Six (Not So) Easy Pieces


Back in 2006, I recall reading many intriguing reviews of Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music. It’s been on my Amazon wish list ever since, and writing about music as much as I do, I occasionally have friends ask me if I’ve read it, or tell me I should read it. The latest reminder came from my good friend (and music lover, high school English teacher and soccer coach) Marc Cascio, who wrote the following email to me and a few of our mutual (music loving) friends:

In his brilliant book…Levitin relates the tale of how an elderly colleague and he used to dine every Wednesday and discuss music. During one of these dinners the colleague, an octogenarian, confessed that he did not understand rock music but wanted to be able to. He asked Levitin to choose six songs that would capture “all that was important to know about rock and roll music.” Levitin chose the following songs:

“Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard), “Roll Over Beethoven” (The Beatles), “All Along The Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix), “Wonderful Tonight” (Eric Clapton), “Little Red Corvette” (Prince), “Anarchy in the UK” (Sex Pistols).

What would you guys choose, and why?

(Before I share Marc’s list, and my own, I’ll make a few comments about Levitin’s. It manages to underwhelm because it is at once too safe and yet also too…ambitious? Not sure if that’s the right word, but in my opinion, Levitin fell into the same inevitable trap most music aficionados will have difficulty avoiding. Trust me, once you try, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Levitin does an admirable job of trying to span time and genre: he includes the obligatory pre-Elvis rock staple; in this case, a seminal tune by Little Richard, the man who, along with Chuck Berry, arguably did more than anyone else to invent rock and roll, or at least provide the blueprint for the type of music that became rock and roll when people like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and a billion other British white boys tried their damndest to evoke and imitate that distinctive sound. Sure enough, he picks one from The Beatles, and he happens to pick one of the worst songs by the Fab Four: a rather limp cover of the great Chuck Berry. Why not just list Berry’s version? That would seem to at once to give Berry his well-warranted props and also avoid embarrassing how lame The Beatles sound by comparison…particularly when there are many dozen essential, inimitable songs The Beatles would go on to create, all of which, in their own ways, did as much to define and expand the possibilities of rock music as anyone who has ever picked up an instrument. So two issues: are we properly concerned with the stepping stones and giving adequate acknowledgment to the forefathers? After all, without their guidance the British invasion would have never made it across the pond. But if we go down that road, we would certainly be obliged to include at least a song apiece by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino. Not to mention Jerry Lee Lewis. So, if we are trying to distinguish between the blueprints as opposed to the archetypes, shouldn’t we focus purely on the six songs –recorded by whoever, whenever– that “capture all that was important to know about rock and roll music.” Returning to Levitin’s list, his desire to include different genres is laudable, but that brings up myriad issues: he goes after punk (Sex Pistols) and synthesized pop-funk (Prince) and…well, hard to say what ground he’s covering with Clapton (mawkish soft rock?) and it’s difficult to find fault with any list that ever includes Jimi Hendrix. But what about country-rock? Or heavy metal? Or folk? Or blues, which is like the oxygen without with the primitive rock amoeba could never have oozed onto shore. Or…you get the picture. The only way I can see avoiding this dilemma is by copping out and constructing multiple lists that address the prototypes (Chuck Berry et al.), the genre-spanning mavericks (The Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin, just to name a few) and the various incarnations that incorporated the fads of the time (from prog-rock to death metal). And that would be a worthwhile exercise, but the task at hand is to, as accurately and with as much integrity as possible, identify the six songs that best define rock and roll. Pretty simple, huh? Simple and impossible).


Here is Marc’s list:

“Rock and Roll Music” (Chuck Berry), “Think” (Aretha Franklin), “Eleanor Rigby” (The Beatles), “Meeting Across The River” (Bruce Springsteen), “May This Be Love” (Jimi Hendrix) and “Kashmir” (Led Zeppelin).

That is a pretty solid list. It is, in many ways, more satisfying, in my estimation, than Levitin’s. But even Marc (understandably) attempts to cover the basics (with Berry), the essential soul element (Aretha) and the heavyweights (The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and while those are two of the more influential songs by either band, perhaps the ultimate dilemma is paring down both of those band’s catalogs to pick just one song: the best Beatles song? The most important Led Zeppelin tune? The one song by either band that most satisfactorily speaks for what rock music can be? Good luck with that).

But as anyone who has read Utopian literature can attest, (or anyone who has a favorite sports team or preferred religion, for that matter), one person’s nirvana is another person’s perdition. So perhaps any list will say more about the person making it, and the person responding to it, than the actual songs themselves. Plus, it’s not as though there is any truly objective mechanism to determine which songs signify the sine qua non of rock and roll. Plus, how rock and roll is it to agonize over what songs actually define rock and roll? Perhaps the ultimate point (at least for the types of dorks who enjoy making and comparing lists like this in the first place) is to react and respond; there is no Aristotlean list, or any type of Platonic ideal. Rock, after all, is dirty, imperfect and immutable. The only thing that counts, in the end, is authenticity.


And with that, here is my imperfect, dirty, but very authentic list:

(I can’t even begin without a caveat: my first list included John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen”, because to me, this one has all the elements; this is the primal DNA, bringing in boogie-woogie, jazz, blues, and folk element: this is the sound so many early rockers hoped to imitate, even the ones who didn’t realize it. But anything that is not purely rock and roll simply cannot be included on this particular list…)

1. “Maybellene” (Chuck Berry)

Despite what was said above, any list of essential rock songs simply cannot fail to include Chuck Berry. End of story. Plus, of all the early Berry hits, this one brings in some serious backwoods country elements, a healthy dose of jazzed up style and the unmistakably gritty blues guitar –a signature sound, in short. Also, and importantly, the combination of cars and girls, a formula perfected by Berry, is in full effect here: this is not a rock and roll song, this is rock and roll.

2. “Fortunate Son” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Yeah boy. Creedence had already dragged folk and blues through the bayou and paid their obligatory dues at the altar of psychedelic inspiration, and once that was out of their system, John Fogerty locked in and began writing tight, compact, perfect rock songs. He is firing on every cylinder here: the piss and vinegar of the chorus, the sociopolitical import of the lyrics (same –and true– as it ever was, more than four decades later) and the irresistible groove: it is angry, indignant and indelible — and it’s all over in two minutes and nineteen seconds.

3. “Rocks Off” (The Rolling Stones)

It was a down-to-the-wire decision to pick this one or the runner-up, “Brown Sugar”. Either one would suffice, but this one (almost impossible when considering “Brown Sugar”) actually does rock more…and it has “rock” in its title. “Brown Sugar” is a bit dirtier (sonically and lyrically) and has one of the ultimate rock and roll riffs of all time, but “Rocks Off” has every element of what makes The Stones the consummate rock band: the whole history of music is crammed into virtually everything they recorded between ’68 and ’72, and it’s all on ugly, beautiful display here. You really could offer this one up to someone who has never listened to rock music and simply say “Here you go”. There is no guarantee that they’ll like it, but there is no question that after only one listen, they’ll get it.

4. “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen)

Kind of like Beethoven emulated Bach and ended up, in many ways, being better, Bruce Springsteen wanted to sound like Roy Orbison (including name-checking him a few lines into this, the first song on his masterpiece Born To Run), and wound up transcending him. This is the complete package: the harmonica, piano, guitar and glockenspiel (!), this song is an entire lifetime in under five minutes. It also has one of the best beginnings and endings of any song, ever. And if Chuck Berry was singing to hopeful sock hoppers just getting their driver’s licenses, The Boss was talking to young adults who had already graduated but were still capable of dreaming.

5. “London Calling” (The Clash)

Punk? Please. The Clash always represented the melting pot that rock music, at its best, can be. Joe Strummer is God. The Clash was the only band that mattered. Any further questions?

6. “Tattooed Love Boys” (The Pretenders)

In part because it was impossible to pick between “My City Was Gone” and “Middle of the Road” (or “Back on the Chain Gang” for that matter…holy shit, was Learning To Crawl a fantastic album or what?), but also because of the many, many songs that kick much ass by the great Pretenders, it’s hard to top “Tattooed Love Boys”. While Chrissie Hynde was undoubtedly the baddest bitch on the block, she is also an uncommonly gifted writer and her vocals go toe-to-toe with anyone (male or female) who has ever stepped up to a mic.

Anyone who knows me can guess that I’m already disappointed with my own list. How could I not be? The inherent limitation of picking only six songs is infuriating. It also, I reckon, is the point. It would be less interesting, or perhaps less fun, to have more flexibility. And then: how much easier would this task actually be if you had ten songs? Twenty? In some ways, it might be even more difficult because then the (unavoidable) omissions would seem even more glaring. (What, no Sabbath? No Skynyrd? No Halen? No Who? No Beatles? No Doors?  No Floyd?  No Zep? No Heart? No Boys? No Neil? No Rush? No R.E.M.? No Smiths?  No Brains? No SK? No LC? I know…)

So: the only way this exercise is worthwhile is to share it. And see what other people think. I’ve shown you mine; show me yours.



  1. Grace Venes says:

    1. Wanted (Dead Or ALive)- Bon Jovi
    Wanted by Bon Jovi is an iconic rock song, owing to the fact that it embodies all of the glorious badassery associated with the genre. As one of many rock tunes dedicated to the disdained rebel children who created rock & roll, Wanted incorporates musically eloquent guitar riffs that beautifully compliment the minor key. As well as being musically impressive, the lyrics relay to the listener a firsthand perspective on the lifestyle of a rocker as an individual in a way that is not passive but is neutral, in that it is neither entirely negative or positive, but well balanced in both aspects of the singers’ stories.

    2. Burnin’ For You- Blue Öyster Cult
    This song incorporates every necessary aspect of its genre to achieve it’s status as a classic. It’s sufficiently mainstream so that it can be easily recognized within a few chords, yet maintains artistic originality and does not “cater to The Man.” The catchy music and the message that the singer is essentially asking society “why not?” in terms or “burning out the day & night” and other ‘radical’ aspects of rock culture, which represented a minority in the grand scheme of the conservative society of America at the time.

    3. That’s All- Genesis
    That’s All is another well known tune that, once again, focuses on duality and contrast between the singer and listener, under the guise of being a song about a girl (as many rock songs are). Rock gods write songs FOR their fans, but they write TO society as a whole, especially the conservative population who looked down on rock culture, sometimes in spite of them and sometimes from the standpoint of a misunderstood tortured soul; the overall effect, however, is to encourage individuality and originality, whether it fits socially acceptable standards or not. Additionally, this tone of this song stresses the exhaustion that comes from such sharply contrasting beliefs between individuals and how confusing and strenuous it is to attempt to meet impossible standards (“living with you’s just putting me through it all of the time…”), as well as how much easier it would be for different people to mutually shun each other (“I can leave but I won’t go, though it’d be easier…”).

    4. Renegade- Styx
    Renegade is a song specifically crafted for the rock lover who feels the sudden urge to yell out against the injustice he or she may feel relative to the human condition, and is a true ode to the outcast in every rock & roll fans. The song is a fake out, skillfully lulling the listener into a false sense of security with the initial verse, suddenly introducing the chorus with the recurring “oww!” that every great rock singer must master as a prerequisite for well-deserved fame. This stark change from a smooth, low & slow, melodious verse to a loud and rowdy chorus is a great example of the continuous influence rock music has had on more modern music today, as it can be compared to the “bass drop” us crazy kids are so infatuated with in modern pop & dubstep songs. Add to this the fact that it references and sympathizes with the outlaws in society, this song has the perfect blend of being musically skillful and socially relevant to qualify as iconic.

    5. Eleanor Rigby- The Beatles
    Eleanor Rigby is an immensely important song in rock music. Just as the most important and progressive developmental years of a human life are during infancy and early childhood, the early years of the rock age helped set the stage and got the ball rolling for future rockers, and were immensely influential, largely due to the cultural phenomenon known as “Beatlemania” that the group incurred internationally. It is for that very reason that the significance of this song is magnified tenfold, and it’s meaning touched a massive audience across several generations. The chilling connotations of this song are written not so much to the outcast or social pariah as to the isolated soul who found himself in such a condition for any variety of reasons be they self-imposed or external. The chilling connotation of this song lies in the implication that some people live and die without leaving any tangible mark other than a tombstone, and it causes the listeners to reflect on their lives in a deeply personal and existential way.

  2. Grace Venes says:

    I would also like to add the following because they’re extremely relevant:

    Cherry Pie- Warrant
    Hot Blooded- Foreigner
    Hey Man, Nice Shot- Filter
    Nothin But A Good Time- Poison
    Somebody To Love- Jefferson Airplane
    White Room- Cream
    Jessie’s Girl- Rick Springfield
    Shakedown- Bob Seger

  3. Megan DeGrafft says:

    So, I do like Rock and Roll but I would not consider myself very educated in it. I would only be able to recognize songs that my Dad added to our Itunes playlist or listened on CDSs in the car. With that being said, my list will definitely need revising, however I think it will be a suitable start.

    1. Drift Away- Dobie Gray

    I like this song a lot, because I feel it incorporates a variety of styles of music with rock being the main focus it also has a twang of country and I like the catchiness and how in my mind it is a classic.

    2. Free Bird- Lynyrd Skynyrd

    This is a pick, because it contains incredible guitar solos along with a different twist on Rock and Roll and it is a classic.

    3. Sweet Child O’Mine- Guns N’ Roses

    This is on the list because it is a rock ballad that is different and in my opinion gives rock ballads a good rep.

    4. Livin’ On a Prayer- Bon Jovi

    I think almost anyone in a variety of generations will be able to recognize and know this song, because it has had that impact and it has longevity and has appealed to many of the masses.

    5. Don’t Stop Believing- Journey

    Just like Livin’ On a Prayer this is another classic that many ages and generations love and it captures the soft and loud aspects of Rock and Roll.

    6. Hotel California- The Eagles

    I chose this one, because it is a simpler Rock and Roll that captures another essence of the genre and the Eagles are classic.

  4. Devika Shankardass says:

    As the author, Sean Murphy, stated in his concluding paragraph, there is an “inherent limitation” in choosing only 6 songs to best represent rock music due to the myriad of rock songs that exist. Despite this limitation, below is my compilation, in no particular order, of 6 songs I think are representative of rock music.

    Hotel California (The Eagles)- This song has amazing guitar solo towards the end of the song that I could rave on and on about. This song holistically is absolutely wonderful as it utilizes rock elements, such as the insanely long yet beautiful guitar solo, but also mixes the rock with a different rhythm and a different styles which make it a perfect candidate for this list as it brings to fruition the different elements that rock music holds.

    Mr. Brightside (The Killers)- A more modern rock band, The Killers have, colloquially speaking, “killed” it (no pun intended) with this song. Mr.Brightside features excellent percussion and guitar riffs that are unique to them. This song is especially different from 60s, 70s, or even 80s rock because it adds an element of pop. From my own musical experience, I feel that rock music is entangled with pop and alternative genres and this song, especially, does a spectacular job of creating an outstanding rock song.

    Smells like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)- Historically, rock music was created to be a form of freedom of expression and defiance against authority and conservatism. The lyrics are clearly advocating teenage rebellion which as stated previously is characteristic of rock music. Besides the lyrics, this song quite frankly couldn’t be any other genre besides rock as it contains very typical rock elements. The screaming into the microphone and crazy guitar chords are just the tip of the iceberg for what makes this the ideal rock song candidate.

    My Generation (The Who)- This, along with Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit, conveys feelings of teenage rebellion and justification for our capricious behavior. The lyrics, to me, are highly representative of the ideas on which rock music was founded- disobedience and the right to freedom of expression. Other than the lyrical analysis, there are some excellent guitar solos throughout the song that, again, epitomize rock and roll.

    Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)- The first time I heard this song, I immediately identified it as something by Simon and Garfunkel due to its initial folksy melody . I chose this song because it is a unique song that stays true to its rock roots of having hard rock sections and intricate guitar solos, yet is still able to seamlessly integrate a completely different genre and style. This song is intended to demonstrate the versatility and variety in the abilities of rock artists and rock music.

    Zombie (The Cranberries)- Unlike the Killers, this modern band is known for its indie and alternative scene. However, the song “Zombies” fits perfectly in defining rock and roll as it features a great electric guitar solos that are perfectly rock. This song is different from the ones above because it features a female lead singer, which isn’t frequent in rock and roll. The leader singer has a truly unique voice which reminds me a lot of Ann Wilson from Heart. I can’t think of any other song that most likely fits the bill for describing rock music than this one.

  5. Bianca Rossell says:

    1. The Deacon’s Hop by Big Jay McNeely
    This song is from 1949, a time before mainstream rock and roll music became popular. The genre of rock and roll has roots in African American tunes, and this song, released as early as it was recorded, definitely sets a precedent. It has no lyrics, and it’s no “Crazy Train,” but the tune of the song was a model for future variations of rock and roll music.

    2. Sharp-Dressed Man by ZZ Top
    In my opinion, the 80s were a heightened time for rock music. I’m not speaking out of experience, of course, but from what I have heard from old CDs and seen from music videos. This song is one of those classic ones that everyone should know; not only is the guitar melody great, the lyrics are spot-on too: “Every girl’s crazy about a sharp-dressed man.”

    3. Viva La Vida by Coldplay
    This song is definitely the most recent song on my list. Although it is far more recent than 90s songs, it can still be considered a classic. It also sounds different than the other songs on this list, and because of its inconsistency with the rest of the songs here, I have to say that the only reason why I chose it is because it is so well-known.

    4. Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
    I’m betting that at least one other person has this song on their list as well. It is just so…good. For being six minutes long, it is not at all boring with its mercurial melodies and engaging lyrics. This song didn’t make my list because of its popularity, however, but because it manages to incorporate different genres of music within itself: rock with the electric guitar solos, baroque with the bouncy piano “Gallileo” parts, etc.

    5. Iron man by Black Sabbath
    This song made my list because of the famous melodies in it. The iconic guitar riff at the beginning stands out from other songs and is noticeable among those who don’t even listen to the band or genre. Take me, for example, a 16-year old who has only heard of this song because of her dad’s old rock CDs.

    6. Bad Reputation by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
    I think this song is just brilliant. It was executed so well, including catchy riffs and rebellious lyrics which, to me, are what makes this song awesome. It is also a female-fronted band, which is very uncommon among the rock genre. This song, I think, just speaks to young women of any generation who see Joan Jett as a musical inspiration. It is incredible how, at the age of 47, she went on the Van’s Warped Tour in 2006 to promote yet another released album.

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