Hovering here at the middle of my list are a curious bunch of songs, each one testing the boundaries of its era's shifting musical tastes -- American bands aping the British Invasion sound, Philly soul artists updating their streetwise groove, or a girl group trying to stand out from the pack. Usually I detest calculated hits -- but here are five songs too clever and fun to resist.
[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]
51. "We Ain't Got Nothing Yet" / The Blues Magoos (1967)
In 1967 every major band in London was dropping acid and trying to express the psychedelic experience. As it turns out, the template was laid down by this upstart bunch of kids from New York City.
52. "She's About A Mover" / Sir Douglas Quintet (1965)
The late great Doug Sahm recorded under many names over the years -- it was almost impossible to keep up with them -- but when this early ensemble scored his first nationwide hit, the name sure fooled me into thinking they were another British band. Dig this video -- there's nothing about it to suggest that these long-haired guys in their skinny suits were from Texas, at least not until Trini Lopez spills the beans at the end. This stripped-down little rocker even has that sort of primitive Mersey sound, with its offbeat Farfisa chords, clangy guitars, and mumbled bluesy vocals. The lyrics are minimal -- mostly a lot of things like "Whoa, yeah, what I say, / Hey, hey!" and, for a chorus, "She's about a mover!" repeated over and over, toggling back and forth between two notes. (What is a "mover," anyhow? Inquiring minds want to know.) The thing has like four chords total, so it's no surprise that every garage band I knew included this in their repertoire -- once they'd mastered the Shadows of Knight's "Gloria," that is. But there's an art to making a record this ecstatic and fun, and Doug Sahm had that art down cold. Every time this song came on the radio we'd yelp with joy and turn the volume up. Years later, I still do the same whenever I hear any Doug Sahm record. A sorely neglected genius.
53. "98.6" / Keith (1967)
Every time I take my temperature, I think of this song. Don’t you? Honestly, without this song for a mnemonic, how did previous generations ever remember what a normal temperature should be? It’s the only hit that Keith (real name James Barry Keefer) ever had, but he certainly hit the jackpot with it. The central conceit is dead simple: The singer’s temperature is back to normal now that he’s happy in love (“Your lovin’ is the medicine that saved me / Oh, I love my baby”). What could have been a formulaic pop song, however, turned out to be anything but. It was written by the Brill Building team of composer George Fischoff and lyricist Tony Powers, who also wrote Spanky and Our Gang’s “Lazy Day” (hear the resemblance?). Fischoff’s bouncy melody, with its skipalong beat, was perfectly suited to Keefer’s suave Philly-soul voice, but the real key to success was Powers’ lyrics, which tapped into the hippie era's madcap flower-child giddiness. “Good morning sun, I say it’s good to see you shinin’,” Keith begins exuberantly, “I know my baby brought you to-oo-oo-oo me / She kissed me yesterday, hello you silver lining / Got spring and summer running throo-oo-oo-ough me.” (Notice how compression jazzes up those familiar nature images.) There’s a wonderful contrast between the good-timey sound of the verses, with their jubilant horns and softshoe tempo, and the hushed chorus, tautly confined to a few notes and a heartbeat pulse, as he checks his temperature again (“Hey, ninety-eight point six, it’s good to have you back again…).” My favorite line, though, comes in the second verse, where Keith proclaims, “You know she got me on another kind of highway / I want to go-oo where it ta-aa-aa-akes me!” Is that sexy or what?
54. "One on One" / Daryl Hall and John Oates (1983)
I suppose I could blame MTV for hooking me on these 80s groovemeisters, with their well-groomed shag haircuts and big-shouldered pastel suits. But the real history is a bit more complicated . . .
55. "Leader of the Pack" / The Shangri-Las (1964)
I know there were classier girl group songs -- the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" for one, or the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," or the Exciters' "Tell Him." But I was too young in the early 1960s, and probably too white, to be a serious girl group aficionado. By the time "Leader of the Pack" vroomed into the charts, however, Beatlemania had transformed me into a voracious pop music fan, gobbling it all up. Among the East Coast girl groups, the Shangri-Las specialized in a tough-girl image; this romance about star-crossed love with a biker (I pictured him as a James Dean hottie) was right up their gritty alley. With all the sound effects -- the revving motorcycle, the screeching tires, the shattering glass -- it verged on being a novelty song, though that wouldn't have bothered me; it riveted me with its themes of death and breaking class barriers (I think this was the first time I'd ever heard the phrase "the wrong side of the tracks"). But more than anything else I was sucked in by its narrative technique. We overhear the girls chatting on the sidewalk:
"Is she really going out with him?"Real dramatic irony in a pop song! And then Betty takes center stage to wail her tale of woe: "I met him at the candy store / He turned around and smiled at me / You get the picture?" to which her girlfriends, nodding, reply, "Yes, we see." (That conversational set-up was another Shangri-La trademark.) A few months later, though, when a band called the Detergents released a parody called "Leader of the Laundromat," I was ready to laugh at the melodrama of "Leader of the Pack." Ah, how fickle the public can be!
"Well, there she is. Let's ask her."
"Betty, is that Jimmy's ring you're wearing?"
"Gee, it must be great riding with him. Is he picking you up after school today?"