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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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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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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170) The Four Tops – “Reach Out I’ll Be There”

Motown writing/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland frequently sneaked references to traditional gospel music into their otherwise secular records. On the Supremes tracks “Come See About Me” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” paraphrases of familiar gospel songs function as a shibboleth, tacitly invoking a culture shared by the artists and a specific (African-American, Christian) subset of their audience. For records like the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” though, the allusions are more thematic than literal, a means of adding heft to a formula love song. The song, directed toward a depressed woman apparently on the verge of suicide, promises everlasting love, support and consolation to guide her through her trouble. The narrator is portrayed as a near-omnipotent force capable of salvation. All the woman has to do is ask and her prayers will be answered.

The intro to “Reach Out” enacts the record’s theme in miniature: a mournful cry from a flute, answered by the gallop of a woodblock rushing to rescue. Though the beat migrates to tambourine and drums/bass over the course of the song, it never ceases or varies tempo, even when most other instrumentation drops out at the song’s tensest moments. Lead singer Levi Stubbs’ declamatory baritone is nearly as constant, at times so powerful that it veers into distortion. His strained vocals and jagged phrasing attest to the intensity of his effort. His ability to rescue her isn’t in doubt; the question is whether she will reach out for him. All the Tops can do is offer a hand and beg her to accept it. The suspense builds to a climax on the bridge between verse and chorus, as the backing Tops’ cries to “reach out!” escalate and Stubbs’s pleas grow more fervent (“come on girl, reach out for me!”). The vocals cut out and, for a few moments, her fate hangs in the balance. Does she succumb to her fears and anxieties? Or does she accept his help? At last, Stubbs’ triumphant “HAH!” relieves the tension, as if he’s caught her hand and is pulling her to safety. The pleading in the bridge gives way to a reassuring affirmation: “I’ll be there/ to always see you through.” By the final verse, she no longer needs to seek him out; he’s already with her (“just look over your shoulder!”).

While gospel is the obvious reference point for the vocal style and lyrical themes, musically “Reach Out” suggests that Holland-Dozier-Holland were paying attention to rock as well – specifically “Paint It Black,” where the cantering rhythm and major-minor fluctuations stand for existential angst. The Four Tops’ run of singles from “Reach Out” through “7-Rooms of Gloom” can be considered Motown’s counterpart to the arty and experimental wing of mid-’60s rock, foreshadowing the label’s forays into psychedelic soul. As psychedelic rock sought to chronicle the interior drug experience through sound, these Four Tops singles externalize the mind-altering effects of anxiety and jealousy, jolting listeners through a series of dynamic contrasts (major vs. minor; Stubbs’ anguished roars vs. the Tops’ beatific tenors; frantic instrumentation vs. suspenseful moments of near silence), until, by song’s end, the audience is as worn out and on edge as the songs’ narrators. This unsettling physicality renders these singles tangible; unlike similarly theatrical records of the period (think “Lightnin’ Strikes”), they refuse to be reduced to camp. Even compared with its siblings “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and “Bernadette,” the beyond-life-and-death urgency of “Reach Out” gives it an unmatched gravity. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, though, the song is too encouraging to feel ponderous. “Reach Out” understands the depths, but it celebrates the certainty of deliverance. 10

Hit #1 on October 15, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
170 of 1023 #1’s reviewed; 16.62% through the Hot 100

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169) The Association – “Cherish”

As rock and roll went mainstream, those bands for whom rock was a deliberate statement, where the sound was the message, were joined by acts who adopted the style more or less by default. The Association had the standard rock guitar/drums/keyboards set-up; they played songs inspired by The Beatles and The Byrds; they’d even serve as the opening act for Monterey Pop in 1967. Yet there’s the sense that they’d have been just as comfortable playing Kingston Trio-style collegiate folk five years earlier, or Four Preps-ish vocal pop a decade before that, or, in a prior generation, even barbershop. They opted for pretty harmonies over raw power, their music as airy and iridescent as soap bubbles and just as clean (rumors of drug references in “Along Comes Mary” notwithstanding). The group’s demeanor too was more in line with professional entertainers than garage thrashers. Even the name “The Association” sounds more like a business conglomerate than a pop band, an impression furthered by their dress code (suits) and personality (friendly but faceless).

Their songs were models of mechanical efficiency – all the moving parts locked in place, running smoothly and burnished to a sheen. As such, The Association challenge subsequent decades of received wisdom as to what rock is “supposed” to be, which prizes subversion and grit, and casts polished, pretty music as hollow or emotionally inauthentic. Never mind that most “raw” music is no less practiced and performative – it’s still hard to listen to The Association, with their precise enunciation, polite arrangements and showmen’s permagrins and hear more than sentimentality impersonating true feeling. While “Along Comes Mary,” the group’s debut single, benefited from a springy beat and cleverish turns of phrase, follow-up “Cherish” has none of that song’s modest edge. Instead, it’s a sticky-sweet declaration of love, with no drama or imagination to save it from its own banality.

Or is it? “Cherish” may have soundtracked millions of weddings and slow dances (BMI ranked it as the 22nd most played song of the previous century), but the gentle crooning and candy-heart lyrics gloss over the fact that its love story is unrequited: “You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could mold you/ Into someone who can cherish me as much as I cherish you.” The song’s narrator, unable to create a perfect romance, instead creates a perfect record, layering impeccable six-vocal harmonies, serene drums and the chime of a celesta (substituting for wedding bells never to be). The superficial sweetness holds together at first, but then the song wanders into a discursive middle section as the narrator imagines “a thousand other guys” saying the same things to the girl he loves with the same questionable motives. (At this point he seems uncertain as to whether he really “needs” her or just “wants” her – which is perhaps why he settles on “cherish.”)

As the emotions pile up, the façade of control becomes harder to maintain, climaxing in a key change and a more honest reworking of the first verse. Rather than the strait-laced hyperperfection of the song’s start, the vocals now are more demonstrative, the drums more urgent, the cheerful “bom bom” backing replaced with wordless howls. The overly formal language and convoluted syntax (“‘Cherish’ is the word I use to describe/ All the feeling that I have hiding here for you inside”) are pared down to the more direct “And I do/ Cherish you.” There’s still a patness to the arrangement that keeps it from cutting as deeply as it should (take that overripe harmonizing on the closing line, for example), but when “Cherish” works, it’s because the slickness and superficial beauty act as cover for messy emotions, creating a disconnect between the ideal and the actual. What’s more subversive – more rock and roll, even – than that? 7

Hit #1 on September 24, 1966; total of 3 weeks at #1
169 of 1022 #1’s reviewed; 16.54% through the Hot 100

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168) The Supremes – “You Can’t Hurry Love”

Motown had started life with the goal of representing the polished and mainstream-friendly face of African-American pop, and was immediately rewarded with a string of blockbuster hits. By the mid-’60s, though, the label’s strict adherence to its sophisticated, conventional pop format began to relax. The chart hits of Stax/Volt and Atlantic proved that racially mixed audiences were open to more concentrated strains of soul, as did Motown’s own success with the likes of the gospel-influenced Four Tops and the funky R&B of Junior Walker & the All Stars. Likewise, rock and roll, which had re-entered the popular consciousness around the same time as Motown via the traditionally-minded, melodic pop of the early British Invasion, was now veering into experimental and bluesier territory, expanding the boundaries of what constituted popular music.

While Motown was understandably hesitant to fiddle with the guaranteed-hit formula of its biggest stars, even The Supremes were eventually geared for an update. “I Hear a Symphony” freed the girls from the repetitive stomp of their previous hits, while the two singles that followed continued playing with the definition of what a Supremes record could sound like: the uncharacteristically moody “My World is Empty Without You,” and “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart,” which set up house in Martha and the Vandellas’ brasher neighborhood. Neither of those songs became number-one hits (though both made the Top 10), so a corrective course was charted to return the girls to their rightful spot on top. Lamont Dozier has said that “You Can’t Hurry Love” began life as a rewrite of “Come See About Me,” and indeed it repeats that record’s melding of worried lyrics with a cheerful, uptempo arrangement. And like “Come See About Me,” Holland-Dozier-Holland sneak in references to a gospel song that would be familiar to much of The Supremes’ black audience – in this case “He’s Right On Time” by Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes. (Sample lyrics: “You can’t hurry God, you just have to wait/ You have to trust Him and give Him time, no matter how long it takes.”). But this time around, the gospel feel isn’t just confined to the lyric sheet. “You Can’t Hurry Love” swings more than any Supremes number-one before it, propelled along by the sprightly bouncing bass and staccato rhythm guitar. “You Can’t Hurry Love,” then, can be thought of as a turning point for The Supremes, transitioning the group from the dainty, airtight pop of their early hits to the more soulful and dramatic sound of their future.

It wasn’t just the Supremes’ sound that was developing, though – the lyrics too were showing signs of maturity. If we think of the Supremes singles as the saga of an on-again, off-again romance where Diana tears herself up over a guy who’s not worth the trouble, “You Can’t Hurry Love” is the point where she begins to step back and reconsider what love is supposed to mean.  She’s learning patience and finding the strength to break off the bad relationship, even though she’s terrified of being single (“How much more can I take/ Before loneliness will cause my heart, heart to break?”). The reassuring maternal figures of Flo and Mary help ease some of Diana’s anxiety and frustration, their backing vocals reenforcing key nuggets of wisdom (“Wait!” “You got to give and take!” “Love don’t come easy!”). The music too is brisk and bouncy – a celebration of the happiness and freedom that await Diana once she stops mooning over her false idea of love. Whether it sticks, though, is another matter. For now, her mother’s advice is “the only thing that keeps me hanging on” – but soon those words will stand for another meaning entirely, and just as desperate. 8

Hit #1 on September 10, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
168 of 1022 #1’s reviewed; 16.44% through the Hot 100

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167) Donovan – “Sunshine Superman”

Half a year passed between the recording of “Sunshine Superman” and its US release. Another half a year passed before the single came out in Donovan’s native UK. Within those 12 months, the concept of mainstream pop that reflected the psychedelic experience had gone from obscurity to full-blown trend. (The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” often cited as the first psych-rock song, was actually recorded a few weeks after “Superman,” though released first.) But even if legal hassles kept “Sunshine Superman” from being the bolt out the blue that Donovan had hoped for, nevertheless there’s a freshness to the single that keeps it from sounding like psychedelia by rote. The collage of classical Indian instrumentation, Baroque-era harpsichord and electric guitars isn’t merely the product of checking boxes on a psych-rock template. Instead, this impossible soundscape untethers the song from any definable time or place, situating the song somewhere found only in the imagination (with the assistance of certain chemicals, perhaps). This detachment from reality is aided by the shifting bass, continually knocking the record off balance, and by the disguised instrumentation: the conga subbing for a tabla, or, in the song’s greatest hook, the swerving electric guitar sting masquerading as sitar or even siren.

The delayed release of “Sunshine Superman” might have even served to its benefit. Its title made the song as apposite a warm weather number-one as “Summer in the City,” albeit one that presents an idealized acid dream of beaches and sunsets rather than The Lovin’ Spoonful’s noisy, grimy realism. In addition, its mid-1966 release placed it in context with psych-leaning records by bigger, more musically progressive acts like The Beatles and The Byrds. In the US, Donovan had previously only notched a few minor hits with the earnest acoustic folk of “Catch the Wind” and “Universal Soldier.” “Sunshine Superman” singlehandedly raised his American profile and transformed his persona from denim-capped balladeer to fey, benevolent mystic. On top of the eclectic production and rainbow-and-velvet-strewn imagery, Donovan’s jazzy phrasing adds a newfound bit of swagger to his delicate tenor, as befitting the refrain “’cause I made my mind up/ you’re going to be mine” – though Donovan’s inherent gentleness makes it more of a mischievous tease than a Jaggeresque leer. The production by Mickie Most, with whom Donovan would collaborate steadily over the next few years, is brisk and breezy in keeping with the song’s carefree spirit, but grounded enough to avoid either the ponderousness or overt whimsy that would often come to mark psychedelia, particularly as the decade progressed.

A historical note: session musicians Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones met at the recording of this single. The band they would form a few years later, while never troubling this blog directly, would have a huge impact on rock music from the late ’60s onward. While “Sunshine Superman” represented a fresh start for its singer and an inspired example of its burgeoning genre, it also contained the seeds of the future sound that would render both obsolete. 8

Hit #1 on September 3, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
167 of 1021 #1’s reviewed; 16.36% through the Hot 100

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166) The Lovin’ Spoonful – “Summer in the City”

The Beach Boys aside, few mid-’60s bands seemed as destined to record a summer standard as The Lovin’ Spoonful, what with the group’s sunny outlook and gentle humor, their country folk/Chuck Berry/jugband-influenced style of  “good time music,” and John Sebastian’s eternally untroubled croon. Hits like “Daydream” and “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” were made for lying in the sunshine, easygoing enough so as not to break a sweat. But the song that would end up soundtracking a million heat wave montages (and become the band’s biggest hit) was one where the Spoonful traded their genial persona for something a little tougher.  “Summer in the City” is the sound of the mercury rising one degree too high, the heat no longer pleasant but oppressive. It takes as its setting the peculiar hell of a Manhattan summer: millions of people packed onto a concrete island, the air foul and tempers short. Even the most affable Greenwich Village hippie is liable to lose his cool.

The intro to “Summer in the City”  builds dread via a trio of warning shots: a pair of long-short organ notes (anticipating the main theme from Jaws, another tale of warm-weather horror), each punctuated by a single snap of snare drum. Sebastian rips into the song like a guy who doesn’t irritate easily but who has finally been pushed over the edge. The band breathlessly courses through the verse, gathering momentum until the line “walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head” bursts forth in a single rush of syllables like a blast of steam from a pressure cooker.

The chorus shifts the setting from summer day to summer night. The introduction of the Autoharp to the song, a familiar presence from many of the Spoonful’s mellower hits, signals a bit of relief accompanying the drop in temperature. Even without the sun beating down, though, the chorus is scarcely less propulsive. The difference is that the band has gone from fleeing the summer heat to pursuing a different, more enjoyable kind of warmth: someone with whom to spend the fleeting hours before the sun’s return. The chase extends into the second verse – “cool cat, lookin’ for a kitty” – but the intensity that read as frustration in the first verse now feels like exhilaration. By the end of the second chorus, the band seems at last content,  Sebastian’s voice softening as he repeats “in the summer, in the city.” This reverie, however, is soon interrupted by reminders of the irritants that will return with the sunlight.  Some of these, like the car horn honks and jackhammer effects, are literal sounds of the summer street. Others are more suggestive: the start-stop traffic rhythm of the guitar/keyboards combo; the sustained organ note, piercing like a sunbeam directly to the eye; the mirage-like haze of the keyboards bathed in reverb. The reprise of the first verse confirms the day’s return, and the song cycles at least twice more between day and night into the fade-out. But the intense heat no longer seems quite as threatening as it used to, now that there’s the night to look forward to.  8

Hit #1 on August 13, 1966; total of 3 weeks at #1
166 of 1020 #1’s reviewed; 16.27% through the Hot 100

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165) The Troggs – “Wild Thing”

Only one week after “Hanky Panky” comes a chart-topper years ahead of it – not only in regards to when it was recorded, but also in terms of mindset. When Tommy James and the Shondells recorded their single, The Beatles had yet to play The Ed Sullivan Show or tour the US; The Troggs, an English band but too late for the British Invasion, hit #1 with “Wild Thing” on the eve of Revolver’s release and the final concert at Candlestick Park. Not just any two years separated the two, in other words – the chasm between early ’64 and ’66 is as wide as the one between ages 14 and 16, or of that between the fantasizing kid of “Hanky Panky” and the would-be seducer of “Wild Thing.” The two songs share a similarly modest degree of construction (even by garage rock standards), focusing on a simple, repetitive chorus and guitar riff, with just a bare minimum of verse to pad it out into something song-shaped. The differences between the two – in attitude (coy versus brash), tunefulness (sprightly versus sludgy) and the heaviness of the guitar distortion (buzzing gnat versus chemical burn) – chart garage’s subsequent divergence into bubblegum and hard rock, two genres split not only by sound, but by the age of their target audience.

Still, not everything can be figured out in only two years. The narrator of “Wild Thing” knows what he wants, and he has some idea of how he’s supposed to go about it, but he hasn’t quite worked out how to mesh the two. Thus such sensitive balladeer platitudes as “you make my heart sing/ you make everything groovy” get wrapped in Reg Presley’s Jagger-jacking lech drawl, and a delicate ocarina solo (a bird call to attract the “wild thing”?) flutters over a crude guitar riff. Once Presley’s laid out the bait, the the trap begins to ease shut. The instruments drop out (save for an occasional guitar outburst) and Presley lowers his voice to a whisper. “I think I love you” – careful not to commit there – “but I want to know for sure” – how so, Reg? – “come on and … hold me tight.” Ah. It’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” all over again, this time from the guy’s POV and thus without the attendant hesitations and concerns. Like “Tomorrow,” we never find out the girl’s decision. The Troggs may be confident, but there’s no guarantee they’ll succeed. They sure are trying, though, and their inability to get it exactly right makes their efforts almost endearing, in a troglodyte sort of way.  (After all, the sensitive balladeers are after the same thing too – The Troggs are just more transparent about it.)

“Wild Thing” became an instant garage classic, for obvious reasons – it’s the same chord progression as “Louie Louie,” but with the garbled pseudo-filth swapped for more blatant come-ons. Jimi Hendrix closed his Monterey Pop set with it, but it loses its striver’s charm amidst the wizardry and showboating, performed by the kind of guy who didn’t have to try, who’d say “groovy” and actually mean it.* The Troggs themselves picked up a little bit of finesse along the way. Their next-biggest US hit, 1967’s “Love is All Around,” forgoes their caveman past entirely for a string quartet and promises of eternal love. At its heart, though, it’s just “Wild Thing” all over again, just in prettier wrapping: “So if you really love me, come on and let it show.” 7

*Hendrix’s version also quotes “Strangers in the Night” in his guitar solo, turning Sinatra’s song into a double entendre.

Hit #1 on July 30, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
165 of 1019 #1’s reviewed; 16.19% through the Hot 100

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164) Tommy James & the Shondells – “Hanky Panky”

If Sinatra really did call “Strangers in the Night” “the worst fucking song that I have ever heard,” then imagine the profanity he invented when he discovered what replaced it at the top of the charts. “Strangers” was schmaltz, but “Hanky Panky” epitomized the idiocy and trashiness that Sinatra detested about rock music. Its ascent was a rejection of everything Sinatra stood for. At least Dino had the courtesy of being dethroned by the demure, professional Supremes. Tommy James and the Shondells were a bunch of teenage nobodies; like Simon & Garfunkel, they’d split up long before their record was plucked from obscurity to become a surprise hit.  “Hanky Panky” sounds cheap, scratchy and dirty, built on relentless repetition of a single line (“my baby does the hanky panky”) and a distorted guitar riff. Whereas Sinatra seemed vaguely embarrassed by the triteness of “Strangers,” James and the Shondells embrace “Hanky Panky”’s stupidity as evidence of its primal truth. That the group never achieved the critical respectability of contemporaries like The Beatles and the Stones – who’ve since ascended in the pop firmament alongside Sinatra – makes their toppling of the Chairman all the more satisfying.

“Hanky Panky” began life in 1963 as a rush-written B-side for songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s project The Raindrops. The original is a bit of girl-groupish filler, a dance craze cash-in for a dance craze that didn’t actually exist. (Barry, talking later to Fred Bronson, said he considered it “a terrible song.”) The sole verse namedrops some of Barry and Greenwich’s inspirations: The Tokens, The Drifters, The Coasters. By the time the Shondells discovered the song the following year, it had passed from one garage band to another like a message in a game of Telephone, morphing in the process into a junior varsity “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” James, or someone else along the line, swapped out the vocal groups for a rough sketch of an encounter with an elusive  “pretty baby.” He sees her walking by herself and asks to take her home; he then insists he “never ever saw her.” Was she the invention of an oversexed imagination? Is he covering for something?

The Shondells’ reimagining of “Hanky Panky” may have been mildly risqué in 1964; when it finally became a hit in mid-’66, it was almost quaint. The buzzing guitar and James’s ripe delivery hint at the existence of sex without really being sexy – an adolescent fantasy (“I never saw her”?) rather than “Be-Bop-A-Lula”’s (or “Satisfaction”’s, or “Day Tripper”’s) matter-of-factness. James and the Shondells had stumbled on the prototype for bubblegum: bright, catchy and repetitious, with a hint of plausibly deniable innuendo. The band refined and developed the formula on their next several singles; compare 1968’s “Mony Mony,” which borrows elements from “Hanky Panky” but sets them in a more dynamic, better-constructed song. As such, “Hanky Panky” is essentially an amateurish and derivative first draft – albeit still more exciting than a hidebound tome like “Strangers in the Night.” 6

Hit #1 on July 16, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
164 of 1019 #1’s reviewed; 16.09% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 06, 1966