Saturday, November 26, 2016

SHG: The Beach Boys: "Barbara Ann"

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.

Rating: 5

*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

SHG: Len Barry: "1-2-3"

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.

Rating: 4

Friday, November 18, 2016

SHG: The Toys: "A Lover's Concerto"

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.

Rating: 5

Monday, November 14, 2016

SHG: Roy Head: "Treat Her Right"

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.

Rating: 4

*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.

SHG: Bob Dylan: "Like a Rolling Stone"

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?

Rating: 5

Friday, November 11, 2016

SHG: Gary Lewis & the Playboys: "Save Your Heart for Me"

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.

Rating: 1

SHG: Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs: "Wooly Bully"

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 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,, 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.

Rating: 5

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

SHG: Gary Lewis & the Playboys: "Count Me In"

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.

Rating: 3

SHG: Herman's Hermits: "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat"

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.

Rating: 2

Saturday, November 5, 2016

SHG: The Zombies: "She's Not There"

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.

Rating: 5

*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

SHG: J.Frank Wilson: "Last Kiss"

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.

Rating: 0

*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

SHG: Martha & the Vandellas: "Dancing in the Street"

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.

Rating: 5

*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!”