If Sinatra really did call “Strangers in the Night” “the worst fucking song that I have ever heard,” then imagine the profanity he invented when he discovered what replaced it at the top of the charts. “Strangers” was schmaltz, but “Hanky Panky” epitomized the idiocy and trashiness that Sinatra detested about rock music. Its ascent was a rejection of everything Sinatra stood for. At least Dino had the courtesy of being dethroned by the demure, professional Supremes. Tommy James and the Shondells were a bunch of teenage nobodies; like Simon & Garfunkel, they’d split up long before their record was plucked from obscurity to become a surprise hit. “Hanky Panky” sounds cheap, scratchy and dirty, built on relentless repetition of a single line (“my baby does the hanky panky”) and a distorted guitar riff. Whereas Sinatra seemed vaguely embarrassed by the triteness of “Strangers,” James and the Shondells embrace “Hanky Panky”’s stupidity as evidence of its primal truth. That the group never achieved the critical respectability of contemporaries like The Beatles and the Stones – who’ve since ascended in the pop firmament alongside Sinatra – makes their toppling of the Chairman all the more satisfying.
“Hanky Panky” began life in 1963 as a rush-written B-side for songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s project The Raindrops. The original is a bit of girl-groupish filler, a dance craze cash-in for a dance craze that didn’t actually exist. (Barry, talking later to Fred Bronson, said he considered it “a terrible song.”) The sole verse namedrops some of Barry and Greenwich’s inspirations: The Tokens, The Drifters, The Coasters. By the time the Shondells discovered the song the following year, it had passed from one garage band to another like a message in a game of Telephone, morphing in the process into a junior varsity “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” James, or someone else along the line, swapped out the vocal groups for a rough sketch of an encounter with an elusive “pretty baby.” He sees her walking by herself and asks to take her home; he then insists he “never ever saw her.” Was she the invention of an oversexed imagination? Is he covering for something?
The Shondells’ reimagining of “Hanky Panky” may have been mildly risqué in 1964; when it finally became a hit in mid-’66, it was almost quaint. The buzzing guitar and James’s ripe delivery hint at the existence of sex without really being sexy – an adolescent fantasy (“I never saw her”?) rather than “Be-Bop-A-Lula”’s (or “Satisfaction”’s, or “Day Tripper”’s) matter-of-factness. James and the Shondells had stumbled on the prototype for bubblegum: bright, catchy and repetitious, with a hint of plausibly deniable innuendo. The band refined and developed the formula on their next several singles; compare 1968’s “Mony Mony,” which borrows elements from “Hanky Panky” but sets them in a more dynamic, better-constructed song. As such, “Hanky Panky” is essentially an amateurish and derivative first draft – albeit still more exciting than a hidebound tome like “Strangers in the Night.” 6
Hit #1 on July 16, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
164 of 1019 #1’s reviewed; 16.09% through the Hot 100