“What Is Wrong, What Is Right”/ Herman’s Hermits
MAY IS BRITISH INVASION MONTH!
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