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 Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers, The Shirelles, Arthur 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 Raiders, Motown to girl groups, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass to Wilson Pickett, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Stax, 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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