“Lightnin’ Strikes” is a difficult record to get a handle on. On one hand, it rivals “Leader of the Pack” for sheer melodrama, courtesy of the song’s shifting multi-part verses, the kitchen-sink production (by ex-Four Seasons arranger Charles Calello) and Lou Christie’s octave-scaling vocals. On the other hand, there’s the lyrics. “Lightnin’ Strikes” is the pop epitome of the double standard, where Christie can plead for “a girl he can trust to the very end” while at in the same breath try to justify his own infidelity through condescension (“you’re old enough to know the makings of a man”) and bathos (“believe it or not, you’re in my heart all the time”). Even given the era’s gender norms and rock’s pervasive misogyny, the shamelessness of a line like “for the time being, baby, live by my rules” is really something else. (Likewise, he’s careful to imply he’ll marry her without ever quite committing to it.)
In fact, the lines Christie smarmily croons in “Lightnin’ Strikes” are so brazen that you have to wonder if they’re meant to be ironic. The song was co-written by Christie with longtime collaborator Twyla Herbert, a self-described mystic and bohemian more than two decades his senior – not a woman all that concerned with conforming to social norms. Further, “Lightnin’ Strikes” seems geared to emphasize an association between sexism and violence. The prechorus, where Christie’s strained voice shouts “I can’t stop myself!” while female backing singers cry “Stop! Stop!,” is notoriously ambiguous. Is our narrator an unrepentant Casanova or something far more sinister?
“Lightnin’ Strikes” even borrows the format of a horror story. Its verses are a burlesque of innocence, thick with tinkling piano, church bells and an idyllic “chapel in the pines.” Even so, there are hints that things aren’t quite as they appear. Christie’s transparent phoniness implies there’s something in his true nature that needs concealing. The crashing piano chords opening each verse suggest distant cracks of thunder, warning of a coming storm. Even the backing vocals are so exaggerated in their sweetness that they verge on grotesque.
Of course, as in any horror story, this perfect world exists only to be shattered. When Christie spots “lips begging to be kissed,” his voice mutates into a shrill keen, completely unrecognizable from the charmer he posed as just seconds earlier. The switch from his teen idol croon to the manic, otherworldly falsetto signifies that he has transformed into some unknown thing incapable of being controlled. His choice of words – “lightning striking me again!” – links him with the violence of a sudden, unpredictable burst of energy that burns hot and leaves destruction in its wake. It also evokes the electrical flash that brought Frankenstein’s monster to life.
Nevertheless, Christie, Herbert and Calello never entirely tip their hand as to the song’s true meaning. Perhaps the record is exactly what it appears to be, no irony or grotesquerie intended. This uncertainty complements the song’s constantly shifting structure: you never can get too comfortable with “Lightnin’ Strikes,” which is precisely what makes it so compelling. There are plenty of terrible records with well-meaning messages. The ambiguous intent of this one only adds to its allure. 8
Hit #1 on February 19, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
154 of 1016 #1′s reviewed; 15.15% through the Hot 100