The very elements of garage rock that made it so exciting – the back-to-basics approach, the lack of polish, the accessibility to anyone keen to form a band – also made the groups themselves a bit interchangeable. When competing with thousands of bands with more or less the same lineup playing more or less the same covers, it helped to have a gimmick. All the better if the band could disguise its hometown roots and pass for something more exotic. American acts copping a vaguely Liverpudlian lilt crossed wires with UK bands impersonating Chicago bluesmen. The Kingsmen slurred through a phony Jamaican accent and won international infamy. Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs scored a couple of hits while dressing like extras from The Ten Commandments. But of all the garage rock bands to make it big, if only briefly, few were more mysterious than the Mysterians. They weren’t just claiming to be from another country, but from another planet – which, as Mexican-American topping the mid-’60s pop charts, they sort of were. The group adopted their name from the aliens in a Japanese sci-fi film and corroborated it with the Z-movie UFO sound of their Vox Continental. Their ostentatiously anonymous frontman professed to be a Martian, hid behind dark sunglasses, and went only by the name ? (or “Question Mark”).
The casual weirdness of the group’s one big hit, “96 Tears,” confirms that the ? and the Mysterians’ eccentricity wasn’t (entirely) a gimmick. The record itself was an unexpected hit: a home recording that gained traction in Central Michigan before gradually climbing the national charts. The musicianship and production are, mildly put, rudimentary. The guitars are nearly inaudible apart from the bridge; the drummer just about manages to hit the twos and fours. The one standout is the Vox, alternating every four bars between repetitive eighth-note thirds and calliope-esque swirls. Its bouncy simplicity takes on a sinister cast when paired with Question Mark’s fragmented sneers at the girl who dumped him. Both singer and organ seem a little too happy plotting revenge.
It’s all chest-puffing and spleen-venting until the bridge, when Question Mark suddenly lapses into a reverie and the rest of the band fades into the backdrop. At first, he’s more forceful than he has been yet, his lyrics bursting forth in a jagged rush (“when the sun comes up – I’ll be on top”). Then his voice trails off as his revenge fantasy begins to slip away. He’s no longer just playing cool – now he seems unable to keep up with the beat. He shifts from the future tense to the present as he confesses that his big talk was just a cover for his own heartbreak (“I know now … I’ll just cry”). The rest of the band quickly reverts to the first verse’s nasty cheer, but Question Mark’s too worked up and has admitted too much to go back. He mostly just gasps out variations on “you’re gonna cry 96 tears,” alternating with appeals to “let me hear you cry!” as if prodding the audience to sing along so he’s not by himself. The number 96 may have been picked as a reverse-digit juvenile joke, but Question Mark’s preoccupation with it – mentioned only once in the first verse, but seven more times in the outro – suggests there may be another reason behind fixating on that specific number. Perhaps he’s learned from experience exactly how many teardrops are too many for one heart to carry on. 8
Hit #1 on October 29, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
171 of 1023 #1’s reviewed; 16.72% through the Hot 100