In which I play those 25 ‘50s singles Robert Christgau singles out in his ‘70s guide and scribble down some hey-I-was-born-in-1987 impressions:
The Big Bopper: “Chantilly Lace” (Mercury)
Framing it as if I’ve never heard the joke before, this is a pretty dynamic entity – a massive hit that’s basically just one-sided phone sex, with unselfconsciously, deliciously corny anonymous jump blues backup. The trouble with jokes is that if you hear them 109 (sez iTunes) times, you get tired of them.
The Bobbettes: “Mr. Lee” (Atlantic)
The frenzied, aggressive enthusiasm of this recording is unlike any other girl group single I’ve heard before, and its unrestrained, inexplicable delight is instantly contagious. Those little fuzzy guitar stabs are the key to its hard rock foundation. And golly gee did my brain break when I heard “I Shot Mr. Lee”.
The Cadillacs: “Speedo” (Josie)
I don’t know what these guys are like, but they sure sound friendly. A somewhat more dignified doo-wop cut because it’s not playing anything for laughs – it just is. The tenor player most definitely inspires comparisons to rusty axes, and the vocal is gorgeous sans all sentimentality. Highly professional.
The Channels: “The Closer You Are” (Whirling Disc)
A cascade of joyously lugubrious (yes it’s a thing, this is the proof) human noises, the transcendence achieved solely by the almost-not-buried falsetto work of the occasional lead vocalist. The sentiment is cookie-cutter, yet intoned with colossally moving sincerity and conviction. It bounces, glides, wobbles.
The Chantels: “Maybe” (End)
Like church – this group should’ve been called the Angels. And the unchecked enormity of the vocal is rivaled only, with its undertones of disquieting supernaturalism, by Faye Adams’ “Shake a Hand”. Why it’s there is as a context for teenage-crush turmoil, as such despair often feels as giant as this one’s.
Danny and the Juniors: “At the Hop” (ABC)
Boy are these guys white (cf. The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom). But though the vocals are too hedged, the music isn’t – that piano is ready to kill, and the boys sound possessed enough by the impending thrill that they run the risk of plowing down a wayward pedestrian on the way. Addictively silly, and beyond.
The Del Vikings: “Come Go with Me” (Dot)
Unlike the handful of these singles concerned with geography as a threat to eternal (monogamous if not matrimonial) true love, this isn’t about war or some similarly inevitable separation. This is a decidedly sunny gotta-get-out-of-this-place song, and its overt naiveté both subverts and suits the sentiment.
Bill Doggett: “Honky Tonk” (King)
A very contained, easy, steady jam, unless I guess you turn it up all the way, in which case the clapping still sounds cheesy. But that only negligibly obscures the guitar, which is exciting the way Freddie King’s is if a lot less unleashed, and the saxophone guy plays dirty enough to disguise his too-showy technique.
The Five Satins: “In the Still of the Night” (Ember)
In perfect honesty, I have to strain to hear what’s so great about this one – it makes better sense as an artifact of human self-expression, super low budget technique and all (the original basement tape?), than as a great performance or song. But like many of these, it moves you the second you buy into it.
Bobby Freeman: “Do You Wanna Dance” (Josie)
Percussion! Bit overly friendly, but Freeman isn’t – there’s a genuine and studied swagger in that vocal. The recording is all stylishly organized dynamics and hackneyed hallmark sentiment with sensual all-overtones (plus “I can go all night” undertaste); like nearly every other 50s smash, fun w/o fetters.
The Gladiolas: “Little Darlin’” (Excello)
Goofballs, but listen to the awful Diamonds remake and realize how good at it they are – how funny this is. For the most part, that involves the commitment to looseness that initially characterized (and helped immortalize) rock ‘n’ roll. The rest of it is just that these fellows are pretty hilarious fellows.
Dale Hawkins: “Suzie Q” (Checker)
This guy means business – swamp as in don’t go near the, if not Deliverance, if not Thing. But shit, cat, it cuts, it smokes, it sizzles, it does all the things you wish rock ‘n’ roll would now that you know about punk and funk. Blues genetics or no, no Nuggets artyfact is scarier, wilder or more punked-up than this.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: “I Put a Spell on You” (Okeh)
What all other rock ‘n’ roll must’ve sounded like to the opposition.
The Heartbeats: “A Thousand Miles Away” (Rama)
Life during wartime, which as depicted through teenbeat music is impossibly romantic. If its sentiments are simplistic, maybe it’s because the drafted didn’t have much of a reason/chance to worry about poetics. The “daddy” is an interesting touch, though – surely not every American everyteen’s pet name.
Ivory Joe Hunter: “Since I Met You Baby” (Atlantic)
A super-pro soul singer, the ‘Ivory’ a nomenclatural touch you don’t want to read any racism into but. The song is a pleasant, expertly handled slice of commentary on postadolescent maturity – they did that before Pet Sounds?! – similar to Jessie Belvin’s “Goodnight My Love”. Hunter sounds older, and safer.
Little Willie John: “Fever” (King)
John sounds similarly mature and practiced, but the groovy darkness isn’t burlesque – this is similar to “Speedoo”, but with the sexual conviction (and implicit prowess) of Dale and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Johnnie & Joe: “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea” (Chess)
Chess? This sounds tame – its longing doesn’t seem to equal Arlene Smith’s, the purity and urgency of its desire not as convincing as that of “In the Still of the Night”. But it’s skillful, and Johnnie’s tag is cute.
Mickey & Sylvia: “Love Is Strange” (Groove)
They sexed way more often than you or I, yet they sound like they still know how to surprise each other.
The Monotones: “Book of Love” (Argo)
This track is genuinely surreal, like a half-recalled dream – the bass drum (an overzealous giant puppy wagging its tail against a warehouse), that Mel Blancishly cartoonish bass vocal, those otherworldly harmonies…
The Penguins: “Earth Angel” (Dootone)
Proto-rock prom theme. Penguins, eh?
The Rays: “Silhouettes” (Cameo)
This one is both hilarious (lyrics) and gorgeous (music – those reeds! those cute ascendant backing vocals!), and it’s a seamless union. A significantly paranoid man deludes himself into thinking he’s watching his girlfriend cheat on him, then barges in on two strangers rockin’ it, and is so happy that one of them isn’t sweetie-pie he goes home and bones her harder than ever. Then promises marriage (obv).
Shirley & Lee: “Let the Good Times Roll” (Aladdin)
The most blatant song about fucking in this collection, and the only one that isn’t mock-lascivious (Big Bopper), real-lascivious (the Hawkinses), wry-dark (Little Willie John), or super-clingy (everything else) about it. Both parties sound young and attractive and like they’re enjoying the shit out of each other.
The Silhouettes: “Get a Job” (Ember)
My brother said this song made his brain break. The juxtaposition of what struck him as unusually contemporary content with a period in recording history that sounds its ways back into it – that’s what triggered it. I don’t hear that; I hear a jokier, raggedier “Speedoo” cousin, gag-pop by stonefaced pros.
The Teenagers: “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” (Gee)
Well this kid can certainly sing, as well as emote. Somewhere in his bibliography Christgau implies that the song was received as a gimmick-above-all-else. But many of these “kid voice” (a number of them girls in aural self-disguise) recordings come across far more passionately than a lot of the competition.
Ritchie Valens: “La Bamba” (Del-Fi)
This song is just reckless-abandon, four-on-the-floor melody-pop like I like it (I like it with hyphens) – 1, 4, 5 and a gorgeous, awesomely sung vocal hook I can’t understand a word of (“boca” is mouth, right?). The woodblock signals its primitive status, the way it does for Original Dixieland Jazz Band recordings.