Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 86-90

I'm surprised to discover how few of today's five singles ever got covered on this blog before. I assure you, each one had its heyday on my record player (and yes, I do mean record player). Bear with me as I make up for lost time!

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

86. "Have I The Right?" / The Honeycombs (1964)
Remember, in 1964, we had no idea which English band would be the Next Big Thing. We listened to all of it, drank it in, bought the singles -- and waited to see how it would all shake out. The Honeycombs were a British band -- check -- from North London, named after their female drummer Honey Lantree, who was also a hairdresser (Honey Combs, get it?). I was snared right away by the exuberant backbeat bounce of this song, enhanced by a prominent drum track, a tambourine rattled right onto the mike, and heavy footstomps on the studio stairs, recorded by producer Joe Meek. ("Come! right! back! I just can't bear it / I've got this love and I want to share it!") Add some cheese-grater guitar and a whiny organ and there it was, an irresistible bit of pop candy. Lead singer Denis D'Ell's voice was a little Tommy Steele-ish -- even more so once they'd sped up the original recording -- but that chipper, boyish quality was tremendously appealing, especially with all the little growls and yips he threw in. "Have I the rrright to touch you? / If I could yooou'd see how much you / Send those shivers rrrunning down my spine." Two minutes and 59 seconds of youthful desire -- exactly my cup of tea.

87. "You Were On My Mind" / We Five (1965)
For some reason, in my mental jukebox "Have I The Right?" is always followed immediately with "You Were On My Mind." This despite the fact that it came along a year later, from an American band (We Five was from San Francisco), had a female lead singer, and was folk-rock instead of BritBeat (if I'd been a folkie I'd have recognized it as an Ian and Sylvia song). But it's the same sort of uptempo, upbeat charmer, with lots of drums -- in fact, "You Were On My Mind"'s entire first verse is practically a capella, sung with just a snare and high hat. Verse two adds a few asterisks of electric guitar strums, with more guitars layered on gradually as the song builds and builds. The harmonies swell, guitar riffs spin off like Telstars, and a marvelous time is had by all. The plot is simple: "Well I woke up this morning / You were on my mind / And you were on my mind . . ." She's got troubles, she's got worries, she's got "wounds to bind" -- but she doesn't bother us with details. She goes to the corner, she comes home again, she walks away her blues. She copes, briskly and cheerfully, probably because of that guy who's on her mind. What's not to love?

88. "Killing Me Softly With His Song" / Roberta Flack (1971)
Coming fresh off of her first big smash hit, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," Flack owned the airwaves for a while with this song, and she deserved to. It came along smack dab in the middle of my coffeehouse intellectual phase -- well, as much of a coffeehouse intellectual as I could be as a high school senior in Indianapolis -- when an arty jazz-soul hit by a black sister with an enormous Afro was just the ticket. It has a great backstory, too: Written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox (composers of the "Happy Days" TV theme song) and singer Lori Lieberman, it was inspired by Leiberman's rapture after watching a pre-"American Pie" Don McLean sing at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. (I suspect that's info I picked up from Casey Kasem's Coast to Coast radio show.) On her own recording, however, Lieberman overemotes; the thing that made this a hit was Roberta Flack's smoky, bell-like voice gliding over a samba beat. I love those overlapping, repeated phrases: "Strumming my pain with his fingers / Singing my life with his words / Killing me softly with his song / Killing me softly / With his song, telling my whole life / With his words, killing me softly / With his song. . . . " She sounds dazed, transported, stunned to her core, the way a girl sometimes is after sitting in the dark, riveted soul-deep by a stranger on stage. We've all been there, ladies.

"Tempted" / Squeeze (1981) I listen now to Squeeze and can't fathom why they never really registered on my radar. It was just this one big hit, but oh, what a sweetie.

90. "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" / John Lennon (1974)
Post-Beatles John Lennon took himself way too seriously -- all that primal scream crap -- it would have driven me right into the arms of Paul McCartney if I hadn't already been firmly snuggled there. I longed for the old playful, funny John to resurface, and he finally did on this 1974 single -- John's only #1 solo hit -- from the Walls and Bridges album. It's telling, I think, that this song came out of John's 18-month-long "lost weekend," when he went off with May Pang to sort himself out. Pang has said that it was inspired by John's habit of channel-surfing late at night, a habit I totally identify with. It rockets along on a high-energy groove, courtesy of Elton John, who contributes backup vocals and a boogie-woogie piano; best of all is the screaming sax, a Bobby Keys special. Studded with a few Lennonesque koans ("don't need a watch to tell the time," "don't need a gun to blow your mind"), it's one long party of a song, bursting with joy and optimism. I love that coaxing boogeying bridge: "Hold me darlin,' come on listen to me / I won't do you no harm / Trust me darlin,' come on listen to me, / Come on listen to me / Come on listen, listen." Whenever this song came on the radio, I'd squeal and turn it up -- and it still never fails to lift my spirits.


Bob in CT said...

I knew someone in the 1970s who was a Honeycombs fanatic and actually collected everything he could find by the group. I wonder if he still has his collection.
My favorite on today's list is Tempted, although there are many Squeeze songs I like even more. But since Squeeze had little singles success in the U.S., it makes sense that this is their only entry in your top 100.

hot stix said...

Hi Holly! I have just discovered your blog, and have to say, I think I've found a kindred spirit! Been checking in for the last couple of days, and this post prompted me to comment. I actually had 'Have I the Right' cued up to play when I read the post! I listened along as I read, and then, after pausing to go grab my copy of the We Five album (to check which Elvis song it was they did, and to look at the great photo on the back) I proceeded to have a nice YouTube excursion. I love your take on these songs, and music in general. I'm a fan!

Sara White

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks so much, Sara -- and welcome!

Bob, I agree, there are many other wonderful Squeeze tracks, but I never even knew about them until later. On the other hand, it's hard to beat those Paul Carrack vocals, isn't it?

Debs said...

Honeycombs!!!! Yes, yes....and she had a BEEHIVE!!!
'You Were on My Mind', pure sweetness..think 'honey', and 'WEGYTTN'..always gets me goin'..John
thought he'd found his honeypot in May.

Dave K. said...

Another very interesting list. "Killing me Softly" is simply a magnificent song. No argument. I am very fond of "You Were on My Mind", but it wouldn't make my top 100. BTW I only recently found out that lead vocalist was female. Off hand, I can't recall the Honeycombs' song. I have no doubt it's available as a video on youtube.

Tempted is a fine choice, but Pulling Mussels from a Shell is one of my all time favorite songs (probably top 10).

Whatever Gets you Through the Night would not rank among my fav John Lennon songs. OTOH he only released a handful of singles and most of my favs would be album cuts. Instant Karma or #9 Dream would rank higher among his singles. Imagine may be a great song, but I can live without ever hearing it again. I love the way you slipped May Pang into the story :-) .

Holly A Hughes said...

Funny, I've just relistened to this and the Honeycombs' lead singer and the We Five's lead singer have eerily similar voices -- even though one is a guy and the other's a girl. Go figure.

MMmmm, Pulling Mussels is indeed a superb song. Pity it never really surfaced on the airwaves over here. Then there's Is That Love, which happens to be my favorite Squeeze track -- but again, I never really knew it as a single so it doesn't count for this list . . .

Bob in CT said...

Paul Carrack has a wonderful voice.

Pulling Mussels is a classic and it did get a lot of FM airplay, along with Another Nail In My Heart and If I Didn't Love You, all from Squeeze's finest album, Argy Bargy.

Neon Sign said...

Roberta Flack was the required singer for all rotten love affairs. I was having one at the time Killing Me Softly was a hit, and I shudder to think of what I must have looked like sitting there all moody listening to that. She was good though.

Holly A Hughes said...

Bob, I wish I'd been listening to the FM stations you were listening to back then! You know, I was severely impeded back thenby the fact that I didn't own a car, and never had a driving commute. Until the rise of the iPod, the NYC subway was no place to listen to music.

So true, Neon -- what was it about Roberta Flack's voice that resonated with so much heartbreak? A little huskiness, that hesitant timing -- whatever it was, thank goodness she found the right songs to go with it. We romantically challenged teengirls needed her!

Vivalabeat said...

I don't know many people who like Honeycombs (I actually almost don't know people who know who the Honeycombs are). :) It's great to see that there's someone else. :) My most favorite is Is It Because. Oh, and they did a nice cover to Something Better Beginning, a very lovely song by another North London band. :D The original's much better, though.

And John Lennon... This is one of my most favorite songs of his solo career (along with Gimme Some Truth and 2 or 3 others).

wwolfe said...

When MTV and radio started playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit," I was nearly driven to distraction by my sense that I'd already heard the melody for the hook (the "A mulato/An Albino/A mosquito/My libido" part). It finally hit me that it was very similar to the melody from the second time Roberta Flack sings "Killing me softly with his song" in the chorus of her song. Although I'm no kind of Nirvana fan, I like the image of music-obsessed 6-year-old Kurt Cobain with his ear pressed to the radio, soaking up the melody to Roberta Flack's hit and then recycling it in his band's most famous song, 18 years later. (Also, I have to say how much I love "You Were On My Mind" - it never fails to make me punch the accelerator when it comes on my car radio.)

Holly A Hughes said...

Just listened to SLTS again and, dammit, you're right. What great ears you have! The thing is, with stuff like this, Kurt Cobain may not even have known he was stealing from Roberta Flack -- the hook just somehow sounded, y'know, right to him.

What I would like to see is some traffic statistics on which rock songs have caused most speeding tickets and accidents. It might be hard to beat out the Beach Boys' "Shut Down," but yeah, "You Were On My Mind" would have to be up there.

wwolfe said...

When I was much younger and dumber, "Dead Man's Curve" came on the radio just as I was approaching the real Dead Man's Curve on Sunset Boulevard. I in my 1964 Olds Cutlass started racing the guy in the Mustang next to me. It was just ridiculously exciting, until I felt my rear wheels start to slip and slide a little in the curve. At that point, I woke up and thought, "I love living out my pop fantasies as much as the next guy, but I don't really want to end up like Jan Berry." So the Mustang won, but I'll always cherish my little moment of adventure.

IƱaki said...

It's very cool to see the Honeycombs in your list. Have you heard the song Emptiness written by Ray? It's very good.

Tempted is another song I'm not surprised to see in your list. ;)

Holly A Hughes said...

;) "Emptiness" is a charmer, indeed.

wwolfe, maybe what we need is a short film enumerating in gruesome detail all the rockers who've been injured or killed in car crashes. If nothing else, you could sell it to driver's ed programs!