The United States has a reputation for being an insular country. But Americans’ lack of knowledge about international politics or foreign cultures pales when compared with the entertainment bottleneck created by U.S.-produced pop culture. Apart from a few niche outlets for British and Spanish-language television, networks air American shows exclusively. Only a narrow segment of film buffs seeks out subtitled movies. And while pop music may be the medium most receptive to foreign imports, only songs with English-language lyrics stand a chance at making the mainstream charts. The occasional exceptions, such as Domenico Modugno’s “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare),” are those sung in melodious Romance languages.
As a result, it’s somewhat heartening to see how U.S. audiences embraced “Sukiyaki.” The Japanese language wasn’t as familiar to 1960s Americans as, say, Italian or French, and any Japanese-style flourishes in Western music were generally confined to kitschy exotica. Yet apart from the Japanese lyrics, “Sukiyaki” (originally titled “Ue o muite arukō,” or “I Shall Walk Looking Up”) sounds like it could have been recorded anywhere in the world. Much of the song’s crossover appeal can be traced to Kyu Sakamoto’s expressive vocals. The upbeat arrangement belies the melancholy lyrics: the singer walks looking up to keep the tears from falling from his eyes. Sakamoto’s voice betrays just a hint of that sadness beneath the the whistling and the jaunty horns. Likewise, the song’s gentle melody is catchy yet far more mournful than anything in a major key has a right to be. “Sukiyaki” succeeds because it can be perfectly understood without knowing a word of Japanese. Regardless of language, heartbreak is universal. 7
Hit #1 on June 15, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
92 of 976 #1′s reviewed; 9.43% through the Hot 100
While I may have a near-blind love of the girl group genre, I can understand why people may not go for Lesley Gore. Her voice is much weaker and limper than that of her contemporaries, with a peevish quality that suggests a child on the brink of a temper tantrum. Her choice of material often plays into this image. Rarely do you find Gore singing a love song in the vein of “Be My Baby” or “I Will Follow Him.” Instead, her best-known songs (“It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” “You Don’t Own Me”) all star her in reactionary poses, railing against cheating boyfriends and frenemies and controlling people who’ve stirred her ire. Put together, it can come across as all too self-pitying: the privileged teenager sniveling over some slight.
Yet this same quality of teenage petulance works in spades when deployed in the right manner. Not many other singers could so convincingly portray the victim of an entire Seventeen advice column’s worth of angst. “It’s My Party” also works because it’s essentially the flip side of “I Will Follow Him.” Just as the adolescent love in Peggy March’s song is cosmically intense – the greatest thing that happened to anyone, ever – the adolescent lost love of “It’s My Party” is a tragedy of Sophoclean proportions. That Gore’s character is rejected at her own birthday party is just the crap icing on her cake of humiliation. The irony in calling Gore’s catalog self-pitying is that “It’s My Party” depicts some seriously harsh treatment. You probably would cry too if it happened to you. 7
Hit #1 on June 1, 1963; total of 2 weeks at #1
91 of 976 #1′s reviewed; 9.32% through the Hot 100
Call me humorless, but I never found “If You Wanna Be Happy” all that hilarious. As far as jokes go, it’s as clever as “take my wife – please!” stretched out over two-plus minutes. Plus, I’m never quite sure how women are supposed to take it. Should ugly women feel honored (it’s advising men to marry you!) or embarrassed (it states that ugly women have no other options and are grateful for the attention)? Are pretty women offended by being characterized as amoral hussies? And what do you do if that cute guy from civics class asks you to dance to it at Winter Formal? Maybe I’m overthinking this. As far as questionable portrayals of women in song go, this is definitely on the warm-n-fuzzy end of the misogyny scale.
You know what could save the lyrics, though? Not sounding like a fugitive from Gary U.S. Bonds‘s reject bin. So I was simultaneously shocked and not-shocked-at-all to read on Wikipedia that, yes, “If You Wanna Be Happy” was actually a Bonds leftover. It’s got the handclaps, the whooping backing vocals, the concentrated effort at sounding as spontaneous as possible. Jimmy Soul is a fine singer, and his delivery goes a long way toward imbuing the song with some degree of charm. Still, after a run of terrific number ones, “If You Wanna Be Happy” is the speedbump that reminds us it can’t last forever. 4
Hit #1 on May 18, 1963; total of 2 weeks at #1
90 of 976 #1′s reviewed; 9.22% through the Hot 100
When browsing through YouTube for the clip above, I came across a live performance of “I Will Follow Him” from 2002. Peggy March was singing as part as one of those oldies nostalgia revues that air on public television during pledge drives. Despite having the past 40 years and an entire career defined by this one track, March is an enthusiastic performer. She’s clearly had vocal lessons in the intervening decades, as she sings with an assured, polished voice quite unlike the one that graced the original recording. Of course, it’s difficult – and rarely desirable – to retain the same vocal qualities you had when you were 15 (although Brenda Lee managed it). Nevertheless, I still felt a vague sense of disappointment. March had traded her distinctive voice for one that was generic, albeit ostensibly better.
I only remark on March’s voice because it is one of the two great things about the original recording of “I Will Follow Him.” Although she had an innate sense of pitch and melody, her voice hadn’t yet had all the rawness buffed out of it yet. March, much like Ronnie Spector, has the knack of sounding both vulnerable and assertive – exactly how an adolescent should. The other terrific aspect of the song is its arrangement. The music, co-composed by Paul Mauriat and Franck Pourcel, is so absurdly dramatic as to make “He’s a Rebel” look meek and pedestrian. Yet this too matches the spirit of the song. This is music that can part oceans and knock down mountains, if that’s what it takes for our heroine to reach her destiny. Subtlety is unheard of and every emotion is cranked up to 11 – which is a lot like how it feels to be a teenager. 7
Hit #1 on April 27, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
89 of 976 #1′s reviewed; 9.12% through the Hot 100
For all the grumbling I’ve done about the pop music in the years between the first wave of rock and roll and the advent of The Beatles, we’ve actually hit a pretty nice stretch of chart here. I’m almost feeling guilty about the number of 7s and 8s (and even a 9
) that I’ve either handed out lately or will be handing out soon. Not that I think my overall grades should chart as a perfect bell curve. While you don’t need to go further than this very blog to recognize that popularity doesn’t always equal quality, the sheer number of roadblocks and gatekeepers on the path to #1 ensures that few records reach the top without at least a modicum of merit. (Note: I may recant this position when we reach the ’70s.) That the grades skew high is not just something I expect to happen, it’s something I want
to happen – partly to restore my faith in the record-buying public, partly so I don’t have to spend a good chunk of my free time listening to terrible music and partly so I don’t get burned out writing one negative review after another.
Of course, it’s also possible to get a little burned out writing nothing but positive reviews. It’s not as if I can express relief that, finally, here’s some good music – “He’s So Fine” is like an oasis in a tropical rainforest. I’ve already expressed my love for girl groups, so it’s no surprise that the song’s a big hit with me (unless you were expecting a “Soldier Boy
“-like upset, which would be foolishness). And, frankly, how can anyone listen to “He’s So Fine” and not love it? It’s got endearing girlish harmonies (oh yeah)! Romantic yet non-flowery lyrics (“sooner or later – I hope it’s not later”)! The most memorable backing vocals in the whole genre (doo lang doo lang doo lang)! I dare you not to be hypnotized by the continuously ascending melody, suggesting that our heroine’s love for her wavy-haired boy has brought her closer to her sweet Lord. Plus, it breezes past with the economy and commitment to purpose of a Ramones song. Forget tedious deliberation on technical details and waffling about pros and cons and the blah blah blah. I can’t deny that “He’s So Fine” is a great song – even if it does skew my averages. 8
Hit #1 on March 30, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
88 of 976 #1′s reviewed; 9.02% through the Hot 100
While Ruby & the Romantics are sometimes categorized as a girl group (not least on Rhino’s indispensable One Kiss Can Lead to Another box set), the classification has never quite sat well with me. Partly it’s because four of the five group members are male. But more than that, it’s the fact that they sound more mature than their peers. Whereas elegance for girl groups was all about matching chiffon dresses and prom night, “Our Day Will Come” suggests bossa nova, and with it martinis and cigarettes in uptown jazz clubs. While calling a record “mature” may have certain negative connotations, Ruby & the Romantics prove that adult pop need not be bloodless. “Our Day Will Come” echoes classic torch songs without losing the vitality of R&B or slavishly recreating the past (contemporary standards revivalists, please take note). Ruby Nash’s robust alto offsets the Teflon-smooth vocals of the Romantics in the same way that the Hammond organ cuts through the loungey arrangement: to add extra dimensions to what could have been mere background noise. Which brings me to another way “Our Day Will Come” doesn’t quite fit in with its girl group peers. No matter how well-written or well-executed a girl group record is, it by definition must follow certain rules. But by abandoning the template and smoothly incorporating diverse elements, both classic and contemporary, “Our Day Will Come” achieves timelessness. 8
Hit #1 on March 23, 1963; total of 1 week at #1
87 of 976 #1′s reviewed; 8.91% through the Hot 100
In the post for “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” I grappled with the problem of admiring The Four Seasons’ style while simultaneously being frustrated by how that style limited the variety of their early ’60s output. True, I still think “Big Girls Don’t Cry” is essentially “Sherry” redux. However, recent close listening of “Walk Like a Man” revealed an aspect of that record I hadn’t noticed before: an unexpected nastiness. Frankie Valli snarls through the verses in a manner anticipating garage rock, while lyrics like “Soon you’ll be cryin’ on account of all your lyin’/Oh yeah, just look who’s laughing now” could be excerpts from the Mick Jagger songbook. The chorus restores the group’s trademark four-part harmony punctuated by Valli’s preternatural falsetto, yet the cheery sing-a-long masks an arch sentiment. Why should you “walk like a man”? Because “no woman’s worth crawling on the earth.” There’s just a light enough touch here that it never descends into misogyny. But the fact that Valli et al. can sing about a woman’s treachery without coming across as self-pitying wimps makes it a welcome anomaly – and perhaps their best song. 7
Hit #1 on March 2, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
86 of 976 #1′s reviewed; 8.81% through the Hot 100
Leaving all issues of authenticity in pop music aside (as I promised to do just yesterday), there are some things that are hard to fake convincingly. One of these is naïveté. I don’t mean music characterized by foolishness or a lack of sophistication, but the sincere, uncynical type of songs that only be produced by non-professionals not yet molded to industry standards. This guilelessness is a large part of what gave records like “Come Softly to Me” and “Please Mr. Postman” their charm. The vocals may not be refined, the lyrics a bit facile, the production low-budget, but there’s an honesty there that’s stands out alongside more polished, conventional fare. This isn’t to say that naïve music is inherently better than its radio-ready counterpart, merely that it can be an appealing change of pace.
Compare “Hey Paula,” a ballad written and performed by a couple of Texas college students, with Steve Lawrence’s “Go Away Little Girl“: both take on the subject of young love. But although the former’s simple arrangement and endearingly clunky lyrics mark it as the work of amateurs, it is all the sweeter and more believable for being something two (quite talented) kids might actually sing to each other. “Go Away Little Girl,” on the other hand, doesn’t have a sincere note in the whole record. Even if the love depicted in “Hey Paula” is as artificial as the duo’s noms de musique, the latter’s strict adherence to pop formula comes across as smug, creepy and dull. “Hey Paula” also has an ace up its sleeve with the voice of Jill Jackson (our “Paula”), whose manages the rare feat in pop of being technically proficient yet seemingly unschooled. Like “Hey Paula” itself, her singing is enchanting because its loveliness is seemingly by chance. 6
Hit #1 on February 9, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
85 of 976 #1′s reviewed; 8.71% through the Hot 100
Issues about whether a recording or band is “authentic” are usually beside the point in a blog about pop music. But what happens when musicians, particularly musicians in a genre that fetishizes authenticity, are constantly undercut by their own artifice? Such is the case with The Rooftop Singers and “Walk Right In,” a cover of a 1920s jug band blues number by Gus Cannon. At least The Rooftop Singers don’t hold the song so sacred that they plod through a solemnly faithful version of it, as most other folk groups of the era would have done. I admire their attempt to recontextualize the song in a contemporary fashion. The problem is that it’s so square. Much like a forced curse word spoken by someone unaccustomed to swearing, all the pseudo-hep touches – the jazzy flourishes, interjections of “Daddy!” and insistence on (crisply, precisely) enunciating the word “sit” as ”set” - just emphasize the group’s white-bread, clean-cut personas. It’s easy to criticize old music that sounds dated to modern listeners, but Cannon’s original sounds more timeless to my ears than The Rooftop Singers’ take. Then again, I can’t imagine there was ever an era when this version of “Walk Right In” sounded credible. 4
Hit #1 on January 26, 1963; total of 2 weeks at #1
84 of 976 #1′s reviewed; 8.61% through the Hot 100
Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote some of the greatest pop songs ever, two of which we’ve already examined here (also, this one). But in 1962, they hit a bit of a rough patch. That year saw the release of their notorious Crystals single “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss),” which flopped, as well as the questionable “Go Away Little Girl,” which unfortunately didn’t. I’m not sure whether it would be worse to interpret the namesake “little girl” as underage or not. Either way, it’s creepy. Ostensibly, the singer is imploring her to “go away” because he’s dating someone else, but the lyrics are just ambiguous enough to make you wonder: “I’m not supposed to be in love with you,” “When you are near me like this, you’re much too hard to resist,” and so forth. Actually, it might not be so bad if not for Steve Lawrence’s smarmy vocals – he was only 27 when the single became a hit, but his faux-sincere croon pegs him as far older. The melody is also surprisingly weak for a Goffin/King tune. Whatever problems “Take Good Care of My Baby” might have had, at least it was catchy. “Go Away Little Girl” just plods along, with none of the lightness and verve of their contemporaneous pop songs. It sounds less like chartworthy pop and more like a performance from a particularly soporific episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. Ironically, Lawrence Welk’s own number one was a whole lot more fun than this. 2
Hit #1 on January 12, 1963; total of 2 weeks at #1
83 of 976 #1′s reviewed; 8.50% through the Hot 100