Here Comes The Night, the new Bert Berns biography by Joel Selvin, is valuable in so many ways, weaving Berns’ story into the whole ’60s pop/R&B scene in New York City, proving just how much mileage you can get from repositioning the chords of “La Bamba,” and sharing some classic rock anecdotes, such as how The Dave Clark 5 heard The Strangeloves do “Hang On Sloopy” on some shared gig and announced their intention to go back to the U.K. to cut it as a single. The guys in The Strangeloves scrambled to beat the DC5 to the market by slapping together and producing a recording session with The McCoys. And how Phil Spector botched the first recorded version of “Twist and Shout,” by The Top Notes, and Berns later took a shot at salvaging it with The Isley Brothers (who weren’t so wild about the idea of cutting a twist record).
History is so much fun.Think about what we would have been deprived of if those records by The McCoys and The Isley Brothers hadn’t been cut, the hundreds of ways just those two songs have been revisited over the past forty years. Here Comes The Night is populated by great characters — Leiber & Stoller, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Jerry Wexler — and I’ve spent quite some time with the discography, filling in gaps in my Freddie Scott and Barbara Lewis collections.
A few years ago, I wrote a post about the enduring life of a girl named Sloopy, prompted by a piece of music criticism. I thought that in honor of this new study of Berns’ drive, talent and influence, that I’d run it again. Forgive the repetition if you happened to stumble on it earlier.
Most people don’t know, I’d imagine, that Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly has dipped his toes into the waters of rock punditry, going into a critical lather about the song “Hang On Sloopy” in one of his many books:
“I simply could not get past the incredibly dumb central theme. Sloopy sounded like a dog’s name. To this day, I have never heard of a human being named Sloopy. Truly, the words of this song drove me nuts.”
Let’s examine this.
First, what possessed Mr. O’Reilly to share his thoughts re: “Hang On Sloopy” with his adoring public? Why is he so irritated, all these years later, by the fact that the singer refers to his girlfriend from the bad part of town as Sloopy? It is obviously a term of affection (the original song was called “My Girl Sloopy”), a pet name, as it were.
And what is this “central theme” of which O’Reilly speaks? Lyrically, it is a typical ’60s tale of romance overcoming economic disparity and parental disapproval, set to foolproof chord changes. Are the values expressed in the song inherently liberal? Too permissive? Is the message too defiant of society’s norms? The ‘60s were replete with tales of lovers of divergent financial circumstances — “Rag Doll,” “Down In the Boondocks” — choosing romance despite those differences.
We can assume — because O’Reilly seems like an AM-Pop kind of guy — that it’s The McCoys’ recording that rankled him, rather than the more R&B predecessor by The Vibrations or the LP track by The Yardbirds. (And we know he wasn’t buying UK LP’s by The Downliners Sect.) But The McCoys were hardly an offensive bunch of kids; there was no raunch or excessive innuendo in young Rick Derringer’s lead vocal, even in the extended version, where he waxes appreciative about the dress worn by Sloopy. He does invite Sloopy to “shake it.”
Maybe it’s the sloppy grammar (“Sloopy I don’t care what your daddy do”)? Are those the words that drove O’Reilly nuts? In which case, we have found the cultural object that made him into a lunatic.
Anyway, it’s a classic rock song, and Mr. O’Reilly is wrong about it, as he is about so, so many things. I have around fifty versions of “Hang On Sloopy” in my iTunes library, and in looking for one or two to illustrate this piece, I was frustrated by the attempt to chose. There are some nifty instrumentals (Basie, Ramsey Lewis, Quincy, The Ventures), but “Hang On Sloopy” without words sounds like a lot of other ‘60s songs with the same basic riff and rhythm (e.g., “Game of Love” by Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders). The Jan & Dean version has the virtue of the Wrecking Crew on hand, but it’s kind of tame overall. The only Motown take I know is from Supremes A Go-Go, and you might think the Hitsville musicians could nail that riff to the floor, and it turns out to be just another Motown throwaway album track.
Springsteen or Petty live? Or one of the medleys that the song’s all-purpose beat lends itself to (The Kingsmen, Iggy Pop, Sandy Nelson and Johnny Thunders all link it to “Louie Louie,” a natural mate — Louie, meet Sloopy — and John Eddie’s done it yoked to “Twist & Shout”)? No, best to leave Sloopy on her own. David Porter, of the Stax team of Hayes & Porter, does an 11-minute soul monologue on the sterling qualities of Sloopy: in his version, she does out on the dance floor in a dress fastened by safety pins, and the garment comes undone in front of everybody (I swear). The Remains and The Swingin’ Medallions are favorites in the garage-frat genre, and the session guys who played on Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, as Colonel Jubilation B. Johnson and His Mystic Knights Band, start off the song with a Tarzan yell and then tear the whole thing apart to a Salvation Army beat like “Rainy Day Women.”
I have arrived at this: A live rave-up by The Yardbirds (Jeff Beck on guitar and backing vocals) and, as a bonus cut, the record that started it all, by The Vibrations.