Saturday, September 18, 2010

"Girl Watcher" / The O'Kaysions
"Want Ads" / Honey Cone

Rarely do I write about two songs at once, but I just couldn't resist.  I heard both of these today -- one over the PA system at a grocery store, the others on the 60s station of Sirius/XM -- and it struck me how perfectly they complement each other.  They're both light-hearted soul gems, but like yin and yang, they express the two flip sides of male and female lust. 

When I heard it, I instantly remembered that O'Kaysions song Girl Watcher (though I really had forgotten that crazy spelling of their band name).  As an adolesent in 1968, this song deeply offended me.  I was just old enough to hate guys who lounge around on the street, ogling every female who walks past.  (Come to think of it, I still hate those guys.)  Sure, I could tell it was supposed to be funny, but to me it was just more of that "Standing on the Corner, Watching All the Girls Go By" mentality.  The soul vibe of this song is so tight, I always pictured the singer as a jaunty black dude in tight flared jeans and a polyester shirt -- pretty much the whole look parodied in Undercover Brother.  I have just discovered that the O'Kaysions were white soul singers from North Carolina (I suspect they're still living on the royalties from this song, their only Top Ten hit), and I have to say I'm impressed.  But still, I see that jive brother when I hear this song.   

What I didn't get as a kid -- what I couldn't pick up -- is how healthy this guy's eye for the ladies is.  The relaxed groove of this song tells it all.  There really isn't much else to it; he confesses "I'm a girl watcher, / I'm a girl watcher," then defines it for us -- "Watching girls go by / My oh my." (As if we couldn't have guessed what being a girl watcher entails.) The best part, though, is when he sings, "Here comes one now," then falls silent for a jazzy little interval of drums and bass, turning his attention to the babe in question, with a few happy grunts and groans of approval. It's like he's admiring a sunset, or a great work of art.  Who could argue with that?

To be perfectly honest, as a teen I got creeped out by "Want Ads" too, despite its female perspective. Released in 1971, it was such a monster hit for the girl group Honey Cone that they put it on two albums in the same year, Sweet Replies and Soulful Tapestry. You couldn't miss that brassy opening, as Edna Wright chants, "Wanted: Young man single and free / Experience in love preferred, / But will accept a young trainee."  A woman in proud command of her sexuality?  No wonder it scared me at that age.  

Listening to it again as an adult, I can see now that it's just a conceit --  taking out a personal ad proves she's ready to move on from her old boyfriend.  She's making a sassy deal of it, but I suspect she hasn't really separated yet, and she still wants to hurt him by flaunting her intentions. Like someone changing their relationship status on Facebook, you know? 

The Honey Cone was the star act of Hot Wax Records, which was formed by Holland-Dozier-Holland when they split Motown. They didn't write this song, but its high-concept set-up epitomizes their school of songwriting -- find a metaphor and work it as hard as you can.  There's storytelling in the verses, too, as she catalogs all the ways he's done her wrong (great lyric: "But lipstick on his collar / Perfume on it too / Tells me he's been lying, / Tell ya what I'm gonna do / I'm gonna put it in the want ads . . . .").  And in classic girl group fashion, she's got her sisters there, wagging their fingers in the background.

Don't even bother looking for a story to "Girl Watcher." He mentions how he threw away his childhood toys, but otherwise he's too busy checking out the ladies to consider past or future.  He's totally in the present, reacting to his hormones.  It's the ladies who need a story; there has to be a relationship.  She's not just putting out that ad because she's horny -- it's payback, it's a bid for self-respect, it's hunger for true love. That's the way women see love and sex.

They're both absolute gems, a reminder that one-hit wonders aren't necessarily total flukes. Similar as they are musically, though, they split right down the Mars-Venus dichotomy. My shrink couldn't have said it better.   


wwolfe said...

Great write-ups on both songs. The cover of the O'Kaysions LP is pretty close to your vision of the jive brother: boadaciously wide-striped bell bottoms and something close to Jackie O shades. (Someone should make a complilation disc featuring songs by all the bands sporting nuttily misspelled bands that followed in the wake of the Beatles. You would, of course, have to include the One-ders, from "That Thing You Do!")

The Honey Cone deserve a little more than "one hit wonder" status, to be fair. Edna Wright, sister of the incomparable Darlene Love, had some real pipes, and the group managed three other smaller Top 40 hits: Stick Up (the sound-alike follow-up to Want Ads), One Monkey Don't Stop No Show (not the Joe Tex hit), and The Day I Found Myself (an infinitely better take on early 1970s feminism than Helen Reddy's more famous song). The group also had enough good non-hits to make for a very solid "Best Of" compilation. Nothing come's close to the opening lines that you quoted from "Want Ads" - hearing them never fails to make me smile.

wwolfe said...

That should read, "...nuttily misspelled NAMES." Argh.

Holly A Hughes said...

True, Honey Cone was like the last gasp of the girl groups, and the fact that they overlapped the rise of the feminist movement must have colored their material. I didn't know Edna Wright was Darlene Love's sister -- that explains a lot!

nat said...

I remember both of those fondly.especially "Girl Watcher." In fact, I can picture my dad in his cool sunglasses, driving us somewhere and singing along with the song. He would whistle along at the right moment, too, and mom would laugh.
I miss those days and songs like these.