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Boppin'

The Greatest Record Ever Made : Lies


Jimmy Walker
 of The Knickerbockers passed away last week. This is a chapter from my forthcoming book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1).
An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, 
this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!

THE KNICKERBOCKERS: “Lies”Imitation and inspiration are two very different things. We generally have less regard for the former, but recognize that nothing worthwhile can be sparked without the latter. And some imitations are inspired. Many Beatles fans adore The Rutles, and also Utopia‘s Deface The Music, both of which are able and engaging tributes, copying familiar Beatles songs, rewriting them, and reframing them as something almost new. The result is sincere flattery, but compellingand interesting sincere flattery. 
The Beatles inspired more than just imitation, though. The Beatles certainly drew from their own gumbo of influences–Chuck BerryLittle RichardBuddy HollyCarl PerkinsThe Everly BrothersThe ShirellesArthur Alexander–and evolved from imitation to divine inspiration. Some acts set out to imitate The Beatles in some way and became inspired to be more than imitation: to become The Byrds, to craft the sublime majesty of Pet Sounds, to invent ’70s punk rock as simply as a rapid-fire count-off of 1-2-3-4!  Let’s be The Beatles, lads. And then let’s be something we can call our own.
Most would think of “Lies” by The Knickerbockers as imitation, a greed-driven attempt to recreate the sound of The Beatles, maybe even to fool the gullible into thinking it is The Beatles. When I first heard it, my immediate reaction was that it sounded more like The Beatles than The Beatles did. So yeah (yeah yeah), I guess it is imitation. But it’s imitation with a vision, and it is still so much more than just that.

At first glance, The Knickerbockers would seem an unlikely source for rockin’ pop transcendence. I don’t mean to be disrespectful when I say that The Knickerbockers never looked cool, because–let’s face it!–I’ve never looked cool either. The group started out in Bergenfield, New Jersey in 1962, and they were not in any way ahead of their time. They were a cover band. They imitated. They got people to dance, which is good, but they could make no claim to greatness. 
Until, suddenly, they could make that claim.

Founding members Beau Charles and John Charles–brothers, on guitar and bass respectively–were joined by newer Knicks Buddy Randell (sax) and Jimmy Walker (drums) in 1964. They were still primarily a covers act. Their first two albums, Lloyd Thaxton Presents The Knickerbockers and Jerk And Twine Time (both from ’64), were without distinction. Either or both could be erased from history without affecting the time-space continuum in the slightest.
Given that: where the hell did “Lies” come from…?!

The Beatles were pop music in ’64 and ’65. There were lots and lots of other great stuff happening, from James Brown to Paul Revere & the RaidersMotown to girl groups, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass to Wilson PickettThe Rolling StonesThe KinksStax, and Louis Armstrong, even. But The Beatles ruled, by perception and acclaim, their fab reign and domain reflected in influence, imitation, and inspiration. Beatlemania inspired The Knickerbockers.
“Lies” was written by Buddy Randell and Beau Charles. The Knickerbockers’ previous records had been competent and bland, bordering on the anonymous. Coming after those forgettable works, “Lies” seemed to scream with moptopped frenzy, Let’s be The Beatles! Was it a conscious ambition? Man, it must have been.  What working rock or pop performer in 1965 didn’t want to be The Beatles? Maybe Quincy Jones didn’t want to be The Beatles. Everyone else did.
It’s one thing to want; it’s quite another to achieve. “Lies” magically distills everything–everything–great about Beatles ’65 into one single 45 side. Originally, it was the wrong 45 side; Challenge Records, The Knickerbockers’ demonstrably clueless label, stupidly relegated “Lies” to the B-side of “The Coming Generation,” an earnest and boring track not destined to ever trouble the Top 40. Clearer heads prevailed when DJs turned the record over. “Lies” was a hit. And you know that can’t be bad.
The track’s obvious debt to The Beatles makes it tempting to dismiss “Lies” as ersatz Merseybeat, a copy and nothing more. Except that it’s not a copy, and it is more. “Lies” is not a ripoff of any Beatle record. There are general elements taken from Lennon and McCartney, but really more in terms of a general feel, an accomplished and successful attempt to channel Meet The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night and “Thank You, Girl” without resorting to thievery. It didn’t hurt that Beau Charles’ lead vocals were so damned convincingly reminiscent of John Lennon. “Lies” doesn’t sound like any one Beatles record. It sounds like all of them. Audaciously, triumphantly, a band from Jersey had pulled it off. For one shining moment, The Knickerbockers had effectively become The Beatles.
Released in late ’65–pop music’s best year ever–“Lies” should have been a # 1 smash. It peaked at # 20 in ’66, and it was The Knickerbockers’ only big hit. They deserved better. After the dull banality of their earliest records, The Knickerbockers willed themselves into becoming a dynamic beat combo, capable of having a rave-up and having a wild weekend eight days a week, right alongside the best of the British Invasion. In 1966, they released their third and final album Lies (credited to “The Fabulous Knickerbockers”). The album was schizophrenic. Side Two was awash with big balladry, a pseudo Righteous Brothers sequence that squandered the fab rush of “Lies” (and presaged Jimmy Walker’s subsequent departure from the Knickerbockers to replace Bill Medley in the actual Righteous Brothers). But Side One? “I Can Do It Better,” “Can’t You See I’m Trying,” “Please Don’t Fight It,” and especially “Just One Girl” demonstrated that The Knickerbockers should not have been merely one-hit wonders, their lack of follow-up chart success notwithstanding.

n 1994, I picked up a Knickerbockers compilation CD called A Rave Up With The Knickerbockers. I already owned a handful of Knickerbockers discs (including reissues of Lies and Jerk And Twine Time), but this was the first to really demand my attention. A Rave Up With The Knickerbockers eschewed the ballads, ignored the early covers, and concentrated on The Knickerbockers’ uptempo gems. Well, fine, it did include “Coming Generation,” but that was okay in context. I already knew and adored “Lies,” of course, as well as its terrific non-LP follow-up “One Track Mind,” a great cut called “She Said Goodbye,” and the other tracks from Side One of Lies. Putting all of that (minus the Lies track “Please Don’t Fight It”) on one disc, combined with unfamiliar treats like “My Feet Are Off The Ground,” “Rumors, Gossip, Words Untrue,” “High On Love,” and the flat-out amazing “They Ran For Their Lives,” served to provide a fresh revelation. Knickerbockermania!
“One-hit wonder” is often taken as a pejorative term. I never intend it that way. To me, it refers to a missed opportunity, a chance the public didn’t get or never took to hear more from a great act that dazzled the country once, and was probably capable of dazzling yet again. Some one-hit wonders merited much greater notoriety than they received, more praise, more adulation, more airplay, more hits. The Bobby Fuller Four should not have been just a one-hit wonder. The Knickerbockers shouldn’t have been that either. Still, even if “Lies” had been the only track The Knickerbockers ever recorded, its transcendent celebration of an American Beatlemania delivered on its own self-assured terms…well, that would be reason enough for idolatry, cause enough to worship the group that created this essential work of wonder. Someday I’m gonna be happy, but I don’t know when just now.Because it’s no lie: imitation can lead to inspiration. Inspiration is timeless. And it sounds fabulous.

A tip of the hat toBruce Gordon, whose own Let’s Be The Beatles studies have gone in far greater depth than I could ever manage.TIP THE BLOGGER: CC’s Tip Jar!
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Categories
Birthdays

Joe B. Mauldin

Top to Bottom; Jerry Allison, Buddy Holly, Mauldin

Born on this day in 1940, in Lubbock, Texas, bassist Joe B. Mauldin. Mauldin was an original member of Buddy Holly‘s backing band, The Crickets. Mauldin was also a recording engineer at Gold Star Studios, were legends like Brian Wilson recorded.

Categories
Birthdays

Ritchie Valens

Born on this day in 1941, in Pacoima, California, Ritchie Valens. Valens found huge success with his hit records, “La Bamba” and “Donna,” which led to his being booked on Buddy Holly’s final tour.

Categories
Boppin'

The Everlasting First: Buddy Holly

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.

I was too young to ever know the full story. But my older brothers had a neighborhood friend named Nancy Cook; the only two things I can tell you about Nancy would be that she loved pop music–who didn’t?–and that she died at a young age, not yet 30 years old, in a car accident in the mid ’70s. It’s not the sort of thing I want to ask my brothers and sister about, even all these decades later. But I know that she was gone, too early, too young. And I also know that before she died, she left behind a collection of her 45s.

My first conscious exposure to Buddy Holly came via Don McLean. I was one of the many who just adored McLean’s smash hit “American Pie” in 1971, while having not Clue One of what it was about. At the height of the song’s popularity, an article appeared in, I think, either Life or Look magazine, discussing the song’s genesis. And it was there that I first read about the day the music died: February 3rd, 1959, when a plane crash ended the life of this singer named Buddy Holly.

Many years later, I would learn more about Buddy, and about Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, who perished with Holly in that crash. In ’71, I just felt the sadness of “American Pie”‘s lyrics, lyrics which mourned Holly while recalling I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride. Devastating. Even at the age of 11, I recognized that song’s poignant mix of sorrow, regret, wistful remembrance, and subtle hope. And I wondered to myself: who was Buddy Holly?

I entered eighth grade in the fall of 1972. In ’72 and ’73, as my interest in pop music continued unabated, I began to look more and more into supplementing my AM radio lifeline by investigating what interesting records might already be in the family collection. Both of my brothers had moved out on their own, and had presumably taken the bulk of their record collections with them (though Art had left the first two Monkees albums behind). My sister was still in college, and I don’t remember what records she’d left in North Syracuse and what she’d hauled off to Adelphi University. But there were still some rock ‘n’ roll gems at the house: a few Beatles albums, a Dave Clark Five single, The Live Kinks, and probably some Grass RootsThree Dog NightGene PitneyRick Nelson, and Who. While rummaging through the collection one day, I discovered two little bound volumes of 45s; these little collections of singles had Nancy’s name written on them.

As I examined these buried treasures, I made mental notes of the artists’ names, both familiar and unfamiliar. I’d never heard of Ivory Joe Hunter, but I was taken with “You Can’t Stop This Rocking And Rolling,” the B-side to “Since I Met You Baby.” I knew Elvis Presley, of course, though it would still be a few more years before I cared about him, and I’d likely heard The Coasters‘ great “Charlie Brown” on a TV commercial for some oldies compilation. But the most intriguing discovery was a 45 on the Coral Records label: Buddy Holly. “Peggy Sue” and “Everyday.” For the first time, I was finally going to hear a Buddy Holly record.

And I was a Buddy Holly fan, just like that.

Both sides of the single captivated me. The hypnotic, rolling percussion of “Peggy Sue,” and Holly’s repeated, insistent pleading Peggy Sue, Peggy Sue, pretty pretty pretty pretty Peggy Sue, combined to convey sheer, urgent desire. On the flip side, “Everyday” eschewed the earthiness of “Peggy Sue”‘s primal plea, and opted for a (seemingly) chaste wish for pure love everlasting: Every day seems a little longer, Every day love’s a little stronger, Come what may, do you ever long for true love from me? A rendezvous in the bedroom, backed by an earnest ache to be happy together forever and ever? Yeah. Yeah, I’m good with that.

Throughout eighth grade, each day before school, I tried to make time to listen to both sides of that 45 before grabbing the bus. At some subsequent point, while enjoying my sacred Beatles stash, I noticed that a song on my favorite album, Beatles VI, was written by Buddy Holly. “Words Of Love” was a Buddy Holly song? Ahhhhhh! I couldn’t have been more hooked on Holly by that point, but I’d reached a temporary plateau nonetheless. I only knew a mere three Buddy Holly songs, and one of ’em was by Fab Four proxy. It would be a few years before I could advance beyond that.

But Holly days would come at last. There were further Holly proxies to discover first–Linda Ronstadt‘s “That’ll Be The Day” and The Rolling Stones‘ “Not Fade Away”–and an amazing Holly soundalike, “Sheila,” by Tommy Roe, before I could truly discover the wealth of the Buddy Holly catalog. The 1978 film The Buddy Holly Story was an integral catalyst, even though I knew it was largely fiction. But I loved that movie anyway, and it prompted me to buy Buddy Holly and The Crickets‘ 20 Golden Greats best-of.  “Oh Boy,””Rave On,” and “Well…All Right” immediately became fave raves. I received another Buddy Holly collection, He’s The One, from my friend Jay, filling in my Holly collection with additional tracks like “Rock Around With Ollie Vee,” “You’re The One,” “Dearest,” and “Love’s Made A Fool Of You.” In 1984, Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways” became my wedding song, so it has a meaning for lovely wife Brenda and me well beyond other pop songs.

I haven’t thought of my siblings’ late friend Nancy in years. I asked my Mom about her recently, and Mom’s face lit up with the memory of Nancy and the rest of my brothers’ friends hanging out at our house years ago.  Mom remembered how hard it hit everyone when Nancy was killed. Try as I might, I can’t remember Nancy at all. I can’t mourn her, but the thought of her too-short life nonetheless inspires a wistful…well, not quite melancholy, but yet another reminder of the tenuous nature of our time in this world. Buddy Holly also died too young. In my mind’s eye, Buddy is singing to Nancy right now. Love like yours will surely come way. They say Buddy Holly lives; if that’s true, then Nancy Cook lives. too.