Sunday, July 3, 2016

Billboard Top Ten June 26, 1965

For this edition of the top ten I decided to go back a little further in time, inspired by a recent rewatch of The Wrecking Crew, about the LA studio musicians who played on so many of the hits of the mid-60s. They, like the Funk Brothers at Motown, were sophisticated jazz musicians slumming it in the pop music world for a paycheck. In the process they made some amazing songs, and they appear a few times on this list. And now, on with the countdown!

10. Johnny Rivers "Seventh Son"

Johnny Rivers is one of the great forgotten chart toppers of the 1960s. He's known for "Secret Agent Man" today if he's known for anything, but he had a whole load of big hits. He was known as the "King of the Covers." In this case he's doing a song by the Chicago blues great Willie Dixon. This is some raw stuff with a classic Memphis backbeat behind it. In the mid-60s, when Elvis was making godawful movies, one could even think that Rivers would be his successor.

9. Beach Boys "Help Me, Rhonda"

A year before the epochal Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson was subtly making the Beach Boys' sound more complex and interesting, and less imitative of their influences. It helped that the Wrecking Crew, including Hal Blaine on drums and Glen Campbell on guitar, were now laying down tracks. Campbell's bouncy, playful guitar line is especially memorable. During the recording the Wilson brothers' abusive father Murry's controlling ways led to a fight with Brian that is recorded for posterity. Murry stormed out, meaning that this song might be the true beginning of the Beach Boys as a more artistic enterprise.

8. Patti Page "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte"

In 1965 the schmaltz had yet to be fully banished from the pop charts. This kind of string-drenched pop vocal music would soon go the way of the Charleston and spats. That said, it's not bad for what it is.

7. The Yardbirds "For Your Love"

This song is supposedly what drove Eric Clapton out of the Yardbirds in disgust over his bandmates giving up the blues religion to cut a song worshipping at the golden calf of the pop charts. It is true, this sounds nothing like the rip-roaring music the Yardbirds had been creating. They combined an imitation of the Chicago blues with a great deal of youthful spunk and energy. This song barely has guitar, it's poppy, and a harpsichord is the dominant melodic instrument. That said, it's still a damn good song, sounding cool with its minor key notes and bongo drum beat. Now don't get me wrong, when I listen to the Yardbirds I go for barn burners like "I'm a Man" and "I Ain't Done Wrong." But here's a little secret: those are played by Jeff Beck. Clapton leaving may just have been the best thing for the Yardbirds.

6. Elvis Presley "Crying In The Chapel"

At this stage in his career Elvis was making some awful movies with even more dire music to go with them. There is perhaps no better example of how Hollywood can take a free-spirited talent and turn it into cultural Velveeta. "Crying In The Chapel" is an exception, perhaps because it was recorded five years earlier before Elvis' degradation had been complete. Elvis was always into singing ballads, much more so than up-tempo rockers. This is not a great song, but he gives it that tender feel he could provide on his good days.

5. Herman's Hermits "Wonderful World"

Herman's Hermits took the propulsive beat sound of the British Invasion and tamed it to the point that it could be acceptable to the grandmothers. The original song by Sam Cooke benefits from the pure joy in his voice and his incomparable feel. This cover is B-grade Beatles, and the weakest British Invasion track in this week's top ten.

4. Rolling Stones "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"

What can I say about this song that hasn't been said? It still sounds great, and Mick Jagger is still singing it onstage around the world. This was the point when the Stones really made their great leap forward. Instead of covering or closely imitating American blues songs, they came up with something of their own inspired by the blues but also full of teenage energy and a more unique viewpoint. This could be a song about an existential crisis, the fatuousness of consumer society, or just a horny guy tryin' to get laid. No matter how you want to interpret it, it's the song that launched a thousand garage bands.

3. Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs "Wooly Bully"

While some groups on this countdown were beginning to branch out from the rock and roll pioneered in the fifties, "Wooly Bully" emphatically sticks to the old time religion, keeping plenty of roll with the rock. It was an approach that was strong in Texas, especially among Mexican-American rockers like Sam "the Sham" Samudio. (That torch would be carried forward by Doug Sahm, both in the Sir Douglas Quintet and solo.) It sounds like a nonsense song, but man is it catchy and fun. This was a style of music that would all but be dead on the charts in two years. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk indeed.

2. Four Tops "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)"

People have long compared the records put out by Motown to the cars being produced in the label's native Detroit: products of an assembly line process. If the Temptations were Motown's Cadillac, the Four Tops were its Buick. High quality, not flashy, dependable with a smooth ride. The Tops were a study in contrasts, with Levi Stubbs' gruff, emotional voice juxtaposed with absolutely beautiful background harmonies. On this song he is not as anguished as on classics like "Bernadette" and "Baby I Need Your Loving." At the same time he still brings that patented sweat, taking rather boring love song lyrics and imbuing them with vital soulfulness. Without those qualities this would be just another silly love song.

1. The Byrds "Mr Tambourine Man"

For years I've frowned on romanticizing the 60s and everything else that smacks of Boomer nostalgia. However, I have to feel that there had to be something great about a time when a song like this was allowed to go number one. The Dylan lyrics are trippy and poetic, but I mostly notice Roger McGuinn's gorgeous 12 string guitar, ringing like the chimes of freedom. I have a theory that in terms of rock music, 1965 was the crucial year when it branched out and began to be something more than teenage dance music. This song might be the best evidence.

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