Category Archives: 07

134) Herman’s Hermits – “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”

Herman’s Hermits were sort of the kid brothers of the British Invasion, and, as such, were often treated as a band to be mocked or manipulated. Singer Peter Noone was 16 when the group had its first hit, half a decade or so younger than most other beat groups and a full 11 years younger than Freddie Garrity. Unlike their peers, the Hermits hadn’t dug through crates for imported blues records or paid their dues in sketchy German clubs. But Animals producer Mickie Most recognized the group’s fresh-scrubbed innocence as an opportunity to diversify his portfolio, pairing Noone’s child-actor cuteness with a poppier, less R&B sound designed to appeal to young girls. Rather than trying to sound American as possible, Herman’s Hermits emphasized their Manchester roots, treading the same music hall boards as Freddie and the Dreamers and singing in their own accents (or, sometimes, a put-on Cockney one). The experiment succeeded; the group became one of the most successful imports of the British Invasion, racking up more top 10 hits in the US than in their native country and briefly reaching near-Beatles levels of sales and popularity. The group only netted a single UK number one with “I’m Into Something Good,” not coincidentally the most American of their hits: a Goffin/King song marrying Beach Boys harmonies to a Motown beat. Meanwhile, many of their biggest American hits – both US number-ones, as well as “Leaning on the Lamp Post” (#9) and the Ray Davies-written “Dandy” (#5) – were never released at home, where they’d likely have been laughed off as too old-fashioned, too English, for a credible beat group. But, as with Freddie and the Dreamers before them, this acute foreignness just made Americans love them more.

“Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” sounds even less like a rock song than “I’m Telling You Now,” as befitting its origin in a 1963 television play called The Lads. The most prominent instrument is a guitar, yes, but it’s been muted to sound like a ukulele or a banjo; the bass and drums are shoved so far down in the mix as to be barely audible. The shuffling jauntiness of the instrumentation seems at odds with the song’s lyrics about the end of a young romance, but, like Noone’s straightforward, unsentimental reading, it’s an attempt to hide raw emotions behind a pleasant face. Despite his feelings for the girl, the narrator accepts her lack of reciprocation without kicking up a fuss or pleading for her return, anything that might embarrass her or make her feel guilty. Because he refuses to emphasize his own heartbreak, our hearts break for him. But even more than a song about the loss of first love, “Mrs. Brown” is a song about learning that two good people aren’t always good together, that no matter how much he loves her he can’t make her love him back. That the narrator needs to confide in his ex-girlfriend’s mother reminds you he’s still a kid; that he handles the rejection with dignity and considerateness shows he’s becoming an adult. For all the ridicule Herman’s Hermits got for being teen idol lightweights, it’s their very youth and lack of tough-guy posturing that makes the song. “Mrs. Brown” could easily have been a jokey novelty; instead, it’s a rather touching reflection on growing up. 7

Hit #1 on May 1, 1965; total of 3 weeks at #1
134 of 1008 #1’s reviewed; 13.29% through the Hot 100

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126) Petula Clark – “Downtown”

You’re never truly alone in the city. Just look at any population density map – there’s hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people breathing the same air as you, who have the same favorite sandwich at the same corner bodega. The downside is the impersonal nature of urban living, a blend of efficiency (too many encounters for elaborate rituals of etiquette) and an attempt to contrive some semblance of privacy within a packed train or a thin-walled studio apartment. But the sheer number of people, from every conceivable background or forward trajectory, also means there are more opportunities for things to do and strangers to meet. Sometimes you don’t even need to talk to these people. Sometimes just watching a movie as part of an audience, or having a drink in a crowded café, or passing pedestrians milling about on a sidewalk is enough to remind you that there’s a whole world outside of yourself. And no place in a city is more joyous than downtown at night: by definition, these are people coming together to have a good time. Their positivity is infectious. The bright lights are a natural mood lifter. How can you lose?

It’s this urban exhilaration that “Downtown” gets. As with anything sincere and optimistic and bright and polished, it’s been appropriated as ironic kitsch or dismissed as fluff. But anyone who cares to actually listen to the song, anyone who has ever felt depressed and alone and decided to change their circumstances, will recognize themselves. “It’s either the happiest sad song ever recorded, or it’s the saddest happy song ever recorded,” Chuck Klosterman called it in Killing Yourself to Live. “Downtown” is cheerful by force of will, in a way that can only come from someone who understands isolation and depression. Of course, “Downtown” doesn’t linger on the darkness. To do so would be counterproductive. “Downtown” is meant to make you “forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” by pointing you in a clear direction: downtown. It’s a very postwar mentality: think positively, maybe spend a little money, and you can pull yourself out of your slump. Never mind if those problems will still be there when you step off the bus and turn the key to your apartment door. Do what you can to forget them, if only for a little while.

The verses start off tentatively, almost monotone and mechanical, like one gray day after another, the bore of negative thoughts pounding into your brain, making you forget there’s anything happy in the world. But then, a few extra notes start creeping in – “ma-KING you lone-LY” – gathering momentum – “al-WAYS go” – till, at last, the only word that matters: “DOWN-town.” Then the orchestra kicks in, sweeping you up in the bustle and thrills of urban life: “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city / Linger on the sidewalk where the neon lights are pretty.” If the song slips back into hesitant stuttering for a couple of lines – “The LIGHTS are much bright-TER there” – it’s only to be blasted away moments later: “go DOWN-TOWN! / THINGS’LL BE GREAT.”

“Downtown” might have come out in the wake of the British Invasion, but it’s a record that would have been a hit here regardless. At 32, Petula Clark was only a few years older than her counterparts in the British Invasion, but she clearly identified with the “real singers” of the old guard. “Downtown” may have a bit of a beat influence to it, but it’s still more easy listening than rock and roll. Clark’s voice and stage presence were polished as only someone who’s been trained to be a professional entertainer from childhood. There was something maternal in her voice, clear and assured from years of practiced technique, that puts its arm around you and guides you to a place of understanding. “She sounds both young and wise at once,” wrote Mark Doty in Firebird: A Memoir, “but when she appears on The Ed Sullivan Show … you can see she’s been around enough to earn the right to give advice.”

Clark’s intermediate place in the pop firmament – young but not a kid, adjacent to the British Invasion but not really part of it, just modern enough to goose the traditionalists without popping any monocles – is reflected by the very moderation of the record’s message. “Downtown” promises freedom, but it’s a temporary, limited sort. As the Sixties progressed, calls for freedom would become more radicalized and explicit, both lyrically and musically. But in “Downtown,” it’s still cautious, temperate, individualized. Within a few years, the bustling Times Square that inspired Tony Hatch to write “Downtown” would degenerate into a haven for hard drugs and porno houses, and the timid charms of “Downtown” itself would seem quaint against a backdrop of social and cultural upheaval. But “Downtown” has endured long after the revolution came and went, precisely because the song’s micro scale promises achievable results. When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown. 7

Hit #1 on January 23, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
126 of 1001 #1’s reviewed; 12.59% through the Hot 100

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124) The Supremes – “Come See About Me”

According to Lamont Dozier (quoted in Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits), “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me” were written and recorded at roughly the same time, in the wake of the unexpected success of “Where Did Our Love Go.”  The three tracks share a number of similarities: accents on every beat, lyrics pleading for the return of an unfaithful lover, a repetitive chord progression.  But “Come See About Me” builds on the established hit-making Supremes template, just as “Baby Love” was a step more musically advanced than “Where Did Our Love Go.”  “Come See About Me” is the closest the Supremes had come yet to a traditional verse-chorus structure. Still, both parts of the song are too underdeveloped to stand on their own, and there’s no middle eight or key change to break up the monotony.  What does make it pop is the record’s bright, punchy sound, as represented by the drum intro, the rhythm guitar and the increased prominence of Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson’s backing vocals (now shouted instead of cooed).

Even the title of “Come See About Me” represents a greater degree of sophistication, calling to mind both The Dixie Hummingbirds’ gospel hit “Lord, Come See About Me” and Mae West’s iconic line from She Done Him Wrong: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” This double-coding of the sacred and the profane, so common in the gospel-R&B hybrid that is soul music, speaks to both religious and secular audiences – or, at least, to the religious and secular impulses within each listener.  Between Diana Ross’s thin vocals and the bouncy pop of their early records, it’s easy to forget that The Supremes were essentially a soul outfit.   The handclaps and call-and-response vocals common to girl group records are rooted in the tradition of African-American church music, and Ballard in particular possessed a voice with a richness and emotional intensity nearly unrivaled among Motown artists.  Just as their first three number-ones increased incrementally in complexity, “Come See About Me” finds The Supremes inching toward a harder, more soulful sound. 7

Hit #1 on December 19, 1964 for 1 week; repeaked on January 16, 1965 for 1 week; total of 2 weeks at #1
124 of 1000 #1’s reviewed; 12.40% through the Hot 100

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120) The Supremes – “Baby Love”

Where Did Our Love Go” was The Supremes’ tenth single, but it was the first to be recorded in what became the group’s signature style.  It was also their first single to make much of an impact. Wisely, Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Supremes returned to the well for the follow-up. “Baby Love” borrows several elements from that previous single, as if trying to determine which was the variable that made it a hit.  Back are the stomped-out beat, Diana Ross’s little-girl-grown lead vocals, and the theme of trying to persuade a cheating boyfriend to stay, even if breaking up would be more merciful for them both.  But there are also a few added frills.  “Where Did Our Love Go”‘s repetitive structure only managed to avoid irritation thanks to its brief running time.  While “Baby Love” never quite busts into anything resembling a chorus, a few extra chords keep the verses from going stale.  The “baby, baby” backing vocals are back, but supplemented with Mary and Flo’s ghostly “don’t throw our love away,” an addition that results in the record’s most memorable hook.  There’s even a fake key change right in the middle.

Following a big hit with a retread is a business strategy as old as the record industry.  Usually, though, these soundalikes are released to diminishing returns, à la The Marvelettes‘ “Twistin’ Postman” or Chubby Checker’s infinite attempts to replicate “The Twist.”  But “Baby Love” was a surprise: not only was it a better song, but it was a bigger hit. “Baby Love” realizes the promise of “Where Did Our Love Go” with a richer sound and a more confident performance.  It also foreshadows the group’s upward trajectory; within months, The Supremes would become the biggest pop group in America.  While so many of their peers struggled to repeat the success of their One Big Hit, The Supremes were just getting started.  But having mastered the elements of their style, it was time to progress. 7

Hit #1 on October 31, 1964; total of 4 weeks at #1
120 of 992 #1’s reviewed; 12.10% through the Hot 100

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116) The Supremes – “Where Did Our Love Go”

When The Beatles are framed in the context of ‘60s pop, they are often paired with The Rolling Stones (their compatriots in the British Invasion), The Beach Boys (with whom they competed in pushing sonic boundaries), or Bob Dylan (as cultural game-changers testing the limits of what pop music could express).  Arguably, though, their closest analogues were a trio of young women from Detroit. The Beatles revitalized a moribund genre by increasing the focus on melody and upping the overall complexity and sophistication, aiding the transition from “rock and roll” to “rock.”  Likewise, The Supremes developed as part of Motown’s effort to make pop-soul the dominant “black music” sound. As The Beatles had polished up the scruffy sounds of 1950s youth, The Supremes sanded the rough edges off of R&B.   Diana Ross sang with a voice atypically thin and high for the genre, even when compared with previous crossover singers like Shirley Owens and Mary Wells.  Groove was minimal, instrumentation restrained, syncopation nonexistent.  Yet somehow, these concessions to mainstream pop didn’t result in a pandering, anemic facsimile of the original genre.  Like their British male contemporaries, The Supremes successfully overlaid their sound on the existing pop framework.  Then, their popularity firmly established, they were able to take chances and lead their listeners down experimental alleys.  Separately but in parallel, The Supremes and The Beatles expanded the boundaries of pop music.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  “Where Did Our Love Go” is not the first Supremes single, but it may as well be.  The group had famously earned the sobriquet “No-Hit Supremes” before Berry Gordy revamped their sound, axing the freewheeling R&B arrangements and lead vocal parts for Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson. As the first fruit of the new Supremes, “Where Did Our Love Go” is a cautious exploration of their new identity.  It’s a song without verse or chorus, just the same eight bars over and over with little variation, stretching to fill two minutes and 40 seconds.  In short, it’s a debut closer in spirit to “Love Me Do” than “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But beneath the repetitiousness and timidity are hints that, given time, something great and original could develop. The interplay between Ross’s lead vocals and Ballard and Wilson’s ethereal “baby baby”-s suggests a sultriness foreign to prior girl-group records, and the stomps-and-handclaps percussion adds just enough of an edge to keep the song from drifting into easy listening waters. Like The Beatles’ earliest singles, “Where Did Our Love Go” is almost less a great pop song than it is a promise of future brilliance.  7

Hit #1 on August 22, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
116 of 986 #1’s reviewed; 11.77% through the Hot 100

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110) The Dixie Cups – “Chapel of Love”

“Chapel of Love” wasn’t supposed to be a hit for The Dixie Cups.  Phil Spector had claimed the Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich composition for The Ronettes, who did record the original as album filler.   Indeed, the song’s single-minded declaration of girlish devotion is of a piece with hits like “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You”.  The Ronettes record also benefits from Ronnie Spector’s distinctive voice, which makes up for any lyrical slightness (the entire song can be summed up by “Gee, I really love you, and we’re going to get married”) through the power of her delivery.

Barry and Greenwich, sensing the song’s hit potential, shopped “Chapel of Love” around before producing it themselves. (Leiber and Stoller are officially credited, but general agreement is that their contributions were nominal.)  They settled on The Dixie Cups, a mostly unknown group from New Orleans.  While The Dixie Cups were certainly fine singers, there was no standout in the group a la Ronnie Spector or Darlene Love, whose own version of “Chapel of Love” adds a more confident, adult edge.   As a result, their version isn’t quite as compelling as either of the Spector-prodced recordings.  Still, the pleasantly catchy melody and The Dixie Cups’ agreeable vocals are enough to carry the day.  The lyrics, though narrow in focus, are also direct enough to develop a kind of universality, as demonstrated by the song’s continued ubiquity in films and at wedding receptions.  And while The Dixie Cups never became stars on the level of The Ronettes, they did manage a few more hits, including one that better played to their strengths: the much-covered New Orleans anthem “Iko Iko.” 7

Hit #1 on June 6, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
110 of 983 #1’s reviewed; 11.19% through the Hot 100

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108) Mary Wells – “My Guy”

With Mary Wells, Motown got serious.  Before her, Tamla/Motown operated essentially like a regional label that happened to have a few massive hits. The distinctive Motown sound had yet to be formulated.  Bluesier numbers like Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” abutted the smooth pop of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and the bongo-harmonica stylings of Little Stevie Wonder.  But with Wells, label head Berry Gordy saw an opportunity to shape a star – and, in the process, create the template that would drive the label’s success.

Wells’s first single, the self-penned “Bye Bye Baby,” was gospel-blues by way of Jackie Wilson.  Wells’s voice was raw and throaty, her attitude defiant: “Well you took my love, threw it away/You’re gonna want my love someday/Well, bye bye, baby.” But between the single’s release in 1960 and Wells’s eventual trip to the top of the charts, Gordy buffed her persona to a fine sheen.  Despite being the same age as The Marvelettes, Wells was positioned as a mature alternative to the girl group sound. Gordy hired charm coaches to teach her poise, a practice that would continue throughout the label’s golden age.  Her voice thinned out; syllables became more clearly enunciated.  Wells’s material took a turn toward the mainstream, culminating in the light jazz motifs of “My Guy.”  In its careful melding of R&B and vocal pop, the record splits the difference between The Beatles and “Hello, Dolly!

Like most Wells hits after “Bye Bye Baby,” the song was written and produced by Smokey Robinson.  Of the early Motown singles, Robinson’s work with The Miracles would come closest to defining the direction that the label would take.  But records like “Shop Around” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” despite their polished sound, have a verve that’s missing from the tightly-reined Wells singles. “My Guy” has a lot of positives going for it, not the least Wells’s precise but natural interpretation.  But “My Guy” also finds Motown working out some of the kinks of its new sound.  Gordy had intended the label to appeal to white audiences, but the Wells records sound a little too sterile, a little too eager to concede the “soul” part of the soul-pop equation.  It’s a tricky balance.  But by the time companion song “My Girl” would be released a few months later, it’s one that Motown had perfected.  7

Hit #1 on May 16, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
108 of 982 #1’s reviewed; 11.00% through the Hot 100

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102) The Singing Nun – “Dominique”

The common wisdom behind the American popularity of “Dominique” is that it satisfied the nation’s desire for gentle, comforting music in the days and weeks after President John F. Kennedy’s Nov. 22 assassination.  Yet the early 1960s, for the most part, had already been an era when softer music dominated.  Folk music and girl groups were in vogue, and easy listening still had a firm foothold atop the charts.  In fact, the Ur-garage record “Louie Louie” held the #2 spot behind “Dominique” for part of its run, so Americans were clearly also in the mood to rock.  So what was it that attracted American audiences to a French-language acoustic folk song about a Thirteenth-Century saint?

The United States has a long history of anti-Catholicism, stretching back to Puritan anti-toleration legislation and intensifying with the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century waves of Irish, Italian, Polish and Latin American immigrants.  Even as late as his 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy faced prejudice from some Protestants who feared he would serve as a puppet of the Pope.  But with his secular presidency, personal charisma and glamorous family, Kennedy modeled the new face of Roman Catholicism, one that appealed to mainstream America.

Roughly coincident with Kennedy’s presidency was the Second Vatican Council, which sought to update and revitalize the Catholic Church by bringing in modern influences.  Pope Pius XII had issued the encyclical Musicae Sacrae in 1955, which endorsed the non-sacred religious music that was beginning to become popular.  Young novice Sister Luc-Gabrielle, who entered the Belgian Fichermont Convent accompanied by the guitar she called Sister Adele, was emblematic of Vatican II’s friendlier, more accessible image.  With the permission of the convent and Philips Records, she recorded an album intended to be distributed solely to Fichermont’s visitors.  Philips recognized the quality of the recordings and released them publicly.  “Dominique,” a tribute to St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order to which Sister Luc-Gabrielle belonged, became a huge hit internationally, even in predominantly-Protestant countries.

Despite its unusual origins, “Dominique” is no schmaltzy novelty single.  Sister Luc-Gabrielle’s pure soprano and genuine sense of joy in the material, complemented by the clean, simple production, makes for an engaging listen.  The melody is exceptionally sticky, and the hooky chorus (“Dominique, -inique, -inique”)  helps break the language barrier.  The song is a rare example of religious-pop that can be appreciated by a secular audience: there’s neither the explicit rectitude of traditional recordings, nor the limp pandering that would come to characterize Christian Rock.  Actually, “Dominique” has more in common with the old American folk songs then being revived by the likes of Joan Baez: the religious content is important, but it’s a given of the narrator’s life rather than a conscious choice of subject.

A record by a Belgian nun topping the American pop charts would have been a strange occurrence at any point in Hot 100 history.  But in the wake of the assassination of  the USA’s first and only Roman Catholic president, it seems oddly appropriate that the nation turned to a record by a nun about a saint.  It helped that the record’s gentle and pastoral sound fit in naturally with the folk records populating the charts.  At the same time, though, the folk revival’s insistence on looking backwards made it just as in danger of becoming calcified and esoteric as the Catholic Church had been pre-Vatican II.  With its clean production and upbeat spirit, “Dominique” was a clear alternative to the overly-reverent covers dominating the folk scene.  A nun may seem an unlikely exponent of modernity. Yet through both her religion and her music, The Singing Nun helped participate in the ’60s break from the past and push toward the future. 7

Hit #1 on December 7, 1963; total of 4 weeks at #1
102 of 979 #1’s reviewed; 10.42% through the Hot 100

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98) Bobby Vinton – “Blue Velvet”

In my review of “Roses Are Red (My Love),” I made no secret of my distaste for that single’s amateurish lyrics, hackneyed musicianship and simpering vocals.  And although “Blue Velvet,” Bobby Vinton’s second number-one hit, sounds remarkably similar on a cursory listen, it far exceeds its predecessor.  At first, I feared that my enjoyment of the namesake movie had colored my attitude toward the song.  But after a few dedicated listens, the indisputable superiority of “Blue Velvet” made itself obvious.  Even the songs’ origins offer clues.  “Blue Velvet” was already a tested standard by the time Vinton recorded it, with Tony Bennett scoring a hit with it a decade earlier.  “Roses Are Red,” on the other hand, was plucked from a pile of rejected demos.  “Blue Velvet” also has a darker edge than Vinton’s previous hit – even discounting David Lynch’s penchant for exposing the malevolent undercurrents of pre-Beatles pop.  This isn’t a cooing ballad to a girlfriend, it’s something more ambiguous. Vinton’s girl has left him, but he doesn’t explain whether it was a break-up or a death.  I suspect the latter, as  the song’s final verse seems a touch morose for the end of a relationship:

But in my heart there’ll always be
Precious and warm, a memory
Through the years
And I still can see blue velvet
Through my tears

Of course, “Blue Velvet” could be interpreted either way, which is surely why it appealed to Lynch. This mysteriousness gives the record a haunting quality and a certain intrigue that would be lost if it were more literal. Even the standard early ’60s pop production doesn’t sound quite as heavy-handed as usual, and the faint chimes (bells? marimba? xylophone?) add a subtle pensive quality.  In short, this is how you introduce adult contemporary to a new generation: make it soothing but wistful, romantic but ghostly. 7

Hit #1 on September 21, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
98 of 977 #1’s reviewed; 10.03% through the Hot 100

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97) The Angels – “My Boyfriend’s Back”

It’s not surprising that one of the first crop of girl groups was called The Angels.  After all, the genre’s style (at least in the early years) was built on sweet, pure voices singing about innocent love.  “My Boyfriend’s Back” is perhaps the ultimate distillation of what a girl group named “The Angels” should sound like. In fact, if the group hadn’t had a hit with “Til” two years earlier, it would seem like the group’s name was coined expressly to tie in with the 1963 single’s subject matter.  After all, “My Boyfriend’s Back” is a statement of chastity and fidelity.  When the titular boyfriend leaves for unexplained reasons, our narrator isn’t even tempted by her suitor’s nightly advances.  Her moral fortitude endures, even after the rejected suitor spreads lies about her conduct.  She may not be St. Catherine, but her sullied reputation makes her the closest thing to a  modern-day high school martyr. “Angel” though she may be, our narrator nevertheless relishes the comeuppance soon to be inflicted on her aggressor.  Our narrator and her boyfriend’s faith in each other is unshakable, and his righteous vengeance is just.  Yet, all the while, these heavy themes are buoyed along on the back on a tune so light and frothy that it could be a toothpaste jingle.  Which, of course, is the cardinal rule of successful pop: sing anything you want, just as long as it’s catchy.  “My Boyfriend’s Back” could have been overwrought and self-pitying; instead, it’s got a sense of humor, a dance-worthy beat and lyrics that beg to be sassed-along with. 7

Hit #1 on August 31, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
97 of 977 #1’s reviewed; 9.93% through the Hot 100

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