Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 12
And so we’ve come to the end of Year Three on our AM Gold retrospective, believe it or not. You can probably guess that we’re going out with a bang in 1964, right?
Um, not so much.
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#17: The Beach Boys, “When I Grow (To Be a Man)” - #9 U.S., #1 Canada; the lead single from the Today! album.
Jack Feerick – Fuck Mike Love. Fuck him and his clunky, flat-ass Midwestern vowels. And fuck Murry Wilson, for good measure, that abusive, tyrannical monster, for making it impossible for me to hear the line “Will my kids be proud, or think their old man is really a square?” without an instinctive shudder of revulsion.
An odd and conflicted song. Obviously, in hindsight, the inevitability of aging — and the possibility of ending up like his parents — was something that troubled Brian deeply, and it’s pretty ballsy to even tackle such a complex and bittersweet topic in a pop song. On the other hand, the song sounds like it’s determined to not get too heavy, and everything from the rockin’ tempo to the goofball delivery to the language (all those “digs”!) tries to undercut — or at least conceal — the anxiety at its heart. It’s working very hard to sound breezy and insubstantial, but it’s not fooling anybody.
Jon Cummings – Sorry, Jack, but I am completely “fooled” by the breezy, insubstantial nature of this track … and I say that hoping it’s what Brian would want me to say. I just don’t want to deal with all of that psychobabble bullshit when I listen to early Beach Boys! Can’t we please just let Boys be boys, at least until we get to the Smile-era tracks? All of that said, the fact that this track didn’t appear on the “Endless Summer” compilation in 1974 — the only Beach Boys album I owned during my childhood — means that I didn’t hear “When I Grow Up” until I was grown up myself, and so I (of course) heard it initially through the Brian’s-breakdown prism. But I think the song fights off that connotation rather successfully.
Matt Springer – To me, the masterful touch in this Brian Wilson classic is the counting counterpoint, that “sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen” that roils beneath the melody. I can see Jack’s point of view; taken in the context of Wilson’s life, this composition is a clear cry for help, or if nothing else, a thinly veiled indictment. Taken on its own terms, it’s a surprisingly sophisticated topic for what was at the time teenage bubblegum pop. It still resonates with me a little, raising kids of my own and continuing to wonder how it is I can feel so immature and so grown-up all at the same time.
David Lifton – That’s why it’s such a great theme song for Men Of A Certain Age. I get what Jack’s saying about it not being heavy enough, but it’s a shitload deeper than “Que Sera Sera.”
Dw. Dunphy – This is a difficult one because, if you ignore the backstory, the song is pretty good. All the Wilson elements are there and you can hear that chamber-pop sound forming. If you add in the backstory, then the fetid stench of Murry Wilson is all over it.
Lifton – And all those modulations…unbelievable. Even that one-bar change before the second verse showed that Wilson was thinking on a different musical level than anybody else at the time. It’s common in that situation to go the V, because it provides resolution. But Wilson went to the IV, which increases the conflict in the lyric.
#18: Jay & The Americans, “Come a Little Bit Closer” - #3 U.S.; the band’s highest charting single.
Feerick – Ah, that’s okay. I think I’ll just stay right here, thanks.
This may have been Boyce and Hart’s first hit, but it sounds like it had been sitting on the shelf for a while — like leftover Marty Robbins, to be exact. Was there really a market for this stuff in 1964? I guess so, since it hit #3. Then again, Marty Robbins was still having hits at the time, so…
Springer – I have a hard time resisting this song. I can understand the cheesiness of it, and the whitewashing of it, but the beat and the melody are sorta irresistible to me. As is that punchy horn line. We all have our weaknesses. This song is mine.
Lifton – This is a weakness of mine, too, but for different reasons. I’m a sucker for songs where the music in the verses meander for a bit and the chorus is a I-IV-V.
Dunphy – It’s not that bad, a fun little trifle that goes a bit too far in the stereotypes splash pool, but is generally less harmful than some of the songs we’ve swam through previously (Swam? Swum?).
Lifton – I never paid attention to the lyrics in the verses before now, because I only knew it as oldies-radio background music. You could say it’s the missing link between “El Paso” and “Gimme Three Steps.”
Cummings – I love a good story song, but whoever produced this single deserves a nasty bout of Montezuma’s Revenge. Sure, it hooks us with that initial burst of trumpet — letting us know we’re in “Ring of Fire” territory from the get-go — but after that, when it’s not too murky it’s too brassy, and the herky-jerky nature of the chorus (though clearly derived from a Mexican folk song I can’t put my finger on) kills the momentum from the verses. I have heard other versions of the song that fix this problem. BTW, among those who have covered this track: Trini Lopez!
#19: Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas, “Little Children” - #1 U.K., #7 U.S.; Kramer chose this as a single instead of a Lennon/McCartney composition called “One and One is Two.”
Feerick – I need a long hot shower now. With lots of soap.
Okay, okay. It’s not just the super-creepy lyrics that give me the willies — although an song wherein a raspy-voiced older dude offers a small child candy as a bribe to not “tell on me” is going to be shiver fuel regardless — but the trippy sonics make it that much worse. I can’t tell if the ack-ack guitar and those crazy snare rolls are actually played that way, or if somebody was going nuts with the slap echo, but it’s disorienting. And the tumbling piano is supposed to be jaunty, but the plodding pace, the off-kilter rhythms that never quite lock into a groove — it’s music-hall gone nightmarish.
Springer – Yes, creepy. So very creepy.
I admit to a snarky fondness for the classic “I love you, but you’re too young” trope in pop music, but this isn’t about a guy who wants a teenage girl; this guy’s speaking to a GROUP OF CHILDREN. So what’s the scenario here? He’s kissing the sister, holding her hand, then he approaches the kids under the pretense of “don’t snitch,” and the next thing you know he’s offering them candy and taking them to the movies. This guy is the most insidious pedophile ever. Plus the plodding beat, the guitars that sound almost accidental…yikes.
Dunphy – This is why I have to wonder if the record-buying public back then all conspired to make some truly awful tunes hits, for the sole purpose of jerking around future generations. Even if it was without the wrong, wrong, wrong lyrics attached, it would still be creepy. That menacing “I’m telling you…” bit should have had Kramer locked up then and there. Instead, he sells records.
They’re messing with us, I tells ya. They’re messing with us through time.
Little children, better listen to me (I’m tellin’ ya)
I’m gonna spank ya, put you ‘cross my knee
Not gonna like it, not a bit, kids
Won’t get a stiffy when I hit your bum
(Oh, maybe it’s a little fun!)
Lifton – Even most bad hit songs have something mildly redeeming about them – a performance, good production, a hook – something that justifies its existence on the charts. I can’t hear any of that here. Was the British Invasion that sweeping that anything coming from there could get massive airplay?
Cummings – I had never heard this song before today, though I’m familiar with the Lennon/McCartney tunes they turned into hits. On the scale of creepy near-pedophilia tracks, this doesn’t hold a candle to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Clair,” but it’ll serve … if you’re into that sort of thing. Somehow, this track doesn’t have quite the fizz one expects from early British Invasion. That may be because it was co-written by an American, Mort Shuman, who had just moved overseas after writing a passel of hits with Doc Pomus (“Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Viva Las Vegas,” etc., etc.). How this song fits into that legacy, I can’t figure — though Shuman’s career only got more interesting from here, as he eventually moved to France, worked with Johnny Hallyday and became a French-language singer in his own right. Not bad for a Polish-American Jew.
#20: Gale Garnett, “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” - #4 U.S., 1965 Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.
Feerick – Pleasant enough; I like the huskiness of Gale’s voice, and the sparseness of the arrangement — but that chorus comes around about twice too often for me. It might be forgivable if the verses had a little more substance, but frankly I could’ve used a little more emotional coherence; I’m leaving you on purpose, even though I really love you and I’m going to be sad about it, but at least we’ll have our memories. WTF, Gale? So why go, then? Is somebody holding a gun to your head?.
Dunphy – To that, I say: “Save tonight, to fight the break of dawn. Come tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll be gone.”
Humans are whores.
Feerick – Don’t go dragging the good name of Eagle-Eye Cherry into this. He explicitly tells us that he wishes he could stay; cos girl, you know he’s got to go, and Lord he wishes it wasn’t so. And that I can respect — forced separation from one’s beloved is a theme as old as pop music itself.
Gale never gives us a good reason, though, does she? She lays it out straight: “I’ll never love you, but I’ll stay with you one year.” DON’T DO ME ANY FUCKING FAVORS, GALE. Friends-with-benefits just doesn’t cut it.
Dunphy – Ain’t nothing good about the name Eagle-Eye. I blame him for that awful Shia LaBeouf movie even though he had nothing to do with it.
And while I’m on about things; Shia The Beef? What’s he got to be smug about?!
Feerick – I can no longer think about Shia LaBoeuf without thinking of Matt Damon in True Grit: “Mah name is La Beef. I am… a Texas Ranger.” (speaking of Glen Campbell…)
At least that character’s arrogance was clearly meant to be laughable. Shia LaBoeuf, I just don’t get. Who told *this* little nothing that he gets to be a movie star?
Springer – If you’ll never love me, and only stay for a year, maybe you should sing in the sunshine, and I’ll stay here inside, Gale. Polishing my gun.
Dunphy – I’m not as offended by this as Jack appears to be, and frankly, in the long history of male “Love ‘em and leave ‘em” tunes, one might have the knee-jerk reaction of high-fiving Gale’s pro-active boy-toy collecting. Doesn’t mean that I like the song, and I constantly picture Barbara Mandrell in high-waisted mom jeans singing this, but that’s a whole other ‘nuther.
Lifton – It’s all going harmlessly enough until the third verse. Did the writer of this think, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s do a gender reversal of ‘Shop Around.’” But while Smokey’s mom’s advice makes sense, Gale’s dad is telling her to be a slut.
This is Jason Hare’s mom’s favorite song.
Cummings – This is another of those songs whose chorus comes to mind instantly, thanks to one of those TV oldies comps from the ’70s. (I can’t decide whether it’s a good or bad thing that advertising for such comps has been relegated to late-night infomercials starring Greg Brady.) This lyric is such a tangle of non-traditional lifestyle choices, it’s a riot that it won a Grammy for “Best Traditional Folk Recording.” I’ll be your lover for one year, then move on to somebody else who wants to sing in the sunshine just like you do? (Hope she’s using the newly available birth-control pill.) Because that’s what my daddy taught me to do? (What ELSE was daddy doing as he imparted such wisdom? Presumably he told her this at an age when she could understand what he was talking about, so he must not have practiced what he preached.)
This song can be heard as a bookend to “Gentle on My Mind,” in which Glen Campbell throws his rucksack over his shoulder, walks to the door, then turns and says, “It’s been great, all these months, but I gotta move on. Hope you weren’t getting emotionally attached. I can always sleep on your sofa next time I need a booty call, right?” Then there’s “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” which is “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” without the, well, sunshine: “I’ll just use you, then I’ll set you free…” This song would have a prominent place in the dissertation I’d suddenly like to write about gender roles in pop music. BTW, among those who have covered this track: Trini Lopez!
#21: Bobby Goldsboro, “See the Funny Little Clown” - #9 U.S.; Goldsboro’s first Top 10 single.
Feerick – God, this is appalling. Obvious, simpleminded, smug, and treacly.
I just looked at Bobby Goldsboro’s official website. They guy just turned 70, but somehow he looks younger than he did in 1964. In fact, he looks younger than me. He’s obviously made a pact with the Devil.
Okay, maybe not. I still hate this song, though.
Springer – There’s only one man who is allowed to use clown metaphors in love songs, and it’s not Bobby Goldsboro. Leave it to good ol’ Bobby to not only waste the image of the “sad clown” but to make it so goddamned explicit in the lyrics that it loses any of its emotional heft.
Dunphy – Waitaminnit! This ain’t Pagliacci!!
Lifton – I so wish Scotty grew up to be a tatted-up, spikey-haired punk whose very existence scared the living shit out of Goldsboro.
Cummings – I have never understood the ubiquity of the clown metaphor in pop music. I mean, I get the sad-clown shtick, but precisely why does Goldsboro identify himself as a clown in this dour AC ballad? There’s nothing funny or clownish going on here. The metaphor works when Smokey surrounds himself with a bubbly, carnival-style flute riff, but not as Goldsboro skulks morosely toward his inevitable “revelation”: “I am that funny little clown.” No shit, Sherlock. Forget about Brian Wilson’s psychoses — I want to know what demons possessed Bobby Goldsboro to make him record maudlin dreck like this and “Honey” and “Watching Scotty Grow.” And what possessed anyone to buy the singles or request the song on the radio.
#22: Gerry & The Pacemakers, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” - #4 U.S., #6 U.K.; their fifth consecutive U.K. Top 10, and their first in the States.
Feerick – Respectable. Kind of a Tin Pan Alley sort of effort — jazzy chords, a very classic sort of verse-verse-bridge-verse structure — with some contemporary flourishes; a modified bossa beat, that trebly twang guitar. But the lyrics aren’t exactly Cole Porter: “The morning will bring joy / for every girl and boy”? Really, guys? That’s the best you could come up with. Woof.
Cummings – “Pacemakers” no doubt was meant to be an ironic band name, the “pace” being supposedly uptempo rather than doddering — but this track, like “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” was geezer-ready upon arrival. Like “Little Children,” this is another track that will surprise a novice listener looking for big-beat sounds from a British Invasion act … unless one’s first response to the phrase “British Invasion” is “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” rather than “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Gerry Marsden came by the Tin Pan Alley quality of this song honestly, at least — he apparently was as much a show-tunes guy as a rock ‘n roll guy from the beginning, and before he took to writing his own songs he and the Pacemakers had recorded “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (now the singalong anthem for Liverpool FC). It really is a lovely track, isn’t it? BTW, among those who have covered this track: Trini Lopez! (Not really — but Jose Feliciano did, as did Bob Marley!)
Dunphy – Another song I’m a bit more sympathetic toward than the rest. It’s mopey, it’s sad-sack (and when ain’t a sack sad?) but it is pretty…and they never mention the Mersey.
Lifton – Fuck you, Dunphy. I’ve taken the ferry ‘cross the Mersey, and it was magical.
Dunphy – Just because the Lucky Charms leprechaun is floating in the water don’t make the Mersey magical…just…colorful.
Springer – I feel like maybe Gerry and his Pacemakers should hook up with Gale Garnett. Then they can all sing in the sunshine and cry into the dawn. How were there not way more teen suicides in the sixties?
Dunphy – Didn’t need ‘em. That’s what Vietnam was for.