originally published July 27, 2013
The day after writing about someone’s horribly-botched circumcision and subsequent medical torture, I really need to punch that gearshift into a new socket and spend this gloriously overcast day in a happier, more uplifting place.
It is for this reason that we order up a shake, pull out that roll of quarters from our pocket that proves we’re not happy to see anybody, and saunter back over to the Big ol’ Box O’ Juke for another mini-binge on some of the great songs in history. Having jumped through the 70’s, the 80’s and the 90’s, I’m going to point my Flux Capacitor at the decade which produced the greatest classics-to-pap ratio in modern music history: the 1960’s.
We may as well start at the beginning, with this attractive group who were known for deeply admiring mysterious things to their immediate left. That is, of course, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and the single that smashed its bubbly Dom over the hull of Motown, christening the label and launching it into the Billboard stratosphere was called “Shop Around.”
Smokey wrote the song with Motown honcho Barry Gordy, recording a slower, bluesier version that found itself dispatched through Detroit airwaves, receiving a fairly solid response from the locals. But Gordy had his sights set on conquering the world, so one night at 3:00AM he brought the Miracles in to record the more upbeat pop number we all know. Presumably members of the Funk Brothers, the Motown house band that never received any credit from the Motown PR corps, despite their performances having truly defined the label’s signature sound, were also called in to the session.
It was the right call. Though because the internet is pure awesome, we can still hear the original version, and even watch the 45 spin around on a turntable right here.
In 1963, the Rolling Stones were aching for a hit. Their first single, “Come On”, had teased the top 20 but didn’t quite make it in. Depending on whom you ask, either the Stones themselves or their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, ran into John Lennon and Paul McCartney on the street, and invited them back to De Lane Lea Studio where the band was working. John and Paul, who’d had “I Wanna Be Your Man” on their short-list of unfinished tunes, excused themselves to the corner of the room and completed the song on the spot.
The Stones’ version made it to #12 on the British charts, and features an Elmore-James-esque reworking to fit the band’s style. The Beatles put out their own version three weeks later on their With The Beatles album. Theirs was a faster, more danceable rendition which may feature Ringo Starr’s finest vocal performance on a Beatles’ record.
Despite the song’s success, John Lennon called it a throwaway. “We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?”
In 1966, Barrett Strong was part of the Motown stable of singers, having achieved moderate success with his 1959 single “Money (That’s What I Want)”. He teamed up with Norman Whitfield and wrote a string of hits, starting with “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” But this song did not travel an easy road to reach our ears.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles recorded a version in August of 1966. Barry Gordy nixed it, saying it wasn’t strong enough. In five sessions over two months, the astounding Marvin Gaye version was captured, featuring the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and perhaps the greatest opening to any song, ever. Nope. Gordy vetoed it at the weekly quality control meeting. Whitfield – who was in charge of producing the song – tried again with Gladys Knight & The Pips. He took his inspiration from Aretha Franklin’s cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect”, and aimed to “out-funk” Aretha. He may not have done so, but he certainly reached the same plateau.
Gladys Knight’s version reached #2 on the Billboard charts, but DJs were playing the hell out of Marvin’s version, which was released on his In The Groove album later in 1967. Gordy relented and released Marvin’s as a single, then watched it land at #1. For seven weeks. Curiously, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was the first #1 song on Billboard’s R&B charts in 1968 (Gladys’s, in January), and also the last (Marvin’s, in December).
Thee Sixpence was an LA-based band desperately looking for their first hit. They tried recording a song called “Incense And Peppermints”, based on an instrumental groove by two members of the band and with lyrics supplied by John S. Carter and Tim Gilbert. Problem was, the band hated the lyrics – lead vocalist Ed King didn’t want his voice linked with that tripped-out tripe.
The solution came in the form of 16-year-old Greg Munford, a friend of the band who was hanging out in the studio. Greg sang the lead, and the song was crammed onto the B-side of a single called “The Birdman Of Alkatrash.” DJ’s preferred the weird, psychedelic flipside, and the song gained traction over the next seven months, finally landing at #1.
Why the band changed its name to Strawberry Alarm Clock, I have no idea.
Let’s get this right: the proper name of this song is “In The Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus).” The parenthetical part means “Beginning and Ending” in Latin. Yes, this is truly the height of pop music pomposity; it sounds like a post-peak LSD conversation put to bad poetry and then to music. And this obnoxious three minutes of navel-gazing was the #1 song in the country for six weeks in 1969, overlapping the moon landing and the Woodstock festival.
If you’ve never heard it, the song takes its listeners on a speculative journey through humankind’s next few millennia, teaching us all how technology may be our undoing. Deep, deep stuff. I especially like how they deviate from the formula (the first few verses start out “In the year 2525”, then 3535, 4545 and so on) and describe the years 7510 and 8510. Clearly this was only done because Dennis Zager and Richard Evans had run out of rhymes that end in ‘-ive’. Actually, they ran out after the first verse, using weak rhymes like “lies”, “eyes”, “sides” and “wife”.
The song’s one other claim to fame is that it marks the only time in pop music history that an artist was truly a one-hit wonder in both the US and UK singles charts. Their follow-up single, “Mr. Turnkey”, about a rapist who nails his wrist to the wall as a means of self-punishment, somehow didn’t climb into the collective consciousness.
With all the quality drugs on the market back then, I’m actually surprised.