Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"I Think We're Alone Now" / Tommy James and the Shondells

Okay, so I'm still stuck in 1967. But I'm really fascinated right now by all these songs that hung in the ozone back then -- pouring from the car radio, blasting in the background at every teen dance. I'm talking about the commercial pop rock, a sound that hovered somewhere between Frankie Valli and the Doors. In that watershed year, rock music was just starting to take itself seriously -- it's crazy to realize that this tune came out the same year as Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" (so self-consciously poetic) and Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth" (so earnestly political). But what Tommy James and the Shondells were up to was blessedly simple: making pop music you could dance to at parties. And they did it perfectly.

These guys were no one-hit wonders. Singles like "Hanky Panky" and "Mony Mony" established their dance party creds, and they hit the psychedelic note toward the end of their chart-topping days with "Crimson and Clover." But "I Think We're Alone Now" will always be my favorite Tommy James song. It sums up so perfectly the great burning issue on all pubescent minds: Where can we get some privacy to make out?

Tommy James grabs his audience from the very first line. "'Children behave' -- that's what they say when we're together," he complains with a petulant whine. "'And watch how you play' -- they don't understand." That's a pure adolescent sense of injustice. The verse builds earnestly, layering on guitars and drums and organ, almost a military march: "And so we're running just as fast as we can / Holding on to one another's hand / Trying to get away into the night." A noble bid for freedom indeed. But being teenagers, they quickly get to the real business: "And then you put your arms around me and we tumble to the ground and then you say / 'I think we're alone now...'"

Isn't this one of the sexiest choruses ever? There's such urgency in those staccato lyrics, and the sudden drop in volume, stripping away all the backing instruments, is riveting. Hear the quivering hush in his voice as he sings, "I think we're alone now / There doesn't seem to be anyone around." Hear the speeded-up pulse of that rapidly plucked guitar -- "I think we're alone now / The beating of our hearts is the only sound' -- that thump-thump heartbeat on the drums should be corny, but it's perfect. (Dig the nighttime cricket sound effects filling the silence behind it.) They're in the woods! They're lying down and making out! It's HOT!

The same year, you'd find the Rolling Stones, with their usual subtlety, blatantly proposing "Let's Spend the Night Together" (famously changed to "let's spend some time together" on the Ed Sullivan show). Brian Wilson would give it a romantic gloss, musing like a Boy Scout, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up / In the morning when the day was new..." But Tommy James left it sweaty and furtive and hormonal -- and yet somehow naive. There's no battle of the sexes here, no seduction; this is completely consensual. The two kids are totally on the same wavelength, wrapped up in their private world. If you were in a couple at the time, you sympathized from experience; if you weren't in a couple, you hungered for it.

When this song came on at a party, everybody had to sing along. You huddled together to whisper that complicit chorus -- which also meant you could really let loose on the "running just as fast as we can" part. Courtesy of Tommy James, we were all in on the Big Teen Secret. Ah, youth culture.

I Think We're Alone Now sample


Franko6677 said...

Have you ever heard the Lene Lovich cover? I'm not sure if she'd be up your alley, but I have to say hers is my favorite version. It's kind of spacey sounding - imagine bizarre alien noises in place of the crickets...she even did a take in Japanese!

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for the tip, Frank -- I just took a listen to Lene's cover on iTunes and you're right, it's tasty. Though I'm not sure it could ever replace Tommy's version in my heart!

Anonymous said...

Great analysis of a super song. Long live Tommy James, who, by the way, is still pumping out the greatest music ever...and be watching for a Christmas release
(2008), and some new music with the original Shondells! Dale Smith