In Robert Forster’s book The 10 Rules of Rock n’ Roll, rule number 2 is: ‘The second-last song on every album is the weakest.’ While I think this is true in many cases, I am going to provide you, in order of release, 10 second-last tracks that are up there with the best songs on the album, if not, THE best song. These songs are listed in chronological order.
- Bob Dylan – ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carol’
If I had the need to defend Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win for Literature to any dissenters I would present them this song, the second-last track from The Times They Are A-Changin’, as exhibit A. I’ve read books analysing the lyrics of Bob Dylan that examine every line of this song and I won’t do the same here. However, I will say that it is a political but also deeply moving song. What he leaves out and the subtleties of the message are as important as what Dylan includes. It’s a song about ’60s racism that doesn’t mention the colour of anyone’s skin.
Songwriting doesn’t get much better than this. And nobody was writing songs like this in early 1964. The Beatles just wanted to hold your hand at that point. I doubt Leonard Cohen had thought of writing songs yet. Dylan would soon shy away from topical songs like this and the ‘protest singer’ tag. He would ‘go electric’ and venture into more abstract surrealism. But this was the moment when he captured the spirit of ’60s social and political upheaval which would reach its peak a few years later.
- The Beatles – ‘Yesterday’
The second-last song on The Beatles Help! album is ‘Yesterday’. This is one of the most covered songs of all time and one of the greatest ballads ever written. Some say it is about Paul’s mother who died of cancer when he was 14 (“Why she had to go, I don’t know. She wouldn’t say. I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday.”) In the ’60s, Paul McCartney was an unstoppable songwriting machine. Bob Dylan said, “He’s about the only one I’m in awe of.” Not even John Lennon could keep up with him.
3. Derek and the Dominos – ‘Layla’
The second-last song off Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Eric Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominos is…’Layla’! It’s the only memorable song on the album, and was (with it’s glorious piano coda) used to great effect in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The song is a plea for Pattie Boyd to leave his best friend, George Harrison, for him. Great idea, Eric. What could possibly go wrong?
- Queen – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
There are musical acts who are outward and musical acts who are inward. Inward musicians, often of the singer-songwriter brand, write intimate music about their inner emotions. They are introspective. They tend to write melancholy music. They often write about themselves and they’re historically more likely to be associated with ‘authenticity’. Probably the best example of an inward musician I can think of would be Cat Power but other examples of inward musicians who I like include Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Leonard Cohen, Mazzy Star, Sun Kil Moon, Low, and Iron + Wine.
Outward musicians write about the outside world, other people, politics. Society. There are sad ballads and there are power ballads. Sad, inward songs make you feel sad. Power ballads are outward and make you feel good. Triumphant. People have asked me, “Why do you like R.E.M. but not U2? They’re the same.” No, R.E.M. are inward. U2 are outward. U2 write anthems. Songs that thousands of people sing along together to at massive concerts. R.E.M are inward. Personal.
Of course there are musicians who are a mixture of outward and inward. A good example is Bruce Springsteen. He can do the stadium rock thing but, and often at the same time, can also be heartfelt and moving. He can successfully mix the personal with the political. I guess the Beatles had that mixture too in that you had the chipper, eager-to-please Paul songs which were usually about other people and John’s songs that were mainly about him and his complex feelings and emotions.
I’ve never got into Midnight Oil. I don’t get teary over mining companies. Maybe I should. Maybe I’m too self-absorbed.
Queen are a paramount example of an outward band. Jon Bon Jovi once sang, “I’ve seen a million faces and I’ve rocked them all!” but no one could rock them all like Freddie Mercury could. Stylistically, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – with it’s mixture of balladry, opera and hard rock – is pastiche and this kind of reappropriation, unlike say, roots blues or folk music is not associated with authenticity. I also find ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ emotionally pastiche. The drama is so over the top that it’s not taken seriously. It’s pantomime. Still, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp of a song and I’m sure many would agree that it’s their best.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is the second-last song off the album A Night At The Opera.
- Neil Young – ‘Like A Hurricane’
American Stars ‘n’ Bars is a largely boring and forgettable Neil Young album except for the second-last song which is one of his all-time best, and that’s saying something as he’s written many brilliant songs over a long, restless and fruitful career. The outro guitar solo is (as one of his crusty tie-dyed pony-tailed baby-boomer hippie fans would say) like a hurricane, man!