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