Monday, July 26, 2010

Psychobabble’s 10 Greatest Singles of 1960!

1960 is generally regarded as a rough time for Rock & Roll. Although it was the year Elvis Presley’s Army stint ended, the new recordings he made that year were not his most dynamic. Chuck Berry was beset with legal problems because of his dirty-old-man peccadilloes. Buddy Holly had died the previous year. Little Richard was in the midst of a serious Jesus addiction.

These are the clichés often trotted out to dismiss that dry period between the ‘50s’ end and the start of the British Invasion. The fact is that with the exception of Elvis, none of these hard Rockers ever dominated the charts. Featherweight jokers like Pat Boone, Debbie Reynolds, and Paul Anka were scoring massive hits during Rock & Roll’s late-‘50s golden age. That the biggest hits of 1960 were novelties like “Running Bear” and “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, pop fluff like “Teen Angel” and Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”, and saccharine pap like “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” wasn’t much different from the previous decade’s situation. And it sure doesn’t change the fact that some great records slipped out in ‘60ar. Here are ten of them…

10. “Chick A’ Roo” by Rick Wayne and the Flee-Rakkers

Like Phil Spector, producer Joe Meek— not the singers and groups he chose to record— was the star of his recordings. Unlike Spector, Meek displayed remarkably poor taste when it came to choosing singers (supposedly, many of his choices were driven by his desire to have sex with cute guys rather than a yen for genuine vocal talent). Yet Meek’s records are great because he draped them with such startling otherworldly effects that he could have made Mickey Mouse sound like Elvis. Rick Wayne was a particularly lousy singer, but “Chick A’ Roo” is a killer chunk of vinyl because of its charmingly goofy hipster lyric and some hard-driving backing from The Flee-Rakkers, who also released a couple of excellent, Meek-produced instrumentals that year, including a surf update of “Green Sleeves” called “Green Jeans”.


9. “Bye Bye Johnny” by Chuck Berry

As mentioned above, Chuck Berry was not having a great year in 1960, but that didn’t stop him from cutting a handful of very good records. None of them matched the power of his ‘50s recordings (though his mojo would return the following year with stellar stuff like “I’m Talking About You” and “Come On”). Of course, sub-par Chuck Berry still smokes most of contemporaries. “Bye Bye Johnny” is the
best of his 1960 records. Catching up with the star of his most famous hit, Berry now finds Johnny B. Goode hopping on a Greyhound to make his fortune in Hollywood. The track guns along at a steady clip, but The Stones would arguably record the definitive version with a frenzied take four years later.


8. “I’m Shakin’” by Little Willie John

Little Willie John’s biggest claim to fame is his role as the first artist to record the oft-covered standard “Fever”. “I’m Skakin’”, a sort of sequel to “Fever”, is just as good. The hip groove of the verses kicks into a lurching, saxophone stumble during the choruses while John cajoles the lyric with effortless cool. Dig the way he sings “I’m noivous” during the sixth chorus. Damn!


7. “Shakin’ All Over” by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates

This bout of shakin’ comes from the other side of the pond. “Shakin’ All Over” is often regarded as the first 100% legit British Rock & Roll record, and it was a #1 smash in Johnny Kidd’s home country. The bluesy, descending riff trips off Alan Caddy’s guitar strings with such liquid ease that several others were inspired to tackle this proto-surf rocker. The Guess Who had their first hit with it in 1965, and the plain old Who transformed it into a molten work-out on Live at Leeds five years later. But Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ original is still the most righteous.


6. “Cathy’s Clown” by The Everly Brothers

An unusual marching rhythm, a wittily bitter lyric, and The Everly’s Brothers’ seamless harmonies made “Cathy’s Clown” the duo’s biggest hit. Number one for five weeks in late spring of ’60, “Cathy’s Clown” may not seem as instantly appealing as the Everly’s more upbeat records, such as “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie”, but its odd beat and infectious hook make it harder to resist than anything else they recorded.


5. “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures

“Walk Don’t Run” was one of the key tracks in the birth of surf rock, but historical significance has nothing to do with its greatness. Pushing and pulling between a raw, descending bass riff and a heavenly, ascending lead guitar lick, “Walk Don’t Run” is as melodic as any vocal track released during its day. Bob Bogle was apparently not as accomplished a guitarist as bassist Nokie Edwars, and the two later switched instruments, but you’d never know it from his crisp playing on The Ventures’ definitive hit.


4. “Shop Around” by The Miracles

Like “Walk Don’t Run”, “Shop Around” has a lot of history swirling around it. It was the first Motown single to top Billboard’s R&B chart. It was Motown and The Miracles’ first million-seller, establishing Smokey Robinson as the artist who would lead the label into its most successful era. And as is the case with “Walk Don’t Run”, this history is all well and good, but the quality of the record accounts for its timelessness. Smokey pushes his sweet tenor into crunchy territory, shouting out a lyric about how his mom would prefer her son to sample as many women as possible before settling down. The Miracles wail their approval.


3. “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison

In the ‘50s, Roy Orbison was best known for rockers like “Ooby Dooby” and “Up Town”. His gut-wrenching ballads of the ‘60s established his legend. The first of these was not as devastating as “Crying” or “In Dreams”, but “Only the Lonely” solidified Orbison’s lonely-man persona. The rhythm is spry, but the back-up singers sigh their “Dum dum dum dumby doo wahs” in melancholy fashion, and Orbison’s voice elicits chills as it climaxes just before the final chorus. Dramatic, bittersweet, sumptuous.


2. “Finger Poppin’ Time” by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters

Hank Ballard’s “Finger Poppin’ Time” starts as if the stylus got stuck in a groove, but quickly sorts itself into a wild, exhilarating dance classic. Ballard wrote it after hanging out in an NYC bar and overhearing a young woman asking a guy for the time. The guy responded with the title phrase, and that was all the inspiration Ballard needed. There isn’t a ton of variation in the melody and the lyric is ridiculous, but goddamn it if it isn’t actually finger poppin’ time every time this record spins.


1. “New Orleans” by Gary “U.S.” Bonds

Here’s another soul shouter that transforms the ridiculous into the sublime. Gary “U.S.” Bonds’s records all sound like they were recorded at an insane party: the recording quality is rough, the musicians are all hollering at the singer, the singer is hollering back at them, the beat is hard and relentless, the raunchy saxophone sounds like a drunk barfing in the corner. “New Orleans” was Bonds’s first hit, and though he never strayed far from its formula, it’s still a stand-out in his excellent catalogue. The call-and-response intro lures the listener into the insanity that follows seductively. The sax riff is magnetic. Bonds plays M.C. like a seasoned pro. Essential for anyone who enjoys fun.

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