I keep expecting these Billboard charts to undermine the Boomer narrative of the greatness of rock and roll, but all they ever seem to do is confirm how much square society needed rebelling against, because the vast majority of the year’s least greatest hits are painfully, painfully unhip. Al Martino’s “I Love You More and More Every Day,” for instance, layers on gobs of sappy, squeaky backup choir over his delivery that aims for Frank Sinatra and comes up closer to Barney Rubble, and Danny Williams’ “White on White” is a wedding ballad just as uncomfortably sugary in its own way. With “Diane,” The Bachelors’ painfully oversung lead vocals and painfully undersung backups ensure they’ll remain bachelors for a good long time. With “Today,” the New Christy Minstrels offer a version of the folk music revival with all the life and authenticity stripped out of it – unless the folk form they’re working in is the lullaby. Then the song’s perfect, because it can’t help but put you to sleep. Swingin’ Sammy Davis Jr. fails to swing entirely on “The Shelter of Your Arms,” hitting the low notes with the nasally inflection of Fozzie Bear. Not that all the blame can go to him, not when arranger Marty Paich backs him up with an obnoxiously repetitive thumping that proves the brain-dead simple beats of the artists on the “greatest” list aren’t so simple to get right, along with dog-whistle backup singers and thudding bells. And then there’s “Surfin’ Bird,” because while it’s brilliant for all the reasons I mentioned, it accomplishes that by being really friggin’ annoying.
5. Gerry and the Pacemakers – How Do You Do It?/Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas – Bad to Me
The power of Beatlemania was so strong in 1964 that even their castoffs could become hits. And let’s make one thing very clear: they were very, very wise to pass on these two. “Bad to Me” was a Lennon/McCartney composition that they left to Kramer; “How Do You Do It?” was brought to the band by manager Brian Epstein. When they refused, on the grounds it was “too sappy” (no argument there), Epstein foisted it off on his other Liverpool band, Gerry and the Pacemakers. In light of Gerry’s delivery, maybe a more accurate title would be “How Deeeww You Deeeewwwww It?” Given they wrote “Bad to Me,” this song must have been very sappy indeed for the Fab Four to pass on it; perhaps their real objection was the vaguely dirty (or maybe just vague) lyrics like “If I knew how you do it to me/I’d do it to you.” Or perhaps it was the obvious rhymes (or just obviousness) or lines like “You give me a feeling in my heart/Like an arrow/Passing through it/Suppose that you think you’re very smart/But won’t you tell me how do you do it?” and “How do you do what you do to me?/I’m feeling blue./Wish I knew how you do it to me/But I haven’t a clue.” Or maybe it’s just how maddeningly monotonous the whole thing is. When it’s done well, repetition is the basis for all great pop songs. When it’s done badly, you get a song like this that feels like it’s at least half the title repeated over and over with minor variations. The one the Beatles wrote themselves is, if anything, even more embarrassing (you have to wonder if they considered letting Kramer take the writing credit), the kind of simplistic nonsense that would barely score a B in a third-grade poetry class. And if the title of “Bad to Me” doesn’t already hint at a grade-appropriate grasp of vocabulary, consider the clichés about “birds in the sky,” who’d “be sad and lonely,” and “leaves in the trees” who’d “be softly sighin.’” Or the fact that they’re rhymed with “one and only,” an “left me cryin,’” matchups that are so obvious that I wouldn’t be surprised if the rhyming dictionary didn’t bother to list them. And while John and Paul knew how to hit those high notes like a hammer, Kramer’s squealing of “to meeeee!/to meeeeeee!/to meeeee!” just made me want to take a hammer to my ears (and check to make sure the record wasn’t stuck).
4. J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers – Last Kiss
This entry and the next both showcase one of the year’s most popular genres: the Dead Teenager Song. While the era’s more timeless hits celebrate teenage rebellion, these songs confirm stodgy old parents’ worst fears that they’d be sorry when it got them killed. “Last Kiss” aims to jerk tears, but the best it can hope for is laughs. Wayne Cochran’s lyrics are the biggest offender here, torturously twisting syntax to force out goofy rhymes like “The screamin’ tires, the bustin’ glass/The painful scream that I heard last” and “I kissed her our last kiss/I found the love that I knew I would miss.” And the chorus shows an outlook so childishly simplistic it’d probably get laughed out of Sunday school: “Oh, where oh where can my baby be?/The Lord took her away from me/She’s gone to heaven, so I got to be good/So I can see my baby when I leave this world.” But we can’t blame it all on Cochran – he managed to sell it despite all the silliness in his version. No, there’s plenty to go around. There’s the housefly whine of the backup singers. There’s the bizarrely cheery melody. And then there’s Wilson himself, overacting desperately to make up for the lyrics’ embarrassing lack of genuine emotion, and other times giving up and singing like he got the wrong sheet for “At the Hop.” Neither tack pays off, and when he gets to one of the biggest howlers: “Something warm ru-unning in my eyes,” he delivers it with a bizarre Buddy Holly yelp that only makes it more hilarious. Maybe this was a good lesson after all: remember kids, if you go out necking in your daddy’s car, you might be the subject of a terrible, terrible song.
3. Millie Small – My Boy Lollipop
I’ve learned in my research that Millie Small’s off-key, baby doll whine has, in fact, been unjustly maligned when it actually comes from a rich tradition in Jamaican music. I can only say that I’m sure this singing style has value. When it’s done by someone else. It’s hard to imagine that any cultural history could make Small’s delivery of “You set my heart on fiiiiire/You are my one desiiiiiire!” anything but ear-bleeding. Some historians actually consider “Lollipop” the first reggae/ska song to become an international hit, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence its reputation hasn’t lasted as long as the genre’s other pioneers. But I’m not really equipped to discuss it in those terms. What I can discuss is the lyrics, originally written by Robert Spencer for Barbie Gaye. It is, plain and simple, impossible to make the word “lollipop” sound romantic, or erotic, or anything other than phenomenally ridiculous. The Chordettes proved it, 50 Cent proved it, Lil Wayne proved it, and Millie Small certainly proved it. Still, at least none of those songs decided, like “My Boy” did, to rhyme it with the only word in the English language that’s even sillier: “My boy lollipop!(blat blat blat blat)/You make my heart go giddy-up!”
2. Barbra Streisand – People
For all its silliness, at least “My Boy Lollipop” never claims to be anything else. “People,” on the other hand, is a whole different beast: ponderous, deadly serious silliness. Everything about it, from the expansive orchestral backing, to Streisand’s slow, breathy reading, invests every syllable with meaning that it just does not have. “People who need people/are the luckiest people in the world” is exactly the kind of platitude that sounds deep until you think about it for more than two seconds. Don’t all people need other people? Doesn’t “need” imply they’re missing something? Wouldn’t it be better not to need anything? And the way it’s worded only makes it worse, abusing repetition as cruelly as any of the other songs on this list until the word “people” loses all meaning. In their inexplicably glowing review, Allmusic says “People” is “important as perhaps one of the first adult contemporary hits,” which isn’t really the compliment they seem to have intended it as. Like all adult contemporary songs, there are two things that “People” is absolutely not: adult, or contemporary.
1. Jan and Dean – Dead Man’s Curve
There is a certain baseline of mediocre competence we’ve come to expect from even the worst of major-label pop music. For instance, we expect all the singers to be on key, or at least close enough that an untrained ear like this dummy’s won’t go reaching for the tylenol. You certainly don’t expect them to hit those wrong notes at the pitch of rats screaming and clawing each other on a chalkboard. And yet here we are. Won’t come back from dead man’s cuuuuuuurrrrrrve! Like “Last Kiss,” it’s another story about how you wild young whippersnappers with your crazy hot rodding are gonna get yourselves killed one of these days, just you wait and see. But even past that migraine-inducing refrain, Jan and Dean play the material with even more hysterical melodrama than the Cavaliers, from the Ennio Morriconne horns that set the scene to the Looney Tunes sound effects of the climactic crash (repeated over the final chorus in case you were laughing too hard to hear it the first time) to the harp that transitions like a soap opera flashback to the tremblingly earnest — but still in rhyming couplets! — spoken-word interlude. The narrator doesn’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve, and you won’t either — not with your faith in pop music as an art form intact, anyway.