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176) The Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations”

In late November 1965, The Beach Boys released “The Little Girl I Once Knew” as the follow-up to “California Girls,” the record on which Brian Wilson finally matched Phil Spector for orchestral grandeur – albeit with a more subtle layering than the towering Wall of Sound. “Little Girl” pushed Wilson’s ambition even further, not only instrumentally but structurally. Between the verse and chorus, where a bridge might normally go, Wilson instead illustrated the song’s theme of missing time by completely dropping all voices and instrumentation for a couple of bars, resulting in stark stretches of near silence. The Beach Boys’ most overtly experimental single yet also became the group’s lowest charting since 1962 – #20 for a group that almost never peaked outside the Top 10. Less than a month after its release, Capitol Records rushed out “Barbara Ann,” a throwback doo-wop cover from the Christmas market cobble-up LP Beach Boys Party!. It went to #2.

Undeterred, Wilson pushed forward with work on the ambitious, gorgeously-crafted album Pet Sounds. For all its subsequent plaudits as one of the greatest albums ever made, at the time its reception in the US was more muted, though the accompanying singles “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” restored the group to the upper ranks of the charts. Having successfully honed his elaborate-yet-pristine production style, Wilson returned to the structural experimentation of “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” but with a more radical bent. Spector may have referred to his own records as “little symphonies for the kids,” but beneath the orchestral ornamentation lay traditional pop framework. Wilson, in contrast, strove to create something symphonic not only in arrangement, but in form. Assembling songs in terms of classical movements would permit him to pursue his musical imagination in whatever direction it took him, rather tying him down to the repetition of the verse-chorus cycle. It also reflected the contemporary, proto-postmodern fascination with assemblage: William S. Burroughs’s cut-ups, Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, Bruce Conner’s montage films. While The Beach Boys and their collaborators constructed each of the elements they’d weave and mash together, Wilson would treat them almost as found sound. The band’s first attempt at this type of symphonic form took 17 recording sessions over a six month span; its $50,000 price tag made it almost certainly the most expensive single up to that point in time. Fortunately, it paid off.

“Good Vibrations” is a collage of six discrete sections, strung together in a form that can roughly be mapped as A-B-A-B-C-D-B′-E-F. The immaculate arrangements and harmonies within each individual selection collide with the dramatic shifts between them. (There are even audible seams between the first verse and chorus, and in the middle of the word “excitations” at the end of the second chorus.) Yet for all the unexpected musical left turns, it still manages to tell a coherent story, albeit with a sort of daydream logic. The narrator begins by admiring a girl’s beauty from afar; having recognized some sort of encouragement from her (real or imagined), his mind swirls into a spiral of fantasy scenarios.

A“I, I love the colorful clothes she wears” – The minor key places our narrator as pining for the girl from afar, but the insistent rhythm hints that something’s building up. Both Carl and Brian Wilson sing on these verses, but their vocal lines are cut together to sound like one lone boy.

B“I’m pickin’ up good vibrations” – Perhaps the girl’s shown a sign of interest in the narrator; perhaps he’s just got a feeling that today’s his day. Regardless, the song shifts into a major key, with busier backing vocals representing both joy and reciprocation. The teen-angel tenor of Carl/Brian is swapped for Mike Love’s grounded baritone: imagination gives way to reality, the boy grows up to be a man. The wobble of the Electro-Theremin spells out the weird-but-nice sensation of the title, but it’s the cellos sawing away on the bottom end that produce tactile vibrations.

C“I don’t know where, but she sends me there” – The Beach Boys go psychedelic, at least in terms of what psych-rock meant in 1966 – i.e., Indian and Middle Eastern frills. But rather than shopworn sitars and tablas, this instrumentation is so exotic it can scarcely be identified. (I’m still not sure whether that barely audible whir in the background was produced by a musical instrument or a human voice.) The loping rhythm imagines a camel ride and predicts reggae. The key lyric is particularly apt.

D“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happenin’ with her” – A moment of hushed solemnity with organ, soft shakers and the Boys at their most church choirly. The single lyric is chanted over and again, as if invoking a holy ceremony. Their voices briefly give way to harmonica, that symbol of ’60s authenticity and gravitas, before one last ecstatic, heavenly “ahhh.”

B′ – In sonata terms, the modified recapitulation of the primary theme. Note that while in its earlier iterations, each harmony line rose up a step, this time they descend – a settling down.

E – Wordless vocals and hardly any instruments, apart from tambourine. Language has reached its limits in describing this sort of joy. Maybe it’s even baby babble.

F – The vibrations get the last word. (Theory: the overt sci-fi weirdness of the Electro-Theremin acts as a Trojan horse for the song’s subtler structural weirdness, giving listeners something more familiarly strange to pin those unsettling sensations on.)

Perhaps one of the most mind-bending aspects of “Good Vibrations” is how it manages to pack all these elements into a brisk three and a half minutes. Yet for all its ambition, it never seems show-offy in a way that its imitators sometimes do. Instead, it feels like a genuine attempt to express a specific emotional progression, and does so in a way that never sacrifices the pop elements inherent to The Beach Boys’ sound (doo wop backing vocals, hooks galore). “Good Vibrations” marks the difference between psychedelic “expanding your mind” clichés, and music that truly ventures into unmarked territory, granting free rein to a fertile imagination.

While Wilson had managed to recover from the relative commercial disappointments of “The Little Girl I Once Knew” and Pet Sounds, the frustration and self-doubt of trying to follow the path set out by “Good Vibrations” would ultimately break him. The proposed LP Smile was supposed to best the relentless innovation of The Beatles; instead, Wilson burned himself out and more or less gave up. The Beach Boys, with Brian in a reduced role, continued to release (often terrific) music, but they had lost their breakneck creative and commercial momentum. “Good Vibrations” would end up as not only the group’s last number-one of the ’60s, but also their last Top 10 hit for a decade. The single that finally returned them to the upper reaches of the charts would be a flat cover of “Rock and Roll Music” – perhaps a conscious return to their appropriation of Chuck Berry on “Surfin’ USA” in 1963, back before they got mixed up with that experimental arty stuff. But even if “Good Vibrations” ended up as something of a dead end for the Boys themselves, countless of the group’s contemporaries and followers learned its lessons, concocting elaborate productions and stringing together musical ideas into an open-ended, free-flowing composition. Yet it would be a rare few who would manage to conduct the same electrical charge of The Beach Boys’ single, a record as exciting for its freshness and emotional verity as for the potential it represented for a new kind of pop music. 10

Hit #1 on December 10, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
176 of 1027 #1’s reviewed; 17.14% through the Hot 100

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170) The Four Tops – “Reach Out I’ll Be There”

Motown writing/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland frequently sneaked references to traditional gospel music into their otherwise secular records. On the Supremes tracks “Come See About Me” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” paraphrases of familiar gospel songs function as a shibboleth, tacitly invoking a culture shared by the artists and a specific (African-American, Christian) subset of their audience. For records like the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” though, the allusions are more thematic than literal, a means of adding heft to a formula love song. The song, directed toward a depressed woman apparently on the verge of suicide, promises everlasting love, support and consolation to guide her through her trouble. The narrator is portrayed as a near-omnipotent force capable of salvation. All the woman has to do is ask and her prayers will be answered.

The intro to “Reach Out” enacts the record’s theme in miniature: a mournful cry from a flute, answered by the gallop of a woodblock rushing to rescue. Though the beat migrates to tambourine and drums/bass over the course of the song, it never ceases or varies tempo, even when most other instrumentation drops out at the song’s tensest moments. Lead singer Levi Stubbs’ declamatory baritone is nearly as constant, at times so powerful that it veers into distortion. His strained vocals and jagged phrasing attest to the intensity of his effort. His ability to rescue her isn’t in doubt; the question is whether she will reach out for him. All the Tops can do is offer a hand and beg her to accept it. The suspense builds to a climax on the bridge between verse and chorus, as the backing Tops’ cries to “reach out!” escalate and Stubbs’s pleas grow more fervent (“come on girl, reach out for me!”). The vocals cut out and, for a few moments, her fate hangs in the balance. Does she succumb to her fears and anxieties? Or does she accept his help? At last, Stubbs’ triumphant “HAH!” relieves the tension, as if he’s caught her hand and is pulling her to safety. The pleading in the bridge gives way to a reassuring affirmation: “I’ll be there/ to always see you through.” By the final verse, she no longer needs to seek him out; he’s already with her (“just look over your shoulder!”).

While gospel is the obvious reference point for the vocal style and lyrical themes, musically “Reach Out” suggests that Holland-Dozier-Holland were paying attention to rock as well – specifically “Paint It Black,” where the cantering rhythm and major-minor fluctuations stand for existential angst. The Four Tops’ run of singles from “Reach Out” through “7-Rooms of Gloom” can be considered Motown’s counterpart to the arty and experimental wing of mid-’60s rock, foreshadowing the label’s forays into psychedelic soul. As psychedelic rock sought to chronicle the interior drug experience through sound, these Four Tops singles externalize the mind-altering effects of anxiety and jealousy, jolting listeners through a series of dynamic contrasts (major vs. minor; Stubbs’ anguished roars vs. the Tops’ beatific tenors; frantic instrumentation vs. suspenseful moments of near silence), until, by song’s end, the audience is as worn out and on edge as the songs’ narrators. This unsettling physicality renders these singles tangible; unlike similarly theatrical records of the period (think “Lightnin’ Strikes”), they refuse to be reduced to camp. Even compared with its siblings “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and “Bernadette,” the beyond-life-and-death urgency of “Reach Out” gives it an unmatched gravity. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, though, the song is too encouraging to feel ponderous. “Reach Out” understands the depths, but it celebrates the certainty of deliverance. 10

Hit #1 on October 15, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
170 of 1023 #1’s reviewed; 16.62% through the Hot 100

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117) The Animals – “The House of the Rising Sun”

Well, when were in Detroit I caused a bit of a disturbance there because I said on the radio I didn’t like Motown, I thought it was whitened Negro music, it had taken the wildness and corralled it. I don’t know if that’s the new development or not, but I don’t like it. … Motown is just too pretty for me. Some of their artists are good, obviously, but I don’t like it.

***

I’ve had a couple of offers for acting in films. When a good one comes along, I want to take it, because I really think I could act, because in my position, being English and not really into the American way of life, I’ve had to act the blues anyway. I’ve had to get inside it and think about it and feel it, before I even got here, because the blues comes out of police with nightsticks and Cadillac cars and the heat, and we don’t have that in England.

-Eric Burdon, interviewed by Paul Williams for Crawdaddy! #5 (September 1966)

Berry Gordy founded Tamla Records with a mission: to make black music part of the American pop mainstream. Artists were sent to charm school to learn to carry themselves with class. Crooning became the default mode of singing. Fridays were reserved for quality control meetings to guarantee only the best material got the Hitsville USA seal of approval. It was an unabashedly pop approach, but it worked. Motown records became fixtures of the Top 40, and black music became firmly entrenched in American popular culture.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the British Blues scene was gaining traction. Adherents tried to recreate the sounds they discovered on scratchy import singles. The twin watchwords were authenticity (recreating the records as closely as possible) and obscurity (proving the intensity of your devotion). This was music with no place on BBC Radio, and no interest in adapting to it.

Of course, a scene based on white teenagers affecting the voices and guitar licks of Delta bluesmen was inherently inauthentic. And even if Motown could be derided as “whitened Negro music,” the unavoidable truth was that it would always have an edge in the authenticity department. Motown artists might have made pop music, but they also lived the African-American experience. They were surrounded from birth by blues, gospel, R&B and legalized discrimination. No number of note-for-note covers of rare 78s could override that fact.

Which isn’t to say that the British blues scene was strictly posturing. The music tended to attract working class kids from industrial cities in Northern England, an environment parallel to what was fast becoming the American Rust Belt. These Scousers, Mancs and Geordies were familiar in their own way with prejudice and the futility of upward mobility. It’s not hard to see why they were attracted to the sounds of a similarly disenfranchised group. But it wasn’t until a few of these bands stopped slavishly imitating the ghosts on American vinyl that the British blues started to matter. These were the groups that understood the flexibility of the music, its capacity for absorbing other sounds and genres without betraying the urgency and emotion that made the blues so visceral.

The Animals, hailing from the declining coal city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was one of the first of the British blues groups to make it big on both sides of the Atlantic. Along with The Rolling Stones, they were one of the early British Invasion bands most heavily indebted to the blues. But while the Stones were still plugging away at Willie Dixon covers, The Animals had already begun to incorporate outside influences – namely, Bob Dylan. The group’s first record, “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” was adapted from the same folk song as “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” on Dylan’s debut album. And when it came time to record a follow-up, The Animals turned to the next track on Bob Dylan.*

Dylan’s version of “The House of the Rising Sun” is more or less the song as it had been performed for decades. With nothing but acoustic guitar and a ragged, old-before-his-time rasp, it could be a relic from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The intimacy of the arrangement and Dylan’s matter-of-fact delivery combine to create a record haunting in its stark simplicity. It also provided a barebones foundation for The Animals to layer on the drama. Hilton Valentine’s guitar arpeggios and John Steel’s clattering cymbals act as the spine of the record, circling and repeating infinitely through the song, never gaining ground. Eric Burdon’s voice starts as a thunderous growl, then leaps into the fire-and-brimstone prophesying of a Pentecostal preacher. Alan Price’s electronic organ, simultaneously of the church and the nightclub, simmers below the verses, gradually bubbling up until it erupts in a solo. (It’s why the song runs 90 seconds over pop radio’s allotted three minutes – but who would dare get rid of it?) No longer is the song the common tragedy of a fallen girl. This is the sound of an apocalypse staged in pool halls and opium dens, prisons and brothels.

“The House of the Rising Sun” is not only the darkest, most terrifying song to net the #1 spot, it’s also a rare glimpse of a genre’s birth on the charts. The record was too baroque for the blues, too doom-laden for rock and roll. By reviving an old folk ballad and electrifying it, The Animals had invented folk rock a year before Bringing It All Back Home and the success of The Byrds.

A commonly repeated anecdote tells of Dylan hearing The Animals’ version of the song on his car radio and pulling his car off the road, hit by the realization of what he needed to do next. The folk revivalists – another scene obsessed with the elusive ghost of authenticity – would decry him as a traitor. But, in the end, it’s the innovators, the ones who add something new to the pop landscape, who get remembered. Those determined to repeat the past are condemned to be left there. 10

*Burdon has variously claimed to have first heard the song from blues singer Josh White, English folkster Johnny Handle and Joan Baez. However, the Animals’ melody, tempo and lyrics bear the strongest resemblance to Dylan’s (which, in turn, he borrowed from Dave Van Ronk). Nina Simone has also been suggested as a source – and The Animals would go on to cover “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” the following year – but her version is up-tempo, with somewhat different lyrics.

Hit #1 on September 5, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
117 of 989 #1’s reviewed; 11.83% through the Hot 100

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114) The Beatles – “A Hard Day’s Night”

A Hard Day’s Night the film – and “A Hard Day’s Night” the song – is arguably the moment when The Beatles became THE BEATLES, when the band proved itself smart and imaginative and indisputably superior to its teen pop peers.  The film in particular drew critical attention in a way that the band’s previous singles hadn’t.  Rock journalism was in utero, and mainstream pop writers were still suspicious of Beatlemania.  But film critics could easily position A Hard Day’s Night alongside other recent European imports: the clever absurdity of the Ealing Comedies, the cinema-vérité of the British kitchen sink drama, the fast cutting and low-budget panache of the French New Wave.  In a landscape dominated by quickie teenybopper cash-ins and Elvis’s cinematic slide into self-parodic irrelevance, A Hard Day’s Night was Dada, droll, almost highbrow – “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals,” Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice (Aug. 27, 1964).  Even those initially reluctant to embrace The Beatles’ music were swayed.  “My critical theories and preconceptions are all shook up,” Sarris added, “and I am profoundly grateful to The Beatles for such pleasurable softening of hardening aesthetic arteries.” No longer were The Beatles strictly fodder for teenagers and fad marketers.  Now they had legitimate artistic cachet.

The Beatles’ newfound adult audience was paralleled by the band’s rapid lyrical maturation.  Within a few months, The Beatles had progressed from holding hands to cohabitation.  Mysterious adult impulses only hinted at by the harmonica in “Love Me Do” became explicit in John Lennon’s lascivious delivery of “make me feel aaaaaall right.” But “A Hard Day’s Night” also addresses the other thing separating adults from kids: work.  The song’s setting shares little with the adolescent drag races of “I Get Around” or the noblesse oblige of “Rag Doll.”  With just a few phrases, “A Hard Day’s Night” paints a realistic picture familiar to millions of listeners who slaved all day only to crash at home.  It’s a lifestyle reflected contemporaneously in the literature of Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, and it’s the kind of life The Beatles themselves would have been stuck in had they never left Liverpool.  What it isn’t is a teen idol romantic fantasy.

Even discounting the lyrics, “A Hard Day’s Night” is an astonishing leap forward. George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker and Ringo Starr’s cowbell invent the vocabulary of folk rock, long before the group’s dabble with Dylanate acoustic folk.  Yet the record’s sound is also more aggressive than any previous Beatles single, propelled by the Lennon-McCartney vocal tug-of-war and George Martin’s taut, aerodynamic production.  The record’s muscular sound complements the depiction of a worldview driven by work and lust.  The lightning tempo, Lennon’s snarling vocals, that yowl right before the guitar solo – these would continue to be emulated by countless garage punk bands through the ‘60s and beyond.

Compared with the rest of the Hot 100 in 1964, the early Beatles singles were the proverbial breath of fresh air in a pop chart grown musty with toothless, overproduced rock and roll.  But “A Hard Day’s Night” – and A Hard Day’s Night – is even more so. While their rock and roll peers courted the mainstream by looking backward and outward, The Beatles pushed their sound forward, both in terms of experimentation and forcefulness. It’s the overlap between the tough and the charming, the gritty and the cerebral, where The Beatles came to define themselves and invent a new kind of rock and roll. 10

Hit #1 on August 1, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
114 of 985 #1’s reviewed; 11.57% through the Hot 100

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104) The Beatles – “I Want to Hold Your Hand”

It’s unlikely that any number-one has been written about as extensively as “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”  But despite the sheer amount of this literature, nearly all of it follows a similar structure.  First, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is hailed as the triumph of “real music” (i.e., rock) over the (supposed) wanness of early ‘60s pop.  But just as quickly as the single is lauded for its revolutionary sound, it is ridiculed for its chaste subject matter.   Next to The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and The Beatles’ own “I’d love to turn you on” just a few years later, a plea to hold a girl’s hand sounds kind of, well,  square.  Typically, this statement is accompanied by a knowing smirk or a touch of irony, maybe even a little embarrassment that the band might have had commercial aspirations and actually did want to appeal to old folks and teenage girls – maybe, even, that the band was sincere.

But whether or not the lyrics of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” are endearingly sweet or just laughably naïve is beside the point.  To borrow from Marshall McLuhan, the medium – bona fide, energetic, exhilarating rock and roll – is the message.  The innocuous lyrics are just the pink satin bow around the neck of the Rottweiler.  If you don’t think “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sounds ragged and hard-edged, listen to a few of the contemporaneous number-ones passing for rock.  Or just listen to the guitar line that opens the song, which grinds and stutters as if winding the gears on a disused machine left to rust.  But then the gears catch, and the machine springs back to life as powerful as ever.  Part of the genius of The Beatles is the way the group tempered standard pop elements with subversive touches. George Harrison’s bent guitar notes jut out amongst the handclaps, and the brightness of the sung harmonies don’t quite mask John Lennon’s fraying vocal cords.  Even the band’s famous Edwardian suits, foisted onto them by manager Brian Epstein to make them look more professional, look tougher and hipper than the cardigans or flannel suits favored by their contemporaries.

It’s difficult not to talk about “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – or really, The Beatles in general – without trucking in superlatives.  Not only is this single the number-one that’s been the most written about in general, it’s also the one I’ve written the most about, discarding countless drafts in order to get to the secret history of the song: how the U.S. charts, packed with classic Motown and girl group hits, weren’t entirely dire before The Beatles invaded and would continue to be frequently dire afterward; how the single’s success derived from reviving a classic American sound rather than from the band’s innate creativity;  how Epstein was the real force behind making the record a hit, persuading Capitol Records to spend $40,000 on mass-produced Beatle wigs and hyperbolic handbills.  (There was also an extensive defense of the song’s lyrics, which I dropped in favor of disregarding them completely.)  Yet sometimes the common wisdom is that for a reason.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is the kind of record that reminds you that rock can make a difference, that pop can feel new and exciting, regardless of whether the lyrics are earnest or the sound is familiar.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is more than a cultural touchstone – it’s simply one of the greatest pop records ever. 10

Hit #1 on February 1, 1964; total of 7 weeks at #1
104 of 982 #1’s reviewed; 10.59% through the Hot 100

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49) Del Shannon – “Runaway”

The fascinating part of working on this blog is discovering the sheer range of songs that topped the charts, both in terms of quality and of cultural endurance.  Some of the #1’s are flat-out terrible, but just as puzzling are the mediocre songs that vanish from the public consciousness the week they drop off the charts.  And, then, ever so rarely, are the indisputable classics.  These are the songs which not only maintain their potency years after their initial release, but which act as musical watersheds or otherwise define their era.  These songs outline the difference between “oldies” and songs that transcend their time to be great, period.

I don’t remember the first time I heard Del Shannon’s “Runaway” because it’s always been in the ether.  I do remember the moment when it clicked for me, though.  I was about 8 or 9, and I was leafing through booklets at a stained glass store while my grandmother shopped.  At the first sound, the serrated guitar strums, I froze.  I was drawn in by the song’s sinister urgency, punctuated by the piercing yet celestial tones of some unknown instrument.  This is not an oldie, I thought, but something much darker and scarier.  Even in high school, when I listened mostly to the arty funk of Talking Heads and the squall of Sonic Youth, “Runaway” was always in my top 5 songs.  I credit “Runaway” with sparking my love for the electronic organ, although the instrument in question is actually a clavioline modified by keyboardist Max Crook and renamed the Musitron. 

It’s the Musitron that is the crux of the tune.  Few pop listeners would have heard a synthesizer before at all, but having their first experience be with the Crook’s contraption is like trying your first pepper and having it be a Scotch bonnet.  The instrument’s otherworldy sound – simultaneously like a piano, a tuba and something that would have been recovered at the Roswell crash – catches the ear and sears the tune into the listener’s memory.  But the Musitron wasn’t the only ace that Shannon, Crook and co. had up their sleeves.  There’s also  the unusual chord change in the verses (A minor to G), the “wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder” falsetto of the chorus (few white boys had copped the technique before on record), the subliminal alienness of the pitch-corrected vocals (sped up because Shannon had sung a little flat).  Even when Shannon rerecorded “Runaway” for the ’80s TV drama Crime Story with darker lyrics (“watchin’ all the planes go by/some live and others die”), it couldn’t match the original’s sonic mixture of menace and desperation.  Just as nothing before or since sounded like the Musitron, so too does “Runaway” remain an anomaly: bizarre yet catchy, sinister yet heartbreaking. 10

Hit #1 on April 24, 1961; total of 4 weeks at #1
49 of 967 #1’s reviewed; 5.07% through the Hot 100

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