Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Tobacco Road" / The Nashville Teens

Heard this on Sirius a couple days ago -- one of those moments when a song suddenly jumps into your mental spotlight. Sure, I knew this song – it was a radio staple in the mid-60s. But I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about who recorded it and what was going on in the song.

And when I finally started to Google around, I was surprised. First of all, despite the name, the Nashville Teens were a British band -- from Surrey, in fact, not even gritty Liverpool or Newcastle. Jeez, their American accents were convincing -- much better than most Brit singers. The band itself had a revolving door of band members, none of them big names, and they never had any other big hits, though they were around for 10 years or so; I wouldn't call them one-hit wonders. (They backed up Jerry Lee Lewis at the Star Club in Hamburg, apparently an epically great live performance.) But “Tobacco Road” was – here’s your telling detail – produced by hitmaker Mickie Most, who worked similar magic for the early Animals among other bands. If they only hit gold with this track in 1964, it was no fluke.

They didn’t write the song; it was by John D. Loudermilk, one of Nashville’s most sterling songwriters, who’d released it as a single himself in 1960, to little success. I took a listen to Loudermilk's version, which is slower and more doleful; it mines the song for struggle and sorrow, which you'd think would be the meat of this song about a hardscrabble country Carolina upbringing. ("I was born in a trunk / Mama died and my daddy got drunk...") The Teens, though, speeded it up, added a percussive backbeat and tons of reverb, and came up with a hit. Country? Yeah, the guitars have a little twang to them, and there's those honky-tonk keyboards in the bridge -- but the song it most resembles is The Blues Magoos' "We Ain't Got Nothing Yet." Go figure.

Okay, it ain't "The House of the Rising Sun," though I'll bet that was exactly the sound Most was reaching for. Those hammering electric piano chords are taken straight from the Alan Price playbook (the keyboardist was John Hawken, later to resurface in Renaissance), and there's a similar threatening bass line and bluesy guitar riff as well. According to Gordon Thompson's invaluable book Please Please Me, the guitarist was Jim Sullivan, although Wikipedia claims that Jimmy Page was playing guitar -- which should give any Kinks fan a good laugh, seeing as how Jimmy Page is still trying to take credit for all the early Kinks records too.

The master touch -- the thing that makes this a great single -- is the reverb on those harmonized vocals, which makes them sound extra lonely as the singer recalls his miserable childhood ("left me here to die alone"; "Growin' up, rusty shack / All I had was hangin' on my back") . At the end of every verse, the singers -- Arthur Sharp and Ray Phillips -- sing "In the middle of Tobacco Road" totally a cappella, mournfully drawing out "road" like howling wolves. That fierce two-beat accent that breaks up each line of the verse is a great touch too, channeling all the singer's throbbing resentment and his ambition to break out of poverty. In the last verse, when he declares, "Bring that dynamite and a crane / Blow it up, start over again," it's got all the rebel intensity of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."

With no songwriters in the band, the Nashville Teens were probably dependent on their producers snagging them good material; later producers like Shel Talmy and Andrew Loog Oldham may not have given them the kind of attention they needed. I listened to some snippets of their other songs and their musical sound was all over the place, which isn't unusual when you've got a bunch of technically skilled musicians with no strong identity. But this track? It still blasts onto the radio with such cheeky energy. You gotta love it.

Tobacco Road video

Tobacco Road sample


wwolfe said...

The band's name is one of those revealing archeological shards that allows us to understand just how besotted with American pop culture were the British Invasion bands. I mean no disrespect to Music City in saying that - it's just that Nashville probably wouldn't rank in most Americans' top ten choices as "romantic, exciting place that you should name your band after." Terrific single with great energy, thanks to both the band and M. Most, as you note. (I've always said that if I my life depended on me making a hit single, I might very well choose Mickie Most to produce it. The man had a killer instinct for hits.) Oddly enough, my band plays both of your latest songs, which was a pleasant coincidence when I saw the two entries. We end this one with a Yardbirds-style rave-up - always a good show closer.

Holly A Hughes said...

Well, I knew your band had good taste. Where do you usually play? I'd love to see a set sometime (that rave-up sounds tempting); or if I couldn't make it, maybe some other readers here could.

And by the way, I personally love Nashville and think it's very romantic. ;)

wwolfe said...

We play a place called Mr. T's in Highland Park, just north of downtown LA. Surprisingly good sound for your typical dive bar, where the regulars get peevish when the jukebox playing old C&W songs gets switched off in favor of the live music. The cool part is the abandoned bowling alley, hidden behind a big velvet curtain, where you can find old bowling pins, shoes, and other effluvia lying around, like fossils in a strange archeological dig. I myself found an amazingly cheesy nrown leather jacket with faux Navajo coloring around the lapels - it looked like a reject from the wardrobe department of any early 1970's Burt Reynolds movie. (Thanks for asking.)

Angela C said...

"That fierce two-beat accent that breaks up each line of the verse is a great touch too, channeling all the singer's throbbing resentment and his ambition to break out of poverty."

Yep! I defy anyone to not bop their head when they hear it.

Braintap said...

I'd love to know how they got that sound, it's almost like metal crashing at the end of every chord.