Category Archives: 08

160) Percy Sledge – “When a Man Loves a Woman”

Southern soul had been a commercial force since the beginning of the decade, but its rawer, more groove-focused sound kept it trailing behind Motown’s hit-driven commercial polish. Memphis-based Stax Records netted a handful of big hits at the beginning of the ’60s – Carla Thomas’s Chantels-ish ballad “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)”; her father Rufus Thomas’s dance novelty “Walking the Dog”; a pair of funky instrumentals by the label’s house band (The Mar-Keys’ “Last Night” and Booker T. & the M.G.’s’ “Green Onions”) – but by 1966, the label still hadn’t produced a breakout artist who could rival The Supremes or Marvin Gaye. Stax’s biggest star, Otis Redding, had yet to reach the Top 20 of the pop charts. Atlantic Records up-and-comer Wilson Pickett, who recorded at Stax, had a bit more luck, hitting #13 in March with “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.).” But the singer who finally gave Southern soul its monster crossover hit was an unknown unaffiliated with the Memphis scene. Percy Sledge worked days as a hospital orderly when he recorded his debut single at Norala Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama. Atlantic quickly picked up the single, and within months “When a Man Loves a Woman” became the label’s first gold record, almost single-handedly establishing the Muscle Shoals region as a capital for soul music.

The churchy organ line that opens the song announces immediately that this is something completely different from any R&B- and soul-flavored pop hit that had come before it. That Farfisa, along with the backing choir vocals, betrays soul’s origins in gospel music, while the twangy guitar could have been ripped from a country song. Sledge’s secular testifying seems freeform and off the cuff, yet carves out a melody as indelible and resilient as any hymn or Tin Pan Alley tune. The song starts out like an ode to devotion: “when a man loves a woman / can’t keep his mind on nothing else / he’ll trade the world for the good thing he’s found.” But for all its romantic slow-dance potential, “When a Man Loves a Woman” is less about love than it is about heartbreak and self-ruin. As the song progresses, the admirable aspects of a relationship begin to warp into their carnival-mirror images. The infatuated man’s imperception of his lover’s flaws reveals itself as fatal blindness; his willingness to sacrifice deteriorates into masochism; his loyalty mutates into codependency. Sledge begins the song in the third person, singing about a generic man and woman, but the pretense of distance drops away in the bridges: “I gave you everything I had,” “I know just how he feels.” The use of “man” and “woman” also universalizes the song, making the relationship between the two feel more like the rule than an unfortunate exception. This is how love always is, Sledge seems to be singing. Even if the woman isn’t worth the pain, the man is doomed to suffer anyway. By the time the slightly out-of-tune horns show up in the final few seconds, they sound as broken as the singer’s spirit.  8

Hit #1 on May 28, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
160 of 1016 #1’s reviewed; 15.75% through the Hot 100

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159) The Mamas & the Papas – “Monday, Monday”

Like The Byrds, the members of The Mamas & the Papas started out as mid-level folkies who found success blending their native style of music with modern pop. But whereas The Byrds primarily drew from the up-to-the-minute sounds of Bob Dylan and The Beatles, The Mamas & the Papas seemed equally comfortable in the present and the past, aligning themselves with the burgeoning folk-rock scene but also reaching back to 1950s vocal groups (particularly the boy-girl harmonies of The Fleetwoods), the soft orchestral arrangements of easy listening and the dramatic flair of vaudeville. Their purified version of folk-rock filtered out its rough edges and political streak while retaining its immediacy and autumnal beauty. The group’s warm yet crystal-clear harmonies and immaculate folk-classical production set the template for sunshine pop, but many of their best songs seemed more partly cloudy, as if their perpetual optimism had developed as resistance to the undercurrent of melancholy coursing through their music. The tension within the group frequently seeped into their lyrics, giving even their more upbeat songs an air of fragility.

“Monday, Monday” isn’t as bleak as The Mamas & the Papas’ previous single, “California Dreamin’,” but nevertheless it captures a similar uncertainty and ambivalence. Monday is the day for returning to regular life, the pleasures of the weekend reduced to nothing more than memories and perhaps some lingering aftereffects. It marks both an end of something that may or may not have been good, and a fresh start that may or may not be welcome. “Monday, Monday” neatly splits the difference between these conflicting emotions: in the left channel, it’s all uplifting ba-da-da harmonies; in the right, it’s Denny Doherty’s plaintive lead and a rolling harpsichord line. The opening line of each verse alternates between anticipation (“Monday, Monday / so good to me”) and dread (“can’t trust that day”). In turn, the mellow sway of the verses are twice split by a faster, more driven bridge, where the melancholy tips over into outright misery (“but whenever Monday comes / you can find me crying all of the time”). Like the preceding number-one, the intensity of “Monday, Monday” is heightened by a false ending. But whereas the stop in “Good Lovin’” is like a blown fuse, the song’s relentless scramble gone into overdrive, the one in “Monday, Monday” stems from a reluctance to move forward. But time marches on and so does the song, concluding on a note of acceptance if not enthusiasm: “Monday, Monday / it’s here to stay.” Rather than coming to a fully resolved ending, the song fades out in a cycle of harpsichord and harmonies. There will always be more Mondays. 8

Hit #1 on May 7, 1966; total of 3 weeks at #1
159 of 1016 #1’s reviewed; 15.65% through the Hot 100

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155) Nancy Sinatra – “These Boots are Made for Walkin'”

It would be neat symmetry to think of “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” as a rebuke to the previous number-one’s questionable sexual politics. But even if there had been a gap between the two records’ releases, you get the sense that “Boots” would’ve been too cool to pay that melodramatic throwback any attention. Whereas the conventional gender attitudes and Four Seasons-esque falsetto leaps of “Lightnin’ Strikes” fit squarely within the mold of early ’60s pop (even as its weirdness elevates it to some other dimension), Nancy Sinatra’s self-assured sexiness and tart, plainspoken vocals epitomized the increasing directness of the latter half of the decade. Even the fact that she was singing about boots – rugged men’s footwear co-opted as ultra-mod women’s fashion, both covering legs and emphasizing their form – felt hip and transgressive.

The tension between the masculine and the feminine recurs throughout Sinatra’s ’60s discography, particularly in her collaborations with songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood. Their duets emphasize the gender divide by casting them as extreme archetypes: him, the hard-bitten rambler; her, the dewy-eyed siren. (The 1967 single “Some Velvet Morning” even fluctuates between time signatures depending on who’s singing.) On “Boots,” though, Sinatra is left to inhabit both roles by herself. By wedding her girlish purr to Hazlewood’s terse, tough-guy phrasing, Sinatra both confirms and subverts conventional expectations of femininity, turning “Boots” into a cross between a come-on and a threat.

Any hint of danger in the record, however, is mostly defused by its sense of humor, from the childlike vernacular (“truthin’,” “samin’”), to the flamboyantly upbeat horns, to Chuck Berghofer’s heat-warped doublebass slide, at once foreboding and absurd. Even Sinatra’s warning that “one of these days, these boots are gonna walk all over you” is delivered with a wink. Is this playfulness meant to assure listeners that her forwardness is just role-playing, that they don’t have to take her seriously? Or is the song tripling back on itself, smuggling in a pro-feminist message in the guise of just kidding? (Sinatra’s wry delivery does suggest she’s telling a joke to someone who’s not getting it, and relishing the thought of how hard the punchline will land once he does.) Perhaps “Boots” and “Lightnin’ Strikes” aren’t so different after all. In an era where traditional gender roles were being questioned, both songs offer ambiguous answers, muddying the waters between what’s intended to be ironic and what’s just camp. 8

Hit #1 on February 26, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
155 of 1016 #1’s reviewed; 15.26% through the Hot 100

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154) Lou Christie – “Lightnin’ Strikes”

“Lightnin’ Strikes” is a difficult record to get a handle on. On one hand, it rivals “Leader of the Pack” for sheer melodrama,  courtesy of the song’s shifting multi-part verses, the kitchen-sink production (by ex-Four Seasons arranger Charles Calello) and Lou Christie’s octave-scaling vocals. On the other hand, there’s the lyrics. “Lightnin’ Strikes” is the pop epitome of the double standard, where Christie can plead for “a girl he can trust to the very end” while at in the same breath try to justify his own infidelity through condescension (“you’re old enough to know the makings of a man”) and bathos (“believe it or not, you’re in my heart all the time”). Even given the era’s gender norms and rock’s pervasive misogyny, the shamelessness of a line like “for the time being, baby, live by my rules” is really something else. (Likewise, he’s careful to imply he’ll marry her without ever quite committing to it.)

In fact, the lines Christie smarmily croons in “Lightnin’ Strikes” are so brazen that you have to wonder if they’re meant to be ironic. The song was co-written by Christie with longtime collaborator Twyla Herbert, a self-described mystic and bohemian more than two decades his senior – not a woman all that concerned with conforming to social norms. Further, “Lightnin’ Strikes” seems geared to emphasize an association between sexism and violence. The prechorus, where Christie’s strained voice shouts “I can’t stop myself!” while female backing singers cry “Stop! Stop!,” is notoriously ambiguous. Is our narrator an unrepentant Casanova or something far more sinister?

“Lightnin’ Strikes” even borrows the format of a horror story. Its verses are a burlesque of innocence, thick with tinkling piano, church bells and an idyllic “chapel in the pines.” Even so, there are hints that things aren’t quite as they appear. Christie’s transparent phoniness implies there’s something in his true nature that needs concealing. The crashing piano chords opening each verse suggest distant cracks of thunder, warning of a coming storm. Even the backing vocals are so exaggerated in their sweetness that they verge on grotesque.

Of course, as in any horror story, this perfect world exists only to be shattered. When Christie spots “lips begging to be kissed,” his voice mutates into a shrill keen, completely unrecognizable from the charmer he posed as just seconds earlier. The switch from his teen idol croon to the manic, otherworldly falsetto signifies that he has transformed into some unknown thing incapable of being controlled. His choice of words – “lightning striking me again!” – links him with the violence of a sudden, unpredictable burst of energy that burns hot and leaves destruction in its wake. It also evokes the electrical flash that brought Frankenstein’s monster to life.

Nevertheless, Christie, Herbert and Calello never entirely tip their hand as to the song’s true meaning. Perhaps the record is exactly what it appears to be, no irony or grotesquerie intended. This uncertainty complements the song’s constantly shifting structure: you never can get too comfortable with “Lightnin’ Strikes,” which is precisely what makes it so compelling. There are plenty of terrible records with well-meaning messages. The ambiguous intent of this one only adds to its allure. 8

Hit #1 on February 19, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
154 of 1016 #1’s reviewed; 15.15% through the Hot 100

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152) The Beatles – “We Can Work It Out”

Key to the Beatles mythology is the perceived difference of temperament between Lennon and McCartney: Paul as the romantic classicist to John’s sardonic experimentalist, the wide-eyed optimist to his steely-eyed realist, the “it’s getting better” to his “can’t get no worse.” And what clearer illustration of this disparity between the two than “We Can Work It Out,” with Paul chirping “We can work it out! We can work it out!” in the chorus, crosscut with John’s memento mori in the middle eight: “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.”

But to read “We Can Work It Out” as an attempt at friendly reconciliation misses the point: Paul has no interest in compromise. “Try to see it my way,” he repeats throughout the song, but he never adopts the opposite point of view. “Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?” he snaps, followed by a threat: “Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone.” Even when he tries to appear conciliatory – “only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong” – it’s obvious which camp he thinks he’s in. “Think of what you’re saying,” he seethes, “you can get it wrong and still you think that it’s all right.” Paul’s rigged it so there’s no way his opponent can win: either she concedes, or the relationship’s over.

The real difference between the two Beatles’ contributions to the song, then, is that John makes these threatening undertones explicit. He arranges his segment in a minor key, beginning each line by hammering at the same note over and over (“life-is-ve-ry-short”). In contrast, Paul either doesn’t recognize his own selfishness, or is wily enough to hide it under a jaunty melody. Likewise, John and Paul harmonize on the bridge, their voices sharing equal time and space. Two vocal tracks can be heard on the verses and chorus as well – but they’re both Paul’s.

Even within the middle eight, there’s a battle between time signatures, alternating between 4/4 (“I have always thought … ”) and 3/4 (“ … ask you once again”). John’s harmonium (foreshadowing the band’s use of odd instruments from Revolver on) is reminiscent of the calliope on a carousel, circling endlessly but never going anywhere. When the song returns to the waltz-time harmonium for the last few measures, it hints that the struggle is still unresolved – or that there will be many more arguments to come.

This push-and-pull extended beyond the confines of the record. John’s (and sometimes George’s) insistence on releasing the harder-rocking “Day Tripper” as the band’s next single instead of “We Can Work It Out” led to the two tracks being bundled together as the first-ever designated double A-side. While “Day Tripper” is the better record, featuring one of the band’s mightiest guitar riffs, it only reached #5 in the US. “We Can Work It Out” is no second-rate release, though. It’s a compelling psychological dissection of an irresolvable argument, from the tunnel vision focus to the frustration at hitting an impasse. Just as “Help!” exposed Lennon’s desperation and neediness, “We Can Work It Out” outs the controlling, unsympathetic side of the cute Beatle, whether he intended it or not. 8

Hit #1 on January 8, 1966 for 2 weeks; repeaked on January 29, 1966 for 1 week; total of 3 weeks at #1
152 of 1016 #1’s reviewed; 14.96% through the Hot 100

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151) Simon & Garfunkel – “The Sounds of Silence”

(Note: Though the song is usually referred to as “The Sound of Silence” (singular), the original single is listed as “The Sounds of Silence” (plural) both on the record label and in Billboard, and thus is the title used here.)

Simon & Garfunkel’s 1964 debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. is a typical relic of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Accompanied only by acoustic guitar and upright bass, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel harmonize through versions of old spirituals and contemporary folk standards with an emphasis on protest songs: Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Simon’s own “He Was My Brother.” Wednesday Morning had the misfortune of arriving at the tail end of the folk revival, in the wake of the British Invasion, and sold accordingly. The duo split, and the album seemed destined to be forgotten. Nestled at the end of side 1, though, was one song that stood out, hinting at a possible future for popular folk music.

“The Sounds of Silence” feels like a protest song, but its object is personal, not political. Think of it as the dispirited flipside to Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” where the bustle of the crowds is the cause of loneliness instead of the cure. The duo struggle to establish a connection to the world around them, singing in tight harmony as a protest against the “songs that voices never shared.” It’s a protest doomed to fail: by its nature, a plea against indifference will be met with a shrug, if it’s heard at all. The futility of the struggle diffuses some of the potential for preachiness: a line like “hear my words that I might teach you” comes across more desperate than self-righteous. No matter how passionately they struggle to be heard, the end of each verse finds them met only with “the sound of silence.”

Nearly a year after Wednesday Morning faded into obscurity, producer Tom Wilson enlisted session musicians to overdub “The Sounds of Silence” with electric guitar, bass and drums in hopes of riding the gathering tide of folk rock.* This additional accompaniment is perfunctory and repetitious, lacking either the melodiousness of The Byrds or the loose give-and-take of Dylan’s band. Inadvertently or not, though, this unvarying plodding strikes at the heart of the song: as the duo’s cries to be heard grow more and more desperate, the uncaring world ignores them and trudges on. Ultimately the song peters out, returning to the same drip-drop guitar pattern the song opened with (echoing their “words, as silent raindrops, fell”), as the duo submits to the silence they’d battled in vain.**

The electrified “Sounds of Silence,” released without Simon & Garfunkel’s knowledge, became a surprise hit. Part of its success could be attributed to the overall popularity of folk rock, but at least as crucial was the sense of alienation coursing through the song. The teenagers who embraced rock and roll in the ’50s had grown into post-adolescents uncertain of what their futures had in store, and Simon & Garfunkel’s pensive, deliberate music struck a chord.*** “The Sounds of Silence” reinforced the message underlying The Beatles’ and Dylan’s most experimental and ambitious work of the period: that there was room for rock and roll to mature, that it could be respectable without sacrificing its power. 8

*Wilson was no mere opportunist, though. In December 1964, inspired by the recent success of The Animals’ version of “The House of the Rising Sun,” he began experimenting with adding rock overdubs to some of Bob Dylan’s earliest recordings (including the version of “The House of the Rising Sun” from his 1962 debut). One month later, Wilson escorted Dylan into his electric phase with Bringing It All Back Home. The overdubs on “The Sounds of Silence” were recorded on June 15, 1965, after Wilson wrapped the first day’s sessions for Dylan’s next single: “Like a Rolling Stone.”

**“I Am a Rock” is the sequel, then, where they have learned to embrace isolation as self-protection.

***No coincidence that the duo’s music recurs throughout The Graduate, the ne plus ultra of ’60s post-adolescent angst, or that director Mike Nichols chose “The Sounds of Silence” to soundtrack the film’s title sequence.

Hit #1 on January 1, 1966 for 1 week; repeaked on January 22, 1966 for 1 week; total of 2 weeks at #1
151 of 1015 #1’s reviewed; 14.88% through the Hot 100

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148) The Supremes – “I Hear a Symphony”

After “Nothing But Heartaches” broke The Supremes’ run of number-one records – failing to even scrape the Top 10 – it was time to rethink the formula. “I Hear a Symphony” offered a more complex take on the Supremes sound, even more than “Stop! In the Name of Love” had been. “Symphony” may have been inspired by fellow girl group The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto,” a record pairing an adaptation of the Minuet in G Major from Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach with lyrics about the ecstasy of falling in love. “Symphony” attempts the same sort of pop-classical fusion but in reverse, dressing a simple pop melody in an elaborate, faux-orchestral production.

While “I Hear a Symphony” retains some of the Supremes’ trademarks (vibes, heartbeat bass, Flo and Mary’s cries of “baby, baby”), the stomping rhythm that had dominated all their previous hits is replaced with a sprightlier backbeat. “Symphony” also adds strings to the mix – first, just as an accent when the girls sing the word “symphony,” then a constant, if subdued, presence from the second chorus on. There are no fewer than three key changes over the course of the song, beginning in C and rising by semitones till it reaches E-flat. Together, the key changes, syncopated rhythm and soaring strings help the song maintain a degree of lightness, even as the record swells in its second half. This light touch extends to the song’s lyrics, the purest, sweetest declaration of love that had appeared on a Supremes number-one to date. When Diana Ross cries here, her tears are not over an unsteady boyfriend, but out of sympathy “for those who’ve never felt the joy we’ve felt.”

In a way, “I Hear a Symphony” can be considered as The Supremes’ “Yesterday,” and not just because of the strings. Both records find their respective groups moving forward by looking backward, cutting their respective genres (R&B and rock) with MOR pop and crossing over to a wider audience in the process. (Incidentally, The Supremes’ version of “Yesterday” appears on the I Hear a Symphony LP, alongside their take on “A Lover’s Concerto.”) But while The Beatles were free to indulge their eclectic streak, The Supremes began catering more and more to the mainstream, performing in supper clubs and stocking their LPs with Top 40 covers and easy listening standards. Surprisingly, the group would take their biggest artistic leaps on their singles.  After “I Hear a Symphony,” Supremes songs no longer had to fit a narrow definition, freeing them to trade consistency for greatness. 8

Hit #1 on November 20, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
148 of 1014 #1’s reviewed; 14.60% through the Hot 100

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