Category Archives: 03

144) Barry McGuire – “Eve of Destruction”

Even compared with the epochal hits of 1965, Barry McGuire’s apocalyptic proclamations in “Eve of Destruction” must have come as a shock to the pop charts. There had been big politically-themed singles before — Peter, Paul & Mary’s reading of “Blowin’ in the Wind” (#2, 1963), Trini Lopez’s Latinized take on “If I Had a Hammer” (#3, 1963) — but the messages were subtle enough to not scare off the apolitical pop fan. In contrast, “Eve of Destruction” was angry, graphic (“even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’”) and decidedly unoptimistic. Released just a few months after the civil rights marches in Selma and the onset of the American ground war in Vietnam, it enumerated the fears of the changing Sixties more blatantly than any pop hit yet. As a result, right-wingers accused McGuire and songwriter P.F. Sloan of being treasonous, blasphemous communists intent on perverting the youth of America and trashing the morale of troops overseas. The single’s success spurred pro-military answer records (including one that became an even bigger hit) and attempts to ban the song from the airwaves. Whether or not McGuire and Sloan intended it, “Eve of Destruction” helped launch open political debate, an impressive achievement for a three-and-a-half minute pop single.

But for all its (small-d) democratic bona fides, “Eve of Destruction” is an awfully turgid piece of pop. Phil Ochs defined a protest song as “a song that’s so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit,”* but “Eve of Destruction” traffics in generalities, hopscotching from one supposed sign of the apocalypse to the other in hopes that the sheer number of references cited will distract from the lack of insight. It nicks the trappings of Bob Dylan ca. 1963 – the politics, the ragged vocals, the harmonica – but misses the craft. Sloan’s literal, didactic lyrics lack allegory or mordant humor (unless you count risible lines like “my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’”). At the same time, they’re too morbid and overblown to have artless earnestness on their side. Even the folk-rockish accompaniment, gamely played by members of the Wrecking Crew, can’t prop up the clumsy lyrics. The stripped-down arrangements and traditional melodies of Dylan, Ochs et al marked them in opposition to commercial pop and made their songs sound like transmissions from a purer past. “Eve of Destruction,” though, is too conventional and polished to evoke that sort of gut credibility. Then there’s the ever-gravelly McGuire himself, trying so hard to imbue every syllable with righteous anger that his constipated delivery verges into parody. It would be easy to accuse he and Sloan of manufacturing protest and cynically chasing trends. By their own accounts, though, they sincerely believed “Eve of Destruction” made serious political points that needed to be addressed. Regardless, their good intentions can’t make up for the song’s graceless, unfocused bluster. To quote Phil Ochs again: “As bad as it may sound, I’d rather listen to a good song on the side of segregation than a bad song on the side of integration.”** 3

*Quoted in the liner notes of the compilation album The Broadside Tapes 1.
**Quoted in James Perone, Songs of the Vietnam Conflict.

Hit #1 on September 25, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
144 of 1013 #1’s reviewed; 14.22% through the Hot 100

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122) Lorne Greene – “Ringo”

“Ringo” is, in all respects, a cash-in record.  The song position appeared on Welcome to the Ponderosa, an album recorded to capitalize on Greene’s starring role on the hit TV Western Bonanza.  Its spoken word verses and faceless chorus ape Jimmy Dean’s neo-folktale “Big Bad John.” But it was the fortuitous title that propelled the song to #1.

When Greene recorded “Ringo” in late 1963, it was an album track named for minor Wild West figure Johnny Ringo.  But with the invasion of the British bands and a fad for all things Beatles, the nearly year-old record was dusted off and given a single release.  Rock fans bought it for the title; Bonanza fans bought it for the singer.  The combined novelty factor was just enough to slide “Ringo” into number one for one week, a position the song itself doesn’t really merit.  Next to “Big Bad John,” its weaknesses become even more apparent.  Dean’s folksy charm is swapped for Greene’s dry newsreader’s account.  “Big Bad John” had the stirring story of a quiet hero who saves the lives of his fellow miners through superhuman strength.  “Ringo” is about … a sheriff who doesn’t get killed by Johnny Ringo?  It’s a lot less inspiring, at any rate.  And unlike “Big Bad John,” it doesn’t even half-attempt a hook.  In its original position, as a memento of a favorite TV show, it’s not bad.  But as a single, it’s entirely unnecessary. 3

Hit #1 on December 5, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
122 of 994 #1’s reviewed; 12.27% through the Hot 100

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74) Bobby Vinton – “Roses Are Red (My Love)”

When I first started this blog, I had planned on posting about once a day.  And for a while there, I did – I was between semesters and taken with the idea of my shiny new blog.  I was already 50 years and nearly 1000 number ones behind when I wrote my first review back in December, and I knew I needed to get cracking if I ever hoped to make progress.  But, naturally, posting daily gets difficult after a while.  School and work came back in session, and I got busy.  The quality of my posts wasn’t quite up to snuff.  I needed more time to think about each song, to develop an opinion, to get a handle on just what exactly I wanted to say about the track.  So I gave myself a little more time between each post.

Eventually, though, this little extra time has turned into posting only about once a week or so.  And while I’m still busy (albeit with looking for a job, rather than with actually working and studying), and while I still need extra time to think, I’ve also hit a bit of a rut.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m still excited about this project as a whole, and I think some of the most recent posts are among the best I’ve written.  But, frankly, this era in the pop charts is often maligned for a reason.  In the past, I was worried I was handing out too many high scores.  Now, I’m just trying to burn through some of these mediocre-to-poor tracks in search of a record I can actually get excited about.

Symptomatic of this chart fatigue is “Roses Are Red (My Love),” a song Bobby Vinton rescued from the demo reject pile. It would have been better off left to rest in peace.   The production, instrumentation, melody and vocals are virtually interchangeable with any other contemporaneous ballad crooned by a young male singer.  The main difference is the lyrics, which are somehow even worse.   The chorus is lifted wholesale from the old “Roses are red, violets are blue” chestnut, without even the benefit of a semi-clever twist (unless you count throwing in the occasional “my love”).  The verses, which describe the blossoming of a high school romance, are just as clichéd.  (That I just used the word “blossoming” proves that the pervasive hokeyness has started to infect my brain.)  The whole affair just seems really lazy – no surprise, given that the songwriter claims it was written in three minutes (running time of the record: 2:39).  In fact, the record’s so bland that I just spent two of the three paragraphs in this entry writing about something else.  If you want more of my thoughts on “Roses Are Red,” I refer you to any other entry I’ve written on teen idols.  3

Hit #1 on July 14, 1962; total of 4 weeks at #1
74 of 972 #1’s reviewed; 7.61% through the Hot 100

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68) Shelley Fabares – “Johnny Angel”

Generations, in the over-arching cultural sense, are roughly delineated in 20-year segments.  But in pop music, the passage of time is accelerated.  Never was this truer than in the 1960s, when “revolutions per minute” could refer not only to a lone record on a turntable, but to pop radio as a whole.  Connie Francis may have been only 23 years old when her final #1 hit topped the charts, but she felt like a relic of an older time.  Indeed, while her fanbase in the late ‘50s stretched across the generations, Francis would primarily pursue the adult pop market for the rest of her career.  The common culture shared by adults and adolescents had begun to splinter around the birth of rock and roll, and was well on its way to becoming a full-on generation gap.  Francis, born in 1938, predated the Baby Boom; her successor to the top of the Hot 100, born in 1944, was a product of it.  This new generation wanted music that spoke (or, rather, sang) explicitly to the experience of being young – and the nascent girl group explosion, made by teenagers for teenagers, had exactly the right sound.

Thus when the producers of The Donna Reed Show decided to have their teenage star Shelley Fabares record a tie-in single, they took a bog standard, fill-in-the-blanks teen pop song and dressed it up with the backing vocals of The Blossoms.  While The Blossoms weren’t a household name, the tight harmonies of Darlene Love and her fellow group members added a jolt of relevancy to the pop-by-numbers “Johnny Angel.”  Nevertheless, the result isn’t a very convincing.  Fabares, firmly an actress and not a singer, was reportedly unenthusiastic about recording a single and felt intimidated by The Blossoms’ vocal chops.  Her voice is fine here, actually; if anything, it presages the girlish vocals of Lesley Gore and Mary Weiss that would form the white counterparts to the girl groups produced by Motown and Phil Spector.  But the vocals of Fabares and The Blossoms never meld in a way that sounds organic.  The bulk of the successful girl groups had, in some form or another, been singing together for years, in high schools and churches, before they cut their first singles.  Here, Fabares’s voice floats out limply in front of the backing singers.  Further, “Johnny Angel” is, if possible, too pop to be real girl group material.  The genuine girl group hits drew to varying degrees from other genres, whether they be R&B/soul, rock and roll, gospel, or even country. This cross-genre pollination led to more complex and exciting singles, which attracted listeners outside of the teenage girl market and, in turn, influenced the genres the girl groups had originally borrowed from (e.g., The Beatles covering The Shirelles, The Marvelettes and The Cookies).  “Johnny Angel,” however, owes strictly to the limpid, syrupy pop of Frankie Avalon and teen idols who followed in his wake.  Essentially, this is “Venus,” but from a female POV – and one just as dull and vacuous. 3

Liner Notes:

  • The Blossoms would again top the Hot 100 just a few months later – albeit with a single falsely credited to another girl group.

Hit #1 on April 7, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
68 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 7.01% through the Hot 100

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53) Pat Boone – “Moody River”

Pat Boone, the eternal punching bag of rock and roll lovers everywhere, continues his career trajectory of sapping all the soul out of another artist’s perfectly fine song.  (At least he mixes it up by ripping off a white guy this time.)  Boone croons placidly about his girlfriend’s suicide, which was somehow less shocking to the record-buying public than his metal covers album would be decades later.  Whereas Chase Webster’s original version shudders with regret and desolation, Boone revels in the horrible wonderful tragedy of it all (inasmuch as he expresses any emotion whatsoever).   This is the record where his characteristic smarm metastasizes into something vulgar and ugly.  Just as the narrator of “Long Black Veil” had to die to protect his lover’s reputation, so too must Boone’s girlfriend. Them’s the rules.

Contrast Boone with his whitebread compatriot Lawrence Welk, who appears with him in the video above and who also gained a spot at the top of the 1961 charts.  Welk had generally the same Middle America audience, although he skewed a bit older.  But no matter how bland or corny Welk’s music got, he always conveyed an air of endearingly folky genteelness.  He had better taste than to  indulge in Boone’s creepy crassness.  Still, Boone can’t even muster up enough tastelessness to actually be interesting (cf. “Mack the Knife” or “Stagger Lee“).  Instead, all that’s left is an unpleasant mess, the discomfort of which is only alleviated through the vague suspicion that the girl in the song faked it all to escape this narcissistic creep. 3

Hit #1 on June 19, 1961; total of 1 week at #1
53 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 5.47% through the Hot 100

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33) Brian Hyland – “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”

Here’s a riddle: how did a song by an unknown teenage singer hit #1 on the Hot 100 when it has almost every element guaranteed to irritate listeners?  Insipid lyrics, shrill female co-singer, obnoxious backing vocals, corny rock-lite arrangement – all it’s missing are a children’s choir and a rapping opera singer.  My guess? The phrase “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” is really fun to sing.  The countdowns – “2, 3, 4 – tell the people what she wore!” – invite listeners to chant along and give them something to look forward to.  “Bikini” is also packed with so many hooks that it’s impossible to rend it from your mind, even when your mind is begging for blissful escape.  It’s one of the few songs where almost everyone, even small children and people who aren’t into pop music, knows the chorus, partly because the song itself is so memorable and partly because it’s been used in so many commercials, movies and sing-alongs.  (The first time I remember hearing it was at Vacation Bible School when I was about four years old, although it’s possible I knew it even before then.)

Even though it was singer Brian Hyland’s biggest hit and only Hot 100 #1, it’s suprisingly difficult to find a decent version of it on YouTube.  Even the video posted above is a later re-recording.  Hyland’s later (albeit smaller) hits, such as “Sealed with a Kiss” and “Ginny Come Lately,” are much easier to come by.  My theory is that most of the people still listening to “Bikini” don’t know or care that Brian Hyland was the singer, and that fans of Brian Hyland prefer to listen to listen to his legitimate singles over “that” novelty song.  (Stats on last.fm confirm that “Sealed With a Kiss” is listened to more than three times as much as “Bikini.”)  Nearly 50 years on, the joke behind “Bikini” has worn thin.  Still, despite its irritating elements, it’s hard to really hate the song – even if that’s just nostalgia talking. 3

Hit #1 on August 8, 1960; total of 1 week at #1
33 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.42% through the Hot 100

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11) Frankie Avalon – “Venus”

 Listening to Frankie Avalon for this project has given me a new appreciation for the arch casting of his role in Grease.  As Teen Angel, he croons over a supper club version of rock and roll, all female backing vocals and inoffensive strings – much as he did on “Venus” 20 years earlier.  But while “Beauty School Dropout” is actually quite clever and funny, the lyrics of “Venus” are bland and completely free of irony.  Avalon presents the goddess of love with a shopping list of the qualities he wants his ideal girl to have … and that’s it.  This paragon of perfection never comes to life; there’s no twist.  There’s nothing even compelling here aurally.  Avalon’s an OK singer but he’s singing a dreary song bogged down with a plodding arrangement.  I’m sure the teenyboppers who imagined themselves grade-school Venuses bought it, but I have a hard time imagining why anyone else would. 3

Hit #1 on March 9, 1959; total of 5 weeks at #1
11 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.14% through the Hot 100

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