The A-note that opens “I Feel Fine” is more than just the first blast of feedback on record; it also heralds the start of The Beatles’ middle period. While the band’s earliest records are sometimes condemned as too poppy, or their later records as too arty, the era stretching from late 1964 to 1966 is The Beatles everyone can agree on. The records released in this timespan tend to have the best of both worlds: bright, catchy melodies paired with more thoughtful, introspective lyrics, with an occasional experimental detour (culminating with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the closing track on 1966’s Revolver).
“I Feel Fine” still has a foot in the Beatles’ past, with its simple, chipper lyrics and uptempo beat. But that single note of feedback, less a shriek than a gentle hum, signals the band’s increasing fascination with using the studio to create new sonic textures. The Beatles weren’t the first to experiment with deliberate feedback; The Who, The Kinks and The Yardbirds had all dabbled with it in a live setting. But only a commercial juggernaut blessed with an understanding producer could have succeeded in getting such a sound on tape and into stores. What’s often overlooked here is what the song sounds like after the feedback: a sort of maximum R&B more commonly associated with mods than with rockers (or with mockers, for that matter). In fact, much of “I Feel Fine” is lifted wholesale from Bobby Parker’s 1961 R&B hit “Watch Your Step.” Even the feedback just subs in for the twin horn blasts opening that record. But George Harrison’s rockabilly picking of the “Watch Your Step” riff also hints at the folkier directions the band would explore a few months later on Help! and Rubber Soul. And anyone still doubting Ringo Starr’s bona fides should just listen to the Latin rhythms snaking around Harrison’s lead.
One further note on those seemingly straightforward lyrics: what does John Lennon mean by “I’m in love with her and I feel fine“? “Fine” seems like a mild reaction, unless it’s an intentionally dry understatement. Or is it meant to be an oblique reference to a darker time in the past, when he wasn’t fine? If it’s the latter, then “I Feel Fine” could be read as a companion piece to the triad of despair that opens Beatles for Sale (“No Reply”/”I’m a Loser”/”Baby’s in Black”). That album, released just two weeks after “I Feel Fine,” is the sound of The Beatles beginning to shed their cheery-chaps persona, posing solemn-faced on the album cover and writing more serious lyrics that, in Lennon’s case, verged on self-loathing. But when paired with Beatles for Sale, “I Feel Fine” acts as a reassurance to the group’s fans: The Beatles may be growing up, but they still remember how to have fun. 8
Hit #1 on December 26, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
125 of 1000 #1’s reviewed; 12.50% through the Hot 100
According to Lamont Dozier (quoted in Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits), “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me” were written and recorded at roughly the same time, in the wake of the unexpected success of “Where Did Our Love Go.” The three tracks share a number of similarities: accents on every beat, lyrics pleading for the return of an unfaithful lover, a repetitive chord progression. But “Come See About Me” builds on the established hit-making Supremes template, just as “Baby Love” was a step more musically advanced than “Where Did Our Love Go.” “Come See About Me” is the closest the Supremes had come yet to a traditional verse-chorus structure. Still, both parts of the song are too underdeveloped to stand on their own, and there’s no middle eight or key change to break up the monotony. What does make it pop is the record’s bright, punchy sound, as represented by the drum intro, the rhythm guitar and the increased prominence of Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson’s backing vocals (now shouted instead of cooed).
Even the title of “Come See About Me” represents a greater degree of sophistication, calling to mind both The Dixie Hummingbirds’ gospel hit “Lord, Come See About Me” and Mae West’s iconic line from She Done Him Wrong: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” This double-coding of the sacred and the profane, so common in the gospel-R&B hybrid that is soul music, speaks to both religious and secular audiences – or, at least, to the religious and secular impulses within each listener. Between Diana Ross’s thin vocals and the bouncy pop of their early records, it’s easy to forget that The Supremes were essentially a soul outfit. The handclaps and call-and-response vocals common to girl group records are rooted in the tradition of African-American church music, and Ballard in particular possessed a voice with a richness and emotional intensity nearly unrivaled among Motown artists. Just as their first three number-ones increased incrementally in complexity, “Come See About Me” finds The Supremes inching toward a harder, more soulful sound. 7
Hit #1 on December 19, 1964 for 1 week; repeaked on January 16, 1965 for 1 week; total of 2 weeks at #1
124 of 1000 #1’s reviewed; 12.40% through the Hot 100
Bobby Vinton was a solitary figure in early ’60s pop. He was born too late to be one of the classic crooners, but he was a little too old to fit in with his fellow teen idols. He wanted to be a bandleader more than a singer, and his music bears few traces of contemporary influences – but his best record is a rock ballad. His taste in material regularly see-sawed between the sublime (“Blue Velvet”) and the soporific (“Roses Are Red [My Love],” “There! I’ve Said It Again”). “Mr. Lonely,” one of Vinton’s rare writing credits, is one of the better ones, even if it doesn’t quite scale the heights of “Blue Velvet.” Unlike “Roses” and “There,” the material doesn’t carry the bulk of the blame. Instead, it’s Vinton’s singing that’s the problem. He overemotes, particularly through the second half of the song, choking up during the verses as if staying alive long enough to sing the next line is some sort of unbearable burden. Like Paul Anka’s “Lonely Boy,” the record comes off at best as insincere, at worst as parody. It’s as if fame led Vinton and Anka to forget what loneliness really feels like, so they overcompensated with quivering sobs and self-pitying lyrics. (Compare with Roy Orbison, whose perpetual melancholy always seemed sincere – perhaps because it also seemed like he was always trying to fight it.)
Even though it was released as a single in 1964, “Mr. Lonely” actually appeared on the same album as “Roses Are Red (My Love)” way back in 1962 – a lifetime in terms of the early ’60s pop discography. (For reference, Vinton put out five more studio LPs and a greatest hits compilation between the album Roses Are Red and the single release of “Mr. Lonely.”) Appropriately enough for the backwards-looking pop star, his final number-one was a leftover from a time before the British Invasion, when easy listening and American pop ruled the charts. Unlike most of his peers, Vinton continued to have a steady stream of mid-chart hits through the rest of the ’60s, sometimes scoring the occasional Top 10 single. He wasn’t a teen idol any longer – the definition had changed and, besides, it’s not a good look past 30. But of all the wholesome, smiling Bobbys, he was the last man standing. 5
Hit #1 on December 12, 1964; total of 1 week at #1 123 out of 995 #1’s reviewed; 12.36% through the Hot 100
“Ringo” is, in all respects, a cash-in record. The song position appeared on Welcome to the Ponderosa, an album recorded to capitalize on Greene’s starring role on the hit TV Western Bonanza. Its spoken word verses and faceless chorus ape Jimmy Dean’s neo-folktale “Big Bad John.” But it was the fortuitous title that propelled the song to #1.
When Greene recorded “Ringo” in late 1963, it was an album track named for minor Wild West figure Johnny Ringo. But with the invasion of the British bands and a fad for all things Beatles, the nearly year-old record was dusted off and given a single release. Rock fans bought it for the title; Bonanza fans bought it for the singer. The combined novelty factor was just enough to slide “Ringo” into number one for one week, a position the song itself doesn’t really merit. Next to “Big Bad John,” its weaknesses become even more apparent. Dean’s folksy charm is swapped for Greene’s dry newsreader’s account. “Big Bad John” had the stirring story of a quiet hero who saves the lives of his fellow miners through superhuman strength. “Ringo” is about … a sheriff who doesn’t get killed by Johnny Ringo? It’s a lot less inspiring, at any rate. And unlike “Big Bad John,” it doesn’t even half-attempt a hook. In its original position, as a memento of a favorite TV show, it’s not bad. But as a single, it’s entirely unnecessary. 3
Hit #1 on December 5, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
122 of 994 #1’s reviewed; 12.27% through the Hot 100
The girls were a very nice bunch of street urchins, I called them … At the beginning we did not get along – they were kind of crude and having to deal with them on a daily basis used to get me very uptight – with their gestures, and language, and chewing the gum, and the stockings ripped up their leg. We would say “Not nice, you must be ladies …”
-Ellie Greenwich (quoted in Alan Betrock’s Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound)
Their songs captured how many teenagers talked and felt or, more precisely, how they wished they talked and felt, mixing trash and tragedy.
–Ken Emerson, Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era
The girl groups emerged in an era of musical and sartorial conservatism, between the decline of rock and roll and the beginning of “the Sixties” as they’re now remembered. Even the groups that didn’t graduate from the Motown Finishing School nevertheless dressed in satin, sat up straight and avoided using any slang that might make them sound like actual teenagers. But around the same time that the men of the British Invasion were bringing back real rock music, a few girl groups began to break from the starched-and-pressed pack. The ethnically ambiguous Ronettes were the first to cross over to the dark side, wearing thick Cleopatra eyeliner and flouting the rules of what “proper singers” were supposed to sound like. But it was two pairs of white sisters, The Shangri-Las, that became the quintessential girl group gone bad. Instead of matching prom dresses and hair-dos, the girls dressed in black leather and go-go boots. Unlike the eternally angelic Darlene Love, lead singer Mary Weiss sounded like a girl who might actually date a rebel. And while The Shirelles may have wondered, “Will you still love me tomorrow?“, the Shangri-Las seemed to have no such qualms.
Even the name “The Shangri-Las” is heavily ironic, as nearly all their songs were about some form of teenage tragedy. The most tragic of them all was their second single and biggest hit. “Leader of the Pack” stretches and distorts Phil Spector’s teenage melodramas to grotesque extremes. Sure, a broken heart can feel like dying when you’re a teenager, but it has nothing on a grisly motorcycle crash – especially one reported moment by moment with accompanying sound effects. It’s so over-the-top that it verges on parody – and has been claimed to be such to some writers – but at the same time, it’s simply too melancholy, too pretty, too desperate to be just tongue-in-cheek.
There’s a sense of detachment in “Leader of the Pack” that rescues it from the soporific depths of “Teen Angel,” the record that kicked off the whole teenage death disc craze. The song’s conceit is that Betty, the girlfriend-widow of Jimmy the motorcycle rebel, is calmly recounting their relationship and his subsequent death to her classmates (whose lack of awareness is kind of puzzling, as Betty complains that “in school, they all stop and stare”). There’s no hysterical pleading to the deceased up in heaven. Instead, when Mary Weiss solemnly recites “The leader of the pack, now he’s gone” over and over in the coda, it’s the aural equivalent of one solitary tear rolling from a mascaraed eye.
But “Leader of the Pack” is also an exceptionally well-made record, almost more like a radio play than just another pop song. Along with their bad-girl image, The Shangri-Las’ trademark became this almost avant garde disregard for what pop radio considered acceptable. Their first hit, “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” is mashed together bits of melody without a chorus (but with seagull sound effects); a later single, “Past, Present and Future,” is a spoken word piece. Even their more conventional singles like “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” and “Out in the Streets” display a heavily theatrical bent, thanks to Mary Weiss’s passionate delivery and impossibly girlish voice. In She’s So Fine: Reflections on Whiteness, Femininity, Adolescence and Class, Laurie Stras writes that the group sang “as if they were speaking (or whining, or shrieking, or sobbing, or yelling) to approximate pitches, substituting ‘real’ emotive vocal disruption for the technical affectations of doo-wop.” It’s this rawness that makes Weiss sound simultaneously tougher and more vulnerable than her girl group peers, and unquestionably like a real teenager.
“Leader of the Pack” is the apotheosis of The Shangri-Las’ blend of the dramatic with the pop. The way the soaring verses deflate into a sudden, accompaniment-free line “the leader of the pack” may not make for the catchiest of choruses. However, it’s an instantly memorable effect because it’s the ultimate representation of how an epic love is cut short by a violent death. Where a guitar solo or a dance break should be, there’s the graphic sounds of the fatal crash. Did we really need to hear the tires skidding, the sickening crunch of metal hitting metal, the girlfriend crying “Lookout! Lookout!” in vain? Yes, we do. In an era where cultural repression was the norm, the Shangri-Las’ lurid take on death was a refreshing bit of candor.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that The Shangri-Las became a touchstone for punk rock. The opening line of “Leader of the Pack” (“Is she really going out with him?”) was recycled for the first-ever British punk record, The Damned’s “New Rose” (as well as for the title of Joe Jackson’s debut single); the intro from “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (“When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L-U-V”) turns up in the New York Dolls’ “Looking for a Kiss.” (And this is just the iceberg’s tip – for a mind-boggling extensive list of other quotes and references, check out The Shangri-Las’ Wikipedia page.) By being one of the first groups to disregard the rules about what was appropriate for girls to sing about, how they were supposed to dress and what constituted good singing, The Shangri-Las helped usher in an era of frankness and realism in pop music, one that’s reverberations still shake the charts today. 9
Hit #1 on November 28, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
121 of 994 #1’s reviewed; 12.17% through the Hot 100
“Where Did Our Love Go” was The Supremes’ tenth single, but it was the first to be recorded in what became the group’s signature style. It was also their first single to make much of an impact. Wisely, Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Supremes returned to the well for the follow-up. “Baby Love” borrows several elements from that previous single, as if trying to determine which was the variable that made it a hit. Back are the stomped-out beat, Diana Ross’s little-girl-grown lead vocals, and the theme of trying to persuade a cheating boyfriend to stay, even if breaking up would be more merciful for them both. But there are also a few added frills. “Where Did Our Love Go”‘s repetitive structure only managed to avoid irritation thanks to its brief running time. While “Baby Love” never quite busts into anything resembling a chorus, a few extra chords keep the verses from going stale. The “baby, baby” backing vocals are back, but supplemented with Mary and Flo’s ghostly “don’t throw our love away,” an addition that results in the record’s most memorable hook. There’s even a fake key change right in the middle.
Following a big hit with a retread is a business strategy as old as the record industry. Usually, though, these soundalikes are released to diminishing returns, à la The Marvelettes‘ “Twistin’ Postman” or Chubby Checker’s infinite attempts to replicate “The Twist.” But “Baby Love” was a surprise: not only was it a better song, but it was a bigger hit. “Baby Love” realizes the promise of “Where Did Our Love Go” with a richer sound and a more confident performance. It also foreshadows the group’s upward trajectory; within months, The Supremes would become the biggest pop group in America. While so many of their peers struggled to repeat the success of their One Big Hit, The Supremes were just getting started. But having mastered the elements of their style, it was time to progress. 7
Hit #1 on October 31, 1964; total of 4 weeks at #1
120 of 992 #1’s reviewed; 12.10% through the Hot 100
Manfred Mann was a Serious Jazz Combo. Manfred Mann, however, was also a working band trying to make a living in the music business. With the onset of the British Invasion, former blues, jazz and R&B purists were reaping the benefits of “selling out” with dignity. The Animals had managed to parlay their Geordie bluesmen personas into a stream of hit Brill Building singles without embarrassing themselves. The Rolling Stones were beginning to experiment with adding pop and folk influences to their Willie Dixon covers, inventing in the process a new generation of electric white-boy blues.
Manfred Mann, no less eager to score a hit, chose a somewhat different tack. Rather than adapt their beloved jazz and blues for a pop audience in a thoughtful and creatively-fulfilling manner, they pandered to the lowest common denominator. You wanted a pop record? Then they’d give you the most simplistic, patronizing pop record imaginable. In doing so, they could indulge in the spoils of mainstream success while still maintaining an ironic distance. (If only they weren’t so subtle with those Trojan horse references in “5-4-3-2-1″!)
To top their #11 UK single “Hubble Bubble” and break into the American market, the band selected a fine but undistinguished near-hit by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, originally recorded by girl group The Exciters (“Tell Him”). “Do Wah Diddy” is essentially a half-baked loaf cobbled together from the crumbs of other, better Barry-Greenwich compositions: a nonsense refrain (“Da Do Ron Ron”); a reference to imminent wedding bells (“Chapel of Love”); lyrics about love at first sight (“Be My Baby” et al.). But when you’re expected to deliver a new song five days a week, they won’t all be winners. So it was up to The Exciters to do all the heavy lifting on the original record, in particular lead singer Brenda Reid and her enthrallingly raw vocals.
But as covered by Manfred Mann, under the title “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (the extra “diddy” stands for “condescension”), all the song’s weaknesses are laid bare. Where “da do ron ron ron, da do ron ron” was as bright and emphatic as a trumpet’s blare, “do wah diddy diddy, dum diddy do” is just clumsy and puerile. Meanwhile, Manfred Mann seems to be parodying the very concept of a pop-rock song, from the chintzy organ and plodding tempo to the overdone “whoa-oh-oh-oh” and forced dialect (“I knew we was falling in love”). The Exciters rescued the song through energy and commitment (and, incidentally, used proper grammar). Manfred Mann’s version just drags.
What makes the record work, as much as it works at all, is its baseline of competence. Manfred Mann was a band of accomplished musicians. Barry and Greenwich wrote some of the most transcendent pop songs of the 20th Century. The bridge, for all its lyrical crimes, is actually a pleasant bit of melody and a much-needed reprieve from the rest of the song’s abrasive schoolyard bounce. Still, “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” is a cynical record made by people who should’ve known better. Worse, its success confirms the most overused argument against the validity of pop music: it’s manufactured with no originality or genuine feeling. It’s simply music written and performed to cash a paycheck and net a hit. 4
Hit #1 on October 17, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
119 of 991 #1’s reviewed; 12.01% through the Hot 100
After “Only the Lonely” netted Roy Orbison his first hit in 1960, nearly all of his subsequent singles followed the same template: rock and roll arias of rejection and loneliness showing off his epic range and vibrato. But unlike contemporaries who continued to churn out rehashed versions of their Big Hit to diminishing returns, Orbison’s formula never grew stale, both because of the consistently high quality of the material and because he was the sole occupant of his niche. No one else in the charts had a voice with the power and the pathos of Orbison’s; no one else could blend classical structure with pop without sounding gimmicky or pretentious.
Yet “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Orbison’s biggest hit, appears at first blush to be a far cry from heartrending ballads like “Crying” and “It’s Over.” The ornate orchestral instrumentation of his previous hits has been subbed with a straightforward rock and roll set-up reminiscent of his days at Sun Studios. The tempo is upbeat, and Orbison, for once, seems to be having fun. (If you remember one thing about the song, it’s the loping guitar riff. If you remember a second thing, it’s the endearingly cartoony growl after “No one could look as good as you.”) But strip away the snappy drums and the tongue-in-cheek machismo, and what’s left behind is a clearly-identifiable product of the saddest voice in pop.
Thematically, “Oh, Pretty Woman” is “Running Scared” played as romantic comedy: boy falls for girl, boy appears to have lost girl, girl surprises boy by coming back for him. (It’s a scenario that would have personal resonance for Orbison: he and his wife Claudette divorced as a result of her infidelity, then remarried the following year.) The lyrics are littered with references to being rejected and ignored. “Are you lonely just like me?” Orbison asks, before begging, “Pretty woman, don’t make me cry/Pretty woman, don’t walk away.” Finally, he resigns himself to his status as the man who too sensitive to be loved: “If that’s the way it must be, OK/I guess I’ll go on home, it’s late.”
Contrasting an upbeat melody with secretly morose lyrics has become a tired cliché in the wake of lesser artists using it as shorthand for depth. But the juxtaposition works in “Oh, Pretty Woman,” largely because Orbison is so convincing in the persona of the lovesick loner with the painfully sincere voice. And because it strikes at the ambiguity lurking beneath all the best love songs: how thin the line dividing love and loss, how arbitrary the distinction between acceptance and rejection. 8
Hit #1 on September 26, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
118 of 989 #1’s reviewed; 11.93% through the Hot 100
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
When The Beatles are framed in the context of ‘60s pop, they are often paired with The Rolling Stones (their compatriots in the British Invasion), The Beach Boys (with whom they competed in pushing sonic boundaries), or Bob Dylan (as cultural game-changers testing the limits of what pop music could express). Arguably, though, their closest analogues were a trio of young women from Detroit. The Beatles revitalized a moribund genre by increasing the focus on melody and upping the overall complexity and sophistication, aiding the transition from “rock and roll” to “rock.” Likewise, The Supremes developed as part of Motown’s effort to make pop-soul the dominant “black music” sound. As The Beatles had polished up the scruffy sounds of 1950s youth, The Supremes sanded the rough edges off of R&B. Diana Ross sang with a voice atypically thin and high for the genre, even when compared with previous crossover singers like Shirley Owens and Mary Wells. Groove was minimal, instrumentation restrained, syncopation nonexistent. Yet somehow, these concessions to mainstream pop didn’t result in a pandering, anemic facsimile of the original genre. Like their British male contemporaries, The Supremes successfully overlaid their sound on the existing pop framework. Then, their popularity firmly established, they were able to take chances and lead their listeners down experimental alleys. Separately but in parallel, The Supremes and The Beatles expanded the boundaries of pop music.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. “Where Did Our Love Go” is not the first Supremes single, but it may as well be. The group had famously earned the sobriquet “No-Hit Supremes” before Berry Gordy revamped their sound, axing the freewheeling R&B arrangements and lead vocal parts for Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson. As the first fruit of the new Supremes, “Where Did Our Love Go” is a cautious exploration of their new identity. It’s a song without verse or chorus, just the same eight bars over and over with little variation, stretching to fill two minutes and 40 seconds. In short, it’s a debut closer in spirit to “Love Me Do” than “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But beneath the repetitiousness and timidity are hints that, given time, something great and original could develop. The interplay between Ross’s lead vocals and Ballard and Wilson’s ethereal “baby baby”-s suggests a sultriness foreign to prior girl-group records, and the stomps-and-handclaps percussion adds just enough of an edge to keep the song from drifting into easy listening waters. Like The Beatles’ earliest singles, “Where Did Our Love Go” is almost less a great pop song than it is a promise of future brilliance. 7
Hit #1 on August 22, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
116 of 986 #1’s reviewed; 11.77% through the Hot 100
A rundown of every #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, starting from the top (1958) and progressing in order. Ratings on a highly subjective 1-10 scale. Comments perpetually open. Supposedly published weekly.