By Carl Cafarelli
Before mp3, CD, and cassette singles, a hit record was always a 45. The A-Side had the hit. The B-Side? Sometimes it was a throwaway. Sometimes it was something more.
THE BARBARIANS: “Take It Or Leave It”
Laurie, 1965; A-SIDE: “Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl”
A rock ‘n’ roll paradox, impossible but true: a vulnerable swagger.
When one discusses ’60s garage or punk or vintage grungy nom du jour, one tends to focus on the surlier aspects. We don’t think of The Sonics, The Chocolate Watchband,or The 13th Floor Elevators as particularly tender souls. But there are certainly flashes and hints of a more fragile emotion within, say, “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” by The Standells, and there are garage pop masterpieces like “It’s Cold Outside” by The Choir and “I Wonder” by The Gants. None combine pride and pathos with quite the effective passion of “Take It Or Leave It” by The Barbarians.
The Barbarians were a quartet from Cape Cod: guitarists Bruce Benson and Jeff Morris, bassist Jerry Causi, and drummer Victor Moulton, aka Moulty. Moulty had lost his left hand in an accident when he was 14, and his hook-handed percussion style served to emphasize The Barbarians’ badass image. In 1964, The Barbarians played in The TAMI Show–my choice for the greatest rock ‘n’ roll concert film ever made–alongside the likes of Chuck Berry, James Brown, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Miracles, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Jan & Dean, and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas. Within that stellar line-up, maybe the members of The Barbarians asked themselves the same rhetorical question much later asked by guitarist Lenny Haise of The Wonders in the 1996 movie That Thing You Do!: How did we get here…?!
Or maybe The Barbarians didn’t ask that question. They were punks, after all. ’60s punks, sure, but punks nonetheless.
The Barbarians never had any really big hit records. Their debut single “Hey Little Bird,” which they performed on The TAMI Show, was a Stonesy slice of lasciviousness that did not dent the pop charts. Second single “Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl” was their closest brush with success at radio and retail, a triumphantly sneering little number about not being able to tell the boys from the girls:
You’re either a girl or you come from Liverpool
You may look like a female monkey but you swim like a stone
(Yeah, a rolling stone!)
You may be a boy, but
You look like a girl
That was good enough for # 55 in Billboard, and it was far and away the biggest seller The Barbarians ever had. It’s rightly considered one of the defining classics of ’60s garage punk.
And I like its B-side even better.
It’s difficult to articulate the why of that. “Take It Or Leave It” (which is not the Rolling Stones tune with the same title) maybe isn’t all that distinctive as a song or as a performance. It’s a simple lament over a “Louie Louie”-inspired riff, a would-be lover’s last stand, as the singer pleads with the girl of his dreams to ditch her loser (but presumably moneyed) boyfriend and find true romantic happiness with a Barbarian instead. On “Take It Or Leave It,” the punk sheds his pride and begs:
I want you (I want you)
I need you (I need you)
I can’t stand this feeling of being alone
Got little to offer
But you got all that I own…
I ask you (I ask you)
Is it right? (Is it right?)
To laugh with me all day
And cry with him all night?
I’m promising you
A love guaranteed true
Whoa, take it or leave it
Take it or leave it
LISTEN TO ME!
Take it or leave it
(Take it! Take it! Take it! Take it!)
Take it or leave it
Okay, I guess he tries to grab back a bit of his pride with those last lines. But man, this guy has it bad for this chick, all but screaming in sheer desperation for the elusive validation of her love. Most of us have been there, or some approximation of there, regardless of gender. There’s that one guy or gal who means everything, but just can’t see what he or she means to you. If the situation isn’t quite universal, it’s pretty damned close.
My experience with this track was on a 45, playing loud and distorted the way a rock ‘n’ roll record oughtta. Subsequent reissues were namby-pamby by comparison, though a Barbarians CD compilation from the Sundazed label captures it pretty well. But that 45? It ached and pounded with passion unrequited. Even among the discerning few ’60s garage enthusiasts hip to The Barbarians, most would likely prefer the protopunk snarl of “Hey Little Bird” and “Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl,” with an honorable mention for “Moulty,” the drummer’s musical story of persevering through the loss of his hand, a track immortalized by its inclusion on Lenny Kaye‘s seminal ’60s garage punk compilation Nuggets. I dig all of that, too. Still, my go-to Barbarians track remains “Take It Or Leave It,” a B-side that aspires to greatness, an all-or-nothing garage ballad that takes a leap for love’s brass ring with near-suicidal determination. Life. Love. Everything. Take it or leave it.
“Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl” (D.Morris-R. Morris)
“Take It Or Leave It” (D. Morris-C. Clark)
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