Rabbits Full of Magic

19 August 2018

 

Crimson and Clover

Ever since witnessing the psychedelic awesomeness that is the Ed Sullivan performance of "Crimson and Clover", seen sometime in the mid 90s on VH-1 classic one day after school, one of my all time favorite acts has been Tommy James and the Shondells. The song itself was stunning, perfectly crafted pop, something that was obviously finely tuned over hours and hours of studio experimentation. Ditto for their other tracks, also songs that would end up being covered by punk and pop acts alike in the 80s: the clippy, minimal, insanely dancey "I Think We're Alone Now" (originally written as played w stacatto piano octaves), which invented synth pop, New Wave, bubblegum, and teeny-bopper music all in one. Or "Mony Mony", an orgiastic Wall of Sound-style psychedelic soul record. It is a crying shame that David Bowie didn't cover this for his Pin Ups LP.

I recently read his autobiography, Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells. The title perfectly sums up his wild decade or so career on Roulette records, an indie/pirate 60's label that was run by mob connections (and often their tactics ended up influencing release strategies & inventing things like "Cut outs") who plucked this 19 year old kid who had a regional hit with "Hanky Panky" and made him into a bonafide rock star. In truth his relationship with his manager is very complex, and this is a fascinating inside look at the industry back then.

The legendary Morris Levy ran the label, never paid any royalties, had about 90 rackets going, and at one time employed 900 people. A local dj had discovered the regional Tommy James single, recorded when he was in high school, and had been spinning it to great success, to the point where Levy decided to start pressing and selling the record on his own, effectively starting Tommy's career by bootlegging his material. Year later they discover the label boss had withheld $30-40 million in royalties, yet there was no way to intimidate these guys. Tommy James was the oblivious rock star kid hanging out off to the side at these crazy parties held by mobsters and murderers. In the early 70s there were New York mob wars with families were gunning each other down, Tommy's manager had to disappear for a while as a result of this, Tommy himself was sent to Nashville to make a record, as well as to potentially save his life.

Levy saved his life a second time as well - after the hit release of "Mony Mony", Tommy's draft card had come in (he was reclassified following the finalization of his divorce), and Levy had pulled some strings. If this hadn't happened then Tommy would have been shipped off to Vietnam and never recorded "Crimson and Clover". The recording of that song is very interesting, and detailed in the book. It is a result of a lot of experimentation, layering instruments, making tape loops, cutting and pasting and copying sections, etc. Ultimately they made a dub of it while in the middle of mixing and he made the mistake of playing it on a radio station, where the rough mix was sent out and now considered the final mix. The main reason he felt the mix wasn't finished was that one of the tape edits was off and needed to be redone, making the song slightly slower and detuned after a point, which bugs him to this day. The song was an early victim of leaks - it is fascinating how Tommy's career was constantly plagued by this, these kind of things kept happening to him, yet they also influenced how the songs ended up. That mix is killer - it was fated to sound this way! At any rate, for the album mix and pirate radio he was given the freedom to make a "long" version, which necessitated taking apart the original single take, mixing out the vocals, and copying/pasting for guitar solos and additional overdubs. The process of songwriting and recording was a very collaborative effort, Tommy working primarily with Bo Gentry and Richie Cordell (who wrote "I Think We're Alone Now") to create these bubblegum psych masterworks.

Anyways, i love this band so much. They were working out of Philly and hence have this Philly Soul sound, sort of reminding me of the Blue Eyed Soul stuff David Bowie was working w in the 70s, songs like "Do Something to Me" and "Crystal Blue Persuasion". I Think We're Alone Now is my favorite of their LPs (that i've heard) the title track and "Mirage" (starting A and B) are both amazing songs. "Mirage" is a backwards version of the title track and has some weird Joe Meek style going for it. "What I'd Give to See Your Face Again" is really nice Tremelo Sadcore where Tommy tries to emulate one of his early heroes, Rick Nelson. "Baby Let Me Down" is some smooth 60s Motown style pop. They cover "California Sun", a song a few years ago covered by friends of theirs, The Rivieras, to some great success back in the day. It showed Tommy the potential of a dance cover, the reason why the og Shondells recorded "Hanky Panky" in the first place. The Mony Mony album is really cool, and was designed as a throwback to that dancey rock style. It's an awesome mode and has resulted in some of the best pop songs of all time. I could go on and on LOL I guess I am just geeking out on one of my favorite bands. \__/ \__/

Get yourself some Tommy James and the Shondells.


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