Friday, October 02, 2009

"1-2-3" / Len Barry

Len who? Yeah, that's what I said too. This was the second blast-from-the-past song I heard in the restaurant the other night, after "Baby Now That I've Found You", and I was convinced that at least this one was genuine Motown -- if not Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, then at least the Impressions or the Four Tops.

But no, it turns out that this 1965 soul classic was released by Decca, and singer Len Barry -- born Leonard Borisoff -- was a white guy, a blue-eyed soul man who grew up in a black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. He was originally one of the Dovells, whom you may know from their hit "Bristol Stomp" (for some reason, that got no airplay in Indianapolis, but I know Philly-area folks remember it instantly). Barry co-wrote this song with John Madera and Dave White, although nowadays the songwriting credit legally has to be shared with the Motown hit machine of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who successfully claimed Barry had ripped the song off from a Supremes number, "Ask Any Girl." It does sound vaguely similar -- though nowhere near as close as, say, "My Sweet Lord" is to "He's So Fine" -- but to me "Ask Any Girl" is staid and boring, while "1-2-3" is a juicy number indeed.

"1-2-3" was a Top Ten hit that fall, in both the US and the UK, and even I remember briefly tearing my ears away from the Beatles to dig this song. It was all over the airwaves -- who could ignore it? It percolates with a snappy syncopated rhythm, emphatic slapping drums, echoing back-up vocals, and exultant horn fanfares. Barry's voice has a nice gritty texture, adding urgency and desire to what would otherwise be a well-crafted bit of fluff. It follows that classic Brill Building three-verses-and-a-bridge structure, with parallel imagery in each verse -- counting numbers in the first ("One two three / Oh that's how elementary / It's gonna be"), alphabet in the second ("A-B-C / Fallin' in love with you was / Easy for me"), and simple math in the third ("One and one are two / I know you love me, and oh / Oh how I love you." That's a ready-made line of imagery, which the Jackson Five would exploit a few years later with their song "ABC."

But basically it's a pleading song -- no story, no testifying, no celebration, just a guy intent on the chase. He and the girl definitely aren't together yet, no matter how assured he sounds. In the verse, he promises her (with his back-up friends chiming in) "it's easy (it's so easy) / Like takin' candy (like takin' candy) / From a baby." To my mind, this odd cliche is the very heart of the song -- that's the phrase I remember most. Maybe he just latched onto a convenient turn of phrase, a trite simile for "easy," but it adds all sorts of layers to the song. After all, isn't taking candy from a baby mean? Though he's urging her to take that candy with him, we can't help feeling a shadow of predatory behavior; that's the knife edge this song skates along. Face it; he does intend to take advantage of her -- when he says he wants her to "fall in love," he really means "have sex with me." Still, Barry's vocals artfully keep things more sincere than sinful. He's not forcing her -- he wants her to want it too.

See him in the bridge, a lawyer of love, laying out all his arguments: "Baby, there's nothing hard about love / Basically, it's as easy as pie / The hard part is living without love" -- ah, there a classic rhetorical feint, painting a dire picture of the alternatives. And at the end of the bridge his voice wobbles just so, as he exclaims, overwhelmed by desire: "Without your love / Baby, I would die!"

We know how to count, know our ABC's; this song pleases us by checking off familiar mantras. But that syncopation doesn't play by the rules; the song is full of lagging pauses at the beginning of lines, filled in by horn toots or back-up echoes. In the bridge, he's playing behind and in front of the beat, swinging us into the groove of his passion. We're leaning forward, waiting for him to hit the phrases, longing to hear that other shoe drop. Even though nothing is settled by the end of the fade-out, the momentum of desire has already clinched the deal. She'd have to have a heart of stone to say no.

1-2-3 video


wwolfe said...

This record is slightly, if unjustly, infamous due to its being featured on the back cover of "The Who Sings 'My Generation'," with the tagline, "If you enjoyed this record, you're sure to enjoy '1-2-3' by Len Barry!!" (or words to that effect). Many Who fans, Dave Marsh being prominent among them, found that laughable. But speaking as a big Who fan, I can say that I honestly DO enjoy "1-2-3." A good song's a good song. I enjoy your explanation of why it's good.

Holly A Hughes said...

I'd forgotten that Who detail. Yeah, we lost our right to enjoy a lot of perfectly fine music when the slate was wiped clean by the Beat Revolution. (Even though the Mods, the Who among them, claimed to be such big soul music fans....). It's nice to reclaim it years later.

The Kid said...

great analysis of a great song. i rediscovered this (from my childhood) just this May and its been on pretty regular rotation since. defintely agree on your take regarding 1-2-3 vs. Ask Any Girl. Anyways, I love the indulgent analysis of lyrics. I find that most people hate it, but that's half of enjoying a song if you ask me.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks! It's funny how this one sticks with me, still. And it IS the words...