Thursday, February 9, 2017
Cher: “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”
Entered the chart on: 3/26/66
Peaked on: 4/23/66
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “(You’re My) Soul & Inspiration” by the Righteous Brothers
Cher has become such a larger-than-life personality that her persona has rather eclipsed her artistic achievements. It’s hard to remember this time, when she was still the lanky, raven-haired, acerbic foil to diminutive, shaggy-vested Sonny Bono. Singing, comedy/variety, dramatic acting, Cher has done it all.
That said she wasn’t really a great singer. She set the mould for Madonna and others who pushed a strong character via limited talent. Which isn’t to say she’s awful, but there were definitely limits to Cher’s singing ability, and the results could be rather woeful when she pushed them too far (listen to her version of Janis Ian’s “Stars” some time).
To be fair to her, Cher’s throaty alto voice and twangy delivery was nothing if not distinctive and memorable. Coupled with her unforgettable appearance, one could understand why listeners reacted to her so strongly. It helps, in a way, that she was provided with unforgettable, if often kitschy, material. Her commercial (musical) plateau came in the early 70s with a hat-trick of #1 hits (“Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” “Half-Breed” and “Dark Lady”), each seemingly campier and more absurd than the last.
I’ll profess non-familiarity with this particular tune, but going by the title, it seems like a dry run of the delirious silliness to come in the following decade. In fact, coupled with her prior top 10 entry—“You Better Sit Down, Kids”—the titles suggest the plot of a soap-operatic potboiler. I’m getting Claudelle Inglish flashbacks just reading them.
Yeah, before her vocals even start, the overwrought orchestration—fronted by weepy violin, like something out of a Victorian melodrama—tells you what you’re in store for. My previous paragraph was pretty much right on the money with this. The lyrics are definitely in “kitschy story-telling mode.”
While it’s definitely cut from the same cloth as her later hits, it sounds like “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” in embryonic form. First off, the arrangement is a lot more old-fashioned. Her later hits had a modern pop flash to them, this is almost like gypsy campfire music with its violins, mandolins and fast fandango complete with shouts of “Hey!” in the middle eight. Also, she shows her age and inexperience with this, displaying almost a diffidence in her soft-pedal performance. She’d later gain an undeniable aura of confidence which made her irresistible to record buyers, but she still comes across as “girlish” here.
In short...pretty much what I expected. Inessential, but fun and more than a little silly.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
The Lovin’ Spoonful: “Daydream”
Entered the chart on: 3/12/66
Peaked on: 4/9/66
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “(You’re My) Soul & Inspiration” by the Righteous Brothers
The Lovin’ Spoonful get my vote as one of the more underrated 60s “classic rock” acts. Their rootsy sound was sort of the lost, missing link between the Young Rascals and Creedence Clearwater Revival. And I rather prefer them to either of the aforementioned (though I like the Rascals fine, and rather regret that I won’t be reviewing any of their tunes). Unfortunately, in these “90% of acts from the past are reduced to one-hit wonder status” days of oldies radio programming, “Summer in the City” is the only tune of theirs that seems to get any airplay these days.
Not that it’s a bad song, but they have a lot more to recommend than just that. I imagine it gets a lot of love because it’s their “edgiest” song. In general, they were a bit laid-back and good-natured, which I guess doesn’t play as well in a world gone hard and cynical. I, for one, have a soft spot for this element of their sound, fondly remembering my mom’s copy of “Nashville Cats*.”
So...clearly these guys need a second appraisal. Let’s examine the first (of two) of the songs that brought them here to Second Hand Goods:
Wow, talk about stripped-down! All you hear at first accompanying John Sebastian’s voice is a banjo-sounding guitar. Eventually we get a full band of sorts, with some light, very legato guitar injections, saloon piano and bass. And is it my imagination, or are there no drums on this track? All I’m hearing are spoons! So that’s where Split Enz got it from!
Despite the country-fied sound, lyrically this comes across as very suburban. A song about the simple domestic pleasures of a day off from work, with his best lady. “Bundle of joy” suggests that she’s just given birth, too...or maybe that’s his pet name for her. In any case, in spite of the late winter release date, this conjures up images of lazy summer afternoons, sipping a cold drink while swinging in a hammock with one of your feet dangling over the side.
Really not much more to say about this. A modest pleasure, but one I sure wouldn’t want to be without.
*on the Kama Sutra label, fact fans. I admired the label design, and because my age was still in single digits, the “suggestive” nature of the label’s name flew right over my innocent head. Incidentally, one of the first records I ever owned, which I’ll be reviewing some time in the future, was also released on Kama Sutra. I’ll let you ponder what that might be.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
The Rolling Stones: “19th Nervous Breakdown”
Entered the chart on: 3/5/66
Peaked on: 3/19/66
Weeks at #2: 3
Song at #1: “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Ssgt. Barry Sadler
So we come at last to the “bad boys” of the British Invasion. Which is a bit silly, if you ask me; the Beatles weren’t exactly saints. That said, it’s obvious the Stones’ music was a lot more raunchy, with darker lyrical undertones. There weren’t any smooth vocal harmonies here, no George Martin sweetening, just Mick Jagger’s snarling vocals and Keith Richards’ violent guitar. You could definitely see their appeal as something your Perry Como/Joni James-loving parents were guaranteed to hate.
This isn’t one of the first songs to come to mind when I think of them, but it’s not exactly “obscure” these days (In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard it on the radio within the past two weeks).
Well, Nobel has gone on to canonize Bob Dylan for his lyrical skills, so let’s use this little review to shine the spotlight on Mick Jagger. Yes, it’s probably “Like a Rolling Stone” that opened doors for songs like this, because this is far from the “love and loss” lyrics that had been part and parcel of popular music heretofore. Hell, even the early Beatles sides were essentially love songs. Here we have something different: an analysis of a young woman who’s lost her mind, and how she got there.
Which begs the question: why nineteenth nervous breakdown? Presumably because it was attention-getting, euphonious and fit the rhythm of the song. As near as I can tell, the hapless subject of the song’s lyrics is spoiled by her wealthy but neglectful parents, and turns to recreational drugs which only makes matters worse. So...not exactly painting a rosy picture, then.
Musically, the highlight is—as it so frequently is with Stones songs—Keith Richards’ dazzling lead guitar work. This isn’t quite the firestorm of that harsh, broken-speaker beehive buzz found on “Satisfaction,” but this was still harder and edgier guitarwork than people were accustomed to hearing at the time. Soon the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page would descend onto the scene and ear-bleeding guitar timbres would become the norm. Let it be noted that Keith, for better or worse, got there first.
I don’t know if this is my favorite Stones song of this era, but listening to it again, I realize it’s not only good, but really first-rate! Well done, guys!
Saturday, November 26, 2016
The Beach Boys: “Barbara Ann”
Entered the chart on: 1/15/66
Peaked on: 1/29/66
Weeks at #2: 2
Songs at #1: “We Can Work It Out” by the Beatles and “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel
I was just about to say, “I can’t believe this is the first Beach Boys song we’re covering at Second Hand Goods. Spoiler alert: it’s also the only Beach Boys song we’ll be covering.
Hopefully, the Beach Boys should need no introduction. Piggybacking on a popular trend for summer fun pastimes, they went on to take vocal harmony pop to its very limits. This tune was right on the cusp, before they released their legendary Pet Sounds album, where chief songwriter Brian Wilson attempted to take them away from surfing/cars/high school tunes and start making “grown up” music. Unfortunately, his attempts at following his muse were met with resistance, not least of such detractors was his own stubborn cousin and bandmate Mike Love*, who gladly embraced the nostalgia/oldies circuit, and wanted them to stay making fluffy teenage pop.
All right, obviously this is closer to the “classic” Beach Boys than to Pet Sounds. And I’m surprised how raw this sounds. The intro almost sounds like a demo. And how had I forgotten all the background chatter, à la “Louie Louie.” Someone even starts laughing at one point, and they just left it in! I think, since I’ve become so accustomed to listening to their Pet Sounds and later material, it’s easy to forget how visceral they could be (with exceptions...Wild Honey for example).
Obviously, they’re going for a classic 50s rock & roll throwback with this. That said, you can hear why they came across as so revolutionary. The vocal harmonies on this are just insane! There’s just so much going on, with rhythm, bass, melody, counter-melody and harmony parts. It never becomes inaccessible, though, retaining the delightful lead melody straight through.
Which explains why this was such a big hit. Impossible to resist.
*actually said by a friend of mine about Mike Love: “How can someone be so into TM and still be such an asshole?”
Sunday, November 20, 2016
Len Barry: “1-2-3”
Entered the chart on: 10/23/65
Peaked on: 11/20/65
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “I Hear a Symphony” by the Supremes
We have reached the end of 1965 and with it, the end of “short” years of the 60s. The reason 1965 seems to have generated few #2 hits looks like it’s because most songs didn’t seem to be spending much time at #2; that is, most songs that made it to #2 eventually peaked at #1. We’ll see the opposite over the ensuing years of the 60s, which are choked with songs that stalled at #2 behind long-runners in the top spot.
Having said that, let’s examine the case of Len Barry, probably the first alumnus of Second Hand Goods to chart with two different acts: first as the lead singer of the Dovells (remember “Bristol Stomp”?) and now as a solo act. This is another one of those songs where I kind of remember the main hook, but I don’t have a clear picture of the entire song. Methinks I need to refresh my memory...
Appropriately, starting off with someone counting in the song, a la “Wooly Bully.” Appropriate also that this should come second to the Supremes, as the arrangement here is so very Motown. The horns on this really sparkle, piano and guitar handle the rhythm with those slamming drums, and there’s even some vibes for color.
This one’s coming back to me now. I think Len’s voice has improved a good deal from the uncontrolled wail on “Bristol Stomp.” He has learned a lot more technique in the interim, and puts in a very impassioned performance here, reaching its peak with the “It’s easy, like taking candy from a baby” climax.
Better than I had remembered. A total production with an excellent vocal. Ending ’65 in style.
Friday, November 18, 2016
The Toys: “A Lover’s Concerto” Entered the chart on: 10/2/65 Peaked on: 10/30/65 Weeks at #2: 3 Songs at #1: “Yesterday” by the Beatles and “Get Off My Cloud” by the Rolling Stones
I’ll be honest, I could have sworn this was the first song based on a classical piece I’d be writing about when I started this feature. I somehow forgot about the Allan Sherman bit, and didn’t even know about “Don’t You Know,” which rather blunted the surprise regarding this one.
Then again, maybe not. This is the first “rock” song to be based on classical music to appear in Second Hand Goods. Someone—and by “someone,” I mean the legendary songwriting team of Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell—thought it would be a good idea to adapt the Minuet in G to a Supremes-knockoff pop-soul girl group song.
And you know what? They weren’t wrong!
Interestingly, the arrangement here, while clearly based on a classical piece, sounds oddly jazzy. Something you’d expect more in a Dionne Warwick song than in something that sounds like Martha & the Vandellas. Never noticed it before, but lead singer Barbara Harris (not that one) sounds an awful lot like Martha Reeves. She’s flying solo for the first verse, and I really like how they add the other two Toys gradually to the vocal mix, until it’s a virtual choir at the end. We’re not quite in “Sally Go Round the Roses” territory here, but arranger Charles Calello does a fine job of making the most of the ladies’ voices.
Lyrically, this could come across to some as insufferably twee. I don’t think it tips the balance too far, but this is sort of the tip of the iceberg, inspiring quite a lot of extremely saccharine, mega-girly female-sung soul-pop in the 70s. Stuff like “I Love You for All Seasons” by the Fuzz or...pretty much anything by the Barry White-produced vocal trio Love Unlimited is bound to conjure up images of pink silk hair ribbons or Hello Kitty plush dolls. This isn’t that extreme, but it is awfully precious and trying hard to be demurely feminine.
Overall, good taste rules the day, and for that I’m glad. I’ve always loved this song. Still do.
Monday, November 14, 2016
Roy Head: “Treat Her Right”
Entered the chart on: 9/18/65
Peaked on: 10/16/65
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Yesterday” by the Beatles
And we’re back to where we were two songs ago, with a song I’ve apparently heard, though I have no memory of ever hearing. Again, I point the finger of blame on the likes of Dick Bartley or Casey Kasem.
I’m flying blind with this one, as information on Roy Head, who never had another hit*, is hard to come by for some reason. Technically, this song is credited on the single to “Roy Head and the Traits,” who I presume is his backing band. Rateyourmusic lists the genres as “country” and “blue-eyed soul,” which I admit has me intrigued. Might as well hear if it’s worth the interest.
Wow, that’s some kind of instrumental intro! A full forty seconds of horn vamping before we get singing. I mean we get “Mmm, hmm...all right mama...” but no actual singing.
Lyrically this is on point, i.e.: “you catch more flies with honey, etc.” Vocally, Head is definitely also on point, but I guess people mistaking him for Mitch Ryder probably wasn’t helping his case in getting a follow-up hit. Seriously, if you’d told me this was the follow-up to “Jenny Take a Ride,” I’d have a hard time refuting that claim.
That said, there are far, far worse performers to resemble than Mitch Ryder. They both surfaced at roughly the same time, and I suppose it’s just Head’s bad luck that the general public preferred Mitch to him. Which is a bit of a shame, as the call-and-response he has with the Traits’ horn section is really exciting and fun to listen to.
I’d like to have heard more of that.
*OK, he’s technically not a one-hit wonder, as he had two other top 40 hits, but neither of those charted higher than #31.