36. Rush - Red Barchetta

Truly great songs need two things to cement said greatness.  They need music that gives you the feeling the first time you listen to it that you need to listen to that song again.  They also need to tell a story, lyrically that pulls you in and makes you think.  "Red Barchetta," by the iconic Canadian rock trio, Rush, is without a doubt one of those songs.  Since I'm usually transfixed by the music of a song, I find it harder to focus on the lyrics as I'm listening.  So songs that I think are love songs are actually songs about heartbreak while another song that I think is wistful remembrance of youth has lyrics that talk about abuse as well.

The story of "Red Barchetta," however, instantly pulled me in. The song starts with a fade-in of guitarist Alex Lifeson playing some guitar harmonics, slowly joined by some atmospheric keyboards and tinkling cymbals and muted bass, acting like the wavy lines in television shows that take you into that dream state.  Drummer Neal Peart, who also serves as the band's lyricist, paints the picture in just two lines, which bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee sings with gentle phrasing: "My uncle has a country house, that no one knows about."

The story of "Red Barchetta" is based on the 1973 short story "A Short Morning Drive" which appeared in Road and Track Magazine about a near-future where internal combustion engines have been outlawed in favor of newer, cleaner technology.  But the hero of our story yearns for the feeling of the past and goes out to the country to visit his uncle, who has a secret.  He's got one of the last pre-"Motor Law" cars in his barn that he's been saving for his nephew.  Every week, the boy heads to his uncle's for his weekly drive.  Illegal as it may be (and the consequences for being caught serious), the boy just can't help it.  He heads out to the barn and starts the car.

I fire up the willing engine,
Responding with a roar.
Tires spitting gravel,
I commit my weekly crime... 

As he heads out on the back roads, both the music and the lyrics of the song change their pace.  Gone is the drive-in-the-country attitude.  The pulse of the music becomes more frantic, matching the mood of our hero.  The lyrics change their style, too, transitioning into pure poetry:

In my hair-
Shifting and drifting-
Mechanical music-
Adrenaline surge... 

Alex's guitar playing mimics the spinning of the wheels and the roaring of the engine while Neal matches the rhythm with this high hat.  If you're really getting into the song, your adrenaline surges as well.  As I listen, I'm often struck with the notion that this is just three guys playing.  No keyboardist (Geddy usually plays them - and with his feet when he's too busy on the bass) here or lead singer who can barely play the acoustic guitar.  They sap every drop of music that they can possibly create out of each of them.

All three members of Rush are world-class musicians.  I would argue to my dying breath that Peart is the most talented drummer to have ever picked up a pair of drumsticks.  My argument wouldn't be quite as strong, but I'd put Geddy Lee's bass talents up against anyone else's.  Alex Lifeson is underrated as a guitar player because he often restrains himself to keep the songs from being too overwhelming.  And if I'm willing to give up my right pinkie to play guitar like Richie Sambora, I'd willingly give up my left to play drums like Neal.  I've listened to Rush songs for hours straight, intense in concentration over breaking down his drum parts.  And although I have never played the drums, I can do a pretty good air-drum to "Red Barchetta."  Although my wife would die of embarrassment, you probably wouldn't have to ask me twice if you handed me a pair of drumsticks.

In our song, the nephew has his own set of problems.  He's now being chased by the authorities in a huge alloy air car.  If he's caught, the car will most definitely be destroyed.  He can't let that happen:

Laughing out loud
With fear and hope, I've got a desperate plan.
At the one-lane bridge
I leave the giants stranded at the riverside.
Race back to the farm, to dream with my uncle at the fireside 

The song ends as it began, with Lifeson's harmonics, as the song and its great story fade from your mind's eye.

Great songs have great stories in them and the story in "Red Barchetta" is one of the most vivid ones I've ever heard in a song.  The scenes and images that fill my brain while it plays are numerous and incredibly detailed.  Even though the band never made a video for the song, there's one running in my mind whenever I listen to it, and the great thing is that it can change.  Every time I listen to it, there's something else that sparks a new image that I'd never imagined before. 

Whether you want to focus on the brilliant musicianship that fills "Red Barchetta" or the graphic nature of the lyrics, there's always something that can capture your attention, and more importantly, hold on to it.  When I first put this list together, "Red Barchetta" was lower on it, but when I actually listened to it again, up it climbed to #36.  It's a deserving spot for a deserving song, and I'm going to listen to it for the sixth time today, just to see what else my brain has in store for Neal's brilliant lyrics.  I suggest you do the same.

Maybe not six, but what the heck, go for it.

Just because I can't help it, I'm putting three videos up for this one.  The first is a video of the album version of the song that some guy did where he added appropriate pictures, because the band never did a video for the song.  The second is Rush's appearance on The Colbert Report where they took the band back into the offices of the show and had them try their hand at "Tom Sawyer" on Rock Band.  Pretty Funny!  The third is the video that the guys from South Park did for Rush's 2007 tour where Cartman, Stan, Kenny and Kyle are playing their own version of "Tom Sawyer."  That's not just pretty funny, it's damn hilarious.  So forgive my indulgence, I love to laugh.

(Fun Fact #46:  The Red Barchetta named in this song is an actual car made by Ferrari.  It was one of their first front-engine 12 cylinder engines that was specifically designed for racing.  For those wondering what one would look like, I found an image.  Apparently they made them in other colors than red, but the red, by far, was the best seller.)

If you'd like to read the original story that "Red Barchetta" was based on, here's the location of the article:


37. Boston - More Than a Feeling

Starting slowly, "More Than a Feeling" sounds like another soft-rock/folksy song about love or some such thing.  Simple, straightforward acoustic guitar.  Simple bass line and drums.  It could be a song by America or the Moody Blues.  Even the lyrics evoke that kind of escapist feeling that lots of the songs from the early/mid 70's had.  My wife, who hates this song, would call it derivative and boring. 

Turned on some music to start my day
Then lost myself in a familiar song
I closed my eyes, and I slipped away 

And if it stayed that way, it might just be derivative and boring.  But then the tempo starts to pick up and the lyrics become more complex when we realize that he's singing of a lost love, walking away.  Guitarist/songwriter/band leader Tom Scholz then breaks in with his electric guitar and changes the entire tone of the song.  And I'm sure it was done before in other songs, but when he slides his pick down the guitar string, giving it that great wwwwrrrrrrrr sound, it blew my mind.  It was the first time I'd ever heard something like that.  And Scholz played his guitar with that great sound that I'd also never heard before.

The distinctive guitar sound in "More than a Feeling" went on to become the "Boston" sound (iconic much like that ZZ Top guitar sound) - the guitar with just enough distortion to be heavy but with that crisp high treble that made it shine.  Many critics claimed that Boston was the one of the first bands that crafted the "corporate rock" sound, followed by the likes of Styx, Foreigner and Journey.  If, by that, you mean that the songs are well crafted, thought out thoroughly and produced well, then I guess all of these bands would be guilty.  But music doesn't necessarily have to be some organic thing that requires only one take with the whole band playing live.  And those same critics also fail to recognize the amount of craft, thought and production techniques used by The Beatles in their later albums.  I have no problem with bands taking a long time to get things just right.  Improvisation has its place, but so does hard work, and discounting the latter does music a disservice.  It's not as easy at it looks, and if it takes five years, as it did with Tom Scholz and "More Than a Feeling," it shows.

Not only does Scholz's guitar sound break new ground, but Brad Delp's lead vocals soar - literally.  With the possible exception of Journey's Steve Perry, Brad has the best rock tenor I've ever heard. When he hits the high note at "slippin' away," he hits a note that would make Mariah Carey  jealous.  Hell, he probably hits another note next that only my dog, Shorty, can hear.  And even though he hits notes that I can only dream of, there's a richness to his voice that makes any song he sings better.  This song had a lot going for it without the vocals, but when you add Brad's performance, it's the cherry on top of a very fulfilling sundae.

The lyrics also add surprising depth that I didn't expect (since yesterday was the first time I paid any real attention to them or their meaning).  This song isn't about unrequited love as was the last entry on this list, but this one's about having a love that you let go.  You didn't treat her the way she deserved and she actually moved on, rather than put up with it, and it left a whole in your heart that you didn't realize was there until years later.

When I'm tired and thinkin' cold
I hide in my music, forget the day
And dream of a girl I used to know
I closed my eyes and she slipped away

Putting that harsh of a light on to yourself isn't easy, but Scholz is trying to warn the teenagers and young adults listening to his songs not to repeat his mistakes.  It's a cautionary tale dressed up in the sheep's clothing of a great rock song.  And not just a great rock song, it's a legendary one.

Being entirely democratic in my nature, I'm going to give you two choices of videos to watch to listen to "More Than a Feeling."  The first one is a performance of the band from '76 (check out the hair and Tom Scholz's outfit!).  The second one is the song set to video of tennis superstar Maria Sharapova.  They were #1 & #2 on YouTube, so I'll leave the decision up to you....

(Fun Fact #523:  Tom Scholz, a notorious techie, wanted something that he could use to work on songs that wasn't as cumbersome as an amplifier and effects unit plugged into the wall.  He wanted the flexibility to be able to create music wherever he and his guitar were.  So he went and invented a solution.  His invention, called the Rockman, was a portable amplifier with four built in effects that emulated the "Boston sound" that took him years to perfect.  It was about the size of a Walkman and could be attached to your belt so you could play while you walk around.  If only he'd needed a way of searching for information on his computer from worldwide sources, we would've had the internet back in the 80's.)

38. Elton John - Tiny Dancer

The dynamics of songwriting fascinate me.  In a band, for instance, there are so many combinations of who writes what as far as the music and lyrics go that the permutations are staggering and I won't go into them here.  The relationship of composer/lyricist is much easier to break down, yet is just as fascinating.  There's the chicken/egg question of which comes first and the idea of singing songs whose words you had nothing to do with.  For Elton John and Bernie Taupin, this is exactly their relationship.  For the chicken/egg answer, Taupin writes the words first and then Elton weaves a melody and writes music around them.  And although many artists never sing words that they created, it's very rare that those words are created by only one person.  It's a relationship that confuses me, but has produced a marriage so brilliant that I could easily put a half dozen Elton John songs on my list.

"Tiny Dancer," my choice as Elton John's best work, is actually a love song written for Bernie Taupin's wife, who was his girlfriend at the time.  Elton starts with that instantly recognizable piano introduction that always puts a smile on my face when the song starts.  The arrangement stays simple, with a basic bass line joining a seemingly improvised guitar with some subtle drums underneath.  The vocals and piano are the stars of this song.  Some strings are added in the choruses to give some extra sonic fullness. 

Every lyricist needs a muse to give them those aha moments of inspiration, and Bernie Taupin definitely found his.  He describes her to a tee in just four lines:

Blue jean baby, L.A. lady
Seamstress for the band
Pretty eyes, pirate smile
She'll marry a music man

Their whole relationship, her style and character - even the fact that he knows he's going to marry her, all in that one verse.  She was on the road with Elton and often patched up stage clothes that needed repair.  And then Bernie lauds her support for her man and his music partner:

Piano man, he makes his stand
In the auditorium
Looking on she sings the song
The words she knows
The tune she hums

The humility of Elton John to know that he needed someone else to give his songs lyrics that matched the brilliance of the music is astonishing.  Most people just can't put their egos aside for the betterment of their music.  Elton John is not one of those men, and thank goodness.  Elton John is one of those musicians musician.  When you're backstage in a band's dressing room, I doubt that forty five minutes go by without at least one Elton John song being played. 
There's a great scene in Cameron Crowe's film "Almost Famous" that shows the power of music to bring people together when you thought nothing could.  As the fiction band Stillwater is driving in their tour bus on their way to the next gig, the fractures in the interpersonal relationships are readily apparent.  Nobody's talking and that's just fine with everyone.  Lead guitarist and main songwriter Russell Hammond has become the focus of the public's attention - the band knows it and doesn't like it.  Now they're all in the bus, pissed off and distracted, thinking about only themselves.  Then "Tiny Dancer" comes on.

At first, it's just background music, like the song before it.  But then they start paying more attention.  The drummer taps along on his knees and slowly heads start bobbing to the rhythm.  Then the bass player starts singing along - he just can't help it.  Again slowly, others start joining in and before long, the entire bus is singing along and smiles abound.  A simple song by a brilliant artist takes a broken group and starts to put it back together, one chorus at a time.  It's one of the most brilliant representations of the positive power that music can have on people.

At over six minutes, the song goes by before you know it.  I've listened to it hundreds of times and if you'd asked me, I'd have said that the album version was about 4 1/2 minutes long.  That's another sign of a brilliant song.  You never find yourself bored, thinking to yourself "man, this song is loooong."  And even at six plus minutes, you feel yourself wanting to cue it up again, singing along with the guys from Stillwater.

There are three videos for this one.  The first is Elton John's version with a slideshow as the lyrics pop up.  The second is the clip from "Almost Famous" that I talk about.  The last is proof that I'm not the only one that mishears lyrics.  It's that great clip from "Friends" where Phoebe talks about the young Tony Danza.

39. The Police - Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic

When The Police started work on their 1981 album Ghost in the Machine, they were influenced by the non-fiction book by Arthur Koestler of the same name, which deals with the evolution of the brain from more primitive forms to the more advance and evolved brain of today.  The "ghosts in the machine" are the primitive brain functions that can fight their way through the modern brain structure to take over, leading to the impulsive, primitive side to overrule the logical, rational side.  Many songs on Ghost in the Machine deal with those themes, and to a smaller degree, "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" is one of them.  Love vs. Reality.

The song deals with the common theme that so many of us have dealt with (and probably all of us in our high school years) - unrequited love.  So much of the music on Ghost in the Machine is dark, and as "Every Little Thing..." opens, it seems like the darkness that started with the first track, "Spirits in the Material World", would continue.  After a brief hi-hat intro, there's an ominous string introduction punctuated by a frantic, wavering piano line. Sting plays his stand up bass with a bow to give the low end that brooding quality.  Stewart Copeland's erratic (yet technically wonderful) drumming adds to the overall uneasy feeling.  At first, I thought that guitarist Andy Summers was taking a cigarette break during this part until I realized that he was matching the frantic piano line note for note with some very fast pick work of his own.  Lyrically, the verses also match the dark mood of the music.  Sting sings about a man who yearns to tell a woman how much he loves her, but lacks the resolve to do so.

Though I've tried before to tell her
Of the feelings I have for her in my heart
Every time that I come near her
I just lose my nerve
As I've done from the start

But as the song approaches the chorus, the tempo changes and the mood immediately changes to a light, jovial one as the band plays a much more happy tune.  You don't really have time to think about it, but your subconscious brain is wondering, "What the hell is going on here?"  Then the chorus breaks free in a shining moment of unadulterated joviality compared to the verses of the song.  In our guy's mind, there's nothing this girl can do that isn't perfection and he's just lucky to be near it.  The music and melody of the chorus makes you want to get up and dance, regardless of whether you look like a fool.  When I listen to it alone, I'm dancing in my living room whenever the chorus of this song comes on.  If someone's around, it takes quite a bit of restraint to stop myself from doing just that.  The lyrics match the unbridled enthusiasm of the music:

Every little thing she does is magic
Everything she do just turns me on
Even though my life before was tragic
Now I know my love for her goes on

There are those moments in a one way relationship that give you hope, even if you're not going to act on it, and the chorus of "Every Little Thing..." does a great job of showing that.  But then reality rears its ugly head and you realize that she doesn't know how you feel.  You want to tell her.  You need to tell her... 

But my silent fears have gripped me
Long before I reach the phone
Long before my tongue has tripped me
Must I always be alone?

The rest of the world sees the futility, and the logical part of our hero's brain does, too.  But the "ghost in the machine" of his primitive, passionate side just can't stop its optimism.  The song finishes upbeat, with the chorus being repeated with some happy "Ee o yo"s thrown in there for good measure.  (And in my living room, the dancing continues...)  The drums seem to match the heart-skips-a-beat freneticism that you feel when you're so infatuated with someone.  I've always been a huge fan of Stewart Copeland's drum play, and the last half of "Ever Little Thing..." is a perfect example.  He plays rock drums with a jazz sensibility where he hits a cymbal or drum at the least likely time and does these great little fills all over the place, but with no real rhyme or reason to them.  I would think that replicating his drumming would be maddening to most drummers, but also an exciting challenge.

The very end of the song, as it fades out, is his subconscious reminding him of his ultimate futility, "It's a big enough umbrella, but it's always me that ends up getting wet."  It's a great way of ending a song that is so bipolar musically as well as lyrically and sums up the manic/depressive nature of unrequited love.

Just a final observation, though.  Are we supposed to believe a guy as good-looking and talented as Sting has EVER been in a position like this?  I didn't think so.  That shows you his true lyrical genius - he completely inhabits the mindset of a situation that would never happen to him.

(Fun Fact #81:  The cover art for Ghost in the Machine features a computer display inspired graphic that depicts the heads of the three band members each with a distinctive hair style (from left to right, Andy Summers, Sting with spiky hair and Stewart Copeland with a fringe.)

40. Fleetwood Mac - Go Your Own Way

If there's ever been a compelling reason for a band not to have members of both sexes, it's Fleetwood Mac.  The emotional baggage carried around by the band rivals the belly of a 747.  Female lead singer (and tamborine maestro) Stevie Nicks and male lead singer and guitarist Lindsay Buckingham were in a relationship when they entered the band together in 1975.  The relationship dissolved the following year as did the eight year marriage of bassist John McVie and other female keyboardist/lead singer Christine McVie.  So eighty percent of the band was going through some major emotional turmoil as the band entered the studio to record the follow-up to their breakthrough self-titled 1975 album.

Even though he was one of the band's newcomers, Lindsay took charge in the direction of the album and the songs that were to be on it.  One of those songs was the Buckingham penned "Go Your Own Way."  It's a song whose lyrics deal with his breakup with Stevie Nicks and paint Lindsay as the victim in the relationship.  So I guess it's one way to stick it to an ex-girlfriend.  Here's Lindsay's formula:

1.  Write a song about the breakup, making you look better than her
2.  Have that ex-girlfriend sing backing vocals on the song while you're criticizing her in the verses.
3.  Record it for an album that would go on to sell 40,000,000 records worldwide
4.  Release it as a single that hits #10 in the Billboard Hot 100
5.  Have it become one of your band's trademark songs that she'll have to sing live at every concert your band ever plays.  Every single one.

So ladies, hell may hath no fury like a woman scorned, but I wouldn't recommend messing around with Lindsay Buckingham.  Payback, indeed.  Here are some of his lyrics:

If I could
Maybe I'd give you my world
How can I
When you won't take it from me

You can go your own way
Go your own way
You an call it
Another lonely day

Don't get me wrong - this is a great pop song off of one of the best albums of all time.  I just find the soap opera going on behind the scenes fascinating.

But enough of the soap opera, let me laud praises on the musical accomplishments of "Go Your Own Way."  Starting off with a electric guitar strum followed by a chorus of acoustic guitar layers, the song keeps adding to the musical complexity throughout the song and then breaking down the arrangement only to build it back up again.  As strong a pop song as it is, "Go Your Own Way" has much more to listen to beyond just the great hook of the melody.

Mick Fleetwood's drums drive the song steadily, but he also adds some complexity and fun to the rhythm with all sorts of interesting fills throughout.  He jumps all over his drum kit, playing in a seemingly haphazard manner, but it all works in the context of the song.  I've always thought that Lindsay Buckingham was an underrated guitarist (check out him playing all the parts to "Big Love" in some of their live shows) and he plays both the acoustic and electric guitars in "Go Your Own Way" with soulful precision.  He even lays down a great guitar solo near the end.  John McVie's bass is kind of low in the mix, but if you listen for it, you can hear him doing some great things on the low end.  And in lots of bands, if you have a keyboardist, either they're front and center in the arrangement or they're taking a coffee break.  But with Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie adds welcome layers to almost every Fleetwood Mac song, even when her keyboards aren't central to the arrangement, as they are here.  Her organ in the choruses helps give them a church choir feel. 

And then there are the harmonies.  Lindsay Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie all have distinctive sounding voices that could cause trouble to arrangements.  But the way the band writes the harmonies and then has each member sing them, it works on every level.  The richness of McVie's voice works really well with Buckingham's, while Nicks' throaty alto augments any song she adds it to.

As with so many songs on my list, I didn't know the backstory behind this song until I started doing research for this entry.  For me, it was just a great pop song that had a great melody and fantastic playing to go with it.  But now knowing the "behind the music" aspect to it, there's that extra level of intrigue and coolness that I can now appreciate.  That's what I love about music - the more you listen, the more you pick up, and if you do a little digging, you can find more and more things to appreciate in any given song. 

(Fun Fact #523:  I thought juggling two lead singers would be a headache, but with Fleetwood Mac, they have three bona fide lead singers.  From the album Rumours alone, there were four songs that were Top 10 hits.  "Go Your Own Way" had Lindsay on vocals; "Dreams" was Stevie's song; "You Make Loving Fun" was Christine's; and both Lindsay and Christine shared lead vocals on "Don't Stop."  So even though they couldn't keep their romantic relationships together, the band did an incredible job of keeping the dispensation of lead vocals very democratic.)

41. Tom Petty - Free Fallin'

If you play the first five harmonic guitar strums of "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty to anyone who has some basic knowledge of recent popular music (the last twenty years or so), I would bet most people would be able to name that tune.  Hell, my wife got it on the first strum alone.  It's that memorable and recognizable.  Even the first time I heard it, "Free Fallin'" had that feel of an old standard that I'd known for years.  There's just something about those acoustic guitars playing those chord progressions that give you a warm, comfortable feeling that great music provides.

There's such a clean and crisp guitar sound that it sounds like you're sitting in the studio with them.  The song was produced by Jeff Lynne, formerly the singer and songwriter from ELO, who went on to an accomplished producing career.  Jeff, Tom and Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell recorded the simple yet lush guitars together in the studio to give it that live feel, but with studio quality.  The bass line is as minimalist as they come, and the drums are restrained to the point of being something a ten year-old could play, but they're both there to serve the song, not their own egos.

And although many people complain that Tom Petty has an almost Dylanesque whine to his voice, I'd have to disagree.  His nasal mumbling (and I mean that in a good way) serves most of his songs well, and especially does so for "Free Fallin'."  There's a casual nature in which he drawls out the opening line "She's a good girl, loves her mama" that tells you that this is a man who both calls his own mother "mama" and also recognizes someone else who does, too.  The rest of the lyrics of the fist verse paint a picture of a devoted, if somewhat naive girl.

Loves Jesus and America too
She's a good girl, crazy 'bout Elvis

Loves horses and her boyfriend too

Tom paints a rosy picture of a young woman at the cusp of adulthood who is the type to fall deeply in love.  It's the beginning of a fairy tale.  But it doesn't end like one.  Instead of having a boyfriend that is as devoted as she is, this girl gets one that's like so many throughout history - a boyfriend who doesn't know what he's got and then just pisses it away because he's bored or she won't put out.  He casts her aside and moves on, never looking back at the wake of emotional destruction that he leaves behind.

It's a long day, livin' in Reseda
There's a freeway, runnin' through the yard
and I'm a bad boy, 'cause I don't even miss her
I'm a bad boy for breakin' her heart

He spends some time with the other vampires down on Ventura Boulevard, having fun and laughing at the girls who once counted on them.  But the fun times fade and he realizes his mistake.  He's lost the one good thing he had and he knows he'll never get her back.

I wanna glide down, over Mulholland
I wanna write her name in the sky
I wanna free fall out into nothin'
Gonna leave this, world for awhile

So the freedom that he was looking for came at a price and then he realized that he didn't really want it anyway.  Lots of us guys have been in this position and realize our mistakes far too late.  The girls have moved on to more mature relationships and we're stuck with the other losers, getting drunk and lamenting about how awesome it is not to be tied down to anyone.  And then we go home.  Alone.  

The funny thing is about the song is Tom Petty's feelings about it.  In a 2006 Esquire interview, he said, "Free Fallin' is a very good song. Maybe it would be one of my favorites if it hadn't become this huge anthem. But I'm grateful that people like it."  So it seems his attitude toward the song matches its subject matter to a certain degree.  Maybe one day he'll come to realize that it should be one of his favorites, regardless of whether it's become this huge anthem or not.  It's like me and The Clash, not listening to them because it was cool.  But don't worry, Tom.  It's one of my favorites, and I don't care that it's a huge anthem.  It's great anyway.

(FunFact #318:  I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, so the lyrical content of "Free Fallin'" definitely speaks to me.  Just to prove how much of a geek I am, I'll break down the locations that Tom Petty uses in his video which prove to be authentic to the lyrics.  The video starts at the Westside Pavillion mall on Pico (it's not in the San Fernando Valley, but is just over the hill from it on the West Side, hence the name).  The house where they have the party definitely is in the San Fernando Valley (the orange trees were the giveaway), then more of the mall before they go to Casa De Cadillac on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, with the defunct Future Dogs across the street.  When they get to the skateboarding half-pipe, that's just off of Mulholland Boulevard, which separates the Valley from the West Side.  Go ahead, Jennifer, and roll your eyes.  You married a dork.)

(Fun Fact #211:  My younger brother Todd actually lived this song, to a certain degree.  Same as me, he grew up in The Valley and dated a girl from Reseda who loved her mama and Jesus (not so much with the horses and Elvis, though.  She was more into punk and new wave music and hated horses, or rather ponies, due to a childhood incident that went rather poorly).  She became pretty clingy and needy and Todd had had enough.  He broke up with her, didn't miss her, but did break her heart.  To top it all off, he even went so far as to sing, "I'm free!  Free of Donna!" after they broke up.  I don't, however, think he ever really thought that he made a mistake and regrets it all that much, so that's where the similarities seem to end.)