Category Archives: 02

175) The New Vaudeville Band – “Winchester Cathedral”

Pop/rock musicians in the late ’60s looking to expand their sound tended to draw from the music of idealized cultures separated by distance (Indian), time (baroque) or race (blues). For musicians with less serious aims, though, there was also a strain of pop that sought exoticism closer to home. After all, few things are as close in grasp but ultimately unknowable as what the world was like just before you were born. The dregs of the era may even persist into your early childhood, furthering the sense of having just missed out on something great. But the fact that the culture already belongs to a still-living generation blocks it off from personal access in a way that, say, medieval culture doesn’t (in that  everyone approaches it from equal distance). On top of that, the fact it’s your own parents’ and grandparents’ era makes it unhip by association. The result is a complex alloy of irony, nostalgia and genuine appreciation, the precise balance of which can vary from person to person and song to song. (The contemporary equivalent may be the resurgence of the foggy synths and saxophone associated with ’70s/early ’80s yacht rock.)

For rock in the mid to late ’60s, this manifested as a sort of a fad for the similarly populist entertainments of a previous generation – namely, late-era music hall/vaudeville and the dance band jazz of the ’20s and early ’30s. (Being a hand-me-down cultural reference, the ’60s pop/rock version is more a loose jumble of old-timey signifiers than accurate historical musicology.) In the UK, this style of music progressed naturally from the trad jazz revival of the late ’50s and ’60s, with that era’s fetish for authenticity softened into more playful appeals to nostalgia. For Americans, it called to mind the peaceful era between the world wars  – years that seemed especially rosy viewed from 1966.

Producer/songwriter Geoff Stephens assembled The New Vaudeville Band in studio as a vessel to record a pastiche of ’20s pop. “Winchester Cathedral” wasn’t the first vaudeville-flavored pop hit to break in the US. Herman’s Hermits’ tinny instrumentation and Peter Noone’s vocal mugging alluded to the variety tradition, a connection made explicit on their version of “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” The Kinks scored Top 20 US hits with “A Well Respected Man” and “Sunny Afternoon,” which incorporated modified music hall song structures as a means of reasserting their Britishness while playing American-derived rock and roll. The Lovin’ Spoonful, whose old-timey inclinations tended more to street-level jug band music, broke out the soft-shoe shuffle for “Daydream” – there’s even video of the band performing it in vaudevillian boaters and bowties. What is unusual is how ahead of the curve a novelty single like “Winchester Cathedral” was, preceding more fondly remembered examples of the microgenre as The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four,” The Rolling Stones’ “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” and The Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday.” The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the closest analogue to The New Vaudeville Band (and arguably the source of their whole shtick), wouldn’t even release their debut LP until the following year, at which point they’d begun to tone down their antique influences to avoid comparisons to the hit-makers.

Perhaps it helped that the New Vaudeville Band were more literal than the rockers. The touring iteration of the group included a horn section dressed in old-fangled costumes and a singer who sang through a Rudy Vallée-style megaphone. They even had the word “vaudeville” right there in the name, in case you needed a map. But for a pastiche of music descended from the sprightly likes of ragtime and dixieland, the pace of “Winchester Cathedral” is leaden and undanceable, the horns bulbous and gassy – though, to be fair, the garish production and dinky instrumentation are probably a more honest tribute to small-scale, low-end music halls than the rosy-hued rockers’ take. And to assure pop listeners that it’s not just a nostalgia trip for old fogies – though they are welcome to buy the record too – there’s a slack jolt of fuzz guitar as a vague gesture to psych rock. (The record’s only good joke was winning the Grammy for Best Contemporary Song.)

Oddly, the best thing about “Winchester Cathedral” may be the song itself. The lyrics are terrible, to be sure, but terrible in a plausibly vaudevillian novelty way. The melody’s catchy without being painful, familiar without being too predictable. Conversely, though, every cover version – and circa 1967, there were a lot of them, by everyone from Petula Clark to Frank Sinatra to Vallée himself – proves how superfluous the song is removed from its moth-eaten ’20s dress-up. What’s left is pure kitsch, ridiculing the past while stoking nostalgia for it – and, worst of all, not even getting what made it so appealing in the first place. 2

Hit #1 on December 3, 1966 for 1 week; repeaked on December 17, 1966 for 2 weeks; total of 3 weeks at #1
175 of 1025 #1’s reviewed; 17.07% through the H0t 100

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156) SSgt Barry Sadler – “The Ballad of the Green Berets”

To try to analyze “The Ballad of the Green Berets” as a pop song is to miss the point. The people who bought this record didn’t like it because it had a catchy chorus or a charismatic singer. They didn’t buy it to dance to at parties or to marvel at the production through headphones. They bought it for what it represented: a show of support for troops overseas; cultural pushback against a tide of apparent unpatriotism; a voice for the Silent Majority who remembered the victories of the Good War and believed the US would triumph again. This is a record that rose to #2 on the country charts not because it contained any identifiable C&W elements (unless you count its folk ballad structure), but because its pro-military stance hit home in conservative Middle America. For both creator and consumers, the song existed primarily as a vessel to champion the US Army Special Forces and, by extension, America as a whole. Any thoughts toward art were relegated to distant second place, perhaps even treated with vague suspicion. After all, plenty of antiwar folk and rock records spread their subversive content through hummable melodies and poeticized lyrics. Sadler’s musical unsophistication just made him seem more honest.

But even if “Green Berets” didn’t become a massive hit – the best-selling single of 1966, in fact – by being a great pop song, it’s not entirely without its merits. The minimalist, snare-heavy arrangement lends the record an appropriate degree of martial gravitas. Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s voice isn’t particularly distinctive, but its everysoldier quality suits a song praising collective heroism. Unlike many of its more opportunistic contemporaries (“Dawn of Correction,” for instance), “Green Berets” feels sincere – the product of an actual Green Beret recuperating from injuries in Vietnam – and dignified by not namecalling or taking direct swipes at its opponents.

Even though the song never mentions the Vietnam War by name, it became the closet equivalent the conflict had to an “Over There,” an affirmation that the US was fighting the good fight. The problem is that “Green Berets” isn’t actually all that inspiring. Too slow to rouse like a Sousa march and numbingly repetitive (despite efforts to add a little variety by injecting a new musical element in each verse), “Green Berets” drags on far longer than its breezy 2:27 running time suggests. Its lyrics aren’t a galvanizing call to arms but a dry list of facts and generalizations, delivered with a grim determination that befits an elite soldier but makes for a leaden pop singer. There’s a last-minute bid to elict emotion in the final stanzas with the introduction of a fallen Green Beret, but it comes out of nowhere, making the soldier seem less like a hero who sacrificed his life than a cardboard figure created only to be killed.

The fact that “Green Berets” so blatantly acknowledges the human cost of war – something typically the province of protest songs – proves how differently Vietnam was already being perceived compared with earlier conflicts. The popular folk revival’s leftist activism, combined with the post-WWII rise of mass media (specifically television and recorded music), granted anti-war music an unprecedented ubiquity. Even though the majority of Americans still favored US involvement in Vietnam, “Green Berets” feels defensive, insisting on the necessity of war in the face of waning public support.* As such, it’s as much a product of changing times as any of its anti-war counterparts. The negative side of war could no longer be ignored and popular support could no longer be assumed, leaving pro-war songs in a difficult position. “Green Berets” splits the difference by trying to be both somber and stirring, rugged and sentimental, but it lacks the artistic proficiency to fit these competing impulses together. If something this stiff and staid was the best its side had to offer, it’s no surprise that the more visceral and inventive songs against the war began to seem a lot more appealing. In cultural terms, “Green Berets” may have won the battle for chart dominance, but it couldn’t win the war.  2

*In March 1966, the month “The Ballad of the Green Berets” reached #1, 59% of Americans polled believed the US sending troops to Vietnam was “not a mistake.” Two months later, that percentage had fallen to 49%. (source: William Conrad Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War)

Hit #1 on March 12, 1966; total of 5 weeks at #1
156 of 1016 #1’s reviewed; 15.35% through the Hot 100

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83) Steve Lawrence – “Go Away Little Girl”

Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote some of the greatest pop songs ever, two of which we’ve already examined here (also, this one).  But in 1962, they hit a bit of a rough patch.  That year saw the release of their notorious Crystals single “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss),” which flopped, as well as the questionable “Go Away Little Girl,” which unfortunately didn’t. I’m not sure whether it would be worse to interpret the namesake “little girl” as underage or not.  Either way, it’s creepy.  Ostensibly, the singer is imploring her to “go away” because he’s dating someone else, but the lyrics are just ambiguous enough to make you wonder: “I’m not supposed to be in love with you,” “When you are near me like this, you’re much too hard to resist,” and so forth.  Actually, it might not be so bad if not for Steve Lawrence’s smarmy vocals – he was only 27 when the single became a hit, but his faux-sincere croon pegs him as far older.  The melody is also surprisingly weak for a Goffin/King tune.  Whatever problems “Take Good Care of My Baby” might have had, at least it was catchy.  “Go Away Little Girl” just plods along, with none of the lightness and verve of their contemporaneous pop songs.  It sounds less like chartworthy pop and more like a performance from a particularly soporific episode of The Lawrence Welk Show. Ironically, Lawrence Welk’s own number one was a whole lot more fun than this. 2

Hit #1 on January 12, 1963; total of 2 weeks at #1
83 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.50% through the Hot 100

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56) Joe Dowell – “Wooden Heart (Muss I Den)”

Pat Boone eked a 3 because, in another lifetime, “Moody River” was actually a good song.  But if Elvis couldn’t rescue the treacly “Wooden Heart,” then poor Joe Dowell didn’t have a chance.  Dowell’s lone top 20 hit was a cover in the true definition of the word: not just a remake, but one designed to piggyback on another version.  For reasons mysterious (or not, if you’ve ever listened to the song), Presley’s single was never released in the US, despite topping the UK charts for six weeks.  Sensing an opportunity, Dowell’s label Smash Records recruited the anonymous young singer and taught him to croon the German phoenetically.  Sure enough, the record was a hit, although why isn’t quite clear. There was the tenuous Elvis connection, of course, but surely that couldn’t have been enough to entice record buyers.  No one had heard of Joe Dowell, so they weren’t buying it for him.  There couldn’t have been that many German omas in the Midwest with August birthdays and functioning Victrolas.  Which leads to a troubling conclusion: people bought “Wooden Heart” because they liked it.  Which … is a dificult concept to grasp.  The (English) lyrics are vacuous, the cheapo musical arrangement is quarter-baked and Dowell carefully avoids spilling out a single drop of personality.  While I’m all for German on the Hot 100  (“99 Luftballoons”! “Don’t bring me down – Grüß”!), I’m disappointed that, in this case, it’s in a song with absolutely no redeeming value. Well, one – it’s still not quite as terrible as “Mr. Custer.” 2

Hit #1 on August 28, 1961; total of 1 week at #1
56 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 5.78% through the Hot 100

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26) Mark Dinning – “Teen Angel”

“Teen Angel” marks the third #1 in a row devoted to the depiction of dramatic deaths.   The antihero of “El Paso” is shot in a revenge killing, while the young starcrossed lovers of “Running Bear” commit suicide to escape their earthly separation.  The death in “Teen Angel,” though, is so idiotic, and the characters so nondimensional, that it’s impossible to muster up any sympathy for the dead girl or her surviving boyfriend.  The car driven by the narrator and his girlfriend stalls on the railroad tracks.  Heroically, he manages to pull her from the car in time – yet the girl runs back to the car and is smashed to smithereens when the train plows through her.  Why’d she do it? The remains of her corpse are discovered clutching his class ring.  Ostensibly, she’d gone back in to rescue it – because trains’ll slow down in time for teenagers to grab crap out of a car, class rings are irreplaceable, and her boyfriend would rather have the ring than have her alive.  It’s supposed to be romantic, I guess, but it makes no sense.  And if she loved him so much anyway, why wasn’t she wearing his ring?

If the song’s story so shoddy, then you can count on the rest of the song not being brilliant either.  The lyrics are mawkish and weirdly self-centered (“Are you somewhere up above/And am I still your own true love?”), the arrangement is toothless and Mark Dinning’s quavery vocals are hammier than Easter dinner.  The fact that this isn’t rating a 1 should serve as a worrying portent of the depths the Hot 100 will plumb later in 1960. 2

Liner Notes

  • “Teen Angel” unfortunately paved the way for other hits about dead teenagers, including “Tell Laura I Love Her,” “Last Kiss” and “Dead Man’s Curve.” What was happening in the early ’60s that made these songs so popular? I suspect it has something to do with backlash from the growth of teenage culture and the accompanying independence of adolescents.

Hit #1 on February 8, 1960; total of 2 weeks at #1
26 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 2.70% through the Hot 100

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23) Frankie Avalon – “Why”

 

With the beginning of 2009 in the real world comes the close of the ’50s on No Hard Chords.  And so the decade ends not with a bang, but with a wimp: Frankie Avalon scores his second #1 of the year with a tune even sappier than “Venus,” one so corny and syrupy that Karo practically drips off it: “I think you’re awfully sweet/Why? Because I love you/You say I’m your special treat/Why? Because you love me.”  If that hasn’t triggered your gag reflex, then you either have a stronger stomach than me or you haven’t heard the tinkly, cutesy production.  The nadir of the song is the part featuring an anonymous female voice cooing back the first verse (“I’ll never let you go/Why? Because I love you”), with Avalon interjecting “Yes, I love you!” and “Yes, you love me!”  It feels a little cruel to pick on Avalon, a talented guy who understood the value of marketing himself to the teenybopper segment.  But no one saddled with such a toothless song and a smothering production can escape unscathed. 2

Hit #1 on December 28, 1959; total of 1 week at #1
23 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 2.39% through the Hot 100

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