Hit #1 on December 22, 1962; total of 3 weeks at #1
82 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.40% through the Hot 100
Hit #1 on December 22, 1962; total of 3 weeks at #1
82 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.40% through the Hot 100
Hit #1 on November 17, 1962; total of 5 weeks at #1
81 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.30% through the Hot 100
Hit #1 on November 3, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
80 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.20% through the Hot 100
Hit #1 on October 20, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
79 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.09% through the Hot 100
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
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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
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
“Breaking Up is Hard to Do”: A Journey
Day 1: “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” is one of those oldies that I’ve heard a thousand times, but I never really paid attention to it before. And for something I was expecting to be yet more teen idol pabulum, it’s surprisingly listenable. Sedaka’s voice is a little on the wrong side of chipmunk, but the man sure knows how to throw a song together.
Day 4: Starting to warm to this quite a bit more than I expected. It’s usually easy to dismiss the Brill Building’s efforts with white male singers (cf. Bobby Vee). In this case, it helps that Sedaka is a legitimate songwriter with actual hits to his name, including some of Connie Francis‘s best records (“Stupid Cupid,” “Fallin’,” “Where the Boys Are”). He may not have the looks of a teen idol, but knowing how to write to his strengths was enough to make him a star.
Day 9: A pop song with no hooks can scarcely be called successful. But can a song be too catchy? The answer, clearly, is yes. In Nick Hornby’s music essay collection Songbook, he cites Dave Eggers theory that what makes people want to listen to songs over and over is the song’s puzzle, something slightly different that their brains want to play with. But when a song gets lodged in your head, playing itself over and over, it quickly wears out its welcome. A puzzle is all about the journey; once solved, it either is forgotten or becomes a nuisance. Despite my mild initial enthusiasm over “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” it’s beginning to fall into the latter category.
Day 11: Breaking into my thoughts is apparently quite easy to do. Up to 22 hours of my day are spent with the song on auto-repeat in my brain (I’ve managed to eke out about 2 hours of mostly uninterrupted sleep). Is there ever going to be an escape from it? Hard to say for sure. To block it out, I’ve been listening to as many other catchy songs as possible. Do you have any suggestions for counteracting powerful earworms?
Day 12: DOWN is up. DOOBY is DOOBY. DOWN DOWN is COMMA COMMA.
Day 38: Eventually, weeks after listening to it for the last time, I’ve found relief. I’m tempted to fail it completely, but I’ve had worse stuck in my head (though perhaps nothing more persistent). Still, whatever small pleasure I may have gotten from the song is vanished. I must say goodbye, and sadly I cannot give this love another try – I fear too much for my sanity.
Day 60: Listened to it again for the first time in a few weeks. It’s not so bad! It checks all the boxes that a pop song should, with verses so catchy it doesn’t need a chorus. So perhaps I was being a bit hysterical. Just to be safe, I’ll hand it a 6 – with the caveat that I’ll never listen to it again as much as I did for this post.
Hit #1 on August 11, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
75 of 975 #1’s reviewed; 7.69% through the Hot 100
When I first started this blog, I had planned on posting about once a day. And for a while there, I did – I was between semesters and taken with the idea of my shiny new blog. I was already 50 years and nearly 1000 number ones behind when I wrote my first review back in December, and I knew I needed to get cracking if I ever hoped to make progress. But, naturally, posting daily gets difficult after a while. School and work came back in session, and I got busy. The quality of my posts wasn’t quite up to snuff. I needed more time to think about each song, to develop an opinion, to get a handle on just what exactly I wanted to say about the track. So I gave myself a little more time between each post.
Eventually, though, this little extra time has turned into posting only about once a week or so. And while I’m still busy (albeit with looking for a job, rather than with actually working and studying), and while I still need extra time to think, I’ve also hit a bit of a rut. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still excited about this project as a whole, and I think some of the most recent posts are among the best I’ve written. But, frankly, this era in the pop charts is often maligned for a reason. In the past, I was worried I was handing out too many high scores. Now, I’m just trying to burn through some of these mediocre-to-poor tracks in search of a record I can actually get excited about.
Symptomatic of this chart fatigue is “Roses Are Red (My Love),” a song Bobby Vinton rescued from the demo reject pile. It would have been better off left to rest in peace. The production, instrumentation, melody and vocals are virtually interchangeable with any other contemporaneous ballad crooned by a young male singer. The main difference is the lyrics, which are somehow even worse. The chorus is lifted wholesale from the old “Roses are red, violets are blue” chestnut, without even the benefit of a semi-clever twist (unless you count throwing in the occasional “my love”). The verses, which describe the blossoming of a high school romance, are just as clichéd. (That I just used the word “blossoming” proves that the pervasive hokeyness has started to infect my brain.) The whole affair just seems really lazy – no surprise, given that the songwriter claims it was written in three minutes (running time of the record: 2:39). In fact, the record’s so bland that I just spent two of the three paragraphs in this entry writing about something else. If you want more of my thoughts on “Roses Are Red,” I refer you to any other entry I’ve written on teen idols. 3
Hit #1 on July 14, 1962; total of 4 weeks at #1
74 of 972 #1’s reviewed; 7.61% through the Hot 100
The David Rose LP featuring “The Stripper” is subtitled “And Other Fun Songs For The Family.” Really. Which is actually quite appropriate, as the instrumental has surely been used as shorthand for “sexy” in children’s cartoons at least as often as it has soundtracked actual stripteases. Probably more so, as there’s very little erotic about the cheesy trombone wails; it’s the musical equivalent of Elmer Fudd swooning over Bugs Bunny in drag. In fact, the pop cultural baggage associated with “The Stripper” is probably the heaviest of any of the records we have discussed as of yet. It’s bizarre to think that this instrumental was only composed in the second half on the 20th Century – it just seems like one of those pieces of music that has always been there, lurking in the collective unconscious. Indeed, it was an “accidental” hit, starting life as filler for a 1958 single and only achieving fame after being featured in the film version of Gypsy. Yet it was this throwaway, and not one of Rose’s more typically reserved compositions, that reached #1. Clearly, the success of “The Stripper” was due to the record’s perceived naughtiness, albeit a naughtiness as inoffensive and family-friendly as you’d expect from a 1962 number one. (Not that current Top 40 singles are necessarily any sexier, despite being more explicit.) The record’s one saving grace is the air of good humor that pervades throughout. So while “The Stripper” may not actually be very risqué, and the instrumentation may be overblown by half, the LP cover’s assertion that it’s a “fun song” seems, eh, fair enough. 4
Hit #1 on July 7, 1962; total of 1 week at #1
73 of 972 #1’s reviewed; 7.51% through the Hot 100