Tag Archives: mickie most

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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134) Herman’s Hermits – “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”

Herman’s Hermits were sort of the kid brothers of the British Invasion, and, as such, were often treated as a band to be mocked or manipulated. Singer Peter Noone was 16 when the group had its first hit, half a decade or so younger than most other beat groups and a full 11 years younger than Freddie Garrity. Unlike their peers, the Hermits hadn’t dug through crates for imported blues records or paid their dues in sketchy German clubs. But Animals producer Mickie Most recognized the group’s fresh-scrubbed innocence as an opportunity to diversify his portfolio, pairing Noone’s child-actor cuteness with a poppier, less R&B sound designed to appeal to young girls. Rather than trying to sound American as possible, Herman’s Hermits emphasized their Manchester roots, treading the same music hall boards as Freddie and the Dreamers and singing in their own accents (or, sometimes, a put-on Cockney one). The experiment succeeded; the group became one of the most successful imports of the British Invasion, racking up more top 10 hits in the US than in their native country and briefly reaching near-Beatles levels of sales and popularity. The group only netted a single UK number one with “I’m Into Something Good,” not coincidentally the most American of their hits: a Goffin/King song marrying Beach Boys harmonies to a Motown beat. Meanwhile, many of their biggest American hits – both US number-ones, as well as “Leaning on the Lamp Post” (#9) and the Ray Davies-written “Dandy” (#5) – were never released at home, where they’d likely have been laughed off as too old-fashioned, too English, for a credible beat group. But, as with Freddie and the Dreamers before them, this acute foreignness just made Americans love them more.

“Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” sounds even less like a rock song than “I’m Telling You Now,” as befitting its origin in a 1963 television play called The Lads. The most prominent instrument is a guitar, yes, but it’s been muted to sound like a ukulele or a banjo; the bass and drums are shoved so far down in the mix as to be barely audible. The shuffling jauntiness of the instrumentation seems at odds with the song’s lyrics about the end of a young romance, but, like Noone’s straightforward, unsentimental reading, it’s an attempt to hide raw emotions behind a pleasant face. Despite his feelings for the girl, the narrator accepts her lack of reciprocation without kicking up a fuss or pleading for her return, anything that might embarrass her or make her feel guilty. Because he refuses to emphasize his own heartbreak, our hearts break for him. But even more than a song about the loss of first love, “Mrs. Brown” is a song about learning that two good people aren’t always good together, that no matter how much he loves her he can’t make her love him back. That the narrator needs to confide in his ex-girlfriend’s mother reminds you he’s still a kid; that he handles the rejection with dignity and considerateness shows he’s becoming an adult. For all the ridicule Herman’s Hermits got for being teen idol lightweights, it’s their very youth and lack of tough-guy posturing that makes the song. “Mrs. Brown” could easily have been a jokey novelty; instead, it’s a rather touching reflection on growing up. 7

Hit #1 on May 1, 1965; total of 3 weeks at #1
134 of 1008 #1’s reviewed; 13.29% through the Hot 100

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117) The Animals – “The House of the Rising Sun”

Well, when were in Detroit I caused a bit of a disturbance there because I said on the radio I didn’t like Motown, I thought it was whitened Negro music, it had taken the wildness and corralled it. I don’t know if that’s the new development or not, but I don’t like it. … Motown is just too pretty for me. Some of their artists are good, obviously, but I don’t like it.

***

I’ve had a couple of offers for acting in films. When a good one comes along, I want to take it, because I really think I could act, because in my position, being English and not really into the American way of life, I’ve had to act the blues anyway. I’ve had to get inside it and think about it and feel it, before I even got here, because the blues comes out of police with nightsticks and Cadillac cars and the heat, and we don’t have that in England.

-Eric Burdon, interviewed by Paul Williams for Crawdaddy! #5 (September 1966)

Berry Gordy founded Tamla Records with a mission: to make black music part of the American pop mainstream. Artists were sent to charm school to learn to carry themselves with class. Crooning became the default mode of singing. Fridays were reserved for quality control meetings to guarantee only the best material got the Hitsville USA seal of approval. It was an unabashedly pop approach, but it worked. Motown records became fixtures of the Top 40, and black music became firmly entrenched in American popular culture.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the British Blues scene was gaining traction. Adherents tried to recreate the sounds they discovered on scratchy import singles. The twin watchwords were authenticity (recreating the records as closely as possible) and obscurity (proving the intensity of your devotion). This was music with no place on BBC Radio, and no interest in adapting to it.

Of course, a scene based on white teenagers affecting the voices and guitar licks of Delta bluesmen was inherently inauthentic. And even if Motown could be derided as “whitened Negro music,” the unavoidable truth was that it would always have an edge in the authenticity department. Motown artists might have made pop music, but they also lived the African-American experience. They were surrounded from birth by blues, gospel, R&B and legalized discrimination. No number of note-for-note covers of rare 78s could override that fact.

Which isn’t to say that the British blues scene was strictly posturing. The music tended to attract working class kids from industrial cities in Northern England, an environment parallel to what was fast becoming the American Rust Belt. These Scousers, Mancs and Geordies were familiar in their own way with prejudice and the futility of upward mobility. It’s not hard to see why they were attracted to the sounds of a similarly disenfranchised group. But it wasn’t until a few of these bands stopped slavishly imitating the ghosts on American vinyl that the British blues started to matter. These were the groups that understood the flexibility of the music, its capacity for absorbing other sounds and genres without betraying the urgency and emotion that made the blues so visceral.

The Animals, hailing from the declining coal city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was one of the first of the British blues groups to make it big on both sides of the Atlantic. Along with The Rolling Stones, they were one of the early British Invasion bands most heavily indebted to the blues. But while the Stones were still plugging away at Willie Dixon covers, The Animals had already begun to incorporate outside influences – namely, Bob Dylan. The group’s first record, “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” was adapted from the same folk song as “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” on Dylan’s debut album. And when it came time to record a follow-up, The Animals turned to the next track on Bob Dylan.*

Dylan’s version of “The House of the Rising Sun” is more or less the song as it had been performed for decades. With nothing but acoustic guitar and a ragged, old-before-his-time rasp, it could be a relic from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The intimacy of the arrangement and Dylan’s matter-of-fact delivery combine to create a record haunting in its stark simplicity. It also provided a barebones foundation for The Animals to layer on the drama. Hilton Valentine’s guitar arpeggios and John Steel’s clattering cymbals act as the spine of the record, circling and repeating infinitely through the song, never gaining ground. Eric Burdon’s voice starts as a thunderous growl, then leaps into the fire-and-brimstone prophesying of a Pentecostal preacher. Alan Price’s electronic organ, simultaneously of the church and the nightclub, simmers below the verses, gradually bubbling up until it erupts in a solo. (It’s why the song runs 90 seconds over pop radio’s allotted three minutes – but who would dare get rid of it?) No longer is the song the common tragedy of a fallen girl. This is the sound of an apocalypse staged in pool halls and opium dens, prisons and brothels.

“The House of the Rising Sun” is not only the darkest, most terrifying song to net the #1 spot, it’s also a rare glimpse of a genre’s birth on the charts. The record was too baroque for the blues, too doom-laden for rock and roll. By reviving an old folk ballad and electrifying it, The Animals had invented folk rock a year before Bringing It All Back Home and the success of The Byrds.

A commonly repeated anecdote tells of Dylan hearing The Animals’ version of the song on his car radio and pulling his car off the road, hit by the realization of what he needed to do next. The folk revivalists – another scene obsessed with the elusive ghost of authenticity – would decry him as a traitor. But, in the end, it’s the innovators, the ones who add something new to the pop landscape, who get remembered. Those determined to repeat the past are condemned to be left there. 10

*Burdon has variously claimed to have first heard the song from blues singer Josh White, English folkster Johnny Handle and Joan Baez. However, the Animals’ melody, tempo and lyrics bear the strongest resemblance to Dylan’s (which, in turn, he borrowed from Dave Van Ronk). Nina Simone has also been suggested as a source – and The Animals would go on to cover “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” the following year – but her version is up-tempo, with somewhat different lyrics.

Hit #1 on September 5, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
117 of 989 #1’s reviewed; 11.83% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 10, 1964