OK we’ll admit it — the first few years of AM Gold had their moments, but by and large they didn’t showcase the most scintillating music ever recorded. But we’ve hit 1964 baby, and things are about to get a lot more interesting. Well, until we get to Gene Pitney anyway.
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#1: The Supremes, “Baby Love” – #1 U.S. and U.K., straight from the Holland/Dozier/Holland team. It was also the second of five Supremes songs in a row to go to #1.
Dw. Dunphy – Now this is more like it. One of the tracks that made The Supremes stars (and I mean all of them), and listen to that backing track. I’ve gone on record with a disdain for the saxophone, but listen to that gutbucket sax in the solo.
David Lifton – Of all the big Motown acts, The Supremes are easily my least favorite. Maybe it’s because Diana Ross is so vile (the female Mike Love?), but I can only take about five or six of their hit singles. This is one of them. Her cooing voice is perfect for the lightweight material and the Funk Brothers gives the track just enough lift.
Jon Cummings – Lifton expresses my thoughts on this song very nicely. The Supremes were the epitome of Motown crossover — and, not coincidentally, the lamest of all Gordy’s major acts. So many of the songs would have been stone-cold classics no matter who sang them, but the Supremes (and particularly Ross, of course) had an unctuousness about them that has always driven me crazy. It’s as though, when she’s singing, you can hear the permanent (fake) smile that screams, “Love me, white people! LOVE ME!!! (I’m harmless!)” Still, “Baby Love” is a great tune, as were most of their big hits.
Now that I’ve complimented Lifton, I’m going to offend him with a ludicrously stretched metaphor. The Supremes were like the Yankees championship teams of the late ’90s. Each Supremes hit, like each individual Yankees player, was at least respectable if not downright admirable … yet, as world-dominating institutions, the Supremes (like the Yankees) were despicable behemoths put together via indefensible means (Gordy’s crossover-obsessed “charm school,” Steinbrenner’s felonious moneybags) with no organic right to exist.
Lifton – I’m not at all offended by your jealousy. Carry on.
Cummings – BTW, I’ve always been pretty sure that any man who roots for the Yankees is compensating for something.
Lifton – …or it could just be that I’m a native New Yorker whose father was born in the Bronx.
Cummings – Yeah, all right, I suppose that’s respectable. I can’t stop myself from following my childhood football team, the Redskins, despite every awful thing I know about the mascot, the Danny, the massive incompetence in every facet of running a franchise … I spend two minutes waiting for the ESPN ticker to show who they drafted in the first round, and the whole time I’m thinking, “Why do I care? I should HATE this team.”
Lifton – I’m a Giants fan, so the decline of the ‘Skins in the Snyder era was one of the highlights of my 15 years living in D.C. When the Giants beat them 35-0 in the game after Wellington Mara passed away, I told my friends that they’d have to wait until Poor Napoleon croaks for that to happen. They sadly agreed.
Jack Feerick – For me, this is where Motown really begins. The Smokey Robinson stuff we covered in ’62 and ’63 still had a bit of garage-band roughness to it, but by the time ”Baby Love” came around, the package was complete; it sounded slick yet forceful, propulsive but somehow effortless, heavily-arranged but with an appealing simplicity to the surfaces. And Diana Ross was the perfect singer for the new, burnished sound, cool and breezy even as she’s sobbing her guts out.
#2: The 4 Seasons, “Rag Doll” – #1 U.S., the group’s third chart-topper.
Dunphy – Even though I’m a Jersey boy, I’ve always had issues with these Jersey Boys, and “Rag Doll” is another thorn in that side. A couple weeks ago we covered “Patches,” and now we’re back to the sub-genre of “poor girls with cruel nicknames.” I just can’t sign off on it.
Lifton – One of the things I really liked about Jersey Boys was how it showed why they deserve the critical acclaim that they never got in their lifetime. This one shows the best and worst sides of them. The melody and performances are their usual high standards, but the lyrics, as Dunphy says, don’t cut it.
Cummings – Can’t stand Frankie’s voice — either his normal tenor or his falsetto — on any of these early-’60s hits. When a 4 Seasons hit comes on oldies radio, I’ll generally listen long enough to hear the (always cool) backing vocals cycle through one time, then I’ll change the station as soon as the first verse kicks in. “Rag Doll” is more tolerable than, say, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” or “Let’s Hang On,” but just barely.
Feerick – Man, that ”Be My Baby” drumbeat never gets old, does it? It’s right up there with the Bo Diddley riff, creating guaranteed instant excitement… for at least five seconds. The drop-off is usually swift and total, of course—but there’s a lot to like in ”Rag Doll.” The lyrics are kind of dopey, taking us back to the weird class politics of Dickey Lee’s awful ”Patches,” but the arrangement is well thought-out and unified. The ringing tones of the celeste and the tubular bells, the reverbed guitars and echoing voices, create a sense of vast space. Not the kind of thing I’d listen to by choice—I find Valli pretty hard to take, I admit—but I can admire what it’s tying to do.
#3: The Zombies, “She’s Not There” – #2 U.S., #12 U.K., covered by the cast of Glee in February 2011.
Dunphy – I love this song and everything about it, from Colin Blunstone’s voice to the chorus harmonies, to that cheesy, tweezy keyboard, it all just works so well together.
Lifton – To me, this is the definitive British Invasion single — as exuberant as The Beatles, as raw as The Animals, as hormonal as The Kinks. I couldn’t love this song more if it blew me and made me breakfast.
Cummings – This song is so much more sophisticated than the rest of the British Invasion stuff that was coming stateside in ’64, including the Beatles’ early hits. The Zombies and the Animals certainly cornered the market on maturity this early in the game.
As for Lifton and “I couldn’t love this song more if it blew me and made me breakfast” — so what you’re saying is that you’d like to put your spindle through the Zombies’ 45?
Lifton – Maybe yours is small enough to fit, but not mine.
Cummings – (pauses while the entire Popdose readership pulls out a 45 and performs a self-test…)
Feerick – It’s amazing how much this record does in less than two-and-a-half-minutes—not just Rod Argent essentially creating the role of the modern rock keyboardist (although that would be enough), but all the distinct sections of the melody, the way that Colin Blunstone’s voice moves from a depressive murmur to a frantic falsetto and back again, those barely-controlled backing vocals—and all with that trademark mysterious, vaguely sinister vibe. It’s remarkably sophisticated stuff, proof (if more proof were needed) that the Zombies were streets ahead of almost all of their British Invasion contemporaries.
#4: Gene Pitney, “I’m Gonna Be Strong” – #9 U.S., #3 U.K., written by Mann/Weil.
Dunphy – Time has not been kind to Gene Pitney. Everyone remembers that one song (“Town Without Pity”) and forgets the rest, and “I’m Gonna Be Strong” sure doesn’t make much of a case for redemption.
Gene Pitney: the Basia of the Sixties?
Lifton – Eh, it’s not that bad, although the ending is overblown. They were clearly going for the Roy Orbison thing and it missed the mark, but the moment when the harmony comes in is pretty affecting.
Cummings – Pitney’s over-dramatics work for me here, right up until that last verse, which is just ridiculous. What’s up with the fade-out just as he’s hitting the last big note? Couldn’t he hit it? Anyway, with the perspective of 50 years (and the knowledge that this was Gene’s last top-10 hit), the lyric reads to me like a resigned farewell to the legions of fans who were abandoning the overblown male vocalists of the early ’60s in favor of the British Invasion groups. “I can see you’re slipping away from me,” indeed.
Feerick – Hokey, sure, and Pitney’s play-acting is transparent. But I love the constantly mounting melodrama, the way he’s structured the tune as a showcase for his voice, demonstrating his various ranges and emotional effects, from the grainy low end to those gloriously overblown Pagliacci bits at the end. More than anything, it’s an immensely likeable record, just as Queen (who later mined similar territories of silliness and bombast) came off as likeable.
#5: Little Anthony & The Imperials, “Goin’ Out of My Head” – #6 U.S. Hot 100 and U.S. R&B
Dunphy – And we go from the melodrama of Gene Pitney to the melodrama of Little Anthony, but it works for him. Call that hypocrisy, but the big, orchestral backdrop of this song demands the drama and he delivers.
Lifton – It helps that it’s a much better song with an internal drama that demands the crescendo. For years I had figured this was Bacharach, and then that box set came out and it wasn’t on it.
Cummings – This is a tremendous song, easily as good as — and, agreeing with Lifton again, very similar to — what Bacharach & David were doing at this point. The Imperials were fortunate to have friends as good (and talented) as Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein to feed them songs like this and “Hurt So Bad” during this period, as it had been six years since “Tears on My Pillow” topped the charts.
Feerick – Interesting as an example of the adoption of influence. No success happens in a vacuum, of course, and by this point the Bacharach/David/Warwick axis had already had enough hits that other songwriters were starting to notice—and to cop what they could. Add in the Motown-style arrangement and production, and no wonder it was a hit.
- Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 1 (popdose.com)
- Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 6 (popdose.com)
- Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 7 (popdose.com)
- Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 8 (popdose.com)