411 Music Ten Deep 04.11.12: Top 10 Songs of the Road, Part One
Posted by C.A. Bell on 04.11.2012
From the Beatles' "Long and Winding Road" and Elton John's "Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road" to Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" and more, 411's C.A. Bell begins his look at the top 10 songs of the road!
We've all taken pointlessly long car vacations with the family or purposely pointless road trips with friends. Either way, music is always a saving grace. Travel is a topic seemingly born for song. A tradition as old as the traveling bard or minstrel itself, songs about arduous journeys and magical destinations were long used as a way for people to learn about the road. As human skills with poetry increased, the 'road' became an important symbol for the path of life, hard decisions made, or even the mythical meeting place of truth and beauty. With industrialization in America came a few new important uses for travel in song. Locomotives became a central image in country western and with rock n' roll and personal ownership of automobiles came the driving song. As cities modernized, the paved highway became a symbol of pressure cooking urban centers and street or lanes were talking points in almost any song about these new communities known as the suburbs.
I originally intended on doing only one list for songs about the road, but that proved far too mighty a task. In less than two hours, I had compiled three days worth of music to look at. It was plainly obvious that this was going to become an ongoing series, with individual looks at songs about roads, driving songs, songs of the streets & highways, and train songs at the very least. For our first installment, I'll be looking at songs about the road. The only hard and fast rule for this list is that the word 'road' be in the title. I wasn't particularly concerned if the song was about a particular road, or if the road was simply a literary tool for the artist's larger theme. Now, after having multiple people suggest that "Sweet Home Alabama" should have been included in the list about cities, someone say that Queen wasn't a Glam band after the definition I provided included them by name, and a literal bevy of "that song is really about" (which, by the way, I really wish you could hear what I think you sound like) comments, it has become apparently clear that far too few people read this section of the column. If you are reading this now, I give you my wholehearted thanks as a worthwhile members of the human race. For those that don't, I just can't wait to see what delicious ramblings you have for me this week. They make for great conversation pieces in the 411 writer forums. To take a look at the full list (with some sneak peeks at what is to come in the next installments) check out my Spotify playlist. Now, let's hit the road.
The Honorable Mentions (And Excuses)
Eric Clapton/Muddy Waters/Bruce Springsteen - "Further On Up The Road"
Neil Young - "Roll Another Number (For The Road)"
Dire Straits - "Telegraph Road"
Jim Ford - "Long Road Ahead"
X - "Lying in the Road"
The Beatles - "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?"
Gene Clark - "Roadmaster"
George Harrison - "Any Road"
The Hollies - "Long Dark Road"
John Denver - "Country Roads (Take Me Home)"
Willie Nelson - "On The Road Again"
Kris Kristofferson - "Rainbow Road"
Paul Weller - "Stanley Road"
Lindsy Buckingham - "Holiday Road"
Van Morrison - "Bright Side of the Road"
Jimmy Cliff - "Hard Road To Travel"
Smog - "The Hard Road"
Bill Withers - "Heartbreak Road"
The Doors - "Roadhouse Blues"
Grateful Dead - "Goin' Down the Road (Feelin' Bad)"
John Fogerty - "Old Man Down the Road"
Lucinda Williams - "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"
10. Ray Charles - "Hit the Road Jack" from The Genius Hits the Road, 1960.
"Hit the Road Jack" is a song written by rhythm and bluesman Percy Mayfield and first recorded in 1960 as an a capella demo sent to Art Rupe. It became famous after it was recorded by singer-pianist Ray Charles. It hit number one for two weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, beginning on Monday, October 9, 1961. The song was also number one on the R&B Sides chart for five weeks and becoming Ray Charles' sixth number one on that chart. The song is ranked #377 on the Rolling Stone magazine's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. "Hit the Road Jack" became one of Charles' most recognized songs, but the memorable hook and comedic undertones also found homes in cover versions by Helen Reddy, Richard Anthony, The Animals, Big Youth, John Mellencamp, Buster Poindexter (more on him later), Basement Jaxx, Sha Na Na, and Jaimie Cullum to name only a few.
9. David Johansen - "Flamingo Road" from In Style, 1979.
David Johansen has long been an extremely underrated songwriter, in my estimation. While he is best known for the punk anthems of the first two New York Dolls records, or the vintage pop of his alter-ego Buster Poindexter, it is Johansen's songs as a solo artist or even from the reformed Dolls that show just how good he is with the pen. Johansen's second post-Dolls solo record, 1979's In Style, had all the makings of a major breakthrough hit. Produced by Spiders from Mars lead guitarist Mick Ronson, Dolls' band-mate Sylvain Sylvain joined David on songwriting duties, and boasting performances from Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter and the Edgar Winter Group's Dan Hartman (he who wrote "Free Ride"); In Style had everything working for it. The crown jewel of that record was "Flamingo Road".
Johansen had the ability to provide a unique and honest take on the disco generation. This was a guy that actually was wearing lipstick before wearing lipstick was cool. Given his experiences with bandmate and legendary junkie Johnny Thunders, David also knew exactly what addiction looked like. This is the scene for "Flamingo Road". Vaguely a song of the broken-hearted, the track takes a direct shot at the gilded age of disco. Johansen exposes the dirt and grime lying just below the sweaty sheen of glitter. What could be a better setting for that kind of juxtaposition than a Flamingo road? The less-traveled, maybe slightly run down path named after a brightly colored, exotic bird provides an excellent frame and environment for this soundtrack to late-70s America. If this was the only song that Johansen had ever written, his career would still be legendary to me.
8. Steve Earle - "Copperhead Road" from Copperhead Road, 1988.
Yeah, what would one of my lists be without an entry from Steve Earle? I hardly think you can blame me for this inclusion however. "Copperhead Road" is the title track from Earle's 1988 crossover hit and remains today as his most commercially successful song. Often referred to as Earle's first "rock record", Earle himself calls Copperhead Road the world's first blend of heavy metal and bluegrass, while in their January 26, 1989 review of the album Rolling Stone suggested the style be known as "power twang". "Copperhead Road" tells of a Vietnam War veteran, scion of a rural moonshine bootlegging clan, who returns home to Johnson County, Tennessee but decides instead to enter the marijuana business which is shown by the line, "I'll take the seed from Colombia and Mexico". Copperhead Road was an actual road near Mountain City, Tennessee although it has since been renamed as Copperhead Hollow Rd. due to theft of road signs bearing the song's name. The song also inspired a popular line dance timed to the beat of the song and has been used as the theme music for the Discovery Channel reality series Moonshiners. Airplay on rock radio stations drove the title track into Billboard Magazine's Album Rock Top Ten chart, and that in turn helped Copperhead Road on Billboard's Album Chart, where it peaked at number 56 and gave Earle his highest charting album to date.
7. The Pretenders - "Middle of the Road" from Learning to Crawl, 1984.
Today, I think it could be easy to marginalize The Pretenders as straight-up pop/rock act, but I could not possibly understate just how important this band was in the first half of the 1980s. I would argue that Chrissie Hynde was easily the most bad-ass name you would find on the Billboard Charts. "Middle of the Road" is one of the band's most classic tracks from their 1984 record Learning to Crawl. It is a song that has a 60s-style rhythm, and it peaked at #19 on the US pop singles chart and #2 on the US mainstream rock chart in January 1984, where it stayed for four weeks, making it the highest ranking single on the album's way to platinum sales status. The number is at least quasi-autobiographical, with observations about the difference between wealth and poverty that she can see, but mostly she is seeing the changes in herself, as writer and lead singer Chrissie Hynde exclaims towards the end of the song, "I got a kid, I'm thirty-three, baby!" Hynde was reaching the middle of her life and facing the reality of raising a child on her own (after leaving father Ray Davies). The imagery Hynde uses is a central one to 'road' songs, portraying life as a journey and her decisions creating the path ahead. As you'll see below, "Middle of the Road" helped cement the Prentenders as one of the great live rock acts of the decade.
6. Nick Drake - "Road" from Pink Moon, 1972.
Having spent 27 years is complete obscurity, Drake was posthumously brought to international fame in 1999 because of a Volkswagon commercial. That thing I just said was a perfectly normal English sentence. Pink Moon is the third and final album by English musician Nick Drake. It was recorded at midnight in two separate two-hour sessions, over two days in October 1971, featuring only Nick Drake's vocals and guitar, as well as some piano later overdubbed by Drake on the title track. Drake signed to Island Records when he was 20 years old and released his debut album, Five Leaves Left, in 1969. By 1972, he had recorded two more albums—Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. None sold more than 5,000 copies on their initial release. His reluctance to perform live or be interviewed contributed to his lack of commercial success. Yet he was able to gather a loyal group of influential fans who would champion his music, including his manager, Joe Boyd, who had a clause put into his own contract with Island Records to ensure Drake's records would never be put out of print. Drake suffered from depression and insomnia throughout his life, and these topics were often reflected in his lyrics. On completion of his third album, 1972's Pink Moon, he withdrew from both live performance and recording, retreating to his parents' home in rural Warwickshire. There is no known footage of the adult Drake; he was only ever captured in still photographs and in home footage from his childhood. On 25 November 1974, Drake died from an overdose of amitriptyline, a prescribed antidepressant; he was 26 years old.
Stories of Drake's recording process during Pink Moon are somewhat dark. Drake's producer has regularly told the tale of Drake recording tracks while laying on his back in a darkened studio. "Road", though barely timing in at over two minutes, provides maybe the best example of Drake's state of mind during that time.
You can say the sun is shining if you really want to
I can see the moon and it seems so clear
You can take the road that takes you to the stars now
I can take a road that'll see me through
Drake's music remained available through the mid-1970s but the 1979 release of the retrospective album Fruit Tree caused his back catalog to be reassessed. By the mid-1980s Drake was being credited as an influence by such artists as Robert Smith, David Sylvian and Peter Buck. In 1985, The Dream Academy reached the UK and US charts with "Life in a Northern Town", a song written for and dedicated to Drake. By the early 1990s, he had come to represent a certain type of "doomed romantic" musician in the UK music press, and was frequently cited by artists including Kate Bush, Paul Weller and The Black Crowes.
5. Talking Heads - "Road to Nowhere" from Little Creatures, 1985.
Even though it spawned two massive hits in "Road to Nowhere" and "And She Was", Little Creatures is often maligned by fans as the point at which the band officially lost interest in the project. Though I may not love this record as much as their previous work, I certainly don't think it deserves to be ignored, if only for the existence of "Road to Nowhere". The song was released as a single in 1985 and reached number 25 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks and number 6 in the British and German singles chart. It also made number 8 on the Dutch Top 40. I think I should really just let the first lyrics of this track speak to its own inclusion on the list.
Well we know where we're goin'
But we don't know where we've been.
And we know what we're knowing'
But we can't say what we've seen.
And we're not little children
And we know what we want.
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out.
According to the sleeve of Talking Heads compilation Once in a Lifetime, Byrne added the choral intro after deciding the song in itself was embarrassingly simplistic and monotonous. The video, released to promote the single, was directed by David Byrne and Stephen R. Johnson and features the band and various objects revolving, as if in their own "road to nowhere", and it was nominated for "Best Video of the Year" at the MTV Video Music Awards 1986. Some parts were shot in the back yard and pool of actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who was co-writing Byrne's film True Stories at the time. Of course, this song is most memorable children of the 80's generation as the closing credit song for the Fred Savage movie Little Monsters.
4. Cream/Robert Johnson - "Crossroads" from Wheels of Fire, 1968.
Originally known as "Cross Road Blues" by the mythic blues singer Robert Johnson, the lyrics tell of the narrator's failed attempts to hitch a ride from an intersection as night approaches. The song had frequently been linked to stories of Johnson selling his soul to the devil for the ability to play music, although nothing in the actual lyrics speaks of these events. Historian Leon Litwack and others state that the song refers to the common fear felt by blacks who were discovered out alone after dark; that Johnson was likely singing about the desperation of finding his way home from an unfamiliar place as quickly as possible because of a fear of lynching. In addition, the lyrics could be allusion to the curfews that were then imposed on blacks in the South. The imagery of the singer falling to his knees and the mention of his failure to find a "sweet woman" suggests that the song is also about a deeper and more personal loneliness. The original version remained out of print after its initial release until the appearance of The Complete Recordings in 1990. In 1961, producer Frank Driggs substituted the previously unreleased alternative take on the first reissue of Johnson's work, the long-playing album King of the Delta Blues Singers. Because of the historical significance of "Cross Road Blues", it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
"Crossroads" became a central figure in the rock cannon with Eric Clapton's version on Cream's 1968 record Wheels of Fire. On March 10, 1968, Cream recorded a live version "Crossroads" from their performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The version was arranged by guitarist Eric Clapton, and included two lines borrowed from Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues." Clapton has long been one of Johnson's modern champions and "Crossroads" is probably his most well-known re-interpretation of a Johnson track. The song features an eight-note guitar riff and has both major and Minor scale centers. Cream's cover of the song was placed at #409 on the 2004 List of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and #3 on the 2008 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. The song also ranks #10 on Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.
3. Elton John - "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973.
I love me some Elton John, and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is a perfect argument for why you should too. The song was written by Bernie Taupin and composed by John for his album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Its musical style and production is heavily influenced by 1970s soft rock. It was widely praised by critics, and some critics have named it John's best song. The song was released in 1973 as the album's second single, and entered the Top Ten in both the United Kingdom and the United States. It was one of John's biggest hits, and surpassed the previous single in sales and popularity quickly following its release.In the U.S. it was certified Gold on Jan. 4, 1974 and Platinum on Sept. 13, 1995 by the R.I.A.A.
The Yellow Brick Road is an image taken from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. In the movie, Dorothy and her friends are instructed to follow the yellow brick road in search of the magical Wizard of Oz, only to find that they had what they were looking for all along. The road leads to the Emerald City in the land of Oz, often referred to as a metaphor for "The road that leads to life's fantasies" or "The road that leads to life's answers." The Wizard of Oz was reportedly the first film Elton's songwriting partner Bernie Taupin had ever seen, and he conjured the imagery in the lyrics relating to his own life as his desire to "Get back to his roots." It is also a reference to Elton's fame and fortune in contrast to Bernie's attempts to remain "low-key." In the Eagle Vision "Classic Albums" documentary on the making of the album, producer Gus Dudgeon said that after it was released, he was asked whether he artificially played with Elton's vocal to put it in such a high register. Dudgeon said he did not; it was simply the way Elton decided to sing it. "That's Elton," he said.
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" received a generally positive response from music critics. Allmusic wrote that the song is "a vocal triumph" and a "pinnacle of its style". Janis Schacht of Circus describes it as "delicate and beautiful", Ben and Jerry's later created the ice cream flavor Goodbye Yellow Bricke Road in honor of John's performance in Vermont. In 2010, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked it #380 in the 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. n Canada, the single reached #1 on the RPM 100 national singles chart on December 22, 1973 and held the position for one week, making it John's third #1 in the year 1973 in that country (following "Crocodile Rock" and "Daniel"). It entered the U.S. charts at #62, the highest debut of that week and in seven weeks rose to the #2 spot (December 8, 1973), where it stayed for three weeks. In Ireland, it reached #4; in the UK it peaked at #6.
2. Bruce Springsteen - "Thunder Road" from Born to Run, 1975.
Bruce Springsteen is probably best known as the guy who writes songs about "getting out of this place." Born to Run was an album full of those songs and "Thunder Road" was among the best of them. The song underwent considerable evolution as it was written, with an early version titled "Wings for Wheels" first performed at The Main Point in Bryn Mawr on February 5, 1975. The phrase "wings for wheels," would eventually be used in the final version of the song's lyrics. Other early versions also mention a girl named "Angelina" or "Christina" rather than the studio version's "Mary." Among other changes, including entirely different lyrics for some verses, "Wings for Wheels" originally concluded with "This is a town full of losers, and baby I was born to win," instead of the studio version's ending, "It's a town full of losers, and I'm pulling out of here to win."
The lyrics to "Thunder Road" describe a young woman named Mary (presumably the same Mary and protagonist that star in Springsteen's 1980 album The River), her boyfriend, and their "one last chance to make it real." Thematically, it reads as a nostalgic companion piece to "Born to Run". Musically, the song opens with a quiet piano and harmonica introduction, meant, as Springsteen said years later in the Wings For Wheels documentary, as a welcoming to both the track and the album, a signifier that something was about to happen. Eschewing a traditional verse-and-chorus structure, the song's arrangement gradually ramps up in instrumentation, tempo and intensity. The title phrase is not used until the middle section of the song, and then is not used again. Finally, after the closing line there is a saxophone-and-piano duet in the instrumental coda. At the end of the "VH1 Storytellers"-Show Springsteen concluded: "So this was my... it was my big, my big invitation to my audience, to myself, [chuckles] to uh... anybody who was interested. Uh... my invitation to a long and earthly, very earthly journey. Hopefully in the company of uh, someone you love, people you love, and in search of a home you can feel a part of. Good luck and good evening."
In 2004, it was ranked #1 on the list of the "885 All-Time Greatest Songs" compiled by WXPN (the University of Pennsylvania's public radio station). Rolling Stone magazine placed it as #86 on its "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." The song came in at #226 in Q magazine's list of the "1001 Greatest Songs Ever" in 2003, in which they described the song as "best for pleading on the porch." Julia Roberts, when asked which song lyric described her most accurately, chose "Thunder Road"'s "You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright." The song is featured in the book 31 Songs by British author Nick Hornby. "Thunder Road" has also been ranked as the 166th best song of all time, as well as the #3 song of 1975, in an aggregation of critics' lists at acclaimedmusic.net. In 2010, it was ranked at #2 on Rock-U's (Goom Radio) Top 500 Songs of All Time.
1. The Beatles - "The Long And Winding Road" from Let It Be, 1970.
The Beatles' "Long and Winding Road" has come to mean a lot of things to fans of the group. This is a perfect example of the importance the road plays in musical imagery. Released on the band's 1970 classic Let It Be, "The Long And Winding Road" became The Beatles' 20th and last number-one song in the United States on May 23, 1970, and was the last single released by the quartet. "The Long and Winding Road" was listed with "For You Blue" as a double-sided hit when the single hit number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1970. While the released version of the song was very successful, the post-production modifications to the song by producer Phil Spector angered McCartney to the point that when he made his case in court for breaking up The Beatles as a legal entity, McCartney cited the treatment of "The Long and Winding Road" as one of six reasons for doing so. New versions of the song with simpler instrumentation were subsequently released by both The Beatles and McCartney.
McCartney originally wrote the song at his farm in Scotland, and was inspired by the growing tension among the Beatles. McCartney said later "I just sat down at my piano in Scotland, started playing and came up with that song, imagining it was going to be done by someone like Ray Charles. I have always found inspiration in the calm beauty of Scotland and again it proved the place where I found inspiration." McCartney recorded a demo version of the song, with Beatles' engineer Alan Brown assisting, in September 1968, during the recording sessions for The Beatles. The song takes the form of a piano-based ballad, with conventional chord changes. The song's home key is E-flat major but it also uses C minor. Lyrically, it is a sad and melancholic song, with an evocation of an as-yet unrequited, though apparently inevitable, love.
The "long and winding road" of the song was claimed to have been inspired by the B842, a thirty-one mile winding road in Scotland, running along the east coast of Kintyre into Campbeltown, and part of the eighty-two mile drive from Lochgilphead. In an interview in 1994, McCartney described the lyric more obliquely "It's rather a sad song. I like writing sad songs, it's a good bag to get into because you can actually acknowledge some deeper feelings of your own and put them in it. It's a good vehicle, it saves having to go to a psychiatrist." The opening theme is repeated throughout, the song lacks a traditional chorus, and the melody and lyrics are ambiguous about the opening stanza's position in the song; it is unclear whether the song has just begun, is in the verse, or is in the bridge.
When McCartney first heard the Spector version of the song, he was outraged. Nine days after Spector had overdubbed "The Long and Winding Road", McCartney announced The Beatles' break-up. On April 14, he sent a sharply worded letter to Apple Records business manager Allen Klein, demanding that the inclusion of the harp be eliminated and that the other added instrumentation be reduced. McCartney concluded the letter with the words: "Don't ever do it again." These requests went unheeded, and the Spector version was included on the album.
In an interview published by the Evening Standard in two parts in 1970, McCartney said: "The album was finished a year ago, but a few months ago American record producer Phil Spector was called in by Lennon to tidy up some of the tracks. But a few weeks ago, I was sent a re-mixed version of my song 'The Long and Winding Road' with harps, horns, an orchestra, and a women's choir added. No one had asked me what I thought. I couldn't believe it." The Beatles' usual producer, George Martin, agreed, calling the remixes "so uncharacteristic" of the Beatles. McCartney asked Klein to dissolve The Beatles' partnership, but was refused. Exasperated, he took the case to court, naming Klein and the other Beatles as defendants.
Among the six reasons McCartney gave for dissolving The Beatles was that Klein's company, ABKCO, had caused "intolerable interference" by overdubbing "The Long and Winding Road" without consulting McCartney. Spector claimed that he was forced into remixing "The Long and Winding Road", because of the poor quality of Lennon's bass playing. While the poor quality of the bass playing has been noted by other sources (in his book Revolution in the Head, a track-by-track analysis of the Beatles' records, Ian MacDonald described it as "atrocious" to the point of sabotage), its basis as the full-scale re-working of the track by Spector has been questioned.
McCartney has argued that Spector could have merely edited out the relevant mistakes and rerecorded them, a technique Spector used elsewhere on the album. Specifically, it would have been a simple matter of having McCartney overdub a more appropriate bass part to replace the Lennon bass line that was judged to be inadequate, or even using the more polished version initially rejected by Glyn Johns.
The controversy surrounding the song did not prevent a chart-topping single from being released in the United States on May 11, 1970, joined by "For You Blue" on the B-side. 1.2 million copies were sold in the first two days, and the song began its ten-week long chart run on May 23. On June 13, it became the Beatles' twentieth and final number one single in America, according to Billboard magazine. "The Long and Winding Road" brought the curtain down on the Beatles' six years of domination in America that began with "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in 1964. The Beatles achieved twenty number one singles in a mere space of 74 months, achieving an average of one number one single per 3.7 months. At the end of the day, this song has all of the characteristics necessary for a good number one selection; the imagery is just right, it's a Beatles song, and it was written with the artist of our number 10 song in mind. Okay, I wasn't really thinking about two of those at all.
A Festering Final Thought
I do a lot of ranting about random political issues here, but I do honestly think there is one issue that effects all of us more than any other. It appears to me that the single largest threat to this country is the wholesale purchase of influence by major economic powers. To this point, the presidential candidates from both parties have been hugely unresponsive, mostly because they rely almost exclusively on money from those interests in order to keep their jobs. But there has been one man that has challenged that line of thinking. Unfortunately (and rather predictably) he has been kept out of the national spotlight. So, for the first time in my adult life, I am supporting a Republican candidate for President of the United States. Instead of speechifying the man's position myself, I think you should here directly from him. So, ladies and gentlemen, please take a moment to introduce yourself to Buddy Roemer.
Do I agree with everything Buddy Roemer has to say? No. Does Buddy Roemer have any chance in hell of becoming president? No. But, he's trying to force a debate on the 7 trillion pound gorilla in the room and we should help him do it. If the Republican Party isn't interested in having this conversation, we need to force them. Post these videos everywhere you can. Write Buddy Roemer's name on every ballot you see. Bring this guy up in every conversation you're in about this election. Corporate interests don't get to decide what we care about, but they can make it much more difficult to discuss these ideas. Let's do what we can to turn that reality on its head.
Let me know what's on your personal list in the comments section. Also, make sure to catch the latest columns from my colleagues at Earbuddy.net here on 411, like Nick Krenn's 3 R's and John Downey's Love/Hate News Report. Also, before complaining about a particular song not being included, check out the Spotify playlist to see if it was included and I just think you're wrong about how good it is.
No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.
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