1967 was a big year for dad.
After graduating from high school in June, he entered the University of California in September as a Sociology major. On his eighteenth birthday he signed up for the military draft, and in a few weeks learned that he was classified 1-A-O, a conscientious objector still available for military service, but only in non-combatant roles. While he wouldn’t have to carry a gun and shoot strangers, he could still wind up in Nam as a medic or a gofer, and no one was safe in a place with no defined battle lines.
In his first year in college, dad used the student deferment option to avoid the draft entirely, but chose not to exercise it the following year once he saw it for what it was: a way for privileged white boys to avoid a trip to Saigon. Some of his buddies from the neighborhood opted for another strategy and enlisted right after high school based on “common knowledge” that enlisted men had a better shot of avoiding dangerous assignments, while draftees were automatically shipped to the front lines. The strategy turned out to be more myth than reality, though, and the following summer dad lost one of his closest friends who had volunteered for the Navy.
I still ache with the memory of seeing my dad break down when he found his friend’s name on The Wall.
My grandparents had been shaving dad’s earnings in the construction business for years, taking a cut from his pay and putting it aside for his college expenses. Back then, college was incredibly cheap—UC Berkeley was tuition-free for California residents (though they did charge modest “registration fees”)—so paying for college was the least of dad’s worries. His original plan was to continue living at home and take the AC Transit bus to Berkeley and back every day, but that plan went up in the sweet smoke that hung in the air during the Summer of Love.
That’s when he met my mother.
The late-teen version of my mother had a paralyzing effect on any man who came within thirty feet of her. A natural beauty with a great bod framed in long, dark hair would have intimidated any wannabe suitor, but when you add a French accent to the mix—well, those American boys never had a chance.
At the time she met my father, maman had only been in the States for a little over a month and though fluent in English, she was still building her American slang vocabulary. One of the earliest slang words she learned is one she still uses frequently today, especially when the subject of Donald Trump comes up in conversation: jackass. While it comes out of her mouth sounding more like zhag-ass, you can definitely hear the bite.
“Except for your father, they were all a bunch of jackasses,” she responded to my query about her initial contacts with young American males. Strengthened by his experience listening to Lesley Gore, naturally curious about people and so enthralled by her presence that any self-consciousness was obliterated, my father became the first American male to engage my mother in intelligent conversation, giving him a decisive advantage over his drooling Neanderthal competitors. For her part, she was equally attracted to him, his relatively long dirty-blonde hair and the green Irish eyes he passed on to his daughter.
Dad knew within fifteen minutes of first contact that this was the love of his life; maman wasn’t ready to make that leap quite yet. Throwing caution to the fierce winds of San Francisco, he decided then and there that he would find a place of his own away from the parental nest so he could entertain, engage and hopefully bang this hot French piece of ass. After checking out apartments in that charming relic of yesteryear known as the “want-ads,” he realized that to afford a place in Berkeley he’d have to work full-time—an impossibility given his full class schedule. Undaunted by the challenge, dad took two part-time jobs and connected with a few East Bay contractors for pick-up work on the weekends. Even with those income streams, he couldn’t afford a place by himself, so he had to find a roommate. He and his new best friend—a geography major from Placerville—found a crummy but serviceable two-bedroom place on the Berkeley-Oakland border off Telegraph Avenue where at least he and his intended could have a private room all to themselves.
Despite all the change going on in his world and the world around him, Dad remained passionate about music—probably even more so, given his new sweetheart’s musical training, talent and knowledge. Now that he was responsible for his own survival, he had to cut back on some of his impulse buys and select music that gave him the biggest bang for his buck. As it turned out, the music industry was more than happy to accommodate a young man on a budget, and had just the thing to help him stretch his meager dollars: the album.
The Beatles had done more to legitimatize the album than any other recording artists due to their overwhelming influence on both music and culture. Rubber Soul had awakened artists, moguls and the listening public to the idea that albums could be more than just collections of songs, and though Rubber Soul is only faintly thematic, it has a certain unity that separates it from The Beatles’ earlier LP’s. They took the concept to an entirely new level with Revolver, and despite Frank Zappa’s protestations to the contrary, turned albums into art with the release of Sgt. Pepper in 1967. In addition to its groundbreaking music, Sgt. Pepper was a Beatle consumer’s dream, with lyrics printed on the back, a controversial cover that spurred endless conversations about its significance and a set of cutouts you could pin to your shirt or blouse to show your allegiance to the rebranded band. Albums became all the rage in 1967, and several classics hit the shelves that year in addition to The Beatles’ masterpiece: Surrealistic Pillow, The Doors, Between the Buttons, The Who Sell Out, Alice’s Restaurant, Pleasures of the Harbor, Disraeli Gears and Axis: Bold as Love.
There was also Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space, but only hardcore trekkies would consider that ripoff a classic.
The increased quality of albums made them a less risky purchase and a much better deal for the consumer. You could buy an album with ten to twelve tracks back then for $2.99 or $3.99. 45’s cost 99 cents. Even using the higher price level and the 10-track format, the per-unit price of an album worked out to 40 cents while a 45 with only two songs came out to 45 cents. It’s hard for a generation like mine who grew up believing coins were the stupidest thing ever invented to appreciate that nickels and dimes used to have real value. In 1967 you could still get a Snickers bar for a nickel, pay a dime for a cup of coffee (fuck you, Starbucks) and buy a value pack of twelve rubbers for only 89 cents! Lyndon Johnson was working hard to make sure that something called inflation would turn those charming prices into nostalgia pieces, but a dime still made a difference to my dad back then (fuck you, George Wallace). My dad shifted his investment strategy to albums about mid-year, and as noted in the series intro, the number of 45’s he bought would dwindle precipitously by year’s end.
As for the singles released in 1967, the pop charts reveal a boom-or-bust climate. Some of the releases that year are always part of the conversation when people talk about the greatest singles of all-time. “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” would win my vote, but “Light My Fire,” “Purple Haze” and Aretha’s version of “Respect” all had a tremendous impact on popular music. Still, when you scan the charts, you get the definite impression that 45’s were not “where it’s at” (or where it was at, whatever it was). Compared to 1966, there was a surprising lack of innovative music appearing on 45’s, and less adventurous acts like The Monkees, The Buckinghams, Nancy & Frank Sinatra, The Young Rascals, The Association and Lulu often found their way to the top.
Even with the lower overall quality, I found several great 45’s and some delightfully quirky releases that somehow burst through the haze of marijuana and incense smoke to earn a spot on AM rotations. I’ve already covered the iconic songs noted above as well as several albums from 1967, but we still have several classic hits to cover and a few that had greater influence than their highest chart position might lead you to believe.
One aspect of the music of 1967 I found very curious was the almost complete disappearance of the protest song from the popular charts. The number of American casualties in the Vietnam War almost doubled that year and the annual summer race riots were particularly destructive, so there was plenty of material to work with. But though there were many anti-war demonstrations and be-ins throughout the year, there were no new popular anti-war anthems to lift protester spirits: protest songs had gone underground. And despite their proximity to the 12th Street Riot that killed forty-three and turned Detroit into a virtual war zone, Motown maintained a stubborn silence on the race issue. In dad’s collection of singles from 1967, I only found two 45’s that dealt with social reality.
My read of 1967 is that it was a year when Americans were sick and tired of reality and turned to music to escape it all. This was the year of love, love, love, and those seeking escape from the horror of the nightly news grasped onto the incredibly naive notion that if everyone could just love one another, the world would change overnight. At the seminal Human Be-In that took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967, Timothy Leary spoke for millions of Americans with his advice to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Recreational use of drugs was on the rise, new gurus arrived to educate spiritually atrophied Westerners in Eastern paths to higher consciousness, and nearly everyone wanted to disengage from the ugliness.
Dad attended that be-in and even at the ripe old age of seventeen figured out that Leary was just a hippified version of P. T. Barnum. Still, he did turn on and he did explore yoga and meditation. He drew the line at dropping out, however. “Even with all the fractures in American society at that time, I still believed that the only sure path to change was through the democratic process. I didn’t see how we could defeat the system, but if we could get inside the system, we might be able to change a few things. When I entered college, there was still hope—we still had Bobby Kennedy and MLK on our side in the fight against Johnson and Reagan. I think what you read as people being naive was actually people looking for better days ahead and feeling that there were a lot of good reasons for hope.”
That does sound pretty naive to me, but then again, I’ve spent my life in an era of middle class decline where the system is controlled by the One Percent. America in the 60’s had a large and thriving middle class, living up to its reputation as the land of opportunity. Perhaps there was something to this hope thing after all.
“Pretty Ballerina,” The Left Banke, January 1967: We begin what would turn out to be a pretty wild year in music with a wintry, melancholy piece about the unattainable woman. That unattainable woman was none other than Renée Fladen-Kamm, subject of “Walk Away Renee” and either the object of pianist Michael Brown’s late adolescent fantasies or his personal muse. Since Renée was hooked up with the bass player, both seem likely motivations.
I’ve always wondered why the muse has to be asexual. Personally, I find sex pretty fucking inspiring!
I’m a bit more attached to this song than “Walk Away Renee” because it was one of the first pop songs I learned on the piano. It’s a great song for a beginner-level piano student just starting to build some confidence and aching to play a complete composition in any genre instead of another goddamned Czerny étude. While the chord progression is not particularly challenging, Michael Brown’s composition allows for plenty of free-flow melodic play on the fringes of the key (encouraged by the introduction of an augmented fifth at the ends of the verse lines). The string arrangement is exceptional, highlighted by a key change that makes the instrumental passage all the more intriguing.
I also prefer “Pretty Ballerina” because its lyrics are far more intelligible than those of “Walk Away Renee.” Instead of mumbling his way through the melody, Steve Martin Caro sings the lyrics with sexless purity, suitable for an ode to the idealized woman. If you placed “Pretty Ballerina” on one end of a spectrum, you’d find Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You” on the other end.
And that’s where you’ll find me most of the time.
“I Think We’re Alone Now,” Tommy James & The Shondells, February 1967: Lester Bangs called this song “the bubblegum apotheosis,” but I heartily disagree. I have a bipolar opinion of Tommy James. I find both “Hanky Panky” and “Mony Mony” rather dull and somewhat dated, even for the 60’s, but I love his work on the more melodic pieces like “Crimson and Clover” and this song. Written by Ritchie Cordell, who later produced Joan Jett’s I Love Rock ‘n Roll album, the lyrics capture the essence of those sweet and semi-secretive teenage relationships as well as any other song you’d care to mention:
That’s what they say when we’re together
And watch how you play
They don’t understand and so we’re
Runnin’ just as fast as we can
Holdin’ on to one another’s hand
Tryin’ to get away into the night
And then you put your arms around me
And we tumble to the ground
And then you say
I think we’re alone now
There doesn’t seem to be anyone around
Teenagers never have the privacy they need, and that was as true with me and my ultra-understanding parents as it is for any teenager today. Teenagers live in a strange space: they’re unsure of themselves and the world around them, and they know that their parents still look at them as the little kid they knew and loved, not the blossoming adult with a shape-shifting identity. The only people who can truly understand the teenage experience are other teenagers, but because parents are forever sticking their noses into teenage business, worrying about pregnancy or praying for grandchildren, teenagers often feel the need to hide that part of their lives from the old farts. While I talked openly and honestly with my mother and sought out her perspective after a relationship had played itself out, I avoided talking with her about relationships while they were still in progress. That was my world, my life, and I needed to have it all to myself.
“I Think We’re Alone Now,” with that vivid imagery of narrow escape and tumbling to the ground in each other’s arms, describes the essence of life as a teenager. Adults may dismiss it as “bubblegum” stuff, but to a teenager, it’s real, immediate and intensely important. Teenagers are human beings who have genuine human experiences. They don’t deserve the dismissive, belittling attitude that is a defining feature of many insecure, controlling adults. “I Think We’re Alone Now” is a beautiful song, and Tommy James’ voice expresses all the complex, wavering emotions that teenagers feel almost every day of their lives.
“Sit Down, I Think I Love You,” Mojo Men, February 1967: Now THIS is bubblegum. “Sit Down, I Think I Love You” is a listening experience that will dissolve your tooth enamel unless you brush after every spin. The arrangement of this Stephen Stills composition is best described as “hippie circus music,” and the only reason I selected this 45 was to get another opportunity to hear Jan Errico’s voice. While the male lead sounds wimpy, the former lead singer of The Vejtables comes through strong and clear when she enters the mix at the start of the bridge.
I have to confess that when I was a cute little blonde girl composed of nothing but sweetness and light, I adored this song. I also liked circuses. Today I wouldn’t be caught dead at a circus and as far as sweetness and light is concerned, let’s just say that “Sit Down, I Think I Love You” isn’t the kind of song that goes well with leather lingerie and riding crops.
“Epistle to Dippy,” Donovan, February 1967: Wow! Jimmy Page! The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra! No fucking colors! No fucking seagulls! Maybe Donovan has finally turned the corner!
The British were spared the experience of “Epistle to Dippy,” as the single was only released in the United States, where it made it all the way to #19 before thankfully fading into oblivion. According to Wikipedia, the song has a strong pacifist message, but I guess I’m not stoned enough to find it. Without a lyric sheet you can hardly make out the words due to Donovan’s patented method of syllabic torture, which by itself negates the argument that there is a strong message. In fact, I’m very suhhhhhhhhh . . . spicious about the assertion that there is a message at all, unless it’s contained in the opening line of the last verse: “rrrrree-bell ughents suh-sigh-utt-ay.” If he really wanted people to rebel against society, wouldn’t that have been the one line in this fucking song that he would have articulated clearly and with due emotion?
Sigh. I guess “Epistle to Dippy” is what you get when you see life through crystal speck-tickles. Now that I’ve covered it, I will skip across to the next song quite merrrrrrr-ily.
“Dead End Street,” Lou Rawls, March 1967: Damn, I love this man’s voice.
The label on the 45 is somewhat misleading, as it identifies two separate parts with two separate playing times: “Dead End Street Monologue” (1:27) and “Dead End Street” (2:10). I guess Capitol Records was still operating under the assumption that DJ’s were still averse to spinning anything longer than three minutes, so the label served to give DJ’s the go-ahead to skip the monologue and go straight to the “real song.”
Wow. That’s like cutting out the first two acts of Hamlet. The play would open with an obviously mentally disturbed young man wandering around Elsinore doing bizarre things that make no sense at all. You’d have no insight as to what caused him to behave so strangely, and would probably take an immediate and lasting dislike to this throughly unsavory fellow who goes about ordering a young woman to a nunnery and impulsively stabbing an old man hiding behind a tapestry. “I didn’t spend forty bucks to see a play about a psychotic loser,” you’d grumble as you stormed out of the theatre.
The same is true of “Dead End Street.” Cut out the monologue and a white person in the 60’s would hear a black man bitching about how unfair life is. “Glad I voted for Governor Reagan,” the white man would say, and switch the dial. Listen to the monologue and you get a completely different picture: a vivid description of life in the ghetto for a boy stuck on a street that was dead-end in more ways than one:
I was born in a city the called the ‘Windy City’
And they call it the ‘Windy City’ because of the ‘Hawk’.
The Hawk, the almighty Hawk, Mr. Wind
Takes care of plenty o’ business around winter time
The place that I lived in was on a street
That happened to be one of the dead-end streets
Where there was nothing to block the wind, the elements
Nothing to buffer them for me, to keep ‘em from knocking my pad down, Jim
I mean, really socking it to me
When the boiler would bust and the heat was gone, Jim,
I had to get fully dressed before I could go the bed
‘Course I couldn’t put on my goulashes cause they had buckles on them
And my folks didn’t play that
They said, “Don’t you tear up my bedclothes with them goulashes on.”
Playing the role to perfection, Lou then goes on to describe how he split as soon as he could get a job and save enough money—a key point to demonstrate to the largely white listening audience that this kid didn’t steal their tax dollars by going on public assistance. Now you understand Lou when he sings about the limited options available to a black boy caught in the cycle of poverty:
They say this is a big rich town, but I live in the poorest part
I know I’m on a dead-end street in a city without a heart
I learned to fight before I was six, the only way I could get along
When you’re raised on a dead-end street you gotta be tough and strong
Now all the guys I know getting in trouble that’s how it’s always been
When the odds are all against you how can you win?
Lou dominates the “real song” with his rich, commanding voice, weaving tiny bits of scat into the drama-packed narrative to keep the groove going. His anguish and passion about the condition of black children in America comes through loud and clear, but equally strong is the message, “Hey, all I want are the same things you white people have that I don’t”—to get a good job, to learn a trade, to make a life for himself. While the non-revolutionary stance of “Dead End Street” may have frustrated a few militants, the message doesn’t differ much from points two, four and five in The Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program: full employment, housing fit for human beings and a real education.
Lou Rawls won a Grammy for his performance, and though I loathe the Grammies and all they stand for, his vocal on “Dead End Street” deserves every award it can get.
“The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” The Grateful Dead, March 1967: The Dead’s first single was literally an afterthought: they’d finished recording their first album but Warner didn’t think any of the tracks qualified for release as a single. So they headed over to Coast Recorders, then located on Folsom Street in The City, and came up with a single based on the name of their fan club. “Golden Road” is a precious bit of you-are-there history, describing the burgeoning hippie scene in the Haight before tourists and the skeptical national press showed up and disrupted the vibes:
See that girl, barefootin’ along,
Whistlin’ and singin’, she’s a carryin’ on.
There’s laughing in her eyes, dancing in her feet,
She’s a neon-light diamond and she can live on the street.
Hey hey, hey, oh, by the way, come and (party every day)
Hey hey, hey, oh, by the way, come and (party every day)
Well everybody’s dancin’ in a ring around the sun
Nobody’s finished, we ain’t even begun.
So take off your shoes, child, and take off your hat.
Try on your wings and find our where it’s at.
The feel of the song is loose and fun, reflecting the carefree spirit of those who chose to drop out of the absurd world sponsored by the white-shirted Establishment and tune in to music, dance and good times. The group vocals are outstanding, and while I think they may have overdone it a bit with the overdubs, the energy of the song never flags. I love the dissonant ending, a small but treasured bit of defiance against convention. If you want to get an idea of what the Haight felt like in its prime, “Golden Road” is a good place to start . . . and that’s my father talking, since I wouldn’t arrive on the planet for another fourteen years.
“Friday on My Mind,” The Easybeats, March 1967: The Easybeats were Australia’s answer to The Beatles, generating a form of teenage girl hysteria referred to in the Aussie press as “easyfever.” While the sheilas went apeshit for The Easybeats, the band might as well have lived on the moon as far as the rest of the world was concerned. I listened to several of their early tracks that made it big down under and what I heard was a rougher, even more unpolished version of garage rock. When they tried to sell their wares to the big boys in the U. K., their material was dismissed as unsuitable and unsophisticated—a reaction similar to that of the American arm of CBS when they first heard The Clash. Things finally got moving when The Easybeats were paired with Shel Talmy, notorious for his production work with The Kinks and The Who. After listening to their repertoire of originals, he chose “Friday on My Mind” as their best shot at a breakthrough.
Well, duh! The wow factor of this song is off the charts in terms of both musical sophistication and unbridled energy. The simple, insistent staccato guitar in E minor establishes an edgy tension for Stevie Wright’s vocal, which complements the tension with its sullen frustration, reflecting the drag we all feel in the early part of the work week. When the second guitar joins and delivers that amazing scale-defying run, you feel like the tension is about to boil over, but Stevie holds back for a couple of lines (including my favorite, “Even my old man looks . . . good”) before rising in the scale to the clinching line, “I’ve got Friday on my mind!” A rapid series of chords provides the bridge to the chorus in joyful A major, an increasingly delightful passage heightened by call-and-response vocals that ends in harmonic unity.
“Friday on My Mind” was their breakthrough hit, but unfortunately The Easybeats fell apart pretty quickly after earning international success. Damn! They really had something here, and had they continued writing in that vein, they could have created some terribly exciting material. Damn!
“Here Comes My Baby,” The Tremeloes, April 1967: I was so disappointed to learn that Cat Stevens wrote this song. I would like to send Cat Stevens and Graham Nash to whatever level of hell Dante reserved for those whose mere presence causes fatal diabetic shock.
Though it’s still hard to believe that Decca chose Brian Poole and the Tremeloes over The Four Moptops, the group did have a relatively successful career in the U. K. “Here Comes My Baby” was the first single after Brian Poole’s departure, and proved to be a breakthrough hit that gave them greater access to international markets. Personally, I can’t stand their even more successful follow-up, “Silence Is Golden,” and was thrilled not to find it in dad’s collection. Though the lyrics of “Here Comes My Baby” tell the story of a humiliating breakup, the manufactured party background helps lighten the atmosphere, and The Tremeloes’ infectious energy makes parting a sweeter sorrow.
“I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman,” Whistling Jack Smith, April 1967: File this under “Confidential: Confessions of a Whistling Whore.”
I wholly and completely reject the characterization of this song as a novelty song! People have been whistling for centuries—how then is whistling a novelty? I refuse to accept the cheapened definition of novelty as something popular for a short period of time and insist that this song has legs, people! Legs!
This song makes me incredibly happy! The arrangement is superb, opening with a brief gazebo band passage calling up nostalgic moments on the village green. A gentle arpeggiated guitar appears, and then we hear the sound of a jaunty air delivered through the puckered lips of a human being. Ah, the sweet sound of whistling! A bass and tambourine join in to strengthen the whistler’s fortitude, because as incredible as this may seem, some people think whistling is a silly thing to do. Harrumph! Now facing a half-step key change, the whistler receives additional support from an organist, a surprisingly energetic drummer and a good helping of reverb that helps the whistler maintain center stage. What? Another half step rise! What’s this? A WHISTLING DUET? OH MY GOD! YES! YES! BRING IT ON HOME BABY! AAAAAHHHH! NO! DON’T STOP! WHAT? YOU’VE GOT MORE? AAH! YES! YES! COME ON BABY, GET IT ALL OUT! YES! FUCK YES! AHHHHHH!
I don’t give a rat’s ass that Whistling Jack Smith was a figment of producer imagination. The man knew how make a woman take it, like it and beg for more. Whistling Jack Smith will always have a place in my heart as my virtual male blow-up doll.
One more time!
“New York Mining Disaster 1941,” The Bee Gees, May 1967: Although two Australian bands breaking into the American pop charts in the same year doth not an invasion make, The Bee Gees confirmed the existence of the mysterious subcontinent for geographically-challenged Americans and helped establish Australia as a viable source for new acts. While their disco phase appeals to me about as much as a guy who hasn’t showered in a week, The Bee Gees did some good stuff during the early years of international awareness. Bee Gees 1st (actually their third album but the first outside ANZAC) is a pretty solid album with surprising diversity. “New York Mining Disaster 1941” was the first of three A-sides from that album (“Holiday” and “To Love Somebody” are the other two) and is my favorite of the three. Composed by Barry and Robin Gibb, this dramatic monologue of a miner trapped in a cave-in is beautifully sung and brilliantly arranged. Contradicting the classic rules of song structure that demand you build to a peak, “New York Mining Disaster 1941” works in reverse: the lyrics become more spare and are sung more slowly as the song proceeds and the miner’s oxygen supply becomes depleted. The string support is equally spare, adding to the drama, and the carefully-placed harmonies supplied by Robin and Barry enhance the feeling of despair. Beatle-like? Sure, but virtually any English-sounding group that sang harmonies could have been nailed on that charge.
Look: if you can’t tell the difference between The Beatles and The Bee Gees, you’re a fucking idiot.
“Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking),” Janis Ian, May 1967: One of the very few protest songs to chart this year, “Society’s Child” was a remarkable song in many ways. And the shit Janis Ian had to go through after recording it was even more remarkable.
Janis was something of a musical prodigy who was trained on several instruments, composed her first song at the age of twelve and completed writing “Society’s Child” at fourteen. At the time she attended school in a neighborhood in East Orange, New Jersey where whites were a distinct minority, enabling her to see racism at work on both sides of the divide. The song was released three times before Leonard Bernstein gave it a helpful push and brought Janis into the limelight at the tender age of 16. Even with Bernstein’s imprimatur, many radio stations banned “Society’s Child” because it dealt with a seriously taboo issue: interracial romance.
Janis received hate mail and death threats. Bill Cosby spread the word that she was a lesbian in an attempt to have her blacklisted (she came out as bisexual much later). Her career stalled for years until “At Seventeen” was released to widespread acclaim in 1975.
“Society’s Child” is still a beautiful and moving song today. The arrangement is tastefully dramatic, having been produced by Shadow Morton, who worked wonders with The Shangri-Las. The unusual key change from Cm to Am in the chorus adds depth to the girl’s feelings of despair and disconnection. Janis’ voice combines power, beauty and a genuine sense of anguish.
Some may complain about the copout at the end when she gives into her parents and ends the relationship with her black boyfriend, but I get the sense that the social reality of the time demanded such a copout. Though the people of the 60s’ thought they were living in an age of progress, most of that progress took place in the fields of consumer goods, military technology and the space race. When it came to the right to love whomever you choose, the 60’s were a pretty grim period.
“San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” Scott McKenzie, May 1967: Another 20-minute effort on the part of John Phillips, this song was primarily written as an advertisement for the Monterey International Pop Festival. Phillips was one of the festival’s organizers, as was producer Lou Adler. Though Phillips didn’t make a dime on the festival because the proceeds went to charity and the artists played for free (except for Ravi “Higher Consciousness” Shankar), there is such a thing as a loss leader, a marketing strategy where you lowball a product or service to stimulate sales of other product lines.
If you really think Phillips and Adler did this out of the goodness their hearts, you belong in 1967.
You also have to question why Phillips and Adler would promote a festival taking place in Monterey with a song encouraging people to travel to San Francisco. That’s a two-and-a-half hour drive if you’re lucky, and my research could find no evidence that Trans-Love Airways ever flew to Monterey. Or to San Francisco. Or anywhere outside of Donovan’s head.
But hey, if you’ve only got twenty minutes to put together an ad, you might end up with a few embarrassing typos.
When I hear Scott McKenzie’s wholesome-white-guy voice, I imagine him donned in the culturally-aware-oh-so-hip Nehru jacket and beads, standing in a field of wildflowers free of stinging insects and migrating animal shit, the sun shining brightly but not bright enough to damage Scott’s tender white skin, directing his naturally-benevolent gaze upwards at the clear blue sky free of rain clouds, passing jets and air pollution, projecting his Karo-brand corn syrup voice over emerald hills and dales where thousands of wannabe hippies have gathered to achieve peace, oneness, a great high and oodles of groovy, out-of-sight and blessedly free love.
The only problem with that picture is there is no way in hell a guy can get it up listening to Scott McKenzie.
While his voice creeps me out in the same way I get creeped out when I see pictures of Jesus in spotless white robes and squeaky-clean, obviously conditioned hair, I don’t blame Scott McKenzie for this turkey. He had a job to do and he did it with good faith and to the best of his ability. No, the fault here lies entirely with John Phillips, who (very much like Paul Simon) constantly inflated his importance by positioning himself as a “spokesperson for the generation.” This is the verse that makes me want to retch:
All across the nation such a strange vibration
People in motion
There’s a whole generation with a new explanation
People in motion, people in motion
If I could go back in time and grab John Phillips by his scruffy collar for a quick interview, here’s what that conversation might look like from my end:
“Hey, John, about this verse that starts with “all across the nation” and “a strange vibration”—what kind of vibes are you feeling from the people in the ghettos? How about the American Heartland? Think all those racists in Mississippi and Alabama feel those vibes? And you’re saying the whole generation is feeling those vibes, heh? What about the guys who signed up for the ROTC? What about the girls who still want to grow up and raise families? What about the farm boys? What about the Young Republicans? What about the young people living in poverty? And hey, what’s this “new explanation” all about? Got any plans? Can you share any details? What are you trying to achieve? And those people in motion—why are they in motion? Where are they going? What are they going to do when they get there? What’s that, John? I just don’t get it—is that what you said? Oh, I see—I had to be there. Well, John, I’m right here, right now. Show me the vibrations. Show me the new explanation. Show me how the whole generation is united in motion and tell me where they’re moving to and why. What’s that, John? I’ll see someday? I’ll see? Okay, I’ll see you and raise you a nickel that you didn’t know what the fuck you were thinking when you wrote this song. Is that right, John? Hey! Hey! Don’t you turn your back on me! Stop! Okay, I warned you!”
Wow! He . . . vanished! That nose twitch I picked up from Samantha really works!
“Brown Eyed Girl,” Van Morrison, July 1967: I chose this song from the pile even though I’m sick to death of it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song played so frequently in public. I’ve heard it while strolling through the casinos in Vegas, on elevators in several different countries and when flipping through the stations on my car radio (in the days when I owned a car). I’ve heard it on television commercials, in between innings at baseball games and most recently on a boom box while strolling through the streets of Nice.
I think I remember liking it at one time, but I think I would have liked it better had Van stuck with the original title: “Brown-Skinned Girl.” Van says the title change was an accident, a story that has as much credibility as Lyndon Johnson did in 1967. He changed it because it would have been banned or censored on radio stations because of the interracial implications.
As it was, the song was partially censored anyway. The “making love in the green grass” was overdubbed with a repetition of the “laughin’ and a-runnin'” phrase. Still, I find the title change troubling—far more troubling than The Stones caving into Ed Sullivan and singing “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.”
I guess a 16-year old Jersey girl had more guts than a young man from the mean streets of Belfast.
“Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry, August 1967: You can’t compare “Ode to Billie Joe” to any other song that came out in 1967, and it must have had a profound grounding effect on music listeners engulfed in a period of experimentation and often over-the-top wackiness. Instead of having to sit through another song celebrating the muddled values and questionable virtues of Hippie Utopia, here was a song about real people using real language to tell a real story. All over the U. S. A., people previously engaged in passionate debate about the war, moral decline, the credibility gap and the generational divide tuned out of the daily news cycle for a few blessed weeks and engaged in passionate debate about what the hell Billie Joe McAllister and his girlfriend threw off the Talahatchee Bridge.
There is nothing like a great story told well to bring people together. Bobbie Gentry not only wrote a great story, but she told it exceptionally well. Just like it was when your mom or dead read your favorite book to you for the umpteenth time, she has your undivided attention as you hang on every word, every nuance, every slight shift in the mood of the narrative.
I completely agree with Bobbie Gentry that the issue of what the couple tossed into the river isn’t really that important. What is important is the conversation between family members and how they process the meaning of Billie Joe’s suicide. Papa takes the classic American Puritan view that Billy Joe got what he deserved and that his death is a trivial event compared to the lower forty he’s got to plow. The line “Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense—pass the biscuits, please” is the ultimate negation of Billie Joe’s life. Mama maintains her native emotional intelligence (“and mama said it was a shame about Billie Joe anyhow”), but moves on from Billie Joe relatively quickly (“That nice young preacher Brother Taylor dropped by today”) then shifts to motherly concern over her daughter’s possible involvement in Billie Joe’s death. Brother has the typical reaction of finding death hard to believe and tries to do battle with the finality of death by recalling childhood memories. The girl who narrates the story is almost invisible until the last verse, refusing to partake in either the family dinner (note that dinner is the midday meal on the farm) or the family conversation. She mourns Billie Joe silently by throwing flowers into the muddy river. The visual of the young girl tossing petals from a bridge takes on an even greater sense of mourning by its appearance at the very end of the song—after we learn that the family that we met at dinner no longer exists. Daddy’s dead and gone, Brother’s moved up to Tupelo with his new bride and Mama has withdrawn into her grief. “Ode to Billie Joe” could be interpreted as a microcosm of the splintering of American society or the disintegration of the traditional nuclear family . . . but like the mysterious something flung into the water, that is a secondary interpretation based on “future hindsight.”
In addition to Bobbie Gentry’s first-rate storytelling skills, Jimmie Haskell’s cinematic string arrangement is a wonder in itself, a perfectly-synced mood track characterized by stark simplicity. Every note and every silent passage has a purpose; nothing is wasted; nothing is superfluous. The passage towards the end of the song where the strings build on held notes to the fluttering finale is a marvelous mixture of tension and lingering uncertainty.
Bobby Gentry’s original composition ran for eleven verses, and I’m glad Capitol Records made the decision to pare it down to fit on a 45. The final version you hear today is a paragon of poetic economy, an impactful aesthetic experience that encourages self-reflection.
“(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” Jackie Wilson, August 1967″: They called him “Mr. Entertainment” for his electric performance style, but many of Jackie Wilson’s records fall short of capturing the man in his element. “Higher and Higher” comes closest in my book, a single-take display of Jackie Wilson in the zone. While I love the sheer enthusiasm in his voice, it’s the little touches he throws into the mix—a bit of falsetto support here, a fill-in word there—that really show how much he was feeling it. Jackie was also very lucky that The Funk Brothers decided to moonlight on this session, ensuring a tight groove and superb fills. Last but not least, kudos to The Andantes for their edge-of-female-falsetto background vocals that add immediate and lasting significance to the phrase “higher and higher.”
“The Letter,” The Box Tops, August 1967: Poor Alex Chilton. This song made him an international star at the ripe old age of sixteen and was the first in a string of hits for The Box Tops, including the solid follow-up, “Cry Like a Baby” and the rancid future commercial jingle “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March.” All very well and good, but the truth was The Box Tops were seriously over-managed and the kids in the band were getting screwed by anyone in the music business who could worm his way onto the gravy train. Alex was a kid with a shitload of potential, but management just saw him as a lead singer who could bring home the bacon to the all the little piggies crawling in the dirt.
Alex would go on to demonstrate his formidable talents after leaving The Box Tops, both with Big Star and in various solo efforts. The tragedy is he never found the right mentor who could challenge him, guide him and help him get the most of out his natural gifts. While he remains a hero in the indie scene, it pisses me off that he died in relative obscurity, almost completely penniless and unable to afford medical insurance.
Back to “The Letter”—Alex’s vocal carries this song, overcoming the superfluous horns and strings that come close to ruining it. You can hardly hear the other Box Tops, so really, it’s Alex Chilton versus the sappy arrangement, and Alex wins in a landslide.
“We Love You/”Dandelion,” The Rolling Stones, September 1967: The Stones enter the revolutionary fray with a furious, unrelenting assault on . . . direct object pronouns?
We love you
We love you
And we hope that you will love we tooWe love they
We love they
And we want you to love they too
Way to hit the capitalist oppressors where they least expect it, guys! We will not be objectified!
The universal outrage of grammarians may have doomed “We Love You” from the get-go, as it never climbed above #50 on the Hot 100. Promo dollars were then shifted to the b-side, and “Dandelion” climbed to a respectable #14. “Dandelion” is the better song, which in comparison to “We Love You” isn’t saying a whole hell of a lot. It’s one of two decent pieces from this dark period in Stones history; the other is “She’s a Rainbow” from that disastrous experiment known as Their Satanic Majesties Request.
The Stones had no fucking business getting into psychedelia in the first place, as their sweet spot was and will forever be groove-based, R&B-influenced rock with a bite. They also made it more difficult for themselves during this period by falling in love with complex vocal harmonies, ignoring the inconvenient fact that their voices weren’t particularly suited for such work. To their credit, they may have been subliminally aware of their harmonic deficiencies, and for “Dandelion” they brought in Lennon and McCartney for emergency assistance.
No one was saved, not even “Dandelion.”
“Soul Man,” Sam and Dave, September 1967: This was a great year for soul, and I’m a sucker for soul songs where men sing about what studs they are. They’re a source of endless motivation because they remind me of how many men I have to subdue before I croak!
I was brought up on a side street
I learned how to love before I could eat
I was educated from good stock
When I start lovin’ I just can’t stop
I could respond, “Hold on, I’m coming” but that can be taken in so many ways.
Isaac Hayes wrote “Soul Man” as a pride song after seeing the word “soul” plastered on the windows of small businesses during the Detroit riots. The superficial intent of the signs was to discourage any black looters in the area from taking out their understandable frustrations on a black-owned business, but Isaac grasped the deeper meaning of the word “soul”—an affirmation of identity merging body and spirit.
The Soul Man in the song does more than fuck: he’s also there to help a woman out and give her hope. That thread served to challenge the stereotype of black men as unbreakable sex machines who value women only for their honey pots.
Personally, I don’t need the help or the hope, but I can always use a great fuck.
Sam and Dave trade verses and harmonize on the chorus, and make a fabulous duo, especially when paired with Booker T & the MG’s and horns from The Mar-Keys. I’m also a sucker for strong bass lines and “Soul Man” rumbles like a rhythmic earthquake. And I just love the way they back off the double time of the verses and ease into the basic groove in the chorus—it’s like a great fuck sequence when the guy follows five minutes of high-speed penetration with long, deep, measured thrusts that seriously test the elasticity of the vaginal wall.
No, I don’t hear sex in every piece of music, but I do hear it when it’s there.
“Incense and Peppermint,” Strawberry Alarm Clock, September 1967: I have to compliment the British on their musical taste here. While “Incense and Peppermint” made it to #1 in the USA, it failed to appear on the UK Singles Chart. Blimey!
The song has a weird history of disputed authorship and a strange decision concerning the lead singer. In a narrative piece on Songfacts, keyboard player Mark Weitz recalled that each of the band members tried to sing the lead vocal but none of them sounded right. A 16-year old kid who happened to be visiting the studio that day gave it a shot and got the job. And no, he did not join the band, even after “Incense and Peppermint” made it to the top.
I hope The Strawberry Alarm Clock were world-class lip-syncers.
An alternative version of the story is that the band members didn’t want to sing it because they couldn’t stand the lyrics provided by co-writer John Carter. I hope that’s the real version, because I don’t know how anyone with an ounce of self-respect would want to have anything to do with these ludicrous phrases:
Good sense, innocence, cripplin’ mankind
Dead kings, many things I can’t define
Occasions, persuasions clutter your mind
Incense and peppermints, the color of time
I have no idea what that means and I don’t think another acid trip would help. Later Carter borrows a piece of Timothy Leary’s tune in mantra then urges listeners to “throw your pride to one side, it’s the least you can do.” Whatever you say, man.
It’s really too bad that the Strawberry Alarm Clock a.) adopted a very silly name and b.) will forever be associated with a very brief moment in music history. They were actually one of the better L. A. bands and featured some solid musicians like Weitz and Ed King, who would move on to contribute his fretboard talents to Lynyrd Skynrd.
Oh well, “little to win, nothing to lose,” as they say.
“Get Together,” The Youngbloods, October 1967: Damn. Another barf bag song.
Jesse Colin Young approached the lead vocal with the same syrupy style of Scott McKenzie in a vain attempt to imbue meaninglessness with meaning and nothingness with feeling. The Kingston Trio had recorded this song as far back as 1964, but apparently no one was ready to love their brother just yet. “Get Together” was We Five’s follow-up to “You Were on My Mind,” and while it made the Top 40, there weren’t enough hippies around yet to turn into an anthem. Even when The Youngbloods released “Get Together” shortly after The Summer of Love, the song seemed finally destined for much-deserved oblivion after peaking at #62 in the Billboard Hot 100. It took two more years and a PSA by the National Conference of Christian and Jews to draw attention to The Youngblood’s version, and they finally made the Top 10 in 1969.
I really wish religious people would mind their own goddamned business.
This thoroughly repulsive song was written by one Chet Powers, aka Dino Valenti, who bounced around music scenes in Boston, New York and L. A. before winding up in the Bay Area just as the counterculture was rearing its hairy head. Eventually he became the lead singer and songwriter for Quicksilver Messenger Service, a band that enjoyed modest success in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Chet-Dino was also busted several times for marijuana and amphetamine possession and actually had to spend some time in Folsom Prison for those seemingly minor offenses. To pay his legal expenses, he sold the publishing rights to “Get Together,” so in the end the song did provide some value in helping out a guy in a tough spot.
“Get Together” is repulsive on so many levels I hardly know where to start, but let’s get “smile on your BROTHER” out of the way first. Thanks for excluding more than half of the human race, Chet! Like many hippie anthems, the song hints at greater meaning but never provides anything the least bit meaningful. Lines guilty of this heinous crime include: “You can make the mountains ring/Or make the angels cry,” “We are but a moment’s sunlight/Fading in the grass,” and the entire last verse:
If you hear the song I sing
You will understand (listen!)
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It’s there at your command
WHERE’S THE FUCKING KEY? Is it under the doormat or in the fake rock hidden in the garden? If I smile on my BROTHER, is that like a secret password I have to use so I can get the fucking key? Hey, I’m all ears here—where is that goddamn key? Where’s the door? Where are we, Chet?
The weirdest verse is the second, where Chet turns into a half-assed theologian . . . I guess.
Some may come and some may go
We shall surely pass
When the one that left us here
Returns for us at last
We are but a moment’s sunlight
Fading in the grass
Wait, whoa, what? “Some may come and some may go, we shall surely pass . . . ” are you talking about birth and death? Don’t we ALL come and go? Are you hinting that there’s a secret path to immortality? Aha! That fucking key must have something to do with it! Okay, Chet, stay with me, stay with me, I think I’m starting to get it . . . oops, Chet, you lost me again with “When the one that left us here/Returns for us at last.” I hope you’re not talking about God or Jesus or anybody like that, Chet, because now you’re going to exclude another five or so billion people who don’t subscribe to Christianity . . . are you talking about The Aliens? Okay, I can dig that but . . . there’s only one alien? That must be one powerful motherfucker if he or SHE is going to manage the transportation arrangements for seven billion inhabitants!
You look sad, Chet. You didn’t really think this one through, didja, buddy? Don’t worry about it, Chet . . . you weren’t the only one.
“Boogaloo Down Broadway,” The Fantastic Johnny C, October 1967: I’ll take the lyrics of “Boogaloo Down Broadway” over “Get Together” anytime:
Baby, oh baby,
Boogaloo down Broadway,
Baby, oh baby
Boogaloo down Broadway.
Come on Sally, come on Sue,
All day long we’re gonna Boogaloo.
But when the sweat begins to fill the air,
We’re gonna funky Broadway everywhere.
Songwriter Jesse James wasn’t trying to make a meaningful generational statement. He wasn’t tying to raise anyone’s consciousness. He was just trying to get people in the mood to dance, and the lyrics are perfectly suited to that purpose.
Of course, he needed a great singer who shared that purpose, and he found one in an ex-gospel singer named Johnny Corley. He was re-christened The Fantastic Johnny C after Jesse James played the demo for some friends, who all described it as “fantastic.” And it is! “Boogaloo Down Broadway” is an absolute gas in large part because Johnny C was seriously feeling it. That little stop time section that opens the song and reappears between the verses is a precious moment of sensual delight and a model of effective simplicity: a nice little bluesy guitar riff and one powerful whack on the snare drum. The juxtaposition of a rock-solid groove with stop-time intervals make for a fabulous dance song that gives dancers the chance to show their stuff. I tried it at home with my partner and sure enough, every time that little riff appeared I felt an overwhelming urge to give her one powerful whack on her ass in time with the snare hit. And I did! And it was . . . fantastic!
“Homburg,” Procol Harum, October 1967: Stylistically similar to “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” with piano more prominent than the organ, “Homburg” proved to be a worthy follow-up to one of the most cherished songs of the period. I love the structure of the chorus and the way the chords ascend in full-step intervals up to the major third while avoiding the obvious choice of the major fifth as the return to the root. I like the music far better than Keith Reid’s lyrics, which are unusually awkward (“for the floor she found descended”) and weaken the apparent theme of man trapped within his socially-defined perceptions. Oddly enough, it was paired with “Good Captain Clack,” a music hall bit from their first album about the consequences of a half-assed erection.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Gladys Knight & The Pips, October 1967: Apparently Americans of this era had an unusually strong appetite for grapevines. Only a year after the Gladys Knight & The Pips version made it to #2, Marvin Gaye took his version to the top, where it stayed for three weeks. Not to be outdone, Creedence Clearwater Revival produced an eleven-minute version of the song for their 1970 album Cosmo’s Factory. Their single version peaked at #46.
As it is with penises, length is irrelevant. Creedence’s version is a colossal bore from one of the most overrated bands in history, so Fogerty can put his long one back in his pants and get the hell off the stage. The only versions that matter came from Gladys and Marvin.
There’s really no sense in comparing the two, as Marvin Gaye put such an unusual spin on the original that it feels like they’re almost two different songs. Gladys’ take is more “You think you’re going to fuck with me, dude?” while Marvin’s reflects the deeper emotional consequences of rejection. Gladys deals with the obvious; Marvin plays with the subtext. There’s no question that the Gladys Knight & The Pips version is the better dance number, but Marvin Gaye wasn’t trying to get your feet moving—he targeted your heart and soul. I love both versions, and my preference for one or the other depends entirely on my mood: if I want to shake it, I go with Gladys; if I want a full emotional experience, Marvin’s my man.
“Itchycoo Park,” The Small Faces, November 1967: I can’t tell you what a wonderful feeling it is to end this series with a song featuring musicians who knew how to play.
I will never understand why Small Faces and The Pretty Things never made serious inroads with the American public. They were two of the best British bands of the era, compiling wonderful catalogues of diverse and exciting material. While I realize that they didn’t get much in the way of management or record company support in the States, I’m amazed that even the limited airplay they received didn’t start a groundswell of demand. The Pretty Things never charted in the United States, and Small Faces only hit the Top 20 once, with “Itchycoo Park.”
I’ve noticed that most reviews of this song focus on the engineering wizardry that created those cool psychedelic sounds and ignore the underlying truth that cool sounds do not make a memorable single. The reason you hear “Itchycoo Park” today is because fundamentally it’s a great song performed exceptionally well. The chord sequence in the verse is a bit unusual with its move from C#m to G in the context of the key of A major—when I first tried to learn this song the DOES NOT COMPUTE alarm went off in my brain and I must have tried twenty other chords before surrendering. Steve Marriott gets to show why he was one of the best lead singers of the era with a performance that ranges from soft restraint to all-out power. Ronnie Lane’s bass fills are simply marvelous, Kenney Jones is solid on the kit and Ian McLagan does superior and surprisingly subtle work on the keyboards. As with “Ode to Billie Joe,” the song featured a controversial unanswered question: “Where is Itchycoo Park?”
Personally, I couldn’t care less, but if you’re really interested, go look it up on Songfacts. To me, it’s another distraction from the delightful musical experience of the song itself.
After Dad helped me with the editing for this series (I always have my parents review the conversations I transcribe for accuracy), we had a nice little chat about our father-daughter shared experience. I should note that we started working on the series early in June 2016, and our progress was interrupted by two life-changing events that occurred back-to-back: my grandfather’s passing and the terrorist attack on the Prom. The emotional drain of grandfather’s death and the aura of tension in Nice left us with no energy to move forward, and due to the heavy travel demands of my relatively new job, I had very little free time. When we finally felt motivated to finish the job, we both went nuts, manically throwing ourselves into the music as if the music was our path to salvation. I then used all that dreary alone time in hotel rooms to complete the drafts, and I had dad over one night for dinner so we could reflect on the experience.
“You’re done, huh?” he said to me after I poured him some coffee.
I laughed. “I don’t know how to answer that. I’ve already quit twice and came back. Let’s just say I’m happy that I’m done with everything I wanted to see in the book and now I can send it to Robert for final editing—I hope. I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be writing something every week, but I reserve the right to drop in from the ether every now and then if a piece of music really motivates me.”
“Maybe you’ll get motivated to do the Wilburys someday.”
“Ain’t gonna happen, dad!” We both laughed. When the laughter died out, dad shifted to a more reflective mood.
“This has been a great experience for me in many ways. I know you’ll understand this more than most in your generation because of the way you were raised on music, but not entirely because you grew up in a different world than I did. For me, music wasn’t just a way to pass the time, it was the center of my life—it shaped my experience, colored my memories, opened my eyes and ears to worlds different from mine. Music is sacred to me and to many in my generation because we didn’t have the thousands of avenues of entertainment your generation has. When I was growing up, every song took on at least some importance, because we didn’t have all that many to listen to. That’s probably why you get so much shit from people my age—when you try to explode cherished myths or mess with special memories, you’re going to get some blowback.
“A lot of memories came back as we listened to all these songs—some good, some not so good. What surprised me was how rich memories are when they’re tied to music. There were songs we played that literally took me back to my teens—I could feel the fog on my face and the slickness on the sidewalk as I walked to school, or smell the perfume on the girl I danced with at the mixer, or trivial stuff like when I was in study hall one day trying to remember the words to ‘Paint It, Black’ because my band wanted to try it out. I wrote them down in my spiral notebook in pencil—and when I hear that song I picture my words on the page, all covered with that pink residue from the eraser. I remember a kid who thought learning ‘Paint It, Black’ was a thousand times more important than acing the civics test.
“So this has been a great experience and I think the music helped us both through a pretty tough time. And I want you to know how much I appreciate you sharing it all with me—the good, the bad, the ugly. I love you, Sunshine.”
“Aww, dad, I love you, too.”
We hugged a long time, and shed a few tears of love and relief.
Then we took care of the dishes, stepped outside into the warm cocoon of a summer night in Nice and walked hand-in-hand down the hill to meet up with maman and my partner for late night cocktails, conversation and a little night music.
If you want to hear truly great music from 1959 to 1963, forget about rock ‘n’ roll. Head over to the jazz section instead.
While jazz gave us masterworks like Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, Time Out, Mingus Ah Um, Free Jazz, Sketches of Spain, The Bridge and more, rock ‘n’ roll limped along on life support. While there were some promising developments on the R&B side of life, rock ‘n’ roll had become watered down, maddeningly predictable and dreadfully safe.
The primary virtue of the popular music during this period is that it stands up pretty well when compared to today’s over-produced, over-marketed, over-technologized shit that dominates the airwaves and video channels. The artists seemed more genuine, humble and less full of themselves, largely because few of them could get rich in an era of artist-unfriendly royalty and session payments and a touring system that made it challenging for many artists to break even. I’d take any of these folks over greedy, egomaniac losers like Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry . . . even Brian Hyland and his Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.
My father’s collection during this period was a triumph of quantity over quality. Since there are few lawns to mow in San Francisco and no kid in his right mind would take a paper route that forced you to ride your bike over steep hills through freezing fogs, dad was lucky to have a father with a construction business, enabling him to earn the princely wage of a fifty cents an hour on Saturdays and five days a week during the cold summer months in The City. He spent nearly all his earnings on records, baseball gear and, later in his teens, concerts. The sheer quantity of sides is mind-boggling when you consider that he didn’t start buying his own records until November 1961; the records before that date were either inherited from his brother or the result of sometimes shrewd trading. The best of the bunch are covered here and in my reviews of The Beach Boys‘ Sounds of Summer, Dion and the Belmonts’ Greatest Hits, the Smokey Robinson segment in the Motown Series and in Roy Orbison’s Playlist.
But jeez maneez, there was a lot of crap in that pile! Sugary, sappy Elvis singles. Loads of forgettable dance hits. Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” Jimmy Darren’s “Goodbye Cruel World.” Neil Fucking Sedaka. “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” by Charlie Drake. “Johnny Angel” by Shelly Fabares AND “My Dad” by Paul Petersen. “Hey Paula” by Paul and Paula. The Lettermen, for fuck’s sake.
And no less than four Brian Hyland 45’s, INCLUDING “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.” And he traded for it!
I’m thinking of having that senseless act engraved on his tombstone.
Of the twenty-eight 45’s I selected, only two, maybe three, qualify as rock ‘n’ roll. The best of the rest come from girl singers, girl groups and African-American artists (also heavily represented in the girl singer and girl group categories). Soul was clearly moving into its prime—you can draw a straight line from the music of this era to the golden period of Motown, Stax and Atlantic. On the flip side, if someone had told you back in 1962 that rock ‘n’ roll would soon be rescued from oblivion by four guys from Liverpool, you would have immediately concluded that the guy had a screw loose somewhere. No one—especially no one in the United States—could see The Beatles coming. All the signs pointed to an early demise for rock ‘n’ roll, and none of the artists of this period came close to reigniting its smoldering ruins.
Then again, everyone assumed that JFK would be president for eight years before turning the reins over to Bobby. No one could foresee that America would piss away its resources, its moral standing and more than 50,000 young men in an Asian jungle . . . but we’re getting way ahead of our story. Let’s return to 1959, to the waning days of the Eisenhower administration when Vietnam was a tiny zit on America’s ass and the U. S. A. was a happy, benevolent and generally peaceful place where everything went according to plan (thanks to the C. I. A.) and the future would be one of endless progress as long as those durned Negroes didn’t stir up too much trouble.
“What’d I Say Parts 1 and 2,” Ray Charles, July 1959: The experience of listening to this 45 felt like I’d stepped back into the age of The Flintstones, when Fred had to power his stone-wheeled car with his feet. Because the seven-and-a-half minute recording exceeded the 3-minute max rule imposed by radio, the producers decided to split it up into two parts on two separate sides, whacking a few “shake that thing” passages in a vain attempt to cool down the heat generated by Ray and The Raelettes. Maybe if I had been born in the 50’s I wouldn’t have thought it a hassle to get my ass out of the seat and turn the record over to hear the rest of the song, but this girl found the experience intensely annoying and worthy of the heartfelt “oh, for fuck’s sake” I flung into the ether. The experience was like having a guy bang me with all his might only to suddenly pull out for a minute to trim his toenails.
Tip: Don’t fuck with the 45. Get the full version and have a great fuck.
From the electric piano intro to the visceral sounds of the call-and-response between Ray and The Raylettes, “What I’d Say” works on two levels. For the technical connoisseur, “What I’d Say” is the blessed marriage between gospel and R&B that spawned a new genre called soul music. For the person who seeks enjoyment through music and couldn’t give a damn about origins, influences or classifications, “What I’d Say” is a ringing endorsement of more open sexual expression in music. As Ray famously said, “I’m not one to interpret my own songs, but if you can’t figure out ‘What I’d Say’, then something’s wrong. Either that, or you’re not accustomed to the sweet sounds of love.” The exchange of pre-orgasmic vocalizations punctuated by Ray’s screams of delight express far more sexuality than the clever euphemisms permissible in the era. “What I’d Say” is sexual heat turned into music, and given my active libido, it should come as no surprise to my readers that I fucking love this song.
“You’re Gonna Miss Me,” Connie Francis, August 1959: Concetta Franconero was the girl all the girls wanted to be, thanks in part to the name change that turned her into the more WASP-ish Connie Francis. Like Patsy Cline and Ruth Brown, she entered the public eye after recording a song she couldn’t stand, “Who’s Sorry Now?” She followed that monster hit with a couple of clunkers, then turned to Neil Sedaka for “Stupid Cupid,” a vacuous piece of tripe that cracked the Top 20 and made her the darling of the squeaky clean rock ‘n’ roll set. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was supposed to be her follow-up hit to the perfectly silly “Lipstick on Your Collar,” but it never charted higher than the low 30’s. Well, screw that! This is my favorite Connie Francis song! Possessing one of the most purely beautiful voices to ever grace the recording studio, what makes “You’re Gonna Miss Me” stand out is her phrasing, full of marvelous off-rhythm lines and subtle pauses that lend a palpable sincerity to her performance. Her repetition of “miss me” in the song’s climax sounds like a woman fighting the pain of rejection with all her might while begging the guy who kicked her to the side of the road to feel some regret about losing her. An exquisite performance!
“Poison Ivy,” The Coasters, August 1959: I’m not a huge fan of The Coasters, as I think most of their stuff crosses the line into novelty. My dad has a few of their 45’s, and I chose this Leiber-Stoller number because it was the least “cute.” I do like the diversity of their voices and their collective energy, and the integration of Latin touches adds a bit of spice. Still, I feel rather blah about the song, and I think Jerry Leiber’s fifty-years-later claim that “Poison Ivy” is about venereal disease is absolute horseshit, a lame attempt to make the pop songs they wrote seem more socially significant than they were.
“Money (That’s What I Want),” Barrett Strong, February 1960: There are two famous versions of “Money,” and both are first-rate performances. The Beatles’ version is lustful, greedy madness; Barrett Strong’s original is more cynical and street-wise—an attitude of “That’s the way the world works, so get over it.” I get seriously hot and bothered by the pounding toms backing Barrett during the verses, and find myself enthralled by Eugene Crew’s distorted guitar licks. This Janie Bradford-Berry Gordy composition turned out to be Motown’s first hit (on Tamla), and for that alone we should be forever grateful.
“Walk, Don’t Run,” The Ventures, July 1960: Instrumental music was much more popular during the 50’s and 60’s than it is in our rap-infested present. Percy Faith’s “Theme from a Summer Place” (1960) and Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” (1962) were the best-selling singles in their respective years. Whether cause or effect, one noticeable cultural difference between those days and ours (noticeable when you’ve spent as many hours I have studying American cultural history through film and television) is that the people back then spent a helluva lot more time whistling and humming. When I shared this hypothesis with my dad, he agreed: “Yeah, when you were working or waiting for someone, you’d either whistle or have a smoke if you were old enough.” In the twelve years I’ve spent in the modern office-bound workforce, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone whistle on the job, and the only person I’ve ever heard humming is me. If true, the many wordless records of the period served a valuable purpose by supplying committed whistlers and hummers with new tunes to keep them sharp.
The instrumentals mentioned above definitely fall into the easy listening camp, but the kids had their instrumentals, too. Those instrumentals largely placed the guitar at the forefront. While the impact of Bill Doggett, Bill Justis, Duane Eddy, Dick Dale and The Ventures wasn’t particularly noticeable during this down period of rock ‘n’ roll, a lot of those guys who became guitar heroes after the British Invasion restored rock to pre-eminence learned their chops by trying to replicate the sounds and moves they heard in “Raunchy,” “Rebel Rouser” and “Walk, Don’t Run.”
The Ventures’ version of “Walk Don’t Run” is vastly different from the original Johnny Smith composition, a cool jazz number that would likely be completely unrecognizable to a Ventures fan. The Ventures based their version on Chet Atkins’ cover, a sweetly-picked, laid-back rendition.
You would never connect the phrase “laid-back” with The Ventures’ version of “Walk, Don’t Run.” The opening rimshot-laden snare roll must have aroused the hell out of listeners used to the sonorous sounds of The Fleetwoods, and once you think things are about to settle down with the shift to the ONE-two-three-four rhythm and a brief rhythm guitar chord intro, Bob Bogle enters the fray and delivers a whammy-bar punctuated, slick-picking extravaganza. The sheer speed of The Ventures’ version is breathtaking, and while they would release multiple versions of the song over the years (including disco and metal versions), the original is the one that influenced a generation of budding guitarists who would change rock forever in the years ahead.
“Runaway,” Del Shannon, March 1961: Geez. If it feels like it took a helluva a long time to get to a genuine, certifiable rock ‘n’ roll song, you’re right! On the other hand, if “Runaway” is all you have to keep the faith, you’re in pretty good shape. This song has everything—a killer arpeggiated guitar intro, a no-holds barred vocal from Del, and the curious sound of the Musitron, the invention of one Max Crook, who had been one of Del’s mates in a band with the incredibly long name of Charlie Johnson and the Big Little Show Band. The song moves like wildfire, never letting up until the fade. “Runaway” is two minutes and seventeen seconds of bliss that makes you want to hear more Del Shannon. You may want to rethink that after flipping the disc to hear “Jody,” where Del sounds like he’s ready for his last rites. The lack of quality material plagued Del throughout his career, but in “Runaway,” he gave us one of the greatest songs in rock history, no small achievement.
“Runaway” was a must at our annual family bashes, with my uncle (the guy who gave my dad his 50’s records) taking the lead vocal and doing a damn fine job with it . . . until the falsetto peak in the chorus. Yours truly stepped in and filled the gap, and after a couple of years they called on us to perform by shouting, “It’s time for Big Del and Little Del!” For a while my dad used that as my nickname until I threatened to forever damage his sexual prowess with one swift kick, so he switched to “sunshine” in honor of my blonde mane and perpetually sweet disposition.
“Mother In-Law,” Ernie K-Doe, April 1961: Not all songs in this era were about loves gained, lost or left at the laundromat. Some songs dealt with genuine threats to social stability, and if you watch the sitcoms of the period, there was no greater threat facing the American people than . . . the Mother-in-Law. Ralph almost lost Alice when he called her mother a “BLABBERMOUTH” and Ricky lived in mortal fear of Lucy’s. The mother-in-law was a comic meme of the period: everyone knew she was the ultimate symbol of evil.
Allen Toussaint’s lyrics are a stinging indictment of this dreaded presence, and (after several takes), Ernie K. Doe finally connected with the bitter, semi-comic animus in those words. Shee-it, does Ernie let her have it! “The worst person I know.” “Satan should be her name.” “Sent from down below.” Whoa, Ernie! His bitterness finally coalesces into an action plan in the last verse when she questions his masculinity. You see, back then, real men had to earn money to validate their machismo:
I come home with my pay
She asks me what I made
She thinks her advice is the constitution
But if she would leave that would be the solution
And don’t come back no more
One more thing: I don’t know who that is singing the low bass refrain but I proclaim now that he’s the greatest singer who ever lived and I want to fuck him.
“Travelin’ Man”/”Hello Mary Lou,” Ricky Nelson, April 1961: Rick Nelson is often dismissed as a relic, a teen idol during a relatively dull period in rock history, a privileged son of show business parents whose fame was based more on regular television exposure than genuine musical talent. You can file that perception into the “bullshit” category, for Rick Nelson not only loved music but took it seriously at a very early age, long before displaying his talents on Ozzie and Harriet. He could have sold millions of records based on fame and looks alone, but instead of settling for mediocrity, he insisted on working with the best musicians and recording professionals of the era (and had the resources to secure their services). While his vocals lack the energy of Elvis or Little Richard, he knew how to work within his limitations. He wasn’t a great rocker, but he did okay for himself.
This was a double-sided hit, and I prefer the original b-side, “Hello, Mary Lou,” to “Travelin’ Man,” for two reasons. First, Rick Nelson has absolutely zero credibility playing the role of a man who journeys around the world bonking babes in every port of call. Second, while he does a yeoman’s job with the vocal on “Travelin’ Man,” it is more than obvious that he is much more comfortable and energetic with the rockabilly sway of “Hello, Mary Lou.” Once he stopped being Ricky Nelson and had a little freedom, he would move decisively in that direction.
“Travelin’ Man” does present us with a question. Why wasn’t Ricky Nelson hunted down by white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan? In “Travelin’ Man” he does the deed with a Mexican chick, an Asian chick and a Pacific Islander. That’s interracial sex! Filthy miscegenation! Sure, he slips it to a German broad, but she was probably a dominatrix! That pervert! And wait, wasn’t it sinful even for a man to have premarital sex back then? Shit, man, if Rick Nelson were alive today and released this song, the Christian Right would be all over his wandering ass!
“Tossin’ and Turnin'” by Bobby Lewis, April 1961: #1 for not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six . . . but seven consecutive weeks! Bobby Lewis had learned his craft from the great blues singers, and he put his lessons to work in an exceptionally energetic all-out performance. The background singers are a bit stiff in comparison but a minor distraction when Bobby Lewis is on fire. The horn section knocks it out of the park on the stop-time bridge in one of the tightest ensemble performances on record. I pronounce myself both surprised and almost elated that such an energetic song could have such a strong appeal to a rather dull generation of Americans.
“Quarter to Three,” Gary U. S. Bonds, May 1961: It may not be garage rock, but it’s got the primitive sound and unrestrained energy of “Hey Joe” by The Leaves (which I’ll cover in Part Four). Gary competes with Bobby Lewis for Most Energetic Vocal of 1961 and gives him a good run for his money. One of many songs in this period recorded in a party atmosphere, what separates the song from the other party songs of the era is . . . you really want to be at this party! Step aside, folks, I’ve got to shake my thing! Do the Mashed Potatoes! Twist like we did last summer! Bartender! Another highball on the rocks!
“Stand By Me,” Ben E. King, May 1961: I was totally pissed when I found my father’s vaunted collection did not include my #1 favorite Ben E. King song, “Spanish Harlem,” but it’s hard to stay mad when your back-up is “Stand by Me.” King wrote this with Leiber-Stoller (they were EVERYWHERE in the 50’s and 60’s), using what would be called the “50’s Progression,” a I-vi-IV-V pattern you hear in dozens of songs, from Rosie & the Originals’ “Angel Baby” to the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” “Stand by Me” masks the pattern somewhat with a subtle arrangement opening with bass and handheld percussion, later supported by strings that are poured on a little too thick for my tastes. But I don’t listen to “Stand by Me” for the string arrangement, but for Ben E. King’s jaw-dropping vocal. Man, if ever a guy deserved to leave a group and go solo, it was Ben E. King. Ben used Sam Cooke as a model for his vocal, and his passionate plea for unconditional love combines the best of gospel and R&B. The timelessness of Ben E. King’s version is unquestioned; it was a top ten hit in two separate decades with a 26-year gap between releases.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, November 1961: Forever honored as my father’s first music purchase, I asked him to describe what appealed to him about the song. “The guys singing ‘Wimoweh.’ I just loved those syllables and the way they snapped out the word. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.” The Tokens transformed an old South African folk song into a doo-wop masterpiece, and even this anti-silliness chick found herself getting caught up in the excitement generated by the arrangement. And there in the background, without much in the way of credit, you can hear the lovely voice of opera singer Anita Darian on counterpoint. Damn fine piece of work.
“Shake Your Money Maker,” Elmore James, December 1961 (uncharted): The crown jewel of dad’s collection of this era, I was absolutely stunned to see the orange and black Fire Records label in the pile. “How did you get your hands on this?” I screamed. “You’re not going to believe it,” he laughed. “I was walking through the Fillmore one day and found this half-assed yard sale—a bunch of junk spread out over the front stairs—and I caught a stack of records leading against one of the steps with Elmore James right on top. I picked up the record and the woman who was running the sale said, ‘That’s the devil’s music. You take it away, white boy, you take it away and you go to the devil.’ I thought she was giving it away and so I took it and started to leave and she screamed, ‘Five dollars!’ I didn’t have five dollars, but I gave her two bucks and some change and she seemed okay with it.”
That now makes four times my dad got lucky: meeting my mother, having me, winning an Aretha Franklin record on a call-in radio promo and finding an original Elmore James single.
I had been planning to do a full review of Elmore James’ The Best of the Fire Sessions, but every time I started to write it, it sounded more like porn than a music review. Yes, even I have my limits.
Elmore James was fire personified, and his sessions with Fire Records were absolutely fierce. The covers of this song not only pale in comparison, they fucking vanish. This song rocks with such intensity that it takes your breath away . . . and it ends way too soon. Legend has it that Elmore and his band, The Broomdusters, would play this song for thirty minutes straight and leave the crowd begging for more. Shit, I would have come at least fifteen times! The band is tight, the rhythm rollicking and Elmore’s slide substitution for the dirty deed is an irresistible tease. Some feminists may object to the prostitution implications, but most feminists are women in need of a great fuck to get them back in touch with their moneymakers. It’s a source of power, you idiots! I made my dad promise me he would leave me “Shake Your Moneymaker” in his will when he kicks the bucket. Goddamn, what a song!
“Duke of Earl,” Gene Chandler, January 1962: The only way to explain “Duke of Earl” to the aliens is to tell them that it’s a testament to the attraction of human voices melding together in song, because the lyrics are flat-out silly. In the role of self-proclaimed Duke of Earl, Gene Chandler’s regal arrogance is patently absurd, and we’re not exactly sure what this dukedom of his is all about. Is it a fantasy of a struggling nobody or the ravings of a megalomaniac? I mean, Gene actually sounds like he’s strutting through his country estate wearing his dukely robes (or whatever dukes wear), pointing out the sweep of the landscape to the girl he intends to transform into a duchess. Ridiculous!
Okay. To listen properly to “Duke of Earl,” you have to shut down the analyst in your brain completely. You cannot question Gene’s sanity. You have to believe he is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Shh! Shh! Just sit back, relax and listen to the voices.
Cool, huh! I bet you started singing along with the second round of “duke-duke-duke-of-earl!” You can’t help yourself! And yes, when Gene ends the verses with the “yay, yay, yay, yay,” you try to belt it out along with him! And now Gene doesn’t sound silly—he’s a man completely immersed in his role, and his goal is to make his life sound as grand and enticing as possible so he can secure his duchess for all eternity. What a romantic!
It also helps to remember that “Duke of Earl” started out as a joke. Once upon a time there was a guy named Eugene Dixon who sang with a group called The Dukays, was warming up his voice with a “do-do-do-do” pattern along with another Dukay named Earl Edwards. Eugene started riffing on the pattern, and thinking of the name of his singing buddy, out came “du-duke-duke-of-Earl.” The pair then worked out the full song with songwriter Bernice Williams and The Dukays recorded it. The record company refused to release it under The Dukays’ name, but gave Eugene the option of releasing it as a solo artist. He then slipped into a phone booth, changed into a duke’s costume and out came Gene Chandler, The Duke of Earl.
Okay, I lied about the phone booth, but the rest is true.
“Duke of Earl” works because the singers were fully committed to making it work; it is the wonderful sound of human voices uniting to create a compelling tapestry of sound.
If you’re still having a hard time explaining this to the aliens, show them this clip from the NYPD Blue episode, “Large Mouth Bass.” I used to watch the show religiously when I was a teenager because I loved the character of Andy Sipowicz and I had a serious crush on Jimmy Smits. If the aliens don’t get it after watching this scene, you can assume that they’re really dumb aliens and you don’t have to worry about them taking over the planet.
“The One Who Really Loves You,” Mary Wells, March 1962: The artistic marriage of Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson produced a string of hits for Mary, all the way up to and including her signature song, “My Guy.” My dad has all her hits, and I had considered doing a piece on Mary for my Great Broads series, but it was just one too many depressing female life stories for me to deal with in a series full of depressing life stories. Choosing one single was challenging, and originally I had planned to do “Two Lovers” based on my extensive experience with simultaneous multiple intimate relationships. Sounded like a natural for the altrockchick! The problem I ran into is that the song isn’t as daring as the title implies, for in the end you find out that there aren’t really two lovers but one lover with a split personality.
I chose “The One Who Really Loves You” for Mary’s commanding vocal, supported by Smokey Robinson’s brilliant production featuring deep-voiced background vocals from The Love Tones and instrumentation from the original Funk Brothers, who would provide most of the great supporting music during Motown’s peak years. As is true with most Smokey Robinson songs, the chord structure is far more interesting than most of the songs of the era, with verses that begin in C major resolving to a Dm7, and a very clever pattern on the bridge that winds up on G major to create a more natural link to the verse. The premise that you can talk a horny young guy out of wanting to bang every piece of ass that comes his way is profoundly silly, but Mary sells it with her extreme confidence in herself.
“Bring It On Home to Me,” Sam Cooke, June 1962: While Sam Cooke’s pop songs are a mixed bag, I’ll take “Wonderful World” over most of the pop in that era because even when the material is spotty, that’s Sam Cooke singing, and it doesn’t get much better than that. In “Bring It On Home to Me,” he managed to integrate the feel and structure of gospel into a popular music format, and the result is one of the great songs of the era. Incredibly, the song barely made it out of the gate—Dee Clark turned it down when Cooke offered it to him, and when Cooke released his version, “Having a Party” was the A-side. It’s obvious that both Sam and his old gospel buddy Lou Rawls are in the groove, but they avoid trying to match each other note for note, giving the song a more natural, let’s-sit-around-the-piano-and-sing kind of feel. The song has been covered a billion times (okay, not a billion, but it feels like it) but no one has surpassed the original and no one ever will.
“The Loco-Motion,” Little Eva, June 1962: Yes, my dad has most of the dance records from this era. He’s got Dee Dee Sharp doing the Mashed Potatoes, he’s got Bobby Freeman doing The Swim, he’s got The Orlons Watusi-ing around the dance floor, and yes, he’s got Chubby Checker, twisting, pony-ing, limbo-ing and twisting, twisting and twisting himself into a pretzel.
I loathe them all.
The shining exception to the Dance Tunes Suck rule is Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion.” Another tune from Gerry Goffin and Carole King, they pitched the song to Dee Dee Sharp as a follow-up to her smash hit, “Mashed Potato Time.” Adhering to the limited culinary norms of the time, Dee Dee decided to stick with mashed potatoes and went with a song called “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)” that pierced the Top 10 and is completely forgotten today. Running out of options, the pair turned to their babysitter, who had recorded the demo, and Eva Boyd of Belhaven, North Carolina, became Little Eva, pop star.
“The Loco-Motion” was an unusual dance song in one key respect: the dance did not exist when Goffin and King wrote the song. Little Eva covered for them and made one up on the fly. I suppose they had to have a dance to go along with a dance song (duh), but I’ve listened to the song a hundred times and never once felt motivated to do the Loco-Motion or even bother to learn the moves. What makes “The Loco-Motion” a great song is a fabulous arrangement combining sax drone, an ass-shaking beat, spot-on background vocals (featuring Carole King) and Little Eva’s enthusiastic, confident and unpolished vocal—and I mean “unpolished” in the most positive sense of the word. Little Eva sounds like Everygirl, just like Danny Rapp sounded like the kid you knew from high school on “At the Hop.” No one tried to Eliza Doolittle-ize her by cleaning up Eva’s accent or sharpening her pronunciation, and she sounds marvelous.
“The Loco-Motion” is the only song to make the Top 10 in three different versions in three different decades. Grand Funk Railroad’s version topped the charts in 1974 and Kylie Minogue’s rendition made it to #3 in the late 80’s. That’s a tribute to the strength of the song itself, but Little Eva’s version will always be #1 in my book.
“If I Had a Hammer,” Peter, Paul & Mary, August 1962: My dad has always been something of a folkie. His daughter isn’t—at least not an American folkie. I love folk music, just not American folk music. The exceptions to the rule are artists who were a bit quirky, like Phil Ochs and Malvina Reynolds. My favorite folk traditions are British, Irish and Bulgarian. I find nearly all the American folk heroes you care to name too preachy, too political, too sentimental or too obvious.
I had to pick one single from the mix to acknowledge the existence of the folk revival in the early 60’s, and I liked this one the best, primarily because Mary Travers takes the lead vocal and the two boring guys with the beards are relegated to the background. I find the lyrics to this Pete Seeger-Lee Hays song completely inane, and that’s coming from a confirmed socialist. The line I find most absurd is “I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.” People! The day when we all put aside our differences and love one another ain’t ever gonna happen! Do you even like everyone you’ve met in your life? I don’t! And even if I could learn to like the grumpy old woman who runs the boulangerie or the guy who ripped me off by selling me my piece of shit first car, I’m never going to love Donald Trump, members of ISIS or Jimmy Swaggart! Not in the realm of possibility! It’s already hard enough to get people to accept other people with superficial differences like skin color or buy into the fact that there are different ways for adults to manifest love and affection. Personally, I’d hammer, ring and sing about having the freedom to live my own life in peace without having to be afraid of getting my head blown off by some mentally ill religious wacko who has been programmed to believe that I represent evil because I wear lipstick and reveal my cleavage. I’ll take that freedom and run with it!
“He’s a Rebel,” The Crystals (er, The Blossoms), September 1962: Phil Spector deserves credit for the technical advance known as the Wall of Sound, which provided more depth and oomph to records in an era when a producer had to deal with the severe limitations imposed by AM radio and monaural sound. He was also a flaming asshole who treated artists like shit. “He’s a Rebel” confirms his status as both a trailblazer and major league jerk.
Gene Pitney (a much better songwriter than a singer) wrote “He’s a Rebel” for The Shirelles, who took a pass. Phil Spector was interested in having The Crystals record the song, but heard through the grapevine that a version by Vikki Carr was in the works, and damn it all, The Crystals were out on tour and couldn’t possibly make it into the studio before Vikki stole Phil’s thunder. Such a conundrum presented no problem for a man with no sense of ethics, so Spector had a local group named The Blossoms record the track and then released it under The Crystals’ name.
That’s called balls, and if I’d been the lead singer of The Crystals, Phil Spector would be missing his.
That lead singer, Barbara Alston, couldn’t mimic the sound of Darlene Love, the lead singer of The Blossoms. Truth be told, Barbara wasn’t really all that comfortable as the front girl, so she stepped aside in favor of fellow Crystal Dolores “La La” Brooks. The shift would bear fruit in 1963, but jeez, what a shitty way to implement a personnel decision.
Despite the hoo-hah, I love the song and the production. The message was intensely appropriate for a culture hell-bent on conformity:
He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good
He’s a rebel ’cause he never ever does what he should
But just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does
That’s no reason why I can’t give him all my love
You go, Barbara . . . er, Darlene!
“Up On the Roof,” The Drifters, November 1962: There has never been a group with a name so suited to their history. The Drifters were as much a concept as a real group due to innumerable lineup changes over the years. Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King are best-remembered as lead vocalists, but “Up On the Roof” featured a guy named Rudy Lewis, who would later sing lead on the mega-hit “On Broadway.” Rudy died right before The Drifters were scheduled to record “Under the Boardwalk,” at the age of 27. His vocal on this Goffin-King urban fantasy is superb: you can hear the relief in his voice when he reaches his hideaway after a hard day at work; you can hear his voice expand as he surveys the expansive rooftop view. It’s a fine piece of work, but I find it curious that a song describing an experience limited pretty much to New York and a few other big cities could touch the hearts the millions of listeners whose families were part of the great white flight migration from the cities to suburbia that would continue for decades to come.
“The End of the World,” Skeeter Davis, January 1963: If you’re looking for evidence that American teenagers of the era were narcissistic drama queens capable of manufacturing tragedy from trivia, look no further than Skeeter Davis’ monster hit about getting dumped. This girl is in serious need of long-term therapy:
Why does the sun go on shining?
Why does the sea rush to shore?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
’cause you don’t love me anymore?
Why do the birds go on singing?
Why do the starts glow above?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
It ended when I lost your love
Whoa! You expect the whole world to stop functioning just because your pimply boyfriend decided to take a powder? You think you’re the only person in the history of the world who has experienced rejection? Out of billions of guys on the planet, only this one adolescent can give your life meaning? I knew that the parents of Baby Boomers were famous for coddling their kids and trying to give them things they couldn’t have when they were kids, but this broad doesn’t need parental patience and understanding—she needs a virtual whack upside the head!
I asked my dad why he bought this horrid confessional so diametrically opposed to the way he and my mother raised me. He snapped, “She has a nice voice. Don’t read too much into it.” Translation: dad had a crush on Skeeter Davis. He’s always been a sucker for the lost puppy act.
“Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home),” The Crystals, April 1963: Okay, these are the real Crystals . . . I think. I really don’t trust Phil Spector. Anyway, this is a great Wall of Sound recording with some very intense drumming that foreshadows the more energetic styles that would emerge after the British Invasion. As for the lyrics, all you need to know is Phil Spector co-wrote the song and he never wanted lyrics that would draw attention away from his production.
Skeeter wasn’t the only narcissist on the scene.
“Hello Stranger,” Barbara Lewis, May 1963: Blissfully we move on to a female vocalist with talent equally as impressive as the more famous and feted Connie Francis. Barbara Lewis has one of the few voices that melt me. For those of you unfamiliar with period vernacular, when someone melts you it means that someone’s presence, scent, moves, voice or touch ignite a swooning feeling that sets your heart all a-flutter. Barbara Lewis does it to me every time with her unique voice that combines depth, sweetness and sensitivity. The choice between this piece and “Baby I’m Yours” was a coin flip—I love both songs with all my heart, and both songs make me swoon in ecstasy. “Hello Stranger” has stronger backing vocals, and the deep baritone voices contrast beautifully with Barbara’s alto. My love and I often slow dance to Barbara Lewis after a romantic evening, a sweet and tender experience that balances the delicious aggressiveness of our style of lovemaking.
“One Fine Day,” The Chiffons, May 1963: “He’s So Fine” may be the more iconic hit, but I find the “doo-lang, doo-lang” riff intensely irritating. This second “fine” song, also written by Goffin and King, was produced by The Tokens of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” fame, and boy, did they do one helluva job! The rhythm is more intense, the doo-wop syllables are better balanced by harmonies and the arrangement encourages lead singer Judy Craig to soar to the heavens. While I’m getting pretty tired of boy-meets-girl-now-we’re-gonna-get-married songs at this point in the story, I can’t deny the genuine joy in The Chiffons’ performance.
“Be My Baby,” The Ronettes, August 1963: Brian Wilson was obsessed with this song and admitted to playing it over 1,000 times. Brian Wilson apparently has a lot more stamina than I do, because I could barely stand to listen to it three times, my minimum listening requirement before I place my fingers on the keyboard. Yes, I get the whole Wall of Sound thing, but this is a boring song with insipid lyrics and Ronnie Spector can’t sing worth shit. All the other lemmings in the music business followed Brian over the cliff, with Rolling Stone ranking it #22 in one of their greatest songs of all-time lists (a list that changes frequently in accordance with updates to their marketing strategy). “Be My Baby” is another addition to my “influential records that suck” list (which includes some works by Brian Wilson).
“Louie, Louie,” The Kingsmen, November 1963: YEAHHHHHHHHHHHH! Finally! Sloppy, sassy, cheeky, who-gives-a-fuck rock ‘n’ roll! A certified, FBI-investigated act of rebellion!
The Kingsmen version is indeed a sloppy mess, and just like a big juicy cheeseburger slathered in oodles of catsup and mustard, a thoroughly satisfying sensual experience. The essential immediacy of the song accounts for its timeless appeal. What you hear is the first and only take. There are no overdubs or engineering tricks—it’s like you stepped into their garage just as they ended the countdown. About a minute into the song, the drummer drops a stick and yells, “Fuck!” The lead singer comes in too early on the last verse and the drummer covers for him. The rest of the band is thrown off by the mistake and shifts to the chorus a line early. All kinds of fuck-ups! Just like a real garage band! I love The Kingsmen!
The slurred lyrics have created a slew of mondegreens (misheard or misinterpreted lyrics that are unintentionally funny). My dad still insists that the line, “See Jamaica, the moon above,” is really “Stick my finger in the hole of love.” The FBI investigated the song and failed to find any of the obscenities they had hoped to expose. Apparently, they couldn’t understand any of the lyrics! Your tax dollars at work! And dig this—I read the FBI file on the investigation and noted several redactions where passages are crossed out with a big fat Sharpie. Wow! “Louie, Louie” had national security implications! Well, knock me over with a feather! The Kingsmen were true subversives of the highest order, for they wanted us to forget our stupid problems, get down and party. Take that, historical stream of American Puritanism!
Speaking of patriotism, when I lived in Seattle and attended Mariners games (yeah, they sucked but they were the only team in town), they’d play “Louie, Louie” after the traditional “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch. I would always jump out of my seat and and dance, and once they flashed me on the big screen! My 5.6 seconds of fame! I would argue that “Louie, Louie,” devoted as it is to the good American tradition of party-til-the-cows-come-home, is much more patriotic than the despicable “God Bless America,” a song that should be banned forever for its violation of the principle of separation of church and state.
So yeah, no matter how many times I hear “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen, I get energized, I shake and shimmy, and I feel completely, wholly, absolutely and unconditionally thrilled to be alive.
“Dominique,” The Singing Nun, November 1963: As soon as I picked up the disc, my dad leapt to his defense. “Before you start ragging on me, remember—I was still a practicing Catholic and I’d just gone through Confirmation the previous summer. This came out right after JFK’s assassination, so I was feeling pretty religious around that time.” “Okay, dad,” I said, having no idea what to expect since I hadn’t heard the song since I was a kid and had forgotten all about it.
So I gave it three spins, did some research and finally had a reaction: what the fuck? “Dominique” was a worldwide hit, climbing to #1 in several countries, even countries where Catholics were a distinct minority and French speakers were even more scarce. Just like The Beatles, The Singing Nun (aka Jeanne Deckers aka Soeur Luc-Gabrielle aka Soeur Souirire aka Sister Smile) appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (though there was a noticeable absence of screaming during her performance). How on earth did a mini-bio of St. Dominic set to music with lyrics that only a small percentage of buyers could understand take the world by storm? I mean, it wasn’t like she was one of those hot nuns you see in gothic porn fantasies, smoking cigarettes and brandishing whips—she was a rather plain Belgian lady completely devoured by her habit and free of any sinful lipstick or blush. The song is rather boring, with six verses and a chorus repeated seven times, all combining to tell us how St. Dominic humbly waged war against liars and other assorted sinners.
The best explanation I’ve read was that the song’s success was some kind of mass atonement for JFK’s murder. I had no idea that Catholic guilt was so contagious. From now on, I’ll cross the street if I happen to stroll by a Catholic church and run like hell if I see a nun.
The phenomenon of The Singing Nun didn’t end with a hit single. There were movies, some sanitized, some spurious. Jeannine Deckers, bless her heart, became something of a rebel, releasing a song in 1967 that celebrated the advent of The Pill. Departing the convent, she moved in with another woman and commenced a long-term lesbian relationship. Desperate for cash after the Belgian government socked her with a huge tax bill, she tried to rekindle her fame with a disco version of “Dominique” in 1982. It bombed, in large part because all she did was sing the same song with the same phrasing in the same rhythm with a cheesy disco music track in the background. Facing financial ruin, she and her lover committed suicide in 1985.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. The Singing Nun’s supporting album was unceremoniously excommunicated from the top of the charts by the blessed arrival of The Beatles . . . who would soon be more popular than Jesus!
“You Don’t Own Me,” Lesley Gore, December 1963: My dad made a surprising comment when I pulled this record out of the sleeve: “You wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Lesley Gore.” That remark ignited a long conversation between father and daughter, and because I found his story so intriguing, I asked him to summarize what “You Don’t Own Me” meant to him and how it changed his life:
This song came out after a couple of years of puberty, at a time when the sexes were pretty segregated. I went to an all-boys Catholic school, and we’d really only see girls when the parish held a mixer. So all the guys hung out together and the two big topics of conversation were sports and girls. With girls, we were passing on the myths handed down to us by our parents and often reinforced in the pop songs of the day. Stuff like, “You gotta keep a girl in her place,” and “You can’t let a woman make a fool out of you.” The basic attitude was that girls needed us more than we needed them, and that all they had to do is look pretty, don’t say anything stupid, or even better, don’t say anything at all. There was a definite implication that girls were the lesser half of the species—pretty things to have around and show off to your friends, but not to be taken seriously.
Just try to imagine me trying to get close to your mother with that kind of attitude. I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. I may not be alive!
Even though I went along with the guys and repeated the same old bullshit, part of me knew that the myth didn’t jive with my experience. I’d met a lot of girls who were smart, had interesting things to say and were pretty damned competitive. I was caught in between expectations of what it means to be a man and the nagging truth of my own experience.
Lesley Gore straightened me out. When I first heard that song, I froze—I don’t remember what I was doing, but I just froze and listened. Hell, the way they clear the scene for her, you can’t help but pay attention! When she sang those lines–“And don’t tell me what to do/Don’t tell me what to say/And please, when I go out with you/Don’t put me on display”—with such feeling and clarity, it was like having a vacuum cleaner suck out all the gunk from my brain. And when she turns the tables and says, “I don’t tell you what to say,” that hit me in the gut, and I realized that everything I learned about girls was not only bullshit, but flat-out wrong. I swore I’d treat any girl I knew the way I’d treat anyone else, and that gave me a definite advantage when your mother came into my life. I was about 80% free of sexism when I met her, and your mother took care of most of the rest. All thanks to Lesley Gore.
It’s easy to dismiss Lesley Gore as the teenage soap opera queen from her hits, “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” That is certainly what her handlers wanted, so it took a lot of courage on the part of Lesley and Quincy Jones to record this song. “You Don’t Own Me,” interestingly enough, was written by the two guys who wrote “At the Hop,” who will reappear in Part 3 as card-carrying patriots. Their goal was to write a hit about a girl telling a guy off, but as we know from listening to great singers like Billie Holiday or Patsy Cline, the message of the lyrics can be enhanced or even countermanded by how the singer approaches the subtext—the way a singer holds a certain note, shortens a note, emphasizes a word, inserts a caesura or any number of variations to the expected pattern. Great singers uncover rich subtexts.
And Lesley Gore was a great singer.
She maximizes the darkness-and-light contrast of minor and major keys throughout the song. In the minor key verses, her voice is shadowed with righteous but controlled anger at the thought of becoming a possession; in the major key verses, she cries out for and celebrates liberation and self-worth. The dramatic shift is accomplished almost entirely by Lesley’s voice; Quincy Jones wisely lays back when most producers would go for overkill. “You Don’t Own Me” is simply one of the great vocal performances of all time.
What makes “You Don’t Own Me” a feminist liberation message with as much power than The Feminine Mystique all comes back to the emotional subtext Lesley Gore created through her performance. Here’s an excerpt from The Feminine Mystique germane to the period that we can use for our compare-and-contrast exercise:
In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor. They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children’s clothes, kept their new washing machines and dryers running all day. They changed the sheets on the beds twice a week instead of once, took the rug-hooking class in adult education, and pitied their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamed of having a career. Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought for the unfeminine problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “Occupation: housewife.”
This is an accurate description of the status of women at the time of “You Don’t Own Me,” and I am certain that the description of the experience and its impact had a huge effect on women. My mother, who lived through the era and experienced both excitement and exasperation when engaging feminists in dialogue, has often pointed out that the problem with The Feminine Mystique wasn’t Betty Friedan’s writing ability but that very few men bothered to read it. She once said to me, “Feminism is hard work. You can pass laws, but to truly change things, you have to change the world one man at a time.” She understood that equality of the genders required not only a major cultural shift but a major personal shift for every single woman and every single man.
This is why “You Don’t Own Me” is a powerful tool for change: Lesley is trying to change the world one man at a time. Betty Friedan worked on the systems level; Lesley Gore on the personal level. Both are valuable, but I have to say I’ve seen a lot more in the way of results when educating men on a personal level that I expect nothing less than full, equal treatment.
I admire Lesley Gore in many ways, as an activist, as a talented composer and songwriter, as a woman who came out of the closet way back in 1982 and had a loving relationship with her partner for over thirty years. But above all I admire her as a woman who had the courage to sing about human rights for women at a time when defiant women—those who refused to conform to society’s limited expectations—were often scorned and ridiculed. “You Don’t Own Me” may be a contradictory exclamation point to mark the end of this era in music, but more than any other song of its era, it foretold of the musical revolution to come.