Category Archives: 1964

125) The Beatles – “I Feel Fine”

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

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Filed under 08, 1964, 1965

124) The Supremes – “Come See About Me”

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

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Filed under 07, 1964, 1965

123) Bobby Vinton – “Mr. Lonely”

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

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Filed under 05, 1964

122) Lorne Greene – “Ringo”

“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

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Filed under 03, 1964

121) The Shangri-Las – “Leader of the Pack”

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

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Filed under 09, 1964

120) The Supremes – “Baby Love”

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

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Filed under 07, 1964

119) Manfred Mann – “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”

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

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Filed under 04, 1964