We Are the Village Green
    the others I'd have to think...

    Found a new band called The National, pretty good. Sometimes reminding me of Joy Division, sometimes The Decemberist, maybe other bands too. See what you think.

    1. All good choices! That's the thing, it can be different for everyone which is why I think it's a cool way to think about music :)

      I've heard of the National, but never listened to them. I've never been a huge Joy Division fan but I do enjoy some of their stuff, so I'll check them out.

  2. The Decemberist are a good band too, check out their album, The Crane's Wife. They are an odd mix of storytelling, acoustics & electric sounds.

    1. I've definitely heard of them and I've heard some of their stuff...very REMish, if I recall correctly, and I'm a huge REM fan :).

      Had any time to think on your other songs for this post?

  3. Beatles--maybe All You Need Is Love--perhaps not the first song that might come to mind and perhaps not my favorite Beatles's song among many, but I feel like the Beatles were all about love, peace, and that type thing. With a band like that they had so many hits and such it's hard to narrow it down.

    The Who--Love Reign O'er Me--that or Pinball Wizard, but I think I chose the former for the positive message and the power of that song whereas Pinball Wizard is a good song, but not as meaningful.

    Rolling Stones--Salt of the Earth (from Beggar's Banquet). I like the every person or blue collar feel of the song, and seems like a song dedicated everyone.

    1. Great choices...different from mine, but I completely agree with your picks and your reasoning behind them. In fact, now you've got me thinking about my choices...:)


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