When “Wild Thing” first came on the radio (The Troggs’ version, because the original by the NYC band The Wild Ones didn’t get much attention), it was a hoot, a clumsy slab of dumb-rock that sounded as though some sitcom writers were trying to parody mid-‘60s rock and roll for an episode where the teenagers go ape over a made-up post-Beatles group. It’s just funny. “Wild thing, I think you move me, but I wanna know for sure.” The carnal indecision of Reg Presley (R.I.P.), stealing a page from the leering insinuation of rockabilly cats like Gene Vincent (“Wild Thing” could have been a ’50’s track by Gene and his Blue Caps with a bit of tweaking), was a ploy, a “neg,” if you will, to get the girl to come over and hold him tight so he could ascertain whether she, in fact, moved him. (She did.) And where on other records a slashing guitar solo might fill the space between verses — imagine the same song by The Kinks with a Dave Davies flurry in the middle, or by The Yardbirds in “My Girl Sloopy” mode — there was a featured segment for an ocarina, piping along merrily, the oddest break in the musical action since the kazoo solo on Dion’s “Little Diane.” How could writer Chip Taylor not have meant the song as a joke? Maybe he did, crafting the most elemental, unfrilly rock song imaginable as an exercise in how primitive rock can be (and we can’t blame him for the ocarina: on the Wild Ones’ version — think the stupidest take on “Like A Rolling Stone” imaginable — it’s the persistent harmonica that drives the piece, including the solo), and he was quick to satirize his own composition with a comedy group called The Hardly-Worthit Players, who cut a novelty record with the song as “interpreted” by Senators Bobby Kennedy (A-side) and McKinley Dirksen (B-side).
And yet, and yet, in the spring-summer of 1966, this single (I should mention that I think it is, in its way, pretty brilliant) went to #1 on the Billboard chart, and the song, which would have been tossed on the pop scrap heap had The Troggs not decided to take a swing at it, became an essential addition to the library of must-cover rock tunes. It’s irresistible. Its basic premise inspired Tone-Loc, who didn’t take much beyond the hook, and Sam Kinison, who used it to celebrate Jessica Hahn’s implants. Chrissie Hynde (pre-Pretenders) sang it in French (“Chose Sauvage,” below), The Ventures and Manfred Mann cut it as an instrumental, which sort of defeats the purpose of the song, since without the words the almost-nothing that goes on is reduced to what is only the suggestion that the song exists at all. (Ditto the version by The Baroque Inevitable.) Two of the oddest “WT”s in my library: one by Teddy and Darrel, about whom I know nothing, but whose recording sounds like a pick-up scene at a gay bar (not that there’s anything wrong with that), one in Spanish (“Torna”) by a group called Le Pecore Nere.
In the summer of ’67, Jimi Hendrix lit into “Wild Thing” at Monterey, and I think that’s when it went from being one more semi-novelty post-British Invasion hit single to Rock Standard: it’s an amazing transformative performance, slowed down from The Troggs (you didn’t think that was possible, did you?). every suggestive phrase underlined, and the first guitar solo is a ridiculous ride, starting with a quote from “Strangers In The Night” and rocketing off from there to a piece of “Blue Moon” that’s like the “Blue Moon” lick Clapton drops into “Sunshine of Your Love.” Then a berserk second guitar extravaganza that includes “Taps,” back to the song, and some random amp-humping, and he goes off to get some lighter fluid the way a guy would go to the drawer for a condom during a make-out session, squirts more of the stuff on his guitar than is probably required, and WHOOSH!! The song doesn’t belong to The Troggs anymore.
The list of artists who have dabbled in “Wild Thing” is extensive (X did it in the baseball flick Major League, The Muppets cut it with lead vocals by Animal), and includes many of the expected classicists (Petty, Springsteen, The Runaways, Cheap Trick) who know that nothing gets an arena crowd going like the opportunity to yell “Wild Thing! You make my heart sing!” And I have a home tape where Jeff Buckley is goofing around with it on acoustic guitar, doing a Bob Dylan imitation, which sort of brings the song back to the original by The Wild Ones. But the whole “Wild Thing” thing wouldn’t have happened if Reg Presley and The Troggs hadn’t seen the hit potential in a song that had flopped, if Larry Page hadn’t come up with the nutty production, if everyone didn’t walk away after the second take. Some bands might have hung around the studio for a while trying to make it “better,” trying to sprinkle some fairy dust on it. For The Troggs, take two was good enough.