Thursday, August 30, 2012

Big Girls Don't Cry

November–December 1962

Another Four Seasons entry, so soon after the first! Everyone should know this one.

Is it just me, or is this exactly the same song as "Sherry"? It's like, they found something that worked, so... let's do it again! You can literally put one of these songs on, and sing the other along to it. Go ahead, try it.

Anyway, you can hardly blame me for not getting too excited about the second Four Seasons song in just four entries. I would say that this actually works slightly better than their former hit. Just sounds a little more tightened up, and the song's big hook is a little bolder and catchier. I'll take it.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

He's a Rebel

November 1962

I'm realizing more and more that in the early 60s, the girl group genre was truly at the forefront of advancing pop/rock music as an art form. For whatever reason, it seems the best songwriters and producers in the industry were working with these groups—the relatively faceless, interchangeable singers themselves had little personality of their own, but were skilled and adaptable enough to carry these songs. This hit by the Crystals is a great example of just how far this music had come.

The production here is just pure class through and through. Phil Spector's signature sound could make any ol' song sound great—rich, full, pseudo-orchestral. But this isn't just any ol' song, either. From a pure songwriting perspective, this is just a terrifically composed pop song—the chord changes are often unexpected and the melody is slightly tricky, but it all works and sounds totally natural.

I think this kind of thing isn't usually considered "rock," but when you think about it, it basically is. It has a much more lavish production than most rock music of the day, but that rock drum beat is there, unmistakable. And looking at the broader picture, the quality and inventiveness of this, and other contemporary girl-group songs, was certainly very influential on the British rock groups that would soon rise to fame. The very notion that one could write a pop/rock song that was not only catchy, but sophisticated—that idea itself is probably not much older than this very song. I'm sure a young Lennon and McCartney were listening closely, and when their turn came, great as they were, they were standing on the shoulders of giants.

We won't encounter them again on this blog, but the following year, the Crystals released two more top tens, "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me"—both Spector productions, and great songs in their own right—but for my money I'll take "He's a Rebel," in my opinion one of the finest songs in a genre crowded with competition.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Monster Mash

October 1962

Mercifully, after the first year of the Hot 100 chart, Christmas songs were deemed ineligible and they were relegated to their own, separate chart. However, a Halloween song is still fair game.

The only hit by novelty act Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers has been the victim of overexposure throughout the years, but man, when's the last time you sat and really listened to this song? It's hilarious. I don't think many people would call Bobby Pickett versatile or prolific, but it's clear he's spent a lot of time honing this shtick, and it works—his ridiculous puns and over-the-top delivery make me laugh.

It's important, I think, to acknowledge that "Monster Mash" was campy even in 1962. The lyrics are all in loving reference to the golden age of the big studio monster movies, which was arguably kicked off in 1931 with Dracula and had more or less run its course by the end of the 50s; so Pickett was definitely appealing to nostalgia here. It's easy to understand why people remember these films so fondly, and they still have a cult following even today. They were not exactly advancing the art of cinema (with a few exceptions—the first two Frankenstein films being oft-cited critics' favorites), but there is an irresistible charm about these hulking beasts, created with elaborate costumes and makeup.

So even though I've shown a general distaste for novelty hits on this blog in the past, I gotta say this song is pretty charming. It embraces the innate silliness of one of the curiouser American film genres, and I was getting sick of love songs anyway.


Thursday, August 23, 2012


September–October 1962

Now, I know that the Four Seasons are one of the most loved musical groups from this time period, but I've got to be honest, right up front: I find Frankie Valli's singing voice to be shrill, silly, and frankly annoying. There have been lots of songs I've covered by artists with enduring reputations, where I totally get the appeal—Elvis's charm is contagious, the layered sounds of Motown can be marvelous, and hey, I can even dig Neil Sedaka—but this is where I draw the line.

I guess some things just can't cross the generational divide. It's not like the Four Seasons were some flash in the pan group, either—"Sherry" is merely the first of five #1 hits the group recorded, and there are two more from Valli's solo career. Not having been alive in 1962, it's impossible for me to have a true sense of what this music sounded like to people at the time, but there must be some way to explain this kind of massive appeal. Certainly they have a unique, easily recognizable sound, due mostly to the lead vocals. Perhaps it's the boldness with which Valli lunges into this performance, flipping in and out of falsetto, giving it everything he's got, injecting it with a charming youth energy. At any rate, you couldn't accuse this group of sounding like anybody else. Whatever it was, people got it.

Certain kinds of music are more generationally specific than others, I think. Radiohead's album Kid A, widely regarded as a masterpiece of the millennial age, probably has limited appeal to the folks that made the Four Seasons popular (and who knows how the children of the future will hear it?). Its cold, fearful depiction of the brave new world of the computer age is something that is pretty damn specific to people in my demographic or thereabouts, who grew up experiencing the emergence of personal computers and the Internet firsthand, during our formative years. When Kid A is as old as "Sherry" is now, people might look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

I guess what it comes down to is that music sounds different to different people, and that's that. A great many cultural and societal factors go into how someone perceives a given piece of music, and I'll never be able to hear the Four Seasons from the frame of the early 60s zeitgeist. I can only relate my totally subjective experience.


Thursday, August 16, 2012


September 1962

Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" is one of those songs. You know? It's totally iconic, everybody's heard it a million times, and to us, it's one of the defining rock and roll songs of the 50s. And probably rightly so. It's a terrific song, simply written but with a fresh sound—the drummer's patter-patter rhythm on the toms, together with Holly's charming vocal eccentricities, make it really stand out from the pack of tired oldies.

In his short career, Buddy Holly cast a wide influence on many singers and performers. But "Peggy Sue" also cast a very specific influence on a guy named Tommy Roe, who is the singer of "Sheila," our #1 hit for today. Wikipedia states simply of "Sheila" that "the song is similar to Buddy Holly's 'Peggy Sue.'" Uh, yeah, you're not kidding. In fact, it's about as clear cut a rip-off as you'll find. Everything that made the former song stand out—the aforementioned drum beat and even Holly's weird singing style—are copied without shame. The subject matter and title—simply a woman's name—makes the connection even clearer.

Is this such a bad thing? Today's lawsuit-driven culture would seem to think so. Intellectual property is serious business, and people get sued for a lot of money for infringements on it, real or perceived. But a century or more ago, people would probably disagree. In fact, the very idea that when you write a piece of music, it's yours and yours alone; well, it's a fairly new concept in the grand scheme. Folk and blues singers of the early century would travel the country, collecting songs and adding them to their repertoires. Where do you think they got those songs from? From our modern perspective, we'd probably say they were stealing those songs from other singers. But from their perspective, things were different. Once a song or a piece of music was created, it belonged to everybody. A singer was free to make his own changes to a pre-existing song, and present it anew.

The concept goes way back. European classical composers constantly aped each other, and there were no hard feelings, to my knowledge. Mozart wrote a set of string quartets that sounded so much like those of his contemporary Haydn, that they are known as the "Haydn quartets." And yet, the two knew each other and were quite friendly in a professional capacity. Austrian law students do not study the historical case of Haydn v. Mozart.

But somehow this seems different, and I can't put my finger on why. Perhaps it's because our pop musicians are now superstars, with wealth and fame beyond anything Haydn or Mozart could have imagined. Maybe that is the reason we expect some degree of originality from them. Or maybe it's because the culture of lawsuits has affected our perception of what is ethical or appropriate in the performance of music.

So anyway, I can't really hear "Sheila" without comparing it to its forebear—once you know the relation between the two songs, you can't unknow it. And it's pretty clear which one stands the test of time.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Loco-Motion

August 1962

I'm not really sure how to "do the locomotion," but to be honest, it doesn't really matter. Thanks to songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin, a singer named Little Eva achieved her 15 minutes of fame, and America had another dance craze on its hands.

This is one of those songs that I heard tons of times growing up, since it was a staple of oldies radio (it's amazing how many of these songs aren't, considering their former popularity). It's a super catchy and very fun song, quite simple, and helped along by a stomping backbeat that isn't too far from the one in "The Twist." This is the Carole King most people don't think of when they hear her name. In fact, the song has such an enduring appeal that it has reached the top ten in three different decades, performed by three different artists. I'll talk about the cover versions in another post, since one of them reached, you guessed it... number one! (I'll give you a hint who sings it—it starts with "G,"and ends with "rand Funk Railroad.")

"The Locomotion" was Little Eva's only big hit, and the rest of her career is not really worth mentioning. But there is something else related to her that is notorious, and I can't pass up discussing it here. Eva apparently provided the inspiration for another lesser-known King/Goffin song, performed by a different group, the Crystals (whom we will get to soon enough on this blog). The story goes that King and Goffin had somewhat of a personal relationship with Eva. When they saw her one day, she had been battered by her boyfriend, and was badly bruised. When, instead of being angry, she expressed feelings of forgiveness and devotion to him, the songwriters were inspired to write what is, in my opinion, one of the most deeply disturbing pieces of music in popular history.

When Slayer sang about Auschwitz in the 80s, it was with a wry smirk, and an obvious intention to shock. In contrast, "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" is fascinatingly devoid of any discernible irony whatsoever. It is so unsettling a song that I can hardly believe it actually exists. The pounding, hypnotic rhythm and weird, chanting backup vocals build with the lush orchestration to produce a bleakly dark, almost nightmarish effect. In case you were wondering, Phil Spector is the producer on this; perhaps in retrospect, it's not surprising he was drawn to the song, given his own sordid history.

Lest we think "oh those were different times in the 60s," it's important to note that the single was pulled soon after its release due to public objection. I would imagine it's quite hard these days to find an original 45 of this song, but thanks to the Internet it is immortal.

All that aside, this post is supposed to be about "The Loco-Motion," so—


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

August 1962

Neil Sedaka is one of those names I've heard a lot, but I never really had a clear idea of who he was, and I think I've been confusing him with Neil Diamond. But of course I know this song—I just never could put a face to it.

I'm not gonna lie, as corny as it is, I think this is a great song. Sure, this topic has been done a million times—singer begs for S.O. not to leave him—but musically it's totally fresh and likable. The song's selling point is the recurring vocal riff, doubled on guitar throughout the song. It drives the song and gives it a sort of main idea, over which the details are lain. Another thing that strikes me here is the strong echo of the Everly Brothers in those vocal harmonies. And maybe, as a New Yorker myself, there's just something endearing about this Brooklyn Jew. His world is not too far from my own.

Although Howard Greenfield is listed as co-writer for this, and many other of Sedaka's hits, it is my impression that Greenfield was the lyricist, while the music was written by Sedaka; not an uncommon way to organize a songwriting team. They had a number of hits around this period, although I won't bother linking to them since they are, unfortunately, disappointing in comparison. The most notable thing about them is that they seem to be weirdly preoccupied with 16-year-old girls, which was pretty common in songs from around this time, but still a little uncomfortable, being that both songwriters were in their mid 20s.

Anyway, Neil Sedaka is going to disappear from this project until his comeback in the 70s, where he has a couple more entries. Also, in 1975 he released a different version of this very same song, which hit #8, but lost the things that made it good in the first place. I'll stick with the original.