"Black Is Black" / Los Bravos
Summer of '66, this song was a constant presence on Indianapolis' WIFE-AM ("Home of the Good Guys"!). With my ear glued to that radio, I knew what it was instantly, from the very first bass notes. That tripping bass line, the feverish organ, the soulful horn section -- it sounded totally Stax to me. Just the right steaminess, just the right racing pulse for a hit summer record.
Only years later did someone -- a Spaniard, in fact -- inform me that this band was from Spain. You'd think he'd know, but even so I had to look it up to be sure, that's how surprising this was. I mean, I knew there were rock groups in European countries doing spot-on covers of the big rock hits of the day -- but to record an original song that would pop to the top of the UK (#2) and US (#4) charts? No European bands had hit records, not until Abba. I'll bet that the Good Guys on WIFE didn't know it themselves -- otherwise it would have come up time and again in their inane between-songs chatter.
After finding this out, I listened again, with new ears. And it's still amazing to me. The lead singer, Mike Kogel, was the one member of the group who wasn't Spanish, but even stranger, he was German, which shoots to hell my theory that this song merely applied Latin heat to the rock 'n' roll formula. But Kogel's voice is a pitch-perfect copy of Gene Pitney -- so good, that apparently Pitney himself went back to check his records, puzzled that he couldn't remember recording it. The echo effects, the whining urgency, the sliding yelps -- play this record for someone who's never heard and see if they don't guess it's Gene Pitney.
To increase the international profile, the song was written by an English team, Tony Hayes, Michelle Grainger, and Steve Wadey. Los Bravos, who sang pretty much exclusively in English, just had to learn the lyrics, not write them. And the lyrics aren't exactly Shakespeare. "Black is black / I want my baby back" (the Johnny Hallyday version in France changed that to "noir c'est noir," which doesn't have quite the same percussive kick). The color imagery carries on: "Gray is gray / Since she went away, oh no, / What can I do? / 'Cause I-I-I-I-I, I'm feelin' blue." The cleverness goes downhill in later verses ("If I had my way / She'd be back today," "I can't choose / It's too much to lose," and the from-hunger last verse, "Bad is bad / This fella is so sad.") No wonder we never hear of this songwriting team again.
Apparently, the BBC ignored this obscure track by a foreign band; it wasn't until pirate radio latched onto it that the record became a hit. (Yay for pirate radio!). With the driving beat and the Memphis-style arrangement, this was catnip to those pirate DJs. And once it had become a hit in the UK, getting tons of US airplay was no problem. British listeners may have loved it because it sounded American, but as far as American listeners were concerned, it just sounded like music -- and good music indeed.