Sunday, January 14, 2018

the top ten best hit songs of 1967

So when I added the 'top ten' option on Patreon, I was expecting that certain years would attract more attention than others - presumably more recent, if only to flesh out other years in this decade that I've missed, or maybe years that have achieved fame or notoriety for being the best and worst in music history. And thus, I shouldn't be that surprised that a Patron chose this year of all things - after all, from about 1964 to 1969 has been considered by many music historians as a glorious age for popular music, the founding of psychedelic pop and rock, the expansion and growth of soul, the genesis of garage rock and proto-punk, and even birthing tones that would inspire funk, and 1967 was smack in the middle of it all...

And this is where I need to step in and provide some context, because for as much as all of that is true about the era, in looking at what was popular the sheen of baby boomer nostalgia begins to fade, because while 1967 was a pretty damn great year for the Hot 100 - I could easily make a top 30 of this list and still make painful cuts, I wouldn't quite qualify it as one of the all-time best - close, but not all the way there, especially if you're making a comparison to either '66 or '68. Yes, watching psychedelic rock take shape is pretty awesome and there are loads of classics here, and I was actually a little stunned how much terrific soul, jazz, and very early funk managed to slip onto the charts. But this was also the 1960s and the tropes that plagued that era - especially in its early years - are still visible. Yes, we got The Beatles and the summer of love... and all the bands jacking their sound two years late, or dumbing it down into flaccid hippie pablum. Yes, black music was producing terrific records... and white artists were nakedly ripping them off for crossover success. And of course we got the sorts of inane novelty crap and tepid pop and doo-wop leftovers that could flesh out a list of mediocre to outright awful tracks - an era where 'parody' songs or blatant throwbacks could still chart as artists fought against the rapidly changing times. Thankfully, after going through all one hundred songs that charted that year, we're focusing on the positive this time... and are subsequently facing a very new challenge. See, rock historians have been over the 1960s time and time again to canonize so many acts that if my choices buck the popular consensus - and spoilers, some of them will - or if certain songs are left off the list, there'll be folks who'll cry foul that certain 'legendary' songs are not represented. And let me make this clear: I'm not speaking for the institution of rock history, partially because I'm decades removed from ever living that history - this was music made when my parents were kids - but also because as that rock history has proven increasingly selective over the years, maybe a fresh set of eyes can recontextualize this a bit. So, as always the song has to debut on the Hot 100 in 1967, and let's get started with...

10. What's interesting about psychedelic music is that you can almost chart where it starts curdling into something much nastier, where the flower power starts transitioning into active and violent social unrest. And while in 1967 you did have the Summer of Love, if you dig a little deeper into the bands time forgot, the ugliness is just around the corner.

So it's always a little weird putting a band that I can guarantee the vast majority of you have never heard of on a list like this, especially if you know anything more about The Electric Prunes, a American psychedelic and garage rock group that hit the uneasy balance of being too experimental and weird for most listeners and yet seemed barely responsible for the hits they had. Most of the success behind this particular tune can be attributed to David Hassinger, a producer and engineer who did a ton of work with the Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and frankly a disturbing number of huge acts in the 60s and 70s. The Electric Prunes was his pet project, but despite the band's desire to experiment with weird tones and tunings, Hassinger brought in professional songwriters Nancie Mantz and Annette Tucker to provide them a decent song. And it's a damn great one too, perhaps abusing the guitar vibrato a bit too much but it played off the seedy bassline, mournful horns, and wilder vocals effectively, especially with writing to capture that surreal, intoxicating presence. Shame The Electric Prunes could never really follow it up, with most of the band leaving when at the suggestion of their manager they thought they'd get commercial success by recording two albums of religious-inspired music in 1968, and despite numerous attempts to revive things, they never were quite able to recapture this flower child nightmare. But in terms of what was to come, this acid hangover was prescient indeed.

9. And speaking of psychedelia that took an acid-tinged turn for the dark...

So when Grace Slick left her previous band The Great Society she took two songs with her to Jefferson Airplane, and they both turned out to be hits for them in 1967. And though she probably didn't know it at the time, her acerbic and fiery juxtaposition of 'Alice In Wonderland' with drug culture was just dark enough to foretell the instability that was to come. And yet for as much as 'White Rabbit' has been celebrated by music historians, it's still a little amazing how transgressive it was even at the time, not only smuggling its drug references past radio censors in the 1960s, but pointing a finger at parents and squares baffled at why anyone would use drugs even as the psychedelic foundation was in their children's stories. But even then, despite remixes that would give it a slightly more conventional structure 'White Rabbit' defies an easy rock framework: a single, extended crescendo that piles on layers of madness with its lockstep snare drums, creeping bass, lurking Spanish influences, and sly feminist subtext in the third verse, with no real hook beyond that! And yet for many this would hold up as one of the classics of the era - and for damn good reason, it really is something special.

8. So as I stated at the beginning of this list, it was an ugly truth of this era that white artists could often get away with nakedly stealing from black artists and culture - this is historical fact, there are many acclaimed artists from Elvis Presley to Led Zeppelin who have built their careers on it, and it's one of the most complicated elements of examining rock music of this era. Now for modern music critics looking back this conversation tends to get a little simpler: when many white artists stole from Motown and Stax, they did so by making the music limp, flaccid, gutless and insipid, and there was no way in hell any of that was making this list... with one exception.

Let's address the controversy first: the Spencer Davis Group was a short-lived U.K. rock group in the mid-60s comprised of the titular guy and the brothers Steve and Muff Winwood, the latter who would later go on to be a part of Traffic and Blind Faith and wind up in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. But in 1967 they were struggling for any follow-up hit and thus hit upon a bassline originally written by Homer Banks, a singer-songwriter for Stax in Memphis who would go on to write a number of hits in the 70s. Now his original song was '(Ain't That) A Lot Of Love', which would go on to be covered by everyone from Sam & Dave to The Band to Simply Red to Tom Jones - and yeah, as a soul song with big horns and a solid groove, it's pretty damn good. And yet 'Gimme Some Lovin' is a damn classic by taking that foundational groove, throwing a massive organ line on top, and ratcheting up a looser vibe, emphasized by Spencer Davis' wild vocals, the slightly quicker tempo, and more raucous backing vocals. I daresay it might even be better than the original, which always felt a tad stodgy in comparison to this desperate slapdash bit of magic... and yet even acknowledging that feels awkward, especially given this did wind up in court two years ago and they ruled in favour of the Spencer Davis Group as there was no clear evidence that they could have heard the original - which given distribution timing in the U.K. was very possible. In any case, between the hearsay and the copyright allegations and the ugly historical context of the matter, both songs remain pretty damn great, and given what made it to this list, I'm happy to put 'Gimme Some Lovin' here just the same.

7. So that was a lot of heavy stuff for a list of best hit songs, so let's transition to a lighter subject: suicide in rural America!

This is one of those tunes that never seems to get much attention among the great singer-songwriter stories of the 1960s, even despite being the third biggest song of 1967 and even inspiring a movie in 1976. And there are a lot of factors that contribute to this, most of them bullshit products of the same rock and country establishment that has canonized many of her contemporaries: Bobbie Gentry was a woman who wrote and produced all of her own material and wrote challenging songs with loaded subtext - including the song 'Fancy' that Reba McEntire would later turn into one of her best hits - and while in retrospect critics adored her work as ahead of its time, that didn't exactly help her in the era between Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell where the music industry wasn't sure how to handle her, be they in Nashville or L.A. And yet for a brief second the sparse, acoustic but strangely gorgeous 'Ode to Billie Joe' captivated America, going to #1 with its loaded questions of why Billie Joe committed suicide, and what was he and the narrator throwing off that same bridge the day before. And Gentry has smartly never given a direct answer to either of these questions, describing how the fact there isn't an answer is part of the point, instead speaking to small town nonchalance and inability to engage with grief underneath their noses in the fear of disrupting their world, even as in the final verse the world gets all the bleaker beneath them. This, for the record, does run slightly in contrast to the movie where Billie Joe's suicide was tied to his emerging homosexuality and has sparked some queer literature in its examination of gay suicides in rural America - and again, this was in the 60s and 70s, decades before 'It Gets Better!' and similar movements! And yet in the end, Bobbie Gentry has slipped out of many histories, even to the point where there was a documentary narrated by Roseanne Cash called Whatever Happened To Bobbie Gentry. Well, folks, here's my recommendation for you: go dig up Bobbie Gentry's first five records - including the one she cut with the late Glen Campbell - they're all fantastic and definitely worth your time, as is this song.

6. So as I said early on, for as much as 1967 was characterized by The Summer Of Love, it wasn't all sunshine and roses, the more turbulent undercurrents of the 60s were gaining more groundswell in music with every passing year. And the hippie congregations around the Sunset Strip in Hollywood were starting to get unruly so the city tried to impose a curfew and rename or close down a few of the clubs, which led to protests and demonstrations around Pandora's Box, a club set to be demolished. Demonstrations that led to a police crackdown that saw arrests for younger celebrities like Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, and led the house band for a nearby club Whisky A Go Go to write a little song...

The funny thing about 'For What It's Worth' is that Stephen Stills - yes, soon to be of Crosby Stills & Nash - didn't even consider this a protest song, playing off the lingering electric tones and brittle acoustic line with harmonies from a band that included a young Neil Young - it's more observational, seeing the turbulence from so many voices and the breakdown of any civilized debate, especially with a police crackdown just around the corner. And it all comes to an instantly recognizable hook with the warning heavy in the subtext - look what's going down, kids, because you're going to have to take a side. And while Stills intended it more to canonize the closure of a nightclub, to his bemusement it would become one of the most instantly recognizable protest songs of the era, not aging nearly as badly as many of its contemporaries likely because of its wary distance, a cautious warning to some but a call to arms by so many others. Buffalo Springfield may not have lasted - the band would put out three critically adored albums in three years before going on to much bigger things - but in a twisted way this song grows all the more relevant all the damn time - powerful stuff, easily earning a spot on this list.

5. So one thing I've realized about putting together this list is that the more I've seen what's been canonized by rock critics of the era, the less I've cared for it. There's going to be some critical consensus, sure - the last four songs on this list also made Rolling Stone's 500 Best Songs of All Time, as will the top four on this list - but the exclusion of this makes less and less sense with every listen. I mean, it's Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell - you can't exactly go wrong!

And the funny thing is that this wasn't even their biggest song in 1967 - 'Your Precious Love' was even bigger, and you could argue that Diana Ross would do more to make this track famous three years later with her cover than Marvin Gaye - even though he'd nab his first #1 on the Hot 100 a year later with 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine'. But I've always loved the duet version of this track more - the terrific bass groove, the swell of lush arranged strings after the first hook, the amazingly well-balanced percussion, and the interplay between Gaye and Terrell was top-notch even before the key change. And sure, it's a simple love song, but the give-and-take between both artists gave it such great magnetism it was impossible not to be sucked into the vibe between Gaye's richer soul and Terrell's raw sultriness. Sadly it was not a partnership that would last - that very year Terrell would collapse onstage and pass away from a brain tumor only a few years later at the age of twenty four, a somber event that would colour Gaye's work for the next several years including the 1971 classic album What's Going On - but for a sparkling moment, we have a classic, no matter what Rolling Stone deigns to say.

4. I've already highlighted a few forgotten artists going through this list, and this one might be one of the biggest. He was a close friend of Elvis and has been cited as an inspiration by James Brown and Michael Jackson, the latter who dedicated his Grammy win for Thriller to him. The founder of Motown Berry Gordy called him the greatest singer he'd ever heard, and four years ago his name would become a reference to my top song of 2014. A legend of the late 50s and early 60s who led the sort of tragic life that should have already been canonized on film, who may have suffered a minor career slump but was in the midst of a comeback that would result in this classic tune.

So here's something you probably don't know: I've been a fan of the late Jackie Wilson for years, the sort of underrated soul legend that deserves to be rediscovered so many times over for his huge raw vocal timbre and absolutely infectious presence, to say nothing of a stunning falsetto. And let's not mince words: he makes 'Higher And Higher' the summer classic it is, repurposed from a soul ballad into something with huge energy, a big bouncy groove, lush strings, and a terrific horns section. And it's rare you get a song elevated by the strength of the showman alone, but Jackie Wilson could do it, his presence was that potent and magnetic. And what I love about this song is that jittery sense of energy - it could have been played with more languid poise like that godawful cover from Rita Coolidge in the late 70s, but Wilson knew that to capture that butterflies in the stomach feeling of love taking you beyond your expectations, it had to be fast, tight, and yet amazingly organic all the same. A soul classic that deserves all the accolades it gets, this man deserves so much more attention!

3. So as I said, when Grace Slick left The Great Society she took two songs with her to Jefferson Airplane, and they both became hits. 'White Rabbit' was one, and this was the other.

The funny thing about 'Somebody To Love' is that I think some people missed the teeth behind it - Darby Slick wrote the track in the aftermath of a bad breakup and what he was coming to see was the undercurrent of how the free love hippie era didn't always work for everyone. That's one of the reasons why Grace Slick's furious intensity connected so damn well, the sort of psychedelic subversion that showed the human consequences beneath it, from the anger curdling below the surface to the friends disconnected to the seething rage on the verge of breaking. Hell, it's not hard to see the hook as a sarcastic taunt, because it's clear that the 'you' in this story clearly has some growing up to do before he find somebody to love and lose again. Granted, the subtext just surrounded a great goddamn song with the sharp main guitar line playing in a lot of minor tones with a terrific groove driving the fiery delivery and welcome harmonies - this is psychedelic rock that is smart enough to take this piss out of its own scene and genre, and Jefferson Airplane netted themselves another classic. 

2. So we're down to the final few songs on this list and I'm sure fans are noting a very conspicuous absence, a band that was emblematic of the 60s and that critics have characterized as one of the greatest of all time... 

Well, it's not like I disagree or something.

At this point, what is there to say about The Beatles - seriously, there are musical historians who have dedicated their entire careers to this band, they have in-depth Wikipedia articles for nearly every song, their legacy has been so thoroughly picked over that I'm genuinely not sure I could add much here. I will say I was surprised to see so few Beatles songs on the year-end Hot 100 in '67, given their dominance in pop culture, with both coming off of the Magical Mystery Tour project. But I couldn't leave 'Penny Lane' off this list - the subtle key shifts, the eclectic mix of arranged instrumentation and horns, the precocious Britishness of it all that careens wonderfully off the surrealism of the scene. Sure it's silly, but in that way that recalls the glory days of Monty Python's Flying Circus, which would get its start just two years later. And yet despite the hidden raunchiness - a 'fish & finger pie', indeed - it recalls Paul McCartney's perfect balance between the absurd and genuinely wistful, an attempt to capture the scenes of his childhood and one-up John's tribute in 'Strawberry Fields Forever', a song that would have easily made this list had it charted. But with this as one of the Beatles' best ever songs, what could have possibly been better? Well, before we get that answer, the honourable mentions, and there are a lot of them...

It's unquestioned that The Supremes were one of the biggest acts not just of the 60s but of all time, but 1967 was a turbulent year for them indeed, with this being one of the final songs recorded with Florence Ballard before she was replaced with Cindy Birdsong and Diana Ross was further emphasized as the star. Now whether that was good or necessary is a matter of historical debate - most of Motown's decisions in the 60s would fall in that category - but it doesn't make 'The Happening' any less a fantastic song. It just careens into strange territory in its composition with such casual aplomb, the horn arrangement and darker guitar line almost implying something out of a James Bond movie with the rest of instrumentation showing the exuberance in the whirlwind fling - emphasis on whirlwind! 

Neil Diamond's career fascinates me, because he was very much a figure behind the scenes for some before becoming a breakout solo artist - hell, he wrote one of the better known honourable mentions coming up on this list! This was a solo hit he just managed to scrape onto the bottom of the year-end list, the closing track to his second album that brought a much thicker country rock twang to its guitar even as it really had to play more to pop conventions of the time. And while that riff is easily why I like it so much, the lyrics deserve some scrutiny as well, as in the 60s he literally was being worked to the bone during the day and even if it is just framed as a love song, the pathos rings through regardless. Great little song, definitely overlooked in his discography, worth a listen.

Look, Frankie Valli is a bit of a tough character for me to like - his voice is an acquired taste at best and while he was incredibly successful in the 60s with the Four Seasons, the sound has not always aged well, at least for me, especially in comparison with the majority of tracks on this list. That all be said, 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You' was one of his biggest hits for a reason, with some great understated swing before transitioning into a much bigger, much more impressive arrangement with the horns, and that's before we get the key change! And yeah, at this point over fifty years later it's almost ubiquitous in pop culture... but I'm okay with that.

Look, if we're looking for a year that really put Aretha Franklin on this list, it was 1967, with this being her first #1 hit after signing to Atlantic. And it was arguably I liked the most from her this year, not just because she took Otis Redding's original composition in a more strident and fiery direction. Again, it is a track that has almost become ingrained in the bedrock of popular culture, so praising it is almost redundant, but Aretha is such a powerhouse behind the microphone, the piano-backed rhythm is terrific, I love the horn interlude that most people seem to forget, and the lyrics are a fantastic recontextualization from the original. But really, we all knew that.

I'm a lot colder on The Doors than many critics both then and now, and I'm not sure an Honourable Mention on this list is the best place to expand on why, especially considering it would involve a deep dive into their albums. And yet I get why 'Light My Fire' was so damn huge - the song that got them banned from The Ed Sullivan Show, Jim Morrison's charismatic baritone was genuinely impressive and he had the rawness when he needed it, and the single edit with that central organ riff was great. At the same time, I've heard the full version, I'm not at all crazy about the extended solos, and the writing of the song falls in a weird spot for me, not missing the emotional note but playing in a way that you might understand why the woman is hesitate to light this fire. Still, the organ line and vocal delivery is enough, at least for this list.

So this was the other big single for The Supremes recorded with Florence Ballard but released after she was replaced, and it was also the point where the group started getting weird. It was one of the first ever examples of synthesizers on a major pop record, to say nothing of soul, and those popping tones playing off the organ line and tambourine before diving more into psychedelic textures not only fits the lyrics of being trapped in the mirrored memories of one's mind, but also shows a direction for soul that really hadn't been explored much in this way, especially not in the mainstream. It wasn't a direction The Supremes would really pursue much more deeply, but for a brief moment coming out of the Summer of Love, this clicked, an oddity among their greats but worth it all the

More of you know this song because of Smash Mouth and Shrek, but if it wasn't for Neil Diamond writing the original for The Monkees - arguably one of their best songs and narrowly beating out 'Daydream Believer' for this list - you wouldn't have such a great meme now, would you? And while The Monkees never got a lot of respect... pretty much ever - and going back through their singles you can get why, between the thin vocals and cheap arrangements in an era opposite The Beatles - 'I'm A Believer' remains a standout remembered to this day.

This was the biggest song of 1967, and the story of how it got that point is utterly strange, partially linked to it being associated with a British film of the same name that may have been branded as sentimental at the time it ultimately lasted as an understated picture of race relations and an excellent lead performance from Sidney Poitier. As such, the song is kind of on the nose if you've seen the movie - and when it was used in the first season of Glee it also felt a little too direct... but at the same time the poignancy of the verses play into a tremendous hook, and I genuinely love the more brittle strings and bass that serve as its most recognizable motif. Saccharine... sure, but it earns it.

Again, more of you know this because of Tiffany's cover in 1987, but the original has a terrific bassline and plays to a rougher palette with the seedy keyboard and conspiratorial exuberance. It's markedly different that the Tiffany version - which yeah, is probably better - but when the foundation point is such a solid pop song, I'm not going to complain.

This is just an awesome soul song - great lead guitar line, sweet trumpet, and phenomenal interplay between Sam and Dave, another criminally overlooked duo in the annals of music history. And yet most people didn't recognize the political context of this song either - after the 12th Street Riots in Detroit, songwriter Isaac Hayes - yes, the guy who cowrote a disturbing number of amazing songs including the theme from Shaft and who would later be known by you all as Chef on South Park - noticed that certain buildings that hadn't been burned were marked with the word 'soul'. And through that contextualization here, he basically smuggled a black power anthem onto the radio in 1967 that became a critically acclaimed classic. Yeah.

Okay, that was a lot... what could be better?

1. At the end of the day, what was going to be #1 came down between this and 'Penny Lane', one of my all-time favourite Beatles songs. And yet it was up against what might just be one of my favourite songs of all time regardless of band, from one of my favourite groups, a song that might not have been the first breakthrough for this act but probably deserved to be. And thus...

That riff, bringing a classic rock edge that would characterize new genres of music to come. The tension that is just perfectly captured in Roger Daltrey's vocals and the overdubbed harmonies that twist in every direction. The comeuppance song in the face of cheating to rule them all, characterized by the protagonist's thousand mile stare. The percussion was dense, the grinding grooves and solo note perfect, the sort of lean, nasty rock tune that was The Who at their best, one of the heaviest tracks to ever be written at that time and may have inspired Paul McCartney to write 'Helter Skelter' in order to best it. Music writer Steven Hyden writing about Led Zeppelin coined the term 'The Sound' to describe the primal core of production mastery that ensured the music never sounded dated - well, The Who beat them to it, a classic rock classic that remains as foundational to the genre as any other song. And thus, unquestionably, it is the best hit song of 1967, and in years to follow, few would ever come close to topping it. 

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