Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 13
So, 1965. The year that President Johnson announced the Great Society, the year the United States sent its first combat troops in Vietnam, and the year Bob Dylan went electric. Yes, change was certainly in the air in ’65 — but it’s not as if you’d notice by listening to AM radio then. Still, there’s some top-notch tunes to be heard this year, so let’s get started!
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#1: Sonny & Cher, “I Got You Babe” - #1 U.S. and U.K.
David Lifton - I’m always torn on this song. There’s something about it that’s utterly charming and yet, it’s completely brain dead. It’s a genuine and unironic depiction of the first blossom of young love, but the fact that it was written by a 30-year old about his teenage bride is creepy.
Dw. Dunphy - A thought on “I Got You Babe” is that I’d probably like it better if it hadn’t become the de facto requirement for old people singing at weddings, anniversaries and karaoke. So many duet songs to choose from, but they’re dropping this one again.
Where’s the drunk chick version of 4 Non Blondes when you need it?
Jack Feerick – Another song ruined forever for me by UB40. Thanks, jerks!
Such an archetypal Odd Couple, these two. The 11-year age difference was not so weird, especially by today’s standards of celebrity couplehood— compare Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart (22 years), or Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones (25) — but Sonny Bono already seemed to be of a different generation. He had this intentionally backward-looking stance that made him seem even older than he was. “The Beat Goes On” emphasized the continuity and legacy of pop music, and even the nickname “Sonny” defines him in terms of heritage and ancestry. This old-fashioned duet, and the later TV variety show — it’s pure vaudeville.
I think Sonny Bono was very smart to identify and tap into that strain of nostalgia. It would grow even stronger in reaction to the counterculture’s increasing drive for a clean break from the past. It’s pretty weak tea, but you can see the appeal during his 1965-75 heyday, when it really did sometimes feel like we were on the brink of declaring Year Zero.
Jon Cummings – If you’re choosing the leadoff track for a compilation of hits from 1965, why not pick the biggest American-sung smash of the year? This is that song — three weeks at #1 — but that context is probably not the one in which most people have heard “I Got You Babe” for many years now. When I merely see the song title, I immediately think of a mid-’70s variety show featuring a pair of divorcees in outlandish outfits (one of them soon to be a gay icon and poster child for plastic-surgery mistakes, the other soon to be a Congressman skiing into a tree), and the dude with the raccoon on his lip is holding a little girl who’s eventually gonna be a man. Isn’t that about right? Still and all, I would never turn off “I Got You Babe” when it comes on oldies radio, so I guess I must like it. (I WOULD turn off the UB40 version — why oh why did they ever take to covering/destroying pop classics?)
Chris Holmes – I can’t believe we’ve gone this long talking about “I Got You Babe” without a mention of Groundhog Day. If I were Bill Murray’s character and I had to hear it every morning I’d jump in front of a bus too.
Lifton – We also haven’t discussed Cher’s performance at all, which I think is one of the more endearing qualities of the song. It sounds like she starts off nervous and gains confidence over the course of the song. If we accept the song’s premise that true love can overcome any obstacle, then her vocals are the embodiment of that.
Cummings – Very true — though, beyond the annoyance factor, it’s the perfect song to taunt Bill, who can’t seem to find a way to “get” Andie MacDowell and won’t emerge from the loop til he learns how to love the way Sonny & Cher so obviously do. It’s reason #347 why I adore Groundhog Day.
#2: Petula Clark, “Downtown” - #1 U.S., Australia, Canada, Germany, and Italy. #2 U.K.
Lifton - Is it possible to think of this song without recalling Groundskeeper Willie?
But I digress. It’s a great example of how people were already picking up on Bacharach/David’s success. I love the arrangement. It’s lush and romantic, with fantastic crescendos that swoop in on the chorus. And Clark’s idealistic vocals rise to the occasion. But the lyrics are pedestrian and downright awkward in spots. At best it’s a cabaret number that hit at the right time.
Holmes - I can’t think of “Downtown” without recalling that Seinfeld episode where George sets out on some mysterious quest for the Yankees, and he and Jerry end of dissecting the song lyrics for clues.
Dunphy - It’s a very pretty song, but it is so thin as to be virtually waif-like. Were it not for the fact that it all sounds so great, the lyrics would stand as little more than a really bad commercial jingle.
Feerick – You people are crazy. I’ve already written at length about why “Downtown” is the Greatest Record Ever Made, and rather than rehash my arguments here, I will simply state facts: Having by a magickal Act of Will helped to beat back global fascism, Petula Clark, with “Downtown,” set out to tackle the second great existential crisis of the Twentieth Century: the Plague of Loneliness. So what the fuck have you done for humanity?
Dunphy – I’ve started dieting, meaning I’m releasing at least 40% less methane into the air. I win.
Lifton – I’ve given up hope that I’ll ever reproduce.
Matt Springer – Oddly enough, that gives me hope.
Cummings – I live in the suburban sprawl of Southern California, where downtowns are a rarity — the hamlet I live in doesn’t have one. Thank goodness songwriter Tony Hatch wasn’t sitting here in Westlake Village (which didn’t exist in 1965 anyway) when he thought up this little ditty, because “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go to the strip mall” doesn’t have the same ring to it. Anyway, this is a great single, gorgeous and brilliantly sung and without a single important thing on its mind. It’s the kind of song that lets you imagine being a kid and listening to the transistor radio during that winter of ’65, when “I Feel Fine” and this and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” were back-to-back-to-back Number Ones. Must have been awesome.
#3: Jackie DeShannon, “What the World Needs Now Is Love” - #7 U.S.; a Bacharach/David joint.
Lifton - I prefer Jackie DeShannon’s own compositions to this which, along with “Close To You” are my least favorite of Bacharach/David’s big hits. I get frustrated that Hal David could write such insightful and heartbreaking lyrics while pooping these out at the same time. And the music and arrangement sounds like Bacharach on autopilot. As much as pop historians romanticize the Brill Building as this magical hit factory that helped rock grow up, I guess there could be so much pressure and competition that sometimes they had to resort to triteness to reach the Top Ten.
Dunphy - This song was forever ruined by the Jerry Lewis Telethon and, try as I may to be generous, all I can see when I hear this song is when the tote board slows up, some Las Vegas jamoke breaking out into this song as a plea for pledges. Bleagh.
Feerick – When you’re playing the kind of minimalist games that Bacharach was playing — distilling themes down to tiny musical gestures, wringing the most out of a handful of notes — you’re bound to occasionally get results that sound like kids’ songs. That being inevitable, you can either go against the grain with dark, emotionally-complex lyrics, or you can emphasize the playground melody with something faux-naïve. That’s what Hal David does here, and it’s a disaster.
The problem isn’t that it’s childish — if anything it’s not childish enough. It’s a sophisticate’s vision of innocence, and you can smell the bogus coming off it from a mile away.
Cummings – Stop apologizing for Bacharach/David! This song is crap — but it’s not that much worse than a whole lot of other simple-minded and/or oddly themed crap they wrote. I’m well-established in this series as the naysayer among those of you who lionize Bacharach’s songwriting, and as far as I’m concerned this song is sweet vindication of my viewpoint. I hate this song so much that after 30 seconds I clicked over to DeShannon’s other big US hit, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” It’s like a bookend to “What the World Needs Now,” but it’s infinitely better — uptempo, soulful, great backing vocals — and DeShannon co-wrote it herself. I’m not such a fan of her vocals on either track, though — she’s too mannered. I think the world’s still waiting for the definitive version of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” — and it’s hoping “What the World Needs Now” will just go away.
#4: The Temptations, “My Girl” - #1 U.S., the group’s first of four top singles.
Lifton - When you look at the Great American Songbook, you notice that a lot of the most durable songs are, lyrically, just lists. “You’re The Top” and “I Got Rhythm” are two of the examples off the top of my head. There’s no story arc in the lyric, just an idea that gets repeated in every line. But it’s done with such style and wit that it doesn’t matter. Smokey had to have studied those songs and understood their appeal in order to write this. And then to have everything else – the Funk Brothers, the vocals, the presentation – firing on all cylinders is just astonishing.
Dunphy - The song that made, and could have broken, the Temps. It’s impossible to separate the two, and had they been on a label that wasn’t so concerned about their welfare, they could have rode off into music history with an unfinished legacy. Berry Gordy might be many things, and several of them are negative, but he was never one to willingly let his brightest stars dim.
Feerick – The Temptations are probably my favorite Motown act. They had the most musical range, for my money, and the most consistently-interesting instrumentation. And this is as close to perfect as pop can get. That lazy opening groove, the vocals arranged for maximum contrast, the gorgeous staggered entry of the voices building to extended chords — just crushing.
Cummings – I always want to dismiss “My Girl” as being too simplistic to be great Smokey or great Motown … but it’s just so perfect in its sentiment and its arrangement. It’s irresistible! “I’ve got sooooooo much honey, the bees envy me” — is there a better-stated, more concise metaphor in pop history? And David Ruffin’s vocal is brilliant — gruff, yet sincere, and manly enough to put the theme across without turning drippy. (A feat Smokey himself couldn’t have accomplished, much less Eddie Kendricks — I’m a Ruffin guy.) One gripe, though — thanks to that dadburn medley Ruffin & Kendrick did with Hall & Oates, I can’t hear this song without automatically inserting the word “skinny” into the line, “I’ve got all the riches, darlin’/One man can claim.”
#5: Peter & Gordon, “I Go to Pieces” - #7 U.S.
Lifton - Did Peter & Gordon invent twee? Ahead of their time, I tell ya.
Dunphy - Hell, I don’t know what this is. Give me a minute to check this out on YouTube…
(Flips to YouTube, listens to the song…)
I’m back…filled with the urge to beat the crap out of Peter and Gordon. For God’s sake, you’re pop stars. Man the hell up.
Lifton - It’s strange, because I think of 1965 as being this incredible year for pop music: Dylan going electric, the major British Invasion bands coming into their own as songwriters, Motown and Stax hitting their stride. But when you take those out of the equation, you realize that there was still a lot of garbage around.
Holmes - It gets a LOT better in 1966. That’s easily my favorite year from the whole series. That said, there’s some excellent stuff to come yet for ’65.
Feerick – I’m disinclined to like this, simply because of the way they’re playing their guitars in the clip. See, I believe that everything in a song should be there for a reason. And so it drives me crazy to see two guys playing the same chords, in the same positions, with the exact same rhythm. If you’re going to make two guitars sound like one, why not just use one guitar to begin with?
The song itself is nice enough, trading in the second hand Beatles vibe of “World Without Love” for an Everly Brothers-lite kind of thing, but Proctor and Gamble aren’t the world’s most electrifying performers, and even the screaming girls seem to know it. Even the hysteria seems a little half-hearted.
Cummings – I don’t understand why you guys have such a problem with this track. I didn’t know it at all, but it’s far superior to “A World Without Love,” and has all sorts of really cool melodic touches. Especially in the chorus, which heads in (minor-key) directions you don’t expect. And if you listen to the actual single, rather than the live-for-TV version to which Chris directed us, you’ll find a very cool strings section underneath the last verse that amps up the drama. All in all, a nice example of British-Invasion recording and tunesmithing — except that it was penned by Del Shannon (which in itself is another recommendation). Interesting that this was the first Peter & Gordon single not written by Paul McCartney — and it flopped in the UK while going top-10 in the US.