illiterate top ten record review

December 31, 1966

My review of the top ten records in the US each week during 1966, according to Billboard. Entries new to the chart that week are in red. Chart dates are those of the original issues of Billboard.

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I'm A Believer
The Monkees
It was in the midst of this record’s chart run that the Monkees announced, to no one’s surprise, that they didn’t play on the records released under their name. They also announced, which was something of a surprise, that they thought they should. Hired as actors, suddenly they wanted to be a real band (in manufacturing terms, this might be referred to as the revolt of the product). As far as the TV show was concerned, the change was meaningless—they barely squeezed out a second season as it was. As far as their music was concerned, it marked an immediate downturn. Of the group, only Mike Nesmith, who has become one of the most lovable eccentrics in the music business, had any true talent. Worse, cut off from Don Kirshner’s roster of songwriters (Neil Diamond, Goffin-King, Barry-Greenwich, Mann and Weill, Neil Sedaka), they found it difficult to find decent pop songs, and when anyone in the group besides Nesmith tried to write, the results ran from low-mediocre (Dolenz and Tork) to awful (Jones). Say what you will about the “legitimacy” of the first two Monkees’ albums (and what’s so great about being legitimately bad, anyway?), they were full of well crafted, well performed songs like this one, and they deserved to be hits. With the exception of “Daydream Believer”, I find that impossible to say about almost everything they released post-revolt.

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Snoopy vs. The Red Baron
The Royal Guardsman
I confess, when I was 10 years old I thought this record was hilarious, and the next year, when I was 11, “Snoopy’s Christmas” was the first record I ever bought with my own money. I still find it pleasantly silly, and charming in its incompetence. It may be a cash-in, but it’s a loving one. Best joke: when the big dogfight starts, the record turns into “Louie Louie”— still one of the few pieces of fratboy humor I find funny.

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Winchester Cathedral
The New Vaudeville Band
There was a lot of pseudo-vaudeville and music hall going on in the mid-sixties. Like the nostalgia for the 60s and 70s today, artists of all persuasions, from Dorothy Provine to Country Joe MacDonald, from Thoroughly Modern Millie to Bonnie and Clyde, latched onto the 20s and 30s as a launching point, either for their entertainment careers, or for their art. No one went quite as whole hog as the British, though. It's hard to think of a rock band from the period who didn't do some music hall turn at some point in the period. Some, like the Kinks and the Rolling Stones, modernized the sounds and used it as social comment. Some, like the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, played it for laughs; some, like Paul McCartney, out of nostalgia mixed with a true love of the music. And some, of course, like Herman's Hermits or the New Vaudeville Band, did it to make money. Just like the Hermits, the New Vaudeville Band didn't actually exist—the record was the creation of songwriter Geoff Stephens, who also co-wrote The Hermits' “There's a Kind of Hush”, Tom Jones' “Daughter of Darkness”, and David Soul's “Silver Lady”, among others. There's nothing wrong with wanting to make money, but at the same time, it is almost impossible to express how hateful this record is. It reminds me of the worst of the alternative lounge music of the 90s (anybody here remember Combustible Edison?): smug, self-satisfied, superior, snobbish and condescending, with a nod and a wink to those in the audience who “get” the joke, and an implied kick in the balls to those who don't. It sold in the millions to those of a generation who took it as a sign that those young folks were finally catching on to good music, even though its pristine, sanitized, inhuman production easily marks it as an insult to the very musical values it seemed to be emulating. The New Vaudeville Band wasn't praising the music of the older generation, it was burying it.

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That's Life
Frank Sinatra
Having made number one with a watered down version of his old style, Sinatra gamely modernizes himself by trying to become Ray Charles. Not that he ever for one moment stops being Sinatra, he just toughens himself up a bit, and tries his best to sound like he’s at least once stepped into a black church, though chances are it was only in a movie. The problem is that whenever Sinatra raised his voice he tended to bellow, and when he reaches the high points here he could be leading a football cheer, or maybe working as a motivational speaker. He might well motivate you, but he wouldn’t for a second convince you that he had even an ounce of soul. For that, check out Only The Lonely, from back in the days when Sinatra really knew how to express his pain, and didn’t feel the need to shout from the rooftops to get it out.

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Sugar Town
Nancy Sinatra
If “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” is a camp masterpiece, this is a true pop masterpiece, perfectly suited to Sinatra’s voice and personality. As a paean to irresponsibility it’s almost as great as the Spoonful’s “Daydream”, with a suggestion of country “if you bother me I’ll kick your ass” attitude. Is it about LSD? I wouldn’t put it past writer/producer/all-around-odd-guy Lee Hazlewood, though I’m not sure that Nancy knew. I wonder if Frank did.

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Mellow Yellow
Donovan
There would be many more songs about the joy of taking drugs after this, but this delicious psychedelic stew—roughly equal parts “Yellow Submarine”, “Good Day Sunshine” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”—is the only one I know of that seems to be from the drug's point of view. Saying “Eat Me”, like Alice's cake, would be too obvious—and perhaps impossible, considering the altered state of the protagonist—but the message is clear enough if you pay attention. The music is so happily seductive and inviting—with Paul McCartney's whispers on the chorus providing the alluring eeriness that draws you in even deeper—that the lyrics hardly matter, anyway. All the pusher's favorite tricks are here, though: I'll help you fly higher, see deeper, make your world more colorful, your life more vivid, get you invited to all the exclusive parties where beautiful people have far more fun than you've ever had, get you laid, and turn you on to the hippest new chemicals long before the lowly commoners, who keep their dreary time below you as you soar through the multi-colored heavens, ever will. It sounded like a good idea at the time.

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Tell It Like It Is
Aaron Neville
Besides being one of the most gorgeous soul records ever made, this is also one of the most daring, stretching the boundaries of its form while never quite breaking them. It is, in basic structure, a straightforward New Orleans blues, but writer/producer Allan Toussaint fiddles with that structure in a way that guarantees the record never becomes predictable. With Neville stretching the beat in one direction, and the horns stretching it in another, while Toussaint himself, on piano, keeps the pulse, the song floats with an eerie grace that matches the free-floating, back and forth qualities of the lyric. The teetering balance between injured pride, self-doubt, and unquenchable desire that results makes this one of the truest and emotionally complicated songs of the era.

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(I Know) I'm Losing You
The Temptations
When the signature guitar riff meets the massed horns on the intro, the result is one of the most amazing sounds anyone has ever put on record, an earthquake and a thunderstorm exploding in your brain at once. This isn’t a song so much as a series of intense, rhythmically connected emotional outbursts, and in just about anyone else’s hands (except maybe Rod Stewart’s, whose version is arguably the greatest Motown cover ever—though he had to make his twice as long to get the point across) it would probably have been a disaster. But the Funk Brothers were up to anything, and Norman Whitfield’s production, which matches the instrumental texture perfectly with David Ruffin’s impassioned vocal, makes the record one deep howl of pain. Turning the solo bridge over to the horn section was a particular masterstroke. If there’s a shred of reserve left in the song by then, they tear it to pieces.

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A Place In the Sun
Stevie Wonder
All his life Stevie Wonder has been getting away with corn like this, and I always find myself wondering how he does it. It’s perfectly played, of course, but the lyrics are clichés and the background vocals are only a half-step away from Ray Conniff or Lawrence Welk—and then there’s the spoken bit. Is it the voice, which is both emotionally committed and totally charming, and the way it flows so effortlessly over the melody? Is it the melody itself, which is light and friendly without being cloying? Or is it just the simple perfection of the rhythm track? Whatever the case, for what is essentially a civil rights struggle greeting card with not much to say but a generic expression of hope, it's a pretty wonderful record.

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Good Thing
Paul Revere and the Raiders
A test: During the verses of this record (not the choruses, where guest vocalists the Beach Boys take over), close your eyes, and try to imagine that it isn’t Mark Lindsay singing, but Lou Reed. Not as hard as you thought it would be, is it? With Reed in mind, and before the Beach Boys show up, it’s almost impossible not to hear this as a Velvet Underground record. I’m not suggesting the Velvets (who had already recorded their first album by the time this came out) were influenced by the Raiders, but I am suggesting the Raiders may have been influenced by the VU. I can’t quite picture Revere or Lindsay at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, but I can see their producer/Svengali Terry Melcher there. If he ever mentioned them as an influence, I bet no one believed him. I’m not sure I believe it. But for those who imagine what it might have been like if the Velvets had hit pop radio, this is probably as close as you’ll ever get.

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