Chubby Checker’s second and final #1 is essentially a redux of “The Twist,” but with a new set of lyrics corresponding to yet another dance craze. What’s baffling is that “Pony Time” and “The Twist” weren’t even written by the same people, despite boasting the same tune and the same conceptual base (“let’s dance to the eponymous dance, which I will now explain for you in the lyrics”). Checker, always likeable, does a fine job with the material, but the problem’s the same as that of “The Twist”: it’s fun enough on the dancefloor, but musically it amounts to little more than a square dance caller’s directions formatted as 12-bar blues. Checker carved himself out a niche for these types of dance craze instructionals, with other hits including “The Hucklebuck,” “The Fly,” “Limbo Rock,” as well as “Let’s Twist Again,” “Slow Twistin’,” etc. “Pony Time”‘s distinguishing feature is its endearingly goofy lyrics: “Turn to the left when I say ‘gee’! Now turn to the right when I say ‘haw’! Now ‘gee’! Now ‘haw’!” (I’m pretty sure those directions pertain more to work horses than to ponies, but this ain’t hippology! It’s rock and roll!). So what does this amount to? A perfectly harmless song whose decline in relevance corresponds almost perfectly to the end of the eponymous fad. 5
Hit #1 on February 27, 1961; total of 3 weeks at #1
46 of 967 #1’s reviewed; 4.76% through the Hot 100
When you’re out on the dance floor, you’re not paying attention to lyrics, you’re not looking for meaning. You just want to move, to set yourself free, maybe catch the eye (or more) of a particularly attractive dancer. When you’re dancing, really dancing to a song, you connect with it in a way that’s difficult to match in any other environment, except maybe a truly great concert, or perhaps lying blissed out on the floor while unknown but newly loved music streams into your soul via your headphones. While dancing, your whole body’s committed to the song. You’re packed in with a crowd of people all experiencing the same emotions, the same visceral connection to the music as you are, a horde united by the mystical power of killer beats and catchy melody. There’s nothing wrong with dancing to a song purpose-built for ass-shaking, even if it doesn’t hold up in the cold, sober darkness of midday in a lonely apartment. But the best dance songs can use their exceptional power of fusing themselves with your psyche for deeper purposes, whether it’s heartbreaking lyrics or an arrangement that richens on repeated listens. We’re lucky to be able to discuss a few dance songs of this caliber over the course of this blog.
“The Twist,” however, is something more basic: a sped-up blues jam about getting your rocks off, whether through its namesake dance or through twisting of a more horizontal sort. It knows its job and does it well enough to spawn the dance craze against which all future dance crazes are judged. But apart from nostalgia, there’s not really much of a reason to listen to it off the dancefloor. It’s not the fault of Chubby Checker, who invests fully in his performance. But there’s something hollow about it. Maybe it’s the generic, too-clean rock and roll sound, or the primitiveness of its message (we’d never settle for exhortations of “just dance!” in 2009 … ). But despite the iconic status of “The Twist,” there’s nothing for someone who missed out on the ’60s to really glom on to. It’s an OK song, but without Checker’s loose-limbed moves in the above video (much more agile than what the Twist would become after Middle American teenagers caught on to it), it’s just a slight, forgettable dance tune. 5
After peaking for one week in 1960, “The Twist” would again hit #1 on its second chart run in 1962. This is the longest gap between a song topping and retopping the charts in the history of the Hot 100 – and offers a sneak peak into the strange, mysterious future world of 1962.
Billboard named “The Twist” the #1 song of the Hot 100’s first 50 years. The ranking was based on chart performance, so I assume the single remained on the chart for a good long time – three weeks at #1 isn’t that impressive on the Hot 100. (In comparion, the previously-reviewed version of “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin topped the chart for nine weeks but earned only a #3 slot on the “All Time Top Songs” ranking.)
Hit #1 on September 19, 1960 for 1 week; repeaked on January 13, 1962 for 2 weeks; total of 3 weeks at #1
35 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.63% through the Hot 100
A rundown of every #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, starting from the top (1958) and progressing in order. Ratings on a highly subjective 1-10 scale. Comments perpetually open. Supposedly published weekly.