Thursday, May 31, 2007

“Bus Stop” / The Hollies


Naturally, I had to love these guys – a band named after me! (or so I imagined at the time). But really, considering how many British Invasion bands petered out in the late 1960s, or survived only on the revival circuit, you must give the Hollies respect.

Sure, they started out like so many other bands, covering Brill Building tunes like “Just One Look” and “Stay” and “Yes I Will,” drenched in gorgeous three-part harmonies. But powered by those early hits, this Manchester band swiftly evolved, bringing in homegrown songwriting talent like Graham Gouldman; his “Look Through Any Window” was a huge step forward, a refreshing bit of social commentary in a market still full of simple love songs. By the summer of 1966, their second Gouldman single, “Bus Stop,” reached the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic. The Hollies had finally came into their own, and soon their own songwriting would take them even further. They're still in business, 40 years later.

For better or worse, I’ve always linked this song with “Doo Wah Diddy,” those two 45s sitting side-by-side in my little tan record case (I was too young to afford albums). After all, both songs prove that a casual street pick-up can lead to wedding bells, a formula I was happy to believe as an adolescent. But “Bus Stop” has much more literary texture; it’s in another class altogether.

I love the compressed language of that pivotal first scene -- “Bus stop, wet day, she's there, I say / Please share my umbrella / Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, love grows / Under my umbrella” – it plays like a scene out of an artsy movie, minimal dialogue but lots of meaningful glances and time-chop editing. Then our scope expands to a leisurely montage: “All that summer we enjoyed it / Wind and rain and shine / That umbrella we employed it / By August, she was mine.” Love doesn’t happen overnight, it has to grow -- much more credible than making out with a girl you just met because she was singing a catchy ditty.

Their budding intimacy develops in the bridge: “Every morning I would see her waiting at the stop / Sometimes she'd shop and she would show me what she'd bought / Other people stared as if we were both quite insane / Someday my name and hers are going to be the same.” Anybody who’s ever walked along a certain street hoping to see someone special knows how this feels. Is he interested in what she’s bought? No way – it’s just an excuse to lean close, maybe touch hands accidentally. And that special glow, how it sets them apart from the other passengers at the stop -- delicious.

In verse two, he’s become a narrator, commenting on the story, like he’s telling their kids How Your Mother And I Met: “That's the way the whole thing started / Silly, but it's true / Thinking of a sweet romance / Beginning in a queue.” (I had never heard the British word “queue” before this song; it totally charmed me.) “Came the sun, the ice was melting,” he remembers next (where did that ice come from?), and the harmonies hang wistfully on the next line: “No more sheltering now.” Declaring your love publicly is always scary, but they’re ready for it now.

Such a happy little love story – EXCEPT it’s in a minor key, a brilliant move to keep sappiness at bay. Notice those unresolved chords shimmering through the harmonies – the music itself expresses all the shyness and uncertainty of new love. I adore the jangly Spanish-style guitar here, its haunting quality inexplicably perfect.

The BBC banned this song – apparently “please share my umbrella” was a drug reference, though I’ve also heard it referred to a condom (“that umbrella we employed it”). Jeez, dirty-minded censors don’t know when to stop, do they? Listening to this song when I was 12 years old did not turn me into either a drug user or a slut. But forever after, it sure made waiting for buses a lot more thrilling.

Bus Stop sample

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

“Wild Thing” / The Troggs


Come on, it wouldn’t be British Invasion Month without giving a little time to this classic, beloved of garage bands everywhere. By 1966, British music had evolved so swiftly, some rockers already felt the need to strip down the sound and get back to basics. That’s where the Troggs came in. The name itself was short for Troglodytes (not a word in my vocabulary back then, but hey, that’s what life is about, learning new words as you need them), and that caveman image fit perfectly with their raw, primitive sound. These guys made the Kinks look like Mod sophisticates. The Troggs sounded so crude, at first I thought they must be a parody.

For ever and always, this would be their defining song, at least in America. Only four chords, and easy ones at that -- A, D, E, with a few chugging G’s thrown in on the chorus – but they’re played with mindless ferocity, matched by thuggish drum-whacking. There are only two even remotely fancy effects: the spooky ocarina solo in the middle, and that downward sliding guitar note at the beginning, which sounds like an airplane plummeting from the sky. Reg Presley’s vocals sound like he’s just gotten out of bed, and still isn’t sure whether he’s going to crawl back in or not.

This song is the handiwork of an American songwriter named Chip Taylor (trivia fact: he is Jon Voight’s younger brother, which makes him also Angelina Jolie’s uncle), who no doubt made a pile of money on a song that doesn’t even bother to rhyme after the first couplet. You all know the lyrics; they only take five seconds to learn. “Wild thing/ You make my heart sing / You make everything . . . groovy / Wild thing.” “Groovy” is such perfect Sixties slang – we all knew the word already from the Mindbenders’ “Groovy Kind of Love” -- and Presley tosses it in so absent-mindedly, as if he just can’t be bothered to find a synonym. But hey, “groovy” was a very high compliment in 1966.

And then, of course, there’s the chorus, which alternates a few grating chords with silence, as Presley seems to lose his train of thought mid-sentence: “Wild thing, I . . . think I ... love you / But I wanna know for sure / Come on and . . . hold me tight / [pregnant pause] / I love you.” Oh, wait, the second time through the chorus changes lyrics: “Wild thing, I think you . . . move me / But I wanna know for sure / Come on and hold me tight / [pregnant pause] / You move me.” Yes, that develops the theme significantly.

And yet, be honest: You love this song. A song like this doesn’t need specific details about why she’s a wild thing, or where he met her, or what they plan to do the rest of their lives. Sure, his lovemaking seems awfully casual, but there is plenty of insistence there too (just listen to the impatient howl busting out on “I wanna know for sure”). Just feel the heated intimacy in all those silences, that bedroom whisper on “You move me.” Crude, sexy, completely in the moment.

This is the sound of class systems falling apart, of sexual liberation breaking out, of drugs being taken, of authority being flouted. Sure, the Troggs were going back to basics. But they were also the first punk band, years ahead of their time. They just didn’t know it yet.

Wild Thing sample

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

“Groovy Kind of Love” / The Mindbenders


When I first heard Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders’ 1965 hit “Game of Love,” I thought they were Americans -- that name, Wayne Fontana, had such a New Jersey ring to it, and then there was the song’s doo-wop chorus, with its unforgettable low bass – “Love / [love] / Love / [love] / La-la-la-la-la-love”. But they were, in fact, from Manchester, England, and once Fontana split to launch a solo career, the remaining Mindbenders came into their own as a British band. Guitarist Eric Stewart was promoted to lead vocals, and he was no slouch either (he’d later form 10cc with Graham Gouldman). With cruel irony, in early 1966 the Mindbenders promptly scored a #2 hit on both sides of the Atlantic with “Groovy Kind of Love,” bigger than anything Fontana would do on his own.

Like a lot of British Beat material, this song was first recorded by an American girl group, in this case Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells. It was written by a very young pair of American songwriters, Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Sager, specifically trying to riff on the new slang word “groovy,” putting their lyrics to a melody stolen – or at least loosely borrowed – from a Clementi sonatina in G major. (I played that one for my piano lessons; you’d hardly recognize the theme once the Mindbenders were done with it.)

We were already moving into psychedelia by this point; the lazy shuffling rhythm of “Groovy Kind of Love” definitely sounds narcotized. (Quite different from LaBelle’s heart-flinging rendition.) The lyrics meander like stream of consciousness, or stoned babbling, with a woozy solipsistic logic: “When I'm feeling blue / All I have to do is / Take a look at you / Then I'm not so blue.” Well, duh. Or this verse: “Any time you want to / You can turn me on to / Anything you want to / Any time at all.” But given Stewart’s vague, sweet delivery (not to mention the coded association of the phrase “turn me on”), it works surprisingly well. Other patches of the lyrics pull you suddenly into physical close-ups: “When you're close to me / I can feel your heartbeat / I can hear you breathing in my ear,” or “When I kiss your lips / Ooh, I start to shiver / Can't control the quivering inside,” a carnal immediacy that's unsettlingly sexy. But everything is wound up happily at the end of every verse: “Wouldn't you agree / Baby you and me / Got a groovy kind of love / [Groovy kind of love] / We got a groovy kind of love / [Groovy kind of love].” That falsetto back-up echo, that’s the crowning touch; it’s damn near perfection.

The fuzzy guitar intro (nothing too fancy, but definitely groovy), repeated in the middle break, steers us in the direction of the new psychedelic sound, helping the Mindbenders at last to live up to their psychotropic name. Still, much about this song is standard Beat stuff – the earnest double-tracked vocals, the soft back-up ooh’s, the sibilant drums, a harmless touch of keyboards. It’s one of those songs that’s almost impossible to dislike, unpretentious and cheery, with a hook to die for. It was a nifty radio-ready hit -- the Mindbenders deserved to chart with it.

In the 80s, Phil Collins desecrated this song with his own hectic, strained rendition. If the Collins version is all you know, shame on you – and check out the Mindbenders’ version NOW.

Groovy Kind of Love sample

Friday, May 25, 2007

“Sunshine Superman” / Donovan


One thing the British Invasion rescued us from was folk music – relentlessly earnest coffee-house acts like Peter Paul & Mary and Judy Collins. There was Bob Dylan, too, but even though he came to the party dressed as a protest singer, we all knew he was going to have more up his sleeve. I adore the D. A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back which shows Dylan on his 1965 UK tour; in one of my favorite moments, Dylan enviously asks Alan Price (who’d just quit the Animals), “So who is this Donovan?” Price tells Dylan that Donovan is a Scottish folk singer and “he’s very good, actually.” Then Price adds (deadpan), “Better than you.” Dylan scowls.

Donovan -- the first singer I ever knew of who went by just one name -- started off as a traditional folkie, with “Catch the Wind” and “Universal Soldier,” but the Donovan I loved blossomed in 1966. Let the Mods drift into psychedelia; Donovan cornered the market on flower-child innocence. His song titles tell you all you need to know: “Mellow Yellow,” “Sunny South Kensington,” “Epistle to Dippy,” “There Is a Mountain,” “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” Strictly speaking, I suppose this wasn’t British Invasion anymore, but Donovan never really belonged to any movement – he was just Donovan.

“Sunshine Superman” starts off intriguingly, with a muted plucked bass line, tiptoeing softly into the scene; then a harpsichord-like keyboard lays down a suspense-movie soundtrack. Guitar feedback flits through like a creaking floorboard. “Sunshine came softly through my /A-window today,” Donovan begins, in that velvety brogue of his. “Could’ve tripped out easy, but I / I’ve changed my ways.” Now that’s an arresting opening, even though it lapses next into love-song cliches: “It’ll take time I know it / But in a while / You’re gonna be mine I know it / We’ll do it in style / Cause I’ve made my mind up / You’re going to be mine.” But by now you’re hooked on that hypnotic melody – it’s almost like atonal plainsong, most lines being subtle variations of a basic pattern, with octave jumps bracketed by three-note chromatic sequences (except for that curling phrase, “I’ll tell you right now,” a jazzy dissonant touch that I love).

The lyrics go off in surreal, min-expanding directions. “Superman or Green Lantern ain’t got / A-nothing on me” – that’s the classic, but so many others stick in my mind. “You can just sit there thinking / On your velvet throne / About all the rainbows that you can / A-have for your own….” “Everybody’s hustlin’ baby / For a little scene…” “We stood on the beach at sunset / Do you remember when? / I know a beach where baby / It never ends….” “Pick up your hand and slowly / Blow your little mind.” What does it mean? Who cares? Logic is so 1965, man.

This track has so much texture, you can get lost in it. There’s Jimmy Page, moonlighting from the Yardbirds, on those twangy guitar accents; sexy Latin percussion lays down a sinuous cha-cha rhythm; and that plinging keyboard dances all around the vocal. How that jerky syncopation manages to feel so spacey, so blissed-out, I don’t know. It’s a wondrous thing.

Donovan started out in turtleneck sweaters and a seafarer’s cap; but by “Sunshine Superman,” he was wearing an embroidered Nehru jacket and visiting India with the Beatles and the Maharishi. It’s astonishing, how rapidly the scene evolved from 1964 to 1967, and Donovan was right there in the vanguard, floating serenely on his own magic carpet. Looking back at the 1960s, sometimes it’s hard to imagine how anybody took flower children seriously – but then I listen to Donovan and feel the love vibes all over again.

Sunshine Superman sample

Thursday, May 24, 2007

"Heart Full of Soul" / The Yardbirds


I didn’t really connect to this Yardbirds song in 1965, even though it hit #9 in the States (#2 in the UK). I know I heard it on the radio -- it was part of my mid-Sixties mental soundtrack -- but it was WAY ahead of its time. It just plain scared little 11-year-old me.

Written by Graham Gouldman, the ubiquitous 60s Brit songwriter (his name’s on loads of Hollies and Herman’s Hermits tracks), it’s haunting and dark, set in a minor key and featuring spooky echoed vocals. The most arresting element of “Heart Full of Soul,” though, hits you right from the start: that spacey-sounding guitar. I’d never heard a sitar before – remember, this was five months before George Harrison’s sitar on “Norwegian Wood”; the Stones’ “Paint It Black” wouldn’t come out until the next year – but Jeff Beck didn't need a sitar; he got the same exotic effect just using a fuzz box on his guitar. It sounded creepy, and psychedelic, and I don’t know what else.

It’s a pretty damn tortured set of lyrics too: “Sick at heart and lonely, / Deep in dark despair/ [oh-oh-oh-oh oh] / Thinking one thought only / Where is she, tell me where / [oh-oh-oh-oh-oh].” I love that hypnotic vocal riff with those back-up oh’s, how they stagger up the minor scale and then seemingly spiral off into space. Keith Relf’s lead vocal sounds slightly haggard, as if he’s been up late smoking and drinking, nursing his wounded heart. He sounds as hung-up as the narrator of “You Really Got Me.” In 1965, most bands perpetuated the fiction that love would make us happy; quite the opposite here.

Apparently the girl’s lost interest in him, but he’s not giving up, as he tells us with tense determination in the chorus: “And I know / if she had me back again / Well I would never make her sad.” All those shifting uneasy chords, and then he lays out his most important credential: “I've got a heart full of soul.” The one phrase is more than a hook, it’s the very nexus of the song. I love how the back-up harmonies modulate through no less than six chords on “heart”; his heart is just full to bursting, isn’t it? In one stroke, he turns my pity into dizzy attraction. A guy who’s this full of passion deserves to get the girl.

But half a beat after “soul,” that hypnotic guitar line cuts in again, slicing through it all like a scimitar. It draws us into the next verse, and more pain: “She's been gone such a long time / Longer than I can bear / [oh-oh-oh-oh-oh] / But if she says she wants me / Tell her that I'll be there / [oh-oh-o] / And if she says to you / She don’t love me/ [oh-oh-oh-oh-oh] / Just give her my message / Tell her of my plea.” By the end of the song, nothing’s been resolved; he’s still aching, still miserable. But me, I’ve got shivers running up my spine. No wonder I avoided this when I was 11.

For better or worse, I always felt that the Yardbirds were a Guy Band, and not just because my older brother owned their albums – most guitar fetishists I know (and they’re almost exclusively men) get off on the pyrotechnics, endlessly debating which guitarist was best, Clapton v. Beck v. Page. I’m sure that’s an interesting debate, but I’m not going there. All I know is that this song -- just like “For Your Love” -- seems dark, and gritty, and urban, and totally sexy. Now that I’m grown up, I like it just fine.

Heart Full of Soul sample

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

“Can’t Explain” / The Who


I don’t really consider The Who part of the British invasion – they only surfaced at the tail end, when “I Can See For Miles” and “Magic Bus” became psychedelic standards on US radio. They made an indelible impression on me in 1967 on the Smothers Brothers’ TV show, dressed in full Mod regalia -- Daltrey swinging his mike by the cord, Pete Townsend attacking his guitar with windmill arm strokes, Keith Moon demolishing his drumkit at the end of the set. I sat stunned – as my fellow Hoosier John Hiatt would sum it up a couple decades later, “Oh it breaks my heart to see those stars / Smashing a perfectly good guitar.”

It was that live act, though, that made The Who famous. I’ve read that they patterned their on-stage antics after the Kinks, with whom they’d performed in 1964, when they were called the High Numbers. From mid-1965 through mid-1969, with the Kinks banned from performing in America, the Who finally got a foothold in the States, establishing themselves as pop music’s top hooligans (thus setting the Kinks’ Ray Davies free to explore his own village green). But eventually the shtick seemed to take over The Who, making the music less important than the image. I’m bored by big, overblown arena-rock spectacle; the more The Who went in that direction, the less interested I was. (Don’t even talk to me about the movie version of Tommy.) It was only after I saw The Kids Are Alright that I realized the Who had a sense of humor about themselves, and I could like them after all.

Their early stuff, the Mod Beat stuff – it’s still delicious. On this 1965 track, their first hit single, the Kinks influence is obvious: Those brash opening chords – where else did they get those if not from “You Really Got Me”? And where did Roger Daltrey get that fey vocal inflection if not from Ray Davies? To his credit, Pete Townsend freely admits The Who’s debt to the Kinks. Let’s just say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and enjoy “Can’t Explain” for what it is.

As he’d do again in “My Generation,” Daltrey adopts the role of inarticulate youth, singing an almost tuneless call-and-response with the falsetto backup vocals – “Got a feeling inside (Can't explain) / It's a certain kind (Can't explain) / I feel hot and cold (Can't explain) / Yeah, down in my soul, yeah (Can't explain).” It’s the hormones running through his brain that screw him up, of course, but let him think love’s to blame -- most of his audience is hormone-crazed too; they’ll never notice.

All this confusion makes him physically ill (dig the woozy chromatics, the meandering melody): “Dizzy in the head and I'm feeling blue/ The things you've said, well, maybe they're true / I'm gettin' funny dreams again and again / I know what it means, but …” I get dizzy just listening to it, and the furious drum fill that follows is like blood pounding through my cerebral cortex. Sure, Keith Moon ripped that off from the Surfaris’ “Wipeout,” but it FITS. Daltrey tries again, now with harmonies: “Can't explain / I think it's love / Try to say it to you / When I feel blue.” Those short, stammered lines are underlaid with pulsing drums and a driving bass line -- was there ever a rhythm section as rock-solid as the Who’s?

The Who will never be my favorite band, but I’m fond of them -- the way you’re fond of a rascal cousin, the kid with the genius IQ who’s flunking seventh grade. I grin whenever I hear “Can’t Explain” or “My Generation” or “Happy Jack.” The kids ARE alright.

Can't Explain sample

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

“Concrete and Clay” / Unit 4 + 2


Ever heard of this band? Possibly not, but you might recognize the track – it hit Number One in the UK for one week in 1965 (and a respectable #28 in the US). If not an underground hit, this was at least an offshore hit, championed by the pirate radio stations that proliferated in those days, defying the BBC’s stranglehold. For kids thirsty for new musical product in 1965, pirate radio added the thrill of the forbidden. Rescuing a dynamite single from obscurity was where pirate radio excelled.

Though Unit 4 + 2 never became a big name, their connections sprawl everywhere. Originally a quartet called Unit Four, they became Unit Four + 2 when two more guys joined the group. (Duh.) After their first two singles bombed, for this record they hired two ringers – guitarist Russ Ballard and drummer Bob Henrit, former bandmates of 4+2 founder Brian Parker (from Adam Faith’s back-up band The Roulettes) and also of 4+2 guitarist Buster Meikle (from The Daybreakers). Ballard and Henrit were the Zeligs of British rock; they were later in Argent, with Zombies organist Rod Argent, and Henrit was also in the mid-80s Kinks, alongside bassist Jim Rodford (another Zelig – he has at various times also been in the Animals and in the revived Zombies with Rod Argent, his cousin.) It makes England seem like a tiny village, where everybody knows everybody else.

Maybe Unit 4 + 2 wasn’t the great rock band of the 1960s – but on this one track, they got things gloriously right. It begins with just a cowbell and triangle, alternating in syncopated rhythm, like footsteps ringing along a pavement. That syncopation, a twitchy sort of bossa nova, is the key to the whole song. A deftly plucked guitar jumps in, skittering up and down the scale with Spanish-style fingering -- Russ Ballard’s contribution to this song is a HUGE part of its appeal, as is Bob Henrit’s; the percussion is essential to that charged-up Latin rhythm. Four measures and I’m dancing already.

The vocals have the syncopation bug, too, as the verse alternates between the lead singer and the back-ups, his sweet legato tenor punctuated by their punchy baritones: “You to me / Are sweet as roses in the morning / You to me / Are soft as summer rain at dawn / In love we share / That something rare.” How sappy that love poem imagery would sound, if it weren’t for that catchy beat.

The chorus is standard folk music stuff, with swelling Seekers-like harmonies and the usual imagery (urban v. nature, close-up v. panorama, the transient v. the eternal): “The sidewalk in the street / The concrete and the clay beneath my feet / Begins to crumble / But love will never die / Because we’ll see the mountains tumble / Before we say goodbye.” Then it morphs into a tender Bobby Vinton vein -- “My love and I will be / in love eternally” -- with the back-ups’ swooning ooohs. But that chunky rhythm saves it, yoking together all these different musical modes, infusing them with that happy, irresistible beat.

Maybe this was the problem with Unit 4 + 2 – they couldn’t settle on one sound. Their two first albums mixed traditional folk songs and R&B covers and boppy beat numbers; they're a completely different band on each track. Their follow-up single, “You’ve Never Been In Love Like This Before,” barely charted in the U.S.; the mountains are still standing, but Unit 4 + 2 vanished into the mists of time. They’ve left this footprint, though, and it’s a gem.

Concrete and Clay sample

Monday, May 21, 2007

“Go Now” / The Moody Blues


I always thought the Moody Blues were a complete bore. Almost everybody I knew as a teenager had Days of Future Passed on their shelves, and they couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t listen to it. (Believe me, I tried, more than a few times.) They thought Justin Hayward was a genius. I thought he was a pompous fraud.

Then a couple of years ago I discovered that there was a pre-Justin Hayward Moody Blues – with none other than Denny Laine fronting it. (Yes, that Denny Laine, the one from Wings.) What’s more, their single hit, “Go Now,” had been swimming around in my 1960s mental music stream all the time -- I just never identified it with the Moody Blues.

As our friend Ton told us a couple days ago, “Go Now” was originally sung by the American R&B singer Bessie Banks, but this cover is classic Merseybeat sound, full of echoes, close harmonies, and tinny production values (the Moodies were from Birmingham, not Liverpool, but that was close enough). I love tracks that start with an unaccompanied vocal like this: Denny Laine, singing in a weary flutter, “We’ve already said – “ Then he falters; an electric piano hammers a few majestic descending chords, and he finishes the sentence with a heavy-hearted drop, “– goodbye.” The whole band pitches in, in ragged harmony: “Since you gotta go, oh you better / Go now.” Denny repeats another straggling couple of “Go nows” by himself, as if shooing her away in disgust.

But the story gets more complicated. “Go now, before you see me cry,” he explains, miserably; then he starts cramming words in, almost stammering, against uneasy shifting chords and harmonized oohs: “I don’t want you to tell me just what you intend to do now / ‘Cause how many times I have to tell you darlin’, darlin’ / I’m still in love with you now.” Aha. That’s different. Now when he repeats, “We’ve already said . . . so long,” you can feel the pain throbbing, still fresh, in his heart. The next go-round, he babbles: “I don’t want to see you go / Oh you better go now . . .Won’t you even try?/ Telling me that you really don’t want me to end this way / Darlin’ darlin’ can’t you see I want you to stay.” That authentic R&B testifying – what other British bands besides the Animals went in for that? Denny Laine had a good voice for it, too, with a boyish sort of wounded yelp.

The lyrics aren’t what you’d call poetry, but the emotional angle is pretty sophisticated – all those warring fluctuations of desire and hurt and anger. The gender switch improves the song, I think – there’s a big difference between a guy sounding hurt (read: sensitive, vulnerable, sexy) and a girl sounding hurt (read: victim, martyr).

I like to pair this with the Kinks’ “Set Me Free” -- if “Set Me Free” comes on a Tuesday, “Go Now” follows on Wednesday. Though she’s officially set him free, she’s still trying to keep her hold on him, and he’s just beginning to get FED UP. Notice those unresolved chords, that touchiness in Laine’s vocal, the jazzy dark piano in the instrumental break -- bitterness is starting to crowd out the heartsick yearning. He’s already moving on, even if he doesn’t know it yet. Every time they hit the harmonized “Go now!” it sounds more closer to “I’m outta here!”

I sure wish the Moodies had kept on like this. Just think of all the hours we wouldn’t have had to spend listening to overblown pseudo-classical psychedelia.

Go Now sample

Saturday, May 19, 2007

“Whenever You’re Ready” / The Zombies


One of the great mysteries of the British Invasion: Why weren’t the Zombies one of the era’s biggest bands? In mid-1964, their first single “She’s Not There” (see here for my previous rave) was a bona fide classic, haunting and evocative. Its B-side, “You Make Feel Good,” was just as fine. Their follow-up, “Tell Her No” (early 1965), was yet another lovely thing. But the Zombies floundered after that; their third and final hit single, “Time of the Season” (from their brilliant LP Odessey and Oracle), didn’t even get airplay until after they’d split up.

I don’t think internal strife tore them apart – lead singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent have been touring happily together the past couple years – so I’ve got to blame rotten management. Maybe these nice grammar-school boys from St. Albans weren’t edgy enough for the British Beat. Maybe they just weren’t hungry enough for fame, not the same way John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Eric Burdon were. Maybe all those factors combined . . . . or maybe it was just bad fate.

“Whenever You’re Ready” was one of those “failed” singles from 1965. Why? It starts off light and syncopated, just an electric piano riff and hissing cymbals, nothing too demanding (granted, in the instrumental break that piano gets jazzy as hell, but surely that’s a good thing). The lyrics are a little masochistic – “Oh I’ve been hurt / But I still love you / I’ve been hurt like this before” – but if any vocalist could sing this convincingly, it would be Colin Blunstone, with his ethereal angelic tenor. The echo on that vocal makes him sound so lonely, so lost; he soars sweetly up to the repeated word “hurt,” punching it with just a smidgen of self-pity. I wasn’t even the one who hurt him and I’m already sorry.

Rod Argent’s grittier voice joins in on the chorus, along with drums and guitars, lending things some spunk and spine: “You’re not teaching me a new thing,” he informs her sharply; “Try to realize / And call me when you’re ready / Whenever you’re ready,” with tight harmonies modulating all over on the “readies.” Okay, the harmonies are dissonant, but was this really too sophisticated for 1965 listeners? I doubt it.

The drums and backing vocals disappear as Blunstone gets winsome again for the next verse: “I know you left / But I still love you / And though I’ve cried like this before…” But he stands up for himself in the bridge, finding an R&B edge in his voice: “But if you call me / You’ve got to treat me in a different way / And if you call me / You’ve got to listen girl to what I tell you.” If Eric Burdon sang this, he’d sound like a bully; when Colin Blunstone sings it, I start vowing to change my ways. He actually scolds her in the last verse -- “And never hurt me / Cause I love you / Never hurt me like before” – but it’s too vulnerable to seem mean. And then the piano solo explodes, releasing all his pent-up anger. In the coda Blunstone goes totally R&B on us – “All you gotta do is call me, call me, call me” – just a taste of the passion she’s passing up. The idiot.

So here’s my question: What fangirl could possibly prefer Mick Jagger snarling “Get Off My Cloud” to this? Don’t give me the old nice-girls-go-for-bad-boys cliché; I think this record just didn’t get promoted properly. I know I never heard it – and believe me, my ear was glued to the radio in 1965. Someone fell down on the job. Just think of all the great Zombies music we missed.

Whenever You're Ready sample

Friday, May 18, 2007

“Girl Don’t Come” / Sandie Shaw


Sandie Shaw was to the British Invasion what Julie Christie was to mid-60s British cinema – the It Girl, the carelessly gorgeous free spirit who soared above it all. While Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark and Cilla Black and Lulu belted out their hearts, Sandie Shaw simply peered through the part in her long straight hair and wriggled her bare feet. We identified with those other girl singers; we could only dream of being Sandie Shaw. She had style, she had grace; she parlayed her wavery voice into a handful of hits that say Swinging London to me like nothing else.

Every girl singer had to make her mark with a Bacharach-David song in the mid-60s; Sandie Shaw’s was “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me.” But from then on most of her songs were written by Chris Andrews, who totally got how to show off her most appealing vocal qualities – the laid-back rhythms, the delicate attacks, the shimmering sustains. “Girl Don’t Come” pulses with languid Latin jazz, incredibly cool and urban. Sure, it’s a slight song – just a candid snapshot of desire and frustration – but it’s got atmosphere to die for.

From the very start, the intro’s syncopated trumpet and drums make me picture a Soho pavement, slick with rain, outside a neon-lit nightclub door. Then Sandie, with a sort of detached curiosity, starts to spin her tale: “You have a date for half past eight tonight / Some distant bell starts chiming now.” Now I picture the guy, in a suit and skinny tie, leaning nervously against a lamp post. He’s trying so hard not to check his watch, but that damn church bell tells him the time anyway. (There always a church bell within striking distance in London, isn’t there?) Next she layers emotion onto the visual, as the horns enter, huffing like impatient traffic, and chord modulations ratchet up the anxiety: “You wanna see her / You wanna see her, oh yeah / So you wait, you wait and wait [beat] / Girl don’t come.” The way her voice falls, disappointed, on the low notes of that last phrase is so bittersweet.

I love the fact that this is in present tense, and tense is the right word for it -- we’re right there in the street with this poor bloke, hearing the clock tick: “The time rolls on, those minutes fly by / You wanna go, but just you try, guy.” Yep, he’s caught all right, prisoner of his own miserable desire. As the strings swoop in on the bridge, it’s almost like a camera panning in a circle, registering every detail as he freaks out and breaks down: “You’ve been stood up, tears fill your eyes, oh-oo-woh / You hurt inside, you want to die-ie-ie-ie, oo-oh-oh.”

Sandie Shaw looked like the sort of fab bird who’d stand up some different guy every night of the week – but instead she’s telling the tale, and taking his point of view. That’s a nice reversal. I sincerely doubt whether anybody EVER stood up Sandie Shaw (or Julie Christie either, for that matter), but here she is lounging under the next streetlamp down, observing the scene. Dressed in Mary Quant, of course, and swinging an impossibly tiny purse by its impossibly thin strap. In just a minute, she’ll get bored and head for some chic party just off the King’s Road, folding those long legs into Laurence Harvey’s Alfa Romeo. Oh, take me with you, Sandie.

Girl Don't Come sample

Thursday, May 17, 2007

“Doo Wah Diddy” / Manfred Mann


What WERE those lyrics? I couldn’t believe this song when I first it on the radio in mid-1964. Two measures of crunchy guitars and whomping drums, then it screeches to a halt for Paul Jones’ slovenly blues vocal to blurt out: “There she was, just a-walking down the street / Singing ‘Doo-wah-diddy, diddy-dum, diddy-doo’ / Tapping her fingers and a-shuffling her feet / Singing ‘Doo-wah-diddy, diddy-dum, diddy-doo.’” The back-up vocals chime in for the “Doo-wah diddies,” sounding raucous and sloppy, with jittery organ chords underneath. Whoever these Manfred Mann guys were, I could not deny the rawness and energy of this track, and its rocking sense of humor. I had to run right out and buy the single.

My favorite part is how it goes a cappella for that seesaw call and response between the back-ups and the lead: “She looked good / [Looked good] / She looked fine / [Looked fine] / She looked good, she looked fine, and I nearly lost my mind,” not to mention that jungle pounding on the drums every time the back-ups do their bit. Even better is the third version of this chorus: “Well I’m here / [I’m hers] / She’s mine / [She’s mine] / I’m hers, she’s mine, wedding bells are gonna chime.” Who cares if the rhymes are simple-minded? Jones sounds like he’s squirming with happiness, and it’s pretty hard not to get infected with that delirious joy.

Well, there is a narrative. In the second verse, he tell us, “Before I knew it, she was walking next to me” (singing doo-wah diddy etc., naturally), “holding my hand, just as natural as can be.” No long drawn-out courtship here; there’s a sexual revolution in progress, and this couple sees no reason to take things slow. “We walked on / [Walked on] / To my door / [My door] / We walked on to my door and we kissed a little more.” And in the third verse, “Now we’re together nearly every single day.” She’s still singing doo-wah-diddy constantly, but apparently it doesn’t get on his nerves. It MUST be love.

A primitive electric guitar riffs leads off the bridge, but what it’s really about is Paul Jones’ voice, howling and diving all over the joint: “Oh-oh oh-oo I knew we was falling in love / yes I did, so I told her all the things I was dreaming of.” And what things IS he dreaming of? Oh, come on, you know. (Actually I didn’t, not in 1964, but that didn’t stop me from getting the subtext.)

Very few British bands of that era had the musical range of Manfred Mann; these guys could go from jazz to blues to bossa nova without a hitch. But they were shrewd enough to launch themselves with a stripped-down rocker – not only that, but a stripped-down rocker with an unforgettable hook. It worked. It worked so well that they made their follow-up single the equally bouncy “Sha-La-La,” where once again, the guy gets the girl right away. (“Sha-la-la, say you love me too / Sha-la-la my love is true / We’ll spend our lives together / We’ll be happy forever.”) I bought that one too.

I had no idea there were TWO musicians in Manfred Mann who wore glasses (Tom McGuinness and Manfred Mann himself). I had no idea that Klaus Voormann (a.k.a. the guy who drew the Revolver cover) would later join Manfred Mann. All I knew was that these were two great singles. I still can’t hear them without being transported back to 1964. Need a time machine? Try Manfred Mann.

Doo-Wah-Diddy sample

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

“You Don’t Own Me” / Dusty Springfield


So where were the women in the British Invasion? Well, there was Liverpool’s own Cilla Black, Brian Epstein’s sole female client; there was Petula Clark, though I never really warmed to that type of hard, strong female voice (don’t even mention Helen Reddy, Pat Benatar, or Stevie Nicks). Marianne Faithful sounded soulless and hollow to me, and we all knew she got her break just by being Mick Jagger’s girlfriend.

But then there was Dusty Springfield. That platinum bouffant hair, the enormous fake eyelashes – the look was classic Swinging London Bird, even though she was channeling American soul with all her might (decades before Joss Stone and Lily Allen). The raspy velvet of Dusty’s voice has always seemed quintessentially English to me, and one of the most gorgeous things in music.

Even on an early track like “You Don’t Own Me” (from her 1964 UK debut album, A Girl Called Dusty), Dusty was already DUSTY, with that dead-on command of vibrato and phrasing and vocal coloration. This was no stripped-down Merseybeat number, but a full-fledged studio production with strings and horns and exotic percussion and back-up oooh’s – but then, a big emotive voice like Dusty’s deserved a big emotive arrangement, didn’t it?

In some ways, this track is astonishingly feminist. “You don’t own me,” she begins, in a darkly warning voice, “I’m not just one of your many toys / You don’t own me / Don’t say I can’t go with other boys.” Well, maybe that’s more sass and sexual liberation than true feminism, but for mid-60s Britain it’s plenty bold (compare that to clingy Cilla Black songs like “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and “You’re My World”.) The key is minor, threatening, with tense thrumming piano chords and clanging strikes on a xylophone. Even when it switches to a major key for the chorus, it’s still feisty, mounting in volume and shifting keys up the scale: “Don’t tell me what to do / And don’t tell me what to say / And please, when I go out with you / Don’t put me on display.” Long before the phrase “trophy wife” was coined, Dusty was spurning it.

Sinking back into minor key for the next verse, Dusty’s voice darkens again: “You don’t own me / Don’t try to change me in any way / You don’t own me / Don’t tie me down, ‘cause I’ll never stay.” Ah, Dusty’s phrasing – it’s sheer genius, how she resists the beat, makes him wait for a key word, then bitterly snaps a word short or hustles carelessly through a phrase. And listen to where she lets her voice shiver – on “own” and “don’t” and “never stay” – this guy had better pay attention. “I don’t tell you what to say / I don’t tell you to what to do,” she points out in the second chorus, with a particularly percussive attack; “So just let me be myself / That’s all I ask of you.” Flinging her voice out there. Going for broke.

The orchestra’s in full swing by the middle eight, as she passionately declares, “I’m free, and I long to be free / To live my life the way that I want / To say and do whatever I please.” She wants the man, all right, but on her terms. This track is worth twenty anthems like “I Am Woman” – it’s sung by a creature of desire and impulse and pride, not just some programmatic equal-rights robot.

You know what? The British Invasion didn’t need any other women. So long as we had Dusty, we were good to go.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

“World Without Love” / Peter & Gordon


One of the nice things about being a fangirl is that you can safely cheat on your true love. Of course I was in love with Paul McCartney in 1964 -- but I was also in love with his as-good-as brother-in-law Peter Asher, of the duo Peter and Gordon. Peter was the redhaired one, the one wearing Buddy Holly glasses (just like my OTHER love, Chad Stuart of Chad and Jeremy). I was impeccably discreet -- none of them ever knew.

Peter and Gordon were inevitably compared to Chad and Jeremy, who’d broken onto the British music scene a few months earlier, though they appeared in the US pretty much simultaneously. But Peter and Gordon had a special advantage over Chad and Jeremy – they got their songs straight from Paul McCartney, who was involved with Peter’s sister Jane Asher (Paul actually lived in the Asher family townhouse, an arrangement that still blows my mind). The McCartney magic touch wasn’t just a matter of the famous name listed on the record label – even when he wrote songs under a pseudonym, they were hits. And Peter and Gordon, with their sincere vocals patterned after the Everly Brothers, did them full justice. These were bright little midtempo rockers, with a sound somehow younger and fresher than That Other Duo -- no strings, for one thing (not until “I Don’t Want To See You Again,” at any rate); electric guitars instead of acoustics; and snazzy back-up drums.

“World Without Love” was Peter and Gordon’s first single, an impressive pop debut indeed. Singing in unison, they start with an anti-social grabber: “Please lock me away / And don’t allow the day / Here inside / Where I hide / With my loneliness.” It’s perfect adolescent petulance; you can almost see the kid stamping his foot and scrunching his face into a frown: “I don’t care what they say / I won’t stay / In a world without love.” But in the second verse, he’s more like Romeo, feeling that the time is out of joint, and their two voices split into tender, close harmonies: “Birds sing out of tune / And rainclouds hide the moon / I’m okay / Here I’ll stay / With my loneliness.” I love the melodic plot here – the way the first two lines struggle up the scale, the next two tumble wistfully downwards, the last one hangs uncertainly on a diminished chord. It could so easily become morose, and yet the upbeat tempo, the jazzy guitar licks, the cheery organ solo in the break, keep it all eager and hopeful.

At first we suppose his heart’s been broken by a cruel girlfriend, but in the bridge the emotional territory shifts: “So I wait and in a while / I will see my true love smile / She may come, I know not when / When she does, I’ll know / So baby until then…” That romantic idealism, the McCartney trademark (he’d mine this idea again, even better, on the white album in the song “I Will”), and I still buy it – you just can’t keep up a jaded mindset in the face of that lovely melody. This guy’s young and innocent – he believes his true love is just around the corner, and Peter and Gordon’s boyish vocals sell it just right.

In 1964, I knew Peter Asher was locked away in his room, waiting for me. I wasn’t sure what I’d tell Paul McCartney when he learned I’d eloped with Peter Asher – but, hey, I’ll deal with that when it happens.

Monday, May 14, 2007

“A Summer Song” / Chad and Jeremy


Rock stars in glasses -- I never could resist them. When Chad and Jeremy came along, there was no question which one I’d have a crush on. (Though Jeremy was pretty dishy too.)

Amidst all the rock & roll combos we imported from England in 1964, Chad and Jeremy were different – just the two of them, with an acoustic guitar and soft, earnest folk-singer vocals. I picture them perched on stools, either side of a microphone stand, wearing turtleneck sweaters, looking arty and intellectual. (Chad’s glasses certainly added to that image.) Yet their music was much less groundbreaking than the Merseybeat records. Loaded up with strings, a horn section here and there, those tracks were closer to Gene Pitney than Gene Vincent.

Still, I was young, they were English, Chad wore glasses – I had to love them. Their first US single “Yesterday’s Gone,” had a twanging guitar riff that was a little too country for me (it actually began to chart as a country & western song, until fans learned that these guys were longhaired Brits.) But “Yesterday’s Gone” thrived on the pop charts, and was followed a couple months later with “A Summer Song,” a wistful ballad hidden deep on their second UK album. Released in August 1964, right on time for those end-of-summer break-ups, it totally hit a chord.

“Yesterday’s Gone” was a summer farewell song, too, but it was brisk and bitter compared to this honeyed gem. “A Summer Song” was simply poetry, the sort guaranteed to melt teenage girls’ hearts: “Trees, swaying in the summer breeze, / Showing off their silver leaves / As we walk by.” Their voices break into yearning harmonies for the next verse, a snapshot of carefree love: “Soft kisses on a summer's day, / Laughing all our cares away, / Just you and I.” (How comforting to realize that even Englishmen could mess up grammar for the sake of a rhyme.) Strings sneak in on verse three -- “Sweet, sleepy warmth of summer nights, / Gazing at the distant lights / In the starry sky” – but I’m too dazzled to mind, imagining snuggling next to Chad (or Jeremy) on a beach blanket gazing at the stars.

Drums and horns are added on the bridge, where the emotions darken, along with the chord changes: “They say that all good things must end some day; / Autumn leaves must fall.” Their voices join in unison again for the heartfelt, direct declaration: “But don't you know that it hurts me so / To say goodbye to you?,” splitting only on the trilled “you.” They subside into a rueful hush for “Wish you didn't have to go [nice horn riff here] / No, no, no, no”, then launch into the last verse, where the autumn rain beats on his window as he dreams of summer.

The equally dreamy “Willow, Weep For Me” followed that fall, scoring a trifecta of 1964 hits for C&J. In early 1965, they popped up in guest roles on both The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Patty Duke Show -- Chad and Jeremy were also legitimate actors, who’d met at London’s prestigious Central School for Speech & Drama -- and those well-bred accents sealed the deal for me. (Jeremy had gone to Eton, was descended from the Duke of Wellington, was a page at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation – you couldn’t get further from the Liverpool slums). And then . . . they seemed to fade away, like a summer romance. Jeremy wanted to be an actor with a sideline in music; Chad wanted it the other way around. Whatever.

I soon had Herman’s Hermits to keep me warm. But I always kept Chad and Jeremy pressed in my British Invasion scrapbook – like a ticket stub, faded summer flowers, a few grains of sand. Old loves.

A Summer Song sample

Saturday, May 12, 2007

"I’m Telling You Now" / Freddie & the Dreamers


After that first Beatles show, we got used to having new British bands debut on Ed Sullivan. The Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones, the Animals…by 1965, I felt compelled to check in every week, enduring hours of Topo Gigio and Senor Wences just on the off chance I’d see the next Invasion sensation.

So I was glued to the set the Sunday night Freddie & the Dreamers came on. I’d never heard of this band, but from the very first shot of Freddie Garrity catapulting onstage, letting loose a maniacal giggle, I was captivated. He was skinny, his dark hair fell charmingly into his eyes, and he wore Buddy Holly glasses. (Eventually my weakness for rock stars in glasses would lead me to Elvis Costello.) They launched into “I’m Telling You Now,” a deliciously catchy tune with an energetic skiffle beat – to which Freddie and the Dreamers proceeded to DANCE, spastically flailing their arms and alternate legs out to the side. Just try doing that sort of thing while playing a guitar – no wonder the arrangement was so simple.

It WAS a great tune, starting off with a joyous octave jump from “I’m” up to “telling you now.” The lyrics were ultimately simple-minded – “I’m telling you now / I’m telling you right away / I'll be staying for many a day / I'm in love with you now,” with minor variations in later verses – but for sheer exuberance this track couldn’t be beat. Considering the general goofy performance, the bridge was particularly apt: “Do you think I'm foolin' / When I say "I love you"? [I love you, echoed the Dreamers] / Maybe you'll believe me / When I'm finally through / Through / Through / Through” with a big clanging guitar chord on each “through.” Freddie’s playful voice had more than a bit of Buddy Holly hiccup in it, and somehow he conveyed that he KNEW it was a trivial song (“I know it’s been said before”) -- but he was having so much damn fun, he didn’t care. And that fun was contagious.

They were a sensation – everybody in my sixth grade class was talking about it the next day – and sure enough, Freddie & the Dreamers were soon back on Ed Sullivan with the follow-up single, “Do The Freddie” (a single that wasn’t even released in the UK). The odd thing was, “I’m Telling You Now” had crested on the UK charts a year and a half earlier. Freddie & the Dreamers had three UK top ten records in 1963, and three in the top 25 in 1964, but by 1965, when they came to America, Freddie & the Dreamers were already slipping down the UK charts. I wonder what happened. Why weren’t they exported in 1964 with all the other British bands? Why, when they finally came over in 1965, did they choose such an old song to launch them?

In the end, Freddie & the Dreamers were a novelty act here, a trivia question only boomers of a certain age could answer. But last winter, my UK friends seemed genuinely saddened by the news of Freddie Garrity’s death -- to them, he represented 1960s rock & roll in a way he never did here. (His later stints on children’s TV no doubt endeared him to them even further.) Somewhere in between skiffle and psychedelic rock, rock & roll seemed to lose its sense of humor. Freddie & the Dreamers was a reminder to us all that, sometimes, music could just be a lark.

Friday, May 11, 2007

“What Is Wrong, What Is Right”/ Herman’s Hermits


I was sooooo in love with Peter Noone, the singer of Herman’s Hermits, when I was eleven. He was my second rock crush, right after Paul McCartney, sparked by the fact that Peter was only 16, much closer to my age than Paul. I realize now that I was manipulated into it by Tiger Beat and 16 magazines, which were plastered with pictures of Peter’s shaggy mop of fair hair, twinkly pale eyes, and crooked front tooth (which he used to point to, adorably, in concert). That breathy, sincere voice went perfectly with his glottal Manchester accent, shamelessly emphasized to draw in an audience of Brit-o-maniac little girls. Peter Noone was the first teenybopper idol, and I fell for him HARD.

I’m amazed to find out now that Herman’s Hermits only had one #1 UK hit, “I’m Into Something Good” (September 1964). They had quite a string of chart-toppers over here, beginning in May 1965 with “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” and continuing with “Henry VII,” “Leaning On A Lamp Post,” and many others that apparently weren’t even released as singles in the UK. We Americans simply ate up those music-hall and pub-singalong numbers, novelty songs that the British audience would have disdained. The British Invasion had taken root so deeply by then, Herman’s Hermits could charm us just by being “so English.”

Since I depended on Tiger Beat and Sixteen for my information, I never heard the rumor that Herman’s Hermits used session musicians in the recording studio. (Shades of the Monkees, just a couple years later.) They weren’t encouraged to write their own songs, either. But I’m convinced that this band was a lot more talented than the handlers and packagers gave them credit for. Look, for example, at the goopy 1966 single “East West” (“East, west, over the ocean / Perpetual motion / Bringing me down,” yadda yadda yadda) -- tucked away on the B-side is a wonderful track co-written by the band’s lead guitarist, Derek Leckenby, and rhythm guitarist Keith Hopwood. “What Is Wrong, What Is Right” has a jazzy beat, nifty guitar riffs, and the sort of smart satiric lyrics that were popping up all over the British Beat second wave.

It’s a character study, with details and word play worthy of Ray Davies – from the very first line, when we see her “stroking her cat with silken fingers” we know what sort of overprotected girl she is. There’s a hint of class conflict, too: “I’m working so hard to try and get to know her / Her parents say who she sees and who she meets.” But basically this sheltered bird is a lost soul, as the poignant bridge describes: “Always on her own / Walking through the city / Doesn’t want to know / If anyone should try to pick her up, she’ll put them down.”

The second verse defines her even further: “She only drinks at the dining table / She’s not allowed to stay out late at night / Her only joy is the riding stable / Her parents say what is wrong and what is right.” Amidst the new freedoms of Swinging London, this seems just plain perverse. (Compare this to the spoiled heiress in the Stones’ “Play With Fire.”) It catches perfectly the cultural dislocations of the mid-1960s. The girl may go wild when she turns twenty-one -- and the singer plans to be there to enjoy it, I’ll bet.

I wonder where these guys could have gone if they’d been allowed to be themselves. It might have happened if Peter Noone hadn’t been so darn cute. If I’d spent less time kissing those album covers and more time listening to the music…

What Is Wrong, What Is Right sample

Thursday, May 10, 2007

“Needles and Pins” / The Searchers


So now we come to the Searchers – the final Liverpool band on my playlist. Maybe I left them until last because they kept going strong into the 1970s, despite perpetual personnel and label changes – they didn’t need the Merseybeat tide to float them to success. I suppose if Brian Epstein had been their manager he might have pushed them further; but they might also have languished in the Epstein stable, overshadowed by the Beatles. I can just imagine how excruciating it was for those “other” Liverpool bands, to have the Beatles as your peers one minute, the next minute elevated to rock ‘n’ roll gods.

But the Searchers did have one ace in their hand – their Pye producer (and sometimes songwriter) Tony Hatch, who’d later help propel Petula Clark to stardom. Hatch found them great material and arranged their tracks with finesse. Though it was first recorded by Jackie De Shannon, “Needles and Pins” -- the Searchers’ second UK #1 hit (January 1964) -- just SAYS British Invasion to me: the double-tracked vocals, the close harmonies, the jangly guitars, the steady backbeat. Who would’ve guessed that this song was written by aspiring American songwriter Sonny Bono (yes, that Sonny Bono), along with the ubiquitous Jack Nitzsche?

Jealousy’s the main course here, with a side helping of revenge. “I saw her today / I saw her face / It was a face I loved,” vocalist Mike Pender begins (love the Scouse pronunciation on “her” -- a big selling point for me), and it all seems rosy. But not for long: “And I knew / I had to run away / And get down on my knees and pray / That they'd go away.” Hunh? Pray that WHAT would go away?

He tells us in the chorus: “But still they begin / Needles and pins / Because of all my pride / The tears I gotta hide.” The old proverbial phrase gets twisted into something darker here – being on “needles and pins” isn't just anxiety, it's downright agony. I hear a sort of masochistic zest in the extra syllables Pender slips in – “awa-ee-ay,” “pra-ee-ayy,” “begin-za”, “pin-za.” That strikes me as genius, the touch that makes this track truly unforgettable.

This kid's so miserable, he can only communicate in jerked-around short phrases, interspersed with taunting guitar licks. “Hey, I thought I was smart / I won her heart,” he recalls, but now it’s all gone wrong; she’s with another guy, and torturing him too. Our loser hero watches this train wreck of a relationship with grim fascination, longing for her to get what’s coming to her – “And one day she will see / Just how to say please /And get down on her knees / Yeah, that's how it begins / She'll feel those needles and pins / Hurtin’ her, hurtin’ her.”

He's obsessed, but that sure seems psychologically valid to me. In the middle eight, he admits as much: “Why can't I stop and tell myself I'm wrong / I'm wrong, so wrong / Why can't I stand up and tell myself I'm strong.” Why not? Because your heart’s been broken, you poor sap.

Is this the Searchers’ best song? Not even. I’d vote maybe for “When You Walk Into the Room,” or “The System,” or “An Empty Place Beside Me.” They did a dynamite version of “Love Potion No. 9” (I owned that single, their first US hit). The list goes on and on. I tend to forget about the Searchers – until I listen to them and remember all over again just how good they were.

Needles and Pins sample

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

“Shakin’ All Over” / The Swinging Blue Jeans


In 1964 I was just a dumb American kid who took whatever Top 40 radio, three TV networks, and Tiger Beat magazine sent me. The sudden influx of British groups was already overloading my circuits, considering what a neophyte music fan I was. I didn’t stop to wonder what other English bands might be getting lost in the shuffle. I heard on the radio the irresistible party song “Hippy Hippy Shake,” but did I have any idea who sang it? No.

Still, the fact that I didn’t “know” the Swinging Blue Jeans can’t stop me from enjoying them now -- their classic Merseybeat sound evokes the era just as powerfully as if I had actual 40-year-old memories of them. In England, at any rate, they were significant players: the first rock ‘n roll band to perform at the Cavern Club, they played the Star Club in Hamburg alongside the Beatles, and their stage presence was reportedly every bit as dynamic as the Fab Four’s.

Of course they got a recording contract when the record labels (all those suits who’d passed on the Beatles) went scrambling up to Liverpool to sign whatever talent was left. In 1963, “Hippy Hippy Shake” was hot enough on the charts to win them a spot on the very first Top of the Pops show -- where apparently they got in a fistfight with another group booked on the show, the Rolling Stones. Ah, yes, my heart warms to them already.

I had no idea that “Shakin’ All Over” was a minor track, never released as a single even in the UK, let alone in the States (though it was in Scandinavia). I certainly never heard the original 1960 UK record by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates; possibly the version I first knew was the Guess Who’s sluggish 1965 recording, or the Who’s amped-up cover. But somewhere along the way – in a movie soundtrack? In some friend’s dorm room? -- this is the one that got branded on my brain, a quintessential slice of early 60s British rock. It’s crisper and cleaner than those other versions, with a persistent ticking beat and a signature guitar lick cascading down the scale like a muscle spasm. Ray Ennis’s vocal is full of jittery tension, with a tinny quality enhanced by the spare monoaural recording. (Yes, there are tracks that sound better in mono.) It’s all part of the edginess, the rawness, that makes this track so compelling.

The lyrics aren’t much to speak of, practically the same thing in every verse: “When you move in right up close to me / That’s when I get the shakes all over me / [insert a clanging guitar flourish, woozy with feedback] / Quivers down my backbone / I got the shakes in my kneebone / Yeah, the tremors in my thighbone …” (cue up that old jazz number “Dem Bones”). I love how Ennis punches out the alternating high and low notes at the end of each line, like bursts of nervous energy. Then that propulsive beat jerks to a halt, the drum pounds twice, and Ennis’s echoey voice shivers succinctly: “Shakin’ all over.” Enter that diving guitar riff once more, and the giddy joy ride takes off all over again.

The Swinging Blue Jeans wouldn’t be the first band who deserved to make it big and didn’t. But the records are still around, and a reconstituted SBJ (still fronted by Ray Ennis) works the oldies circuits. Check out this clip of them performing "You're No Good" (puts Linda Ronstadt's cover to shame). They fire up my nostalgia neurons just fine.

Shakin' All Over sample

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

“Little Children” / Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas


There was a heady moment in time when it seemed every musician in Great Britain was from Liverpool. Take Billy J. Kramer (born William Ashton -- he picked the surname Kramer out of a phone book to sound less “posh”), who slipstreamed behind the Beatles and Gerry & the Pacemakers into the limelight in 1963. Not coincidentally he was also a client of Brian Epstein, who’d plucked him from obscurity mainly for his fair-haired Ricky-Nelson-like looks. Epstein teamed up Billy J. with a Manchester group called the Dakotas and, on the heels of the Beatles’ success, got them a Parlophone recording contract. Billy J. Kramer was a very lucky man.

The Epstein connection also snagged Billy J. some foolproof material to record – namely a handful of Lennon-McCartney cast-offs, including his first UK hit, “Bad To Me”, which topped the charts in August 1963. (I guess songs were pouring out of John and Paul so fast, they never could have recorded them all.). Yet Billy J.’s biggest hit – his only major US hit – was “Little Children,” written by Shuman and McFarland, a team of Elvis Presley songwriters. I don’t blame Billy J. for wanting to record at least one song that wasn’t a hand-me-down from two guys who, just a few months earlier, had been his mates around the Merseyside club circuit.

“Little Children” caught my ear immediately, thanks to its witty premise – it’s addressed not to his girlfriend but to her pesky younger siblings, who won’t leave the couple alone. The angle’s oblique, but the pent-up urges of horny teenagers percolate through all right. It certainly was sexy enough to make me curious in 1964, when I was still a pesky little kid myself. “Little children / you better not tell on me,” Billy J. starts out, his light voice more desperate than threatening. “I’m telling you / Little children / you better not tell what you see.” Next comes a line that should have tipped me off that this was an American song -- “I’ll give you candy and a quarter / If you’re quiet like you oughtta be” – though Billy J.’s British accent on “oughtta” preserved the Merseybeat illusion for me (back then I had no idea that UK currency didn’t include quarters!).

Billy J.’s voice was undistinguished, but it was certainly virile, more so here than ever. Maybe it was the Elvis vibes. He practically channels The King, sliding chromatically from note to note in the bridge: “You saw me kissing your sister / You saw me holding her hand / But if you snitch to your mother / Your father won’t understand.” I get a special kick out of the impatient little asides slipped in here and there -- “(I wish they would go away),” “(I wish they would take a nap)” – turning this into situation comedy. He waits until the last verse to reassure us that he’s not just taking advantage of her, that the relationship’s serious: “Me and your sister, we’re going steady / How can I kiss her, when I’m ready to / With little children like you around.”

Nobody “goes steady” anymore, which is too bad, because it fit perfectly into that sly rhyme. The whole song was a throwback even then, given the sexual freedom hinted at in other contemporary songs (“Please, Please Me,” “How Do You Do It,” even Billy J.’s earlier “I’ll Keep You Satisfied”). The hits stopped coming for Billy J. Kramer in 1965; he moved to America and now works a steady round of British Invasion revival shows. But he had his moment in the sun -- and very sweet little moment it was.

Little Children sample

Monday, May 07, 2007

“Ferry Cross the Mersey” / Gerry & the Pacemakers


Little-known fact: Gerry & the Pacemakers – another Liverpool band managed by Brian Epstein – had a #1 UK hit before the Beatles. The song was “How Do You Do It,” a tune that George Martin had forced on the Beatles too. They, however, insisted on releasing “Please Please Me” instead -- and it only reached #2, while their hometown pals beat them out with the song they had rejected.

Well, a month later the Beatles would begin their reign atop the charts; in the end it didn’t matter. But Gerry & the Pacemakers did very well for themselves in the mid-60s, with a string of likeable pop hits through 1967. Front man Gerry Marsden had a wide face, a toothy grin, and a velvety voice full of vibrato, and the band could pull off both cheery upbeat rockers and warbly ballads, so long as their producer George Martin provided undemanding standard arrangements. (Their cover of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” apparently became an anthem for the Liverpool Football Club.) In early 1964, when the Invasion first hit America, the first Pacemakers track I heard was “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying,” a strings-heavy number with a clarinet lick that to this day chokes me up if I’m not careful.

This particular song came along in January 1965 -- a perfect time for a song that was, at least to my 11-year-old ears, about the British Invasion. Gerry Marsden’s Liverpool accent was always much thicker than any of the other Merseybeat singers, but for this song especially, that was perfect. It wasn’t a love song about a girl; he had written a love song about Liverpool, sketching a fond portrait of Scousers going about their daily business. (We’d have to wait until the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” for another such evocative city-in-song.)

It begins almost sleepily, like an early-morning commuter's routine, with Gerry’s brother Fred lightly brushing the drums, Gerry playing a mechanical acoustic lick on his guitar: “Life goes on day after day / Hearts torn in every way…” Yes, a string section swoops in on the chorus, but Gerry’s singing is so bloody sincere it works: “So ferry 'cross the Mersey / ‘Cause this land's the place I love / And here I'll stay.” That last chord hangs expectantly, a nice touch.

A flute counterpoints the vocal on verse two, rising up like a circling gull: “People they rush everywhere / Each with their own secret care.” It’s nicely cinematic, panning back to an wide-angle shot of commuters rushing to and fro; and what makes it different from any big city? He tells us in the bridge: “People around every corner / They seem to smile and say / We don't care what your name is boy / We'll never turn you away.” Ah, there’s the hometown touch.

There must have been a video of this song; I remember seeing black-and-white footage of Mersey ferries steaming into the Liverpool docks, and Gerry Marsden leaning over a railing singing earnestly into the mist. (Am I hallucinating?) Apparently there was also a movie called Ferry Cross the Mersey, starring Gerry, the Pacemakers, and Cilla Black, but I’m betting it was awful, because it has disappeared even deeper than the Dave Clark Five’s Having A Wild Weekend. No matter how assiduously Brian Epstein marketed these lads, they’d never be able to rise beyond a certain fame. But I don’t think Gerry Marsden ever expected to be another John Lennon; he was happy enough to be another Tommy Steele.

By the time this song came out, the Merseybeat era was already dying. The Beatles had gone south; bands all over the U.K. had found their own beat; the talent flight to America had begun. So there's something especially wistful about the end of “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” with Gerry declaring over and over, “And here I’ll stay…here I'll I'll stay.” It’s a moment in time, captured forever: the pure essence of 1965. It was a very good year.

Ferry Cross the Mersey sample

Saturday, May 05, 2007

“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” / The Animals


I know I’ve written about the Animals a few times already – they were, after all, the band that gave Alan Price his start – but I couldn’t really do a British Invasion month without writing about the Animals, could I?

This was the first track they recorded in June 1965 after Alan Price left the band (so see, I’m not writing about Alan Price again), but he was replaced by another Newcastle lad, Dave Rowberry, so this second incarnation of the Animals still had a lot of Geordie soul. Their producer, Mickie Most, was driving them continually in a more pop-oriented direction, urging them to record this song by Brill Building songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, but the Animals still were able to turn it into another gritty song about urban rebellion. (Can you imagine what the Monkees would’ve done with a song like this?)

It starts off with an ominous deep bass line, played like thrumming machinery by Chas Chandler (who’d become Jimi Hendrix’s manager in his post-Animals life); next John Steel gives us a warning ting! on the cymbals, like a factory gate clanging shut. Then Eric Burdon starts, in his bluesiest low register, “In this dirty old part of the city / Where the sun refuse to shine / People tell me there ain’t no use in tryin’.” Add the guitar and full drums as Eric warms up to his subject, his voice shivering with pity: “Now my girl you’re so young and pretty / And one thing I know is true / You’ll be dead before your time is due.” Those clotted Newcastle vowels (despite all his attempts to sound like a Deep South bluesman) and his smoky timbre bring all the darkness and sorrow they can into that lyric. The metallic cymbals and guitar, the wheeze of the organ, the echoing vocals, all read heavy industry to me. Forget Swingin’ London; this was a different United Kingdom, a place of sooty brick walls and smokestacks and pubfuls of men on the dole. A dirty old part of the city, indeed.

Eric goes up an octave for the next verse, getting worked up, yelping on the high notes: “Watch my daddy in bed a-dyin’ / Watch his hair been turnin’ gray / He’s been working and slavin’ his life away.” Sure, he’s sorry for his dad – but what really scares him is imagining himself going down the same road. “We gotta get out of this place,” the whole band agrees in the chorus, the voices behind the frontman shouting sloppily, desperately, “if it’s the last thing we ever do / We gotta get out of this place.” Things screech to a halt so Eric can sing a cappella – “Girl, there’s a better life / For me and you.” On the “you,” all the instruments come jerking back in, playing convulsive chord progressions against a relentless hammering drumbeat. I can’t help but feel that their escape is doomed, whatever Mann and Weil intended.

Eric Burdon’s always had a gift for phrasing – see how he pauses for dramatic emphasis before “dirty old,” lags meaningfully on “refuse to shine,” bounces off the beat on “for me and you.” All the extra “oh yeses” and “you knows” he throws in, testifying like he’s at a tent revival –and yet that dream of a better life shimmers just out of reach. Sure, there’s a love song in here – that brave young couple, like Romeo and Juliet, trying to escape their parents’ fate. (Cue up West Side Story and “There’s a place for us…”) But what really hit me about this song in 1965 was that image of the industrial city, like a trap from which the young can only dream of escaping. British bands were already reaching for something a little meatier. And where they would go next was anybody’s guess.

We Gotta Get Out Of This Place sample

Friday, May 04, 2007

“You Really Got Me” / The Kinks


We all know those harsh, grating opening chords – bah dunh-dunh dunh dunh – two chords, five forceful strums, muscling into the sugary world of the British Beat and demanding to be heard. There is no more efficient guitar intro in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, with the possible exception of the Kinks’ next runaway hit record, “All Day and All Of the Night” (bum ba-dunh ba dunh-dunh-dunh dunh).

That riff, twice, then a vigorous whomp on the drums, then in comes the lead vocal: “Girl / You really got me goin’ / You got me so I don’t know what I’m doing.” His voice is plaintive, whiny, confused, chasing around that slippery, unconventional melodic line. Still trying to pin down what’s happening in his desire-wracked brain, he repeats himself, adding “You got me so I can’t sleep at night” (that vocal flutter on “sleep AT night” tickles me every time). Someone stabs a few jittery piano chords behind him in rhythm with that abrupt, jerky guitar. Then he shifts anxiously upward to a new key, with back-up vocals joining to swell the volume. But it’s not enough; he’s not getting through to her -- so letting loose a desperate howled “Oh, YEAH!” he shifts up into yet a third key change, jacking up the volume too, racheting up his inarticulate passion to almost unbearable heights. Take pity on this guy, please.

I remember standing in our kitchen, listening to this song on the radio for the first time, and thinking, “Who IS this?” Ray Davies truly does sound like someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing, a guy who can’t sleep at night – gangly and vulnerable and yet somehow utterly charming. Has anybody else ever made obsessive compulsion this attractive? “See, don't ever set me free / I always wanna be by your side.” (A few singles later and he’d be begging the girl to “Set Me Free” after all.) And then there’s his unruly brother Dave, launching into his guitar solo in the middle eight like a kid possessed.

The lyrics barely change from verse to verse -- and why should they, when the singer has only one thing on his mind? It's two minutes and thirteen seconds of rock ‘n’ roll at its most elemental, sexual frustration and teenage angst and visceral energy all erupting like a volcano -- a volcano with irresistible hooks and a jazzy syncopated beat you couldn’t stop moving to.

This song came out of nowhere, hitting #1 in the UK in September 1964 and, released a month later Stateside, a respectable #7 on the US charts. They’d follow it up with “All Day and All of The Night,” “Tired of Waiting,” “Set Me Free,” “Till the End of the Day,” every one of them recognizable as a Kinks track the minute you heard it (it was all in the power chords). Then in 1966, as British rock embraced social satire, Ray Davies found his true calling with songs like “Well-Respected Man,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Dead End Street,” “Mister Pleasant”…well, it’s a LONG list. Add together the consistent excellence of their songs and their remarkable longevity (the band stopped performing in the mid-1990s, though they’ve never officially broken up) and the Kinks may well have been the most productive English band ever. The fact that Ray Davies hasn’t been knighted yet is a disgrace.

I didn’t surrender to my fate and become a true Kinkaholic for a few more years – not until the Beatles were well and truly broken up, the British Invasion a thing of the past. But in 1964, even a loyal Beatle lover like myself couldn’t help but like the Kinks, scruffy and outlandish as their public persona might have been -- they just always seemed to be having so much fun. And wasn’t fun the whole point?

You Really Got Me sample

Thursday, May 03, 2007

"Play With Fire" / The Rolling Stones


It’s always been a love-hate thing with me and the Rolling Stones.

Like the loyal Beatlemaniac I was in 1964, I took sides: Beatles good, Rolling Stones bad. After all, they’d been presented to us as the Anti-Beatles, thanks to their canny manager Andrew Loog Oldham. When they finally appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in October 1964, singing “Time Is On My Side”, I sat anxiously on my family room floor in front of the set, not knowing what to think. They didn’t wear matching suits, their long hair was ragged, and they were…well, UGLY. I was a ten-year-old clutching a fistful of Beatle cards -- cute was what mattered. And it didn’t help that there was an undertone of aggressive sexuality there that I was way too young to feel comfortable with. (Same thing that happened with House of the Rising Sun, minus that mesmerizing organ solo.)

It didn’t matter that the Stones weren’t actually the Beatles’ enemies – that they’d even recorded a Beatles song, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” as their second single (a track that still makes me wince). I simply refused to admit them into My British Invasion. In those days I was known to scoff that “Time Is On My Side” and “Heart of Stone” were the exact same song; “Satisfaction” and “Get Off My Cloud” had unforgettable hooks, I couldn’t deny that, but otherwise they seemed like the same song too. (Ten years old, and already a critic.) In secret, I liked their Mod-flavored ballads “As Tears Go By,” “Lady Jane,” and “Ruby Tuesday,” but I figured those didn’t count as Stones songs, following some obscure logic I cannot recall.

Now, years later, I can let go of that Beatlemania prejudice and admit how good these guys were. It took a couple of years, but once Jagger and Richards found their songwriting groove, they laid down some of the most memorable tracks of the decade. This one in particular haunts me. Set in a minor key, with just an acoustic guitar, a faint whisper of bass, tambourine, and harpsichord (played by Jack Nietzsche, of all people), its brooding delicacy is perfectly suited to the dark insinuations of Jagger’s voice.

And the lyrics – Jagger and Richards, a.k.a. Nanker Phelge, had made a quantum leap forward. Specific details – places, social customs – skewer the subject with pinpoint accuracy. Bring on the class warfare (so important to the British audience; I pretended I got it too), portraying the girl’s world of chauffeurs and couture and heiresses and diamond tiaras, which would all go up in smoke if she messes around with the singer. “So don’t play with me / ‘Cause you’re playing with fire,” Mick warns her in the chorus, his voice rising from the wary hush of the verses, like a coiled serpent striking. It didn’t matter that I'd never been to St. John’s Wood, Stepney, or Knightsbridge; I could tell what they stood for in this harsh little morality tale. And of course the local references made it ten times more evocative for me, besotted with Swinging London as I was.

The Stones – well, Jagger and Richards – recorded this in January 1965, riding the crest of British rock’s rapid evolution. Suddenly it was cool to be arty, to use different instruments, to strive for poetry and social comment in the lyrics. Ten months later, the Beatles would trump this with “Norwegian Wood,” an even more disturbing little story with more surreal lyrics and a sitar. But for its time, “Play With Fire” was a gem; that whole album, Out of Our Heads, was wonderful stuff. I should have given it its due back in 1965. Instead, I had to wait until 1976 to “discover” the Rolling Stones. That’s when the love part of the love-hate thing finally kicked into gear. Well, better late than never.

Play With Fire sample

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

“Glad All Over” / The Dave Clark Five


In 1964, every music pundit was dying to anoint some new band as the “Next Beatles.” When I first heard of the Dave Clark Five, that was the buzz – “These guys are going to be bigger than the Beatles.” For one thing, they had FIVE band members, not just four, and they had an organist. They were clean-cut and cute – what more could music fans want? When “Glad All Over” dethroned the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in January 1964, doomsayers predicted that the Fab Four were history.

Yeah. Right.

I tried to like the Dave Clark Five, honestly I did, and yet . . . . Maybe even as a kid I could tell they weren’t quite the real thing, even though they wrote their own songs (whether Clark deserved co-writing credit is another question; it’s also rumored that the actual recordings were done with session musicians). I was baffled by the name, since Dave Clark didn’t sing lead vocals -- keyboardist Mike Smith did, which was fine with me because he was much cuter. Though I was too young to judge, Clark wasn’t even much of a drummer – hence the group’s tendency to record very basic pop songs like “Do You Love Me,” “I Like It Like That,” “I Knew It All the Time,” and “Over and Over.” The only really rhythmically interesting record they ever made was “Catch Us If You Can,” which featured finger-snaps for most of the percussion. (The Monkees would later rip this sound off for their theme song -- "Here we come, walking down the street . . . .")

But what was worst, somehow they just didn’t sound British, whatever that meant to my pre-teen ears. Tell the truth – if any of those songs came on the radio with no introduction, would you think “British Beat” right away? And -- no surprise -- from the spring of 1964 on, their records always did better in the States than they did back home.

Still, “Glad All Over” is a perfectly fine track. It has all those nice tight harmonies I had learned to love from my Beatles records, with a cheery call-and-response echo, and the sentiments were straightforward teen pop – “You say that you love me [say you love me] / All of the time [all of the time] / You say that you need me [say you need me] / You’ll always be mine [always be mine].” In the infinitely more complicated emotional territory of the Beatles, such absolute devotion could spell trouble, but for the Dave Clark Five, it inspires only one thing – it makes him feel “glad all over,” as he tells us three times in the chorus, setting off each repetition with two big whomping drumbeats. (Two honks on the sax, too – that rudimentary horn section was ahead of its time.)

Verse two declares his side of the issue – he’s gonna make her happy, always be true, et cetera – and verse three happily predicts that their love will last until the end of time, and all those other pimply hyperboles. In the bridge, there’s the briefest shadow of a problem – “Other girls may try to take me away [take me away]” – but it’s quickly resolved, with the loyal declaration “But you know, it’s by your side I will stay,” in the great tradition of grammar bent out of shape just to land a rhyme.

Simple. Loud. Fast. That’s what the Dave Clark Five could deliver, all packaged with neat-but-casual sweaters and Mike Smith’s adorable smile. So what if they couldn’t live up to the “Next Beatles” hype? In 1964 we were hungry for British bands, and these guys were first out of the gate. There would be more to come.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

“Love Me Do” / The Beatles


The song that started it all.

This was the Beatles’ first single, and though it only reached #17 on the UK charts in January 1963 (and wasn’t even released in the States until May 1964, after “I Want To Hold Your Hand" and “She Loves You” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” had already burned up the US charts), it was truly the start of SOMETHING BIG.

I can imagine how it felt to a British teenager to have homegrown talent – a provincial Liverpool band, even better – burst open a music market long dominated by American pop artists. But I don’t have to imagine how it felt here in America; I remember it for certain, the delirious impact of that fresh new sound. For two or three years after Beatlemania broke, we were deluged by one British rock band after another, most of them astonishingly good. I was at a VERY impressionable age. The British Invasion made me the rock fan I am today; devoting a month to this music seems the least I could do.

When this single hit, I wasn’t aware I was hearing things out of order – that Capitol Records had scrambled to re-release earlier UK material. I should have noticed that “Love Me Do” sounded a whole lot more primitive than “Can’t Buy Me Love,” which was recorded almost a year later. (It’s stunning what fast learners the Beatles were.) All I knew was that I recognized those close Beatles harmonies, putting my ear close to the speakers, trying to tell which voice was John’s and which was Paul’s. I adored how their voices melted together on the dizzy loop of “Plee—ee-ee-eeee-ee-ee—eeeeze” before an offbeat of silence, then Paul coming in low and sincere to enter his plea, “Love me doo-oo / Oh yeah, love me do.” Could anybody EVER sing as sincerely as Paul McCartney?

Of course, the hook is that bold, blaring harmonica. I’ve read that George Martin didn’t even like this song until Lennon added the harmonica, and then suddenly the whole thing gelled. Otherwise, the song is dead simple. The chorus repeats one musical phrase three times, leading up to that drawn-out begging “Please.” The rhymes are absurdly basic – “do/you/true” – and repeating the chorus, they don’t even bother to give us new lyrics. The middle-eight comes as a relief because it’s different: “Someone to love / Somebody new / Someone to love / Someone like you,” with actual chord changes in it.

And yet this song just throbs with unfulfilled, just-about-to-burst-with-it desire. That puppydog pleading, with all of McCartney’s most adorable vocal flourishes, is just the tip of a hormone-steeped iceberg. Underneath – where Lennon’s insistent harmonica and Ringo’s shambolic drumming drive us – is a frantic undertow of sex, and when Paul drops his voice low for the “Love me do,” there’s more than a whisper of darkness and danger. That one line slipped casually into the middle-eight, “Somebody new” – it means he had a girlfriend before, who didn’t work out. He probably told her too that he’d “always be true.” And then you start to notice that it’s just “Someone to love” he’s looking for; it’s the love he wants, not the specific loved one. “Someone like you.” There’s plenty of fish in the sea, baby, so if you don’t put out he’ll find someone who will. You’ve got two minutes and twenty seconds to make up your mind.

And of course we all said yes.