Category Archives: 1966

177) The Monkees – “I’m a Believer”

The future promised by “Good Vibrations” couldn’t last long. After just one week at the top of the charts, it was displaced by the return of the faux-nostalgic, willfully uninspiring “Winchester Cathedral” – a move by the American Record Buying Public that seemed to repudiate their brief dalliance with moving, stimulating pop. But in the nick of time, The Monkees came to rescue arguably the greatest year ever for number-ones from ending on a bum note. “I’m a Believer” isn’t a fraction as innovative as “Good Vibrations,” but whereas that Beach Boys record provided a blueprint for the experimental sounds of emerging FM rock, the success of “I’m a Believer” more accurately predicted pop’s immediate future. The song would go on not only to become the biggest single of 1967, but one of the most popular records ever. (Of the songs that have turned up on this blog so far, only “Sukiyaki” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” have sold more copies worldwide.) The band’s first four LPs would go on to top the 1967 Billboard album charts for a combined total of 29 weeks – more than half the year, and double the length of time that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would spend at the top. More of the Monkees, the LP featuring “I’m a Believer,” would become the first rock album to be the year’s bestseller, a feat not even The Beatles had managed.

As if predicting that Beatlemania was about to be eclipsed by Monkeemania, “I’m a Believer” borrows far less from the Fab Four than had previous single “Last Train to Clarksville.” The guitar riff, melodic bass line and Micky Dolenz’s mid-Atlantic accent are all mildly Beatles-inspired (and the prominent organ recalls tracks like “I’m Looking Through You” from Rubber Soul), but there’s nothing that countless other rock bands of the time hadn’t nicked without drawing comment. In fact, the track it most resembles is its songwriter Neil Diamond’s own hit “Cherry, Cherry,” which broke into the Top 10 in October 1966. The two records share a suspiciously similar rhythm and acoustic guitar/keyboard elements – little surprise, then, that they also share a producer (Jeff Barry) and an arranger/organist (Artie Butler).

But whereas Diamond, a “rocker” in a traditional pop mold, could deck his version of “I’m a Believer” with strings, horns and female backing vocals, a nominal garage rock band like The Monkees needed to keep their instrumentation basic. Instead, the record catches the ear with a dynamic arrangement. The chugging pace of the verses reflects a life trudged through without hope of anything exciting to shake it up – though the handclaps and bright tempo hint at happier times just around the corner. Suddenly, the gears grind to a halt as the narrator finds his life changed in an instant: “Then I saw her face! Now I’m a believer!” The record’s sound immediately grows fuller and richer, augmented by a chirpy organ and livelier backing vocals. But if one dramatic pause weren’t enough to express this radical conversion, a second drives the point home. The proclamation “I’m in love!” is accompanied only by tambourine and a few emphatic guitar strums, intercut with Davy Jones and Peter Tork’s transcendent “mmmm – oh – yeah!” harmony vocals, as sharp and clear as a beam of light through a stained glass window.

As striking as the arrangement is, though, it’s lead singer Micky Dolenz who really sells the song, as a pessimist succumbing to belief in love in spite of himself. His vocal inflections – the sigh of “what’s the use in tryin’,” the slight falter in “not a trace,” the breathless strain on the final “I couldn’t leave her if I tried” – and the way he drags one microsecond behind the beat through most of the song convey the ambivalence of someone who had gotten comfortable with his lack of happiness and isn’t entirely sure he’s ready for a change, even a positive one. By the coda, though, any hesitation in his voice evaporates as his faith in love is made devout. Playing off the title’s religious connotations, the song takes on a gospel flavor as Dolenz and Jones/Tork exchange call-and-response cries of “I’m a believer!” backed by the everpresent organ.

Despite all the dramatic pauses and dynamic shifts, The Monkees & co handle “I’m a Believer” with a light touch, keeping the beat danceable and the tone joyous throughout. Dolenz commits to the emotional arc of the song, but without pushing it to Righteous Brothers-levels of melodrama. Even when the song is at its bleakest (“disappointment haunted all my dreams”), the exaggeratedly monotone “duh-dun duh-dun” backing vocals seem to mock the narrator’s self-pity. More than “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer” sets the template for The Monkees records to come: as clever, experimental and affecting as the best of ’60s pop-rock, but without the burden of taking themselves too seriously. 9

Hit #1 on December 31, 1966; total of 7 weeks at #1
177 of 1030 #1’s reviewed; 17.18% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 09, 1966, 1967

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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Filed under 10, 1966

175) The New Vaudeville Band – “Winchester Cathedral”

Pop/rock musicians in the late ’60s looking to expand their sound tended to draw from the music of idealized cultures separated by distance (Indian), time (baroque) or race (blues). For musicians with less serious aims, though, there was also a strain of pop that sought exoticism closer to home. After all, few things are as close in grasp but ultimately unknowable as what the world was like just before you were born. The dregs of the era may even persist into your early childhood, furthering the sense of having just missed out on something great. But the fact that the culture already belongs to a still-living generation blocks it off from personal access in a way that, say, medieval culture doesn’t (in that  everyone approaches it from equal distance). On top of that, the fact it’s your own parents’ and grandparents’ era makes it unhip by association. The result is a complex alloy of irony, nostalgia and genuine appreciation, the precise balance of which can vary from person to person and song to song. (The contemporary equivalent may be the resurgence of the foggy synths and saxophone associated with ’70s/early ’80s yacht rock.)

For rock in the mid to late ’60s, this manifested as a sort of a fad for the similarly populist entertainments of a previous generation – namely, late-era music hall/vaudeville and the dance band jazz of the ’20s and early ’30s. (Being a hand-me-down cultural reference, the ’60s pop/rock version is more a loose jumble of old-timey signifiers than accurate historical musicology.) In the UK, this style of music progressed naturally from the trad jazz revival of the late ’50s and ’60s, with that era’s fetish for authenticity softened into more playful appeals to nostalgia. For Americans, it called to mind the peaceful era between the world wars  – years that seemed especially rosy viewed from 1966.

Producer/songwriter Geoff Stephens assembled The New Vaudeville Band in studio as a vessel to record a pastiche of ’20s pop. “Winchester Cathedral” wasn’t the first vaudeville-flavored pop hit to break in the US. Herman’s Hermits’ tinny instrumentation and Peter Noone’s vocal mugging alluded to the variety tradition, a connection made explicit on their version of “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” The Kinks scored Top 20 US hits with “A Well Respected Man” and “Sunny Afternoon,” which incorporated modified music hall song structures as a means of reasserting their Britishness while playing American-derived rock and roll. The Lovin’ Spoonful, whose old-timey inclinations tended more to street-level jug band music, broke out the soft-shoe shuffle for “Daydream” – there’s even video of the band performing it in vaudevillian boaters and bowties. What is unusual is how ahead of the curve a novelty single like “Winchester Cathedral” was, preceding more fondly remembered examples of the microgenre as The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four,” The Rolling Stones’ “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” and The Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday.” The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the closest analogue to The New Vaudeville Band (and arguably the source of their whole shtick), wouldn’t even release their debut LP until the following year, at which point they’d begun to tone down their antique influences to avoid comparisons to the hit-makers.

Perhaps it helped that the New Vaudeville Band were more literal than the rockers. The touring iteration of the group included a horn section dressed in old-fangled costumes and a singer who sang through a Rudy Vallée-style megaphone. They even had the word “vaudeville” right there in the name, in case you needed a map. But for a pastiche of music descended from the sprightly likes of ragtime and dixieland, the pace of “Winchester Cathedral” is leaden and undanceable, the horns bulbous and gassy – though, to be fair, the garish production and dinky instrumentation are probably a more honest tribute to small-scale, low-end music halls than the rosy-hued rockers’ take. And to assure pop listeners that it’s not just a nostalgia trip for old fogies – though they are welcome to buy the record too – there’s a slack jolt of fuzz guitar as a vague gesture to psych rock. (The record’s only good joke was winning the Grammy for Best Contemporary Song.)

Oddly, the best thing about “Winchester Cathedral” may be the song itself. The lyrics are terrible, to be sure, but terrible in a plausibly vaudevillian novelty way. The melody’s catchy without being painful, familiar without being too predictable. Conversely, though, every cover version – and circa 1967, there were a lot of them, by everyone from Petula Clark to Frank Sinatra to Vallée himself – proves how superfluous the song is removed from its moth-eaten ’20s dress-up. What’s left is pure kitsch, ridiculing the past while stoking nostalgia for it – and, worst of all, not even getting what made it so appealing in the first place. 2

Hit #1 on December 3, 1966 for 1 week; repeaked on December 17, 1966 for 2 weeks; total of 3 weeks at #1
175 of 1025 #1’s reviewed; 17.07% through the H0t 100

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Filed under 02, 1966

174) The Supremes – “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”

 In the summer of 1966, The Supremes had two singles competing for release. Their previous two, though both Top 10 hits, had failed to top the charts, making for the longest break between Supremes number-ones yet. Motown logically chose to release “You Can’t Hurry Love” first, a song that recaptured the bounce and light touch of their initial run of hits while adding a stronger soul influence. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” the other potential single, was more of a departure – a despairing, driving record whose closest antecedent was the minor-key chorus and groaning organs of “My World is Empty Without You,” a flop by Supremes standards (in that it only got to #5). By the time Motown released the single in October, though, songwriters/producers Holland-Dozier-Holland were riding the success of a similar blend of melodrama and psych-rock touches. No coincidence, then, that “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” finally came out the same week “Reach Out I’ll Be There” topped the charts.

While the stakes may be lower on “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” – just heartbreak and frustration, not existential angst – the outcome is less certain. Diana Ross’s fragile vocals and inherent vulnerability render the defiant lyrics (“set me free,” “get out my life”) less as commands than feeble pleas. Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, avatars of wisdom and guidance on “You Can’t Hurry Love,” aren’t much support here either. They drift in and out of the mix, often overlapping with Diana’s lead as if singing as one muddled voice, or emitting wails that sound halfway between a siren and a sob. Distress signals recur throughout “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”: the morse-code guitar lines, the flailing bass, the galloping percussion (borrowed from “Reach Out”). At the same time, though, there’s a directness and forcefulness to the record that outstrips even “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Layers of instruments (including organ, vibes and what sounds like muted brass) are doubled and tripled playing the same sustained notes, as if building a fortress out of sound. The emphatic drum/tambourine beat provides the foundation, steady but for an admission of defeat: “and there ain’t nothin’ I can do about it.”

Diana often played the romantic victim in previous Supremes singles, but usually in the sense that she was a pushover, perhaps even someone who got a thrill out of the drama. In “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” though, she really does seem to be making an honest effort to break away from the relationship (“let me get over you the way you’ve gotten over me”), making her struggle all the more tragic. This shift toward trying to take control of the relationship, whether successful or not, marks a new maturity for The Supremes, accentuated by the move from light pop to a harder-edged, more urgent sound. Unlike earlier Supremes hits, Holland-Dozier-Holland wouldn’t try to follow it up by trying to replicate the formula exactly. Instead, they’d mutate it, taking advantage of the single’s success and the expanding pop atmosphere of the late ’60s to see how baroque and experimental they could push the Supremes’ sound without losing their essence (or their audience). 9

Hit #1 on November 19, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
174 of 1025 #1’s reviewed; 16.98% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 09, 1966

173) Johnny Rivers – “Poor Side of Town”

History credits the British Invasion with reintroducing rock and roll to the Americans who, failing to appreciate their good fortune, had chosen to discard or declaw it. Not only does this perspective underestimate the surf rockers, R&B artists and early garage rockers who mutated and perpetuated the genre – lest we forget, “Louie Louie” was a hit before “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – but it also overlooks the ’50s-style rockers who carried the flame. One of the leaders of the first rock and roll revival was Johnny Rivers, a white singer and guitarist from Louisiana who had been playing rock for nearly a decade before scoring his first hit, a version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” that climbed to #2 in amid the UK deluge of 1964. While Rivers built his career remaking familiar rock and R&B hits, he was closer in spirit to early Rolling Stones than Pat Boone redux. Rather than watering down the form, he emphasized the viscerality and rougher edges by recording his first several albums and singles live at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles – even as the tight band, female backing singers and clubby atmosphere ensured nothing got too out of hand. Rivers followed “Memphis” with a string of other Top 20 covers, including Harold Dorman’s “Mountain of Love” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son,” as well as the Steve Barri/P.F. Sloan original “Secret Agent Man,” originally recorded as the theme song for the imported and retitled UK TV series Danger Man.

Rivers’s sole number-one hit, however, was a conscious departure from the “go-go sound” that had made him famous. One of Rivers’s rare self-penned singles,“Poor Side of Town” updates the Righteous Brothers’ orchestral blue-eyed balladry by toning down the melodrama and adding a light Motown-ish groove. (He’d carry the formula to its logical conclusion on his similarly-arranged covers of “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” and “The Tracks of My Tears” the following year). The storyline of the song itself is fairly standard stuff: poor girl leaves poor boy for rich guy; girl gets dumped; girl retreats back to the Poor Side of Town. As the poor boy, Rivers at first greets the girl’s return guarded and a little bitter: “How can you tell me how much you miss me/ when the last time I saw you, you wouldn’t even kiss me?” As the song progresses, though, he begins to soften and admit he still loves her, even as he acknowledges she’s settling (“I can’t blame you for tryin’/ I’m tryin’ to make it too”). Rivers recasts the title line at the end of each verse to chart the narrator’s emotional progression: from sarcasm (“welcome back, baby, to … ”), to melancholic longing (“it’s hard to find nice things, on … ”), to hope (“together we can make it, baby, from the poor side of town”). The song’s arrangement emphasizes the class divide, contrasting street-level rock elements (the gently stinging guitar, Rivers’s slack enunciation, the doo-wop “shooby-dooby” vocals) with a plush bed of strings and the serene, pure-toned vocals of The Blossoms.

“Poor Side of Town” finds Rivers experimenting with recasting rock and roll in a more “adult” format, perhaps inspired by the polished R&B/country blend of Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds recordings. Yet there’s also the sense that perhaps he and producer Lou Adler had overcorrected a little. Rivers’s tremulous phrasing hints at the complexity of reactions brought on by the girl’s return, but the overbright production threatens to blow out any emotional shading. Even if Rivers was attempting to emphasize the divide between the straightforward, authentic poor side and the empty gloss of the rich, the latter actually grows more dominant as it’s supposed to be fading in the rearview. The Blossoms’ role doesn’t seem quite worked out either. Despite getting two lines to themselves near the end, they’re not there to add the woman’s perspective but to reinforce the narrator’s – why else would they cooingly echo the charges of “plaything” and “overnight fling”?

By the time Rivers released the accompanying LP (pointedly titled Changes), he and Adler had refined the use of lush instrumentation to add sophistication and poignancy without contradicting the emotional current.  In a way, Rivers’ mid-to-late ’60s records were no less experimental than what was going on in the rest of the rock world at the time – only rather than drawing from the avant-garde or expanding on roots genres (folk, blues, country), he was trying to see how much polish rock could take without losing its form. It might not have been as hip as what the British acts were doing, but it was perhaps more prescient of the direction mainstream rock was headed in the decade to come. 6

Hit #1 on November 12, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
173 of 1024 #1’s reviewed; 16.89% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 06, 1966

172) The Monkees – “Last Train to Clarksville”

For all the negative comparisons The Monkees endured to The Beatles, the musical similarity between the two groups is largely superficial. The Monkees material, especially early on, was written and produced by the sort of Brill Building figures that the British Invasion had largely displaced. These records sound like The Beatles only inasmuch as all pop-rock of the mid-’60s followed their lead, coating classic pop structures with a folk-rock or semi-psychedelic sheen. The one place where The Monkees did owe a major debt to The Beatles, however, was their screen personas: A Hard Day’s Night’s flippant, chipper jokers; even moreso Help!’s cohabitating gadabouts contending with surreality. Even if the music sounded only moderately Beatlesesque, the Monkees TV series clearly intended to tap into the Fab Four’s fanbase – in particular, the kids who appreciated the antics and catchy melodies but were left behind by the band’s shift into arty experimentation. So when the time came to introduce The Monkees to the world, via a single released a month before the show’s premiere, it made sense to employ a pastiche of The Beatles’ glory days to convey the gist of the series (conceptually, if not sonically) before a single episode had aired.

Appropriately enough, the most Beatlesy of Monkees singles originated when songwriters/producers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart misheard the outro of “Paperback Writer” as “take the last train.” The sustained falsetto harmony vocals of “Last Train to Clarksville” also draw heavily from that single, with the descending major third on “tra-ain” modeled after the ones on “wri-ter” and “Jac-ques.” (The high, drawn-out pitch also conveniently sounds a lot like a train whistle.) Most of the inspiration for “Clarksville,” however, reaches back a year or two earlier to the friendly folk-pop of Help! and Rubber Soul rather than the more recent, harder-edged material. The prominent tambourine rolls that precede the verses evoke The Beatles’ frequent use of the instrument in that era, as a means of not only adding depth to the percussion but also an element of disruption and edginess – here evoking the restlessness and unease of preparing to depart on an uncertain journey. The main guitar riff, apparently played on a George Harrison-style 12-string, echoes the descending arpeggios of “Help!,” while the “oh no no no” refrain was (according to Boyce and Hart) a conscious negation of “She Loves You”’s “yeah yeah yeah.” Lead singer Micky Dolenz, an American, occasionally even adopts British inflections: the crisp T in “four-thirty,” the long A in the second syllable of “again,” the dropped R in “evah coming home.” (Incidentally, he’s the only Monkee to appear on the track. They weren’t really a band yet, just playing one on TV.)

Despite being an obvious Beatles pastiche, “Last Train to Clarksville” manages the rare accomplishment of standing on its own rather than merely reminding the listener of the superior material it’s copying. Boyce and Hart include enough original hooks to keep it fresh – that “oh no no no” feels like it should have been pulled from a Beatles song, even if it wasn’t – while understanding how to incorporate the cut-and-paste elements so that they speak to the song itself (as with the backing vocals and tambourine), rather than leaning on sheer familiarity. It helps too that The Monkees’ future singles wouldn’t tread the same ground. Having drawn their lineage as successors to the Fab Four’s young fans, they no longer had to directly copy them. “Last Train to Clarksville” may not be particularly sophisticated lyrically – “coffee-flavored kisses” is the closest it comes to poesy – but the sunny folk-rock masks the dark clouds on the narrator’s horizon. There’s even the interpretation, supported by Boyce and Hart themselves, that the song’s narrator is departing for military duty in Vietnam, based largely on the line “and I don’t know if I’m ever coming home” and the coincidence (unknown to the writers at the time) of a basic combat training center located near Clarksville, Tennessee. While this claim to topicality is roughly as probable as that of Martha & the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack” (i.e., probably speaking more to the climate of the time than being literally about the war), it does point the way to a defining feature of The Monkees especially on TV and film, of sneaking in evidence of the wider, shifting culture under the guise of kids’ entertainment. 7

Hit #1 on November 5, 1966; total of one week at #1
172 of 1023 #1’s reviewed; 16.81% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 07, 1966

171) ? and the Mysterians – “96 Tears”

The very elements of garage rock that made it so exciting – the back-to-basics approach, the lack of polish, the accessibility to anyone keen to form a band – also made the groups themselves a bit interchangeable. When competing with thousands of bands with more or less the same lineup playing more or less the same covers, it helped to have a gimmick. All the better if the band could disguise its hometown roots and pass for something more exotic. American acts copping a vaguely Liverpudlian lilt crossed wires with UK bands impersonating Chicago bluesmen. The Kingsmen slurred through a phony Jamaican accent and won international infamy. Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs scored a couple of hits while dressing like extras from The Ten Commandments. But of all the garage rock bands to make it big, if only briefly, few were more mysterious than the Mysterians. They weren’t just claiming to be from another country, but from another planet – which, as Mexican-American topping the mid-’60s pop charts, they sort of were. The group adopted their name from the aliens in a Japanese sci-fi film and corroborated it with the Z-movie UFO sound of their Vox Continental. Their ostentatiously anonymous frontman professed to be a Martian, hid behind dark sunglasses, and went only by the name ? (or “Question Mark”).

The casual weirdness of the group’s one big hit, “96 Tears,” confirms that the ? and the Mysterians’ eccentricity wasn’t (entirely) a gimmick. The record itself was an unexpected hit: a home recording that gained traction in Central Michigan before gradually climbing the national charts. The musicianship and production are, mildly put, rudimentary. The guitars are nearly inaudible apart from the bridge; the drummer just about manages to hit the twos and fours. The one standout is the Vox, alternating every four bars between repetitive eighth-note thirds and calliope-esque swirls. Its bouncy simplicity takes on a sinister cast when paired with Question Mark’s fragmented sneers at the girl who dumped him. Both singer and organ seem a little too happy plotting revenge.

It’s all chest-puffing and spleen-venting until the bridge, when Question Mark suddenly lapses into a reverie and the rest of the band fades into the backdrop. At first, he’s more forceful than he has been yet, his lyrics bursting forth in a jagged rush (“when the sun comes up – I’ll be on top”). Then his voice trails off as his revenge fantasy begins to slip away. He’s no longer just playing cool – now he seems unable to keep up with the beat. He shifts from the future tense to the present as he confesses that his big talk was just a cover for his own heartbreak (“I know now … I’ll just cry”). The rest of the band quickly reverts to the first verse’s nasty cheer, but Question Mark’s too worked up and has admitted too much to go back. He mostly just gasps out variations on “you’re gonna cry 96 tears,” alternating with appeals to “let me hear you cry!” as if prodding the audience to sing along so he’s not by himself. The number 96 may have been picked as a reverse-digit juvenile joke, but Question Mark’s preoccupation with it – mentioned only once in the first verse, but seven more times in the outro – suggests there may be another reason behind fixating on that specific number. Perhaps he’s learned from experience exactly how many teardrops are too many for one heart to carry on. 8

Hit #1 on October 29, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
171 of 1023 #1’s reviewed; 16.72% through the Hot 100

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