We’re deep into 1964 now, and we hope you’ve been enjoying the ride so far. This latest group found the Popdose staff a little divided of opinion. Well except Bobby Vinton.
(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#11: Terry Stafford, “Suspicion” – #3 U.S.; this is Stafford’s cover of the Elvis tune from ’62.
Jon Cummings – I hope Stafford got a nice little nest egg out of this endeavor, just as I hope Joe Dowell got a chunk of change out of “Wooden Heart.” History (outside the realm of Whitburn/Bronson geeks) recalls neither of them. I do think it’s sweet, though, that this week’s tunes include both an Elvis album track and a gifted Lennon/McCartney composition. You gotta respect a cash grab like this one.
Jack Feerick – Simply not very good. ”Suspicion” was not one of Elvis’s best records to start with, and by hewing so closely to the King’s vocal stylings Stafford doesn’t really bring anything new to the party. That being said, the keyboard reminds me oddly of the Silicon Teens’ ”Red River Rock.” If only Terry Stafford had a little more wit, this could have been the first ironic techno cover, instead of a pathetic cash grab.
David Lifton – It sounds like, to use one of my favorite Justin Currie lyrics, a part-time Elvis imitator. Stafford’s got the sound of the voice down pretty good but he doesn’t even try to get inside a halfway decent Doc Pomus lyric the way Elvis did. Everything about this record – the performance, the bridge, and especially the production – is too polite. I guess it shows that, at that point, rock n’ roll had come so far that white artists could have their work watered down by less talented white artists, too.
#12: Peter & Gordon, “A World Without Love” – #1 U.S. and U.K.; the duo’s first single, this was written by Lennon/McCartney.
Cummings – And here’s Macca’s gift to girlfriend Jane Asher’s brother and his less-bespectacled duet partner. I can’t hear this song without hearing John Lennon’s voice cruelly mocking “Please, lock me awaaaaaay.” This was a clear, early hint that McCartney needed somebody to edit his stickier impulses. But that Brit-schoolboy pronunciation of “don’t” was probably, by itself, enough to send this up the charts.
Lifton – And yet, there are so many things in the music that only hint at what McCartney was capable of. As much as I love the song “That Thing You Do!,” I had always felt that some of the changes hadn’t entered rock n’ roll in the summer of 1964, when the movie took place. The use of C as a detour between F#m and B, and the E-Am instead of the more traditional E-A were a little too sophisticated to have been believably written by a rock n’ roll-loving teenager in Erie, PA. Sure enough, both of those are in here, which hit in, wait for it, the summer of 1964. So I guess now it makes sense that Jimmy would have heard this and borrowed some of its best hooks so that he could bang Liv Tyler, just like McCartney used it to land Jane Asher.
And what’s that I hear in a couple of spots? An electric 12-string guitar!
Feerick – A hideous, passive-aggressive, dysfunctional relationship of a song. The chorus sounds like a suicide note, but he keeps walking it back in the verses—”I’m okay,” he says, just unconvincingly enough to keep his girl around out of guilt and fear over what he might do if she leaves. That’s some manipulative bullshit going on, right there. Come on, pal. Shit or get off the pot. Are you gonna stay in a world without love, or aren’t you? Enough with the empty threats.—make up your goddam mind.
(Although frankly, if you’re the kind of pretentious twerp who says things like ”I know not when”—well, let me help you with that rope, okay? Stay right there; I’ll fetch a chair.)
#13: The Drifters, “Under the Boardwalk” – #4 U.S., #45 U.K.; the group’s final Top 10 U.S. single. Lead singer Rudy Lewis died of a heroin overdose the day before the recording session, so former frontman Johnny Moore was brought in to sing this.
Cummings – I always figure that this must be the most popular Drifters single among all those who became music fans after the group’s chart reign. It certainly is mine. Having grown up in the South during the era when “Beach Music” was a summertime radio staple, this was the track by the group that I heard most often by far. It’s got that great juxtaposition of deep bass and high tenor in the chorus, and it has the added attraction of being expressly about sex. Side note: My wife sings an altered version, based on a beach experience from her childhood, that replaces the line “That’s where I’ll be” with “My dad went pee.” And now you can all live with that, just as I do.
Feerick – The Drifters: Your go-to guys for the soundtrack to an urban summer. (Love that winking reference to ”Up On the Roof” in the first verse.) It’s impossible for me to write objectively about this one, so—for once—I’m not even going to try. I’m just gonna bask in the nostalgia, and maybe get me some of those hot dogs and french fries that they sell.
Lifton – I’m shocked to learn that this wasn’t a Lieber-Stoller joint because it’s got all those touches – the Latin rhythms, the strings – that defined the earlier songs they did together. But how awful and cheap was Bert Berns that he didn’t cancel the recording session for this when Rudy Lewis died the night before? “I don’t care that your lead singer overdosed on heroin last night. The musicians are already booked and they ain’t cheap! Now go in there and sing this happy song about the beach.”
#14: Mary Wells, “My Guy” – #1 U.S., #5 U.K.; written and produced by Smokey Robinson.
Cummings – I’ve always considered this the most simple-minded of the Motown hits — which is not to deny its appeal, really, but is simply to say that Smokey Robinson had already written more sophisticated hits (though not quite chart-toppers) for the Miracles, and that Marvin Gaye was already singing stuff more interesting than this by 1964. My take on early Motown has always been that it required R&B as neutered as “My Guy,” as supper-club as the Supremes, or as novelty-ish as “Fingertips” for Berry Gordy to reach his ultimate goal of getting a black-owned label to regularly reach #1 on the pop charts. I hold to that take stubbornly, despite the fact that Motown’s first #1, “Please Mr. Postman,” was none of those things (though it did fit nicely into the girl-group genre so popular in the early ’60s).
Feerick – A rollick, start to finish. The band sounds like they’re having a ball, and Mary sounds like any boy’s dream girlfriend—warm, loyal, with a friendly little throb in the voice that you can easily imagine turning passionate. Listen to that breathy growl before the fade-out. Or maybe it’s just me. I do have an active imagination.
Lifton – And there was also “Do You Love Me” and “Shop Around,” before that which were much grittier R&B. I just think it’s that Wells’ voice was ideally suited to the softer material and Gordy ran with it. Then he started sleeping with Diana Ross and kicked Wells to the curb. Growing up, I hated this song, but I’ve come around to it. Its simplicity is why it works, and yet, it’s light-years more complex than anything the Black-Eyed Peas have done.
#15: Bobby Vinton, “Mr. Lonely” – #1 U.S., Vinton’s fourth and last chart-topper.
Cummings – You know, part of me wants to dismiss this with a simple, Mad magazine-esque “Yecccchhhh!” (Wait, was it Mad or Cracked where people always said “Yeecccchhhh!”?) But then I have to account for the novelty appeal of hearing that yodel on the radio, interspersed as it was with “I Feel Fine” and “She’s Not There” … and “Ringo.” And I have to admit that, had I been 9 or 10 in 1964, I might have plunked down 79 cents to hear that yodel repeatedly. It doesn’t sit well, however, that Epic created this single merely by scratching Buddy Greco’s vocals off a 1962 recording and replacing them with Vinton’s. (I haven’t heard Greco’s version, but generally speaking he had a smoother, crooner-like tone than Vinton. I don’t know if he could pull off the yodel, though.)
Feerick – The advent of close miking allowed for crooners—guys like Bing Crosby and Sinatra, guys who didn’t have big Caruso-style pipes that would reach the back of the theatre unaided—to bring an unprecedented emotional depth to recorded music. Tiny vocal gestures—a sigh, a little growl as they reached for a note—could be amplified into a tremendous significance, and the deployment of these cues became the new state of the art, and the definition of ”good singing” changed within a generation.
Bobby Vinton learned only half of the lesson. From the earlier generation of crooners, he’s learned all the vocal tricks and effects to convey high emotion, and he won’t rest until he’s shown you EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. And he does this on EVERY. SINGLE. SONG. It’s not a coherent performance, it’s a goddam demo reel, and every moment is his Oscar moment.
Lifton – I hadn’t heard this one before, but it hit one of those familiar notes that you get when Elvis Costello was throwing in Beatles references in his earlier records. Then it hit me: Rhett Miller ripped off this song for “Lonely Holiday.” Doesn’t stop the song from sucking, though.
#16: Lesley Gore, “You Don’t Own Me” – #2 U.S.; kept out of the top spot by “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Cummings – What’s not to adore about this song — one of the most dramatic singles of the ’60s, not to mention a fucking awesome female-empowerment anthem from before such anthems were cool? I’m not sure whether the version I heard first was Gore’s or Joan Jett’s (from her solo debut album), but it hardly matters. This song spat in the face of every I-wanna-be-your-girlfriend / why-am-I-not-your-girlfriend /will-you-love-me-tomorrow trifle that preceded it — not least “It’s My Party,” which this song leaves in the dust before even reaching the first chorus.
Feerick – Lesley’s got a little nothing of a voice, but she does a nice job with a melody that sounds like a 16th Century French troubadour ballad. I like the ambiguity between the major and the minor; the Beatles weren’t the only ones exploring modal scales at the time, I guess. The desolate plunk of the xylophone is a nice touch—but wow, is that a lot of reverb; the troubadour is locked in a big echoing dungeon, I guess.
Lifton – A female-empowerment anthem written by… John Madara and David White. Score one for heteronormative patriarchy there.
- Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 3 (popdose.com)
- Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 2 (popdose.com)
- Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 10 (popdose.com)