Friday, February 26, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 41-45

Ah -- a tale of Five Obsessions. Five fleeting obsessions perhaps, but powerful while they lasted.

41. "Get Back" / The Beatles (1969)
The Beatles, of course, are one of the major obsessions of my life. But I'm thinking of a more particular obsession here -- my obsession with the film Let It Be. In May 1970 my friend Karen Butcher and I went to the Vogue Theatre in Indianapolis (then a real movie theater, not a music club like it is now) to see Let It Be the weekend it opened. We saw every showing that first Saturday, in fact, hiding out in the bathroom between screenings so the ushers wouldn't throw us out. Slipping back into our red plush seats in the dark, we avidly drank in every mumbled line of dialogue, every grainy shot of Our Boys. That climactic scene on the rooftop of the Apple headquarters on Savile Row riveted us, as the band played an unannounced LIVE BEATLES CONCERT in the middle of the London working day. (Can you imagine opening your office window and hearing that?) Karen and I were no casual Beatles fans -- throughout that next summer, we'd spend countless evenings sitting on Karen's front porch, holding imaginary conversations with our future husbands John Lennon (Karen's) and Paul McCartney (mine). (I'm not sure how we killed off Linda Eastman and Yoko Ono, but I'm sure it was bloodless and legal.) We lived in that movie. Of course, we already knew "Get Back" -- it had been released as a single way back in the spring of 1969, even before Abbey Road. With its chugging locomotive rhythm track and blithe McCartney melody, not to mention Billy Preston tripping all over on the keyboards, it teased us with riddling character portraits -- loner JoJo rambling from Tucson to California, transsexual Loretta Martin -- everyone trying to get back to where they once belonged. Hearing it resurface in Let It Be was like meeting an old friend. Now, years later, I know that the Beatles actually recorded Let It Be first, planning it as a back-to-basics reunion titled Get Back; it was still in production when -- having moved on to Abbey Road -- they decided to split. Shrewdly, they finished Abbey Road, then recast the Get Back material as their farewell, Let It Be. All along, we fans were kept in the dark, ignorant of how carefully the break-up was being orchestrated. But by the time Karen and I sat in that movie theater -- watching them on that rooftop, Paul with his bushy black beard and John in his round spectacles and short fur coat, peeling off a rare guitar lead -- we knew we'd never see them again. And at the end, John's sardonic sign-off -- "I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and I hope we pass the audition" -- well, crikey.

42. "Message In a Bottle" / The Police (1979)
Let's just get it right out there: Sting was the hottest guy in rock music in 1979. Those wary eyes, that sulky sneer . . . and there I was, with my longtime weakness for bassists. Against the hard-edged sounds of punk, metal, and disco, the reggae groove of the Police almost single-handedly kept the roll in rock 'n' roll for a couple of years. It's hard to believe that a three-piece combo could create a sound this full; that melodic, lounging bass line was essential. Their tracks were tight, lithe, muscular, but never felt stripped-down. Add to that the reverbed, minor-key spookiness of tracks like "Roxanne," "Don't Stand So Close to Me," and "Walking on the Moon," and there was really no way I could resist. By the time they hit it big in the US, the Police were cranking out sunnier, blander easy-listening tracks like "Every Breath You Take" and "Everything She Does Is Magic," and I lost all interest. But when this song came along -- their first #1 hit in the UK, from their second LP Reggatta de Blanc -- I was completely under its spell. Fine songcraft, developing the image of a castaway shipwrecked on some desert island (in the Caribbean, from the sound of it), sending out an "SOS to the world" in countless pleading bottles. Sting's mopey wail fit this song perfectly, declaring, "Love can mend your life but / Love can break your heart" (our first clue that the island is a metaphor for heartbreak -- the old John Donne "no man is an island" line). And then after the instrumental break, in the third verse, the money shot: "Woke up this morning / Don't believe what I saw / A hundred million bottles / Washed up on the shore." Can't you just see them, camera panning out to show them all, bobbing in the surf? A lesser songwriter might have turned this into a happy ending, but not Sting -- he interprets it: "Seems I'm not alone / In being alone / A hundred million castaways / Looking for a home." Everybody's lonely, the message goes; everybody hurts. But me personally? All I could think about was mopping the tears of poor shipwrecked Sting, brushing the sand from his blond hair, tasting the salt on his sun-bronzed skin. . .

43. "If This Is It" / Huey Lewis & the News (1984)
Another case of fangirl lust. Huey Lewis wasn't my usual type -- I favored long-haired skinny Brits, not clean-cut virile preppie types from California -- but that hoarse edge to his voice snagged my heart. (His resemblance to Jeff Bridges didn't hurt, either.) Huey Lewis flirted at the edges of New Wave hipsterdom -- his original band Clover, sans Huey, backed Elvis Costello on his first album -- but his essential talent was for clean radio pop, with enough of a retro gloss to cash in on the Eighties' 1950s nostalgia. For a while there, Huey & Co. were just cranking out the hits -- "The Heart of Rock and Roll," "Power of Love," "I Want a New Drug," "Heart and Soul" -- all lively, well-crafted tracks that got tons of radio play. No less than four hit singles were released from their megatuple platinum LP Sports; it would've been the year's #1 album if not for Thriller. In the early 80s MTV exposure was also critical, and the video for "If This It It" is a classic, a stylish sitcom set on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. (Remember the band, buried in sand up to their necks, doing the doowop harmonies on the chorus?) It was all mainstream as hell, and you know me, mainstream is not usually my thing. Besides, in 1984 I got engaged and then married; naively I assumed that the fangirl part of me would now be locked up in a streamer trunk, along with the faded corsages and torn ticket stubs. But there we were, in September 1984, on our honeymoon, a tour of quaint New England inns (no Poconos heart-shaped tubs for us!). And every time we turned on the car radio -- I'm telling you, every time -- there was Huey's pleading rasp, urging me to reconsider, "If this is it / Please let me know / If this ain't love, you better let me know!" I didn't reconsider, of course; I had no reason to. No matter how many times Huey cajoled, "Girl don't lie, and tell me that you need me / Girl don't cry, and tell me nothing's wrong." (Oh, how he growled with frustration on the "rl" of "girl!). I'd look out the car window, press my knees together. But I knew that the fangirl was still in the back seat; she wasn't going ANYWHERE.
44. "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat" / Herman's Hermits (1965)

My first post-Paul McCartney crush, fed by a crush of hype in Tiger Beat and Sixteen magazines. But oh, Peter Noone was adorable in 1965, with his crooked front tooth, his shiny gray eyes, and that sleek mop of fair hair. He may have been a manufactured teeny-bopper phenom, but he was MY manufactured teeny-bopper phenom, and he actually had the singing talent -- not to mention the acting chops -- to pull it off. Hell, he's still out there flogging these oldies. (And still adorable.) Herman's Hermits actually had two careers -- an initial run in the UK with a string of respectable R&B numbers, then a crossover to the US when they increasingly specialized in goofy English music-hall songs like "Mrs. Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter" and "Henry The Eighth." Released in January 1965, "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat" marked the crossover -- it climbed to #2 on the US charts, but in the UK it was only the B-side to "Silhouettes." All I knew was, it was track one on their second US album, Herman's Hermits on Tour (I've still got my battered copy, with its cheesy cover graphic of the band inserted into a hot-air balloon). Producer Mickey Most was taking no chances; "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat" features the same stompy beat and cheery girl-group-style harmonies as the Hermits' debut single "Something Good." The song was written to order by John Carter and Ken Lewis, incidentally the backing vocalists on the Who's "Can't Explain," who also sang in their own group The Ivy League -- remember "Tossing and Turning?" I loved Herman's guttural Manchester vowels as he sang, "Cos you're the one I lo-ove," but the best part is that little cry at the end of the bridge, when he sings, "I get the feeling, you're ooooh-wee (ah!)" He'd cock his head, hook his thumbnail on that crooked tooth, and all us little fanbabies would just dissolve. . . .

45. "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" / Stevie Wonder (1974)
If Jeff Bridges gets the Academy Award for Crazy Heart this year -- and oh, how I hope he does -- it won't just be because he was brilliant in Crazy Heart, though of course he was. It'll be because he's been brilliant in every single damn movie he's made since his 1971 debut in The Last Picture Show. Same thing here with Stevie Wonder. No single Stevie Wonder track stands out enough to make it into my Top Ten, but Stevie is so close to my heart, he had to be on here somewhere. For sheer musicality, nobody (except maybe Paul McCartney) can equal the guy. But which single to write about? "Uptight (Everything's Alright)"? "Superstition"? "Livin' for the City"? "I Wish"? "Part-Time Lover"? It's an impossible choice. But in the end, the Stevie Wonder LP I loved most was 1973's Innervisions, at the apex of his amazing streak from Talking Book through Songs in the Key of Life. It came along the spring of my junior year, when I had just started editing the college newspaper, was proposing my senior thesis, was in the thick of deciding where my life should go (like I've EVER figured that out.) Some days the only way to survive was to lock my dorm room door and put Innervisions on my turntable. By the time "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" came along -- side two, track four -- I'd be lost in Wonder. That crazy tango intro, with Stevie muttering some jive-ass hustle ("Paris, Beirut, Iraq, Iran ... you know, I speak very very fluent Spanish!"), morphing magically into a smooth-as-silk samba. "Everybody's got a thing / But some don't know how to handle it / Always reachin' out in vain / Accepting things not worth having" -- gee, was that my life or what? And there was Stevie, with those long, caressing, overlapping lines of the jazzy chorus, reassuring me: "Don't you worry 'bout a thing, mama /Cause I'll be standing on the side /While you check it out." Lyrics aren't Stevie's strength (again, like Paul McCartney) but even an English major like me can forgive a little verbal fuzziness when the sentiment is so beautiful. Stevie in the studio must have been like a kid in a candy shop, delighting in how many musical textures he could pile on, pouring it all into one richly complicated groove. And soaring above it all, his soothing vocals: "Everybody needs a change / A chance to check out the new" (or "loo," as I always heard it). "But you're the only one to see / The changes you take yourself throo-oo-oo-oo-oo-ough," ringing the chord changes on that "through." I can feel myself relax, even now; I can breathe again. Better than yoga, Stevie.

9 comments:

wwolfe said...

I've always been an unaplogetic Herman's Hermits fan. The silly songs were goofy fun (the Ramones, among others, got the joke, clearly), and there were a bunch of solid singles: I'm Into Something Good, A Must to Avoid, No Milk Today, A Kind of Hush. Surprisingly, there are quite a few goodies hidden among the album tracks, like "Rattler" (this one never fails to make me sigh wistfully) and the surprisingly tough "My Reservation's Been Confirmed." When my girlfriend and I were driving up the Pacific coast from Los Angeles to Monterey last fall, we had a couple hours of pure musical bliss listening to my very carefully selected Hermits cassette compilation. Plus, Petter Noone seems like a decent guy: in addition to still putting his heart into his oldies show, I've read that he defrayed quite a bit of the medical costs after Mike Smith, lead singer of the Dave Clark Five, was paralyzed after falling from his roof. So good on ya, Peter, as your fellow countrymen would say.

Holly A Hughes said...

Truly, truly, truly. I actually went to one of those benefit concerts for Mike Smith, and met several lifelong Herman fans who told wonderful stories about him. I agree that the deeper album tracks are where the real gold was ("Your Reservation's Been Confirmed" is a particular favorite); they were mostly written by the band themselves, but Mickey Most wouldn't ever let their songs onto the A-sides. Ah, the price of fame!

Bob in CT said...

OK, I'll add to the praise for Herman's Hermits. Lightweight though they may be, their songs are fun, catchy, and they were released at just the right time in my life. I don't listen to them on my own any more, but whenever they come on the radio I happily enjoy them all the way through.

My favorite is "I'm Into Something Good". I love its use in The Naked Gun soundtrack, a perfect accompaniment to Leslie Neilson.

nat said...

As wwolfe said, I'm unapologetic about loving Herman's Hermits or any other Brit Invasion/Mersey Beat band!! And Peter Noone had to be one of the most adorable lead singers EVER! I love watching old clips of him. He looks so enthusiastic and almost embarrassed by it.

I love this series of yours.

Deborah said...

Herman and the Hermits were my first....conert!! I unabashedly adore Peter Noone!!
Holly, do you remember his little sister's name??

Holly A Hughes said...

No, should I? Was it in some song? Clearly you were a more devoted Noonatic at the time than I was if you knew this!

nat said...

Noonatic! LOL. Love it.

Mister Pleasant said...

Innervisions is still one of my favorite LPs by anyone. Not a clinker on there, and Don't You Worry is on my happy music mix tape (CD). I am with you Holly - early 70's Stevie Wonder is the real deal.

Holly A Hughes said...

Whenever I'm tempted to dismiss any teenage musical phenom -- Justin Bieber is just the latest one -- I remind myself that Stevie Wonder was just 12 years old when he started. And Peter Noone was what, 15?