Project X Spins Top 35 Rock Lists Compiled By “Spin”

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As part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Idolator Critics’ Poll editor Michaelangelo Matos breaks down rankings from every genre imaginable. In this installment, he looks at an issue of Spin from 1990 that attempted to tell rock history through Top 35 lists:

If you saw my bulging shelves full of CDs, books, magazines, photocopies, and printouts, you might call me a collector. But I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the designation: even when I was 13 and deep into comic books, I wanted to read them more than I wanted to preserve them. Keeping them around was a fringe benefit. The same has been true with music magazines, but it wasn’t always, which is what has lately driven me to eBay to find old copies of Spin. One of my favorite issues was cover-dated August 1990: Jim Morrison against a bubblegum-pink background on the cover. The headline: “35 Years of Rock’n’Roll.” A subhead: “Top 35 Lists of Everything From Guitar Gods to Dead Rock Star Charts.”

I’ve actually had copies of the lists for a few years before getting the whole thing back into my hands: researching an earlier project, I’d photocopied articles from a large number of back issues at the magazine’s offices. Still, it’s far more instructive to see them as part of the entire cover package–especially since I wasn’t able to reproduce one of them thanks to its placement against a dark-grey background. Mark Blackwell and Jim Greer’s “Death as a Career Move” lists the artists who, to that point, had benefited the most from dying: “Rankings are based on amount of sales increase after death of the artist.” Here’s the Top 10, with dates of death in parentheses.

1. Elvis Presley (Aug. 16, 1977) 2. John Lennon (Dec. 8, 1980) 3. Jim Morrison (July 3, 1971) 4. Jimi Hendrix (Sept. 18, 1970) 5. Janis Joplin (Oct. 3, 1970) 6. Roy Orbison (Dec. 6, 1988) 7. Buddy Holly (Feb. 3, 1959) 8. Keith Moon (Sept. 25, 1980) 9. Marc Bolan (Sept. 16, 1977) 10. John Bonham (Sept. 7, 1978)

The full list is 30 long, by the way, not 35–just one way the issue’s package shows its seams. But that raggedness is also what’s most fascinating about it, then and now.

“Then,” I should say, clouds “now” to a great degree. I’d only begun buying Spin a year before, with the issue featuring Flea on the cover, so I’d missed the magazine’s earlier list extravaganza, featuring the infamous list of 100 greatest singles headed up by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two,” which had come out a year before. And growing up, I spent weekends in the city with Loretta and Arlene, my great-grandaunts–I lived in the suburbs–and from 13 on I’d begun exploring the city on my own. I purchased the 8/90 Spin after looking for it at about six drugstores up and down Lake Street in south Minneapolis on a great, hot summer day perfect for the long walk. The whole thing made a lasting impression, and it’s almost impossible not to look at the issue now without recalling details of my grandaunts’ house: the enormous oak dining room table, the tan nylon curtains, the screened-off porch where Loretta and Arlene smoked, Kemps vanilla ice cream in the meat locker next to the back door, the wondrous walk-in pantry, painted yellow to offset the white of the kitchen proper.

In 2008, though, the overriding impression is how obvious the issue’s cover concept was the work of Legs McNeil, then a Spin senior editor who oversaw the package. The features–Jim Morrison of course, Esquerita, Les Paul, the Cramps, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop–comprise a pantheon that should click with anyone familiar with McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s oral history of New York punk, Please Kill Me. So should much of the roughly chronological “35 Meetings of Rock’n’Roll Minds,” which McNeil co-compiled with Holly Holiday and Jennifer Bernstein. (19 of the entries are book excerpts, nine come from old Spin articles, six are described without credits, and at No. 21 is “David Bowie Meets God [unconfirmed].”) Similarly, the Scott Cohen-compiled “35 Seconds That Say It All” is an unnumbered grab bag of interview quotes that make their own singular context. (James Brown, 1987: “Q: Where did the words for your song ‘For Goodness Sake, Look at Those Cakes’ come from? A: From God. Q: What kind of deodorant does the ‘Hardest Working Man in Show Business’ use? A: Right Guard.”)

But “pantheon” is probably the wrong word to use here. What made the 8/90 Spin so engrossing was how untethered to a neat pantheon all this stuff was. This wasn’t mere historicization; there was no bow tying the narrative together. For all of McNeil’s obvious touch, many of these items seemed to come from different direction than the last; that still seems to me like the lifeblood of a dynamic magazine. You might not have a toehold in everything, but the fact that it was all being claimed for the same sensibility was exciting in itself. It helped fill in the background of my increasing obsession with music, and helped teach me how deep and unlimited that background could be.

Reading Rolling Stone talk about old bluesmen was fascinating, but also like homework. Spin‘s “35 Blues Guitarists Who Definitely Started It All,” written by Jim Marshall, took the stuff out of the museum and made it seem real, tactile, alluring. (“20. Jody Williams. The unsung hero of many Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush and Jimmy Rogers records. His solo on Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love?’ is a lesson in evil.”) Even more jolting was the chronological “35 Greatest Moments in Rock’n’Roll Television,” by Michael Corcoran, whose prize moments of irreverence and outlandishness were brought home by the writing: “32. January 29, 1983: Prince appeared on Solid Gold. Prince brought his entire stage set-up, complete with lights, ramps and backdrop, not to mention eight backing musicians, and then lip-synced ‘1999.’”

Finally, two things. One: while looking for back issues recently I came across this blog post from last year by Marlon James, a writer I hadn’t encountered before. (A Twin Citian, too, though I should note I haven’t lived in Minnesota for nine years.) It’s a little clunky–blogs are like that, mine included–but it sums up well the mag’s appeal before it hardened into an alt-rock bible, as well as its more recent wobbliness, and I like how heartfelt it is.

The other thing is another Top 10–four of them, actually, my favorites of the issue even though it had nothing to do with 35 years of anything. It’s from “Word Up,” a quarter-page front-of-book piece by Gavin Edwards, who would later compile many small books of misheard lyrics. This list is about hearing lyrics right, and tallying them up. Edwards takes the words from all the songs by Madonna, Paula Abdul, Tracy Chapman, and Guns N’ Roses, “count[s] their nouns, exclude[s] the pronouns, and tote[s] up their rock’n’roll vocabularies.” The Top 10 most-used words for each, to that point, are as follows. It may not be all that clever today, but I’ve always loved these lists purely as found poetry.

MADONNA 1. love 2. baby 3. time 4. heart 5. eyes 6. world 7. girl 8. party 9. boy 10. day

PAULA ABDUL 1. baby 2. way 3. love 4. girl 5. thing 6. heart 7. boy 8. fool 9. eyes 10. world

TRACY CHAPMAN 1. time 2. heart 3. love 4. life 5. baby 6. soul 7. man 8. car 9. mountain 10. people

GUNS N’ ROSES 1. love 2. train 3. jungle 4. city 5. honey 6. patience 7. life 8. pain 9. mommy 10. knees