Nerd Theory: The Top Fourteen Songs at 2:40


Dic 11 2009, 8:36

In both theory and practice, rock iconography has promoted a cult of "coolness": sunglasses, boots, leather, long or short hair depending on who is supposed to be offended, etc. Listening to rock is itself supposed to be a badge of coolness. It says, "We are hip. We are definitely not square. Nerds R not us."

(For the purposes of this discussion, I am using the definitions of "nerd" and "cool" as generally understood on school playgrounds. Those archetypes are defined by superficial characteristics such as appearance, demeanor, and level of interest in things like Star Trek. Of course I know that nerds can be, and in fact quite often are, very cool, and that cool people can be, well, extremely uncool. Especially to nerds. However, whether or not a rock star is really a nice person--inside, where it counts!--is outside the scope of this discussion.)

And yet, for a long time I noticed that almost every artistically successful or critically beloved rock band has at least one nerd as a member, usually part of the rhythm section: the Stones had Charlie Watts; the Beatles had Ringo; Spinal Tap had Derek Smalls, he of the lukewarm water mediating between the creative energies of fire and ice. But the band that literally embodies the nerd/cool balance, making it the focus of their entire image, is Cheap Trick.

Nerds to the left of me, cool guys to the right

Those signifiers unpack themselves, right?

It is also just fine to have a band entirely composed of nerds. Devo is probably the archetypal version of that, but they were trying so hard to live up to the archetype that they are more like nerd superheroes than real people. For a more down-to-earth example, I prefer The Feelies.

Boys with perpetual nervousness

However, it is not OK to have a band with no nerds at all. If my theory is correct, that is the primary reason why critics don't like hair metal bands.

Are you basking in our coolness yet?

So, nerd theory seems to accurately describe a lot of rock bands, right? Not so fast. It describes a lot of old rock bands, but it starts to fall apart when you look at more recent examples. What do we make of Kurt Cobain? Beck? Stephen Malkmus? Billy Corgan? Rivers Cuomo? All these guys are at least somewhat nerdy by the traditional definition, but they also seem kind of cool in a way that Ringo Starr is not. Moreover, these somewhat-nerdy guys are FRONTMEN, not drummers. The original nerdidity of rock has given way to a glorious nerdaciousness. How can this be explained?

Well, I'll tell you how. At some point in the early 90s, traditional coolness suffered a sudden devaluation, and nerdiness was ready to leap into that cultural void. Rock critics often mistake this shift for the triumph of grunge, or punk, but it had less to do with a specific musical style than with a change in the cultural zeitgeist. Rock music didn't suddenly embrace nerds because it grew up; it embraced nerds because the larger culture suddenly found them cool. And nerds accrued their cultural cachet because of Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, and their armies of nerds working tirelessly on nerdy little gadgets that everybody thought were really cool. Hence, Belle and Sebastian.

Project Index

The Top Fourteen Songs at 2:40

Extremely tough group to rank this time--lots of very high quality stuff did not make the list, and the top five or so seem like obvious #1s in most contexts.

1) These Boots Are Made for Walkin'--Nancy Sinatra
One of my most beloved songs period, at any length. When I feel a song like this, it’s hard to say anything intelligent about it, but I’ll try: Nancy’s version is the shit, of course, but Hazlewood’s songwriting is durable enough to support interpretation in a variety of genres without losing the song’s essential attitude. Ah, who am I kidding? This is what is important to know: That part at the end, when she says, “Are you ready, boots? Start walkin’”? And then the horns kick in? Man, I love that.

2) Johnny B. Goode--Chuck Berry
Chuck’s guitar is a clear and compelling articulation of rock n’ roll value system—perhaps all the justification it needs--and his most famous song is deservedly of monumental influence.

3) (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction--Devo
Always on short lists of “greatest covers,” and useful shorthand for describing the complete reimagining of a song from the foundation up. Over the years Devo’s nerdacious science-project deconstruction of the Stones has become familiar, but it is still absolutely amazing.

4) Friday on My Mind--The Easybeats
According to Australians, it's the best Australian song of all time. I'm inclined to trust their judgment on this one, but the list is obviously faulty, as it contains no Radio Birdman.

5) Ever Fallen in Love--Buzzcocks
One of the great “new wave” singles of the late 70s was little-heard in the U.S. This kind of tuneful guitar pop had fallen out of favor since the 60s, and hadn’t been played this fast and ferocious even then.

6) Shake Shake Shake--White Denim
Perhaps a variant of gutter jazz, but with almost everything but the riffing discarded, then sped way up and translated into a garage rock idiom with extra shouting. Extremely fun.

7) Annie Had A Baby--Hank Ballard & the Midnighters
I like this considerably more than “Work With Me Annie,” which is the more famous and controversial of this pair. The earlier song is more famous because “Work With Me” is about having sex, which is dirty, and “Annie Had a Baby” is about not having sex, which is not dirty, and thus presumably suitable for the tender ears of teenagers.

There was a tremendous amount of rather obscure R&B and garage rock that almost made this list: Levitation; If You Took A Survey; Garden of Four Trees; lots more. A mix of just those 2:40 songs would be extremely kick-ass.

8) Non Stop Girls--Radio Birdman
Perhaps this lightning-riff song is the one that the Aussie committee could have selected to include on their list. Or any one of another dozen of their best; I’m not picky. They’re all great.

9) Don't Set Me Free--Ray Charles
An exemplar of how deep Ray’s catalog is. Most casual fans don’t know this song, but it’s 96% as good as his more famous tracks. And yes, I did calculate that, thanks for asking.

10) Wild Thing--The Troggs
Like “Born to Be Wild,” this classic has been almost ruined by overexposure, and in particular, the use of it in films and TV to accompany footage of stuff like babies getting crazy, or to ironically comment on the uncharacteristic mildly assertive behavior of very timid people. To the point where I almost hate it. But all that crap isn’t the song’s fault.

11) The Living End--Bongwater
Heavy, chilling apocalyptica that merges the playfulness of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd with the moroseness of Roger Waters-era Pink Floyd.

12) Too Drunk to Fuck--Dead Kennedys
Punk expressed impolite truths that the rock establishment--known for its cool born-to-be-wildness--was ironically too conservative to notice. Here, the DKs bulldoze the fiction that rock musicians had a right—no, an obligation—to careen through their lives drunk.

13) A Question Of Temperature--The Balloon Farm
Almost Dr. Demento-level weird, but underneath the trying-too-hard-to-be odd production is an actual good garage rock song.

14) Malcolm's X-Ray Picnic--Number One Cup
There were a lot of post-Pavement/post-Pixies bands around in the mid-90s that sounded pretty much like this (nice melody, weirdly distorted guitar, faux girl-group backing vocals), but not many came up with a song this good.

Sound off, nerd nation! You may do so by using your computer to connect to the Internet.


  • Auto_Da_Fe

    You've only managed to remove one track (The DKs) from my shortlist (bringing it down to 38 tracks), in many cases because they are anachronic. A Question of Temperature.. I love it! Can I also say that Devo's Satisfaction is about my favourite pop video ever? Will keep whittling down the list.

    Dic 11 2009, 12:17
  • Auto_Da_Fe

    Done whittling! I’ll return to the nerd question later – might have to quibble a little... 1. Serious Drinking - Hangover. “Sixteen pints of lager! Fourteen vodkas too! Hardly very surprising I forgot what I said to you. Hangover this morning. It’s dark and it’s thick. Got to give up drinking – I feel so bloody sick.” 2. The Undertones - Life's Too Easy. 3. The Radiators from Space - Enemies. Ireland’s first, and best, punk band. 4. Sparklehorse - Gasoline Horseys. 5. The Dead Milkmen - Methodist Coloring Book. “You’ve got a Methodist colouring book and you colour really well. But if you go outside the lines, you’re sure to go to hell.” 6. The Decemberists - Angel, Won't You Call Me?. And they are still great live (as of a fortnight ago). 7. The Hepburns - 1..2..3..4. The only artist I know of, after many years in record companies, signed on the strength of an unsolicited demo tape. 8. The Adverts - No Time to Be 21. 9. Gang of Four - Contract. 10. The Weather Prophets - Almost Prayed. 11. Creedence Clearwater Revival - Have You Ever Seen the Rain?. 12. The Cyrkle - Don't Cry, No Fears, No Tears Comin' Your Way. 13. Bob Dylan - One Too Many Mornings. 14. Herman Düne - I'll Come Back When I Come Back.

    Dic 11 2009, 18:12
  • rockrobster23

    I welcome quibbles. This theory has a lot of holes, some of which I've thought about--for example, I really needed to deal with Buddy Holly. And there are likely things I haven't thought about, too, not to mention the need to expand on what's already there...the topic may be too big for a blog post.

    Dic 11 2009, 19:52
  • LisaV

    These are not in hard, fast order (aside from #1) like a pure nerd would insist upon, but I guess I can't calculate % Loved for a lot of these. There was a lot of other good R&B and Rocksteady stuff on this list that was the same...I love a lot of it, even though they're pretty "simple" songs and not anything that would be blowing people's mind...but's what I came up with: 1. Calm Before The Storm - The Bats 2. Why Don't They Let Us Fall In Love - Veronica 3. Early in the Morning - The Gories 4. Cindy Incidentally - Faces 5. Lonesome Town - Holly Golightly 6. 007 (Shanty Town) - Desmond Dekker and the Aces 7. Have Love Will Travel - The Sonics 8. I Won't Cry - Derrick Harriot 9. The Best of Jill Hives - Guided By Voices 10. Low Down Dirty Girl - Laurel Aitken 11. Sweet Sweet Heart - The Vibrators 12. One Track Mind - Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers 13. Honey Hush - Joe Turner & His Band 14. You Make Me Feel Good - The Zombies

    Dic 12 2009, 15:56
  • LisaV

    Repeats were DKs, Dylan, Decemberists and Gang of Four but I'd still leave my list as is...I also left off a few good Pavement tunes...because I think you all already talked that out pretty well :) Gold Soundz, Painted Soldiers and Unfair. Also, if you haven't heard The Bats you should check out "Daddy's Highway" of New Zealand's finest offerings...I like them more than The Clean. Great songs with a nice nerdy, nervous jangle to them :)

    Dic 12 2009, 16:11
  • spikecmd

    I do not think that you really need to account for Buddy Holly. He almost predates the nerd stereo type and then he died so quickly his image was fixed and altered. Unlike most of the decades that have followed, the music was all that most fans had to go on. Of course I remember the quote from David Lee Roth, " music critics like Elvis Costello, because music critics look like Elvis Costello.", and I am not sure who the nerd was in Van Halen.

    Dic 12 2009, 16:13
  • Auto_Da_Fe

    Were it this length in my world, Cindy Incidentally beats everything in my list. As for quibbling - I wrote a lot of stuff here, and the more I wrote, the less I agreed with myself... so will have to think further.

    Dic 12 2009, 19:40
  • rockrobster23

    Lisa, both The Bats and The Clean are stylistically in one of my favorite neighborhoods, but I haven't gotten around to listening to very much of them. A time issue more than a desire issue; there is just so much music. Chip! (That's spikecmd for the rest of you) It is great to see you here. Roth's quote is pertinent to the subject; clearly he had thought a little about nerd theory too. In answer to your question, there was no nerd in Van Halen; while I would grant that they were artistically successful for the first few albums, they were never critically loved.

    Dic 12 2009, 19:52
  • masto65

    Love it. Great theory to play with. It needs some work but I think you have a point. I think you start to see that nerd element show up in the late 70's with all the New Wave and Power Pop bands of the time. Cheap Trick defineitly had the stereotypical nerd/cool dynamic working in spades but I think you have to say at that time you had a influx of the nerd component. The Cars, The Knack, B-52's, ETC... any of those bands that were getting away from the whole rock stereotype. We can talk more about it but I want to get my 10 down so it dosen't sit on my computer for another day. It's been sitting there since Friday and everytime I go to post something comes up. Anthropology • Dizzy Gillespie Any of Dizzy's 40's BeBop singles are stellar and they are almost all this time frame. Basically the recording time on a 10" set this as a length more than anything else. Plus Dizzy gets bonus points for being one of the fore bearers of musical cool. I would also add that these BeBop Jazz guys were morePpunk than any Punk of the last 20 years. Come on Dizzy stabbed Count Bassie because he accused him of throwing something at him. That's Punk. She • The Monkees I don't care what you say. If you dig pop music they had some classics. This Boyce Hart composition is still fantastic. Peter Tork played the dork. Does that qualify as pre-nerd? Time for Heroes • The Libertines Pete Doherty is proof of my theory that 85% of the artists that get tagged with being great talents have only 3 or 4 songs of this caliber in them. Critics hear something like this and jump all over the "next big talent" tag. But most only pull it together a couple more times then lapse into self plagerizm. This track is damn near perfect. I can think of maybe 2 others this good by him. Stick a fork in him, he's done. That's What The Little Girls Do • The Knack The torch bearers for the late 70's New Wave/Power Pop scene as mentioned above. But recently going back and listening to their stuff they write about nothing but sex with young girls. In the Sun • Blondie Painfuly obvious city girl trys to get all surf on us.It's a fun listen and helps set the template for their later recordings it sounds goofy to hear her singing about "shooting the tube". And of couse they were all cool. It's Too Bad • The Jam Still one of my favorite break up songs. Now when I hear them I am still amazed they never caught on at all in the States. Cool and nicely dressed in suits cool. Peppermint Patty • Vince Guaraldi Instant childhood flashback. Made little kids everywheer dig Bay area Jazz. Wrote all the Peanuts TV special and Movie scores. It sounds on paper like it wouldnt work but it does. Wonderfully. Halfway through this one goes into this cool tweaky guitar piano part that I need to sample for something. It's just cool. Pulse • The Psychedelic Furs I think James and I brought up this album a week or so ago. This track is exhibit A in my arguement as to why their first 2 albums are the only thing by them you need to own. Bang Shang a Lang • The Archies If you are over 40 this needs no explanation. Under 40, hit Wikipedia you snot nosed kid. Saturday morning pop with more sugar than that bowl of Fruity Pebbles. Playpen • Social Distortion Little known track that to me "is" SD. Early cut written about the shitty rehearsal spaces, halls, and house parties they seemed doomed to play back in Fullerton.Yet with their loyal local following they make it menacing and defiant. "We can burn this town". And in some ways they did. I will be back to check on the Nerd theory. Curious to see how it progresses. Masto.

    Dic 16 2009, 5:26
  • rockrobster23

    I wonder if there needs to be a special case subargument made for punk/new wave bands. In nearly all cases, they were defining themselves, overtly or not, as opposed to the dominant values of the current rock culture, which was the default "cool" setting. Fred Schneider and Ric Ocasek are nerds any way you slice it, and I think probably proud of that, but you have to wonder about bands like The Sex Pistols, who were perhaps interested in destroying the very concept of "cool," or The Clash, who maybe expanded it. The Ramones are especially interesting because their look was just about as cool as you can get, but they had a nerdy vulnerability, and sang about pinheads and sniffing glue...I mean, "We're a Happy Family" is not "cool," it's pathetic. And of course I mean that as a compliment!

    Dic 16 2009, 20:18
  • masto65

    Yeah, you start to get in trouble with the new wave thing. They were forging new identities so you don't have that stereotypical cool thing working. Schnieder and Ocasek, along with Elvis, play with the geek persona, but I bring up the power pop stuff like The Knack, or The Jags, Plimsouls, or any of their skinny tie wearing ilk because , yeah I guess they were cool, but it was short hair, ties, jackets, and look like they might have actually attended a college instead of the longhair, bell bottom, reefer smoking cool dude we had come accustom to. Was this the start of the shift? It was probably a shift towards cool as far as the culture of the time was dictating it. Fashion ETC... face it by 79' bell bottom , long hair shit was on the way out, thanks to punk, so the new cool resets. So punk... I see it as all cool. Come on the Pistols formed in a fashion shop. It was all about trying to be cool and being the new template for the band coolness of the future. In their overzealousness they swung the pendulum to the extreme opposite. Trying not so much to forge the new cool as make it cool because it was the polar opposite of the accepted cool of the time. Did it work? to a large extent I would say yes because you saw the leftover 60's rehash shown the door. But this seems to be a English thing. To me it was all about the reset of cool. In America on the other hand it became something else. Now The Ramones is to out of context. They were desperately trying to look cool as a way to fit the mold they were creating for their selves. They were men out of time so they went to the local version of cool. At the time I thought they looked menacing. Hey I was 12 when I first saw them and thought they looked bad ass. But that was because I was 12. Looking now they look cartoonish which fits perfectly. If we want to look at just the perceived coolness or lack of as far as geekness is concerned I think it starts with hardcore. Black Flag, Circle Jerks, a lot of the L.A. bands were so anti-fashion and wearing their, we don't belong with you attitude, on their sleeves it becomes ground zero for todays hipster irony. But that's another story. So I guess, after barfing thought all over your journal, is that the geek ingredient may not be as cut and dry. The later day nerd quotient is probably as fabricated as yesterdays. Does it help make your band noticed? does it expand the fan base? is any of it true? is Cuomo a geek? Yes. but dose he play it to help him sell records? Probably. And I guess if it makes your band more accessible and brings a wider audience that paves the way to rockstar. And I guess that will always be cool regardless.

    Dic 18 2009, 7:26
  • rockrobster23

    Well, I should be clear that I think very little of this is fabricated in a boy-band kind of way--that is, in most cases, you don't see a svengali/producer kicking out the original drummer to make room for a nerd. Instead, I believe it is organic: that historically most rock bands benefit from a nerdy sensibility that is there from the beginning. Cheap Trick is obviously something of an exception, although I don't think they got together to play music just because they looked that way. Rather, they probably noticed the difference and decided to play it up as a visual hook. I bet there are some significant differences between England and the U.S. as far as cool goes, and I am curious to see if James has any thoughts about that. Last, certain elements of punk achieved mainstream coolness post-Nirvana (and it was bubbling up before that, but I never heard the Ramones playing in a mall until the 90s). But I would argue that hardcore, for many of the reasons you mention, has never been mainstream cool. Or is it, on the West coast? If I've been living in the heartland too long and no longer recognize coastal urban [i]mainstream[/i] coolness, call me on my myopia.

    Dic 19 2009, 7:31
  • masto65

    You bring up some good points. Tough considering I just spewed some thoughts that I didn't articulate very well because I had too many ideas running through my head. Lets start here. I don't think you have that Svengali context working in most cases just because most bands find a shtick that works for them. Any angle to get noticed or to make a statement is going to be exploited, most times not out of a conscious effort to manipulate their fanbase but as anything that might help them stand out. I will use the Sunset Strip bands of the late 80's as example. You saw 8 million of these hair bands all thinking they were gonna get noticed by playing into the Motley Crue model of how a band was supposed to look. Instead it became a mass of indistinguishable idiots. You couldn't tell one from the other. The bands that got a shot revised it enough to stand out. Exhibit A Guns and Roses. You could say the same for the Northwestern grunge bands of the 90's. The smart ones played up the differences. Also I would love to get James take because of the context. Lastly I think I didn't clarify enough about the hardcore thing. It has never been cool. But the attitudes and stance has become a hallmark of cool in the last decade or so. The anti stance they took has played into the mainstream to the highest levels of fashion and culture. I point out the ironic hipster ideal of taking something totally unhip and making it hip by proxy. Example the trucker hat. This was something I saw bands wearing back in the 80's as a anti-fashion statement. Nothing could be more uncool than a hat you picked up at a truck stop for $2.50 that is plastic and has a silkscreened text saying "the family that prays together stays together" on the front. It was utilitarian, cheap. Everything that cool is not. Yet by the early 00's you had Paris Hilton wearing them as the consummate hipster fashion irony. I think it was in that vein I brought up the hardcore aesthetic. Okay your turn.

    Dic 19 2009, 9:16
  • rockrobster23

    So, the "anti" stance embodied by punk generally and hardcore specifically bubbled up into the culture at large? I can buy that. It's been said a million times, but standard rock coolness had (by the time punk came along) become more and more ridiculous. That gradual shift surely had an effect on the kids inhabiting our metaphorical school playground: as the appeal of rock coolness ebbed away, it probably created more room for the "not-cool" to be cool in a different way. Of course, the distinction I made at the beginning is still in force--[i]actual[/i] or [i]intrinsic[/i] coolness is a quality that a person has regardless of what the playground peer group thinks, whereas the type of cool I am talking about is entirely determined by what other people think.

    Dic 22 2009, 6:08
  • rockrobster23

    3:43 is next, with some musings about decades. 3:43 is a huge group to get through, so it may be a week before it's actually up.

    Dic 29 2009, 19:36
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