Category Archives: 09

80) The Crystals – “He’s a Rebel”

“He’s a Rebel” is not my favorite Phil Spector record.  I prefer The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” which peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 and thus will not be discussed in depth here.  But “He’s a Rebel” – recorded by The Blossoms but released under the Crystals nameplate, much to the surprise of The Crystals – is the ultimate girl group record.  Condensed into this one song is everything the genre had stood for so far – adolescent love stories, harmonies both playful and powerful, striking (though not always technically proficient) lead vocalists – as well as a blueprint that would set the tone for the rest of the decade.  “He’s a Rebel” may not have been the first song about a good girl in love with a bad boy, but it made that the de facto girl group relationship.  Of course he’s never really a bad boy, that’s just what “they” say because of how he dresses and rejects society’s norms.  But Darlene Love (and all the singers following in her wake) knows the truth: “He’s always good to me, always treats me tenderly / ‘Cause he’s not a rebel … to me.”

And yes, there’s that Wall of Sound.  Spector may have employed the first stirrings of his densely layered soundscapes on “To Know Him is to Love Him,” but it was here that his production techniques flowered into the defining sound of early ’60s pop.  Spector’s sound was ripped off by everyone from fly-by-night cash-in labels to Brian Wilson, and for good reason.  The Wall of Sound is perhaps the preeminent example of the capacity music has to make us empathize on a visceral level.  Not only does the record sound beautiful as a piece of musical art, but the orchestral swirl makes the banal subject matter – nothing that wouldn’t appear as filler on a Miley Cyrus album – sound like the most important thing on the planet.  The struggle between our teenage lovers and those nay-saying “them” is epic.  The romance, like the tune, feels like one for the ages. 9

Hit #1 on November 3, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
80 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.20% through the Hot 100

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44) The Shirelles – “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”

This is the inauguration of the girl group age.  Sure, The Chantels had scored a #15 hit in 1958 with “Maybe,” but it was The Shirelles whom everyone copied.  Sub out the vocals in “Maybe” for those of a male doo-wop group and the record’s more or less the same.  But listen to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and you hear the birth of a new genre.  Lead singer Shirley Owens derided it for being “too country,” but it’s not exactly “El Paso.”  The guitar and drums feel like rock and roll, the strings echo classic pop and the vocals are a tamer descendant of R&B.  It’s this mix that would become the classic girl group sound, enlushened by Jack Nitzsche and Phil Spector and copied by any fly-by-night producer with a quartet of starry-eyed high school singers.

But “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” wasn’t just revolutionary sonically.  The lyrics describe a common teenage dilemma rarely talked about, at least in early ’60s pop songs: does this guy really love you, or does he just want to sleep with you?  “Is this a lasting treasure/ Or just a moment’s pleasure?” may not be explicit lyrics, but there’s no question as to what they refer. But it’s the song’s light touch, devoid of moralizing, that makes the lyrics so honest.

I wasn’t alive when “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was released, so I don’t know how controversial it was on its release.  The Shirelles’ prom-dress elegance and the conflicted nature of the song’s lyrics must have gone a long way toward gaining mainstream acceptance.  But I think it was the innovative fusion of musical styles and the resonance of the subject matter that made the song a #1 hit and all-time classic. 9

Liner Notes

  • “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was the first #1 hit by Brill Building songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

Hit #1 on January 30, 1961; total of 2 weeks at #1
44 of 967 #1’s reviewed; 4.55% through the Hot 100

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38) The Drifters – “Save the Last Dance for Me”

(Apologies for the video – it’s the only one I found on YouTube that used the original recording.)

The ascendance of “Save the Last Dance for Me” almost seems to be a bit of overcompensation on the part of the American listening public.  After “Mr. Custer,” anything would have been an improvement, but instead we get one of the best records of 1960 and an instant classic.  The proto-Wall of Sound arrangement (there’re rumors that Leiber and Stoller’s protegee Phil Spector may have had a hand in the recording) is the absolute summation of the bittersweet lyrics.  The brisk, dance beat shuffle of the percussion in the verses (“You can dance every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight”) is offset by the stirring strings that sweep in during the chorus.  “But don’t forget who’s taking you home, and in whose arms you’re gonna be,” Ben E. King sings, his assertive rasp keeping things from getting too sappy.   It’s an eloquent statement of pure love, one that’s patient and understanding, never jealous or arrogant. 9

Liner Notes

  • Doc Pomus, the song’s lyricist, walked on crutches as a result of childhood polio.  He was allegedly inspired to write the song by his own wedding, having watched his wife dance with his brother in his place.

Hit #1 on October 17, 1960 for 1 week; repeaked on October 31, 1960 for 2 weeks; total of 3 weeks at #1
38 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.94% through the Hot 100

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10) Lloyd Price – “Stagger Lee”

I think the first time I came across “Stagger Lee” was the remake of “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” by The Clash, followed by Nick Cave’s gleefully obscene version on Murder Ballads.  So the idea of this song of gambling and cheating and murder as a #1 hit record in 1959 seemed incredible.  And yet it was, for four weeks straight, without being toned down in the least.  Self-righteous pessimists may complain about violence in rap music and the decline of propriety in American culture, but never have I heard a song so exuberant about the gratuituous murder of an innocent man.  Lloyd Price sides not with poor Billy, the honest gambler with a sick wife and three kids, but Stagger Lee, the sociopath who considers killing a man to be fair if it means keeping his Stetson hat.  Price in the song is an observer in the shadows, “standin’ on the corner” (almost certainly up to no good) when his bulldog barks at “the two men who were gamblin’ in the dark.”  He sees all this going down and does nothing to interfere, but it’s unclear whether it’s because he wants to keep his head down or if he thinks Billy may deserve it.  Price’s description of Billy’s murder in the final stanza is detached, focusing less on his death than the feat of the fatal bullet passing through the bartender’s glass.  The backup singers’ cries of “Go Stagger Lee!” only add to the amoral spectacle, as does the jaunty sax solo.  It’s exactly what rock and roll should be: shocking and antisocial and completely euphoric. 9

Liner Notes

  • This is also the first instance on the Hot 100 of the great New Orleans sound that I grew up with and love so much, and was unfortunately ignored in large part by the pop charts.  That said, it won’t be too long before we come across another classic slice of NOLA, featuring the man who essentially made the New Orleans beat in the ’60s – but that’s still a couple of years away, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Hit #1 on February 9, 1959; total of 4 weeks at #1
10 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.04% through the Hot 100

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