What makes a song rock?

By Ned Seaton

And the Number 1 song in the history of rock and roll is…in a bit of a surprise, it’s…The Bangles, with “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Well, umm, no. That’s a joke I heard once on a classic-rock radio station countdown of the Greatest Songs In Rock And Roll History. Everybody knows how those gimmick shows end: “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin. Duh.

Somewhere, a radio station is doing that countdown today, and I’d bet you a considerable sum that “Stairway” will come out on top. The consensus champ, right?

Not necessarily. When I raised this issue with a bunch of friends, I got a surprising variety of responses: Everything from “Shook Me All Night Long” to “Sweet Home Alabama” to “Into the Mystic,” a tune I had never heard of by Van Morrison. A couple of songs by Foreigner, which plays here tonight, entered the discussion: “Hot Blooded” and “Double Vision.” The trendy pick: “Don’t Stop Believin’,” by Journey, which was sort of a two-bit hit when it came out but has become a powerhouse. Amazing what karaoke and a cameo on the “Sopranos” TV show finale will do for your everlasting legacy.

Somebody chimed in with “SOS” by ABBA; a guy mentioned a song by a band called Modern English, and somebody else pitched “Hot for Teacher,” by Van Halen. Hendrix. Dylan. Marvin Gaye. Chuck Berry. U2. Nirvana. Public Enemy. The sublime and the ridiculous.

Which is which? Well, opinions on this subject are strongly held. “Hands down,” and “no question” accompanied several nominations. One guy said I was an idiot if I didn’t include “Black Magic Woman” by Santana. Another smart-guy took a shot at the whole discussion, saying it neglected anything released this century. He then mentioned something by a band called Arctic Monkeys.

Arctic Monkeys? Monkey’s uncle?

Most of these opinions, by the way, are just flat wrong. In fact, all of them are wrong, unless they happen to agree with mine.

Come to think of it, what’s wrong with this country (aside from the Monkey’s Uncles, or whatever they’re called) is that there are people who have opinions different from mine. Along that line, I must mention that it’s GREAT for the future of America that “Crossfire” is back on the air – there’s nothing better for democracy than people shouting insults at each other because they disagree.

But we’re getting too far from the matter at hand: The best song in the history of rock and roll is “Thunder Road,” by Bruce Springsteen. It’s a fact.

Well, OK, it’s an opinion. I grant that. But it’s the correct opinion.

“Thunder Road” is a beautiful song that begins with a soft piano and a harmonica, the sound of dusk in the summer. It ends as a charging anthem of electric guitar and sax, the sound of roaring out into the night.

Great stuff. But a truly great rock song, somebody once said, starts below the belt, then grabs your heart and finally your head. That’s what differentiates “Thunder Road” from, say, “Honkey Tonk Women,” which is maybe the best below-the-belt rock song ever.

Thunder Road involves your heart and your head like nothing else. The language is pure poetry: “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves,” says the opening line. “Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.”

It’s not just pretty language, either. The basic message leaps out from this line: “Well the night’s bustin’ open, these two lanes will take us anywhere.”

Limitless possibility. Freedom. The American dream. The rock-and-roll dream. The song is the story of one dreamer persuading another to grab hold. His offer: A shot at redemption. A chance to make it good somehow, a chance to make it real. It’s an invitation, a beginning. The song nods at limitations: “The door’s open but the ride it ain’t free,” the singer proclaims. Furthermore: “You ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re all right/And that’s all right with me.”

But ultimately, it’s about an invitation to dream, to roar down the road to pursue those dreams.

“Mary, climb in,” the song concludes. “It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win.”

You don’t have to believe that they’ll actually fulfill the American dream to appreciate a story of two people who believe that they can. It reminds everybody of a moment when they believed that dream, too. OK, now, you are, of course, free to make your own choice on this. All that stuff about how my opinion is right and yours is wrong? I was kidding.

The fun part of this subject is the discussion.

Accompanying this column is a clip-and-send form for your nominations on Page D1. Let us know what you think the best rock songs are, and we’ll publish the results of this informal poll soon.

You can also send in your list by e-mail to me at nseaton@themercury.com.

I promise to not call you names, not even if you are a member of the Monkey’s Uncles.

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