13 March 2023

Why wasn't this a hit?

This is often asked by astounded commenters at YouTube. (See my earlier post When oldies stream the oldies.)

Somebody has discovered an amazing song from the past that they missed in their youth. It's so good: why wasn't it all over the radio and racing up to the top of the charts? YouTube comments on Gwen Stacey's excellent Ain't Gonna Cry No More (1964) include Superb! Why wasn't this record huge? and Great song. This should have been a hitYouTube

It could be down to how well a song was marketed (it's the music business1), or the quirks of radio programmers in your hometown at the time. 

Often, though, it's to do with experiencing new music as it emerged, as it was heard at that point in musical history. 

I love listening to newly-discovered oldies, but I'm listening to them out of historical context. One of my favourite non-hits, Margaret Mandolph's If You Ever Need Me, was released in December 1964. It was surrounded by a unique collection of current songs, and it followed whatever music was available to listeners up to that point.

When I enthusiastically commented on If You Ever Need Me at YouTube in 2022, I had heard it after listening to thousands of songs in countless genres over several decades, songs that were unimaginable when it was released. 

I have no idea how I would have reacted to it if I'd heard it in December 1964. It's like tasting a wine when your palate has been prepared by different foods.

I tried to find some clues in the songs that were in or around Billboard's Top 20 in the month If You Ever Need Me was released. 

British Invaders
• The Zombies - She's Not There:
This innovative British record entered the Billboard chart in November 1964, only 10 months after the Beatles' first US hit. A lot had changed since then.
• The Beatles - I Feel Fine and She's A Woman:
I suspect that just the opening of I Feel Fine would have sounded unusual a year earlier when such Beatles songs as I Want To Hold Your Hand were taking off.
• The Kinks - You Really Got Me:
Again, would this new sound have made #7 at Billboard a year earlier, or would it have just sounded weird?
• On Billboard's Hot 100 for 28 Dec 1963 there was one British act in the Top 20 (The Caravelles - You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry). A year later, 26 Dec 1964, there were nine. So, 5% British to 45% British in 12 months.

Brits doing American songs
• The Rolling Stones Time Is On My Side and
• The Searchers - Love Potion Number 9:
The Stones took Time On My Side to #6 USA, but earlier US versions by Kai Winding (1963: the original) and Irma Thomas (a July 1964 B-side) never charted. The Clovers' original of Love Potion Number Nine (1959) charted #29 Billboard, The Searchers' version got to #3.

American groups
• The Beach Boys - Dance, Dance Dance
• Little Anthony & The Imperials - Goin' Out Of My Head
• The Larks - The Jerk: 
Soul-r&b dance track.
• The Impressions - Amen:
Written by Jerry Goldsmith for a film, Lilies of the Field

• The Supremes - Come See About Me and
• The Shangri-Las - Leader Of The Pack:
Both of these reflect a development from the pre-Beatles girl-group soundsThings were moving on quickly at this stage.
• Marianne Faithful - As Tears Go By
Sedate but up-to-date Rolling Stones cover.

 Gene Pitney - I'm Gonna Be Strong and
• Bobby Vinton - Mr Lonely:
Pitney and Vinton resisting the British wave. Pitney managed to stay hip, helped along by his association with Andrew Loog-Oldham and The Rolling StonesVinton's Mr Lonely was a #1 hit, and he would keep having hits into the mid-70s. § The aforementioned Beach Boys not only survived, they thrived, and became much more than, well, beach boys. And Little Anthony & The Imperials had their first Top 5 hit in 1958 and two in the Top 10 1964-65.

• Julie Rogers - The Wedding and
 Robert Goulet - My Love Forgive Me:
It's easy to forget that there were always middle-of-the-road tracks on the charts of the 60s. I'm assuming they weren't put there by teenage pop fans.

• Lorne Greene - Ringo:
The charts often included such curiosities as this Western-themed record, spoken by Lorne Greene over an instrumental and vocal track. The title didn't hurt, even though it has nothing to do with the Beatles.

Make of it all what you will! It's what the musical palate of December 1964 was savouring. 

At this distance it is hard for me to imagine If You Ever Need Me being introduced into this mix. 

As much as I love the song, I hear it as a continuation of the female pop sounds of 1962-63, the era of The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Chiffons, The Murmaids, The Raindrops and Lesley Gore. Fine by me, sitting up here in the 2020s when an overlooked, sophisticated development of the genre is like a gift. But in December 1964 it might have sounded too much like an echo of the past. In pop music, twelve months can be a long time ago. 

Really, we will never know. You had to be there.

1. Al Hazan recalls producing a record by vanity artist Dora Hall, paid for by her wealthy husband: as far as I was concerned, her husband had hired me to do a job and I was doing it. That’s why it’s called the music business.

 • Anthony Reichardt's YouTube playlists.
 • Billboard Hot 100, 26 December 1964 and 28 December 1963.

Margaret Mandolph - If You Ever Need Me

The Zombies - She's Not There

The Beatles - I Feel Fine

The Supremes - Come See About Me

The Searchers - Love Potion Number Nine (UK 1964)

The Clovers - Love Potion No. 9 (USA 1959)

New old music

It's great to find old favourites on streaming services, but even better is finding old songs you never knew about. 

In recent years I've discovered numerous tracks that I never heard of as a teenager. They might have been on obscure labels, or never issued in Australia. Australian radio might have ignored them, as they did with Archie Bell & The Drells' Tighten Up (1968): #1 in the US, nowhere down here. They might even have remained unreleased until some enthusiast got hold of tape or an acetate.  

Spotify and Apple Music do well here, but YouTube is an essential source for tracks that haven't been reissued, along with the occasional track that never was released. 

Pop music is always hit and miss, so you have to dig around for the gems, but when I find a track like Margaret Mandolph's If You Ever Need Me (1964), the excitement is equal to when I first heard a classic song on the radio, back in its day. Just as I might have done in 1964, I played it over and over and it was on my mind for days. I was surprised to find that this was written and produced (and probably arranged) by David Gates, who also owned the label. 

Gates was later famous in the 1970s through the trio Bread, but at this time he was turning out meticulously produced pop singles like this. His only hit in this era was with his composition Popsicles And Icicles, a 1963 #3 single by The Murmaids, produced by Kim Fowley. Margaret Mandolph recorded the demo for Gates.

If You Ever Need Me is just one track I found among the playlists of Anthony Reichardt, a good example of the serious collectors posting tracks to YouTube. In his own words, he posts mostly obscure tracks between the years of 1959 to 1969 with an emphasis on the middle of the decade and many in the style of Phil Spector's 'Wall Of Sound. Say no more, this places me squarely in the target audience.

 • Anthony Reichardt, record collector: his YouTube playlists and an interview at Cue Castinets.

Margaret Mandolph - If You Ever Need Me, posted by Anthony Reichardt.

Bonus track: 

Gwen Stacey - Ain't Gonna Cry No More (1964): written and arranged (but not produced) by David Gates. Another lost gem resurfacing on YouTube.

10 March 2023

When oldies stream the oldies

oldie [Macquarie Dictionary]
• someone regarded as old by the speaker...
• something old, especially a popular song 

1. Real music: are we there yet? 
You can listen to a lot of oldies at YouTube now, and they attract a lot of comments from oldies.

Some YouTube commenters of my generation can't celebrate the music of their youth without adding that, by contrast, artists these days can't sing, can't play, and don't know how to write songs. (Oh, and they are not as well groomed. Probably not a musical issue.) 

Of course it's not true: the sounds are different, but every generation has its geniuses and their mediocre imitators. It's doubtful whether the commenters have actually listened to much current music, which I admit is now dizzyingly fragmented and does take some effort to get a handle on. The days are long gone when "current music" pretty much meant the few songs that were being played on the radio this week.

In any case, it sounds too much like reactions from our parents' generation to rock'n'roll (to take one inter-generational scenario). 

In 1964 a feature writer sums up the Beatles with This badly-in-need-of-a-haircut group can't sing.....period [link; my hyphens]. These are from 1965: a music publisher complains that  lyrics this day and age are appalling and are rendered by so called singers with so called voices.... [link], and a columnist hopes for a revival of big band music for those of us who still enjoy dancing to real music... [link].

At YouTube today you will see the phrase real music used to boost the music of the past. A comment addressed to youngsters advises them that a 1974 Billy Preston track is real music.

Daily Telegraph (UK) 1904 [link]
This concept of real music goes back at least as far as 1910. A show is recommended by the Sioux City
Journal because it will feature not ragtime nor "popular" music but real music [link]. My impression is that some uses of real music c.1910 mean live performance as opposed to recorded music, at that stage still relatively new-fangled but gaining popularity.


2. When too much is barely enough.
You'll see comments under an old song at YouTube where the user "misses" the music of their youth. They pine for the 60s when the music was great. They want to go to back to the 70s just so they can hear all these great songs. 

It would too clever of me to point out that they have just listened to one of those great songs, right there at YouTube. They can repeat the track or save it for later, or browse thousands of others. How could they be missing it? 

Through streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, as well as YouTube, we can now access mountains of recorded music from any time in the history of the recording industry. Blimey, here's Billy Murray from 1911, off an Edison cylinder: Spotify

It's true that Spotify and Apple Music don't stream unreleased material or tracks that have never been reissued. 

Luckily though, YouTube has gone beyond its remit of being a video site to become a repository of music so vast that you seem to be able to find almost any track you can think of. 

This has happened partly because many serious record collectors have posted their collections to YouTube, often with just a still photo of the 45 on the video screen. 

If you want to avoid the ads, and the amateurish slideshows and animations that accompany many songs, you can upgrade and listen on the Spotify-styled YouTube Music app. 

British Invasion cloud at Every Noise
At streaming services like Spotify it's not all current pop hits and 1960s oldies. I've rarely been disappointed when I've searched for tracks from any decade in any genre: try jazz, classical, folk, bluegrass, swing, blues, or hillbilly. 

If you're short of genres, you could take a peek at the clouds of over 6,000 of them at Every Noise At Once, each with a link to a Spotify playlist. Japanese chill rap? No problem, and here's the playlist, with links to 15 related playlists including Guatemalan pop and Malaysian Hip Hop.

At this point, I'm starting to sympathise with the YouTube commenters. Part of me does miss switching on a Top 40 radio station deep in the 60s and listening to whatever they played, song after song, without any choices apart from twiddling the dial across to a rival station.


3. You mean there never was a golden era?
Years ago I wrote to Graham Evans at the ABC's Saturday night radio show Sentimental Journey. I posted a letter, in an envelope with a stamp: it was 1983. I was looking for the name of a 1930s song I'd heard. (It was Bunny Berigan - I Can't Get Started, which shows how little I knew at that stage.)

I also commented on the surprisingly high quality of music that he was playing from the 30s. When Evans wrote back with the name of the song, he surprised me by adding that there was plenty of bad music in the pre-WW2 era, and he was selecting the cream of it for his program. So my impression of a golden age was flawed, and I admired his candour.

When it comes to the music of our youth, we curate our listening so that we select our idea of the best of the era. We forget the sentimental balladry and corny novelties that sat side-by-side with the some of the grooviest songs in history.

There were second rate and third rate artists in our youth just as there are now. Try listening to an album by some of our idols from the 60s that had one or two hits filled out with mediocre copycat compositions, or pedestrian covers of other people's hits.

I'm sure that in Bach's or Mozart's time there were hacks churning out paint-by-numbers compositions, but we tend to stick with Bach and Mozart and their gifted contemporaries. 


4. You had to be there.
I sympathise on one other point with my contemporaries who wish they could travel back in time, even though I go along with the killjoys who reply with lists of diseases and injustices you would endure if you did manage to slip back to 1965. 

Replaying the music of your youth lacks the experience of hearing the music unfold as it appeared, in the context of the times. 

The Beatles delivered surprise after surprise during my teenaged years, from the first trickle of singles on Australian radio in 1963, through a series of albums that (for me) culminated in the scintillating Abbey Road in 1969. 

The 3,000 mainly teenaged fans who swarmed Carnegie Hall in 1938 to hear
Benny Goodman's
orchestra were having that same experience, and although I have listened to a lot of Goodman's records from that time, I can never replicate the joy of being there, at that time, as the narrative unfolded.  

Every Noise At Once: over 6,000 musical genres mapped with playlists and artist clouds

Benny Goodman And His Orchestra (Gene Krupa, drums) - Sing, Sing, Sing (Carnegie Hall Concert, 1938)