183) Nancy Sinatra & Frank Sinatra – “Somethin’ Stupid”

When Sinatra founded Reprise Records in 1960, one of the benefits of being Chairman of the Board was artistic freedom. Between his more standard offerings, he recorded a tribute to his onetime mentor, bandleader Tommy Dorsey (1962’s I Remember Tommy); paid homage to the late President John F. Kennedy with a collection of patriotic songs (1964’s America, I Hear You Singing); and revisited his pioneering ’50s concept albums with a rumination on aging (1965’s September of My Years). He also seized the opportunity to work with other high-profile talents he admired, cutting albums for the first time with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and bossa nova luminary Antônio Carlos Jobim.

Nevertheless, Sinatra’s most famous collaboration of the ’60s wasn’t with an orchestra leader or a songwriter, but his daughter Nancy. After sessions wrapped for the 1967 album Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim, Sinatra swapped out the Brazilian musician for the pop starlet, and bossa nova for tepid MOR. Nancy’s regular duet partner, Lee Hazlewood, manned the production boards alongside Jimmy Bowen, who had recorded “Strangers in the Night.” On the docket was a novelty duet called “Somethin’ Stupid,” which would allow the Sinatras to share their love of singing, and also sell twice as many records as they would separately.

“Somethin’ Stupid” had first appeared the year before as a duet between the song’s writer, C. Carson Parks (older brother of songwriter/arranger Van Dyke Parks) and his wife Gaile Foote. It’s a simple song about a man and a woman platonically enjoying each other’s company until one of them “spoil[s] it all by saying something stupid like ‘I love you.’” The twist is that, because both are singing the same words simultaneously, it isn’t clear which was the one to awkwardly blurt out their romantic feelings. Carson and Gaile’s winsome recording has some corny appeal, but it’s much too slight to be an obvious candidate for a huge international hit.

Frank and Nancy’s version retains the basic arrangement of the original, including the hushed unison, non-harmonizing vocals and a flourish of Spanish guitar. The one addition is a strings section so heavy-handed that the song’s fragile charms buckle beneath its weight. Similarly, while Carson and Gaile’s vocal styles were well matched, the Sinatras, despite their consanguinity, are less of a natural fit. In fact, “Somethin’ Stupid” barely even qualifies as a duet — that would imply some sort of equal footing between the two partners. Even in half-assed “Strangers in the Night” mode, Frank dominates the recording, relegating Nancy to little more than an anonymous background singer. True, Frank was the superstar with the once-in-a-generation voice, but Nancy was at least as popular as her old man in the mid-’60s, and had an appealing vocal style of her own, though you wouldn’t know it listening to this.

Jokers have long snickered at the oddity of a father and daughter singing a love song to each other, but any incestuous overtones would only threaten to make “Somethin’ Stupid” more interesting than it actually is. Instead, the dully non-committal vocal performances overcorrect for any possible hint of romance, contributing to the record’s overall stale, airless feel. The Sinatras don’t even sound like acquaintances, much less lovers, much less relatives.

More bothersome, though, is the record’s paternalistic bent. The inequality between the two singers comes off as Frank indulging Nancy in play-acting at his career, all the while ensuring that she (and rock and roll, and youth culture in general) knows her proper place. Father and daughter may record a song together, but it will be one that befits his sound and image, not hers, and one where he’s given the lead role. He’s not ceding co-billing to some flash in the pan, even if she happens to be his daughter.

Despite Nancy’s minimal role and the song’s questionable themes, “Somethin’ Stupid” united the Sinatras’ fan bases, topping both the Hot 100 and the easy listening charts. But while the song became one of the biggest hits of 1967, it was also somewhat of a dead end. Frank would never again have a Top 20 pop single; even signature tunes like 1969’s “My Way” and 1980’s “Theme from New York, New York” were only middling chart successes. Nancy would briefly have better luck before making her last-ever trip into the Top 40 with the Hazlewood duet “Some Velvet Morning” in early 1968.

The Sinatras recorded two more duets, 1970’s “Feelin’ Kinda Sunday” and 1971’s “Life is a Trippy Thing,” but neither troubled the charts. Father and daughter would both return to duets with other partners over the course of their career. Nancy continued collaborating with Hazlewood into the ’70s (reuniting for Nancy & Lee 3 in 2004), then recorded a moderately successful country album with Mel Tillis in 1981. In the ’90s, Frank issued a pair of blockbuster albums, 1993’s Duets and 1994’s Duets II, in which he shared the mic with a series of younger singers. Notably, Frank insisted on recording his share of the duets alone, then sending them off for his partners to follow his lead. Much as with “Somethin’ Stupid” decades earlier, Frank made sure he was always the star of the duet. 3

Hit #1 on April 15, 1967; total of 4 weeks at #1
18
3 of 1062 #1’s reviewed; 17.23% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 03, 1967

182) The Turtles – “Happy Together”

By the time the demo of “Happy Together” made its way to The Turtles, the acetate was worn out. Roughly a dozen bands, including The Tokens, The Happenings, and The Vogues, had rejected it. Even given the degraded sound quality, it wasn’t much to write home about. The demo – recorded by songwriters Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon of The Magicians, whose “An Invitation to Cry” would turn up on the original Nuggets – consisted of nothing but vocals and guitar. Some reports insist it even lacked guitar, with handclaps providing the only accompaniment. It probably wasn’t the low-fi recording that had failed to spark much interest, though, but the simplistic, syrupy lyrics: “the only one for me is you, and you for me,” “baby the skies will be blue for all my life.” For a generation of pop groups enthralled to Bob Dylan, this sort of saccharine was hard to swallow.

The Turtles knew their Dylan, of course – their debut single was a version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” that rocketed them into the Top 10, where they’d been struggling to return ever since. But The Turtles also had a mischievous streak. As a band with a history of shape-shifting (the original incarnation played surf rock), and which had long favored comedy and showmanship over folk-rock “authenticity,” the idea of turning these corny lines and cliches into the quintessential earnest, artless, dopey love song must have seemed worth a laugh – and, given the pop audience’s taste for inane schmaltz, maybe even the ticket back to the top.

But the brilliance of The Turtles’ reading of “Happy Together” is that it isn’t just a parody; it’s also a sublimely transcendent vision of the ultimate pop recording. It exaggerates the weaknesses of those trite love songs that aim to wring emotion from the same tired phrases and easy motifs, yet also bests them by being lusher, more elaborate, more swooningly moving. It stretches the contrast between the loneliness of being apart and the thrill of being together to bipolar extremes. The depressive back-and-forth pacing of the verses, with their muted dynamics and minor-key, repetitive arrangement, reflect the unhappy reality of the lovestruck narrator. “Imagine me and you, I do,” he pleads to the object of his desire, but there’s no evidence the relationship has progressed beyond his imagination. And yet, the more the narrator insists that “the only one for me is you / and you for me,” the more he seems to believe it, until suddenly, the drums break out of their dull shuffle and whisk him away to the Technicolor rainbow paradise where he’s with the girl he loves. The chorus explodes in a shower of horns and harmony vocals, Howard Kaylan’s voice ratcheted up from the restrained, pensive tone of the verses to a full-throated burst of joy.

Then the bubble bursts, and we’re back to the swirling eddies of uncertainty and despair. But as the song progresses, the verses grow shorter, the choruses longer and more elaborate, and the line between the two gets fuzzier. By the last go around, the world of the chorus starts intruding as soon as the verse starts – at first, those sunshiny ba-ba-ba harmony vocals, then the electric guitars revving up and the cymbals chiming away. The layers of vocals multiply exponentially, joined by the chirp of the trumpets, until nearly every instrument in the orchestra pit has united into one great swell of optimism, big and cheerful enough to crush any last niggles of worry and doubt. “We’re happy together,” Kaylan finally croons; it’s up to the listener to determine whether the narrator has succeeded in winning over the girl, or if he’s just retreated into his fantasy world for good.

Listeners also had the choice between taking “Happy Together” at face value or picking up on the band’s ironic intent. But regardless of how they interpreted it, they bought it – enough to not only return The Turtles to the Top 10, but to put them at the #1 spot for three weeks. The following year, the band would push the joke even further with “Elenore” and score nearly as big of a hit. But no matter how blatantly tongue-in-cheek the lyrics – “you’re my pride and joy, et cetera” – like “Happy Together,” the surge of rainbows and sunshine and symphonic splendor in the chorus was still more affecting than so many of the supposedly sincere love songs cluttering the airwaves. 8

Hit #1 on March 25, 1967; total of 3 weeks at #1
182 of 1038 #1’s reviewed; 17.53% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 08, 1967

181) The Beatles – “Penny Lane”

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the go-to examples of classic concept albums, yet it’s equally as well-known for the flimsiness of its concept. There’s no overarching narrative or thematic unity; the closest unifying thread, the idea that a fictional band (looking an awful lot like The Beatles in neon satin suits) are performing the album, barely makes it into track two. But The Beatles had initiated the recording session with a much clearer, more compelling idea: an album centered on aging and memories of youth. This concept fell apart in early stages after two of the three tracks earmarked for the project were pulled and released as a double-sided single. (The leftover, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” did turn up on the final album.) Subsequent reports conflict as to whether this was an emergency stopgap measure – The Beatles and George Martin reluctantly caving to record company demands for new product – or whether the concept had simply run out of gas.

The resulting single, “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane,” notoriously peaked at #2 in Britain, becoming the group’s first single on Parlophone not to top the charts since “Please Please Me” in 1963. In the US, however – which, unlike the UK, tracked each side of a single separately for chart placement – “Penny Lane” managed to come out on top, with “Strawberry Fields Forever” eventually peaking a few spots below at #8. The outcome replicated the chart placement for “We Can Work It Out”/“Day Tripper” two years prior: the gentler, poppier McCartney composition besting the harder-edged, more outré Lennon one. That “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” finds both songwriters treating similar subject matter – their childhoods in Liverpool – further emphasizes the difference in sensibilities between the band’s principal songwriters.

“Penny Lane” drops listeners into a series of lightly humorous, sharply detailed episodes from the past, using pre-rock instrumentation (piano, brass, woodwinds) to set the nostalgic scene. Where “Penny Lane” is about memories, however, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is about the process of memory, how things get fuzzy and distorted when examined remotely. Its use of cutting edge electronic instrumentation and production techniques – Mellotron, backwards recording, pitch-shifting – both creates an abstract, illusory atmosphere (where “nothing is real”) and establishes the song’s location in the present, or perhaps even the future. It’s not the sights and sounds of playing in Strawberry Field that Lennon details in the song, but his attempts as an adult to return to the particular frame of mind embodied in his childhood self, and the impossibility of trying to recapture the past as anything more substantial than a dream.

But while “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” seems the ultimate depiction of the dichotomy between Lennon and McCartney – the former experimental, philosophical, cynical; the latter cheerful, nostalgic, whimsical – as usual, the starkness of this division glosses over McCartney’s knack for subtle complexity. “Penny Lane” isn’t just bright – it has the overlit affect of a Hollywood set and the unnaturally vivid hues of Technicolor. The chorus’s description of “blue suburban skies” (likely an anomaly in Northern England) is contradicted by several references within the verses to “the pouring rain.” Likewise, the specificity of the (often unusual) details makes the scenarios seem hyperreal – highlighted by the recurring line “very strange” and the title-card interjections of “meanwhile back.” McCartney is demonstrating the hazards of reconstructing memory as a narrative – conflating unrelated elements, rearranging timelines, and exaggerating minor pieces of the story.

In the final verse, many of the characters earlier in the song (the barber, the banker, the fireman) congregate in the same scene, as if part of a dramatic production with only a limited company of actors. In fact, the only character in the song who doesn’t turn up again in the barber shop is the nurse selling poppies, perhaps because she’s come to doubt her own existence (“and though she feels as if she is in a play/ she is anyway”). That segment is McCartney’s most explicit acknowledgement that “Penny Lane” may not be intended as the strict truth, a division emphasized by McCartney’s keening vocal line that occurs nowhere else in the song. There are other moments throughout “Penny Lane” where gray clouds threaten to intrude on the blue suburban skies: the jolt of minor chords around the third line of every verse; the slight tinges of seediness (the fireman with his “portrait of a queen” and “clean machine,” the references to “finger pies”); the ominous outro, with a cymbal rolls and piercing, feedback-like piccolo. These minor disruptions never threaten to derail the cheery narrative, but they do hint that there’s more going on below the surface for those willing to look.

If “Strawberry Fields Forever” describes the impossibility of returning to the past, “Penny Lane” demonstrates why that is the case: what is thought of as the past isn’t necessarily what actually happened, but a composite from multiple sources, with the negative and dull parts excised and the gaps filled with invention. Rather than explicitly stating its themes, however, as Lennon did with “Strawberry Fields,” McCartney presents “Penny Lane” in a more ambiguous manner. It may be accepted at face value as a nostalgic fantasy, but it also rewards a more critical listener who can pick up on its contradictions and embellishments. “Strawberry Fields Forever” may be more self-consciously experimental and cerebral, but “Penny Lane,” with its sunny lyrics and upbeat, conventional arrangement, is no less clever – and in its own way, more subversive – an exploration of the limits of memory. 9

Hit #1 on March 18, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
181 of 1,036 #1’s reviewed; 17.47% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 09, 1967

180) The Supremes – “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone”

You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was The Supremes’ biggest departure, and also their best record yet – dramatic but deeply felt, emphasizing the “soul” part of their soul-pop hybrid while still sounding recognizably like themselves. For the follow-up, producers/writers Holland-Dozier-Holland admirably continued to experiment, rather than adhering to their standard operating procedure of cloning the previous hit. In doing so, they gave Motown’s most commercial group one of the label’s most out-there singles.

“Love is Here and Now You’re Gone” is built on juxtaposition: a conventional ballad with a full band and a strings-heavy arrangement, interrupted by despairing spoken-word fragments backed only by bass, harpsichord and cries of “look what you’ve done! look what you’ve done!” Spoken interjections were nothing new for Holland-Dozier-Holland – Levi Stubbs’s “just look over your shoulder!” in “Reach Out I’ll Be There” is one example – but the writers usually incorporated them into the body of the song. “Love is Here” instead splits these vocal interludes off into discrete sections. The dramatic lurches between them and the melodic parts of the song create an disconcerting effect, befitting the lyrics of a promised future abruptly wrenched away.

Apart from the characteristic fluid bassline, the restless pacing of which echoes the uneasy fluctuations of the song structure, the satiny production on “Love is Here” sounds oddly un-Motownlike – even the label’s trademark stomping beat is muted to a soft thud. As it turns out, “Love is Here” was largely recorded not at Hitsville USA with the Funk Brothers, but in Los Angeles with the Wrecking Crew, a harbinger of Motown’s permanent relocation to the West Coast a few years later. Perhaps this change of scenery explains why “Love is Here,” with its frothy strings and overripe soliloquies, seems less influenced by Detroit soul than by Hollywood melodrama.

As hammy as Diana Ross’s line readings may be (complete with a gasp in the first section!), her actual singing on “Love is Here” is the subtlest and richest of any Supremes record yet. She no longer leans on the innate vulnerability of her fragile little-girl voice; instead, she adds careful shading to her phrasing, and delivers some lines with surprising strength. Ross begins the song in a crystal-clear, brisk tone, at a remove from the hurt-filled lyrics. Starting in the second verse, a slight cloudiness creeps into her timbre, as if she’s pushing through a catch in her voice. In the coda, she clings to the phrase “oh my darling, now you’re gone,” afraid to let the words get away from her as easily as he did, her soft vibrato on the word “gone” trembling like unsuccessfully suppressed sobs. While the subject matter of “Love is Here” is close to that of “Where Did Our Love Go” or “Baby Love,” Ross’s performance has progressed beyond the self-victimization of those earlier singles. Here, her hurt reaction isn’t defensive; it’s a means to force a confrontation (“look at my face!”) and assert her dignity. Ross’s revelatory performance is somewhat undermined, however, by the rather uninspired harmony arrangement given to Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, a warning sign of changes to come.

While “Love is Here” is moderately successful in its own right, it’s more impressive when considered as a warm-up for “Reflections,” recorded the week “Love is Here” topped the charts. “Reflections” pushed the gothic pop experimentation into a decidedly psychedelic direction (most blatantly in its oscillator motif), and its slow-downed, bass- and organ-dominated groove gave The Supremes their most soulful and sexiest record to date. (Nevertheless, it topped out at #2 on the charts.) Yet “Reflections” also marked the end of an era: their last great Supremes single written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, who soon went went on strike and eventually left Motown; one of the last Supremes recordings featuring Flo Ballard before she was fired from the group; and the first release to be credited to “Diana Ross & The Supremes” – a name change that pointed to the squeezing out of Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (Ballard’s replacement), both of whom would only occasionally appear on the records bearing their group’s name. Ross’s performance on “Love is Here” proved she had the talent to carry a record, but it also meant the beginning of the end of The Supremes as a distinct entity. In that sense, the biggest transformation in “Love is Here” wasn’t its song structure or production style, but the shifting group dynamic – firmly entrenching Diana as the star, and rendering the other Supremes anonymous and inessential. 7

Hit #1 on March 11, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
180 of 1032 #1’s reviewed; 17.44% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 07, 1967

179) The Rolling Stones – “Ruby Tuesday”

A band as sarcastic, blues-obsessed and apparently unsentimental as The Rolling Stones seems unlikely to have produced some of the prettiest records of the British Invasion. Yet this dissonance between the Stones’ vulgar image and their occasional delicately-wrought single is precisely what makes the latter so effective. Gentle ballads may come easy to a Paul McCartney or a Donovan, but the boys behind “Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” have to make an effort to rein in their baser impulses and break their perpetual stance of aloof cool. The result is more moving for its rarity and the exertion required (though, like problem schoolboys making an effusive show of behaving properly, their politeness sometimes seems suspiciously close to mockery). At the same time, the Stones’ inherent edge keeps folky ballads like “As Tears Go By” from skewing too precious, and anchors the decidedly un-rock-and-roll “Lady Jane” in the modern era.

The most successful of all these balancing acts is “Ruby Tuesday,” which delves deeper into the tension between beauty and rock by making it the subject of the song itself. The verses work from a limited palette of classical instruments (piano, recorder, double bass) to craft the audio equivalent of a sepia flashback, staging an idyllic tableau of the narrator’s time with the title character. Beneath its surface loveliness, however, creeps in evidence of the effort required to maintain this setting. Mick Jagger strains below his natural vocal range, flubbing a note in the opening line. The leaden bassline tramples muddy footprints on the delicate arrangement. This beauty requires unnatural restraint, and is therefore unsustainable. Only the recorder feels free, fluttering about with little concern as to what’s going on in the song below it.

When Ruby leaves, however, the band can loosen up and settle back into its familiar, comfortable self. The drums kick in; the bass, now electric, bounces around freely; Jagger’s back in his usual voice. The recorder fades away into a faint, far-away pulse – a modern, raga-esque drone, rather than the verses’ baroque frills. The Stones treat Ruby’s departure with a mixture of sorrow and empathy; they understand why she’s leaving because it’s what they’d do, too. There’s always some ironic distance in Jagger’s vocals, but this chorus is about as sincere as he gets. Likewise, the Stones sometimes catch flak for misogynous lyrics, but “Ruby Tuesday” is fairly equitable, accepting the title character’s decision to leave without any bitterness or cruelty. Ruby may be less a person than a symbol of freedom, but it’s because she herself chooses to be mysterious, rather than because the band has reduced her to such.

For all its depth and ambition, “Ruby Tuesday” was an accidental milestone for The Rolling Stones. It was originally released as the flip side of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” but the latter’s racy title kept American radio programmers from playing it – never mind that was actually the Stones’ most endearing single to date, filled with nervous stammering and promises to “satisfy your every need.” When “Let’s Spend the Night Together” became the Stones’ first-ever US single to miss the Top 40 (eventually peaking at #55), “Ruby Tuesday” got upgraded to double A-side status. History repeated on the follow-up single, with the pretty, ornate B-side “Dandelion” (#14) besting the outré rocker “We Love You” (#50) as the de facto A-side in America. Their third US single of 1967 finally reversed the formula: “She’s a Rainbow” as the A-side, “2000 Light Years from Home” on the flip. For a year or so, America seemed to prefer the softer side of the nastiest band of the British Invasion. Not by much, though – “Ruby Tuesday” may have been a number-one single, but it would take almost a year and a half before the group would return to the Top 10 (with the defiantly undelicate “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), and the Stones would seldom ever repeat their late 1964-early 1967 levels of consistent chart success. But if a song as good as “Ruby Tuesday” could be stuck on a B-side, and would-be hits of the era like “Under My Thumb,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter” could be slotted as mere album tracks, it was because a singles-based mindset was becoming increasingly irrelevant  – for both The Rolling Stones as a band, and for rock as a genre. 8

Hit #1 on March 4, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
179 of 1032 #1’s reviewed; 17.34% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 08, 1967

178) The Buckinghams – “Kind of a Drag”

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

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Filed under 04, 1967

177) The Monkees – “I’m a Believer”

The future promised by “Good Vibrations” couldn’t last long. After just one week at the top of the charts, it was displaced by the return of the faux-nostalgic, willfully uninspiring “Winchester Cathedral” – a move by the American Record Buying Public that seemed to repudiate their brief dalliance with moving, stimulating pop. But in the nick of time, The Monkees came to rescue arguably the greatest year ever for number-ones from ending on a bum note. “I’m a Believer” isn’t a fraction as innovative as “Good Vibrations,” but whereas that Beach Boys record provided a blueprint for the experimental sounds of emerging FM rock, the success of “I’m a Believer” more accurately predicted pop’s immediate future. The song would go on not only to become the biggest single of 1967, but one of the most popular records ever. (Of the songs that have turned up on this blog so far, only “Sukiyaki” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” have sold more copies worldwide.) The band’s first four LPs would go on to top the 1967 Billboard album charts for a combined total of 29 weeks – more than half the year, and double the length of time that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would spend at the top. More of the Monkees, the LP featuring “I’m a Believer,” would become the first rock album to be the year’s bestseller, a feat not even The Beatles had managed.

As if predicting that Beatlemania was about to be eclipsed by Monkeemania, “I’m a Believer” borrows far less from the Fab Four than had previous single “Last Train to Clarksville.” The guitar riff, melodic bass line and Micky Dolenz’s mid-Atlantic accent are all mildly Beatles-inspired (and the prominent organ recalls tracks like “I’m Looking Through You” from Rubber Soul), but there’s nothing that countless other rock bands of the time hadn’t nicked without drawing comment. In fact, the track it most resembles is its songwriter Neil Diamond’s own hit “Cherry, Cherry,” which broke into the Top 10 in October 1966. The two records share a suspiciously similar rhythm and acoustic guitar/keyboard elements – little surprise, then, that they also share a producer (Jeff Barry) and an arranger/organist (Artie Butler).

But whereas Diamond, a “rocker” in a traditional pop mold, could deck his version of “I’m a Believer” with strings, horns and female backing vocals, a nominal garage rock band like The Monkees needed to keep their instrumentation basic. Instead, the record catches the ear with a dynamic arrangement. The chugging pace of the verses reflects a life trudged through without hope of anything exciting to shake it up – though the handclaps and bright tempo hint at happier times just around the corner. Suddenly, the gears grind to a halt as the narrator finds his life changed in an instant: “Then I saw her face! Now I’m a believer!” The record’s sound immediately grows fuller and richer, augmented by a chirpy organ and livelier backing vocals. But if one dramatic pause weren’t enough to express this radical conversion, a second drives the point home. The proclamation “I’m in love!” is accompanied only by tambourine and a few emphatic guitar strums, intercut with Davy Jones and Peter Tork’s transcendent “mmmm – oh – yeah!” harmony vocals, as sharp and clear as a beam of light through a stained glass window.

As striking as the arrangement is, though, it’s lead singer Micky Dolenz who really sells the song, as a pessimist succumbing to belief in love in spite of himself. His vocal inflections – the sigh of “what’s the use in tryin’,” the slight falter in “not a trace,” the breathless strain on the final “I couldn’t leave her if I tried” – and the way he drags one microsecond behind the beat through most of the song convey the ambivalence of someone who had gotten comfortable with his lack of happiness and isn’t entirely sure he’s ready for a change, even a positive one. By the coda, though, any hesitation in his voice evaporates as his faith in love is made devout. Playing off the title’s religious connotations, the song takes on a gospel flavor as Dolenz and Jones/Tork exchange call-and-response cries of “I’m a believer!” backed by the everpresent organ.

Despite all the dramatic pauses and dynamic shifts, The Monkees & co handle “I’m a Believer” with a light touch, keeping the beat danceable and the tone joyous throughout. Dolenz commits to the emotional arc of the song, but without pushing it to Righteous Brothers-levels of melodrama. Even when the song is at its bleakest (“disappointment haunted all my dreams”), the exaggeratedly monotone “duh-dun duh-dun” backing vocals seem to mock the narrator’s self-pity. More than “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer” sets the template for The Monkees records to come: as clever, experimental and affecting as the best of ’60s pop-rock, but without the burden of taking themselves too seriously. 9

Hit #1 on December 31, 1966; total of 7 weeks at #1
177 of 1030 #1’s reviewed; 17.18% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 09, 1966, 1967