Seven Songs That Pass the “FBI” Test

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While hundreds of pop and rock songs can be described as either fun, beautiful, or innovative, a scant few qualify on all three counts (what I classify as “FBI”).  Each criterion is subjective, of course, and will vary considerably in the ear of the beholder.  Here are seven candidates for consideration.

#7 “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”

Nearly every song on Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 album Graceland is innovative, fusing elements of world music seamlessly into pop.  The vocal contributions of Ladysmith Black Mambazo introduce this track and, since few listeners understand Zulu, lend it an immediate air of mystery. The song’s female protagonist baffles her paramour, whose general confusion (including his need to “compensate for his ordinary shoes”) is amusing.  While we try to wrap our heads around the unusual piece, its beautiful chorus simultaneously acknowledges the subjunctive nature of our understanding and reassures us that some things are beyond our comprehension.

#6 “Norwegian Wood”

One of the most intriguing tracks on Rubber Soul, “Norwegian Wood” features another pair of would-be lovers.  George Harrison’s sitar fills introduced many in the western world to the instrument, and their innovative inclusion provides an exotic complement to an already beautiful melody.  John Lennon’s rather wicked sense of humor is on display throughout the piece.  After his sexual advances are rejected, the narrator freely admits to his listeners that he has been had (“or should I say, she once had me”). The woman laughs at his advances, forcing him to slink off to “sleep in the bath.”  The song’s penultimate line (“so I lit a fire”) is open to numerous interpretations, one being that the narrator has the last laugh by torching the scene of his humiliation.  Though such pyromania is far from delightful, it nevertheless manages to evoke a smile in the song’s playful context.

#5 “Games People Play”

Though its lyrics are tinged with both frustration and wistful resignation, this 1975 crossover hit by the Spinners is replete with touches of whimsy.  The bedrock piano is joyfully bouncy, and numerous horn fills (such as the one inserted after “heard a funny sound”) “sass talk” the lyric in a sort of play on call and response traditions.  If the horn arrangements and Evette Benton’s singing are both beautiful, Pervis Jackson’s bass vocals (especially his rock-bottom reading of the line “12:45”) in the middle of the song elicit a smile, while the fact that the track features three separate lead vocalists is certainly innovative.  One senses that the vibe in the studio that day overwhelmed the composer’s original intentions.  People certainly play games, but so do musicians.

#4 “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

The startling introduction to this 1969 Rolling Stones hit is a wonderful example of innovation.  Who would ever have expected the bad boys of rock to commence a track with members of the London Bach Choir singing in such beautiful, innocent harmony?  Al Kooper’s French Horn contributions are similarly gorgeous.  Yet after such an atypical opening, Mick Jagger’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics (“I went down to the demonstration / to get my fair share of abuse”) and flamboyant vocals supply some fun and return the listener to more familiar Stones territory.

#3 “Penny Lane”

The Beatles enjoyed a playful rivalry with the Stones, playing the good boys to their counterpart’s less wholesome aesthetic.  In “Penny Lane,” however, Paul McCartney playfully inserts a dirty joke (“four of fish and fingers pie in summer”) into his lyrical portrait of the active thoroughfare he frequented in his Liverpool youth.  Inspired by a concert he’d recently seen on television, McCartney enlisted David Mason to play piccolo trumpet on the track.  The Beatles were always searching for new sounds, and the inclusion of this unexpected solo instrument is both innovative and beautiful.

#2 “All You Need is Love”

The decision to use “La Marseillaise” to introduce a worldwide audience to their latest “message song” is typical of the innovation the Beatles repeatedly displayed in their glorious career.  The musical quotation is also great fun, of course, as are the inclusion of snippets from “She Loves You” and “Greensleeves” in the lengthy outro.  Not to be lost in the fun, however, is the beauty of the chorus, and the charm of its sentiment.  In 1967 the Beatles had the world at their feet, and the fact that they used the platform to preach their gospel of love is to their credit.

#1 “Good Vibrations”

Brian Wilson’s musical inventiveness and quest for beautiful soundscapes are on full display in this groundbreaking 1966 Beach Boys composition.  Bandmate Mike Love’s lyrics adequately complement Wilson’s musical message, but it is the sound of the piece that ensures its spot in pop music history.  A suite with five distinct parts, “Good Vibrations” is an ambitious and astonishing marriage of complex textures and rhythms that purportedly took nearly 90 hours to record.  If Wilson’s use of the Electro-Theremin catches the ear, however, it’s the beauty of the vocals, both solo and in harmonies, that leaves the dominant impression. Yet the listener is also struck by the innate fun of the piece, and it’s this tone that prevents the baroque track from slipping into bombast.

-Paul Jenkins

Photo: Brian Wilson (public domain)

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Paul O. Jenkins is an academic librarian who has been following the Beatles since 1965 when his father presented him with Rubber Soul. He has published a bibliographic essay on the best 100 books written about the band and co-edited a book titled Teaching the Beatles, published by Routledge in 2018. He has also presented at the recent conferences celebrating the White Album and Abbey Road. In addition to his duties as library director, Jenkins teaches a course on the Beatles at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.

4 comments on “Seven Songs That Pass the “FBI” Test

  1. Richard Short

    Hey Paul, neat article. Gosh, there are literally thousands of songs that fit the “FBI” criteria but the seven you picked were fantastic. Really enjoyed it!

  2. James Panico

    Paul, a truly fascinating take on the subject of innovation. Thought provoking…and after thinking about it, I agree with your take.

  3. Mr. Harry S. Steinmetz

    I love the FBI criteria for describing what separates good pop songs from the product the record companies have foisted on us. Your choices are excellent examples. Really this it what the Beatles great in musical history. Very good article.

  4. Thank you, Paul, for the kick in the pants to listen to the Spinners more carefully. These guys were wonderful.

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