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.
Bob Dylan: “Like a Rolling Stone”
Entered the chart on: 8/14/65
Peaked on: 9/4/65
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Help!” by the Beatles
Well, it took two years, but we finally get an appearance by Bob Dylan on Second Hand Goods on his own, not having one of his songs interpreted by someone else. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think that the British Invasion, specifically the popularity of the Rolling Stones, didn’t have a bit of a hand in this song’s chart success. Incidentally, the Rolling Stones covered “Like a Rolling Stone” themselves in 1995 and their version is...not very good!
But never mind about that, how about the composer’s original version?
I can’t believe it. These were the days when shorter was better, remember this was the next #2 hit after the 2 minute, 59 second “Save Your Heart for Me.” And here’s Bob Dylan with this rambling six-minute number. Apparently, Columbia were really reticent to release this as a single, on account of its length. In addition to that, Dylan had a reputation as a folk singer, and they were sort of antsy releasing a song by him with electric instruments on it.
That said, this is a fascinating song. Much has been written of Dylan deciding to strap on an electric guitar for this one, and of session man Al Kooper (another Gary Lewis link!) playing the unforgettable Hammond organ part on this song. And then there’s the matter of the lyrics. They seem a bit on the harsh side, especially since he seems to be prodding the female subject on her way down a cataclysmic fall from success. Kicking her when she’s down, so to speak. That said, and this has been pointed out by other reviewers, she doesn’t strike me as the nicest person in the world. Not saying that she deserves this much scorn, but still. There’s a lot we don’t know. As with Carly Simon’s later hit “You’re So Vain,” it’s become popular to ponder if some real-life person was the inspiration for the song, especially if said person might have been somebody famous.
Really, Dylan needs to be canonized for his lyric writing (Oh, what’s that? He was?). Because he really is a master with words. The “Once upon a dime you dressed so fine/Threw the bums a dime in your prime,” couplet is overflowing with internal rhyme, they roll off the tongue in an appealing way, and we’re only at the start of the song! It’s not the only time that happens, the entire song is like that.
Obviously, we have to address Dylan’s voice, which I know a lot of people don’t like. Ragged and untrained, it’s definitely not pretty. But there is a raw honesty to it, and he sells the subject matter with clearly audible fire in his belly. Would Peter, Paul & Mary have been able to channel the rage and bitterness Dylan brings forth with such ease and effectiveness here? I don’t think so! And his voice is echoed by his amateurish yet oddly appealing harmonica breaks leading from the refrain back into the verse. It’s like the punctuation mark of the song.
Listening to this is kind of like listening to that scruffy street musician on the corner. Only you realize that he’s no ordinary talentless bum jabbing at a guitar for pocket change. He actually has something interesting and profound to say.
I get why this was such a big hit. How could anything be the same after this?
Friday, November 11, 2016
Gary Lewis & the Playboys: “Save Your Heart for Me”
Entered the chart on: 7/17/65
Peaked on: 8/21/65
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher
One of those wags over at RateYourMusic said of this song:
Gary Lewis & the Playboys' string of hits were some of the dullest and weakest the 60's produced. There's a reason you don't hear them on Oldies radio. Take this one for example. Somehow this lame little ditty got all the way up to #2. Anyone remember it?
(sound of crickets chirping)
I didn't think so.
Harsh? Perhaps. But he has a point. I certainly am conjuring up no memories of this tune. I’m sure it must have been the likes of Dick Bartley or Casey Kasem that are responsible yet again for me hearing it at all. Because it does have a check-mark next to it in the Whitburn book. But I’m not linking the title with any melody.
That’s the thing about Gary Lewis & the Playboys. They charted twelve hits in the top 40, but how many of them do you actually remember? Personally, I remember “This Diamond Ring,” “Count Me In” and “Everybody Loves a Clown.” Beyond that, I’m drawing a blank. You can blame payola, or Lewis’ famous father giving his career a boost if you wish, but the truth of the matter is, no matter the reason for their popularity back in the day, their output just hasn’t really stood the test of time.
Lewis himself credits this song’s brevity (one minute and fifty six seconds) to its great success (“DJs loved it,” he claimed). Oh and...sigh, it’s a cover. Brian Hyland—yes, the “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini” guy—got to this first. So I need to listen to both versions for context.
All right, listening to two versions of this song is one too many. Possibly two too many. Especially considering the Lewis version pretty much clones the arrangement of Hyland’s, even throwing in the whistling intro. Anyway, we’ve heard what Lewis sounds like paired up with a good song with his first two hits, and the two don’t completely cancel each other out. Here we get to hear him paired up with a substandard song, and the results are absolutely dreary.
Seriously, I’m trying to think of a reason this charted so high and I’m drawing a blank. I could actually hear why this groups first two hits were such smashes; they were good songs and the production made them really sparkle. This one just lies there like a dead fish. The best I can say about this is a) it’s well-produced and b) it’s mercifully short.
Especially letter “b” above. Thank the Stars for small mercies.
Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs: “Wooly Bully”
Entered the chart on: 5/10/65
Peaked on: 6/5/65
Weeks at #2: 2
Songs at #1: “Help Me Rhonda” by the Beach Boys and “Back in My Arms Again” by the Supremes
Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, no matter how you look at them, are a damn strange band. First, there is the matter of their image. I’m guessing Domingo “Sam the Sham” Samudio decided, on account of his angular features and Van Dyke beard, that he looked good in sultan drag, and the rest of the band just fell in behind him on that.
Second, there is the matter of this song. On the surface, it’s following in the footsteps of the Kingsmen, more of that scrappy garage-y rock, only this time with Tex-Mex spice. But dig a little deeper and...um...huh? Well, let’s examine this more closely...
I have a hard time believing this was released on MGM. Really? The label that brought us Connie Francis and Joni James also brought us something this raucous and crude? It hardly seems possible!
While Sam’s cheap transistor organ places this squarely in the middle 60s, they seriously tap into the 50s rock spirit with this song, replete with wailing sax solo. It’s Sam’s crazy vocal performance that makes this, and I love that he includes a bit of his heritage in the count-in for the song right at the beginning (“Uno, dos...one, two, tres, cuatro!”).
And then there’s the matter of the lyrics. Um...what is this song about? As near as I can guess, it’s about a werewolf, tapping into the monster craze spurred by Universal’s re-release of their classic monster pictures around this time. But really, it’s anyone’s guess. It’s just funny doggerel for Sam to spit out as he and the band get the party hopping.
And really, I can’t imagine a more fun way to get it done.
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Gary Lewis & the Playboys: “Count Me In”
Entered the chart on: 4/17/65
Peaked on: 5/8/65
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” by Herman’s Hermits
Not to celebrate meaningless milestones, but we’ve hit Review #100 in the Second Hand Goods series. If I’ve learned anything in doing a hundred entries in this series, it’s that the pop charts are a horrible indicator of musical quality. It seems like half the reviews have me wondering why the song I’m reviewing only hit #2, when it seems more deserving than what was #1 that week. The rest have me wondering what the general public must have been thinking, voting with their dollars to have such a song rise as high as #2.
All that said, let’s talk about nepotism. The Playboys were a Disneyland house band discovered by talent agent Snuff Garrett. Someone at Liberty Records “discovered” their drummer was the son of famous comic actor/movie director Jerry Lewis and thrust him into the spotlight (I’m certain Jerry Lewis had nothing to do with this, hence the quotes). The younger Lewis wasn’t exactly comfortable with this decision, by his own admission not the best singer in the band. I understand “studio trickery” was involved in their records when recording his vocals. I’m guessing they used the same technique they used with the likes of Fabian and Shelly Fabares; i.e.: a harried studio engineer sat there “punching” in notes on the multitrack tape as Lewis sang the same note over and over until he got it right.
Nonetheless, Gary and the boys managed to shoot to the top of the charts with their debut hit, “This Diamond Ring.” Part of this was due to the built-in name recognition, part of this was due to the quality of the songwriting. Reportedly, co-writer Al Kooper was none too thrilled with what they did to his song, envisioning it as an R&B song suitable for the likes of the Temptations. He described Gary’s rendition as “bubblegum [expletive]” (wow, two songs in a row?).
I remembered this song as being similar; a song with potential let down by poor singing. Let’s see if it holds up:
Well, that’s some kind of amazing intro! I like how the piano and celeste kind of syncopate, offering counterpoint to one another. The celeste glissandos add a nice hook to the tune. The keyboard playing altogether is excellent. I assume that’s band member John West providing the proto-Benny Andersson-style piano playing on this (and there’s a little organ in the background near the end). Actually, it might be multi-instrumentalist Leon Russell, who arranged this.
I do remember this being a good song and it definitely is. I can’t rate it too highly, though, because it has one drawback, and predictably that’s Lewis’ voice. To be fair, he’s not awful, just thin and lacking in range. It’s just disappointing that for all the brilliant production that was lavished on this record, it just could have been so much better with a stronger singer to sell it.
So...yes, something of a wasted opportunity, sadly.
Herman’s Hermits: “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat”
Entered the chart on: 2/20/65
Peaked on: 3/27/65
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Stop! In the Name of Love” by the Supremes
Let me tell you the story of Goldie and the Gingerbreads, the first “girl group” to play their own instruments. Goldie (vocals and harmonica), Carole (guitar), Margo (organ) and Ginger (drums), four girls from New York who briefly relocated to London in search of fame and fortune.
It sounds like I’m off on a wild tangent to start this review but stick with me. I swear this connects.
You see, in 1964, the girls’ management offered them a tune called “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat.” Carole hated it and dismissed it as “bubblegum [expletive],” disgusted that it veered so far from their usual style (imagine a distaff version of the Young Rascals). But Goldie said they had to do it because management had the final say, blah blah blah. The result: a top 40 hit in the UK, television appearances, and so on and so forth.
Meanwhile, over on our side of the pond, Beatlemania had spurred a wave of Anglophilia the likes of which had never been equalled. So it makes sense that MGM, eager to cash in, rush-released a cover version by a group of London pretty boys known as Herman’s Hermits to the US market. Goldie and her cohorts were pissed off. Sure, they didn’t like the song, but they felt it was their song. To be cheated out of a hit in their home country had to be frustrating.
I imagine it wouldn’t have been so bad had the artists doing the song were the actual Beatles or something, as opposed to a gaggle of Bobby Rydells with Cockney accents. Obviously, a manufactured group selected for their non-threatening, boyish looks. Even if their lead singer looks like Bobby Brady. Seriously, have you ever seen Peter Noone and Mike Lookinland in the same room together?
Well, I do like the guitar intro to this one, and it has a nice beat to it. Can’t compare to the beat on “Have I the Right” by the Honeycombs, though. And I’ll always be comparing this to the Gingerbreads’ original. Margo’s swinging Hammond organ and Goldie’s raspy, undeniably rock-inflected voice give a little bit of a flair to what’s otherwise a pretty weak song.
You really don’t get any of that with this version. Peter Noone and co. sing fine, technically, but they’re just so twee. This rendition just winds up pretty flat and empty in the end.
And, as previously stated, it was never all that great a song to begin with.
Saturday, November 5, 2016
The Zombies: “She’s Not There” Entered the chart on: 11/7/64 Peaked on: 12/12/64 Weeks at #2: 1 Song at #1: “Mr. Lonely” by Bobby Vinton
It’s funny, I was looking forward to 1964 so much. That was before I examined the year more closely. After that first rush of Beatlemania, it’s kind of a roller-coaster ride, alternating classics and crap. At least we end on a high.
Here at the end of the year we get another British Invasion act. The Zombies were probably the most musically sophisticated of those bands from the first wave of the British Invasion, thanks to the one-two punch of Rod Argent’s jazzy organ playing and the evocative, smoky vocals of Colin Blunstone. It’s odd, it took me a while to appreciate Blunstone’s voice, and via two cover versions from his post-Zombies years—his 1972 chamber-pop rendition of Denny Laine’s “Say You Don’t Mind” and a 1981 rendition of Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?*”
While researching this feature, I was surprised to learn how few hits the Zombies scored, a grand total of three top ten hits, and that’s it. Meanwhile, the Dave Clark Five charted 17 top 40 hits between 1964 and 1967, all of which you most assuredly have forgotten (I know I have). Life can be so unfair (I mean, just look at what’s in the #1 spot this week! Really, people?). I suppose it’s better than in their native land, though, where this was their only top 40 entry, peaking at #12. Santana’s cover (#11) was more successful over there, as were both Blunstone and Argent in their post-Zombies careers.
Needless to say, this is one of those songs I’ve been eager to review, so let’s not carry on dilly-dallying...
Man, this band was super-tight! The way Argent’s electric piano meshes with Hugh Grundy’s drums over the instrumental intro is not something you hear unless a band really has it together! And as much as I love Blunstone’s singing—seriously, I could listen to his voice all day—the harmonies on this are to die for. I’m assuming that’s Argent and bass player Chris White on backing vocals on this. And I like the way everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, White with the little bass riff leading into the second verse, Argent with the crazy electric piano solo in the middle eight.
Lyrically, this song was way ahead of its time. I was expecting to do lots of these sorts of songs about obsessive love/lust in the early “new wave” era (circa 1979-81), not at the dawn of the British Invasion. The tone of Blunstone’s voice over the refrain really sells the fanatical tone of the lyric. And I have to say, there’s sort of a subtext to this. On the surface, it’s a song about an unfaithful woman that lied about it, and dumped the protagonist in a cruel and uncaring fashion. Dig deeper, and you’ll get to that wild chorus, where the protagonist reveals his crazy obsession with this woman.
That’s why I believe this is a lust song, not a love song. These two were making some steamy, hot love in the past, and he misses it. Needs it, like a junkie looking for a fix. But she’s not there.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
*the latter is actually a collaboration with ex-National Health keyboardist Dave Stewart. Blunstone was standing in for Stewart’s usual vocal collaborator, Canterbury folk siren Barbara Gaskin.
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers: “Last Kiss”
Entered the chart on: 9/26/64
Peaked on: 11/7/64
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Baby Love” by the Supremes
Just when I think I’m in the clear, I get blind-sided. For example, once 1959 rolled over into 1960, I thought I was home free, and wouldn’t have to worry about being troubled by Andy Williams songs. And then “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” pops up in 1963 like a coconut falling from a tree onto my head.
Likewise, I thought the fad for “death songs” had long passed. And now here’s “Last Kiss,” taunting me like a bully on a playground. For those who don’t know, the “death song” was a fad from roughly 1959-1963 for melodramatic songs portraying the tragic death of a teenager. Such hits as Pat Boone’s “Moody River,” Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her,” Dickey Lee’s “Patches” and Mark Dinning’s much-mocked “Teen Angel” all exemplify the style, and are all various degrees of execrable.
It got so out of control that the trend generated an answer song, “Let’s Think About Living” by Bob Luman, which is oddly not as well-remembered as the songs it’s referencing. The final nail in the coffin was “I Want My Baby Back” by Jimmy Cross, a macabre parody song in which the protagonist’s girlfriend dies in a car accident, and he misses her so much he digs up her grave and crawls into her coffin to be by her side. It was not a hit, but its egregious poor taste extrapolated the general tackiness of the style to absurd degrees, and it went on to become a favorite on Dr. Demento’s radio show.
If “Last Kiss” seems a bit dated in a post-Beatles world, that’s because it’s a cover version. Wayne Cochran & the C. C. Riders originally recorded it in 1961, but failed to have a hit with it. For some reason, J. Frank Wilson’s remake struck a chord with record buyers whereas the original did not. I suppose that [sigh, again] this means I need to listen to the original as well.
Embarrassingly, I must admit I have a history with this song. My cousins owned the 1970s CanCon cover by Wednesday* and I, for some reason, loved it and played it all the time. Eventually they wound up just giving me the record.
OK, the best thing about Wayne Cochran’s original has nothing to do with the song, and everything to do with Cochran’s outrageous platinum blond pompadour. Thought it was only women who teased their hair into the stratosphere? Unh-unh!
Cochran’s original is more “rockabilly,” but both lay it on awful thick, what with the wailing female backing vocals on loan from Paul Anka. I’d swear that was Anka laying down the overdone, Liberace-like piano track on this, which sounds oddly ornate (and out of place) for this type of song.
Wilson’s voice is a lot more overwrought than Cochran’s. He never goes into Paul Anka-like histrionic fits, but he has this weepy tone that lets you know he’s trying to manipulate you into crying over this terrible tragedy. He also has kind of a pinched, nasal tone that’s none too appealing.
I can’t let Wilson shoulder all the blame for this. Cochran, who wrote it, is fully responsible for the monotonous see-saw vocal line, to say nothing of the stomach-turning lyrics. Really, the entire song makes me cringe, but perhaps never more so than the “She’s gone to heaven so I’ve got to be good, etc.” bit. Apart from the nauseating Christian ideation implied, let’s just say I don’t believe that the teenaged protagonist intends to remain faithful to his late sweetheart for the rest of his life.
Call me a cynic, but there you have it.
*they lost the original record sleeve, so they made a hand-made one out of construction paper, including painstakingly-rendered hand-written Sussex label logo in Magic Marker. I think that was the best part of the deal.
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Martha & the Vandellas: “Dancing in the Street” Entered the chart on: 9/5/64 Peaked on: 10/17/64 Weeks at #2: 2 Song at #1: “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” by Manfred Mann
Is this really our first Motown hit? Seems like it but, no, the Miracles’ “Shop Around” already made an appearance here. Actually, though, it makes a lot of sense: everyone remembers Beatlemania, but the other thing that happened in 1964 was that Motown broke through. After Phil Spector set a new standard with pop music production with the Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby,” lots of folks took the ball and ran with it, including the explosion of performing, songwriting and producing talent at Motown. This song was co-written by someone you might know, future Second Hand Goods featured artist Marvin Gaye. I’ll let you figure out which song he’ll be appearing with*.
Martha Reeves may not have been a “face” like Mary Wells or Diana Ross, but I think she and her Vandellas are underrated. “Heat Wave” is one of my most beloved Motown hits and this one has had a long life as well. An amusing review over at RateYourMusic goes: “In case anybody was wondering how Bowie and Jagger did not get better reviews for their version of this song, you may not have heard the original. It is more than somewhat better.”
“More than somewhat better.” That’s an understatement!
Songs like this make me yearn for the days of real instruments on records. That horn section, oh my! And it sounds like there’s a baritone sax honking away in the background the whole time. There’s lots of background touches that are so nice on this one, the piano, the Vandellas’ backing harmonies, and so forth. Supposedly someone was banging a chain on the floor to amplify that monster beat. I can believe it!
But really, it’s Martha’s lead voice that makes this one so special. She has such a wonderful tone and it’s just a joy to listen to her, the way she she sings “Everywhere around the world” the second time gets me every time. So splendid, hardly anyone could touch her in her prime.
I think this might be the first time we get “mention as many localities in the major radio markets so we can be sure this gets airplay” kind of lyrics. Later on, this would come across as blatant pandering** (“The Heart of Rock & Roll” by Huey Lewis & the News, anyone?) but I’ll grade this on a curve due to the quality of everything else. And at least it’s not a dance craze record, just a song that celebrates the simple joy of dancing itself.
It’s songs like this that display the superiority of the Motown era to the Cameo-Parkway era, as if there were any doubt.
*I know I keep acting like this is some kind of arcane knowledge of which I am the only wizened overseer, but it really isn’t. This information is out there for anyone to seek out.
**Not just “later on,” actually. Anyone else remember Tommy Facenda’s “High School U.S.A.”? “Hey, he mentioned my high school! I feel so special!”
Saturday, October 29, 2016
The Newbeats: “Bread and Butter” Entered the chart on: 8/22/64 Peaked on: 9/19/64 Weeks at #2: 2 Songs at #1: “The House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals and “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison
This is typical of our luck here at Second Hand Goods. First of all, we must have had half a dozen hits by the Four Seasons parked in the #1 spot in past reviews. Trust us to get one of the cheap imitations to review instead of the real thing! Also, look at those songs in the #1 spot this time! I’d rather be reviewing those! Who wouldn’t?
Well, I always thought this was a New York band. I thought the backing singers had a New York accent, a la the Royal Teens in “Short Shorts” (another song I wish I was listening to instead of this one). On closer examination, their Southern accents (they’re from Nashville) are readily apparent.
It’s the lead vocal that makes this such a chore to listen to. I guess people in 1964 had a stronger tolerance for the shrill. His voice is just so grating. People who complain about the Bee Gees should be strapped down and forced to listen to this until they scream for mercy. I reckon about two times ought to do it.
I wish I could say this has a saving grace but...nope. The lyrics are inane fluff and the song is just the same repetitious four-note vamp throughout. Tiresome.
Thursday, October 27, 2016
Johnny Rivers: “Memphis”
Entered the chart on: 6/13/64
Peaked on: 7/11/64
Weeks at #2: 2
Songs at #1: “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys and “Rag Doll” by the Four Seasons
Here’s a song that’s already been around the block a few times. It’s of course a Chuck Berry song, released back in ’59, but weirdly was only a hit in the UK. (#6 on the British pop charts). The version I’m most familiar with is the 1963 instrumental version by guitarist Lonnie Mack, which cracked the top 5. This was another record from my parents’ collection, and one I wore the grooves out of listening to as a kid.
Which brings us to Johnny Rivers. While he was an Italian-American born in New York (real surname: Ramistella), his family moved to Baton Rouge when he was very young, so his Southern Delta accent isn’t a pose, unlike some later artists I’ll be covering. Apparently, he was persona non grata with Elvis Presley on account of this song. Elvis wanted to cover this using this arrangement, but Johnny got there first and had a huge hit with it.
Well, I daresay I think the Beatles are the ones to thank for something like this making it back on the charts. Real rock & roll, the likes of which hasn’t been heard in quite a while. À la the Kingsmen, we get background chatter to give it a spontaneous feel. Other than that, there’s not a lot to it. Guitars and drums. Like I said, real rock & roll.
Johnny does credit to the Chuck Berry original. He has a twang to his voice and, as I said before, it doesn’t seem phony. There isn’t really a lot more to say about this. A solid, old-school rock & roll number.
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Millie Small: “My Boy Lollipop”
Entered the chart on: 6/6/64
Peaked on: 7/4/64
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys
We’re going into what appears to be a lull in the Beatles’ popularity. It must have been a relief to the Beatles’ hate squad to see an old-school musical song by someone from the old guard (namely jazz legend Louie Armstrong* with the title song from Hello Dolly) topping the charts after that first rush of Beatlemania.
It turned out not to be the case. What really happened was that Capitol grabbed the reins of control over the Beatles catalogue, and began metering out their releases at a more moderate pace. So Beatles songs continued to top the charts for the rest of the year, and the decade, proving this was no mere fad like the Twist had been.
That said, let’s examine the case of the first artist on Second Hand Goods from a third-world country. Namely, an eighteen-year-old girl from Jamaica named Millie Small (née Millicent Smith). It wouldn’t be the first time Antillean music would make it to the U.S. pop charts. Cuban bandleaders like Perez Prado had topped the charts multiple times in the 50s, and then there was the calypso craze (spearheaded by Harry Belafonte and his “Banana Boat Song”) that came and went. This is the first time “ska” ever appeared on the charts, and unlike the “Banana Boat Song,” it wasn’t the beginning of a trend. In fact, poor Millie never scored a second hit**.
Well, I have a hard time believing she’s eighteen. Based on this, if you’d told me she was eight years old, I’d have a hard time refuting that claim. She has this voice that sounds like her ovaries never dropped. An “acquired taste,” I guess.
For sure the arrangement is what sells this song even if you don’t like Millie’s “little girl” voice. Those horn blasts are impossible to resist. There’s also an extremely raunchy harmonica part, which blasts into a solo in the middle eight that is by far my favorite feature of this song. I heard somewhere that it’s actually a young Rod Stewart blowing the mouth harp on this tune. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s a funny bit of trivia if so.
So...enjoyable, but based on this I can’t imagine her having a lasting career.
*I have been known, on occasion, to offer up my own impression of Louie Armstrong singing the Schaeffer Beer jingle. It’s probably not something I should be doing, but there you are. **technically she did, as the follow-up single “Sweet William” was a top 40 hit. But peaking at #40 is not an unqualified success by any standard. Maybe when I finish this feature I’ll do songs that peaked at #40.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
The Beatles: “Do You Want to Know a Secret”
Entered the chart on: 4/11/64
Peaked on: 5/9/64
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Hello Dolly” by Louis Armstrong
Oh look, the top two on my negative ninth birthday!
You see, every once in a while, the Beatles thought they ought to throw George a bone and give him a substandard tune to sing, something not good enough for #1, but OK for #2. When I was starting out with my pop music charts exploration (i.e.: after acquiring my first copy of the Whitburn book), I noticed this was one of the Beatles early hits I had not heard. I originally hypothesized they couldn’t all be winners, and most albums need their filler. But are there hidden depths here that I missed on first listening? Let’s find out...
I have to admit, that ringing guitar intro is beautiful. George Martin’s doing, I imagine. I’m surprised how much George (Harrison, not Martin) is flying solo on this tune. Not until we get to the second refrain do we get Paul and John offering reverbed “doo-wah-doo” backing harmonies. There’s also some unidentified cracking percussion instrument (a “whip”?) turning up about half-way through, during the bridge. I imagine that’s also George Martin’s doing.
Well, I can certainly appreciate the craft that went into this, but I’m still not really feeling it. I reiterate: they can’t all be winners. George Martin does a lovely job with the production, making it sleek and shiny as a chrome fender but the song itself? Meh. Boilerplate Beatles.
The Beatles: “Twist and Shout”
Entered the chart on: 3/21/64
Peaked on: 4/4/64
Weeks at #2: 4
Song at #1: “Can’t Buy Me Love” by the Beatles
The Beatles’ debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show created a craze heretofore unseen in popular music. Not even Elvis Presley’s iconic debut caused such a commotion. Of course, a big part of the Beatles’ absolute dominance of the pop charts has to do with the backlog of material they’d accrued; they may have debuted with their then-current single, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” but they had already been a “thing” in the UK since ’62.
Obviously, the pop music industry, being then as now a den of crass opportunists, rushed to fill the void. Numerous labels—namely Capitol, Swan, Vee-Jay, Tollie* and Atco—all wound up releasing Beatles singles at once. On top of that, MGM blew the dust off of one of the recordings by lounge singer Tony Sheridan featuring the Beatles as the backing band (a rendition of the moldy oldie “My Bonnie”) and that, likewise, charted during this period.
Not wishing to be left out, those clowns at London International assembled a group of girls dubbed the Carefrees, exhumed “We Love You Conrad” from the [stifles laughter] “rock” musical Bye Bye Birdie and thanks to the magic of Mad Libs™ style name substitution, released the result as “We Love You Beatles.” This too hit the charts, despite being utterly worthless.
With all that said, it’s odd that the first Beatles song I should review is a cover, albeit a beloved one. Little known, the Isley Brothers’ version on which the Beatles so obviously based their version is not the original. That honor goes to the Top Notes, whose version was produced by none other than Phil Spector. I have not heard that version, so I need to educate myself...
I have to tell you, after being familiar with later versions, hearing the Top Notes version is...weird. It has a completely different feel, despite being full of the rock energy that the later versions also have. Reportedly, Bert Berns (who co-wrote the song with Bill “Righteous Brothers” Medley) hated what Spector did with his tune, so he helmed the Isley Brothers version himself.
And with all that said, let us finally get round to the serious business of examining Beatlemania in action.
John Lennon owns this version. His voice on this is kind of like a blown-out speaker, and it totally works for the tune, riding over the top of his and George’s rubber-band-y guitars. And we of course get Paul McCartney’s “woo” in the background, on loan from Little Richard (a fact Little Richard would be glad to point out to you, whether you asked him to do so or not). The harmonized “aahs,” the crack of Ringo’s drums, John’s cat-like scream near the end, it’s all just so perfect.
You really get what a revelation the Beatles must have been listening to this, and you only really understand it when doing a feature like the one I’ve been doing. With a few exceptions (see: Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin’”) “black music” began going in a direction other than rock & roll, and there were few white artists still doing an effective job of it. We’ve seen Dion and the Kingsmen and, of course, Elvis**, but little in the way of real rock & roll outside of that. To have four kids with funny haircuts from Liverpool going for the spirit of Buddy Holly and absolutely nailing it must have been magical.
Pop music would never be the same. And I mean that in the best way possible.
*All right, Tollie was a subsidiary of Vee-Jay, albeit one that seemed to exist solely to capitalize on the Beatles success. That’s not strictly true, but it sure feels like it. Incidentally, one of the last singles released by Tollie was Jimmy Cross’ infamous “I Want My Baby Back.”
**Well, Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney had some fine uptempo rockers as well, but we only covered their ballads here at Second Hand Goods.
Thursday, October 20, 2016
Lesley Gore: “You Don’t Own Me”
Entered the chart on: 1/11/1964
Peaked on: 2/1/1964
Weeks at #2: 3
Song at #1: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles
I really don’t think you could ask for a more symbolic representation of Pop Music’s Changing of the Guard than just a glance of that top 2. Lesley Gore basically handed the baton to the Beatles, allowing them to lead the charge for the rest of the decade.
Not that Lesley Gore had trouble racking up hits after this. The likes of Connie Francis and Frankie Avalon would never visit the charts again, but Lesley was still a star on the rise.
The “girl group” sound was still big business in early ’64. Lesley was sort of a one-girl reduction of the style, only instead of the Angels’ tales of being in love with the “bad boy,” her early singles were all mini-dramas on teenage romance.
And then there’s this, her fourth single and second biggest hit, the one where she asked producer Quincy Jones (yes, that Quincy Jones!) to provide her with something she could sink her teeth into. And damn if he didn’t come up with the goods!
Much has been made of the lyrics of this song, a powerful statement of female independence. I could point out that two men wrote it but I really don’t want to burst your bubble. Besides, this is really good! It drags you in immediately with the dramatic three-note guitar hook laid over the staccato piano chord pattern.
Really, this is all about Lesley. She really proves she’s no lightweight here, singing-wise. There’s no less than two key changes, and she really goes for the jugular with her vocal in the refrain. And did I mention she was only seventeen when she sang this? Wow!
It’s easy with the benefit of hindsight to say something like this was inevitable from the future hostess of PBS’ LGBT affairs program In the Life but at the time, this must have had jaws on the floor. Who would have guessed that the cute girl next door who sang about who had who’s class ring had hidden depths? Speaking of hidden depths, there’s some Lesley Gore albums that collectors know about that the general public don’t: 1972’s Someplace Else Now (her stab at the nascent “singer-songwriter” genre) and 1976’s Love Me by Name (her reunion with Quincy Jones, a very sophisticated adult pop-soul album).
In the meantime, there’s this, perhaps the shiniest gold nugget in her 60s discography.
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
The Kingsmen: “Louie Louie”
Entered the chart on: 11/30/63
Peaked on: 12/14/63
Weeks at #2: 6
Songs at #1: “Dominique” by the Singing Nun and “There! I’ve Said It Again” by Bobby Vinton
And so we say farewell to 1963 with this song. Spoiler alert for people unfamiliar with popular music history: we’ll be saying goodbye to a lot of things in 1964. Remember those consistent hitmakers up to this point? Most of them will be long gone by next year. You’ll see why ere long.
In the meantime...what more is there to say about this, perhaps the quintessential “garage rock” anthem? I will say that the fact that it stalled at Number Two for six freaking weeks behind two of the most white-bread pieces of crap is extremely suspicious. You see, there was a rumour that there was all sorts of filthy sailor talk and pornographic poesy lurking under the murky production and Jack Ely’s marble-mouthed delivery. It wasn’t true, of course, but it apparently required an FBI investigation, of all things, to get to the bottom of things. They could have just listened to Richard Berry’s original and saved a lot of time and taxpayer money!
In any case, the rumour help build the song’s legend, and went on to make it the most-covered song of all time.
I’ve talked about iconic riffs before, but I don’t think anything can top that electric piano intro to this. After years of increasing slickness in rock & roll, we’re back in Sun Records territory with this. This literally sounds like it was recorded in someone’s garage, the vocal mic sounds like it’s four feet away*, while the drums sound like they’re at the other end of the room.
The high point of this is undeniably the guitar solo, which somehow I completely forget about every time I listen to it. I don’t know why, the stinging tone the guitarist uses absolutely slayed me this time. The sludgy production is part of the song’s charm; the band’s energy and excitement comes through even though it sounds like it was recorded on a cheap Montgomery Ward’s tape recorder.
This is one of those records like “Walk—Don’t Run” and “Be My Baby” that inspired lots of people to pick up instruments and form bands. There weren’t a lot of songs that sounded like this before, but there were tons after.
Village Stompers: “Washington Square”
Entered the chart on: 10/5/63
Peaked on: 11/23/63
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “I’m Leaving It Up to You” by Dale & Grace
So...it seems that we here in the States weren’t completely barren of Dixieland jazz in the 60s. Here we have a homegrown group; though as you can tell from their name and the title of their one big hit, they hail from New York and not N’awlins. They’re considered to be adjacent to the folk boom we’ve already been examining with some earlier hits this year, and called their style “folk jazz.”
There’s a check-mark next to this entry in my copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top 40 Hits, but I can’t say I remember what this sounds like. Time to give myself a little reminder...
Starting with a ragged, almost out-of-tune electric guitar part, we get the lead played on a banjo. This is not what I expected at all! It’s almost like something out of an Ennio Morricone western soundtrack! It doesn’t really start sounding Dixieland until two-thirds of the way through, when the piano and drums finally join in, and the horns, which had been softly crescendoing in the background for a while, finally start blasting fortissimo notes.
I don’t know what it is about these 60s instrumentals, but they have something that really appeals to me. I get the feeling that if I was alive in 1963, I would have owned this record. Simple, yet highly appealing.
Monday, October 17, 2016
The Ronettes: “Be My Baby” Entered the chart on: 9/14/63 Peaked on: 10/12/63 Weeks at #2: 3 Song at #1: “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs
1963 really was the golden age of the “girl group” sound. Not only the Jaynetts, but you may have noticed tunes by the Angels, the Chiffons and the Crystals lurking in the top spot of past review subjects.
This one’s a Phil Spector production, the first to appear in Second Hand Goods. He co-wrote the tune with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who I believe also make their debut appearances on this feature. There’s a lot of superlatives attached to this tune, even more so than “Sally Go Round the Roses,” so it has quite a lot to live up to. Not that I have any doubts, I love this song! And like “There Goes My Baby” from four years earlier, it caused many to step up their game (not least, the previously-alluded-to Brian Wilson).
Now, before we begin the proper review, some of you are probably asking yourself why music of this era sounds the way it does. That’s because the main way these pop songs were disseminated was via the transistor radio. Phil Spector and his contemporaries were trying to make music that sounded good coming from a 2-inch speaker.
Ah yes, that much-imitated drum-handclap hook. With castanets adding accents! Exquisite! Jack Nitzsche, another pop music genius, arranged this, and it’s really superb. There’s a cello solo in the middle eight that kind of gets me right here.
I held back in talking about Veronica “Ronnie” Spector’s voice, which is an absolute treasure. She has this aching sob in her voice that makes listening to her an utterly compelling experience. The Ronettes didn’t have a huge amount of hits (this was undeniably their biggest), but Ronnie wound up being highly influential largely on the basis of this one song (Hell, Eddie Money coaxed her out of retirement to reference it in his “Take Me Home Tonight”). The backing harmonies are likewise sumptuously gorgeous, and it’s almost Mellotron-like in the way the backing singers meld with the strings, forming a kind of “additive synthesis” unison timbre.
That’s the magic of Phil Spector’s so-called “Wall of Sound.”
Pop perfection, it demands to be heard.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
The Jaynetts: “Sally Go Round the Roses”
Entered the chart on: 9/7/63
Peaked on: 9/28/63
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton
So...we’ve had folk revival. We haven’t had “girl group” yet, but that’s about to change, and how! Here we have girl group in the guise of folk revival. Or is it the other way round? In any case, this was not an adaptation of an old folk song, but it was made to sound like one, done in the then-popular “girl group” style. They must have had some measure of success in that regard, as folk artists such as Pentangle, Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Tim Buckley adopted the song as their own.
The more I read up on this, the more I am fascinated by it. The Wikipedia article on the song makes producer Artie Butler out to be a sort of Brian Wilson-esque pop genius, with “Sally...” as his personal “Good Vibrations.” Reportedly, $60,000 was lavished onto the production, and no less than twenty singers performed on the disc. Staggering if true.
This is what I like about this feature. It gets me not only to listen to songs I never would have listened to before (hello, “A Blossom Fell”) but also to sit down and really listen to songs I’d heretofore neglected. Is it shameful that I am actually more familiar with Fanny’s 1975 remake than the original tune? Well, only one way to find out.
This one starts with a piano-led instrumental track, with the voices emanating out of what sounds like a long tunnel. Listening to this, I can believe twenty girls sang on it! This probably has the most striking use of dynamics I’ve heard in any song on Second Hand Goods thus far. No idea who it is singing lead but she sure does a good job of belting out at just the right point (“No, the roses won’t tell your secrets!”)
The backing track is almost hypnotic, raga-like. Is that a harmonium I hear adding accents? Some kind of crude electronic organ? In any case, that $60,000 shows in the striking production on this one. This is a lot more enigmatic and atmospheric than I am used to from records of this era, especially those aimed at the audience this is aiming for (i.e.: twist-crazed teenagers).
Really a gem of 60s pop. I am flabbergasted.
Allan Sherman: “Hello Mudduh! Hello Faddah! (A Letter From Camp)”
Entered the chart on: 8/10/63
Peaked on: 8/24/63
Weeks at #2: 3
Songs at #1: “Fingertips—Pt. 2” by Little Stevie Wonder and “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels
“You know, it is so sad! All your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons!”
Perhaps I should explain.
You see, the melody to this song is not original. We’re in “based on classical” territory again. This is from the “Dance of the Hours” mini-ballet sequence from Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda. Over in the UK, this melody was transformed into the hit ballad “Like I Do” by Welsh songbird Maureen Evans. On our side of the pond, we used the same melody as the basis of a silly comedy routine about a kid’s miserable experience at summer camp.
Like our friends over in the UK, I’ve always found summer camp to be a strange and foreign concept. My summers were spent with my family, going on camping trips or weekend jaunts to the beach. “Summer camp” was this thing I only saw in the movies or on TV. And the kids always seemed to be having a dreadful time. I thought “summer camp” must be for parents who didn’t like their kids, and I felt a bit sorry for kids who were subjected to it.
But enough about me. What does Mr. Sherman have to say?
This is almost a bait-and-switch. The first 15 seconds lure you into thinking this is a straight classical adaptation. Then Allan comes in with his smoke-ravaged voice, and an overly enthusiastic audience reacts to his rendition of this child’s tale of woe. He hits all the targets and then some, escalating from poison-ivy rashes and food poisoning to alligator-infested lakes, malaria and a search party to find lost campers. Not all the references have aged as well; I didn’t “get” the reference to Ulysses that the audience found so hilarious (We are talking James Joyce, right?).
And after all this, we get the surprise that the kid’s only been at camp a day as he composes his letter. Followed by the “twist” ending in which the rain clears up, he sees how much fun the other kids are having, and exhorts his parents to “kindly disregard” his letter. Wait, did he send it or not?
Good Lord, I am over-analyzing a goofy novelty song!
Well, it’s entertaining. Slight, but entertaining. It’s a comedy routine, what more do you want?
But seriously, could someone explain the Ulysses reference to me? Please?
Friday, October 14, 2016
Peter, Paul & Mary: “Blowin’ in the Wind”
Entered the chart on: 7/13/63
Peaked on: 8/17/63
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Fingertips—Pt. 2” by Little Stevie Wonder
This is what I meant about “the next song that I cover by [PPM]” being “more significant.” Specifically, this is the first Bob Dylan song to hit the charts. Now, that’s Nobel Prize Winner Bob Dylan, a claim I would not have been able to make a week ago, except in jest (A friend’s comment: “Go home, Nobel Prize, you’re drunk!”). Bob will be charting tunes himself ere long, as you’ll soon see, but Peter, Paul & Mary saw the significance of his work enough to wish to interpret it themselves.
Of course, I need to refresh my memory of Bob’s original before I tackle the PPM cover, thus I’ll do so right now...
Right, Bob’s original is...more produced than I expected. In that there’s multi-tracking: Bob is backed by two acoustic guitars, one in each channel. I’m just assuming Bob played both parts. And there’s a touch of reverb on his voice, presumably to beef it up. Let’s be fair, especially at this early stage, Bob’s voice was thin, nasal and reedy at best. But there’s a raw honesty there that does a fine job of putting across the lyrics. It’s a beautiful song, and that shines through. Let’s see what PPM do with it:
This is interesting. There’s two guitars here, too, but the instrumental arrangement is different. And they’re singing in harmony from the start, adding an almost imperceptible bit of reverb half-way through the first verse. Mary drops out for the first refrain, leaving the men singing it alone, then sings the start of the second verse solo before they join in on harmonies. And she sings the second and third chorus repeats solo.
So, while everyone else battles it out for which version is superior (“Your version is overly fussy and lame!” cry the Dylan purists. “Your version is poorly-sung and amateurish!” cry his detractors), I’m going to call “push” on this one. There’s lots to recommend both versions. There’s nothing wrong with covering someone else’s song if you have respect for the original, and yet put your unique stamp on it.
That’s precisely what this does.
Thursday, October 13, 2016
The Surfaris: “Wipe Out”
Entered the chart on: 7/6/63
Peaked on: 8/10/63
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Fingertips—Pt. 2” by Little Stevie Wonder
All right! We’re really in the 60s now! Well, maybe it isn’t the “Summer of Love” 60s that people are getting their undies damp for (I’ll say it now: these are songs from the AM dial. Prepare to be disappointed.) but, hey! Folk-revival followed by surf-rock! The detritus of the 50s this ain’t!
Now, I’m sure people are going to point out that “we’ve already had surf-rock” with the Ventures. I’d argue that, like the “proto-folk-revival” of the Brothers Four, the Ventures were “proto-surf-rock.” This is the real deal. I mean, the title references surfing and they have “surf” in their name! How much more surf-y can you get?
Mind you, despite being born and raised in California, and even spending summer vacations on the beach at Santa Cruz, I was never part of the surf culture. I think the closest I come to it is owning the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, and there aren’t even any songs about surfing on that one!
That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy surf-rock. I mean, come on, I’m not Mexican, but I love me a good enchilada. So let’s dig into this enchilada:
We haven’t even started yet and I already have to laugh. This was released on Dot Records. Ah, they’ve come a long way since throwing hideous whitewashed remakes of R&B classics from the likes of Pat Boone and Gale Storm! Speaking of laughing, how about that iconic, yet creepy, spoken intro to this?
Wow, did they put everything through the spring reverb on this? The intro, the guitar, the bass, the drums, it sounds like they did! This won’t win any prizes for complexity, the up-down guitar melody seems to be playing in solid eighth notes. Really, the drummer is the star of the show here, getting some spotlight fills, though I think he’s at his most interesting when the rest of the band comes back in, getting all cymbal-splashy on us.
Though really, I think simplicity is this song’s strength. At a mere two minutes and fifteen seconds, this song would wear out its welcome if it were any longer. As it is, it sticks in the mind in an appealing way. Toe-tapping fun.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Peter, Paul & Mary: “Puff the Magic Dragon”
Entered the chart on: 3/30/63
Peaked on: 5/11/63
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “I Will Follow Him” by Peggy March
Here’s what I meant about the “real” 60s starting in ’63. As in the “peace and love” 60s that people are familiar with, as opposed to the “twisting fad” 60s or the “teenybopper idol” 60s. To think it would all stem from a whimsical children’s song.
Mind you, this isn’t the first we’ve seen of the folk boom. We heard the first squeakings of it way back in 1960 when the Brothers Four brought “Greenfields” to the cusp of the top of the charts. But Peter, Paul & Mary were the ones who really ushered it in, and opened the floodgates. The next song I cover by them is perhaps more significant (being a cover of a song by a soon-to-be major artist) but this is where the 60s as we knew it really began.
I have a history with this song, which extends beyond seeing eccentric Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry performing her 20-minute confessional opus “Oh My My” in concert, a song that weaves this song into it. This song is part of my childhood, and I’m sure must have come up in my elementary school music curriculum at one point. I definitely remember seeing the animated special based on the song on TV, and remembering that like Snoopy Come Home, it made me weepy. The thought of abandoning the childhood wonder of imagination seemed extremely sad to me. Give me a break, I was eight, and a sensitive child.
Well, one could definitely not question their intent on being folk revivalists. After a sea of songs slathered in string orchestrations and electric guitars, the simple arrangement here featuring a single acoustic guitar stands in stark contrast. Paul Stookey’s voice rings out clear as a crystal bell, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers’ harmonies chiming along in the refrain.
It’s extremely simple, not much to talk about except for the wistful storyline of the song, which reads like a children’s fantasy story with an uncommonly downbeat ending (Think Charlotte’s Web, if you need a comparison). It still tugs at my heart-strings after all these years. And while it’s sad, there’s a reality to the message: you have to put away your childhood toys and grow up sometime. Maybe some of those stunted man-children surrounded by comic books and plastic junk their parents bought them back in the 80s need to hear this.
As for the “alternate” interpretation, I won’t even dignify it with a response. Paul Stookey has gone on record time and time again to say that there was no “secret, hidden” message in this song, and I, for one, believe him.
I’m generally not a fan of children’s music, but there’s something about this one. I don’t know what it is, but it appeals to me. Maybe there’s a sentimental side to this old curmudgeon.
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Andy Williams: “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”
Entered the chart on: 3/23/63
Peaked on: 4/13/63
Weeks at #2: 4
Songs at #1: “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons and “I Will Follow Him” by Peggy March
It’s 1963, and we’re only now getting to Andy Williams? Have we hit a time-warp?
People have described Perry Como as being “like your dad singing,” well, that’s precisely how Andy Williams strikes me. Well, perhaps not my dad specifically, he was a terrible singer. But somebody’s dad. And at least Perry Como injected some personality into his singing, and had his Italian heritage to draw upon. All Andy had was a naturally pitch-controlled voice and a collection of conservative sweater vests. He was like the Ward Cleaver of popular music.
While all the other 50s relics kind of faded away, Andy kept on racking up hits into the early 70s. For some reason, his brand of easy listening balladry resonated with people enough to keep buying his records despite the fact that Frank Sinatra he was not. Well, hipsters have glommed onto him a bit on account of the scandalous behavior of his one-time wife, questionably talented chanteuse Claudine Longet. But let us not forget: this is the same man who unleashed the Osmond family on the world.
And yet, I can never count anyone out on this feature. I promised to keep an open mind and I have done so (believe me, I’ll never make fun of Patti Page ever again). And this tune was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, so it must have something going for it. Let’s hope so...
Well, this is more uptempo than I expected. I was anticipating a slushy ballad, but was met with percussive guitar stabs. I guess technically this is a ballad, but it’s awfully uptempo for a song about a guy having trouble dealing with lost love. There’s strings and choir there, but they’re fairly muted and low key. It’s mainly about that guitar and percussion.
The production makes the most of Andy’s voice, double-tracking so he’s harmonizing with himself. He does need some beef there because we’re clearly not going to get a Tony Bennett-level performance out of him, so we need something to keep the listener’s interest.
So, as it turns out, Andy is (rather predictably) the least interesting part of this tune. But it is, nonetheless, interesting. Kudos to producer Robert Mersey for bringing out the best in this record.
Skeeter Davis: “The End of the World”
Entered the chart on: 2/16/63
Peaked on: 3/23/63
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Our Day Will Come” by Ruby & the Romantics
Mary Francis Pennick, known professionally as Skeeter Davis, has already had a bit of a hand in Second Hand Goods, having written lyrics for Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date,” which she sang the first vocal version of. Another SHG alumna, Joni James, also covered the Davis version and had her last Top 40 chart entry with it.
This is a very incestuous entry, speaking in #2 hits terms.
Anyway, I remember this song as being very overwrought. Let’s see if it lives up to my memory of it.
Well, her voice is less whiny than I recall. This song lays it on pretty thick, though. Lyricist Sylvia Dee reportedly drew on sorrow from the death of her father for inspiration. Which comes across as a bit heavy for a song about heartbreak. I mean, as a poor, lonely soul who’s never known love (see the “You Don’t Know Me” review), I imagine being dumped can feel pretty apocalyptic, but still, the glurge-y string orchestration (Chet Atkins again) and see-saw piano arpeggios (almost certainly Floyd Cramer yet again) make this feel awfully manipulative.
And let’s not even get into the spoken word couplet someone insisted on talking Skeeter into putting in there. The whole thing comes across as a cake made entirely of icing, and that’s just not a dish I want to devour.
I feel like someone’s trying too hard to make me feel a certain way, and I hate that!
Monday, October 10, 2016
Dion: “Ruby Baby”
Entered the chart on: 1/26/63
Peaked on: 2/23/63
Weeks at #2: 3
Song at #1: “Hey, Paula” by Paul & Paula and “Walk Like a Man” by the Four Seasons
So...we’ve made it to 1963 unscathed. I’m biding my time until 1964—savvy readers of this feature ought to know what happens then. In the meantime, some interesting developments in ’63 mean it’s shaping up to finally really feel like the 60s, instead of the dregs of the late 50s. Which is fine for me; as much as I enjoyed watching the movie Hairspray*, it’s not a place I’d want to live.
So...we’re back to Dion. Of the Italian-American pretty boys that were in vogue at the time, he is by far my favorite, questionably sexist lyrical content aside. Unlike Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka and the Bobbys, Dion had actual rock & roll credibility, as well as a dynamite singing voice.
That said, I’m not conjuring up a memory of this one in my head. Which is odd, since it’s technically his second-biggest hit**. Clearly I need a refresher course, so let’s get to it!
OK, the Leiber-Stoller credit on the label (his first for Columbia after years with Laurie) gives me hope. As does the stark intro of just guitar chords. Dion’s voice enters, so slinky and loaded with soul. This is almost a throwback to Sun Records rockabilly stuff. I just adore how off-the-cuff Dion’s performance is here, all the casual asides he throws out in between phrases add to the appeal of this one.
Wow! How did I forget this was a thing? Why bother with Tame Elvis when Dion was more in the spirit of those early Elvis sides in ’63 than Elvis was anymore?
Shame on me for forgetting about this! This has to be the best classic rock & roll styled number I’ve covered on Second Hand Goods in a while!
Rating: 5 *the John Waters original, not the musical abomination, thank you. **after “Runaround Sue,” his only #1. As you’ll recall “The Wanderer” went to #2 as well, but only spent one week there.
Sunday, October 9, 2016
Chubby Checker: “Limbo Rock”
Entered the chart on: 9/29/62
Peaked on: 12/22/62
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Telstar” by the Tornadoes
I was going to try a stalling tactic for this review, but there’s no way around it. Let’s just jump in with both feet and get it over with.
Mind you, Chubby Checker, despite his derivative name (and the fact that he’s of average girth), is not a man without talent. He had a strong voice and an uncanny talent for mimicry; listen to his now-forgotten debut hit, “The Class.” Cameo-Parkway used that talent for...um...ripping off Hank Ballard (the original singer of “The Twist,” whose rendition Mr. Checker’s twice #1 version blatantly carbon-copies). Checker blames Cameo-Parkway for ruining his career, making him a laughingstock. I’ll side with the man here, as I’ve heard some of his post C-P singles where it’s revealed, in his heart of hearts, he really wanted to be...Jimi Hendrix? And damn if he didn’t almost pull it off!
In other words, they took a man with scads of potential, and squandered his talents on faddish dance-craze records. I feel no regret for what I’m about to do.
I’ll be perfectly honest: this doesn’t even feel like a “real” song. This is what I call “functional” music. It’s like the Hokey Pokey, or the Chicken Dance. Something a wedding DJ puts on to get kids and grandparents alike out on the dance floor. Chubby tries to enliven this with the laughter, the spoken word breaks (“How low can you go?” Oh, the irony!), but I’m having none of it. The handclaps almost got me into it. Almost. But not quite.
The faux-calypso style, apparently inspired by half an hour of listening to a Harry Belafonte record, feels phoned in. It’s just so repetitive! And the unison sax/whistle repeat of that melody one more time certainly isn’t helping.
I can’t imagine anyone listening to this one on purpose. Obnoxious.
Saturday, October 8, 2016
Elvis Presley: “Return to Sender”
Entered the chart on: 10/27/62
Peaked on: 11/17/62
Weeks at #2: 5
Song at #1: “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by the Four Seasons
So, you’ve tamed your Wild Elvis, now what do you do with him? If you’re Colonel Tom Parker, you’ll have him star in a series of progressively more embarrassing movie musicals until they stop being profitable/Elvis realizes they’re making him look like a dork, decides he’s had enough and exerts his will to exact some damage control on his flagging career.
This tune’s from Girls! Girls! Girls! which is about...honestly, does it really matter? I’m convinced the scripts for Elvis movies were written Mad Libs™-style; you know: “In this film, Elvis plays a [GLAMOUROUS PROFESSION] in [EXOTIC LOCALE], where he falls for a gorgeous young woman played by [CURRENTLY HOT HOLLYWOOD STARLET]. But she resists his charms, until she hears him sing [SONG WRITTEN FOR FILM].” And so on and so forth.
But we’re not here to review Elvis’ filmography (thank the Gods), we’re here to review a song. And this time it’s an uptempo number and not a dreary ballad.
Oh my, is that a baritone sax opening this? I already like this better than that Blue Hawaii sleeping pill!And you sure don’t hear guitar this clean on rock songs anymore! I’d comment on the dated postal reference in the lyrics but, hey, think of that Lady Gaga/Beyoncé feature-length ad for Samsung and how silly
Make no mistake, this is Tame Elvis. You could easily imagine the likes of the Bobbys (Vee, Rydell, et al) singing this. But it’s Elvis. Elvis does his usual Elvis magic to lift average material above the norm. Elvis makes this song not suck.
Friday, October 7, 2016
Gene Pitney: “Only Love Can Break a Heart”
Entered the chart on: 9/29/62
Peaked on: 11/3/62
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals
This is why I was excited for 1962: a hat-trick of absolutely spectacular male soloists all with consecutive songs peaking at #2 in the autumn. Here we have Gene Pitney, and if Roy Orbison had any kind of competition for most potent male balladeer of the early 60s, it had to have been from Gene. Clearly it was a mutual admiration society, since Roy sang at least one song Gene wrote: “Today’s Teardrops.” In fact, before he made it as a soloist, Gene made his bread and butter as a songwriter, having written hits for a couple of other Second Hand Goods’ alumni: “Hello Mary Lou” for Ricky Nelson and “Rubber Ball” for Bobby Vee. Oh, and “He’s a Rebel” for the Crystals! Is this the first instance on SHG where the top 2 are by different artists, yet written by the same person?
Not only was he a versatile vocalist and superior songwriter, but he was multi-talented as an instrumentalist as well, playing and singing everything on his debut hit “(I Wanna) Love My Life Away.” But it’s his expressive tenor voice that he’s best remembered for. He could sometimes border on campy melodrama (see his rendition of the title song from Town Without Pity, one of his most enduring hits) but he was always a captivating listen. He was Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s preferred male interpreter of their material. This song is one of theirs. This has a lot of potential to live up to.
Man, this song doesn’t mess around! A swath of strings and we’re right into the refrain. I imagine Bacharach wanted to hammer in the most memorable and catchy bit of this because, like a lot of his tunes, it’s really oddly constructed. The verses are of differing lengths with melodies and rhythms that jump all over the place. It’s precisely that weirdness that makes Bacharach’s songs memorable. Part of Pitney’s appeal to him is that he—like their preferred female soloist, Dionne Warwick—is able to navigate the unexpected twists and turns of his songs and make it sound natural.
Whoever’s playing the guitar on this deserves an award for making it sound very smooth. None of the changes seem jarring or out-of-place. There’s also a nice whistling hook near the start that’s repeated at the end. Pitney doesn’t go for melodrama here, if anything, he’s under-selling the lyric. But God, that voice is to die for.
Not your usual romantic ballad, by any stretch of the imagination. You could write a term paper on this.
Nat “King” Cole: “Ramblin’ Rose”
Entered the chart on: 8/18/62
Peaked on: 9/22/62
Weeks at #2: 2
Song at #1: “Sherry” by the Four Seasons
For those of you who have been following Second Hand Goods from the very beginning, you’ll remember that I have a history with Nat “King” Cole. Namely, that he was the first recipient of a five-star award on this feature, and with a song I’d never even heard before: the exquisite ballad “A Blossom Fell.”
Full disclosure time: I’ve never heard this before, either, his last top 5 entry before his tragic death in 1965. To be fair, most of his best-known, most enduring hits (“Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa” et al) pre-date the rock era. So it’s not inconceivable that I’ve never heard this before: until starting this feature, I’d never heard any song of his newer than 1954. After “A Blossom Fell,” I have high hopes for this one. Don’t let me down, Nat...
You know, I think I might have been mistaken. This sounds awfully familiar. I must have heard this somewhere at some point. I looked at the songwriting credit and thought, “This was written by the Sherman Brothers?” Well, yes and no. It was written by a pair of brothers with the surname Sherman, but not those Sherman Brothers. Got that?
It’s hard not to bop your head along to this. It’s got a bouncy rhythm that carries you along with it, with the guitar leading the way. It sounds awfully old-school for 1962, but then it’s Nat, so would you expect any less? It’s obvious he’d been smoking like a chimney at this point, but I could still listen to that voice of his all day long.
In a way, this is is Nat’s way of keeping up with the Joneses. Or at least the Brook Bentons (he pilfered his musical director, Belford Hendricks) and the Ray Charleses (the orchestration with the massive mixed-voice choir seems to be on loan from “I Can’t Stop Loving You”). This one’s all about that infectious singalong refrain. Nat, being an old pro, knows this, and before the final chorus repeat commands, “One more time, everybody!”
Admit it, you were singing along, too.