“Uh … these go to 11.”—Nigel Tufnel
11 is the red-headed stepchild of the first 20 natural numbers. If you need convincing, consider this: it took a fictional guitarist to put 11 on the rock ‘n’ roll map. Those specially made amps that go “one louder” represent rock’s iconic 11, and the battiness of Nigel’s contention underscores 11’s problem. As Spinal Tap director Marty DiBergi sensibly suggests, why go to 11? Why not just make 10 louder?
Eleven just doesn’t get a lot of respect; it’s forever in 10’s shadow. Even though there’s a goodly number of 11 songs out there, precious few could be called iconic, or even great examples of a band or artist’s oeuvre, and many of these are unreleased songs, outtakes, live-only, or some other aspect of less-than-top-tier status. U2’s “Eleven O’Clock Tick Tock,” for example, a song that’s remained in the band’s set list since the ‘80s, never made it onto a studio album. R.E.M and Hüsker Dü both have 11-named outtakes (“The Eleventh Untitled Song” and “Dozen Beats Eleven,” respectively), while England’s Doves inexplicably slapped the glorious “Eleven Miles Out” on a B-side. (Not to mention The Loud Family’s “Eleven,” and NRBQ’s “11 Bar Blues,” both live and non-LP) Elsewhere is “Room Eleven,” the last, and least good, song on Daisy Chainsaw’s excellent Lovesick Pleasure EP (DC’s debut release was called Eleventeen.)
The Grateful Dead – “The Eleven”
The Grateful Dead’s “The Eleven” fits the pattern. Recorded for the palindromically titled Aoxomoxoa, the song only appeared on the four-sided Live/Dead, the 1969 recording that caught the original lineup at the peak of its powers. Named for its circuitous 11/8 time signature (same as Primus’s “Eleven”), “The Eleven” did not remain in the band’s live repertory for very long, one suspects, because it was a bit too crazed, frantic, and complex for the more laid-back, post-Pigpen Dead. When the band began developing this Phil Lesh/Robert Hunter creation, “we’d spend hours and hours every day just playing groups of 11,” said Jerry Garcia, describing a work ethic that doesn’t seem to gibe with the band’s air of spontaneity.
If the Dead were the Beatles of West Coast psychedelia in the late ‘60s, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band were the Freddie and the Dreamers of the scene. And their “Sweet Lady Eleven” would be just another forgettable track (“We’ll travel to the moon/We’ll travel to my room! Uuh!”) from their forgettable last record if it weren’t for the creepy notion that the 11 in the title might refer to the lady’s age. And it just might: the band’s previous record, Where’s My Daddy?, was permeated with undisguised Lolita lust, and group leader Bob Markley ended up doing jail time for sex with underage girls.
To be sure, some of 11’s finest moments in the sun come as a lyric, rather than as a title. Besides 17, it’s the only tri-syllable under 20, so many folks have made excellent use of its distinctive cadence: Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues (“The man in the coonskin cap, in the big pen/wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten”); David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” (“She’s up on the eleventh floor, watching the cruisers below”); XTC’s “Outside World” (She’s got 11 lions laughing at her lake side”); and Jackson Browne’s masterstroke of double entendre, “Redneck Friend” (Cause he’s the missing link/the kitchen sink/ 11 on a scale of 10”). Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields leverages the Tufnel-ian sense of the number (“We’ll have time enough for sex and love and heaven/When our pheromones are turned up to eleven…”), while Neil Young’s “No Wonder” draws on its darker implications (“That song from 9/11 keeps ringing through my head”) and the Who strike a xenophobic stance in “It’s Not True” (“I haven’t got 11 kids/I weren’t born in Baghdad/I’m not half-Chinese either/and I didn’t kill my dad”). Nerd gods They Might Be Giants lament the fact that “…precious few have mourned the passing of Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president,” and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. liked the sound of eleven so much he mentioned it twice in the gorgeously morose “Perfect Circle”:
Put your hair back, we get to leave
Eleven gallows on your sleeve
Shallow figure, winners paid
Eleven shadows way out of place
The R&B/Mod influenced Nine Below Zero, a South London-based quartet, were out of step during the punk years, but “Eleven Plus Eleven,” which the group performed on the debut episode of The Young Ones in 1982, holds up a lot better than much of the work of their trendier contemporaries. Twenty years later, when The Magic Numbers formed in West London, the climate was a lot friendlier for backward-looking pop combos. Their self-titled debut from 2005, hailed by many an overzealous critic as a classic, led with “Mornings Eleven,” a over-larded slice of sunshine pop served up with a generous dollop of Mamas and Papas harmonies. Too bad this genial but shapeless five-minute production doesn’t begin to approach the qualities main songwriter Roman Stodart so clearly admires in others. Not like the Strokes, who managed to faithfully update the Velvet Underground and still sound fresh. Liberated from the yoke of the Strokes, lead singer Julian Casablancas borrowed the Human League’s trampoline for “11th Dimension,” the bouncy first single from his solo Phrazes for the Young. Beneath the carefree fizz of its hooky surface lies a sober-eyed indictment of the American soul, but you’d never know that without a lyric sheet.
Julian Casablancas – “11th Dimension”
Something about 11 seems to stoke the fires of surrealism. The Bonzo Dog Band’s “Eleven Mustachioed Daughters” from the surpassingly strange The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse, opens with a demented sounding Viv Stanshall intoning, “11 mustachioed daughters running in a field of fat” over jungle percussion interspersed with snatches of party dialogue (“I think John Wayne was in it…”) and followed by an extended coughing section. “Eleven Executioners,” by the lascivious songwriter/provocateur Momus, is an intimate, waltz-time concoction that begins with “eleven gentlemen dancing,” then proceeds to describe each of them committing murder of some sort (“the third he kills people more handsome than him/and the fourth kills the misunderstood”) before a nonsense finale (“Rattle tum a gypsum gypsum …”) worthy of solo Brian Eno.
Bonzo Dog Band – “Eleven Mustachioed Daughters”
Momus – “Eleven Executioners”
According to a witty and detailed biography penned by Julian Cope on his japrocksampler.com, the Japanese blues rock outfit Blues Creation, led by guitarist Kazuo ‘Flash’ Takeda, released its masterpiece Demon & Eleven Children in 1970. The title track, a nine-minute blast of electric blues, has hints of Sabbath, Mountain and other heavies of the early ‘70s, but the band’s key influence here, Cope tells us, is another Japanese outfit, Flower Travellin’ Band, who were a major touchstone for Cope and leaders of a scene that, I must confess, I knew nothing about. Speaking of confessions, Peter Himmelman’s “The 11th Confession” is a quite lovely, moody ballad penned by a talented singer-songwriter who’s managed to stick around and do good work for three decades. He also seems fond of 11s, as his “11:30 Pacific Time” attests. On a somewhat related note, “Home By Eleven” is a no-frills rocker from 1959 by Steve Alaimo, who wrote “Every Day I Have to Cry,” covered by Dusty Springfield, Arthur Alexander and others, and continues to rock with his Redcoats. We can safely assume the Redcoats never played an E-11th chord, which inspired the title of Scritti Politti’s “E Eleventh Nuts,” one of the weaker tracks on the excellent White Bread Black Beer. (Try not to confuse White Bread’s opening track, “The Boom Boom Bap,” with Boom Bip’s “One of Eleven.”)
Cricket, soccer, and football all feature 11-player teams and are thus referred to as elevens. In a recent sports-related instance of 11, Baseball Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio allowed his number 11 to be “unretired” so that the newly acquired All-Star shortstop Omar Vizquel could wear it for the Chicago White Sox. (The Windy City, it should be mentioned, spawned the stellar Eleventh Dream Day, whose “Between Here and There” still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.) The late-morning repast known as elevenses usually means some tea and sweet cake in Europe, while in America, as Michael Pollan reminds us in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “the modern coffee break began as a late-morning whiskey break called the ‘elevenses.’” And to think we now react with horror at the three-martini lunch; try substituting Wild Turkey for java. Your grandpa did. (Neil Halstead of Slowdive has a lovely song called “Elevenses.”)
The Smithereens, Harry Connick Jr., and Bryan Adams have all made albums called 11, and a similarly diverse group have used plain 11 in song titles. There’s the anthemic “Eleven!” by Jersey’s young and feisty Solfege Radio, “Eleven” by Honeytrap, a Coventry outfit that blends gypsy violins with an alt-rock pulse and has earned praise from David Bowie; Dead or Alive, whose “Number Eleven” drips with goth melodrama and Strangler-esque roller-rink keys but stops short of spinning me right round (baby right round); “Eleven” by ¡Forward, Russia!, a Leeds band whose song titles are all numbers (a strategy employed by Karma to Burn as well as Brooklyn’s Goes Cube, who have recently begun using words for titles); and “Eleven (part 1)” an ominous instrumental by Alien S. of the Russian Federation, which is as gelid as a Soviet winter.
According to James Rogers’s Dictionary of Cliches, the phrase “the 11th hour”—meaning “at the very last minute”—finds its origin in the New Testament. In Matthew’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard, a group of workers toil all day and complain when a group of stragglers show up (at the you-know-what hour) and end up receiving the same wage as the all-day toilers. While the parable teaches that we should give our best efforts and be happy with the rewards we gain, regardless of what others may receive, it’s a hard sell today. But “the 11th hour” has stuck around, serving as the title of albums, plays, movies, TV dramas, a computer game, a newspaper, and songs by August Burns Red, Fates Warning, Yngwie Malmstein, Rancid, and Lamb of God. And 11:00 has spawned a passel of songs like “11-11 PM” by All-American Rejects, “11:11″ by Film School, and Morphine’s “Eleven O’clock,” from the band’s final release, Like Swimming, which is most assuredly about 11 p.m. Lurching thickly like a room full of drunks, the bass, sax and voice of Mark Sandman meld into one unified, husky exhortation. Let’s not forget “Eleven Years” by no. 51 winners New Model Army and “11 Long Years” by US3, which borrows the same irresistible Horace Silver riff from “Song For My Father” that Steely Dan helped itself to for “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” And then there’s the Scottish angle: “Just After 11 She Left” is a toy-piano-driven number by the shockingly prolific Scottish singer-songwriter Kenny Anderson aka King Creosote, while “The 11th Earl of Mar,” by the post-Peter Gabriel Genesis, chronicles the complex machinations in the life of 18th-century Scottish politician John Erskine.
Morphine – “Eleven O’Clock”
Blondie – “11:59″
But enough of all this 11th-hour dithering. We have a clear winner here, and it’s Blondie’s “11:59” from Parallel Lines, the band’s finest LP and one that’s been acknowledged as one of the great records of the rock era. Best known for the silky disco of “Heart of Glass” and the hard crunch of “One Way or Another,” Parallel Lines spans an array of musical flavors and nails them all. “11:59” is a Phil Spectorish mini-opera shot through with last-minute urgency; it comes leaping out of the gate with an intro that’s pure teenage symphony to God and sports a nifty arrangement calibrated to heighten the drama, with quick starts and stops, a key change, a breakdown, and a build-back-up. The lyrics, rife with similes and alliteration (“sidewalk social scientist don’t get no satisfaction from your cigarette…”), paint a vivid escape scenario, and the band plays with barely contained enthusiasm. In 2008, 30 years after the release of Parallel Lines, the still-active Blondie played the record in its entirety for live audiences all over the world. I corresponded with Paul Carbonara, Blondie’s current lead guitarist and musical director, who gave me his take on “11:59,” the challenge of moving forward for a band with a daunting back catalogue, and speaking truth to power.
“I like this song a lot,” Paul wrote, “but it suffers from something that many Blondie tunes suffer from: It’s a cool song, but it’s not a cool new song. We often get into arguments about doing their older material. As artists, they are very anxious to do new songs, but I try to get them to satisfy the audiences’ need and expectation to hear material from their catalogue. They’ll dismiss old songs by saying they are corny, and they don’t want to play oldies. I try to tell them that’s a bunch of bullshit and that those songs are great. I think they sometimes think of their history as a chain around their necks. I understand, and it’s very natural to want to produce new music and move on. So we bitch and fight and try to strike a balance. It took me 10 years to get them to play ‘The Hardest Part’!”’
Postscript: The Postmarks’ By the Numbers, a compilation after my own heart, features songs with (what else?) numbers in their titles, including a faithful cover of “11:59,” which sounds a bit like Blondie being fronted by Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto.
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.
* Ed. There was an original version of this written up a long time back in conjunction with brief, collected thoughts on the number 10. This one is way better, so forget about that first one, it’s GONE!