181) The Beatles – “Penny Lane”

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the go-to examples of classic concept albums, yet it’s equally as well-known for the flimsiness of its concept. There’s no overarching narrative or thematic unity; the closest unifying thread, the idea that a fictional band (looking an awful lot like The Beatles in neon satin suits) are performing the album, barely makes it into track two. But The Beatles had initiated the recording session with a much clearer, more compelling idea: an album centered on aging and memories of youth. This concept fell apart in early stages after two of the three tracks earmarked for the project were pulled and released as a double-sided single. (The leftover, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” did turn up on the final album.) Subsequent reports conflict as to whether this was an emergency stopgap measure – The Beatles and George Martin reluctantly caving to record company demands for new product – or whether the concept had simply run out of gas.

The resulting single, “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane,” notoriously peaked at #2 in Britain, becoming the group’s first single on Parlophone not to top the charts since “Please Please Me” in 1963. In the US, however – which, unlike the UK, tracked each side of a single separately for chart placement – “Penny Lane” managed to come out on top, with “Strawberry Fields Forever” eventually peaking a few spots below at #8. The outcome replicated the chart placement for “We Can Work It Out”/“Day Tripper” two years prior: the gentler, poppier McCartney composition besting the harder-edged, more outré Lennon one. That “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” finds both songwriters treating similar subject matter – their childhoods in Liverpool – further emphasizes the difference in sensibilities between the band’s principal songwriters.

“Penny Lane” drops listeners into a series of lightly humorous, sharply detailed episodes from the past, using pre-rock instrumentation (piano, brass, woodwinds) to set the nostalgic scene. Where “Penny Lane” is about memories, however, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is about the process of memory, how things get fuzzy and distorted when examined remotely. Its use of cutting edge electronic instrumentation and production techniques – Mellotron, backwards recording, pitch-shifting – both creates an abstract, illusory atmosphere (where “nothing is real”) and establishes the song’s location in the present, or perhaps even the future. It’s not the sights and sounds of playing in Strawberry Field that Lennon details in the song, but his attempts as an adult to return to the particular frame of mind embodied in his childhood self, and the impossibility of trying to recapture the past as anything more substantial than a dream.

But while “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” seems the ultimate depiction of the dichotomy between Lennon and McCartney – the former experimental, philosophical, cynical; the latter cheerful, nostalgic, whimsical – as usual, the starkness of this division glosses over McCartney’s knack for subtle complexity. “Penny Lane” isn’t just bright – it has the overlit affect of a Hollywood set and the unnaturally vivid hues of Technicolor. The chorus’s description of “blue suburban skies” (likely an anomaly in Northern England) is contradicted by several references within the verses to “the pouring rain.” Likewise, the specificity of the (often unusual) details makes the scenarios seem hyperreal – highlighted by the recurring line “very strange” and the title-card interjections of “meanwhile back.” McCartney is demonstrating the hazards of reconstructing memory as a narrative – conflating unrelated elements, rearranging timelines, and exaggerating minor pieces of the story.

In the final verse, many of the characters earlier in the song (the barber, the banker, the fireman) congregate in the same scene, as if part of a dramatic production with only a limited company of actors. In fact, the only character in the song who doesn’t turn up again in the barber shop is the nurse selling poppies, perhaps because she’s come to doubt her own existence (“and though she feels as if she is in a play/ she is anyway”). That segment is McCartney’s most explicit acknowledgement that “Penny Lane” may not be intended as the strict truth, a division emphasized by McCartney’s keening vocal line that occurs nowhere else in the song. There are other moments throughout “Penny Lane” where gray clouds threaten to intrude on the blue suburban skies: the jolt of minor chords around the third line of every verse; the slight tinges of seediness (the fireman with his “portrait of a queen” and “clean machine,” the references to “finger pies”); the ominous outro, with a cymbal rolls and piercing, feedback-like piccolo. These minor disruptions never threaten to derail the cheery narrative, but they do hint that there’s more going on below the surface for those willing to look.

If “Strawberry Fields Forever” describes the impossibility of returning to the past, “Penny Lane” demonstrates why that is the case: what is thought of as the past isn’t necessarily what actually happened, but a composite from multiple sources, with the negative and dull parts excised and the gaps filled with invention. Rather than explicitly stating its themes, however, as Lennon did with “Strawberry Fields,” McCartney presents “Penny Lane” in a more ambiguous manner. It may be accepted at face value as a nostalgic fantasy, but it also rewards a more critical listener who can pick up on its contradictions and embellishments. “Strawberry Fields Forever” may be more self-consciously experimental and cerebral, but “Penny Lane,” with its sunny lyrics and upbeat, conventional arrangement, is no less clever – and in its own way, more subversive – an exploration of the limits of memory. 9

Hit #1 on March 18, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
181 of 1,036 #1′s reviewed; 17.47% through the Hot 100

6 Comments

Filed under 09, 1967

180) The Supremes – “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone”

You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was The Supremes’ biggest departure, and also their best record yet – dramatic but deeply felt, emphasizing the “soul” part of their soul-pop hybrid while still sounding recognizably like themselves. For the follow-up, producers/writers Holland-Dozier-Holland admirably continued to experiment, rather than adhering to their standard operating procedure of cloning the previous hit. In doing so, they gave Motown’s most commercial group one of the label’s most out-there singles.

“Love is Here and Now You’re Gone” is built on juxtaposition: a conventional ballad with a full band and a strings-heavy arrangement, interrupted by despairing spoken-word fragments backed only by bass, harpsichord and cries of “look what you’ve done! look what you’ve done!” Spoken interjections were nothing new for Holland-Dozier-Holland – Levi Stubbs’s “just look over your shoulder!” in “Reach Out I’ll Be There” is one example – but the writers usually incorporated them into the body of the song. “Love is Here” instead splits these vocal interludes off into discrete sections. The dramatic lurches between them and the melodic parts of the song create an disconcerting effect, befitting the lyrics of a promised future abruptly wrenched away.

Apart from the characteristic fluid bassline, the restless pacing of which echoes the uneasy fluctuations of the song structure, the satiny production on “Love is Here” sounds oddly un-Motownlike – even the label’s trademark stomping beat is muted to a soft thud. As it turns out, “Love is Here” was largely recorded not at Hitsville USA with the Funk Brothers, but in Los Angeles with the Wrecking Crew, a harbinger of Motown’s permanent relocation to the West Coast a few years later. Perhaps this change of scenery explains why “Love is Here,” with its frothy strings and overripe soliloquies, seems less influenced by Detroit soul than by Hollywood melodrama.

As hammy as Diana Ross’s line readings may be (complete with a gasp in the first section!), her actual singing on “Love is Here” is the subtlest and richest of any Supremes record yet. She no longer leans on the innate vulnerability of her fragile little-girl voice; instead, she adds careful shading to her phrasing, and delivers some lines with surprising strength. Ross begins the song in a crystal-clear, brisk tone, at a remove from the hurt-filled lyrics. Starting in the second verse, a slight cloudiness creeps into her timbre, as if she’s pushing through a catch in her voice. In the coda, she clings to the phrase “oh my darling, now you’re gone,” afraid to let the words get away from her as easily as he did, her soft vibrato on the word “gone” trembling like unsuccessfully suppressed sobs. While the subject matter of “Love is Here” is close to that of “Where Did Our Love Go” or “Baby Love,” Ross’s performance has progressed beyond the self-victimization of those earlier singles. Here, her hurt reaction isn’t defensive; it’s a means to force a confrontation (“look at my face!”) and assert her dignity. Ross’s revelatory performance is somewhat undermined, however, by the rather uninspired harmony arrangement given to Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, a warning sign of changes to come.

While “Love is Here” is moderately successful in its own right, it’s more impressive when considered as a warm-up for “Reflections,” recorded the week “Love is Here” topped the charts. “Reflections” pushed the gothic pop experimentation into a decidedly psychedelic direction (most blatantly in its oscillator motif), and its slow-downed, bass- and organ-dominated groove gave The Supremes their most soulful and sexiest record to date. (Nevertheless, it topped out at #2 on the charts.) Yet “Reflections” also marked the end of an era: their last great Supremes single written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, who soon went went on strike and eventually left Motown; one of the last Supremes recordings featuring Flo Ballard before she was fired from the group; and the first release to be credited to “Diana Ross & The Supremes” – a name change that pointed to the squeezing out of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (Ballard’s replacement), both of whom would only occasionally appear on the records bearing their group’s name. Ross’s performance on “Love is Here” proved she had the talent to carry a record, but it also meant the beginning of the end of The Supremes as a distinct entity. In that sense, the biggest transformation in “Love is Here” wasn’t its song structure or production style, but the shifting group dynamic – firmly entrenching Diana as the star, and rendering the other Supremes anonymous and inessential. 7

Hit #1 on March 11, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
180 of 1032 #1′s reviewed; 17.44% through the Hot 100

2 Comments

Filed under 07, 1967

179) The Rolling Stones – “Ruby Tuesday”

A band as sarcastic, blues-obsessed and apparently unsentimental as The Rolling Stones seems unlikely to have produced some of the prettiest records of the British Invasion. Yet this dissonance between the Stones’ vulgar image and their occasional delicately-wrought single is precisely what makes the latter so effective. Gentle ballads may come easy to a Paul McCartney or a Donovan, but the boys behind “Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” have to make an effort to rein in their baser impulses and break their perpetual stance of aloof cool. The result is more moving for its rarity and the exertion required (though, like problem schoolboys making an effusive show of behaving properly, their politeness sometimes seems suspiciously close to mockery). At the same time, the Stones’ inherent edge keeps folky ballads like “As Tears Go By” from skewing too precious, and anchors the decidedly un-rock-and-roll “Lady Jane” in the modern era.

The most successful of all these balancing acts is “Ruby Tuesday,” which delves deeper into the tension between beauty and rock by making it the subject of the song itself. The verses work from a limited palette of classical instruments (piano, recorder, double bass) to craft the audio equivalent of a sepia flashback, staging an idyllic tableau of the narrator’s time with the title character. Beneath its surface loveliness, however, creeps in evidence of the effort required to maintain this setting. Mick Jagger strains below his natural vocal range, flubbing a note in the opening line. The leaden bassline tramples muddy footprints on the delicate arrangement. This beauty requires unnatural restraint, and is therefore unsustainable. Only the recorder feels free, fluttering about with little concern as to what’s going on in the song below it.

When Ruby leaves, however, the band can loosen up and settle back into its familiar, comfortable self. The drums kick in; the bass, now electric, bounces around freely; Jagger’s back in his usual voice. The recorder fades away into a faint, far-away pulse – a modern, raga-esque drone, rather than the verses’ baroque frills. The Stones treat Ruby’s departure with a mixture of sorrow and empathy; they understand why she’s leaving because it’s what they’d do, too. There’s always some ironic distance in Jagger’s vocals, but this chorus is about as sincere as he gets. Likewise, the Stones sometimes catch flak for misogynous lyrics, but “Ruby Tuesday” is fairly equitable, accepting the title character’s decision to leave without any bitterness or cruelty. Ruby may be less a person than a symbol of freedom, but it’s because she herself chooses to be mysterious, rather than because the band has reduced her to such.

For all its depth and ambition, “Ruby Tuesday” was an accidental milestone for The Rolling Stones. It was originally released as the flip side of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” but the latter’s racy title kept American radio programmers from playing it – never mind that was actually the Stones’ most endearing single to date, filled with nervous stammering and promises to “satisfy your every need.” When “Let’s Spend the Night Together” became the Stones’ first-ever US single to miss the Top 40 (eventually peaking at #55), “Ruby Tuesday” got upgraded to double A-side status. History repeated on the follow-up single, with the pretty, ornate B-side “Dandelion” (#14) besting the outré rocker “We Love You” (#50) as the de facto A-side in America. Their third US single of 1967 finally reversed the formula: “She’s a Rainbow” as the A-side, “2000 Light Years from Home” on the flip. For a year or so, America seemed to prefer the softer side of the nastiest band of the British Invasion. Not by much, though - “Ruby Tuesday” may have been a number-one single, but it would take almost a year and a half before the group would return to the Top 10 (with the defiantly undelicate “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), and the Stones would seldom ever repeat their late 1964-early 1967 levels of consistent chart success. But if a song as good as “Ruby Tuesday” could be stuck on a B-side, and would-be hits of the era like “Under My Thumb,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter” could be slotted as mere album tracks, it was because a singles-based mindset was becoming increasingly irrelevant  – for both The Rolling Stones as a band, and for rock as a genre. 8

Hit #1 on March 4, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
179 of 1032 #1′s reviewed; 17.34% through the Hot 100

2 Comments

Filed under 08, 1967

178) The Buckinghams – “Kind of a Drag”

There are still pockets of rock fans for whom The Monkees will never be able to transcend their prefab origins. A band assembled for a kids’ TV show, who rarely played their own instruments on their early records and relied on professional songwriters for their biggest hits, fails the test of authenticity that has largely defined, and plagued, rock since the ’60s. Yet the talent, creativity and resources allotted to this “fake” band resulted in a string of records more emotionally authentic than much of what their “real” counterparts produced.

Take The Buckinghams, whose first charting single and biggest hit, “Kind of a Drag,” succeeded “I’m a Believer” at the top of the Hot 100. Like The Monkees, they rode the coattails of the British Invasion, anglicizing their name from The Pulsations and decking themselves out in matching suits. They too subsisted on covers and songs loaned to them by outside writers. But while The Buckinghams, whose path to fame included triumphing in a Battle of the Bands and scoring a 13-episode residency on a Chicago TV variety show, had the advantage of being genuine garage rockers, they also stand as proof that organic roots and paying dues don’t automatically translate into credible rock and roll.

It isn’t just the loungey horns, roller rink organ and trying-too-hard slanginess of the title that give “Kind of a Drag” the feel of a Vegas revue of rock and roll – it’s the incessant smoothness of the thing, from lead singer Dennis Tufano’s slick croon to the jaunty not-quite-groove of the arrangement. While smoothness, when properly deployed, is an underrated tool in the rock set, here it undermines the song’s foundation. If “I’m a Believer” were a relatively straightforward narrative (I never believed in love, now I do) given a dramatic arc through its production and Micky Dolenz’s vocal nuances, then “Kind of a Drag” is its inverse: a song that has the potential for complexity (I can’t quit loving you even though you have treated me terribly, and all I can do is tell you I love you even though it’s against my better judgment and I know you don’t care), then confines itself to a single, inappropriate gear.

The contrast between the upbeat arrangement and melancholic lyrics could be a fascinating use of downplaying, as if the narrator were trying to convince himself that having his heart broken were (as per the title) no big deal. But the frictionless performance lends the record a false chipperness estranged from any recognizable human emotion. Likewise, the overlapping melody lines in the chorus – one sung by Tufano, the other by the rest of the band – presents a prime opportunity to illustrate the conflicting impulses running through the narrator’s mind. The Buckinghams waste the opportunity, however, by singing essentially the same thing with only slightly different words: you hurt me, but I still love you anyway. Arranged differently, the horns – unusual for a rock and roll band in the pre-Sgt Pepper’s era – could emphasize the narrator’s anguish (à la “When a Man Loves a Woman”), or at least breathe some fresh air into the production through sheer novelty value. Instead, they serve only to fuel the record’s empty bounce.

It’s this blown potential that makes “Kind of a Drag” more frustrating than simply mediocre: it approaches making clever, evocative choices, then swerves to avoid them. The Buckinghams, as an unknown garage band on an independent label, could get away with grit, intensity and creative left turns; they opted instead for an ill-fitting stab at Herb Alpert-esque easy listening. For group wanting to go pro and uncertain of rock’s longevity, perhaps that seemed like the right decision at the time – it certainly worked for The Buckinghams, for a year or so anyway. But if “Kind of a Drag” evinces the compromises and limited talent of an authentic garage band making it big, it’s hard not to prefer the Hollywood version, in which even a comically unsuccessful group can turn in memorable, deeply felt performances in weekly installments. 4

Hit #1 on February 18, 1967; total of 2 weeks at #1
178 of 1030 #1′s reviewed; 17.28% through the Hot 100

5 Comments

Filed under 04, 1967

177) The Monkees – “I’m a Believer”

The future promised by “Good Vibrations” couldn’t last long. After just one week at the top of the charts, it was displaced by the return of the faux-nostalgic, willfully uninspiring “Winchester Cathedral” – a move by the American Record Buying Public that seemed to repudiate their brief dalliance with moving, stimulating pop. But in the nick of time, The Monkees came to rescue arguably the greatest year ever for number-ones from ending on a bum note. “I’m a Believer” isn’t a fraction as innovative as “Good Vibrations,” but whereas that Beach Boys record provided a blueprint for the experimental sounds of emerging FM rock, the success of “I’m a Believer” more accurately predicted pop’s immediate future. The song would go on not only to become the biggest single of 1967, but one of the most popular records ever. (Of the songs that have turned up on this blog so far, only “Sukiyaki” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” have sold more copies worldwide.) The band’s first four LPs would go on to top the 1967 Billboard album charts for a combined total of 29 weeks – more than half the year, and double the length of time that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would spend at the top. More of the Monkees, the LP featuring “I’m a Believer,” would become the first rock album to be the year’s bestseller, a feat not even The Beatles had managed.

As if predicting that Beatlemania was about to be eclipsed by Monkeemania, “I’m a Believer” borrows far less from the Fab Four than had previous single “Last Train to Clarksville.” The guitar riff, melodic bass line and Micky Dolenz’s mid-Atlantic accent are all mildly Beatles-inspired (and the prominent organ recalls tracks like “I’m Looking Through You” from Rubber Soul), but there’s nothing that countless other rock bands of the time hadn’t nicked without drawing comment. In fact, the track it most resembles is its songwriter Neil Diamond’s own hit “Cherry, Cherry,” which broke into the Top 10 in October 1966. The two records share a suspiciously similar rhythm and acoustic guitar/keyboard elements – little surprise, then, that they also share a producer (Jeff Barry) and an arranger/organist (Artie Butler).

But whereas Diamond, a “rocker” in a traditional pop mold, could deck his version of “I’m a Believer” with strings, horns and female backing vocals, a nominal garage rock band like The Monkees needed to keep their instrumentation basic. Instead, the record catches the ear with a dynamic arrangement. The chugging pace of the verses reflects a life trudged through without hope of anything exciting to shake it up – though the handclaps and bright tempo hint at happier times just around the corner. Suddenly, the gears grind to a halt as the narrator finds his life changed in an instant: “Then I saw her face! Now I’m a believer!” The record’s sound immediately grows fuller and richer, augmented by a chirpy organ and livelier backing vocals. But if one dramatic pause weren’t enough to express this radical conversion, a second drives the point home. The proclamation “I’m in love!” is accompanied only by tambourine and a few emphatic guitar strums, intercut with Davy Jones and Peter Tork’s transcendent “mmmm – oh – yeah!” harmony vocals, as sharp and clear as a beam of light through a stained glass window.

As striking as the arrangement is, though, it’s lead singer Micky Dolenz who really sells the song, as a pessimist succumbing to belief in love in spite of himself. His vocal inflections – the sigh of “what’s the use in tryin’,” the slight falter in “not a trace,” the breathless strain on the final “I couldn’t leave her if I tried” – and the way he drags one microsecond behind the beat through most of the song convey the ambivalence of someone who had gotten comfortable with his lack of happiness and isn’t entirely sure he’s ready for a change, even a positive one. By the coda, though, any hesitation in his voice evaporates as his faith in love is made devout. Playing off the title’s religious connotations, the song takes on a gospel flavor as Dolenz and Jones/Tork exchange call-and-response cries of “I’m a believer!” backed by the everpresent organ.

Despite all the dramatic pauses and dynamic shifts, The Monkees & co handle “I’m a Believer” with a light touch, keeping the beat danceable and the tone joyous throughout. Dolenz commits to the emotional arc of the song, but without pushing it to Righteous Brothers-levels of melodrama. Even when the song is at its bleakest (“disappointment haunted all my dreams”), the exaggeratedly monotone “duh-dun duh-dun” backing vocals seem to mock the narrator’s self-pity. More than “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer” sets the template for The Monkees records to come: as clever, experimental and affecting as the best of ’60s pop-rock, but without the burden of taking themselves too seriously. 9

Hit #1 on December 31, 1966; total of 7 weeks at #1
177 of 1030 #1′s reviewed; 17.18% through the Hot 100

4 Comments

Filed under 09, 1966, 1967

176) The Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations”

In late November 1965, The Beach Boys released “The Little Girl I Once Knew” as the follow-up to “California Girls,” the record on which Brian Wilson finally matched Phil Spector for orchestral grandeur – albeit with a more subtle layering than the towering Wall of Sound. “Little Girl” pushed Wilson’s ambition even further, not only instrumentally but structurally. Between the verse and chorus, where a bridge might normally go, Wilson instead illustrated the song’s theme of missing time by completely dropping all voices and instrumentation for a couple of bars, resulting in stark stretches of near silence. The Beach Boys’ most overtly experimental single yet also became the group’s lowest charting since 1962 – #20 for a group that almost never peaked outside the Top 10. Less than a month after its release, Capitol Records rushed out “Barbara Ann,” a throwback doo-wop cover from the Christmas market cobble-up LP Beach Boys Party!. It went to #2.

Undeterred, Wilson pushed forward with work on the ambitious, gorgeously-crafted album Pet Sounds. For all its subsequent plaudits as one of the greatest albums ever made, at the time its reception in the US was more muted, though the accompanying singles “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” restored the group to the upper ranks of the charts. Having successfully honed his elaborate-yet-pristine production style, Wilson returned to the structural experimentation of “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” but with a more radical bent. Spector may have referred to his own records as “little symphonies for the kids,” but beneath the orchestral ornamentation lay traditional pop framework. Wilson, in contrast, strove to create something symphonic not only in arrangement, but in form. Assembling songs in terms of classical movements would permit him to pursue his musical imagination in whatever direction it took him, rather tying him down to the repetition of the verse-chorus cycle. It also reflected the contemporary, proto-postmodern fascination with assemblage: William S. Burroughs’s cut-ups, Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, Bruce Conner’s montage films. While The Beach Boys and their collaborators constructed each of the elements they’d weave and mash together, Wilson would treat them almost as found sound. The band’s first attempt at this type of symphonic form took 17 recording sessions over a six month span; its $50,000 price tag made it almost certainly the most expensive single up to that point in time. Fortunately, it paid off.

“Good Vibrations” is a collage of six discrete sections, strung together in a form that can roughly be mapped as A-B-A-B-C-D-B′-E-F. The immaculate arrangements and harmonies within each individual selection collide with the dramatic shifts between them. (There are even audible seams between the first verse and chorus, and in the middle of the word “excitations” at the end of the second chorus.) Yet for all the unexpected musical left turns, it still manages to tell a coherent story, albeit with a sort of daydream logic. The narrator begins by admiring a girl’s beauty from afar; having recognized some sort of encouragement from her (real or imagined), his mind swirls into a spiral of fantasy scenarios.

A“I, I love the colorful clothes she wears” – The minor key places our narrator as pining for the girl from afar, but the insistent rhythm hints that something’s building up. Both Carl and Brian Wilson sing on these verses, but their vocal lines are cut together to sound like one lone boy.

B“I’m pickin’ up good vibrations” – Perhaps the girl’s shown a sign of interest in the narrator; perhaps he’s just got a feeling that today’s his day. Regardless, the song shifts into a major key, with busier backing vocals representing both joy and reciprocation. The teen-angel tenor of Carl/Brian is swapped for Mike Love’s grounded baritone: imagination gives way to reality, the boy grows up to be a man. The wobble of the Electro-Theremin spells out the weird-but-nice sensation of the title, but it’s the cellos sawing away on the bottom end that produce tactile vibrations.

C“I don’t know where, but she sends me there” – The Beach Boys go psychedelic, at least in terms of what psych-rock meant in 1966 – i.e., Indian and Middle Eastern frills. But rather than shopworn sitars and tablas, this instrumentation is so exotic it can scarcely be identified. (I’m still not sure whether that barely audible whir in the background was produced by a musical instrument or a human voice.) The loping rhythm imagines a camel ride and predicts reggae. The key lyric is particularly apt.

D“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happenin’ with her” – A moment of hushed solemnity with organ, soft shakers and the Boys at their most church choirly. The single lyric is chanted over and again, as if invoking a holy ceremony. Their voices briefly give way to harmonica, that symbol of ’60s authenticity and gravitas, before one last ecstatic, heavenly “ahhh.”

B′ – In sonata terms, the modified recapitulation of the primary theme. Note that while in its earlier iterations, each harmony line rose up a step, this time they descend – a settling down.

E – Wordless vocals and hardly any instruments, apart from tambourine. Language has reached its limits in describing this sort of joy. Maybe it’s even baby babble.

F – The vibrations get the last word. (Theory: the overt sci-fi weirdness of the Electro-Theremin acts as a Trojan horse for the song’s subtler structural weirdness, giving listeners something more familiarly strange to pin those unsettling sensations on.)

Perhaps one of the most mind-bending aspects of “Good Vibrations” is how it manages to pack all these elements into a brisk three and a half minutes. Yet for all its ambition, it never seems show-offy in a way that its imitators sometimes do. Instead, it feels like a genuine attempt to express a specific emotional progression, and does so in a way that never sacrifices the pop elements inherent to The Beach Boys’ sound (doo wop backing vocals, hooks galore). “Good Vibrations” marks the difference between psychedelic “expanding your mind” clichés, and music that truly ventures into unmarked territory, granting free rein to a fertile imagination.

While Wilson had managed to recover from the relative commercial disappointments of “The Little Girl I Once Knew” and Pet Sounds, the frustration and self-doubt of trying to follow the path set out by “Good Vibrations” would ultimately break him. The proposed LP Smile was supposed to best the relentless innovation of The Beatles; instead, Wilson burned himself out and more or less gave up. The Beach Boys, with Brian in a reduced role, continued to release (often terrific) music, but they had lost their breakneck creative and commercial momentum. “Good Vibrations” would end up as not only the group’s last number-one of the ’60s, but also their last Top 10 hit for a decade. The single that finally returned them to the upper reaches of the charts would be a flat cover of “Rock and Roll Music” – perhaps a conscious return to their appropriation of Chuck Berry on “Surfin’ USA” in 1963, back before they got mixed up with that experimental arty stuff. But even if “Good Vibrations” ended up as something of a dead end for the Boys themselves, countless of the group’s contemporaries and followers learned its lessons, concocting elaborate productions and stringing together musical ideas into an open-ended, free-flowing composition. Yet it would be a rare few who would manage to conduct the same electrical charge of The Beach Boys’ single, a record as exciting for its freshness and emotional verity as for the potential it represented for a new kind of pop music. 10

Hit #1 on December 10, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
176 of 1027 #1′s reviewed; 17.14% through the Hot 100

7 Comments

Filed under 10, 1966

175) The New Vaudeville Band – “Winchester Cathedral”

Pop/rock musicians in the late ’60s looking to expand their sound tended to draw from the music of idealized cultures separated by distance (Indian), time (baroque) or race (blues). For musicians with less serious aims, though, there was also a strain of pop that sought exoticism closer to home. After all, few things are as close in grasp but ultimately unknowable as what the world was like just before you were born. The dregs of the era may even persist into your early childhood, furthering the sense of having just missed out on something great. But the fact that the culture already belongs to a still-living generation blocks it off from personal access in a way that, say, medieval culture doesn’t (in that  everyone approaches it from equal distance). On top of that, the fact it’s your own parents’ and grandparents’ era makes it unhip by association. The result is a complex alloy of irony, nostalgia and genuine appreciation, the precise balance of which can vary from person to person and song to song. (The contemporary equivalent may be the resurgence of the foggy synths and saxophone associated with ’70s/early ’80s yacht rock.)

For rock in the mid to late ’60s, this manifested as a sort of a fad for the similarly populist entertainments of a previous generation – namely, late-era music hall/vaudeville and the dance band jazz of the ’20s and early ’30s. (Being a hand-me-down cultural reference, the ’60s pop/rock version is more a loose jumble of old-timey signifiers than accurate historical musicology.) In the UK, this style of music progressed naturally from the trad jazz revival of the late ’50s and ’60s, with that era’s fetish for authenticity softened into more playful appeals to nostalgia. For Americans, it called to mind the peaceful era between the world wars  – years that seemed especially rosy viewed from 1966.

Producer/songwriter Geoff Stephens assembled The New Vaudeville Band in studio as a vessel to record a pastiche of ’20s pop. “Winchester Cathedral” wasn’t the first vaudeville-flavored pop hit to break in the US. Herman’s Hermits’ tinny instrumentation and Peter Noone’s vocal mugging alluded to the variety tradition, a connection made explicit on their version of “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” The Kinks scored Top 20 US hits with “A Well Respected Man” and “Sunny Afternoon,” which incorporated modified music hall song structures as a means of reasserting their Britishness while playing American-derived rock and roll. The Lovin’ Spoonful, whose old-timey inclinations tended more to street-level jug band music, broke out the soft-shoe shuffle for “Daydream” – there’s even video of the band performing it in vaudevillian boaters and bowties. What is unusual is how ahead of the curve a novelty single like “Winchester Cathedral” was, preceding more fondly remembered examples of the microgenre as The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four,” The Rolling Stones’ “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” and The Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday.” The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the closest analogue to The New Vaudeville Band (and arguably the source of their whole shtick), wouldn’t even release their debut LP until the following year, at which point they’d begun to tone down their antique influences to avoid comparisons to the hit-makers.

Perhaps it helped that the New Vaudeville Band were more literal than the rockers. The touring iteration of the group included a horn section dressed in old-fangled costumes and a singer who sang through a Rudy Vallée-style megaphone. They even had the word “vaudeville” right there in the name, in case you needed a map. But for a pastiche of music descended from the sprightly likes of ragtime and dixieland, the pace of “Winchester Cathedral” is leaden and undanceable, the horns bulbous and gassy – though, to be fair, the garish production and dinky instrumentation are probably a more honest tribute to small-scale, low-end music halls than the rosy-hued rockers’ take. And to assure pop listeners that it’s not just a nostalgia trip for old fogies – though they are welcome to buy the record too – there’s a slack jolt of fuzz guitar as a vague gesture to psych rock. (The record’s only good joke was winning the Grammy for Best Contemporary Song.)

Oddly, the best thing about “Winchester Cathedral” may be the song itself. The lyrics are terrible, to be sure, but terrible in a plausibly vaudevillian novelty way. The melody’s catchy without being painful, familiar without being too predictable. Conversely, though, every cover version – and circa 1967, there were a lot of them, by everyone from Petula Clark to Frank Sinatra to Vallée himself – proves how superfluous the song is removed from its moth-eaten ’20s dress-up. What’s left is pure kitsch, ridiculing the past while stoking nostalgia for it – and, worst of all, not even getting what made it so appealing in the first place. 2

Hit #1 on December 3, 1966 for 1 week; repeaked on December 17, 1966 for 2 weeks; total of 3 weeks at #1
175 of 1025 #1′s reviewed; 17.07% through the H0t 100

5 Comments

Filed under 02, 1966