Only one week after “Hanky Panky” comes a chart-topper years ahead of it – not only in regards to when it was recorded, but also in terms of mindset. When Tommy James and the Shondells recorded their single, The Beatles had yet to play The Ed Sullivan Show or tour the US; The Troggs, an English band but too late for the British Invasion, hit #1 with “Wild Thing” on the eve of Revolver’s release and the final concert at Candlestick Park. Not just any two years separated the two, in other words – the chasm between early ’64 and ’66 is as wide as the one between ages 14 and 16, or of that between the fantasizing kid of “Hanky Panky” and the would-be seducer of “Wild Thing.” The two songs share a similarly modest degree of construction (even by garage rock standards), focusing on a simple, repetitive chorus and guitar riff, with just a bare minimum of verse to pad it out into something song-shaped. The differences between the two – in attitude (coy versus brash), tunefulness (sprightly versus sludgy) and the heaviness of the guitar distortion (buzzing gnat versus chemical burn) – chart garage’s subsequent divergence into bubblegum and hard rock, two genres split not only by sound, but by the age of their target audience.
Still, not everything can be figured out in only two years. The narrator of “Wild Thing” knows what he wants, and he has some idea of how he’s supposed to go about it, but he hasn’t quite worked out how to mesh the two. Thus such sensitive balladeer platitudes as “you make my heart sing/ you make everything groovy” get wrapped in Reg Presley’s Jagger-jacking lech drawl, and a delicate ocarina solo (a bird call to attract the “wild thing”?) flutters over a crude guitar riff. Once Presley’s laid out the bait, the the trap begins to ease shut. The instruments drop out (save for an occasional guitar outburst) and Presley lowers his voice to a whisper. “I think I love you” – careful not to commit there – “but I want to know for sure” – how so, Reg? – “come on and … hold me tight.” Ah. It’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” all over again, this time from the guy’s POV and thus without the attendant hesitations and concerns. Like “Tomorrow,” we never find out the girl’s decision. The Troggs may be confident, but there’s no guarantee they’ll succeed. They sure are trying, though, and their inability to get it exactly right makes their efforts almost endearing, in a troglodyte sort of way. (After all, the sensitive balladeers are after the same thing too – The Troggs are just more transparent about it.)
“Wild Thing” became an instant garage classic, for obvious reasons – it’s the same chord progression as “Louie Louie,” but with the garbled pseudo-filth swapped for more blatant come-ons. Jimi Hendrix closed his Monterey Pop set with it, but it loses its striver’s charm amidst the wizardry and showboating, performed by the kind of guy who didn’t have to try, who’d say “groovy” and actually mean it.* The Troggs themselves picked up a little bit of finesse along the way. Their next-biggest US hit, 1967’s “Love is All Around,” forgoes their caveman past entirely for a string quartet and promises of eternal love. At its heart, though, it’s just “Wild Thing” all over again, just in prettier wrapping: “So if you really love me, come on and let it show.” 7
*Hendrix’s version also quotes “Strangers in the Night” in his guitar solo, turning Sinatra’s song into a double entendre.
Hit #1 on July 30, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
165 of 1019 #1’s reviewed; 16.19% through the Hot 100