One of the things that makes the pop charts more fascinating than carefully curated lists of “important” records, like Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, is all the junk that filters through. That’s not an insult — junk may not be particularly well-written, and it’s often annoying, but at its best it embodies the careless vitality that makes rock and roll so exciting. The very fact that junk hits aren’t so-called timeless classics makes them snapshots of the transient tastes of a lost age. And for one week in 1965, the single that best captured the state of American pop taste was a 17-year-old English kid and his beat group covering an old music hall hit. Less than two minutes long, consisting of little more than three choruses and a time-killing guitar solo, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” feels barely substantial enough to pass for a B-side. Like “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” before it, the single didn’t even merit release in Herman Hermits’ native country. (Unlike “Mrs. Brown,” this doesn’t feel like an oversight.) But the record’s exotic Cockneyisms, old-timey flavor and unshakeable chorus were enough to buoy it to the top of the US charts in August. What better time for a nice repetitive song that takes no effort to learn quickly than the mind-dulling heat of late summer? It’s cheerful and a bit funny and tailor-made for group singalongs. Eventually it’ll wear out its welcome, but it’s so slight that it can be cast aside without guilt.
Certainly there are better records — better Herman’s Hermits records, even — more deserving of the number-one spot. But compared with the horrors of past novelty chart-toppers, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” is downright pleasant. The band is charming enough, Peter Noone doesn’t oversell the joke, and the whole thing ends quickly. Better a tossed-off piece of junk than a record that’s ponderous or bloated or a self-serious attempt at social relevance. Squint and you can maybe even detect the seeds of punk in its stripped-down insouciance — after all, the Ramones did quote “second verse, same as the first” in “Judy is a Punk.” But is “Henry VIII” a good record? Even the band probably thought of it as nothing more than a bit of filler that got lucky. 5
Hit #1 on August 7, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
141 of 1011 #1′s reviewed; 13.95% through the Hot 100