As rock and roll went mainstream, those bands for whom rock was a deliberate statement, where the sound was the message, were joined by acts who adopted the style more or less by default. The Association had the standard rock guitar/drums/keyboards set-up; they played songs inspired by The Beatles and The Byrds; they’d even serve as the opening act for Monterey Pop in 1967. Yet there’s the sense that they’d have been just as comfortable playing Kingston Trio-style collegiate folk five years earlier, or Four Preps-ish vocal pop a decade before that, or, in a prior generation, even barbershop. They opted for pretty harmonies over raw power, their music as airy and iridescent as soap bubbles and just as clean (rumors of drug references in “Along Comes Mary” notwithstanding). The group’s demeanor too was more in line with professional entertainers than garage thrashers. Even the name “The Association” sounds more like a business conglomerate than a pop band, an impression furthered by their dress code (suits) and personality (friendly but faceless).
Their songs were models of mechanical efficiency – all the moving parts locked in place, running smoothly and burnished to a sheen. As such, The Association challenge subsequent decades of received wisdom as to what rock is “supposed” to be, which prizes subversion and grit, and casts polished, pretty music as hollow or emotionally inauthentic. Never mind that most “raw” music is no less practiced and performative – it’s still hard to listen to The Association, with their precise enunciation, polite arrangements and showmen’s permagrins and hear more than sentimentality impersonating true feeling. While “Along Comes Mary,” the group’s debut single, benefited from a springy beat and cleverish turns of phrase, follow-up “Cherish” has none of that song’s modest edge. Instead, it’s a sticky-sweet declaration of love, with no drama or imagination to save it from its own banality.
Or is it? “Cherish” may have soundtracked millions of weddings and slow dances (BMI ranked it as the 22nd most played song of the previous century), but the gentle crooning and candy-heart lyrics gloss over the fact that its love story is unrequited: “You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could mold you/ Into someone who can cherish me as much as I cherish you.” The song’s narrator, unable to create a perfect romance, instead creates a perfect record, layering impeccable six-vocal harmonies, serene drums and the chime of a celesta (substituting for wedding bells never to be). The superficial sweetness holds together at first, but then the song wanders into a discursive middle section as the narrator imagines “a thousand other guys” saying the same things to the girl he loves with the same questionable motives. (At this point he seems uncertain as to whether he really “needs” her or just “wants” her – which is perhaps why he settles on “cherish.”)
As the emotions pile up, the façade of control becomes harder to maintain, climaxing in a key change and a more honest reworking of the first verse. Rather than the strait-laced hyperperfection of the song’s start, the vocals now are more demonstrative, the drums more urgent, the cheerful “bom bom” backing replaced with wordless howls. The overly formal language and convoluted syntax (“‘Cherish’ is the word I use to describe/ All the feeling that I have hiding here for you inside”) are pared down to the more direct “And I do/ Cherish you.” There’s still a patness to the arrangement that keeps it from cutting as deeply as it should (take that overripe harmonizing on the closing line, for example), but when “Cherish” works, it’s because the slickness and superficial beauty act as cover for messy emotions, creating a disconnect between the ideal and the actual. What’s more subversive – more rock and roll, even – than that? 7
Hit #1 on September 24, 1966; total of 3 weeks at #1
169 of 1022 #1’s reviewed; 16.54% through the Hot 100