The A-note that opens “I Feel Fine” is more than just the first blast of feedback on record; it also heralds the start of The Beatles’ middle period. While the band’s earliest records are sometimes condemned as too poppy, or their later records as too arty, the era stretching from late 1964 to 1966 is The Beatles everyone can agree on. The records released in this timespan tend to have the best of both worlds: bright, catchy melodies paired with more thoughtful, introspective lyrics, with an occasional experimental detour (culminating with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the closing track on 1966′s Revolver).
“I Feel Fine” still has a foot in the Beatles’ past, with its simple, chipper lyrics and uptempo beat. But that single note of feedback, less a shriek than a gentle hum, signals the band’s increasing fascination with using the studio to create new sonic textures. The Beatles weren’t the first to experiment with deliberate feedback; The Who, The Kinks and The Yardbirds had all dabbled with it in a live setting. But only a commercial juggernaut blessed with an understanding producer could have succeeded in getting such a sound on tape and into stores. What’s often overlooked here is what the song sounds like after the feedback: a sort of maximum R&B more commonly associated with mods than with rockers (or with mockers, for that matter). In fact, much of “I Feel Fine” is lifted wholesale from Bobby Parker’s 1961 R&B hit “Watch Your Step.” Even the feedback just subs in for the twin horn blasts opening that record. But George Harrison’s rockabilly picking of the “Watch Your Step” riff also hints at the folkier directions the band would explore a few months later on Help! and Rubber Soul. And anyone still doubting Ringo Starr’s bona fides should just listen to the Latin rhythms snaking around Harrison’s lead.
One further note on those seemingly straightforward lyrics: what does John Lennon mean by “I’m in love with her and I feel fine“? “Fine” seems like a mild reaction, unless it’s an intentionally dry understatement. Or is it meant to be an oblique reference to a darker time in the past, when he wasn’t fine? If it’s the latter, then “I Feel Fine” could be read as a companion piece to the triad of despair that opens Beatles for Sale (“No Reply”/”I’m a Loser”/”Baby’s in Black”). That album, released just two weeks after “I Feel Fine,” is the sound of The Beatles beginning to shed their cheery-chaps persona, posing solemn-faced on the album cover and writing more serious lyrics that, in Lennon’s case, verged on self-loathing. But when paired with Beatles for Sale, “I Feel Fine” acts as a reassurance to the group’s fans: The Beatles may be growing up, but they still remember how to have fun. 8
Hit #1 on December 26, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
125 of 1000 #1′s reviewed; 12.50% through the Hot 100
Filed under 08, 1964, 1965
According to Lamont Dozier (quoted in Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits), “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me” were written and recorded at roughly the same time, in the wake of the unexpected success of “Where Did Our Love Go.” The three tracks share a number of similarities: accents on every beat, lyrics pleading for the return of an unfaithful lover, a repetitive chord progression. But “Come See About Me” builds on the established hit-making Supremes template, just as “Baby Love” was a step more musically advanced than “Where Did Our Love Go.” “Come See About Me” is the closest the Supremes had come yet to a traditional verse-chorus structure. Still, both parts of the song are too underdeveloped to stand on their own, and there’s no middle eight or key change to break up the monotony. What does make it pop is the record’s bright, punchy sound, as represented by the drum intro, the rhythm guitar and the increased prominence of Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson’s backing vocals (now shouted instead of cooed).
Even the title of “Come See About Me” represents a greater degree of sophistication, calling to mind both The Dixie Hummingbirds’ gospel hit “Lord, Come See About Me” and Mae West’s iconic line from She Done Him Wrong: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” This double-coding of the sacred and the profane, so common in the gospel-R&B hybrid that is soul music, speaks to both religious and secular audiences – or, at least, to the religious and secular impulses within each listener. Between Diana Ross’s thin vocals and the bouncy pop of their early records, it’s easy to forget that The Supremes were essentially a soul outfit. The handclaps and call-and-response vocals common to girl group records are rooted in the tradition of African-American church music, and Ballard in particular possessed a voice with a richness and emotional intensity nearly unrivaled among Motown artists. Just as their first three number-ones increased incrementally in complexity, “Come See About Me” finds The Supremes inching toward a harder, more soulful sound. 7
Hit #1 on December 19, 1964 for 1 week; repeaked on January 16, 1965 for 1 week; total of 2 weeks at #1
124 of 1000 #1′s reviewed; 12.40% through the Hot 100
Filed under 07, 1964, 1965
Bobby Vinton was a solitary figure in early ’60s pop. He was born too late to be one of the classic crooners, but he was a little too old to fit in with his fellow teen idols. He wanted to be a bandleader more than a singer, and his music bears few traces of contemporary influences – but his best record is a rock ballad. His taste in material regularly see-sawed between the sublime (“Blue Velvet”) and the soporific (“Roses Are Red [My Love],” “There! I’ve Said It Again”). “Mr. Lonely,” one of Vinton’s rare writing credits, is one of the better ones, even if it doesn’t quite scale the heights of “Blue Velvet.” Unlike “Roses” and “There,” the material doesn’t carry the bulk of the blame. Instead, it’s Vinton’s singing that’s the problem. He overemotes, particularly through the second half of the song, choking up during the verses as if staying alive long enough to sing the next line is some sort of unbearable burden. Like Paul Anka’s “Lonely Boy,” the record comes off at best as insincere, at worst as parody. It’s as if fame led Vinton and Anka to forget what loneliness really feels like, so they overcompensated with quivering sobs and self-pitying lyrics. (Compare with Roy Orbison, whose perpetual melancholy always seemed sincere – perhaps because it also seemed like he was always trying to fight it.)
Even though it was released as a single in 1964, “Mr. Lonely” actually appeared on the same album as “Roses Are Red (My Love)” way back in 1962 – a lifetime in terms of the early ’60s pop discography. (For reference, Vinton put out five more studio LPs and a greatest hits compilation between the album Roses Are Red and the single release of “Mr. Lonely.”) Appropriately enough for the backwards-looking pop star, his final number-one was a leftover from a time before the British Invasion, when easy listening and American pop ruled the charts. Unlike most of his peers, Vinton continued to have a steady stream of mid-chart hits through the rest of the ’60s, sometimes scoring the occasional Top 10 single. He wasn’t a teen idol any longer – the definition had changed and, besides, it’s not a good look past 30. But of all the wholesome, smiling Bobbys, he was the last man standing. 5
Hit #1 on December 12, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
123 out of 995 #1′s reviewed; 12.36% through the Hot 100
“Ringo” is, in all respects, a cash-in record. The song position appeared on Welcome to the Ponderosa, an album recorded to capitalize on Greene’s starring role on the hit TV Western Bonanza. Its spoken word verses and faceless chorus ape Jimmy Dean’s neo-folktale “Big Bad John.” But it was the fortuitous title that propelled the song to #1.
When Greene recorded “Ringo” in late 1963, it was an album track named for minor Wild West figure Johnny Ringo. But with the invasion of the British bands and a fad for all things Beatles, the nearly year-old record was dusted off and given a single release. Rock fans bought it for the title; Bonanza fans bought it for the singer. The combined novelty factor was just enough to slide “Ringo” into number one for one week, a position the song itself doesn’t really merit. Next to “Big Bad John,” its weaknesses become even more apparent. Dean’s folksy charm is swapped for Greene’s dry newsreader’s account. “Big Bad John” had the stirring story of a quiet hero who saves the lives of his fellow miners through superhuman strength. “Ringo” is about … a sheriff who doesn’t get killed by Johnny Ringo? It’s a lot less inspiring, at any rate. And unlike “Big Bad John,” it doesn’t even half-attempt a hook. In its original position, as a memento of a favorite TV show, it’s not bad. But as a single, it’s entirely unnecessary. 3
Hit #1 on December 5, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
122 of 994 #1′s reviewed; 12.27% through the Hot 100