Thursday, August 05, 2004

Crystal Blue Persuaded

I love the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I love the concept and the respectful historical rigor with which the Hall treats the music. I love that it's located in Cleveland and not in New York or Los Angeles. The problem with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that its primary criterion for induction seems to be longevity. So artists like ZZ Top, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, and Earth Wind and Fire get in mostly because they enjoyed at least 25 years of reasonably steady commercial success. Never mind that nobody can quite identify the precise nature of their lasting contribution to the art form, or that the number of other artists each of them has actually influenced can be counted on the fingers of one hand. You can argue that the enshrinement of AC/DC and the Bee Gees on the same pedestal alongside such obvious immortals as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson, and Buddy Holly diminishes the accomplishments of the immortals. Perhaps, as baseball guru Bill James once said of the Baseball Hall of Fame, not everybody should get a plaque--some people deserve statues. (Be very afraid--Britney Spears will be eligible for induction in 2025.)

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is also biased toward the serious. Every last inductee is somebody at whom serious scholarship has been directed, and while they may have made music that was at times silly or joyful, in the end, Hall induction stamps them as Serious People. "Yeah, everyone thought it was just kids' music, but dammit, we were Serious about it." And while hit singles are just fine, hit singles alone won't get you in, because hit singles don't demonstrate your Seriousness as effectively as hit albums do.

Couldn't we have a wing of the Hall for those artists who made brilliant singles, records woven into the fabric of the lives of the people who heard them, but who didn't make albums Serious enough to get on WNEW, or another of the legendary album-rock radio stations of the 1970s, whose playlists often seem to parallel the yearly induction lists? If we ever got one, the first person I'd nominate for induction is Tommy James.

Tommy James and the Shondells were considered one of the quintessential bubblegum acts of the 1960s. That we easily call them an "act" instead of a "band" or a "group" tips you that they are not Serious. It can also be hard to take a "Shondell" seriously--although why a Shondell should be less serious than, say, a "Kink," I'm not sure. And their early stuff was pretty sticky: "Hanky Panky," and "I Think We're Alone Now," to name two. But if you listen chronologically to what James was doing, it's easy to hear how he evolves. With the release of "Mony Mony" in 1968, James was actually rockin' (and his "Mony Mony" still completely stomps Billy Idol's more famous 1980s remake). And in 1969, his biggest year, he scored three straight top-10 hits that are pure hypnotic psychedelia: "Crimson and Clover," "Sweet Cherry Wine," and "Crystal Blue Persuasion." These are records you can get lost in, the kind of thing you'd keep listening to if it were jammed on for 45 minutes, Grateful Dead or Phish-style. They were records you could get stoned to--but 13-year-olds could also fall in love to 'em, thus rendering them not really Serious. I have actually heard "Draggin' the Line," the signature single of the summer of 1971, on classic-rock radio in recent years, but it's the exception that proves the rule.

Are you gonna tell me that the guy who made "Mony Mony," "Crimson and Clover," "Crystal Blue Persuasion," and "Draggin' the Line" isn't at least as worthy of pop immortality as Prince or Rod Stewart? No sale.


At 8:23 AM, Blogger jabartlett said...

One thing I just thought of: Tommy James was invited to play at Woodstock (about the time "Crystal Blue Persuasion" was a hit), but he turned it down because he thought it was a gig in some pig farmer's field, and it didn't seem worth the effort. The invitation indicates he had some rock credibility in his time--and you have to wonder if he'd appeared at Woodstock, how that might have shaped his image in the 35 years since.

At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I "rediscovered" Tommy James last summer when I checked out his greatest hits CD from the library. It was part of a project I undertook after introducing my young nephews to "Weird" Al Yankovic. (Can you imagine a better gift from an uncle than to be turned on to the under-12 set's equivalent of Elvis?) Anyway, the project was to collect the original versions of the songs "Weird Al" parodied, so that my nephews could enjoy them in context. (I may have odd ideas of what interests kids, I admit.) Now, when Al was starting off in the late '70s and early '80s, there were a number of cover versions of '60s pop songs, particularly Tommy James songs, both "Mony Mony" and "I Think We're Alone Now." So, rather than pass on these inferior Billy Idol and Bangles (?) versions, I went straight for the source. The point of the story is, when you sit down with a list of the songs "Weird Al" has parodied, you have a very interesting set of not just the biggest pop singles of the last 25 years, but the ones that represented the emerging trends, some one-hit wonders and some long-lived wonders--but mainly, I was forced to recognize that a lot of the stuff I sort of chuckle at in concept, actually turns out to be pretty solidly composed. For Pete's sake, I found a new appreciation for "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." It's just a goofy, hooky sugar high of a song.



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