Category Archives: 04

178) The Buckinghams – “Kind of a Drag”

There are still pockets of rock fans for whom The Monkees will never be able to transcend their prefab origins. A band assembled for a kids’ TV show, who rarely played their own instruments on their early records and relied on professional songwriters for their biggest hits, fails the test of authenticity that has largely defined, and plagued, rock since the ’60s. Yet the talent, creativity and resources allotted to this “fake” band resulted in a string of records more emotionally authentic than much of what their “real” counterparts produced.

Take The Buckinghams, whose first charting single and biggest hit, “Kind of a Drag,” succeeded “I’m a Believer” at the top of the Hot 100. Like The Monkees, they rode the coattails of the British Invasion, anglicizing their name from The Pulsations and decking themselves out in matching suits. They too subsisted on covers and songs loaned to them by outside writers. But while The Buckinghams, whose path to fame included triumphing in a Battle of the Bands and scoring a 13-episode residency on a Chicago TV variety show, had the advantage of being genuine garage rockers, they also stand as proof that organic roots and paying dues don’t automatically translate into credible rock and roll.

It isn’t just the loungey horns, roller rink organ and trying-too-hard slanginess of the title that give “Kind of a Drag” the feel of a Vegas revue of rock and roll – it’s the incessant smoothness of the thing, from lead singer Dennis Tufano’s slick croon to the jaunty not-quite-groove of the arrangement. While smoothness, when properly deployed, is an underrated tool in the rock set, here it undermines the song’s foundation. If “I’m a Believer” were a relatively straightforward narrative (I never believed in love, now I do) given a dramatic arc through its production and Micky Dolenz’s vocal nuances, then “Kind of a Drag” is its inverse: a song that has the potential for complexity (I can’t quit loving you even though you have treated me terribly, and all I can do is tell you I love you even though it’s against my better judgment and I know you don’t care), then confines itself to a single, inappropriate gear.

The contrast between the upbeat arrangement and melancholic lyrics could be a fascinating use of downplaying, as if the narrator were trying to convince himself that having his heart broken were (as per the title) no big deal. But the frictionless performance lends the record a false chipperness estranged from any recognizable human emotion. Likewise, the overlapping melody lines in the chorus – one sung by Tufano, the other by the rest of the band – presents a prime opportunity to illustrate the conflicting impulses running through the narrator’s mind. The Buckinghams waste the opportunity, however, by singing essentially the same thing with only slightly different words: you hurt me, but I still love you anyway. Arranged differently, the horns – unusual for a rock and roll band in the pre-Sgt Pepper’s era – could emphasize the narrator’s anguish (à la “When a Man Loves a Woman”), or at least breathe some fresh air into the production through sheer novelty value. Instead, they serve only to fuel the record’s empty bounce.

It’s this blown potential that makes “Kind of a Drag” more frustrating than simply mediocre: it approaches making clever, evocative choices, then swerves to avoid them. The Buckinghams, as an unknown garage band on an independent label, could get away with grit, intensity and creative left turns; they opted instead for an ill-fitting stab at Herb Alpert-esque easy listening. For group wanting to go pro and uncertain of rock’s longevity, perhaps that seemed like the right decision at the time – it certainly worked for The Buckinghams, for a year or so anyway. But if “Kind of a Drag” evinces the compromises and limited talent of an authentic garage band making it big, it’s hard not to prefer the Hollywood version, in which even a comically unsuccessful group can turn in memorable, deeply felt performances in weekly installments. 4

Hit #1 on February 18, 1967; total of 2 weeks at #1
178 of 1030 #1’s reviewed; 17.28% through the Hot 100

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153) Petula Clark – “My Love”

Although nominally part of the British Invasion, Petula Clark’s age and pre-rock career history gave her a different perspective from the beat groups and girl singers. Unlike the heightened emotions of most youth-oriented pop, her best ’60s singles are decidedly human in scale, dealing with ordinary adult challenges like stressful jobs (“I Know a Place”) and domestic discord (“Don’t Sleep in the Subway”). Clark’s voice is gentle but robust, sympathetic but encouraging. Because she frankly acknowledges the difficulty of these problems, her entreaties to keep your chin up and make your own happiness carry real weight. The choruses of these songs brim with a sense of relief that feels earned, rather than forced: a victory all the more significant because of its impermanence.

“My Love,” on the other hand, skips past the uncomfortable stuff straight to the glib, horn-laden chorus, barreling ahead without pausing to reflect. Whereas “Downtown” took an unconventional approach to a standard pop trope, emphasizing the melancholy that drives the need for escape, “My Love” is essentially a string of empty clichés: her love is “deeper than the deepest ocean,” “wider than the sky” and (rather tepidly) “warmer than the warmest sunshine.” Songwriter Tony Hatch half-heartedly attempts a bit of his usual pathos in the verses, casting Clark as someone who’d given up on love, but it’s unconvincing in the face of the rest of the record’s unrelenting cheer. Equally problematic is the miscasting of the levelheaded Clark as a love-blind Pollyanna. Perhaps a younger, brassier singer might convincingly sound like she believes nothing in the world could ever change her love. The Petula we know understands that change isn’t just inevitable – sometimes it’s a good thing. 4

Hit #1 on February 5, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
153 of 1015 #1’s reviewed; 15.07% through the Hot 100

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119) Manfred Mann – “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”

Manfred Mann was a Serious Jazz Combo.  Manfred Mann, however, was also a working band trying to make a living in the music business.  With the onset of the British Invasion, former blues, jazz and R&B purists were reaping the benefits of “selling out” with dignity. The Animals had managed to parlay their Geordie bluesmen personas into a stream of hit Brill Building singles without embarrassing themselves. The Rolling Stones were beginning to experiment with adding pop and folk influences to their Willie Dixon covers, inventing in the process a new generation of electric white-boy blues.

Manfred Mann, no less eager to score a hit, chose a somewhat different tack.  Rather than adapt their beloved jazz and blues for a pop audience in a thoughtful and creatively-fulfilling manner, they pandered to the lowest common denominator.  You wanted a pop record? Then they’d give you the most simplistic, patronizing pop record imaginable.  In doing so, they could indulge in the spoils of mainstream success while still maintaining an ironic distance. (If only they weren’t so subtle with those Trojan horse references in “5-4-3-2-1″!)

To top their #11 UK single “Hubble Bubble” and break into the American market, the band selected a fine but undistinguished near-hit by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, originally recorded by girl group The Exciters (“Tell Him”).  “Do Wah Diddy” is essentially a half-baked loaf cobbled together from the crumbs of other, better Barry-Greenwich compositions: a nonsense refrain (“Da Do Ron Ron”); a reference to imminent wedding bells (“Chapel of Love”); lyrics about love at first sight (“Be My Baby” et al.).   But when you’re expected to deliver a new song five days a week, they won’t all be winners.  So it was up to The Exciters to do all the heavy lifting on the original record, in particular lead singer Brenda Reid and her enthrallingly raw vocals.

But as covered by Manfred Mann, under the title “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (the extra “diddy” stands for “condescension”), all the song’s weaknesses are laid bare.  Where “da do ron ron ron, da do ron ron” was as bright and emphatic as a trumpet’s blare, “do wah diddy diddy, dum diddy do” is just clumsy and puerile.  Meanwhile, Manfred Mann seems to be parodying the very concept of a pop-rock song, from the chintzy organ and plodding tempo to the overdone “whoa-oh-oh-oh” and forced dialect (“I knew we was falling in love”). The Exciters rescued the song through energy and commitment (and, incidentally, used proper grammar).  Manfred Mann’s version just drags.

What makes the record work, as much as it works at all, is its baseline of competence.  Manfred Mann was a band of accomplished musicians.  Barry and Greenwich wrote some of the most transcendent pop songs of the 20th Century.  The bridge, for all its lyrical crimes, is actually a pleasant bit of melody and a much-needed reprieve from the rest of the song’s abrasive schoolyard bounce. Still, “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” is a cynical record made by people who should’ve known better.  Worse, its success confirms the most overused argument against the validity of pop music: it’s manufactured with no originality or genuine feeling.  It’s simply music written and performed to cash a paycheck and net a hit. 4

Hit #1 on October 17, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
119 of 991 #1’s reviewed; 12.01% through the Hot 100

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115) Dean Martin – “Everybody Loves Somebody”

The Hot 100 encompasses two contradictory attitudes toward pop music. The first is the unending quest for the newest sound, one fresh enough to render last week’s model obsolete and fascinating enough to invite repeated listens.  The other is the need for musical comfort food, something familiar that requires only a minimal investment in attention and thought.  This perpetual tug-of-war between novelty and nostalgia was never more obvious than in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, when rock and roll was transitioning from a fading fad to the most important genre in pop. Every time an innovative, interesting record hit #1, it was inevitably replaced by a backward-looking schmaltz-o-gram. “Stagger Lee” fell to “Venus,” “Telstar” to “Go Away Little Girl,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”/“She Loves You”/“Can’t Buy Me Love” to “Hello, Dolly!” No one designed it that way – after all, few of the people who bought easy listening records were invested enough in pop music to care about the charts.  It was simply the Hot 100 regaining its natural equilibrium.

Naturally, the same fate befell “A Hard Day’s Night.”  With “Everybody Loves Somebody,” Dean Martin polished off a Frank Sinatra B-side from 1948, loaded up on the strings, and scored the biggest hit of his career.  The song is corny in the way most of those old-timey pop songs are (barring classics by Porter, Berlin, Gershwin et al), but without the goofy charm of Martin’s earlier hit, “That’s Amore.” “Everybody loves somebody sometimes,” the chorus informs us. “Everybody falls in love somehow.” It’s a nicely bland platitude tailored for people who don’t listen too closely to lyrics.  Which is just as well, as Martin’s boozy croon is all but drowned out by the requisite 35-person choir and sopping violins swirling around the chorus.

As with Louis Armstrong, it’s hard to fault an old pro taking a victory lap, especially since their respective styles were teetering on the edge of cultural irrelevance. There’s even a mild concession to ‘50s prom-rock in the accompaniment’s shuffling triplets. But like “Deep Purple” and “It’s All in the Game,” the ostensibly contemporary remake is still likely only to appeal to those who remember the original. Nevertheless, the song served its purpose.  It acted as rebuttal to “A Hard Day’s Night,” thus restoring order to the pop universe.  Then, after a week, it quietly stepped aside and made way for the next new thing. 4

Hit #1 on August 15, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
115 of 985 #1’s reviewed; 11.68% through the Hot 100

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113) The Four Seasons – “Rag Doll”

Before The Beatles, The Four Seasons were The Beach Boys’ greatest rivals.   Both groups, while most famous for their intricate multi-part harmonies, also played their own instruments and wrote their own material – both rarities in the era of Brill Building songwriters and studio musicians.  While The Beach Boys were the California kids who sang about cars and girls and being true to your school, The Four Seasons were Jersey Italians who, if not for talent and luck, would have been shift workers or street hustlers.  “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” weren’t celebrating adolescent America; they were sneering at lovesick kids who had lost their cool.  And unlike the Wilson brothers’ angelic voices, Frankie Valli’s falsetto was shrill, almost threatening.

The Four Seasons had always held the edge in popularity, scoring three number-one singles before The Beach Boys had their first.  But with the British Invasion came an ultimatum: either step up to the new rock and roll – one with a harder beat, more complex arrangements, and fresher melodies – or start booking tours on the nostalgia circuit.  As “I Get Around” hinted, The Beach Boys chose the first option. Most other mainstream acts, however, settled into the latter category.

Perhaps The Beach Boys’ second-best status gave Brian Wilson the competitive zeal that drove him toward innovation.  After all, success can have a paralyzing effect. Some groups, having tasted the top, would do anything to delay the inevitable slide down the charts.  If that meant trading swagger and hiss for pabulum about a young girl in dirty clothes, then so be it. The Four Seasons were still old-fashioned entertainers at heart, just with a little more street cred than the average bubblegummer.  They couldn’t compete with The Rolling Stones’ brand of nasty anyhow.  So they turned to the old trope of the moneyed rock star crooning about the poor kid from the wrong end of town.  “Rag Doll” has the decency to be a little less maudlin than most, but it lacks the social consciousness that would feature in similar songs later in the decade.  In a late ‘60s soul or country song, for example, there was the sense of artists speaking about issues within their own marginalized communities, whether it be the ghetto or Appalachia.  “Rag Doll,” on the other hand, plays poverty as an emotional hook.  Actually, “poverty” may be too strong a word – for all we know, the “rag doll” is just a girl cursed with the unspeakable horror of hand-me-downs.  The real tragedy of the song isn’t even the girl’s struggle against the socioeconomic forces binding her within the underclass – no, it’s that the singer’s parents won’t let them date because of her sartorial inadequacies.

One of The Beach Boys’ great successes was their ability to write songs about a specific type of middle class, suburban California adolescence that stood in for a universal teenage dream.  But “Rag Doll” finds The Four Seasons losing touch with their rock kid fanbase.  Not only had they adopted the pop star POV, but they’d gone musically stale.  Of course, there would still be an adult market for smooth, harmonious pop, especially once 1962’s teenagers got married and grew out of rock and roll.  But never again could the most formidable of the early ‘60s pop groups speak for the new teenage experience.  4

Hit #1 on July 18, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
113 of 984 #1’s reviewed; 11.48% through the Hot 100

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103) Bobby Vinton – “There! I’ve Said It Again”

GEORGE: “Quite nice, but I don’t think the public will buy it.”
JOHN: “Get an old song and everybody does it again at the same time.”
PAUL: “Secretly, teenagers don’t want old songs brought back.”
RINGO: “Nice and smooth, ‘specially if you’re sitting in one night – and not alone.”

Unanimous miss.

-The Beatles rating Bobby Vinton’s “There! I’ve Said It Again” on BBC-TV’s Juke Box Jury, December 7, 1963.  (Via The Beatles Diary, Volume 1: The Beatles Years by Barry Miles.)

Plenty of number-one records become answers to pop music trivia questions for reasons that have nothing to do with the songs themselves.  What was the first song to hit number one on the Hot 100? Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool.” What song ruled the charts during President Kennedy’s assassination? Dale & Grace’s “I’m Leaving It Up to You.”  Who was the only Belgian artist to top the Hot 100? Why, that’s The Singing Nun, of course.  But alongside the firsts, whens and onlys is a factoid of somewhat sadder proportions: the last.  Lasts mean the ends of careers, whether from death, scandal, or just the inevitable slide into irrelevance.  Lasts mean failure to replicate past glories.  Lasts mean pop audiences have moved on.

“There! I’ve Said It Again” is a record that is best remembered for being the last number-one on the Hot 100 before The Beatles.  One could suspect the rock gods of selecting this record specifically to heighten the contrast between the English rockers and the sluggishness of early ’60s American pop.  Of all the early ’60s teen idols, Bobby Vinton was both among the oldest (then pushing 30) and the one who owed the least to rock and roll – his ambition had always been to lead a big band, as his father had done.  Vinton drew much of his material from his parents’ generation.  “There! I’ve Said It Again,” originally a 1945 hit for Vaughn Monroe, followed his take on the oldie “Blue Velvet.”  But unlike that mysterious, mournful ballad, “There! I’ve Said It Again” draws from the same saccharine-contaminated well as the “Roses Are Red (My Love).”  At least “There! I’ve Said It Again” has the benefit of lyrics that don’t sound like a child’s rejected valentine.

But while “There! I’ve Said It Again” may have been the last of the pre-Beatles number ones, it wouldn’t be the last time Bobby Vinton would see the top.  Vinton’s records had begun charting based more on sales than airplay, a typical sign that an artist’s target audience skewed older.  By appealing to adults alienated by the British Invasion and the harder rock that followed, Vinton continued to enter the Top 40 well into the ’70s, eventually starring in his own CBS variety show (1975-1978) and performing shows at his Blue Velvet Theater in Branson, Missouri (the town of Baby Boomers’ nightmares).  Nor did the triumph of The Beatles toll the death knell for chart pop aimed at adults. What “There! I Said It Again” does signify is the increasing rarity of number-one songs appealing across the generation gap.  Although niche genres like country and R&B would continue to be popular across a wide age range of listeners, pop as a whole was becoming even more striated.  The British Invasion made rock and roll viable again, while nostalgia artists profited from record buyers seeking a softer alternative.  Even middle-of-the-road pop split into two forks, with “bubblegum” on one side and “mature” pop on the other. Vinton managed to cling to success because he could read his audience.  When teenagers stopped buying his records, his material grew even more backward-looking, his arrangements more syrupy and overproduced.  Compared with The Beatles, “There! I Said It Again” is stodgy and sentimental.  But compared with Vinton’s post-Beatlemania singles, “There! I Said It Again” is positively rock and roll. 4

Hit #1 on January 4, 1964; total of 4 weeks at #1
103 of 979 #1’s reviewed; 10.52% through the Hot 100

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90) Jimmy Soul – “If You Wanna Be Happy”

Call me humorless, but I never found “If You Wanna Be Happy” all that hilarious.  As far as jokes go, it’s as clever as “take my wife – please!” stretched out over two-plus minutes.  Plus, I’m never quite sure how women are supposed to take it. Should ugly women feel honored (it’s advising men to marry you!) or embarrassed (it states that ugly women have no other options and are grateful for the attention)? Are pretty women offended by being characterized as amoral hussies? And what do you do if that cute guy from civics class asks you to dance to it at Winter Formal? Maybe I’m overthinking this.  As far as questionable portrayals of women in song go, this is definitely on the warm-n-fuzzy end of the misogyny scale.

You know what could save the lyrics, though? Not sounding like a fugitive from Gary U.S. Bonds‘s reject bin.  So I was simultaneously shocked and not-shocked-at-all to read on Wikipedia that, yes, “If You Wanna Be Happy” was actually a Bonds leftover.  It’s got the handclaps, the whooping backing vocals, the concentrated effort at sounding as spontaneous as possible.  Jimmy Soul is a fine singer, and his delivery goes a long way toward imbuing the song with some degree of charm.  Still, after a run of terrific number ones, “If You Wanna Be Happy” is the speedbump that reminds us it can’t last forever. 4

Hit #1 on May 18, 1963; total of 2 weeks at #1
90 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 9.22% through the Hot 100

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