Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields named his epic work 69 Love Songs because he needed an outsize numeral. He considered 100 but decided it was simply too much, so he chose 69, both for its graphic potential (“It’s a visual palindrome. It would make a good logo on a Broadway poster”) and because it was the next lowest number below 100 “that had another relevant meaning.” And he’s right. Sure, 72 is the number of beats-per-minute in the average human heart rate, and 98.6 is the average human temperature, but 69, nimble shorthand for an iconic–not to mention visually palindromic–act of mutual oral gratification, is the indisputable Big Kahuna between 50 and 100.
It’s funny, then, that of the scads of 69-titled songs out there, those that specifically reference the act itself are relatively rare. At the forefront is T-Pain’s “69,” (“I’ve been doing tongue exercises,” he promises, before delivering the anatomically impossible suggestion: “I spread that booty so wide/ I can tell that shit’s spread by the look in her eyes.”), which makes me yearn for the relative purity of Rick James, whose “She Blew My Mind (69 Times)” comes off as a model of restraint next to T-Pain’s booty-spreadin’ exploits. And while the classic “96 Tears” was originally titled “69 Tears,” the Mysterians were forced to switch to 96 in order to thwart controversy. (Nevertheless, the part about, “And when the sun comes up, I’ll be on top/You’ll be right down there, lookin up” has been alleged to refer to a certain sex act and made it through unscathed.) By and large, though, the trend continues: most 69-titled songs refer to a year–in this case, 1969, the year of Woodstock, the first moon landing, the Manson killings, the Miracle Mets, and Altamont. (Some great songs have used the full name of the year, most notably the Stooges’ lethal “1969,” Boards of Canada’s typically creepy/dreamy “1969,” and Bo Diddley 1969,” which adds a little go-go dancing kick to his signature beat.
Bo Diddley changed his name (he was born Elias Otha Bates), and so did the grizzled French baritone Serge Gainsbourg, who started life as Lucien Ginsberg. The languid “69 Annee Erotique,” a duet with his lover Jane Birkin from a 1969 collaboration, is tamer than the record’s controversial hit, the soft-core moan-fest “Je t’aime Moi Non Plus” (some believed Ms. Birkin’s orgasmic trilling was authentic, making “Je t’aime” the “Kiss Kiss Kiss” of its day), but the song’s lusty message is never in doubt. Unlike “J’taime,” the Vatican was silent about “Annee Erotique,” presumably because the double entendre was too subtle. Mick Harvey of the Bad Seeds paid homage to Serge in the mid-’90s with Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants, two collections of Gainsbourg songs sung in English, including, naturally, “69 Erotic Year.” (It sounds better en Francais.)
Random 69 fact: Charles Osborne hiccupped for 69 years and holds the record for “the Longest Attack of Hiccups” in the Guinness Book of World Records. No surprise that Guinness opted for “hiccups” and not “singultus,” the rarely used medical term for “hiccups,” but singultus would make a great title for the next Sigur Ros album (lowercase, natch, in a Druidic font).
The ever-popular “noun + numeral” song-title trope is well represented with 69. There’s “Alabama 69″ by Humble Pie, a shameless imagining of life during slavery, “Life 69″ by Hairy Chapter (that’s right, Hairy Chapter, German electric blues-ists circa. 1970), Rocket 69 by the Lee Harvey Oswald Band, which suggests the sound of Dr. Frank N.
Furter freed of the screen a la Purple Rose of Cairo and playing Vegas parking lots (“I’m full of beer and I’m hung like a steer, baby climb on!”), as well as an international trove, including Italian pop chanteuse Patty Pravo’s “Tripoli ’69,” Dutch rockers Peter Pan Speedrock’s “Black Beauty ’69″ and “October 69″ by Northern Ireland’s Jim Armstong Band.
Andy Partridge of XTC wrote songs about fictional dance crazes, like the Neon Shuffle and the Spinning Top, but they never caught on. Alvin Cash, a ’60s soul singer and a high school classmate of Tina Turner, could probably relate: his “Funky ’69,” a hip-shaking “future dance,” never became a craze, despite Cash’s impassioned exhortation to “whoop it now!” But it’s guaranteed to raise a smile. Evidently people had the idea that ’69 was going to be something special: The Customs Five, one of hundreds of below-the-radar American garage bands of the late ’60s, give us the rousing “Let’s Go in ’69,” from one of the many Pebbles compilations. Later covered by garage revivalists the Maggots, the song is a bracing cocktail of blurpy buitar, heavy ride cymbal and the sound of some kid who never made a career out of rock singing lead vocals. In the same primitive spirit is the loose-limbed garage funk of “Miss Free Love ’69″ by Hoodoo Gurus, who did have some hits. Many bands inspired by the primitive innocence of ’60s garage rock have mined similar territory, whether in a heavier grunge style, like the autobiographical “Born in ’69″ by Rocket From the Crypt, and “Sweet ’69″ by Vancouver’s Pink Mountaintops, which joyfully bludgeons the Bo Diddley beat into a lusty slice of tribal dance music. Babes in Toyland’s song of the same name is far more confrontational and dangerous sounding, due to Kat Bjelland’s searing vocal and a perfectly modulated breakdown graced with some of the niftiest cowbell this side of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Rounding out the pack we have King Khan & the Shrines with “69 Faces of Love” and Swedish stoner rockers Greenleaf, who weigh in with “Vat 69,” a tribute to the venerable Scotch whisky.
Star 69, aka “call return,” has been a telephonic option since the early ’90s. Besides unleashing an untold tsunami of awkward moments, the catchy shortcut also inspired a number of songs and at least one band name. R.E.M. was there first with “Star 69″ from Monster, that clamorous blast of glam and guitar noise that would be the band’s last recorded work to approach sales expectations. “Star 69,” a song about persecution by telephone, barrels forward with added propulsion from Michael Stipe’s overlapping vocals, which bring a touch of youthful chaos to the proceedings, while in Fatboy Slim’s thumping house track of the same name, the entire lyric consists of a vocal sample from the Roland Clark song “I Get Deep” (“They know what is what, but they don’t know is what, they just strut. What the fuck?”). There’s no mention of phones, but the lyric is repeated at least 69 times.
Highway songs are a mainstay of the numerological canon, and 69 is no exception. “Highway 69, which runs north-south from Texas to Minnesota, is distinguished by its continual need for replacement highway signs due to the unchecked proliferation of male college students with dorm room walls to decorate. Bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson wrote the song and played it backed by the Yardbirds in 1966, before the band really hit its stride, and it’s been covered in all its swampy glory Big Bill Morganfield, son of the legendary Muddy Waters. The song has a title in common with a trippy number by the Fuzztones, New York revivalists circa 1989. And what’s a highway without a classic ride? “69 El Camino” by Southern Culture on the Skids is a reverb-drenched slice of deranged rockabilly that suggests the low rumble of a hot car you just wanna ride, ride, ride.
The breadth of songs inspired by 69 spans the globe, as well as nearly every genre known to man, from the cocktail jazz of George Shearing’s “Midnight on Cloud 69″ to the techno stylings of David Holmes (“69 Police) and Cloud 69 (“Sixty Nine Ways”), the hardcore thrash of Bury Your Dead (“69 Times the Charm”), South African grunge from Seether (“69 Tea”) and French punk from Charge 69 (“Charge 69,” their theme song). Not to mention bands like 69 Boyz and their salacious “Let Me Ride That Donkey” and Finland’s 69 Eyes, a glam-rock outfit in the spirit of Hanoi Rocks, led by a frontman whose nom du rock is Jyrki 69. By and large, the sound of 69 is heavy (Serge Gainsbourg is an obvious exception.) The number seems to stoke the fires of lust and desire, and in the case of Ministry’s “Psalm 69,” it unleashes the powers of hell. The ostensible title track from what is arguably Jourgensen & Co.’s ultimate statement, “Psalm 69″ is a sonic juggernaut, a spiky tapestry of creepy film samples, mock-sermon sound bites, pummeling guitar riffage, and Cookie Monster vocals (before they became a staple of death/speed/doom/black metal.) Perfectly fusing the most aggressive elements of hard rock, techno, hardcore, and industrial, this is one ingeniously well-calibrated death machine of a song. And you can dance to it.
To the man on the street, there is an obvious answer for top 69 song: “Summer of 69″ by Bryan Adams. For sheer name recognition, it trumps every song on this list. Now, I’m not going to fault it for being erroneously autobiographical; why should it matter if Adams would have been about 5 years old in 1969 when, according to the song, he’s making some pretty grown-up vows on his baby’s mama’s porch? Not an issue; let’s just say he’s playing a character. Besides, Bryan Adams is no stranger to controversy; he seems to divide people. To some, he’s utterly derivative, a third-rater. Robert Christgau wrote, “Maybe I’ll let Bruce Springsteen teach me how to hear John Cougar Mellencamp, but damned if I’m going to let John Cougar Mellencamp teach me how to hear Bryan Adams”; Jimmy Guterman wrote, “Bryan Adams’s derivativeness is rivaled only by his opportunism.” But others find his rough-hewn pipes and meat-and-potatoes rock really hit the spot. As for the song in question, though, it just never sunk its hooks into to me. Adams said its inspiration was Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” one of the icons of what critic Chuck Eddy calls “memory-rock songs,” and while the two share the young-fumblings imagery, Adams’s homage sounds packaged and pat compared to Seger’s classic. (“Run to You” and “Cuts Like a Knife,” however, still have the power to impress this foe of corporate rocking.)
Bryan Adams – “Summer of ’69″
Easily one of the best 69 songs I’ve come across comes from what I would consider an unlikely source: Poland. If you are hard-pressed to come up with a Polish rock band, you’re not alone. The Polish electronica/dance music scene has made inroads stateside, with the long-running Unsound Festival reaching our shores in 2010, but Warsaw’s punk, hard rock, and indie scene is largely unknown to most Americans, myself included. That’s why I was so intrigued to discover “Sixty-Nine Moles” by George Dorn Screams, a Warsaw-based quartet that describes itself as “Joy Divison meets Mazzy Star,” which ain’t a bad description. Their synth drone and somber, vibrato-free female vocals put me in mind of another European “indie-tronic” outfit, Lali Puna. From the opening wash of radio static, “69 Moles” has a warm, buzzy glow combined with a gently insistent quality, pulsing along like a more melancholy Stereolab. I’ve listened to the song at least 20 times, and I still don’t know what the 69 moles signify. Nor has my research revealed the identity of George Dorn, but no matter: a little mystery goes down just fine with Polish synth pop this seductive.
The biggest mystery behind the winning song for this hotly contested spot is why Captain Soul’s debut single, “T-Shirt 69,” is about as well known here as the Polish indie rock scene. True, the band–named after a Byrds instrumental–missed power pop’s brief mid-’70s heyday by about 25 years, but “T-Shirt 69″ is so downright stunning that it seems an injustice that it never even found its way into, say, some lame movie with Liv Tyler. Captain Soul was an English foursome that spent three years in contractual limbo with Sire Records before joining the Poptones label of Creation records founder Alan McGee in 2000. The band’s Byrds-derived name attests to one of its major influences, but as with Teenage Fanclub, the sound it incorporates is really the Byrds conflated with the Neil Young style of whomping guitar overdrive, along with a strong Big Star influence and a generous helping of West Coast harmonies. The spirit of deep and transcendent romantic yearning that courses through many of the best pop singles gives T-Shirt its urgency and poignancy: “I’m at your feet,” croons singer Adam Howorth, “but you’re out of reach.” The song’s origin is not surprising–a girl wearing a 69-emblazoned T-shirt caught Howorth’s eye–but the captivating result of that fleeting encounter is a feat of musical alchemy: turning a sad, empty feeling into four minutes of sheer glory.
Numerology is our pal Dave’s ill-advised quest to find the definitive song for every number from one to a hundred. He’s been at it for close to three years now, 3 — the first odd, prime number as well as the number of sides on a triangle. As a child he was more obsessed with counting the sides of blocks instead of matching them to their respective hole. Legend has it that he drove teachers out of education with his theories on hexagon blocks.
Previously: No. 1, 2 (redux), 3, 4 (redux), 5-7, 5 (redux),6 (redux), 6.4, 7 (counterpoint), 8, 9, 10/11, 10, Again, 12/13. 13 (counterpoint), 14/15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26/27, 28 , 29 , 30, 30 (counterpoint), 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, Footnotes, 57, 58, 59 , 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68