I hate to call bullshit on a respected historical institution, but the JFK Library’s chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis is missing important and vital information that would help the public put the crisis in perspective. I’m specifically referring to the entry for October 24, 1962:
Chairman Khrushchev replies indignantly to President Kennedy’s October 23 letter stating in part:“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”
The astute historian will likely find this single entry woefully inadequate, and correct the oversight as follows:
1. Chairman Khrushchev replies indignantly to President Kennedy’s October 23 letter stating in part:“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”
2. James Brown and The Famous Flames performed at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem on the night of October 24; the recording of the performance would prove to be a major factor in establishing the commercial viability of live recordings and a significant development in the history of soul music.
Yes, while Khruschev and Kennedy were wagging their dicks at each other, James Brown was busy triggering orgasms in an audience of 1500 people.
Those who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis (like my parents) invariably spice their stories by describing a world paralyzed by the fear of imminent nuclear armageddon. They give us the impression that every ear in the whole wide world was glued to their transistor radios or vacuum tube TV’s, terrified that at any moment they would receive word that the missiles were on their way. The JFK Library reinforces this narrative by titling their section on the crisis “The World on the Brink.”
Did James Brown, The Famous Flames, the staff at the Apollo and the 1500 concert-goers live in some kind of bubble that shielded them from the daily news? Why weren’t they hiding in fallout shelters or crawling under their beds like everyone else?
Through diligent research and my extraordinary ability to put two and two together, I have managed to solve the mystery. One of the anecdotes often cited in histories of the crisis describes how an American U-2 drifted into Soviet air space on October 27, when tensions were at the breaking point. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara heard the news and rushed out of a meeting shouting, “This means war with the Soviet Union!” In full Paul Revere mode, McNamara immediately called the President, who, according to the accepted mythology, received the news with unruffled detachment: “There’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.”
The push-button-activated taping system in the White House confirms that JFK did indeed utter that bit of folklore wisdom, but in one of the many attempts to burnish his legacy, the record was deliberately tampered with to make JFK appear cool and calm in the midst of the crisis. The real conversation featuring that phrase took place in the Oval Office two days before, on the morning of October 25th while Jack was having breakfast with brother Bobby:
BOBBY: Hey! Did you hear James Brown played to a packed house at the Apollo last night? Here we are facing imminent worldwide destruction and the guy decides the show must go on? Either he’s a nut or one of the most dedicated performers alive.
JACK: Well, there’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.
James Brown was the son-of-a-bitch who didn’t get the word! As for the 1500 fans who filled the Apollo, they were obviously the smartest people alive at the time. Shit, if you think you’re going to be vaporized any second and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it, you might as well go out partying!
James Brown can be forgiven for not keeping up with the news at that particular juncture in his career. Though he had consistently hit the Top 10 on the R&B charts, he had yet to reach the Billboard Top 30. And while he was widely known as a must-see live act, his performances were still limited to the Chitlin’ Circuit (since refashioned to “Urban Theater Circuit”), making it difficult to reach mainstream (translation: white) audiences. Brown strongly believed he had to try something different and proposed a live album to his masters at King Records. Displaying insight similar to the MLB executives who fought television every step of the way and allowed football to supplant baseball as the American pastime, head man Syd Nathan squashed the idea, arguing that a live recording would discourage fans from attending Brown’s performances.
Imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit most Americans admire, Brown decided to fund the enterprise himself, forking over a lot of his hard-earned dough to pay for the recording equipment, theater rental and tuxedos for the Famous Flames. Even after Brown submitted the finished product, King Records dragged its feet on the release (the album wouldn’t hit the shelves until May 1963). According to James Maycock’s superb retrospective on the album from The Guardian:
As owner of the recordings, Brown forced Nathan to buy the tapes from him. But Nathan wasn’t impressed. Brown: “He didn’t like the way we went from one tune to another without stopping . . . I guess he was expecting exact copies of our earlier records, but with people politely applauding in between.” Once Nathan finally agreed to press 5,000 copies of the album, both men argued about the promotional single. James Brown: “Mr Nathan was waiting to see which tune the radio stations were going to play from the album, and then he would shoot it out as a single. I said, ‘We’re not going to take any singles off it. Sell it the way it is.'”
James Brown’s instincts were balls-on. Live at the Apollo shot to #2 on the Billboard LP charts and stayed on the charts for over a year. The album that blocked its path to the top spot was Andy Williams’ The Days of Wine and Roses.
That, my friends, is the epitome of the term, “polar opposites.”
Though the album opened the door to concerts in mainstream venues, it would take a couple of years for Brown to come up with a Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 single (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, Part 1”) and none of his future studio albums came close to reaching the top. A second live album released a year later (Pure Dynamite – Live at the Royal) reached #10, but the more salient fact is that James Brown holds the record for having the most singles to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 without any of them reaching #1. While he sold lots of records and will be long remembered for his influence on the development of soul and funk, James Brown was first and foremost a live performer, a showman with an extraordinary ability to capture, mesmerize and engage his audience.
And that’s what you hear on Live at the Apollo.
When I’m really, really horny, I hate wasting my time on foreplay. Just pull the damn thing out, and don’t stop until you’ve given me everything you got and then some!
That’s also what you get with Live at the Apollo: nonstop action for twenty-nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds (add another 1:49 if you include Fats’ Gonder’s introduction, and another nine or so minutes if you add the alternative mixes on the deluxe version). Live at the Apollo is the polar opposite (not quite as strong as the James Brown-Andy Williams polarization, but close enough) of a Grateful Dead concert. The Dead take their sweet time moving from one song or jam to another and play as long as they feel like it, usually for multiple hours. Live at the Apollo is bereft of spaces, thank yous and idle chatter. Brown and the Flames never let up, not for a second. Though their appearance was fairly brief in terms of linear time, the sonic record leaves no doubt that they left it all on the field.
As did The Dead, consistently. Sometimes hard and fast is great, sometimes slow and elongated hits the sweet spot. When I say, “Give me everything you’ve got,” I want something more than an automatic thrusting dildo sex machine (available on Amazon) set to the highest speed. I want variation and style!
James Brown understood that variation is as important to music as it is to sex. If you’re someone who has never heard Live at the Apollo, do not assume that the pedal-to-the-floor pace of the show results in a performance that resembles the frantic speed of the guy who explains the dozens of dangerous side effects towards the end of American pharmaceutical commercials. A good chunk of Live at the Apollo is devoted to slow dance numbers, so the minutes don’t exactly fly by. James Brown was pretty good with upbeat material but saved his most dramatic performances for the slow stuff, where often he seems to make time stand still, squeezing every last drop from the musical moment.
Fats Gonder’s job as emcee was to raise the level of the crowd’s anticipation to pre-orgasmic status, an assignment he accomplished with professionalism and aplomb. After sharing the first of several James Brown epithets (“The Hardest Workingman in Show Business”), he runs through a list of Brown’s hits, each followed by an ascending huzzah from the brass-heavy band and each occasioning a noticeable rise in crowd reaction—particularly from the women in the crowd. By the time Fats works his way up the hit list to “Lost Someone,” the screams are reminiscent of the shrieks the American public would hear on February 9, 1964, when The Beatles made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. As Maycock noted in his retrospective, we can thank an uncredited African-American woman for serving as catalyst:
The recording of that Wednesday’s shows was not without its obstacles though. In one of the early performances an elderly woman, just below a microphone, repeatedly screamed: “Sing it, motherfucker!” Debating this dilemma between performances, the band realised she was actually an asset, encouraging the rest of the audience to shriek louder. So King’s vice-president, Hal Neely, bribed her with popcorn into attending the other shows, although he discreetly moved the microphone out of cussing range. Bobby Byrd: “She brought the house down, she was a big part of the album.”
After wrapping up the list by mentioning Brown’s latest release (“Night Train”), Fats throws in two more epithets (“Mr. Dynamite” and “The Amazing Mr. Please Please Himself”) before announcing “The star of the show, James Brown and the Famous Flames!”
The band takes the cue and jumps out of the gate with a high-speed blues interlude. What stands out most prominently is the Al Caiola-Duane Eddy style guitar, dishing out a riff eerily similar to the theme song of the Batman television series. Since that series wouldn’t air for another three years, you can hold your shouts of “Holy ripoff, Batman!” and just revel in the fun. At the start of the third go-round, the screams from the audience tell you that the star performer and his entourage have made what was no doubt a dramatic entrance.
“You know I feel alright!” (Yeah!) “You know I feel alright!” (Yeah!!) “I feel aaaaawwwwlllllllrigh—–ight!” Brown’s welcome is followed by a crunchy, descending vamp on electric guitar that introduces a seriously uptempo riff in 6/4 time that ends with a tight closing flourish from the brass. The tempo shifts to a nice, hip-grinding mid-tempo beat as the singer launches into “I’ll Go Crazy” with doo-wop style support from the Famous Flames. The pre-chorus and chorus are filled with sharply-executed stop-time moments designed to get the adrenaline pumping. Brown’s vocal in this opening piece is delivered with disciplined ease, more concerned with phrasing in sync with groove than lyrical articulation, though he and the Flames tighten up the pronunciation a bit when they sing the key line, “You’ve got to live for yourself/Yourself and nobody else.” As the verses depict a man about to go crazy if his baby leaves him, that key line forms a primitive version of self-affirmation technique.
I don’t want to spend any time imagining James Brown as a self-help guru, so I’m very thankful that the next number starts immediately.
The applause hasn’t run itself out before Brown opens “Try Me,” and those two little words elicit intense screams spiced with swoons. The call-and-response and background vocals from The Famous Flames are outstanding, more than worthy of the few moments of rapt, silent attention they elicit. Sporadic screams do fill the air during the piece, but only in the breaks, never in the verses. This song is directed at two parts of the body—the heart and the clitoris (sorry, guys)—and the performers are right on target. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I’ll say it forever—there’s nothing quite as hot as a man showing a hint of vulnerability. Although James Brown could definitely play the part of drama queen, he also had a remarkable knack for vocal understatement, and here his tone and delivery reflect a man at the lowest of all low points.
After a brief vamp played at hyperspeed, we get “Think,” a hyperspeed version of the version James and the Flames recorded in 1960. It’s such a shocking shift from the slow grind of “Try Me” that the crowd has a hard time getting into the groove; as such, it stands out as the track featuring the least intense audience reaction. The single was definitely uptempo but still danceable; the Apollo version is so fast you might wind up snapping tendons and ligaments trying to keep up. Brown would re-record the song many times over the course of his career, a curious obsession with a rather “meh” song.
This time the vamp leads to a brief guitar lead-in and the welcoming downtempo rhythm of “I Don’t Mind.” Here The Flames’ harmonies take on more of a sweet gospel feel that is a delight to the ear. As with “Try Me,” there are plenty of moments of elongated stop time to raise anticipation, and James Brown’s vocal runs the gamut from low-register notes delivered with emotional restraint and high-pitched howls that display how difficult is for the narrator to maintain that restraint (he’s leaving his baby rather than the other way around, and the wavering emotion tempers the general tone of gloating). The truth is he does mind—and that’s what drives the extremes in Brown’s magnificent vocal.
The original November 1961 release of “Lost Someone,” is a fairly standard slow dance piece distinguished by James Brown’s intense, melodramatic vocal. It touched a sufficient number of hearts to hit #2 on the R&B charts, and you can easily imagine its potential as the closing number in a live set, leaving the crowd begging for an encore. From a purely logical perspective, however (she says, channeling her inner Spock), it’s hard to imagine it as a crowd participation number. I mean, who wants to admit they just got their sorry ass dumped in front of an audience? “Yeah, James, that’s me, I’m a fucking loser! Sing it, man! Bring it on home!”
Still clinging to the illogic of it all, my inner Spock reminds me that human beings are irrational creatures governed by their emotions, encourages me to get over it and give James Brown a helluva lot of credit for pulling off the impossible.
Refusing to let any marketing opportunity go to waste, Brown opens the performance with a brief advertisement for some of his hits:
I said if you leave me I go crazy
‘Cause I know it’s true now
You’ve got the power, and I want you to try me
‘Cause I don’t mind
Don’t leave me bewildered
‘Cause this old heart can’t stand no more
Kudos to J. B. for his marketing prowess, and thank your lucky stars he didn’t remind the audience of the merch table. The brief commercial break is followed by four repetitions of “there’s only one thing I can do/say,” a signal to the sharper pencils in the audience to anticipate a full performance of another James Brown hit. The audience has only one second to shout out or telepathically send their wishes his way, but everyone probably knew it simply had to be either “Please, Please, Please” or “Lost Someone.” The screaming, swooning crowd reaction tells us he made the right call, especially for the women in the audience.
Brown plays it close to the recording for the first few verses, teasing occasional responses from his hypnotized audience. He confirms their location in the palm of his hand through the classic, “Let me hear you say yeah” trope, building it up with “Let me hear you say it a little bit louder.” Soon you hear him move away from the mike, a brilliant little trick that forces the audience to listen even more intently. He conclusively proves the audience will follow him anywhere when, in his distant, near off-mike voice, he screams out “I’ll lo-OOOVE you tomorrow” and the audience rewards him with the most passionate screams on the album. As he continues to float in the distance during the repetition of “I’m so weak,” you wonder if he’s going to do the bit where he feigns utter exhaustion, a signal to one of the Flames to cover his shoulders in a wrap or cape and start to lead him offstage when WHAM! Brown taps into his reserve tank, rips off the covering and explodes in a fit of passion to cap his performance. Alas, it’s just a teaser; Brown returns to full mike and another run-through of “Lost Somebody.” During this phase, he wanders away from the written lyrics and starts playing with the crowd again. My favorite part is when he sings, “I want to hear you scream” and tries to get them to loosen up (“Don’t just say “aah,” say OWWWW!”). Like a good preacher, he tells them that if they let loose, “I believe that my work will be done.” I hope he meant that his work was to make everyone permanently horny so we would spend all our time fucking and never go to war with one another again.
Although early rock/R&B/soul critic and author Peter Guralnick has a tendency to go hyperbolic at times, his description of this performance is fairly grounded in reality:
Here, in a single, multilayered track … you have embodied the whole history of soul music, the teaching, the preaching, the endless assortment of gospel effects, above all the groove that was at the music’s core. “Don’t go to strangers,” James pleads in his abrasively vulnerable fashion. “Come on home to me . . . Gee whiz I love you . . . I’m so weak . . .” Over and over he repeats the simple phrases, insists “I’ll love you tomorrow” until the music is rocking with a steady pulse, until the music grabs you in the pit of the stomach and James knows he’s got you. Then he works the audience as he works the song, teasing, tantalizing, drawing closer, dancing away, until finally at the end of Side I that voice breaks through the crowd noise and dissipates the tension as it calls out, “James, you’re an asshole.” “I believe someone out there loves someone,” declares James with cruel disingenuousness. “Yeah, you,” replies a girl’s voice with unabashed fervor. “I feel so good I want to scream,” says James, testing the limits yet again. “Scream!” cries a voice. And the record listener responds, too, we are drawn in by the same tricks, so transparent in the daylight but put across with the same unabashed fervor with which the girl in the audience offers up her love.
Guralnick, P. (1986). Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, 236-237. New York: Back Bay Books.
I don’t buy “the whole history of soul music bit,” or the “steady rocking bit” but the description of the milieu feels right. You may notice the phrase “Gee whiz” is mentioned, and yes, it is part of the song. More shocking (and not in the original lyrics) is the moment James Brown says, “Shucks,” a word I only associate with one Opie Taylor, inhabitant of the fictional realm known as Mayberry.
There is NO break—not even a nanosecond of space—between “Lost Someone” and the medley, which opens with the first verse of “Please, Please, Please.” This is the worst tease on the album—one lousy verse of “Please, Please, Please” where J. B. sings only the opening line and then we’re off to the races to “You’ve Got the Power” (twelve seconds of it), then to “I Found Someone,” and then . . . five more excerpts before the “Please, Please, Please” reprise, stream after stream of premature ejaculation. In case you haven’t figured it out, I consider the medley the weakest part of the performance, a highlight reel of questionable musical value. I can’t believe there weren’t fans in the audience who didn’t feel a little more than annoyed with these selected shorts. To my ears, the crowd response is fleeting, the cheers and screams fade quickly and my guess is more than a few people took the opportunity presented by this half-assed collage to hit the head. Sadly, I’m not all that impressed with the closing number, “Night Train,” but the crowd seems to be having a good time. I guess I’m not into geography songs.
As it is impossible for a live performance to come out flawless, don’t take my assessment of its few defects as a thumbs-down vote for the album as a whole. With Live at the Apollo, the whole is better than its parts. It’s a damned exciting record, and I think the concert would have been an absolute knockout live-and-in-person.
While later in life his aggressive core would turn nasty and result in several complaints of domestic violence, Live at the Apollo is the culmination of a mid-20th Century Horatio Alger story. James Brown faced more obstacles than most people reading this review will ever face. Through a combination of guts, willpower, talent and a commitment to his craft, he climbed to the top of his profession and made a whole lot of people happy as they grooved to his music. Live at the Apollo is a celebration of his talent and his pluck, and is more than worth the modest price of admission.
I do have to point out that for all his foresight and despite the impressive breadth of his marketing campaign, James Brown didn’t think of filming Live at the Apollo. Fortunately for history, we can catch his performance at the 1964 T. A. M. I. show (Teenage Awards Music International or Teen Age Music International). The lineup was pretty damned impressive—The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Jan & Dean, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Lesley Gore and a host of others—but there is no question that James Brown stole the show. Here you’ll see the physical nature of his performance, the precise choreography and not one, not two, not three but FOUR fits of feigned exhaustion. Even if you don’t give a hoot for James Brown’s music, you have to smile at his audacity, his discipline and his off-the-charts kinetic energy.
We looked down the river and we seed the British come
And there must have been a hundred of ’em beatin’ on the drum
—Johnny Horton, “The Battle of New Orleans”
My dad had told me the story a hundred times before, but just like a little kid, I wanted to hear it again. This time I recorded it:
“It was December 1963, so the assassination still weighed heavily on everyone. You’d go to school every morning and the first thing you’d see were the flags at half-staff, so it was never far from your mind. I remember how quiet people were during that time, and how weird it all felt. The stores had decorated for the Christmas season but it seemed like no one had their hearts in it. Before Dallas, everyone knew what life was all about, and then this horrible thing happened that didn’t make any sense. We lost something more than a president—we lost our sense of direction, a sense of hope. The future seemed uncertain.
“Anyway, my dad watched Huntley and Brinkley religiously every night before dinner, and I’d usually stretch out on the floor in front of the TV and watch it with him. It was sometime around Christmas—the tree was still up, but I don’t remember if it was before or after—and towards the end of one of the broadcasts they aired a report from their London correspondent about Beatlemania sweeping the country. It was a short piece—only a minute or so—but they showed the screaming girls, the queues to get tickets, and a few seconds of concert footage with everybody going crazy. The Beatles just flashed by—the image in my mind is three guys with guitars and their hair brushed down in front with a drummer in the back—but I couldn’t hear the music with all that screaming going on. What I do remember is after the piece aired, the cameras went back to Huntley and Brinkley for the “Good night, David, good night, Chet” routine and they were both smiling. I can’t tell you how rare that was—these guys hardly ever smiled, and the news had been pretty grim for a while. But there they were, smiling, shaking their heads about this crazy shit going on in Jolly Olde England.
“I don’t know if I really felt it back then, but I’ve always looked back at that moment as the first sign of hope that things were going to get better.”
My dad was one of the 73 million Americans tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday, February 9, 1964. “It changed my life. It changed a lot of people’s lives. My buddies and I started speaking in shitty British accents, calling things ‘fab’ and ‘gear,’ and everybody wanted to start a band. Shit, here was a son of Irish immigrants wanting to be a Brit! That was a major liberation moment for me! That summer I grew my hair longer—they still had rules about hair length in school those days, so I had to cut it off in September—and I bought every British single I could get my hands on. My parents were okay with the whole thing—you know how much they love music, and that first year The Beatles kept coming out with one great song after another with those beautiful harmonies mom and dad loved.
“The Beatles lifted that pall that had hung over America after JFK died. They made life fun again.”
If you knew nothing about The British Invasion, you could have figured it out simply by looking at my dad’s 45’s in chronological order. Before “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the only British music in his collection is Lonnie Donegan’s “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” That song might have been the only bit of British music you could find in American homes, as culture-crossing was a relatively rare phenomenon in American popular music. Cliff Richard and the Shadows never made it in the States, and though The Singing Nun and Kyu Nakamoto had recently pierced the cultural barrier, they were one-shot wonders and none of their countrymen or women followed in their footsteps. The Beatles kicked the door wide open and later that year Peter & Gordon, Manfred Mann and The Animals all topped the charts, with The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, The Searchers, Dusty Springfield and Chad & Jeremy penetrating the Top 10. Dad has them all, and except for Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around,” Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” The Shangri-Las “Leader of the Pack” and three hits from The Supremes, his collection contains no American 45’s released in the period between February and December 1964, when local heroes The Beau Brummels released their first single.
Just as they were at the time of Pearl Harbor, the Americans were completely unprepared for foreign invaders and needed time to retool the music industry. Remove the Brits from the 1964 charts and you’ll find very little American rock because very few industry moguls believed there was a market for it. The Americans still did well chart-wise, but some of the names that helped keep them competitive are as far away from rock as I am from claiming virginity. Louis Armstrong in the deep twilight of his career. Dean Martin with “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” Lorne Greene of Bonanza fame with the Western talkie, “Ringo.” And the insipid Bobby Vinton—twice! At the start of the year Bobby held the #1 spot for four weeks before The Beatles threw him out on his pathetic little ass with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and you would have thought that would have been the end of it. But just like the monster in a bad sci-fi sequel, he came ba-a-a-ck with “Mr. Lonely” towards the end of the year.
Somebody should have plunged a stake into his overactive heart.
I would apologize on behalf of my father for the inexcusable gaps in his collection, but the truth is he’s pretty happy with the choices he made and so am I. The British Invasion restored rock ‘n’ roll to prominence and opened up dozens of unforeseen pathways to new possibilities in music. It was an incredibly exciting development in music history.
The Americans did make a comeback of sorts in 1965 thanks to Mr. Zimmerman and the flood of acts who based their careers on covering his songs. The most notable gaps in dad’s 1965 collection are chart-topping wonders Petula Clark, Gary Lewis & The Playboys and Sonny & Cher (together or separate).
Once again, I’m in complete agreement with his choices, but I would have loved to take a shot at “Laugh at Me.”
I’ve already covered all The Beatles’ singles . . . as well as those from The Kinks, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, Roy Orbison, The Beach Boys, Them, The Who, The Byrds, The Temptations, The Miracles, The Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas, The Shangri-Las . . . as well as several from The Stones and Yardbirds. “What’s left?” you query. “Oodles!” I reply, giggling gidgetly.
So, grab a can of Schlitz from your Frigidaire, crack it open with that newfangled pull tab (be careful not to cut yourself!), head into the living room, avoid the temptation to tune into another laugh-filled episode of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., lean back in your Barcalounger, light up a Viceroy (recommended by dentists!) and get ready to listen to the sweet sounds of revolution through the dual speakers on your newfangled Zenith console stereo . . . in mono.
We’ll set the stage by starting with one of the most popular acts of the early 60’s . . . a slice of Jersey Boy Americana to warm your cockles before the British come marching in.
“Dawn (Go Away),” The Four Seasons, January 1964: Although I bemoan the excessive use of male falsetto during an era when there were plenty of seriously hot female singers who could have handled the high notes, I’m rather fond of The Four Seasons. Even the casual listener can appreciate their consummate professionalism, thoughtful arrangements and vocal capabilities. Dad has several Four Seasons records in his collection, and “Dawn” is my favorite, with “Rag Doll” a close second. The two songs are virtual twins, dealing with the shame of class differences and the stigma of poverty. Here the male half of the relationship is embarrassed by his lower-class limitations; in “Rag Doll,” Bob Gaudio’s lyrics allowed Frankie Valli to defend a poor girl from the heartless shaming that has grown into a sick teenage tradition in the United States. What gives “Dawn” the edge for me is the rhythmic change in the “Think!” passages and the perfectly executed build-up to the clinching line, “Think what the future would be with a poor boy like me.” I tear up every time I hear it. The drumming on “Dawn” is equally impressive, with drummer Buddy Saltzman eschewing cymbals and accentuating that rhythmic change with solid fills.
“Needles and Pins,” The Searchers, March 1964: Gosh, I remember this from my childhood—vividly! I was about five or six years old when I heard this song on the living room stereo, and when it was over, I ran through the house looking for my mother. “Maman, I learned a new word!” I shouted with glee. “Oh, what word might that be?” she asked. “Pinza!” I cried. “Pinza? What does that mean?” mother responded with narrowed eyes. “I don’t know,” I replied, “But I found it all by myself!” and stamped my feet in pride. My mother still looked confused and asked me to show her where I found the word. I took her hand, led her to the living room and pointed at the cassette player, where a tape of dad’s 45’s was playing. Maman picked up the plastic case, scanned my father’s handwriting on the insert and no doubt smiled to herself. Instead of telling me what a dumb shit I was, she squatted down to my level and said, “Oh, yes, now I remember! Pinza is a word that means anything you want it to be! It’s a very rare and special word and you’re a very lucky girl to find it.” I beamed with pride, and for the next year or so I used the word pinza to explain, describe or imagine many things. “I think that mean boy is a pinza,” “I wonder what the pinzas are doing tonight,” and “Careful, watch out for the pinzas!” Maman must have let dad in on the secret, because he played along right from the start, especially when watching sports on TV. “Krukow, you goddamn pinza, put the ball over the fucking plate!”
Thank you, Mike Pender, for the vocal affectation that changed my life.
The Searchers were generally a pretty good band limited by their dependence on other people’s songs. “Needles and Pins” was written by Jack Nietzsche and Sonny Bono, for fuck’s sake, and they would go on to cover songs by Jackie DeShannon and old standbys Leiber and Stoller. And although that guitar sure sounds like a Ric 12, it’s really two six-string guitars playing in unison. Fake Ric, curious phrasing and squeaky drum pedal aside, “Needles and Pins” is one pinza of a song.
“Bad to Me,” Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas, April 1964: Geez, Mr. Martin, could you have made the intro just a teensy bit louder? I just sat down to listen to the goddamn 45 and now I have to get up and adjust the volume knob so I can hear what the hell Billy J is singing! Harrumph! Once we get past that rare error by the late and lamented Sir George, we hear a lovely, melodic pop number written entirely by John Lennon while on his allegedly scandalous-but-sodomy-free holiday in Spain with Brian Epstein. If you’ve heard the bootleg demo of the song with John at the mike, you’ll likely agree with me that the decision to give this song to Billy J was spot-on. Billy J was a fine, if somewhat traditional, pop singer with a nice feel for melody and vocal dynamics—and while John probably could have pulled it off with a little practice, I’d rather hear him sing the sturdier stuff. All in all, a great little tune that is so British Invasion.
“A World Without Love,” Peter & Gordon, May 1964: The Beatles’ early successes motivated John and Paul to get serious about songwriting, and they came up with more great songs in a shorter period of time than any songwriting duo in history. This is not one of those songs—Paul wrote it when he was sixteen and gave it to the brother of his main squeeze because he didn’t think it was good enough for The Beatles.
Ah, that I could write one throwaway song as good as “A World Without Love.” Like many Beatle songs of the era, both high and low harmonic lines are strong enough to serve as main melodies, and Peter and Gordon’s close harmonies are quite lovely. As for the Rickenbacker riff that certifies the song as bona fide British Invasion . . . sorry, it’s a Vox 12-string.
“Wishin’ and Hopin’,” Dusty Springfield, June 1964: Dusty Springfield took a Dionne Warwick b-side version of a Bacharach-David song and turned it into a magical experience. This is not an easy song to sing, with shifting metrical feet requiring the singer to carefully manage her breathing and be ready to soar at a moment’s notice. When Dusty takes flight in the bridge sections, chills run up and down my spine, and when she returns to the series of spondees (wishin’-hopin’-squeeze-him-please-him) I’m stunned that she could reassert her discipline so quickly. “Wishin’ and Hopin'” is obviously one of my favorite vocals ever, an inspiring example of a singer finding her voice and coming into her own.
“The Girl from Ipanema,” Astrud Gilberto, Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz, June 1964: No, no, no and no! The single version cuts out all of Joao Gilberto’s vocal, leaving us only with Astrid’s. Not that I don’t love Astrid’s cool and sensuous vocal, but hey—I’m bisexual! I have the inalienable right to hear both vocals! And whether it’s Continental or Brazilian, Portuguese is a very sexy language, especially when spoken by men! Screw the single—get the Getz/Gilberto album and hear all of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s marvelous jazz/bossa nova compositions PLUS the full, 100% certifiably gen-u-ine, Real McCoy version of “The Girl from Ipanema.”
Time for a mid-series rant. 45’s are really starting to piss me off! I hate that little doohickey that you have to pop in the hole just so you can fucking play two and a half minutes of music before you have to get out of your comfy chair and turn the little fucker over. That’s not enough time even for a third of a cigarette! Then you have to take the little doohickey out and pop it into the next one because your father is too cheap to buy a stack of doohickeys and too nostalgic to buy a simple, solid round plastic adapter that he could slip down the spindle AND NEVER HAVE TO TO DEAL WITH DOOHICKEYS AGAIN!
Sometimes I have to share with my readers the pain and anguish I am forced to endure to bring you these reviews.
“You’re My World,” Cilla Black, July 1964: Brian Epstein did all he could to make Cilla a credible star, but the truth is she wasn’t that good of a singer in the first place and owed her very brief American success to the strength of the Invasion. In the first two verses, we find Cilla stiffly singing in the lower part of her register, trying very hard to hit the right notes at the right time, just like a girl at her first audition for the school chorus. As she tiptoes awkwardly through the melody, she makes us painfully aware of her nonexistent acting skills while attempting to project a tone of awed reverence for the man to whom she is willing to sacrifice everything—body, soul and any sense of self-esteem. When she finally gets to move up the scale a bit on the phrase, “With your hand,” at first you think George Martin couldn’t stand it any more, leapt out of the booth, shoved Cilla to the side and replaced her with an emergency standby singer. But no, it’s just Cilla completely blowing it by suddenly thickening her voice in preparation for some serious hamming on the painfully overwrought line, “I feel a power so divine.” At this point she’s supposed to dig deeply into her emotions and build to a grand finale, but all we get is loud and louder almost to the point of panic, like a desperate American Idol contestant whose dreams are about to be cruelly shattered by the heartless panel. In the end, we learn that, just like Skeeter Davis, losing her man would be the end of the world for Cilla, and I think the odds of that happening are pretty high, as no man in his right mind would want a woman so brainlessly dependent on his existence.
This was Cilla’s only appearance on the American charts, where she stalled at #26. She remained quite popular in the U. K., where she reached the Top 10 eleven times and became a popular television host for decades. Let’s just say I don’t like her performance on this particular song and give her due credit for a very successful career in the field of entertainment that ended with her passing last year.
“A Summer Song,” Chad & Jeremy, August 1964: I argued with my dad for days about which Chad & Jeremy song to cover. I expressed a preference for the snappier “Yesterday’s Gone” while he insisted that “A Summer Song” was the more iconic of the two. I couldn’t disagree with him on that score, so I let him win one (and only one).
I have to confess that summer songs don’t move my needle much, as they’re often drenched in nostalgia, and I’ve always thought of nostalgia as a virulent disease of the psyche. I also grew up in a place where summer meant freezing your ass off in the fog while the rest of the country seemed to bask in the sunshine. I say seemed to bask because later I learned from first-hand experience that summer sucks pretty much everywhere east of the Rockies because of the horrible humidity that makes everything smell like a moldy hunk of cheese. Now that I live in Nice, summer is the time of year when we’re overrun by tourists hoping to see a few nice racks on a topless beach. Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” pretty much captures my feeling about the high season.
20-second review: “A Summer Song” is a pleasant little ditty compromised by an overactive string arrangement, a minor work that made the Top 10 and opened up new opportunities for Chad & Jeremy in the Easy Listening/Adult Contemporary field.
The real news in August 1964 was the congressional passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, an overreaction to an incident that never took place and would soon put millions of young American men, including my father, in legitimate fear for their lives, and affect the course of popular music in very short order.
“Have I the Right,” The Honeycombs, September 1964: Whenever I hear this song I imagine The Honeycombs performing in big fat fuzzy bumblebee costumes. Whether it’s a subliminal suggestion arising from the name of the band or that horrible buzzing sound in the background is a jump ball. I’m assuming that the buzzing comes from one of Joe Meek’s funny instruments because it sounds a lot like the electronic sounds on The Tornadoes’ “Telstar,” which Meek wrote and produced. Whatever it is, I loathe it.
Even without the buzz, I always thought this song sounded a little weird for some reason but never bothered to figure out why. Forced by this series to get the scoop, I learned that the recording itself is weird. The producers decided to speed it up, and by doing so, raised the pitch, making Dennis D’Ell’s lead vocal sound like a failed audition for Alvin and the Chipmunks. I had always been intrigued by the female drummer but when I learned that those thunderous drums you hear are one-fourth drums and three-fourths Honeycombs stamping their boots on a wooden staircase (while wearing their bee costumes, no doubt), I’d pretty much exhausted all the look-on-the-bright-side possibilities and tossed “Have I the Right” into the shitcan of my mind.
“She’s Not There,” The Zombies, October 1964: The Zombies were light years ahead of most of the other Invasion bands in terms of musical talent and sophistication, and its a testament to their originality that the music experts never really knew how to classify them. Wikipedia classifies “She’s Not There” in three different genres: “jazz rock,” “beat” and “pop rock.” I can understand their confusion: “She’s Not There” is more modal than scale-based, and Rod Argent’s electric piano solo is the keyboard equivalent of Dave Davies’ lead solo on “You Really Got Me”— an exciting passage of music that defies convention. The varied dynamics, the thrilling build to the chorus with its sudden stop and Colin Blunstone’s sexy, breathy vocal are so well-executed that someone who has never heard of The Zombies might conclude that “She’s Not There” was a late-period single that took hours of studio time to mold into perfection. Imagine the shock on that someone’s face when you tell him that this was The Zombies’ first single and they nailed it in one take.
Last year I was fortunate enough to see The Zombies in concert, where they performed the entirety of Odyssey and Oracle note for note and mixed some newer work with old favorites. They actually played “She’s Not There” twice, in modestly different versions. They could have played it a hundred times and I wouldn’t have minded in the least—this is one song with a life span that will be measured in the centuries.
“Time Is On My Side,” The Rolling Stones, October 1964: The Stones didn’t exactly explode onto the American scene; none of their first three singles (“Not Fade Away,” “Tell Me” and “It’s All Over Now”) made the Top 20. It is therefore somewhat surprising that the band who would become one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands in history first reached the Top 10 with a slow dance number. Keith Richard chalked it up to Americans preferring soul to rock ‘n’ roll, a plausible theory in a year when American soul music was pretty much the only modern American music that could hold its own against the Brits. What’s really weird is the version released of “Time Is On My Side” in the United States is clearly inferior to the version everyone knows today. The enduring version features a hot guitar-lick intro; the American version opens with a funereal organ. The harmonies and background vocals are seriously off in terms of both key and timing, and Mick’s vocal lacks the consistent command of the familiar take. After listening to dad’s 45 the usual three times, I had to clean my eardrums by listening to the version on Hot Rocks four times in a row!
Oh, well . . . at least the substandard version broke the losing streak and earned The Stones a trip to the Ed Sullivan Show. Ed was so horrified by their slovenly appearance that he swore he’d never have them back. He later changed his mind, rang Mick Jagger on the trans-atlantic phone line and said, “Hey! Let’s spend some time together!”
“Laugh, Laugh,” The Beau Brummels, January 1965: Sal Valentino was born and raised in North Beach, San Francisco, when North Beach was a pretty cool place to be. Populated largely by Italian-American immigrants (including the DiMaggio family), North Beach became the scene in San Francisco, a place where beatniks thrived, where jazz greats came to play and where topless dancing burst into the limelight.
And when you’re talking about the legendary Carol Doda, I do mean burst.
Sal Valentino could have easily become another fine nightclub singer in the Italian-American tradition, but he too was caught up in the excitement of the new music from Britain. Offered a regular gig at a night club, he scrambled to put together a band, and just like Dion, he started looking for guys from his old neighborhood. There he connected with childhood friend Ron Elliott, a guy who knew a thing or two about music. Elliott recruited the rest of the guys, and The Beau Brummels were born.
Their timing couldn’t have been better. Local DJ’s Tom Donahue and Bobby Mitchell were looking for acts to sign for their new label, Autumn Records, and caught the band’s act in a nightclub in San Mateo. While they saw Sal Valentino as a more-than-capable front man, Donahue and Mitchell were more intrigued by Ron Elliott’s songwriting talent. In a few short months, with the help of a very young producer by the name of Sly Stone, “Laugh, Laugh” was released.
The chord structure for this song is unusually complex, with the minor key couplets each resolving on an E major chord while the chorus is based on a rising fourth chord progression (moving counterclockwise on the circle of fifths). The circular progression also (and very cleverly) resolves to E major. Ron Elliot had been composing music for years, and the man not only knew his music theory, but knew what to do with it. Sal Valentino navigates the complexity with admirable ease, an unusual display of command for a rookie singer.
While “Just a Little” was the bigger hit, “Laugh, Laugh” is the more musically interesting piece and one of my favorite hometown songs. After their second hit and an animated TV appearance on The Flintstones (no shit!), the BB’s would shift gears and produce two critically acclaimed and completely ignored albums before splitting up towards the end of 1968.
“Ferry Cross the Mersey,” Gerry & The Pacemakers, February 1965: Gerry and the Pacemakers’ happy stuff (“How Do You Do It?” and “I Like It”) tends to be a little too sugary for my tastes, and I could never stand the mushiness of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” I do like “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” the song that actually opens the Ferry Cross the Mersey film, but sadly, Dad doesn’t have the 45, so I chose the title track instead.
Gerry Marsden wrote this wistful song about the Merseyside and its friendly and welcoming people in much the same vein as The Beach Boys’ songs about Southern California: mythologizing. The difference is that the Liverpool of the 60’s needed a healthy dose of validation while Southern California could have used a healthy dose of humility. Musically speaking, it’s pretty predictable, but Gerry sings it well and it’s a pleasant way to pass a couple of minutes.
As for the film . . . dad bought a DVD-R copy of the film from Amazon, as it’s never been officially released on video. It’s definitely a rip-off of A Hard Day’s Night but still worth the few bucks for a badly-made copy because most of it was shot on location in 1960’s Liverpool.
“I’ll Never Find Another You,” The Seekers, March 1965: Tom Springfield’s “I’ll Never Find Another You” has deep personal significance for me and my partner—it’s “our song.”
When I was looking for that special someone, I only had two criteria. I wanted someone who was irresistibly attractive to me and who was willing to do the hard work of peeling away the layers of bullshit that accumulate in the personality and make it impossible to experience true intimacy. I wanted no separation—not in the physical sense, but in the relational sense. I wanted a relationship where both parties shared all their secrets, all their vulnerabilities, all their fears, all their fantasies. Trust is the most important factor in any relationship, and to build complete trust requires full commitment and full disclosure.
I went through at least a dozen relationships with that goal in mind before I found my partner. I can’t take much credit for the discovery because it was more her finding me than vice versa. My first impression of her was “frivolous loser.”
Fortunately, she is both fearless and persistent and managed to overcome my skepticism. Sometimes when I think of all those failed relationships and the time and energy I put into trying to make something out of not much, I seek her out, hold her as close as I can and sing this verse to her:
There is always someone
For each of us they say
And you’ll be my someone
Forever and a day
I could search the whole world over
Until my life is through
But I know I’ll never find another you
Then we do naughty things together.
Judith Durham’s vocal is one of my all-time favs, and it’s a pity that her strong, capable voice was wasted on shit like “Georgy Girl.” That song also has personal significance—of another sort. My dad knew how much I hated it and sometimes he would sneak into my room at night and set up my CD alarm clock to play “Georgy Girl” when my alarm went off.
I really should have reported him to child protective services.
“I’m Telling You Now,” Freddie & The Dreamers, March 1965: British readers may be confused by the date here; in the mother country, “I’m Telling You Now” topped the charts in August 1963. The song was released in the United States back then and did absolutely nothing. Re-released in 1965 when the American people were ga-ga for all things British, it went straight to the top.
Freddie Garrity co-wrote the song with Invasion tunesmith Mitch Murray, who famously wrote the song rejected by The Beatles for their follow-up hit, “How Do You Do It?” The two songs share the same joyful innocence, but I prefer “I’m Telling You Now” as the more prototypical Invasion song with its bright guitar chords (again, not a Ric) and close harmonies. Trying to watch a performance of “I’m Telling You Now” takes some fortitude, as Freddie and the Dreamers play the song while doing The Freddie in unison, justifying Lester Bangs’ description of them as a band with “plentitude of talentless idiocy.”
It’s impossible to play the what-if game with Freddie and the Dreamers . . . but let me show you why. Ask yourself, “What if the Americans had paid attention to ‘I’m Telling You Now’ back in the summer of 1963? Would the British Invasion have started six months earlier?” The answer should leap out of your mouth: “Not a fucking chance.” Only The Beatles could have pulled off a feat of such magnitude, for several reasons. One, they had genuine talent. Two, they had two of the best songwriters who ever lived. Three, they were generally nice-looking blokes, especially John and Paul. Four, they had the wit and sense of humor to charm the press and the populace. Five, The Beatles wouldn’t have been caught dead doing The Freddie.
“For Your Love,” The Yardbirds, May 1965: The historical significance of “For Your Love” cannot be underestimated, because it was the song that motivated Eric Clapton to leave the group for John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. “Good riddance,” say I, for it opened a spot for Jeff Beck, who was much more suited for the role and would have an enormous influence in shaping The Yardbirds’ distinct sound.
Even without Jeff Beck on this song, “For Your Love” clearly differentiated The Yardbirds from other Invasion bands through its multi-faceted defiance of convention. Paul Samwell-Smith reworked the arrangement on the original Graham Gouldman demo, and thought an organ would be a nice touch. They brought organist Brian Auger into the studio to record the organ part and found that there wasn’t an organ anywhere in the building. No problem! Hey! Here’s a harpsichord! Auger put together the intro and supporting chords, amplifying the mysterious and moody character of the minor key by a hundredfold. The use of bongos in the minor key verses add to the song’s exotic, foreign feel. The song changes both key (E minor to E major) and rhythm in the middle eight, a shift to a classic rock rhythm that propels the song and gives the listener something familiar to hold onto. Add Keith Relf’s natural talent in working with half-step melodic moves occasioned by the flattening of the third in major-minor chord changes, and “For Your Love” is not only a helluva single but a gateway to future experimentation.
Things worked out for Clapton, too, as his stuff on the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton not only gave him shared billing but is much better than anything he did during his time with The Yardbirds.
“In the Midnight Hour,” Wilson Pickett, July 1965: Dad joined a couple of “garage” bands during his teens (“garage” is in quotes because there’s no way a four-piece band can fit into a San Francisco garage), playing rhythm guitar and singing backup vocals. When I put this particular disc on the turntable, the sound of Wilson Pickett’s voice triggered his memory of his all-too fleeting career in music. “Every garage band in the country had to learn this song whether they liked it or not. The only gigs a teenage band could get were high school dances, and that meant you played more Stones than Beatles and a whole lot of soul music. ‘In the Midnight Hour’ got the kids onto the dance floor like nothing else.”
Wilson Pickett had all the right stuff to record this iconic song: a deep background in gospel and serious respect for Little Richard. Steve Cropper and Pickett had composed the song together in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where MLK would meet his tragic end a few years later. When Atlantic/Stax president Jerry Wexler heard it, he made what proved to be a crucial suggestion: change the beat to accent the second beat in the measure to make it more danceable. If you compare the beat from “In the Midnight Hour” to Ringo’s intro to the Sgt. Pepper reprise, your body will tell you why that shift mattered so much. Ringo’s pattern accentuates the third beat—da-da-DA-da—-and you start tapping your feet. When you place the accent on the second beat, da-DA-da-da, your hips get involved and your ass goes into thrust mode. For horny teenagers in these early days of The Pill, dancing was as close as you could get to “going all the way,” and “In the Midnight Hour” is perfectly designed to encourage such shadow-fucking.
I’ve commented elsewhere on the parallels between religious and sexual ecstasy, and some of our greatest sex songs have come from singers trained in gospel music (Aretha Franklin, for example). Wilson Pickett was an inspired choice for this number, and when he sings “And do all the things I told you,” you can hear the sheer ecstasy in his voice as he contemplates fulfillment of his every fantasy.
“You Were on My Mind,” We Five, July 1965: To appreciate just how good We Five’s version is, listen to the alternatives provided by Ian and Sylvia and Crispian St. Peters. Ian and Sylvia’s version is a lazy bluegrass number with no oomph whatsoever. Crispian St. Peters’ version sounds like he’s either just woken up or is under the influence of barbiturates.
By the way . . . Yes, “Pied Piper” is in my dad’s collection, and no, I won’t be covering it. That fucking piccolo on the chorus makes me want to reach for a brick and throw it at the speakers.
Back to We Five, their version of “You Were on My Mind” is masterpiece of dynamics, propelled by an exceptionally strong vocal by Beverly Bivens, whose range spanned from tenor to high soprano. The gradual build in intensity leading to the sudden shift to stillness in the last verse gives us a temporary respite, but the downshift is only a way station leading to the glorious ending with its complex harmonies on the long held note and the arpeggiated guitar coda. Absolutely breathtaking!
We Five seemed to be another promising San Francisco ensemble, but once Beverly left the group in late 1966, they were never able to recapture the magic. Bummer.
“Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan, July 1965: Rolling Stone rates this song the #1 song of all time, a rating that makes perfect marketing sense when the song is the source of the name of your magazine. However, even I, a Dylan-skeptic, cannot deny the song’s influence and impact. Clocking in at 6:13, “Like a Rolling Stone” shattered the three-minute airplay limit, an achievement that freed many artists, from Frank Sinatra to The Beatles, from a completely arbitrary restriction on creativity. While I loathe the vitriolic tone of the song, I appreciate Dylan’s insights into the gap between what we now call The One-Percent and those forced to live on the streets by either misfortune or America’s refusal to deal with its mental illness epidemic. My favorite verse is the second verse, where Dylan exposes the cherished college education as an empty status symbol that leaves the song’s heroine completely unable to deal with the harsh realities of street-level survival:
Ahh you’ve gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street
And now you’re gonna have to get used to it
You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?
As is usually the case, the Baby Boomers who revere Dylan have over-analyzed the song to death and inflated the contributions of everyone who appeared on the recording. Mike Bloomfield certainly had better days, and really, Al Kooper’s organ piece isn’t all that difficult. What really makes the song—I can hardly believe I’m saying this—is Bob Dylan’s vocal. He sings “Like a Rolling Stone” like a man who has finally found his voice and his message, allowing the listener to share in the experience of artistic liberation.
“Summer Nights,” Marianne Faithfull, August 1965: Marianne Faithfull was every American teenage boy’s fantasy of an English bird. Her reedy, breathy voice caused many a willie to wiggle in excitement, including my father’s. Her long blonde hair and big dreamy eyes enticed my father to buy her eponymous first album just for the cover. I examined the sleeve carefully and found no evidence of male residue, so at least I know that dad didn’t go completely bonkers over the broad.
When my dad hears early Marianne Faithfull, he conjures up the image of a 20th-century Guinevere. When I hear early Marianne Faithfull, I hear a very poor singer with limited vocal and emotional range. We both agree that the voice she displayed on Broken Dreams has more character and generates more emotion, but that voice was the result of a long, dark period marked by multiple forms of drug addiction and episodes of homelessness. In any case, her work on Broken Dreams is a whole lot better than her contribution to “Summer Nights,” where she gives a rather awkward performance indicating she played hooky on the day they covered proper breathing techniques in the Vocals 101 class. I wholeheartedly endorse Clive Davis’ assessment of Marianne Faithfull: she was and is more of a performance artist than a singer.
“Eve of Destruction,” Barry McGuire, August 1965: Barry McGuire’s sandpapery voice was already quite familiar to the American listening public through his solo spots on The New Christy Minstrels’ hit, “Green, Green.” McGuire’s shift from sanitized ensemble folkie to protest singer angered flag-loving conservatives in the USA, fueling a defensive patriotism that manifested itself in two response songs. The first, “Dawn of Correction,” was written and performed by a temporary alliance called The Spokesmen, featuring (once again) the two guys who wrote “At the Hop.” Here’s their first verse:
The western world has a common dedication
To keep free people from Red domination
And maybe you can’t vote, boy, but man your battle stations
Or there’ll be no need for votin’ in future generations
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
The more affirmative defense manifested itself in Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” a celebration of alleged American military heroism in the jungles of Vietnam that topped the charts for five consecutive weeks in 1966.
A triple oh, for fuck’s sake to that one.
While the issues in P. F. Sloan’s song are period-specific, it’s astonishing to listen to “Eve of Destruction” and see how little has changed in our world in the last fifty years. Verse one: violence in the Middle East. Verse two: the threat of nuclear proliferation. Verse three: a dysfunctional political system. Verse four: the persistent presence of hatred in world and personal affairs.
Recorded in one take—and accidentally released before they had time to do a “proper” vocal take—Barry McGuire’s performance is a wonder, a sincere expression of deep anguish at the blindness of the human race as it marches blindly towards inevitable self-destruction. The 60’s were full of great protest songs, but “Eve of Destruction” is the one people remember best.
Protest songs provoke a curious reaction in me: I generally agree with the nature of the protest, but I also know that however fiery the protest, the blowback will be equally intense. The idealist in me yearns for the one protest song that will change everything and everyone overnight, a silly dream if there ever was one.
“It Ain’t Me Babe,” The Turtles, August 1965: In 1964, everyone jumped at the chance to cover Lennon & McCartney; in 1965, a Dylan cover was almost a guaranteed pathway to success. I generally dislike Dylan’s relationship songs, which tend to focus on relationship failures and wallow in bitterness, so I have to give Howard Kaylan some credit here for taking a more balanced approach to “It Ain’t Me Babe.” Kaylan sings the two verses in this made-for-AM-radio abbreviated version with more heartbreak than heartburn, more empathy than antipathy. His ire rises only in the chorus, a fair reaction to a partner who heaps you with expectations and denies your right to a unique identity. My dad has most of The Turtles’ singles, and I chose this one because a.) I needed a Dylan cover and refused to consider Cher; b.) The Turtles were comparatively competent, especially for such a young band; and c.) I’d do anything to avoid having to listen to “Happy Together” again.
“There But for Fortune,” Joan Baez, September 1965: If you’ve read my review of Woodstock, you’ll know how little I appreciate Joan Baez, but I deeply appreciate Phil Ochs, and this is one of my favorite Phil Ochs songs. While Joan’s version is stiffer than Phil’s live and studio versions, she does manage to avoid some of her often distracting vocal mannerisms, allowing the listener to focus on the beauty of the poetry. The simple idea of this song—that things can happen to people for reasons out of their control—is in itself a protest against the strange American belief that if something bad happens to you it’s your own damned fault because either you didn’t work hard enough or committed some sort of sin against God or a transgression against human authority. The prisoner, the homeless, the drunkards all get what they deserve in the land of the free and the home of the white-privileged cowards who run the place.
The lyrics remind us of the common humanity we share with those who suffer misfortune, and whether that misfortune was the result of dumb luck or a simple human mistake hardly matters. When people need help, we should help them. If they’re trying to game the system, doesn’t that tell you the system isn’t responding to human needs? Or that the person needs a different form of help or education? When are we going to get it?
The lyrics to the first three verses are incredibly moving, and deserve your full attention. I am using Joan’s lyrics for consistency’s sake, but there was some controversy concerning her rendition. The “and” in parentheses is not in her version; it is noted because Phil Ochs was seriously pissed at Joan for omitting it. To Phil, that omission changed the meaning; personally, I have no opinion on the subject.
Show me the prison, show me the jail,
Show me the prisoner whose face life has gone stale
And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why
(And) There but for fortune, go you or I.
Show me the alley, show me the train,
Show me a hobo who sleeps out in the rain,
And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why
(And) There but for fortune, go you or I.
Show me the whiskey stains on the floor,
Show me the drunkard as he stumbles out the door,
And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why
(And) There but for fortune, go you or I.
The last verse deals with the grander issue of war against a young country and how patriotism and paranoia lead us to dehumanize the enemy. At the time Joan’s version was released, LBJ, who upon passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution said he was not “committing American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land,” had already begun the senseless bombing and troop escalation that would place 200,000 American soldiers to Vietnam by year’s end. While that single verse has led some to classify “There But for Fortune” as a Vietnam War protest song, the truth is that Phil Ochs wrote a song of timeless value that remains relevant today.
“I Still Love You,” The Vejtables, October 1965: If you want to hear what a real garage band sounded like in 1965—check that—a real garage band with actual talent—go no further than The Vejtables. When picked up by Autumn Records, The Vejtables were still attending high school in Millbrae, a bedroom community south of San Francisco, one of a string of suburban towns connected by the El Camino (nobody in the Bay Area refers to the old Jesuit missionary path as the El Camino Real). “I Still Love You” was their one and only hit to breach the Top 100, popping in at #88 for a single week.
The center of gravity for The Vejtables was a young lady named Jan Errico, who chose Jan Ashton as her stage name because British-sounding names were in and Italian-sounding names were on their way out. Jan was the drummer, lead singer and lead songwriter, a young gal with a shitload of talent. “I Still Love You” is a very melodic and clever pop song, unique in that it has no chorus—the transition to the bridge is accomplished by an appended line of verse. Her vocal is flat-out gorgeous, and the band, with its jangly guitars and simple vocal harmonies, has all the freshness of teens discovering the joys of the new sounds emanating from the British Isles.
The band fell apart once Autumn Records went belly up and Jan transferred her talents to the equally unstable Mojo Men, whose hit will be covered in the 1967 segment. It’s really too bad that Jan didn’t find a more stable environment and upper-level support from industry powers, as she was not only a fabulous vocalist but a promising songwriter. Her song “Cold Dreary Morning” is Ray Davies-like in its characterization of mood and social reality, and the best song I’ve ever heard about life in the fog belt on the San Francisco Peninsula.
“Rescue Me,” Fontella Bass, October 1965: The result of a jam session at Chess Records, the first thing I noticed when I listened to the song three times through is how Fontella’s voice became stronger and how her emotional expression became more varied and genuine as the song went on. I researched the background and found that all those marvelous moans and lyrical fragments in the call-and-response segment towards the end of the song were the direct result of Fontella having forgotten the words! Hooray! Now you can just feel it, baby! It helped that she had some pretty solid musicians behind her, including two guys who would wind up in Earth, Wind & Fire.
After some bad experiences with the recording industry, Fontella split for Paris with her musically-inclined hubby and recorded a couple of albums with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, most famously (from the French perspective) the 9-minute avant-garde jazz piece, “Theme de Yo-Yo.” Her work with the ensemble is absolutely stunning, and so far removed from her work on Chess that it’s hard to believe it’s the same woman.
“The Sound(s) of Silence,” Simon & Garfunkel, November 1965: “Do I have to, Dad?” “Yes.” “But I can’t stand Simon & Garfunkel.” “Paul Simon is an important American songwriter.” “Paul Simon is just the English major version of Neil Sedaka.” “Come on. He was a more-than-credible poet.” “If he was such a credible poet, why did he have to keep reminding people he was a poet and that Artie was just a one-man band?” “How about if we extend the series to 1968 so you can do ‘Mrs. Robinson?’ Surely you see the value in that song.” “I think it’s a dumb-ass song. They tried to show how hip they were with the ‘I Am the Walrus’ snippet and that reference to DiMaggio was astonishingly racist. Who needed DiMaggio when you had Willie Mays? Was it that the white folk back then didn’t cotton to Willie because he was a black dude?” “Well, if all you’re going to do is trash Paul Simon, then don’t bother.”
“I Got You (I Feel Good),” James Brown, November 1965: Look. You’re never going to buy a James Brown song for the lyrics, so forget about them. James Brown was an influential entertainer who put all his chips on the groove, using his high-pitched, gravel-soaked voice to amplify the excitement embedded in the song’s movement. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” is pure heat delivered by a very tight band and a vocalist who allowed himself to channel the feeling with a minimum of interference. ‘Nuff said.
“Jenny Take a Ride,” Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, December 1965: Look. You’re never going to buy a Mitch Ryder song for the lyrics . . . wait, where have I heard that before? Am I getting senile? Let me start again: if you want pure rock ‘n’ roll without any socially significant hoo-hah, look no further than Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels. Mitch hit the Top 10 with two medleys—“Jenny Take A Ride” mingles “See See Rider” with the Little Richard classic, and “Devil with the Blue Dress On” appends Mr. Penniman’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly” to create a thrilling finale. Mitch Ryder kicks ass! ‘Nuff said.
“Lies,” The Knickerbockers, December 1965: Many American Beatles imitators emerged on the scene in 1965, including and especially The Knickerbockers. The first few times my dad heard “Lies” he thought it was The Beatles, and had to eat crow when he called the local radio station and requested “the new Beatles single” only to have the DJ respond, “‘Day Tripper’—got it.” Once he finally saw The Knickerbockers on television in their short hair and business suits, he felt completely betrayed and never played the single again. He tried to trade the 45 but couldn’t find any takers.
Sheesh! Sure, I hear The Beatles’ influence, but the lead singer doesn’t sound like John, Paul, George or even Ringo, so we’ll just chalk up my dad’s mistake to a still-developing ear. “Lies” is a pretty decent song with steady intensity from the first note to the last. By all accounts, The Knickerbockers modus operandi was to follow whatever trend might lead them to stardom, an approach clearly destined to make them the one-hit wonders they turned out to be.
“Uptight (Everything’s Alright), Stevie Wonder, December 1965: I found it odd that dad’s collection didn’t include Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips,” because he loves Stevie Wonder, and “Fingertips (Part 2)” hit the top of the charts in 1963. Dad? “I thought it was a novelty song, you know—the little blind black boy wows the crowd kind of thing. It was more of a gimmick than anything else. I thought he was being exploited and didn’t realize it, so I stayed away.”
I think that’s fair. If Stevie Wonder was truly going to manifest his destiny, he had to avoid the sympathy trap and move beyond the expectations attached to becoming “The Next Ray Charles.” He had to become his own man.
“Uptight” was the moment when he crossed that bridge. Although I find the horn arrangement ridiculously over the top, there is absolutely no doubt that Stevie Wonder—not Little Stevie Wonder—had begun to set his own course. His vocal on this song flows beautifully, the sound of a man who has found his true voice and inner confidence. When I listen to “Uptight,” I see the path to Innervisions and the truly great work he would produce in the future.
“It Was a Very Good Year,” Frank Sinatra, December 1965: I was absolutely blown away to find Ol’ Blue Eyes in my father’s collection, as it didn’t fit the narrative of a teenage boy smitten by British rock and American soul. When I confronted him with this contradiction, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s a great song with a great arrangement by a guy who knew how to sing.”
I completely agree. Sinatra was a serious musician and student of the vocal arts, and though some of his anti-longhair and political comments during this period made him seem like a hopeless old fart, he could still bring it to the microphone. Starting with his work at Capitol in the mid-1950’s, Frank Sinatra made a series of lasting and influential recordings that will endure forever, and continued to issue first-class work after forming his own label, Reprise Records, in the early 60’s. Several notable artists signed with Reprise, including one of the more outrageous Invasion bands—a motley crew who called themselves The Kinks.
Frank Sinatra brought us The Kinks, for fuck’s sake! For that alone, he should earn a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!
“It Was a Very Good Year” is my favorite Sinatra number of them all. Backed by one of the loveliest wind-and-string arrangements in popular music history, Sinatra plays the part of a man recounting the most important experiences in his life—all of which have to do with women. Well, duh! Is there anything more important in life to a heterosexual man than women? Of course not!
Frank’s vocal is beautifully reflective throughout the song. As he reminisces about the babes he’s enjoyed you can visualize the summer nights spent on the village green discovering the joys of post-pubescent existence; you can smell the perfume in the undone hair of the more active twenty-somethings who live in the upstairs flats; you can feel the cool leather of the limousine as he pours his high-class date a glass of Dom Perignon. I do take exception to the last verse, where he describes himself as a guy “in the autumn of my years.” While his vocal gains strength, it sounds like he draws more strength from memories of past achievements than the possibility of future opportunities. If I’d been alive and active back then, I would have told him, “Frank, baby! You’ve only just turned fifty! One of the best fucks I’ve ever had was a guy in his sixties, so you’ve got at least ten more years to play. Forget Mia Farrow—Raquel Welch is ready and waiting for you, baby!”
“It Was a Very Good Year” was the start of a very impressive run for Frank on the pop charts. In 1966, “Strangers in the Night” knocked “Paperback Writer” out of the top spot, “Summer Wind” made the Top 30, and “That’s Life” (also in my dad’s collection) would enter the Top 10 toward the end of the year.
But most importantly, Frank Sinatra fathered a daughter . . . a daughter who would give American males their very first lesson in the art of female dominance.