The scenario is this: Aliens are real, they are present, and they are pissed. I have been chosen, via a randomized lottery too complex for my puny ape brain to comprehend, as the sole representative of mankind. A psychic evaporating weapon is placed to my temple and I must act as the defense attorney for the entire species. The aliens have one simple demand: present to us the best song ever written. Sounds simple enough.
If I were tasked with making a coherent top 10 of all-time favorite songs, you could kiss it goodbye. My favorite songs are a nebulous mass, dependent upon unknowable and unpredictable factors like what I ate for breakfast and which direction the wind was blowing when I was eating it. Thankfully, the best song ever written is a much easier pick: “Stand by Me” as performed by Ben E. King. It has been my favorite song since childhood and will be my favorite song when I start ascending those steps up to heaven at the end of my life (or jogging down the parkway to hell, take your pick).
Unless there are better alien soul singles out there in the infinite universe, “Stand by Me” is the high watermark of popular music as we know it, an art form still very much in its infancy. Composed at the beginning of the 1960’s by Ben E. King and the hit-making team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote everything, “Stand by Me” was originally intended as a Drifters song. With a little coaxing, Ben E. King fleshed out his words and melody with Mike Stoller’s bassline, the most instantly recognizable element. The bassline is a fairly common chord progression known as the 50s progression (now the “Stand by Me changes” after the massive impact the song had). There are over 400 cover versions and the original recording grossed $17 million dollars in royalties, half of which went to Ben E. King (not bad at all).
I would imagine there are a few competitors that other people, if pressed, would regard as universal human anthems. There is “Imagine” and there is “Hey Jude” and there are other similar songs that I never need to hear again as long as I live, but the lyrics of “Stand by Me” are simple, evocative, and as universal as any song can be. In different mindsets and contexts, I interpret the lyrics to be about love, deep friendship, or even just that simple companionship that we as humans crave, the need to know someone else is in our corner to give us peace of mind. The opening lyrics speak to my nostalgia of seeing the moon as a child and drifting off with that warm feeling of comfort knowing that it would be there, night after night, like peaceful clockwork.
And it’s a very peaceful song. “Stand by Me” goes down easy. The rhythm tumbles gently, the percussion twinkles, and there is a string section that appears out of the ether at just the right moment (as they often did in pre-Beatles pop). It manages to wrap up a soaring vocal, a background chorus, and those strings in less than three compact minutes. One unfortunate side effect of the experimental direction pop would take a few years down the road is the loss of that platonic ideal of being able to fit a small (three minutes or usually less) pop number onto one side of a 45 single. The average length of a pop song today seems to hover around the four or five-minute range, a slog when a lot of them are strung back to back. “Stand by Me” gets in and gets out.
The string section is also something that gets abused regularly in the world of pop as we know it today. Unfortunately associated with bloat, a good string section can elevate a song to new heights of grandeur (like when Siouxsie and the Banshees or The Verve do it) or assure the song a featured spot on the Mt. Rushmore of pomposity (lookin’ at you, Oasis). “Stand by Me”, again, manages to insert a string part that doesn’t overstay its welcome and elevates its surroundings with an outpouring of wordless emotion that really, genuinely, hits you in the heart. King’s swooping yells and whoops in and around the strings in the fade-out make every single second of the song count.
For curiosity’s sake, I checked the numbers: the YouTube video of the song (accompanied by a still of King from the same period) has 86 million views. Spotify has the combined plays of the song pretty close to the same amount. For a still massively popular song, one that other performers have done to death, it amazes me that a listener can still hear the original and be moved by it. It’s an intimate song, with a lot of space, and one of the few classics that haven’t collapsed under the weight of their own hype by now. Definitely the best song ever written. I can only humbly assume that after a good listen or two, our alien friends would agree.
Featured image via starsinger.net