Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Beat Goes On, Part XII.

090. The Ad Libs “The Boy from New York City”
(Georgie Davis/John Taylor)
Available on Girl Group Greats

Boasting one of the most recognizable and catchy-to-the-point-of-insanity vocal hooks (“ooh-ah, ooh-ah, cool cool kitty”) of the rock & roll era, this song is unusual in that it’s normally categorized as a girl-group hit, when in fact the group was mostly male. The guys wrote the song, produced the record, and played the instruments, which makes them more of a Real Band than a girl group. Still, it’s an irrepressibly giddy song, riding turbo-charged doo-wop to a series of soulful climaxes as the overpoweringly female lead singer Mary Ann Thomas ennumerates the superior qualities of the titular blue-state boy. She even gets incoherent at times, but hey, it’s young love.

089. The Doors “Hello, I Love You”
(John Densmore/Robbie Krieger/Ray Manzarek/Jim Morrison)
Available on Waiting for the Sun

One of the better pop songs of the decade (you can almost hear the Monkees covering it), “Hello, I Love You” is often despised by hardcore Doors fans, who prefer soggily epic pieces of crap like “The Crystal Ship” or “The End.” But the electric-harpsichord riff is indelible and the lyrics uncharacteristically sweet and organic, rather than pompous, preening, and forced. There’s a mechanical churn to the rhythm section that’s not unlike Krautrock, but Morrison puts his humorless bellow to good use for once, bringing some blue-eyed soul to the proto-new wave goosestep of the music. The world would be a better place if this was the song everyone thought of when they thought of the Doors.

088. The Kinks “All Day and All of the Night”
(Ray Davies)
Available on Well-Respected Kinks

They pulled off a notoriously difficult trick here: following up an epoch-making debut single that changed all the rules of the pop game with another that was cut from the same cloth but didn’t feel like a mere tired retread. Yes, it’s got the same basic rhythm as “You Really Got Me,” very nearly the same riff, and the lyrics could just about be scraps left over from the first song. But they’ve stepped up their game, too: note the rock-solid whomp of the rhythm section, the extended range of Dave’s guitar solo, and Ray’s increasingly sophisticated phrasing. Which isn’t to say this isn’t some of the most gloriously lunkheaded rock & roll ever recorded, an inspiration to the Stooges, the Ramones, and garage bands everywhere. Noise as pop: they invented it.

087. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles “I Second That Emotion”
(William “Smokey” Robinson/Al Clevland)
Available on The Ultimate Collection

Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson America’s greatest living poet. This song makes a good case. It’s perfectly crafted and shot through with the witty wordplay that traditional popcraft has always relied on, whether in Tin Pan Alley, Music Row, the Brill Building, or the Motor City. But Smokey’s gorgeous, honeyed voice adds an extra dimension unavailable to the average poet; he’s almost alone in being able to wring humor out of a lyric in a voice that sounds on the verge of tears. The originator, always the best: from Michael Jackson to Sisqo, no high-singing male black singer has been able to match Smokey’s nuanced narrative ability; and I’m not even talking about his writing.

086. The Association “Along Comes Mary”
(Tandyn Almer)
Available on The Association’s Greatest Hits

They like to tell a story about singing at some kind of public area, like an amusement park or something, and being accosted by a bunch of nuns who were very eager to thank them for sending “that beautiful song about our Holy Mother” to the top of the charts. Meanwhile, some radio stations were banning the song, believing the Mary in question was more of an illicit substance. (That assumption would presumably be why the Bloodhound Gang covered it.) Really, it was just a Dylan-inspired mindfuck, the airiest and most fun song by a group who specialized in almost nothing but airy and fun. Six wholesome voices can too easily sound like a glee club: to their (and producer Curt Boettcher’s credit), they sounded like an actual band.

085. Gene Pitney “Town Without Pity”
(Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington)
Available on Looking Through: The Ultimate Collection

A lot of attention is given to the high drama of the girl group sound — and Lord knows, no one really does a sobbing, anguished “parents just don’t understand” better than hormonal teenage girls — but the male contribution to the genre shouldn’t be overlooked. Pitney, of course, was pretty enough to be a girl, and young enough to sell the hormonal-teenager act convincingly, but it took a couple of professional drama queens (a Russian-born Hollywood composer and a Broadway/Hollywood lyricist) to turn out the finest song in his quavering catalogue. The overproduction is thrilling, Pitney chews the lyric properly without letting it turn into camp, and if ultimately you’re unconvinced that such a tight-assed town ever existed, at least you’ve felt his hormonal pain.

084. Mott the Hoople “Rock & Roll Queen”
(Mick Ralphs)
Available on Mott the Hoople

This is way before they hooked up with David Bowie and became glam icons; here, they’re bashing out your basic 70s hard rock, a year or two before schedule. With a Stones groove and a Who din, Mott the Hoople tear through their first classic song like a hungry young band with something to prove, which is what they were (and which, really, they never stopped being). It anticipates the New York Dolls in its cockeyed thrust, it even sounds a bit like the Sex Pistols in places. It has an extended instrumental section, but they weren’t good enough at their instruments to really jam: it’s more like amphetamined funk, riding the groove harder and harder until they achieve a kind of escape velocity. Oh, yeah, and Ian Hunter sounds like the Shropshire Bob Dylan.

083. The Holy Modal Rounders “Cocaine Blues”
(Luke Jordan)
Available on Indian War Whoop

Not the hell-raising ditty that Johnny Cash sang at Folsom Prison, this is instead an old blues song, part of what would have been called folk music in the 60s. But unlike Pete Seeger or Dave Van Ronk, the Rounders don’t have a bit of reverence for the material, and their untrained racket raises its own kind of hell, resembling Luke Jordan’s death-chant “original” only insofar as necessary to evoke the entire spectrum of maniacally-grinning, fevered, demon-possessed, entirely unsafe-for-children music that tweedy liberals called “folk.” But the church folk were right: the blues was the devil’s music, and would lead you down the path of destruction. This song is the record of the good times had in the meanwhile.

082. Elvis Presley “Can’t Help Falling in Love”
(Luigi Creatore/Hugo Peretti/George David Weiss)
Available on Blue Hawaii

Imagine he’d never done anything else, had never “invented” rock & roll (or stolen it from black people, whichever), had never gone commercial with RCA, had never joined the Army, gone Hollywood, and pussied out. Imagine he never had a late 60s comeback, never got old and fat and sweaty and dead, never was subject to the most bizarre posthumous fetishization in American pop-culture history. Imagine this was a one-hit wonder and this Elvis Aaron fellow lost to history. Maybe we’d be able to hear it better for what it is: an Italian-bistro song dressed up in touristy Hawaiian togs, sung by a guy whose low moaning voice conveys depths of who knows what unnamable sins, a classic of devotion, adoration, and just that hint of weirdness that makes it truly American. The aging couples who slow dance to this song are right: this is the Elvis that matters.

081. William Bell “You Don’t Miss Your Water”
(William Bell)
Available on The Soul of a Bell

The song has gone down as one of the great interpretive showcases of American music, 1950-1980, sung by blues, country, soul, jazz, pop, reggae, and rock singers from one end of the earth to another. But the singer/songwriter is nearly forgotten: one of the earliest soul singers to follow the lead of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, stirring a Southern, country-flecked strain into the mixture, slowing the tempo down almost to a lurch, so that the voice is always straining to get ahead of the beat, having to slow down and wait for the music to catch up; if you were so inclined, you could say that baby-making music, in the sense we know it today, began here. Except that it’s not really a celebration of romantic love: it’s a stoic, ruminative lesson on the effects of extinguished love. Yeah.

Next: 080-071. >>


Anonymous said...

JB said, The world would be a better place if this was the song everyone thought of when they thought of the Doors.

Let me amend that, if you will:

The world would be a better place if no one thought of the Doors.

JB also said, "...“Hello, I Love You” is often despised by hardcore Doors fans, who prefer soggily epic pieces of crap like “The Crystal Ship” or “The End.” "

...but what about those robotically, march-step pop pieces of crap?

Anonymous said...

Isn't the correct title of the Mott the Hoople song, "Rock and Roll Queen"?

Jonathan Bogart said...

Why, what did I write?


Oh, geeze. I'll correct it immediately.