On 11 February 2019 I set myself the challenging of reading 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die by Robert Dimery (ed.) and following the book’s advice to the letter. I’ve previously read 1001 Films… and started 1001 Albums… but felt 1001 Songs… would be a sensible place to start for what I have in mind here.
My challenge is to read about one song per day and listen to it (YouTube and Spotify, I need you tonight!) before sharing my own thoughts. Some songs I will love, others I’ll hate, and I’m sure there will be those that leave me perplexed but listen to them I shall.
I’ll also try, and most likely fail, to pinpoint the best song from the 1001 on offer but I’m nothing if not foolhardy. Instead of one song, I’m predicting I’ll have about 100 favourites by the end and may have to resort to a Top 10 so far to maintain any semblance of sanity.
So long as I post everyday (including Christmas) then this challenge should come to an end on Wednesday 8 November 2021. Staying with the Barney Stinson theme I am hoping that the whole experience will prove to be…
Umm Kulthum – Al-atlal (1966)
Back again, dear reader, and we leave behind the US and take a plane across the Atlantic to Africa. Have we been here before? I believe we may have but I don’t recall touching down in Egypt where we are today. I had the privilege of seeing Egypt way back in 1993 (26 years ago? Really?) and, while there, looked upon the three pyramids of Giza. Remarkable. Today’s artist was dubbed the fourth pyramid of Egypt and is considered one of their great legends. Her name is Umm Kulthum and her masterpiece is considered to be Al-atlal.
Now then, dear reader, I have stuck to my guns throughout this song challenge and listened to every piece in its entirety and I did the same here. So what you might be thinking. Well, Al-atlal clocks in at a whopping 40 minutes and I listened to every second. The title translates as The Ruins and seems to be a lament for a romance that has fallen apart with the opening line speaking of Kulthum’s heart not being where her lover wants it to be. There is a myriad of stark and evocative imagery throughout the lyrics and the severing of love seems even more profound with pleas of forgetting and even erasing moments from the past. It’s tearful stuff.
Al-atlal is epic and the version I listened to was a live recording with a very enthusiastic audience and an undeniably beautiful voice from Kulthum. From what I have read, Umm Kulthum did not have set lengths for her most popular songs when performing live. Instead, she improvised, depending on her mood and her connection with the audience so a 40-minute song like Al-atlal might have stretched to 90 minutes. It’s considered one of the best examples of Arab music in the 20th century and despite its initially intimidating length it doesn’t feel like you have been sat for ⅔ of an hour. Apparently, in 1966 Umm Kulthum played her only show outside the Middle East, a modest six-hour concert in Paris where she managed to get through just 3 songs! Six hours! Now, that is value for money.
Favourite songs so far:
Eddie Cochran – Summertime Blues (1958)
The Everly Brothers – All I Have to Do Is Dream (1958)
Ben E. King – Stand By Me (1961)
The Animals – House of the Rising Sun (1964)
The Mamas & The Papas – California Dreamin’ (1965)
The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (1965)
The Supremes – Stop! In the Name of Love (1965)
Simon & Garfunkel – The Sounds of Silence (1965)
The Who – My Generation (1965)
The Righteous Brothers – Unchained Melody (1965)