Category Archives: 09

181) The Beatles – “Penny Lane”

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the go-to examples of classic concept albums, yet it’s equally as well-known for the flimsiness of its concept. There’s no overarching narrative or thematic unity; the closest unifying thread, the idea that a fictional band (looking an awful lot like The Beatles in neon satin suits) are performing the album, barely makes it into track two. But The Beatles had initiated the recording session with a much clearer, more compelling idea: an album centered on aging and memories of youth. This concept fell apart in early stages after two of the three tracks earmarked for the project were pulled and released as a double-sided single. (The leftover, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” did turn up on the final album.) Subsequent reports conflict as to whether this was an emergency stopgap measure – The Beatles and George Martin reluctantly caving to record company demands for new product – or whether the concept had simply run out of gas.

The resulting single, “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane,” notoriously peaked at #2 in Britain, becoming the group’s first single on Parlophone not to top the charts since “Please Please Me” in 1963. In the US, however – which, unlike the UK, tracked each side of a single separately for chart placement – “Penny Lane” managed to come out on top, with “Strawberry Fields Forever” eventually peaking a few spots below at #8. The outcome replicated the chart placement for “We Can Work It Out”/“Day Tripper” two years prior: the gentler, poppier McCartney composition besting the harder-edged, more outré Lennon one. That “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” finds both songwriters treating similar subject matter – their childhoods in Liverpool – further emphasizes the difference in sensibilities between the band’s principal songwriters.

“Penny Lane” drops listeners into a series of lightly humorous, sharply detailed episodes from the past, using pre-rock instrumentation (piano, brass, woodwinds) to set the nostalgic scene. Where “Penny Lane” is about memories, however, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is about the process of memory, how things get fuzzy and distorted when examined remotely. Its use of cutting edge electronic instrumentation and production techniques – Mellotron, backwards recording, pitch-shifting – both creates an abstract, illusory atmosphere (where “nothing is real”) and establishes the song’s location in the present, or perhaps even the future. It’s not the sights and sounds of playing in Strawberry Field that Lennon details in the song, but his attempts as an adult to return to the particular frame of mind embodied in his childhood self, and the impossibility of trying to recapture the past as anything more substantial than a dream.

But while “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” seems the ultimate depiction of the dichotomy between Lennon and McCartney – the former experimental, philosophical, cynical; the latter cheerful, nostalgic, whimsical – as usual, the starkness of this division glosses over McCartney’s knack for subtle complexity. “Penny Lane” isn’t just bright – it has the overlit affect of a Hollywood set and the unnaturally vivid hues of Technicolor. The chorus’s description of “blue suburban skies” (likely an anomaly in Northern England) is contradicted by several references within the verses to “the pouring rain.” Likewise, the specificity of the (often unusual) details makes the scenarios seem hyperreal – highlighted by the recurring line “very strange” and the title-card interjections of “meanwhile back.” McCartney is demonstrating the hazards of reconstructing memory as a narrative – conflating unrelated elements, rearranging timelines, and exaggerating minor pieces of the story.

In the final verse, many of the characters earlier in the song (the barber, the banker, the fireman) congregate in the same scene, as if part of a dramatic production with only a limited company of actors. In fact, the only character in the song who doesn’t turn up again in the barber shop is the nurse selling poppies, perhaps because she’s come to doubt her own existence (“and though she feels as if she is in a play/ she is anyway”). That segment is McCartney’s most explicit acknowledgement that “Penny Lane” may not be intended as the strict truth, a division emphasized by McCartney’s keening vocal line that occurs nowhere else in the song. There are other moments throughout “Penny Lane” where gray clouds threaten to intrude on the blue suburban skies: the jolt of minor chords around the third line of every verse; the slight tinges of seediness (the fireman with his “portrait of a queen” and “clean machine,” the references to “finger pies”); the ominous outro, with a cymbal rolls and piercing, feedback-like piccolo. These minor disruptions never threaten to derail the cheery narrative, but they do hint that there’s more going on below the surface for those willing to look.

If “Strawberry Fields Forever” describes the impossibility of returning to the past, “Penny Lane” demonstrates why that is the case: what is thought of as the past isn’t necessarily what actually happened, but a composite from multiple sources, with the negative and dull parts excised and the gaps filled with invention. Rather than explicitly stating its themes, however, as Lennon did with “Strawberry Fields,” McCartney presents “Penny Lane” in a more ambiguous manner. It may be accepted at face value as a nostalgic fantasy, but it also rewards a more critical listener who can pick up on its contradictions and embellishments. “Strawberry Fields Forever” may be more self-consciously experimental and cerebral, but “Penny Lane,” with its sunny lyrics and upbeat, conventional arrangement, is no less clever – and in its own way, more subversive – an exploration of the limits of memory. 9

Hit #1 on March 18, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
181 of 1,036 #1’s reviewed; 17.47% through the Hot 100

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177) The Monkees – “I’m a Believer”

The future promised by “Good Vibrations” couldn’t last long. After just one week at the top of the charts, it was displaced by the return of the faux-nostalgic, willfully uninspiring “Winchester Cathedral” – a move by the American Record Buying Public that seemed to repudiate their brief dalliance with moving, stimulating pop. But in the nick of time, The Monkees came to rescue arguably the greatest year ever for number-ones from ending on a bum note. “I’m a Believer” isn’t a fraction as innovative as “Good Vibrations,” but whereas that Beach Boys record provided a blueprint for the experimental sounds of emerging FM rock, the success of “I’m a Believer” more accurately predicted pop’s immediate future. The song would go on not only to become the biggest single of 1967, but one of the most popular records ever. (Of the songs that have turned up on this blog so far, only “Sukiyaki” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” have sold more copies worldwide.) The band’s first four LPs would go on to top the 1967 Billboard album charts for a combined total of 29 weeks – more than half the year, and double the length of time that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would spend at the top. More of the Monkees, the LP featuring “I’m a Believer,” would become the first rock album to be the year’s bestseller, a feat not even The Beatles had managed.

As if predicting that Beatlemania was about to be eclipsed by Monkeemania, “I’m a Believer” borrows far less from the Fab Four than had previous single “Last Train to Clarksville.” The guitar riff, melodic bass line and Micky Dolenz’s mid-Atlantic accent are all mildly Beatles-inspired (and the prominent organ recalls tracks like “I’m Looking Through You” from Rubber Soul), but there’s nothing that countless other rock bands of the time hadn’t nicked without drawing comment. In fact, the track it most resembles is its songwriter Neil Diamond’s own hit “Cherry, Cherry,” which broke into the Top 10 in October 1966. The two records share a suspiciously similar rhythm and acoustic guitar/keyboard elements – little surprise, then, that they also share a producer (Jeff Barry) and an arranger/organist (Artie Butler).

But whereas Diamond, a “rocker” in a traditional pop mold, could deck his version of “I’m a Believer” with strings, horns and female backing vocals, a nominal garage rock band like The Monkees needed to keep their instrumentation basic. Instead, the record catches the ear with a dynamic arrangement. The chugging pace of the verses reflects a life trudged through without hope of anything exciting to shake it up – though the handclaps and bright tempo hint at happier times just around the corner. Suddenly, the gears grind to a halt as the narrator finds his life changed in an instant: “Then I saw her face! Now I’m a believer!” The record’s sound immediately grows fuller and richer, augmented by a chirpy organ and livelier backing vocals. But if one dramatic pause weren’t enough to express this radical conversion, a second drives the point home. The proclamation “I’m in love!” is accompanied only by tambourine and a few emphatic guitar strums, intercut with Davy Jones and Peter Tork’s transcendent “mmmm – oh – yeah!” harmony vocals, as sharp and clear as a beam of light through a stained glass window.

As striking as the arrangement is, though, it’s lead singer Micky Dolenz who really sells the song, as a pessimist succumbing to belief in love in spite of himself. His vocal inflections – the sigh of “what’s the use in tryin’,” the slight falter in “not a trace,” the breathless strain on the final “I couldn’t leave her if I tried” – and the way he drags one microsecond behind the beat through most of the song convey the ambivalence of someone who had gotten comfortable with his lack of happiness and isn’t entirely sure he’s ready for a change, even a positive one. By the coda, though, any hesitation in his voice evaporates as his faith in love is made devout. Playing off the title’s religious connotations, the song takes on a gospel flavor as Dolenz and Jones/Tork exchange call-and-response cries of “I’m a believer!” backed by the everpresent organ.

Despite all the dramatic pauses and dynamic shifts, The Monkees & co handle “I’m a Believer” with a light touch, keeping the beat danceable and the tone joyous throughout. Dolenz commits to the emotional arc of the song, but without pushing it to Righteous Brothers-levels of melodrama. Even when the song is at its bleakest (“disappointment haunted all my dreams”), the exaggeratedly monotone “duh-dun duh-dun” backing vocals seem to mock the narrator’s self-pity. More than “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer” sets the template for The Monkees records to come: as clever, experimental and affecting as the best of ’60s pop-rock, but without the burden of taking themselves too seriously. 9

Hit #1 on December 31, 1966; total of 7 weeks at #1
177 of 1030 #1’s reviewed; 17.18% through the Hot 100

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174) The Supremes – “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”

 In the summer of 1966, The Supremes had two singles competing for release. Their previous two, though both Top 10 hits, had failed to top the charts, making for the longest break between Supremes number-ones yet. Motown logically chose to release “You Can’t Hurry Love” first, a song that recaptured the bounce and light touch of their initial run of hits while adding a stronger soul influence. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” the other potential single, was more of a departure – a despairing, driving record whose closest antecedent was the minor-key chorus and groaning organs of “My World is Empty Without You,” a flop by Supremes standards (in that it only got to #5). By the time Motown released the single in October, though, songwriters/producers Holland-Dozier-Holland were riding the success of a similar blend of melodrama and psych-rock touches. No coincidence, then, that “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” finally came out the same week “Reach Out I’ll Be There” topped the charts.

While the stakes may be lower on “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” – just heartbreak and frustration, not existential angst – the outcome is less certain. Diana Ross’s fragile vocals and inherent vulnerability render the defiant lyrics (“set me free,” “get out my life”) less as commands than feeble pleas. Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, avatars of wisdom and guidance on “You Can’t Hurry Love,” aren’t much support here either. They drift in and out of the mix, often overlapping with Diana’s lead as if singing as one muddled voice, or emitting wails that sound halfway between a siren and a sob. Distress signals recur throughout “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”: the morse-code guitar lines, the flailing bass, the galloping percussion (borrowed from “Reach Out”). At the same time, though, there’s a directness and forcefulness to the record that outstrips even “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Layers of instruments (including organ, vibes and what sounds like muted brass) are doubled and tripled playing the same sustained notes, as if building a fortress out of sound. The emphatic drum/tambourine beat provides the foundation, steady but for an admission of defeat: “and there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it.”

Diana often played the romantic victim in previous Supremes singles, but usually in the sense that she was a pushover, perhaps even someone who got a thrill out of the drama. In “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” though, she really does seem to be making an honest effort to break away from the relationship (“let me get over you the way you’ve gotten over me”), making her struggle all the more tragic. This shift toward trying to take control of the relationship, whether successful or not, marks a new maturity for The Supremes, accentuated by the move from light pop to a harder-edged, more urgent sound. Unlike earlier Supremes hits, Holland-Dozier-Holland wouldn’t try to follow it up by trying to replicate the formula exactly. Instead, they’d mutate it, taking advantage of the single’s success and the expanding pop atmosphere of the late ’60s to see how baroque and experimental they could push the Supremes’ sound without losing their essence (or their audience). 9

Hit #1 on November 19, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
174 of 1025 #1’s reviewed; 16.98% through the Hot 100

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161) The Rolling Stones – “Paint It, Black”

The Beatles, ever the pop pioneers, introduced the sitar to rock and roll on the song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” released at the end of 1965 on the album Rubber Soul.* The exoticism of George Harrison’s sitar complements John Lennon’s worldly-wise sketch of a casual affair, each in its own way signifying the expanding horizons of the 1960s. Harrison wouldn’t start studying with Ravi Shankar until the following year, but he had already begun to take the instrument seriously. Brian Jones, on the other hand, had no such pretensions to authenticity or mastery of the instrument. The sitar appealed to The Rolling Stones because it sounded foreign, and by extension sinister and unsettling. If the sitar in “Norwegian Wood” represented knocking down established boundaries, in “Paint It Black” it captures the feeling of being stranded in an alien culture, fearful for your life and unable to find your way home.

The hell that the song’s narrator finds himself trapped in is existential despair provoked by his girlfriend’s sudden death. The song marks the point where The Rolling Stones’ juvenile negation of the world in “Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” withers into absolute nihilism, its pitch-blackness prefiguring the flirtation with the occult that would culminate in Their Satanic Majesties Request and “Sympathy for the Devil.” “Paint It Black” may not feint at satanism, but the classical Indian instrumentation and Jewish/Arabic/Persian-inspired vocal lines evoke a mysticism far beyond the borders of genteel Britain and its institutional Anglicanism.

Like several of the preceding number-ones, “Paint It Black” casts off the standard verse-chorus song structure, instead alternating between two rival sections. Part A is the Eastern half of the song, driven by sitar and invoking Southwest Asian percussion and melodic styles. Jagger looks inside himself and finds only blackness; outside himself, the only things he can see are hearses and dead flowers. His all-consuming despondency starts to spew out to the world around him. He wants to drain the color of everything – to paint the red door black – and make the rest of the world match his own darkness. Part B is the song’s Western half, driven by guitar and adhering to a more familiar rock format. This is the part of the song where the living dwell: newborn babies, girls in summer clothes, people who avert their eyes from the funeral procession. Here, Jagger can recognize that there’s light out of the blackness (summer, the sun), and that what feels to him like the earth shattering “just happens every day.” “Paint It Black” is driven by this tension between Jagger’s competing options, whether to rejoin the rest of the world or disappear inside himself. The band rage against the darkness, trying to outmenace the menace – note especially Charlie Watts’s cymbal-heavy thrash, the manic counteracting the depressive – but Jagger chooses to “fade away,” reneging on a promise from more innocent days. The only living thing left is an imaginary version of his love, a vision of whom he can almost make out in the vanishing sun. Soon he even wants to blot that out, and the song gives way to the abyss, fading out as he fades away. 9

*The Yardbirds had experimented with the instrument in the sessions for the 1965 single “Heart Full of Soul,” but the final version replaced the sitar with an electric guitar.

Hit #1 on June 11, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
161 of 1018 #1’s reviewed; 15.82% through the Hot 100

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140) The Rolling Stones – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

The Rolling Stones arrived relatively late to the British Invasion. Most of the band’s compatriots scored major hits almost overnight after “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” often on their first or second US single. With the exception of “Time is on My Side” (#6, Dec ’64), though, the Stones’ blues and R&B covers that made up the bulk of their early material mostly failed to move US record buyers. The band’s luck improved stateside when they began focusing on their own poppier material: “Tell Me” (the first Jagger/Richards A-side and the group’s Top 40 debut, Aug 1964), “Heart of Stone” (Top 20, Feb ’65), “The Last Time” (Top 10, May ’65). By the time the band netted their first US chart-topper, though, they weren’t just contending with The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits. The Byrds’ success with “Mr. Tambourine Man” heralded the first real threat to the British Invasion: soft, sunny folk rock, pop that was supposed to have a message.

But while The Byrds were dressing Dylan’s ragged clown in a fringe vest and a vacant smile, The Rolling Stones were topping the charts with a more potent kind of protest music. The hero of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” rails against everything around him, from TV advertising and “useless information” on the radio to his inability to get off with a girl. But “Satisfaction” is too sharp-witted to be mistaken for a litany of grievances. A line like “he can’t be a man ’cause he does not smoke/ the same cigarettes as me” seems to parody the self-righteous folkie moralist, while the sneering vocals frame the complaints in quotation marks, as if to acknowledge the absurdity of a rock star whining about how hard he has it. The Rolling Stones didn’t just score a hit with an anti-establishment message; they mocked the self-indulgence of it, made it seem as solipsistic as moaning about not getting laid.

Of course, all suggestions of social critique and irony are secondary to the song’s shocking-for-1965 salaciousness (“tryin’ to make some girl”!), and all lyrics period are secondary to that guitar riff, as fuzzy and unshakeable as a hangover headache. It’s the first sound you hear on the single, and it’s pushed to the front of the mix, dominating the rest of the record. The riff cycles without changing, heavily syncopated as if scoffing at the confines of the beat. Even when it knocks off for a bit, the bass keeps circling in place, the snare drum snaps on every beat, the tambourine gets its three shakes in at the end of each measure. There barely needs to be a verse or a chorus, and there barely is; the song wants to be a 12-bar blues, but it never gets to resolve itself. There’s no middle eight or guitar solo to churn up the monotony — and at nearly four minutes long, it does get monotonous. You don’t need to hear the lyrics to tell you the song’s about being stuck in a rut without release or escape.

Nor do you need them to understand Mick Jagger’s chewy, drippy, overly-underenunciated drawl, simultaneously a frank come on and a caricature of our narrator’s sexual/societal frustration. The real Mick Jagger may want satisfaction, but he certainly doesn’t have trouble getting it; the real Mick Jagger will write a song bemoaning advertising, then spend the royalties on a Bentley. Perhaps it’s this duality that’s helped the song withstand decades of over-exposure. “Satisfaction” is pro-hedonism and anti-consumerism, social commentary and a mockery of social commentary, an ain’t-got-no blues for middle class white kids self-aware enough to know they don’t have real problems but are going to complain anyway. That, and it’s got a massive guitar riff. 9

Hit #1 on July 10, 1965; total of 4 weeks at #1
140 of 1010 #1’s reviewed; 13.86% through the Hot 100

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135) The Beatles – “Ticket to Ride”

Desolation and self-flagellation gnawed at the edges of Beatles for Sale, but it wasn’t until “Ticket to Ride” that the band tried crafting an arrangement to match the darkness of the subject matter. And certainly, compared with A Hard Day’s Night‘s thematically similar “I’ll Cry Instead” (John Lennon gets rejected, vacillates between despair and contempt), “Ticket to Ride” is depression in audio form. The lead guitar sketches the same figure over and over; the bass refuses to shift from the note where it’s gotten comfortable; the drums lumber sideways and crooked, anything to avoid taking a single step forward. But for a song that’s supposed to be such a drag, “Ticket to Ride” is remarkably buoyant. The brightness of the 12-string Rickenbacker and the countryish harmonies shine through the fog of self-pity and gloom, and even the off-kilter rhythm section manages a danceable groove. Surely part of this peppiness was with an eye to the charts – dirges don’t make for good number-ones, especially when they’re meant to be promoting frenetic comedies. Yet The Beatles weren’t afraid to go full-downbeat on fellow Help! track “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and they’d top the charts again a few months later with a record even more melancholy and decidedly un-rock and roll.

More likely, then, is that the tension between lethargy and dynamism is intended to cover all the emotions that come with the end of a relationship, especially one that’s lasted far longer than it should’ve. Lennon’s first line is the tentative “I think I’m going to be sad,” and he probably is, at least at first. But it isn’t long before that sadness revs up into self-righteous self-pity (“and she don’t care!”). He then spends the second verse puzzling over his girlfriend’s stated reasons for leaving, unsure of whether to feel remorse for his behavior or to scoff at her unreasonableness.  The more he thinks about it, the more his blood starts to boil, and the music follows suit, swapping out the lopsided drums for the frantic pulse of the tambourine. The bridge is the angriest part of “Ticket to Ride” – “she oughta think twice, she oughta do right by me” sounds suspiciously like a veiled threat – but the surge in tempo and the glee in Lennon and McCartney’s voices also make it the liveliest. (There is some perverse pleasure in feeling like the one wronged.)  Then it’s back to the verses, only this time around, the musical repetition feels less like the numbness of depression than a reminder of the grind of a romance gone stale.  Lennon’s re-examining his earlier sentiments from a different perspective: “I think” is now a stifled laugh; “she says that living with me is bringing her down” sounds more wry than resentful. When the coda kicks into double-time, Lennon’s falsetto cries of “my baby don’t care!” are self-mocking, as if unable to believe he could have ever cared either.

Not all of the emotions Lennon courses through in “Ticket to Ride” are attractive, but the frankness is astonishing. No longer did the band seem concerned with adhering to whatever The Beatles were supposed to sound like. Instead, they showed a willingness to branch out into darker subject matter and sonic experimentation. (Lennon would later jokingly claim “Ticket to Ride” as the first heavy metal song, but the droning bass and clattering, off-kilter percussion sound more like a precursor to the band’s flirtation with raga rock.) “Ticket to Ride” doesn’t just feel like a dividing line for The Beatles, though, but for the British Invasion as a whole. The chipper rock and roll revivalism of the first wave was falling from favor; bluesy hard rock and baroque pop were on the horizon. It would be nearly two months before another British single topped the Hot 100, this time by a band much tougher and rawer than any of the early comers. Even so, “Ticket to Ride” proves The Beatles were more than capable of surviving the transition. 9

Hit #1 on May 22, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
135 of 1009 #1’s reviewed; 13.38% through the Hot 100

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129) The Temptations – “My Girl”

Motown was an enterprise founded on the almost hubristic conviction that a regional label making “race music” could become Hitsville, USA, that at least as many whites as blacks would spin its records. Even as the label’s singles climbed the charts, Berry Gordy and company were too ambitious to remain complacent. Motown’s early successes proved that audiences would embrace stylish, catchy pop-soul, regardless of race. The next challenge, then, was not commercial but artistic. The Motown number ones covered so far succeeded primarily on performance and melody. Now, though, the label was beginning to cohere its sound. Motown needed a style that was both instantly identifiable (like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound) and which popped from radio speakers (like the brightly produced Beatles singles).

The label had already made great strides by 1964 – just compare The Supremes’ arc from the muddled sound of “Where Did Our Love Go” to the tight, punchy “Come See About Me.” But it was The Supremes’ male counterparts, The Temptations, who released the record that set the gold standard for Motown’s sonic ambitions. Smokey Robinson co-wrote “My Girl” with Ronald White as an answer song/companion piece to “My Guy,” but the newer composition so outpaced the inspiration that the two scarcely appear to have been recorded in the same decade, much less by the same house band. The light-jazz touchpoints have been replaced with electric guitars; Mary Wells’ elocution-lesson delivery gives way to David Ruffin’s elegant roughness. Rather than the live-band-in-the-studio instrumentation of the past, “My Girl” has a very deliberate sound, in which the bass is distinct from the lead guitar is distinct from the horns, where each drum beat and finger snap is crisp and discrete, creating a depth of sound that envelops the listener as if it were a physical space. That’s not even touching the song itself, along with “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” the best thing Robinson had penned up to that point, both of which are so satisfying in structure and seemingly effortless in composition that they scarcely seem of human provenance. The idea that either Robinson or The Temptations could ever top “My Girl” seems absurd, and yet they would. But more than just a glorious record, “My Girl” threw down the gauntlet for Motown’s songwriters and performers. The Supremes and Four Tops would attempt to out-do The Temptations, and Holland-Dozier-Holland and Whitfield-Strong would try to trump Robinson. The resulting discography elevated Motown from a label that released some great singles to the cultural force that forever changed the sound of popular music. 9

Hit #1 on March 6, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
129 of 1004 #1’s reviewed; 12.85% through the Hot 100

Liner Notes

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