Category Archives: 08

182) The Turtles – “Happy Together”

By the time the demo of “Happy Together” made its way to The Turtles, the acetate was worn out. Roughly a dozen bands, including The Tokens, The Happenings, and The Vogues, had rejected it. Even given the degraded sound quality, it wasn’t much to write home about. The demo – recorded by songwriters Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon of The Magicians, whose “An Invitation to Cry” would turn up on the original Nuggets – consisted of nothing but vocals and guitar. Some reports insist it even lacked guitar, with handclaps providing the only accompaniment. It probably wasn’t the low-fi recording that had failed to spark much interest, though, but the simplistic, syrupy lyrics: “the only one for me is you, and you for me,” “baby the skies will be blue for all my life.” For a generation of pop groups enthralled to Bob Dylan, this sort of saccharine was hard to swallow.

The Turtles knew their Dylan, of course – their debut single was a version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” that rocketed them into the Top 10, where they’d been struggling to return ever since. But The Turtles also had a mischievous streak. As a band with a history of shape-shifting (the original incarnation played surf rock), and which had long favored comedy and showmanship over folk-rock “authenticity,” the idea of turning these corny lines and cliches into the quintessential earnest, artless, dopey love song must have seemed worth a laugh – and, given the pop audience’s taste for inane schmaltz, maybe even the ticket back to the top.

But the brilliance of The Turtles’ reading of “Happy Together” is that it isn’t just a parody; it’s also a sublimely transcendent vision of the ultimate pop recording. It exaggerates the weaknesses of those trite love songs that aim to wring emotion from the same tired phrases and easy motifs, yet also bests them by being lusher, more elaborate, more swooningly moving. It stretches the contrast between the loneliness of being apart and the thrill of being together to bipolar extremes. The depressive back-and-forth pacing of the verses, with their muted dynamics and minor-key, repetitive arrangement, reflect the unhappy reality of the lovestruck narrator. “Imagine me and you, I do,” he pleads to the object of his desire, but there’s no evidence the relationship has progressed beyond his imagination. And yet, the more the narrator insists that “the only one for me is you / and you for me,” the more he seems to believe it, until suddenly, the drums break out of their dull shuffle and whisk him away to the Technicolor rainbow paradise where he’s with the girl he loves. The chorus explodes in a shower of horns and harmony vocals, Howard Kaylan’s voice ratcheted up from the restrained, pensive tone of the verses to a full-throated burst of joy.

Then the bubble bursts, and we’re back to the swirling eddies of uncertainty and despair. But as the song progresses, the verses grow shorter, the choruses longer and more elaborate, and the line between the two gets fuzzier. By the last go around, the world of the chorus starts intruding as soon as the verse starts – at first, those sunshiny ba-ba-ba harmony vocals, then the electric guitars revving up and the cymbals chiming away. The layers of vocals multiply exponentially, joined by the chirp of the trumpets, until nearly every instrument in the orchestra pit has united into one great swell of optimism, big and cheerful enough to crush any last niggles of worry and doubt. “We’re happy together,” Kaylan finally croons; it’s up to the listener to determine whether the narrator has succeeded in winning over the girl, or if he’s just retreated into his fantasy world for good.

Listeners also had the choice between taking “Happy Together” at face value or picking up on the band’s ironic intent. But regardless of how they interpreted it, they bought it – enough to not only return The Turtles to the Top 10, but to put them at the #1 spot for three weeks. The following year, the band would push the joke even further with “Elenore” and score nearly as big of a hit. But no matter how blatantly tongue-in-cheek the lyrics – “you’re my pride and joy, et cetera” – like “Happy Together,” the surge of rainbows and sunshine and symphonic splendor in the chorus was still more affecting than so many of the supposedly sincere love songs cluttering the airwaves. 8

Hit #1 on March 25, 1967; total of 3 weeks at #1
182 of 1038 #1’s reviewed; 17.53% through the Hot 100

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179) The Rolling Stones – “Ruby Tuesday”

A band as sarcastic, blues-obsessed and apparently unsentimental as The Rolling Stones seems unlikely to have produced some of the prettiest records of the British Invasion. Yet this dissonance between the Stones’ vulgar image and their occasional delicately-wrought single is precisely what makes the latter so effective. Gentle ballads may come easy to a Paul McCartney or a Donovan, but the boys behind “Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” have to make an effort to rein in their baser impulses and break their perpetual stance of aloof cool. The result is more moving for its rarity and the exertion required (though, like problem schoolboys making an effusive show of behaving properly, their politeness sometimes seems suspiciously close to mockery). At the same time, the Stones’ inherent edge keeps folky ballads like “As Tears Go By” from skewing too precious, and anchors the decidedly un-rock-and-roll “Lady Jane” in the modern era.

The most successful of all these balancing acts is “Ruby Tuesday,” which delves deeper into the tension between beauty and rock by making it the subject of the song itself. The verses work from a limited palette of classical instruments (piano, recorder, double bass) to craft the audio equivalent of a sepia flashback, staging an idyllic tableau of the narrator’s time with the title character. Beneath its surface loveliness, however, creeps in evidence of the effort required to maintain this setting. Mick Jagger strains below his natural vocal range, flubbing a note in the opening line. The leaden bassline tramples muddy footprints on the delicate arrangement. This beauty requires unnatural restraint, and is therefore unsustainable. Only the recorder feels free, fluttering about with little concern as to what’s going on in the song below it.

When Ruby leaves, however, the band can loosen up and settle back into its familiar, comfortable self. The drums kick in; the bass, now electric, bounces around freely; Jagger’s back in his usual voice. The recorder fades away into a faint, far-away pulse – a modern, raga-esque drone, rather than the verses’ baroque frills. The Stones treat Ruby’s departure with a mixture of sorrow and empathy; they understand why she’s leaving because it’s what they’d do, too. There’s always some ironic distance in Jagger’s vocals, but this chorus is about as sincere as he gets. Likewise, the Stones sometimes catch flak for misogynous lyrics, but “Ruby Tuesday” is fairly equitable, accepting the title character’s decision to leave without any bitterness or cruelty. Ruby may be less a person than a symbol of freedom, but it’s because she herself chooses to be mysterious, rather than because the band has reduced her to such.

For all its depth and ambition, “Ruby Tuesday” was an accidental milestone for The Rolling Stones. It was originally released as the flip side of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” but the latter’s racy title kept American radio programmers from playing it – never mind that was actually the Stones’ most endearing single to date, filled with nervous stammering and promises to “satisfy your every need.” When “Let’s Spend the Night Together” became the Stones’ first-ever US single to miss the Top 40 (eventually peaking at #55), “Ruby Tuesday” got upgraded to double A-side status. History repeated on the follow-up single, with the pretty, ornate B-side “Dandelion” (#14) besting the outré rocker “We Love You” (#50) as the de facto A-side in America. Their third US single of 1967 finally reversed the formula: “She’s a Rainbow” as the A-side, “2000 Light Years from Home” on the flip. For a year or so, America seemed to prefer the softer side of the nastiest band of the British Invasion. Not by much, though – “Ruby Tuesday” may have been a number-one single, but it would take almost a year and a half before the group would return to the Top 10 (with the defiantly undelicate “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), and the Stones would seldom ever repeat their late 1964-early 1967 levels of consistent chart success. But if a song as good as “Ruby Tuesday” could be stuck on a B-side, and would-be hits of the era like “Under My Thumb,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter” could be slotted as mere album tracks, it was because a singles-based mindset was becoming increasingly irrelevant  – for both The Rolling Stones as a band, and for rock as a genre. 8

Hit #1 on March 4, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
179 of 1032 #1’s reviewed; 17.34% through the Hot 100

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171) ? and the Mysterians – “96 Tears”

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

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168) The Supremes – “You Can’t Hurry Love”

Motown had started life with the goal of representing the polished and mainstream-friendly face of African-American pop, and was immediately rewarded with a string of blockbuster hits. By the mid-’60s, though, the label’s strict adherence to its sophisticated, conventional pop format began to relax. The chart hits of Stax/Volt and Atlantic proved that racially mixed audiences were open to more concentrated strains of soul, as did Motown’s own success with the likes of the gospel-influenced Four Tops and the funky R&B of Junior Walker & the All Stars. Likewise, rock and roll, which had re-entered the popular consciousness around the same time as Motown via the traditionally-minded, melodic pop of the early British Invasion, was now veering into experimental and bluesier territory, expanding the boundaries of what constituted popular music.

While Motown was understandably hesitant to fiddle with the guaranteed-hit formula of its biggest stars, even The Supremes were eventually geared for an update. “I Hear a Symphony” freed the girls from the repetitive stomp of their previous hits, while the two singles that followed continued playing with the definition of what a Supremes record could sound like: the uncharacteristically moody “My World is Empty Without You,” and “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart,” which set up house in Martha and the Vandellas’ brasher neighborhood. Neither of those songs became number-one hits (though both made the Top 10), so a corrective course was charted to return the girls to their rightful spot on top. Lamont Dozier has said that “You Can’t Hurry Love” began life as a rewrite of “Come See About Me,” and indeed it repeats that record’s melding of worried lyrics with a cheerful, uptempo arrangement. And like “Come See About Me,” Holland-Dozier-Holland sneak in references to a gospel song that would be familiar to much of The Supremes’ black audience – in this case “He’s Right On Time” by Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes. (Sample lyrics: “You can’t hurry God, you just have to wait/ You have to trust Him and give Him time, no matter how long it takes.”). But this time around, the gospel feel isn’t just confined to the lyric sheet. “You Can’t Hurry Love” swings more than any Supremes number-one before it, propelled along by the sprightly bouncing bass and staccato rhythm guitar. “You Can’t Hurry Love,” then, can be thought of as a turning point for The Supremes, transitioning the group from the dainty, airtight pop of their early hits to the more soulful and dramatic sound of their future.

It wasn’t just the Supremes’ sound that was developing, though – the lyrics too were showing signs of maturity. If we think of the Supremes singles as the saga of an on-again, off-again romance where Diana tears herself up over a guy who’s not worth the trouble, “You Can’t Hurry Love” is the point where she begins to step back and reconsider what love is supposed to mean.  She’s learning patience and finding the strength to break off the bad relationship, even though she’s terrified of being single (“How much more can I take/ Before loneliness will cause my heart, heart to break?”). The reassuring maternal figures of Flo and Mary help ease some of Diana’s anxiety and frustration, their backing vocals reenforcing key nuggets of wisdom (“Wait!” “You got to give and take!” “Love don’t come easy!”). The music too is brisk and bouncy – a celebration of the happiness and freedom that await Diana once she stops mooning over her false idea of love. Whether it sticks, though, is another matter. For now, her mother’s advice is “the only thing that keeps me hanging on” – but soon those words will stand for another meaning entirely, and just as desperate. 8

Hit #1 on September 10, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
168 of 1022 #1’s reviewed; 16.44% through the Hot 100

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167) Donovan – “Sunshine Superman”

Half a year passed between the recording of “Sunshine Superman” and its US release. Another half a year passed before the single came out in Donovan’s native UK. Within those 12 months, the concept of mainstream pop that reflected the psychedelic experience had gone from obscurity to full-blown trend. (The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” often cited as the first psych-rock song, was actually recorded a few weeks after “Superman,” though released first.) But even if legal hassles kept “Sunshine Superman” from being the bolt out the blue that Donovan had hoped for, nevertheless there’s a freshness to the single that keeps it from sounding like psychedelia by rote. The collage of classical Indian instrumentation, Baroque-era harpsichord and electric guitars isn’t merely the product of checking boxes on a psych-rock template. Instead, this impossible soundscape untethers the song from any definable time or place, situating the song somewhere found only in the imagination (with the assistance of certain chemicals, perhaps). This detachment from reality is aided by the shifting bass, continually knocking the record off balance, and by the disguised instrumentation: the conga subbing for a tabla, or, in the song’s greatest hook, the swerving electric guitar sting masquerading as sitar or even siren.

The delayed release of “Sunshine Superman” might have even served to its benefit. Its title made the song as apposite a warm weather number-one as “Summer in the City,” albeit one that presents an idealized acid dream of beaches and sunsets rather than The Lovin’ Spoonful’s noisy, grimy realism. In addition, its mid-1966 release placed it in context with psych-leaning records by bigger, more musically progressive acts like The Beatles and The Byrds. In the US, Donovan had previously only notched a few minor hits with the earnest acoustic folk of “Catch the Wind” and “Universal Soldier.” “Sunshine Superman” singlehandedly raised his American profile and transformed his persona from denim-capped balladeer to fey, benevolent mystic. On top of the eclectic production and rainbow-and-velvet-strewn imagery, Donovan’s jazzy phrasing adds a newfound bit of swagger to his delicate tenor, as befitting the refrain “’cause I made my mind up/ you’re going to be mine” – though Donovan’s inherent gentleness makes it more of a mischievous tease than a Jaggeresque leer. The production by Mickie Most, with whom Donovan would collaborate steadily over the next few years, is brisk and breezy in keeping with the song’s carefree spirit, but grounded enough to avoid either the ponderousness or overt whimsy that would often come to mark psychedelia, particularly as the decade progressed.

A historical note: session musicians Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones met at the recording of this single. The band they would form a few years later, while never troubling this blog directly, would have a huge impact on rock music from the late ’60s onward. While “Sunshine Superman” represented a fresh start for its singer and an inspired example of its burgeoning genre, it also contained the seeds of the future sound that would render both obsolete. 8

Hit #1 on September 3, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
167 of 1021 #1’s reviewed; 16.36% through the Hot 100

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166) The Lovin’ Spoonful – “Summer in the City”

The Beach Boys aside, few mid-’60s bands seemed as destined to record a summer standard as The Lovin’ Spoonful, what with the group’s sunny outlook and gentle humor, their country folk/Chuck Berry/jugband-influenced style of  “good time music,” and John Sebastian’s eternally untroubled croon. Hits like “Daydream” and “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” were made for lying in the sunshine, easygoing enough so as not to break a sweat. But the song that would end up soundtracking a million heat wave montages (and become the band’s biggest hit) was one where the Spoonful traded their genial persona for something a little tougher.  “Summer in the City” is the sound of the mercury rising one degree too high, the heat no longer pleasant but oppressive. It takes as its setting the peculiar hell of a Manhattan summer: millions of people packed onto a concrete island, the air foul and tempers short. Even the most affable Greenwich Village hippie is liable to lose his cool.

The intro to “Summer in the City”  builds dread via a trio of warning shots: a pair of long-short organ notes (anticipating the main theme from Jaws, another tale of warm-weather horror), each punctuated by a single snap of snare drum. Sebastian rips into the song like a guy who doesn’t irritate easily but who has finally been pushed over the edge. The band breathlessly courses through the verse, gathering momentum until the line “walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head” bursts forth in a single rush of syllables like a blast of steam from a pressure cooker.

The chorus shifts the setting from summer day to summer night. The introduction of the Autoharp to the song, a familiar presence from many of the Spoonful’s mellower hits, signals a bit of relief accompanying the drop in temperature. Even without the sun beating down, though, the chorus is scarcely less propulsive. The difference is that the band has gone from fleeing the summer heat to pursuing a different, more enjoyable kind of warmth: someone with whom to spend the fleeting hours before the sun’s return. The chase extends into the second verse – “cool cat, lookin’ for a kitty” – but the intensity that read as frustration in the first verse now feels like exhilaration. By the end of the second chorus, the band seems at last content,  Sebastian’s voice softening as he repeats “in the summer, in the city.” This reverie, however, is soon interrupted by reminders of the irritants that will return with the sunlight.  Some of these, like the car horn honks and jackhammer effects, are literal sounds of the summer street. Others are more suggestive: the start-stop traffic rhythm of the guitar/keyboards combo; the sustained organ note, piercing like a sunbeam directly to the eye; the mirage-like haze of the keyboards bathed in reverb. The reprise of the first verse confirms the day’s return, and the song cycles at least twice more between day and night into the fade-out. But the intense heat no longer seems quite as threatening as it used to, now that there’s the night to look forward to.  8

Hit #1 on August 13, 1966; total of 3 weeks at #1
166 of 1020 #1’s reviewed; 16.27% through the Hot 100

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162) The Beatles – “Paperback Writer”

The “Paperback Writer” single is one of the odd cases where the flipside of a record proves more influential than the hit. “Rain,” the B-side in question, is credited as a watershed in The Beatles’ transformation into studio experimentalists, though it’s less notable as a song than as a Whitman’s Sampler of tape effects: sped-up lead vocals, slowed-down rhythm track, a fade-out followed by a fade-in and, most strikingly, John Lennon’s voice run backwards in the coda.  In comparison, “Paperback Writer” could easily be overlooked as one more of the band’s riff-driven rockers – “son of ‘Day Tripper,'” as Lennon himself later called it.* But while “Paperback Writer” may have been more immediate and commercial than its flip, it too foreshadows Revolver’s sonic exploration and eclecticism. The song dispenses with the band’s trademark sticky choruses and distinctive chord progressions, instead locking on to a single G7 chord for nearly the entire verse. (Paul McCartney cites Little Richard as inspiration, but it also brings to mind the drone of raga-influenced Revolver tracks “Love You To” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.”) McCartney’s infatuation with Stax and Motown (cf. “Got to Get You Into My Life”**) inspired the boosted sound of his ever-melodic bass guitar; it would remain essentially a co-lead instrument from Revolver on. The distorted guitar riff, pushier and thornier than “Day Tripper”’s groove, points toward psychedelic rock, as does the trippy vocal echo on the harmonies at the end of the verse: a prêt–à–porter take on “Rain”’s avant-gardisms.

The lyrics of “Paperback Writer” also hint at the expanded subject matter The Beatles were beginning to explore. The name-checking of Edward Lear in the verse and “Frère Jacques” in the backing harmonies preview “Yellow Submarine” and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s fixation with willful nonsense and childlike whimsy. More directly, the song itself is an early example of the type of character vignette McCartney would develop with “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One,” but with those songs’ pathos swapped for a satirical take on the drive for fame.  The narrator has ambition and self-confidence to spare, assuring his anonymous contact that his thousand-plus-page behemoth will be an instant bestseller and breathlessly pleading for a break.  Whether he’s got the talent is another question. For all his attempts to dress his manuscript up in the trappings of a salable pulp paperback (“it’s a dirty story of a dirty man”), it’s clear that it’s in fact a dense autobiographical roman à clef, penned by a writer whose overearnest proposals to change his novel aren’t exactly proof of artistic integrity. (That he claims it’s based on a novel by Edward Lear, who never actually wrote a novel, seems in keeping with both his eagerness to say the right things and his all-around cluelessness.) While such a depiction of a struggling wannabe could seem mean-spirited coming from a band at the pinnacle of both creativity and fame, the song treats the aspiring novelist with a measure of affection and good humor. He may be naïve but he’s also sincere, and it’s hard not to root for his unlikely novel to be accepted. (Note that the only time the song changes chords is on the phrase “paperback writer,” as if acknowledging that’s the only way out of his rut.) Perhaps The Beatles even recognized something familiar in the story: the tale of a creative young man trying to pack a thousand pages’ worth of ideas and personal expression into a typically disposable, commercial piece of pop culture. 8

*From David Sheff’s All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Of course, it’s worth remembering that Lennon was the primary author of “Day Tripper” while McCartney wrote “Paperback Writer,” and that McCartney won the A-side of both singles.

**In which, incidentally, McCartney reprises the “Paperback Writer” guitar riff.

Hit #1 on June 25, 1966 for 2 weeks; repeaked on July 9, 1966 for 1 week; total of 3 weeks at #1
162 of 1018 #1’s reviewed; 15.91% through the Hot 100

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