Category Archives: 1962

82) The Tornadoes – “Telstar”

Mr. Acker Bilk may have been the first U.K. musician to top the Hot 100, but he didn’t quite launch the British Invasion.  His easy listening, clarinet-based instrumental “Stranger on the Shore” is miles away from the revitalized version of rock and roll that would be shipped back to America a year or two later.  But The Tornadoes’ surf-rock-in-space epic “Telstar” provided early evidence that there was something going on abroad more exciting than what passed for rock at home.  (It’s only fitting that the namesake satellite transmitted the first transatlantic television signals.)  “Telstar” is far too eccentric to be considered of a piece with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but it’s at least in the same musical universe, so to speak. 
 
Of course, the real story behind “Telstar” is not about session players The Tornadoes but about the producer, Joe Meek.  Meek was essentially the British counterpart of Phil Spector: a genius producer with a fascinating yet highly disturbed (and murderous) personal life.  Like Spector, he worked with girl groups but never quite achieved the former’s success with them. He instead made his mark with mostly anonymous bands and not-quite-top-drawer singers that wouldn’t divert attention from his vision.  In contrast with the organic, symphonic Wall of Sound, Meek built his soundscapes out of electronics and distortion.  His tastes would seem to run too weird to be embraced by the mainstream, yet he netted a few huge hits.  The greatest of these is “Telstar,” an instrumental that derives influence from Meek’s partially-released concept album I Hear a New World (subtitled “An Outer Space Music Fantasy”).  “Telstar” is the nexus between Moog- and Theramin-heavy space age lounge pop of the 1950s and astrally-themed psychedelic rock of the late ’60s, without being as kitschy as the former or as noodling as the latter.  Despite Meek’s liberal use of handmade sound effects and bizarre aural treatments, it’s easy to see how the record earned its number-one spot.  The melody of the track is strong enough to stand on its own, but Meek’s inventive production puts it over the top.  While the underpinnings may be drawn from the familiar, there have been few pop singles before or since that have so eagerly embraced the weird. 8

Hit #1 on December 22, 1962; total of 3 weeks at #1
82 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.40% through the Hot 100

1 Comment

Filed under 08, 1962, 1963

81) The Four Seasons – “Big Girls Don’t Cry”

The most recent entry in The A.V. Club’s feature The New Cult Canon is a piece on Bottle Rocket, the first movie by director Wes Anderson.  In the article, and in the comment section below it, is a discussion of whether Anderson’s distinctive voice as a filmmaker is a mark of auteurism or proof of his limited abilities.  “Wes Anderson is a director forever doomed to make Wes Anderson movies,” Scott Tobias writes.  Whether or not that is a good thing depends on if you appreciate his strong visual style and his gentle yet weird brand of humor, or if you consider his films to be stuffy, stilted and too-precious.  Personally, I am a fan of Wes Anderson, although I thought The Darjeeling Limited veered uncomfortably close to self-parody.  But is my perception of that movie based on what’s actually on the screen, or am I suffering from some sort of Anderson-fatigue? If The Darjeeling Limited were the first Wes Anderson movie I had ever seen, would I still feel the same way?

Likewise, The Four Seasons were a band forever doomed to make Four Seasons songs.  The group’s singular sound, indebted to doo wop yet distinct from it, arrived fully formed on its first charting single, “Sherry.”  Where could they go from a sound that complete and successful? Tinkering with their sound would risk losing what made them special.  So you can’t really blame them for releasing the soundalike “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”   It checks all the same boxes that “Sherry” does, for better or worse, which makes the matter of rating it a bit difficult.  If it’s more or less the same record, it would seem only fair to give it the same rating – in this case, a 7.  However, it isn’t as exciting this go around.  I almost want to penalize “Big Girls Don’t Cry” because The Four Seasons didn’t change anything, even while acknowledging that doing so would probably be to their detriment.  While this is only the group’s second single to be featured here, it’s far from the last.  I’m going to have to consider these same issues each time I’m due to write about them or any other group with a narrowly defined aesthetic.  But for now, I’ll have to rely on this blog’s principle of freedom from context.  I like “Sherry” and I like “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Does it really matter which came first? 7

Hit #1 on November 17, 1962; total of 5 weeks at #1
81 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.30% through the Hot 100

1 Comment

Filed under 07, 1962

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

1 Comment

Filed under 09, 1962

79) Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers – “Monster Mash”

My first draft of this post was started on October 26, in hopes of rushing through the next 5 entries in time for Halloween.  Obviously, I missed that deadline.  But the reason I wanted to write about “Monster Mash” on or by Halloween wasn’t just so I’d have a cute tie-in.  There’s an inherent difference in how you hear a holiday song during its corresponding holiday versus the rest of the year.  No matter how much I love A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, I’m not about to listen to it in any month not called “December.”  (Well, maybe Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans’ take on “The Bells of St. Mary’s” – it’s not explicitly Christmas-themed, and it is all kinds of soulful.)  Listening to Christmas music, even good Christmas music, when it’s not Christmas just feels wrong.  Maybe the excitement and festivity surrounding the holiday make the music sound better.  I can certainly tolerate some not so great songs during that time of year, either because of tradition or nostalgia.  So it felt like it would only be fair to write about “Monster Mash” in its own milieu.  To examine the song apart from Halloween – much less, during the winter holiday season, which already has more than its fair share of novelty tracks – would be judging it against a harsher standard than perhaps it deserves.  Then again, the entire M.O. behind this blog is to judge these songs outside of their historical context to determine whether (I think) they’re actually any good by modern standards.

Unfortunately, the “Monster Mash” does take a bit of a hit apart from Halloween.  It does have a few points to recommend it: a convincing pop arrangement (i.e., it actually works as a pop song, not just a parody of a pop song); Pickett’s spot-on imitations of Karloff and Lugosi; and the fact that it’s the only Halloween song to be successful in any commercial sense.  This last point is perhaps the most important.  Otherwise, how to explain the annual persistence of a Halloween record that is a) dated in its cultural references (have you ever danced the mashed potato? I haven’t, at least not intentionally) and b) not all scary? In fact, it’s anti-scary.  It turns monsters into Peppermint Loungers.  Then again, this genial, all-ages version of Halloween is exactly what has made “Monster Mash” an enduring tradition – and a song that’s difficult to hate.  We only hear it a few days out of the year, in situations where we’re probably already having fun.  Frankly, given the depths that Christmas pop regularly plumbs, we should be grateful to have our universal tune for Halloween be something that’s listenable, or at least not actively obnoxious. 5

Hit #1 on October 20, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
79 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.09% through the Hot 100

2 Comments

Filed under 05, 1962

78) The Four Seasons – “Sherry”

First, you must embrace the falsetto.  Don’t worry about how Frankie Valli’s voice could get so high.  Don’t wonder why such a sound would even be desirable.  Like the shrill keening of Chinese opera or the yodeling of the Swiss Alps, it is a vocal artifact of a foreign culture.   If you are to enjoy the music, you must accept that tastes differ across time and space.  If you are naturally inclined to appreciate these sounds, well, all the better.

Now that you’ve surmounted that hurdle, it’s on to the music itself.  The Four Seasons’ sound derived from doo wop but was driven by rock and roll.  Like Dion before them, The Four Seasons recognized that doo wop was becoming passé, and evolving was the way to stay relevant.  But unlike the jazzy flourishes in “Runaround Sue,” “the group’s singles of this era (including “Sherry”) appeal more directly to the teenage fan.  If one were feeling hyperbolic, it could even be said that The Four Seasons paved the way for The Beatles – rock and roll filtered through tight multi-part harmonies and polished production.  Frankie Valli & co. haven’t aged as well as the Fab Four, though.  The Beatles did have a few advantages that The Four Seasons lacked: a persistent need to experiment and evolve, a seemingly bottomless reserve of creativity, and (ca. 1967 aside) a disregard for effects that would instantly date the record.  When Paul McCartney deployed falsetto, it was more Little Richard’s flamboyant hysterics than Frankie Valli’s preternatural shriek.

But don’t let negative comparisons with The Beatles dissuade you.  One source claims that The Four Seasons were the most successful white pop group before The Beatles, and it’s not too hard to believe it. “Sherry” is similar enough to contemporaneous pop that it isn’t out of place, yet it doesn’t quite sound like anything else at the time either.  While the group’s song catalogue would become increasingly dominated by formula, the Four Seasons’ first charting single is a fresh burst of energy in the increasingly lethargic pop charts.  At least if you can accept the falsetto. 7

Hit #1 on September 15, 1962; total of 5 weeks at #1
78 of 975 #1’s reviewed; 8.00% through the Hot 100

3 Comments

Filed under 07, 1962

77) Tommy Roe – “Sheila”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

There’s the meme in music criticism, or at least in rock criticism, that the original trumps the reproduction.  Why even bother listening to Band X when Band Y did the same thing 20 years ago (and, presumably, better)? Or, if the innovator is of a more recent vintage, the follower is accused of bandwagon-jumping.  At any rate, the reproduction is dismissed as nothing but a shoddy mimeograph, and any discussion of the music itself is neglected.  Sometimes, this is a fair shortcut.  If an artist didn’t even bother to invent their own sound, then maybe they’re equally as lazy with their songs.

Sometimes, though, this way of thinking overlooks some genuinely good music.  Case in point: Tommy Roe’s “Sheila,” which thieves mercilessly and thoroughly from Buddy Holly’s still-warm corpse.  There’s no mistaking the shuffling guitars, the muffled clod of the drums, the shift into pinched nasality for special effect.  He even hiccups, for God’s sake.  This is not a sound that Roe stumbled across by accident or happened to develop through parallel evolution.  Yet the song itself works.  If you’re going to borrow from someone, you could do a whole lot worse than Buddy Holly.  Holly’s aesthetic was so tightly focused that it would be nearly impossible to follow his blueprint and not come up with something decent, at the very least.

But all reproductions, no matter how faithful, still are no replacement for the original.  OK, so maybe I’m guilty of buying into the critical cliché I just dismissed.  But Buddy Holly is a legend and Tommy Roe isn’t, and sometimes it’s hard to explain why that is. I can talk about “energy,” or “magic,” or “spark,” but vague terms won’t convince anyone.  Suffice to say, it’s the difference between designing a cake and following a recipe.  Both cakes may taste good and look beautiful, but only one was created by a master drawing on a personal store of creativity.  It’s a subtle difference, and one that may be lost on most people.  But while “Sheila” may not have the timelessness of, say, “Everyday” or “That’ll Be the Day,” it’s still a pretty good pop song.   7

Hit #1 on September 1, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
77 of 975 #1’s reviewed; 7.90% through the Hot 100

2 Comments

Filed under 07, 1962

76) Little Eva – “The Loco-Motion”

On the surface, there’s not much difference between “The Loco-Motion” and “The Twist.” Both are pop songs promoting previously non-existent dances, with lyrics that devoted to detailing (albeit vaguely) the requisite motions.  But what makes “The Loco-Motion” so superior to “The Twist” is the fact that it is the better song.  “The Twist” starts with a basic 12-bar blues form and doesn’t do much with it.  There’s no middle eight, no instrumental break, no clever lyrics – nothing to distract from the song’s repetitiousness.  But while “The Loco-Motion” uses a standard pop song format as its launching point, note how Gerry Goffin and Carole King toss in a few tweaks.  After the drums that kick off the track, the first sound on the record is a weird, flat drone, courtesy of some brass instrument.  The drone doesn’t call much attention to itself, but it lays down the foundation for Goffin’s layered production.  There’s the unexpected chord changes that bridge the more straightforward verse and chorus (“Do it nice and easy, now, don’t do it slow/A little bit of rhythm and a lot of soul”), and the exaggerated syncopation (“come on, come on – DO the loco-motion with me”).  On top of that, so many interesting parts – the backup singers, the handclaps, the horn break – click into place.

But perhaps the most charming element of the song is Little Eva herself.  The old story goes that Goffin and King recruited their babysitter to record “The Loco-Motion” as a demo meant for an established artist, but the label liked her take so much that they released it as is.  In actuality, the songwriters were already aware of Little Eva’s singing voice before they hired her.  Nevertheless, it’s her raw phrasing, with its imprecise enunciation and distinct lack of professional sheen, that catches the ear.  While the girl group genre had its share of strong, pure-toned vocalists like Shirley Owens and Darlene Love, much of its appeal stemmed from the idea that these singers could be your life.  These are teenage girls, singing about the same problems that you have, who sound like just like you (only better).  It’s the imperfections and vulnerabilities in their voices that make them believable.  When Little Eva sings, you can trust that she knows the newest dance – even if it doesn’t really exist.   8

Hit #1 on August 25, 1962; total of 1 week at #1
76 of 975 #1’s reviewed;7.79% through the Hot 100

1 Comment

Filed under 08, 1962