Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 51-55

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]

"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?"
"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?"

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!


hot stix said...

You know what I love about 'She's About a Mover'? Well, everything, but I gotta give a shout out to the maracas player. When I hear this song, I HAVE to dance...

Holly A Hughes said...

But of course! He makes YOU the mover, the gal he's so nuts about. Maracas are a sorely underrated rock instrument, by the way.

Bob in CT said...

Another great group of songs today, Holly.

"We Ain't Got Nothing Yet" is one of my favorites from the great psychedelic era. And yes, the guys were from New York City, but more specifically my home borough of The Bronx. My buddy Eric has been friends with Peppy Castro for over 40 years, and I've met Peppy thanks to Eric. Peppy and Ralph Scala shared lead vocals for the Magoos, and it was Ralph who sang lead on this one. Both guys still live in New York State, just a bit farther north now. I saw their reunion concert this past summer and it was a blast. They are working on a new album all these years later.

"She's About A Mover" is bouncy and tremendous fun. As far as the meaning of a "mover", here's where the word came from, according to organist Augie Meyers:
"We were playing in this club called The Blue Note and this couple used to dance and Doug said 'She's a body mover!' Back in those days you couldn't say "body mover" on a record. He changed it to 'She's About A Mover'."

As you noted, 98.6 could easily have been just another formulaic pop record, but instead it's an all time great 45. I always thought it was one of those rare songs where the verses were so much better than the chorus. "98.6" always transports me back in time to the bowling alley across from Yankee Stadium whenever I hear it. A super choice.

"Leader Of The Pack" is a fun song, but I would have selected the far superior "Remember (Walking In The Sand)" - for me it's the quintessential Shangri-Las song. "Leader Of The Pack" is a bit too over the top and really does teeter on the edge of novelty.

Dave K. said...

I love Doug Sahm and She's About a Mover is a great Kinks-inspired song. I think his later work had more depth, but I don't know which songs were released as singles--though "At the Crossroads" may have been a single. Mendocino was a single, but I'd stick with She's About a Mover. Great choice!

Just an aside, I always thought that Augie played a Farfisa, but it was a Vox. Not much difference there.

Deborah said...

Great bunch today, Holly..and you included the Shangri-las!! How cool were they?? Well, they were super cool, in my estimation, and man a tear had to fall when they were on!!
Now, that's one of my all-time favorite tunes..'All in the Game'.

pplist said...

I'm thoroughly enjoying your singles countdown and your blog as a whole. Leader of The Shangri-Las pack Mary Weiss put out an excellent album called Dangerous Game back in 2007. You can hear my favorite song from it at the following site. (Scroll down when you get there.) Recidivism

The LP is downloadable song by song at eMusic.

Keep up the great work!

Alex said...

"We Ain't Got Nothing Yet" is one of the highlights from the original Nuggets album... thanks for reminding me about it!

hot stix said...

It's funny that you mention that about 'She's About a Mover', Bob...when I was a kid, and for YEARS I always thought they WERE saying 'she's a body mover'! It's all in the inflection, eh?

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for that link, pplines -- anybody else check out that song? It's great to hear Weiss's voice again. There's lots of other good stuff on your site, too, so thanks for turning us on to it.

"She's a body mover" :) -- now I'll always hear it that way!

wwolfe said...

I often played "98.6" on my college morning radio show - it just seems like a perfect morning song. (Come to think of it, Sir Doug's "Mendocino" got some air time, too - that spoken intro never failed to make me smile.)

Holly A Hughes said...

You're right, it's an irresistible morning song. If 98.6 had been made in the era of videos, I can just imagine what a groovy little video it might have made. (Keith was really cute, too.) I picture him skipping down the street in a paisley Nehru jacket, kissing everyone he sees.

"Mendocino" -- makes me smile just to think of it. You must have had a fantabulous radio show!

pplist said...

Thanks for the thanks, Holly! Since we seem to like a lot of the same music, I did want to note that Recidivism is not my blog. I'm over at Powerpopulist.
I try to point visitors toward mostly current music I'm finding in the tradition of The Beatles, Kinks, Byrds, Hollies, Who, Doors, etc., etc. You may have discovered this by clicking on "pplist," but I just wanted to make sure.

Anonymous said...

Holly, you are so right about "98.6."

The follow up, "Daylight Savings Time," brings to mind those first precious days when school is out. It's all in front of you, the summer, that is. Baseball, fireworks, fresh mown grass, lightning bugs. That squeaky screen door on your grandmother's back porch.