In the intro to this year’s best list, I said 1960 was overall a bit better than the years surrounding it- particularly the doldrums of 1961-63. While I do think it’s true that the rot hadn’t fully set in at this point, it’s definitely getting there, and despite the standout cuts my overall impression of the year is still solidly “bleh”. The main problem with pop music around this time is how unremittingly milquetoast and unexciting so much of it is. While the worst of 1959 managed to be putrid enough for me to really bust out the fire and brimstone, most of the bad songs this year were barely interesting enough to even hate properly. But make no mistake, just because I’m not working myself into a lather ranting about how terrible these songs are doesn’t mean they deserve anything other than the obscurity they rightfully languish in today. On with the show!
#10: Johnny Horton- Sink the Bismarck
Of all the pop stars of the pre-Beatles era, Johnny Horton is easily one of the strangest. He was a country singer with an affinity for singing about American history and/or folklore, and his songs are so stodgy, weird and non-pop that I almost feel bad for putting him on a list largely defined by blandness. But it’s undeniable that nearly all of Horton’s songs and “Sink the Bismarck” in particular are absolutely crippled by their lack of pop sensibilities. Every time I listen to his music I’m struck by the overwhelming impression that Horton would rather be sitting in his basement building model ships or reading war novels than anywhere near the top 40. He just had absolutely no starpower, and his massive (albeit brief) popularity is completely puzzling to me. Horton sadly wouldn’t live to see the rest of the decade, losing his life in a car crash in November of this year, and honestly I think that’s a real shame. In the suffocatingly drab early 60s, we could have used a guy like him who just didn’t care at all about conforming to pop trends. And who knows, maybe he would have started writing actual good music, too!
#9: Jimmy Jones- Handyman
“Handy Man” is in most respects a pretty unremarkable pop tune, but Jimmy Jones manages to bungle the whole thing up with some truly terrible vocals, especially that ear-splitting falsetto. It’s irritating at first and nearly unbearable after two full minutes, and it makes the relentlessly cheerful backing track feel more taunting than anything else. The lyrics are rather questionable too- the narrator is, I guess, some sort of lothario who specializes in romancing newly-single women. It’s pretty shallow and surface-level stuff, and frankly it has more than a whiff of preying-on-the-emotionally-vulnerable to it.
#8: Frankie Avalon- Why
Ahh, Frankie Avalon: still sucking in 1690. It’s nice to hear him returning to mere boringness after the entirely vomitous “Bobby Sox to Stockings”, but oh man does this song just bore and bore with everything it’s got. The plodding tempo, the typically infantile lyricism, and the limp instrumentation all make this thing practically sleep-inducing. It’s also a duet- an easy fact to miss, both because of this song’s uncanny ability to slide right off your brain, and because Avalon’s handlers didn’t seem to think it necessary to credit the female vocalist (Wikipedia claims that it was “allegedly Fran Lori”). Avalon’s done a lot worse than this, but even at his least repugnant he’s still a black hole of charisma.
#7: Paul Anka- Puppy Love
Due to the wealth of more offensively bad music on offer, Paul Anka managed to escape my worst list last year, despite two of his intensely mediocre songs appearing on the year-end hot 100. No such luck this year, both because of the smaller number of truly awful songs and because Anka finally committed to being a talentless hack full-time, giving even Frankie Avalon a run for his money. Anka’s main distinguishing feature as a performer is his bad habit of over-emoting when he doesn’t have the songwriting to back it up, and he certainly doesn’t here, pissing and moaning about how nobody understands how deep and important his feelings are over chintzy, lightweight instrumentation. Anka really tries to ham it up too, ad-libbing all that “help me, help me please” nonsense towards the end, and the effect is comparable to listening to a whiny high-schooler pitch a fit over their recent grounding. I admire the hutzpah, but the talent’s missing, kiddo.
#6: Johnny Preston- Running Bear
Apparently a big trend in pop around this time was the “teen tragedy song”, wherein the (natch) teenage protagonists always end up dead by the end of the song. Fun stuff, right? “Running Bear” is one of these songs, with the twist being that our pubescent protagonists are two native American kids from different tribes (Just like Romeo and Juliet y’see), and they drown themselves in a river together. Musically speaking, the song barely bothers to fit the tone of the lyrics, which is a major problem when your lyrics are ABOUT TEEN SUICIDE. Indian yells and stereotypical “oomba-doomba” chanting persist throughout the verses (can you tell this was written by a white guy?) and the chorus just completely aborts the whole thing and turns into a swinging jazz tune! It’s not even an awful chorus, but it doesn’t fit the rest of the song at all and makes the whole thing feel inconsistent and piecemeal. It’s a mess of a song, cluttered with bad decision after bad decision.
#5: Bobby Vee- Devil or Angel
Of all the songs on this list, this is the one I have the least well-defined reasoning for disliking. With lots of pop songs, it’s not too terribly hard for me to reverse-engineer my knee-jerk first impressions and explain what it is about a song that works or doesn’t work for me. With this one, it’s just a vague yet persistent sense of “gross bad do not want bad gross” that I can’t quite articulate any further. When Bobby Vee goes “will you ever be mi-i-i-i-ine” I just feel an overwhelming urge to kick something, preferably Vee himself. No aspect of the song is good or even notable enough to counterbalance my lizard-brain’s disgust with this twerp. Thus, it ends up smack in the middle of the worst list.
#4: Paul Anka- My Home Town
“My Home Town” is easily Paul Anka’s worst song to this point, centering on an inane, over-enunciated story about visiting his childhood home, delivered with all the subtlety of a second-grader’s directionless yammering about their summer vacation. While the lighter subject matter at least makes for a better pairing with the paper-thin, bubblegummy instrumental, I still think this song is markedly lesser than “Puppy Love”, mostly because, in every regard, it just feels totally pointless. Nothing of note happens in it, there’s no emotion to it, and there’s no insight to be gleaned. I couldn’t tell you why Anka wanted to write this and I have no idea why so many people wanted to listen to it. But alas, he did and they did, and now we all have to suffer for their collective misjudgement.
#3: Bobby Rydell- Little Bitty Girl
Oh joy, another “little girl” song. Here we have Mr. Rydell caterwauling about how he would very much like a GF, preferably of the little and/or bitty variety. See, here’s the thing: “little girl” is a patronizing, sexist, slightly pedophilic term and all, but it’s clearly not literal, at least not exclusively so. Plenty of times it’s obvious the singer/speaker is just referring to an adult woman who could conceivably be their age or younger. “Little bitty girl”, on the other hand, has much less room for interpretation. As far as I’m concerned, “bitty” means exactly one thing. Whether or not he intended to, Rydell is saying he wants to date a very small woman. Like, The Borrowers or Gulliver’s Travels-level small. And throughout the song, he keeps referring to the big big world and his big big dreams, and it just reinforces the idea that he’s attempting to fulfill some sort of sizeplay fetish. Not to kinkshame or anything, but I’d rather he keep it to himself. The stiff, bog-standard performances (both instrumentally and vocally) hardly impress either, especially with Rydell delivering the title line in the most aggravating conceivable way (LLLLLLITTLEBITTYGIRRRRRL).
#2: The Four Preps- Down By the Station
Quick, what’s worse than a bad teen idol? You guessed it, FOUR bad teen idols! Here we have a story about a guy who meets a girl at the train station and flirts with her, then flirts with another girl at the, ahem… malt shop, later on. The next day, the guy sees the two girls talking and figures the jig is up, so he goes back to the station to catch a train out of town, where he attempts to hit on a third girl who tells him to piss off for being a two-timing jerk. It’s pretty rote, outdated stuff, to be sure, but all told I could think of worse premises to base a song around. No, it’s not what the story is that tanks this song so much as it’s how the story is. Any story about (heavy quotes here) “““infidelity””” will be rendered utterly worthless if it doesn’t take pains to get the framing right, and the Four Preps seemed to think it would be a real riot to cast the whole thing as “tee hee, ain’t I a stinker?” farce. It has the same feel to it as all the cringeworthy “wife bad” comedy made by and for mediocre 60-something divorced men these days. Actually, it’s even worse than that, because without the world-weary grouchiness that at least gives that genre of humor some semblance of unique flavor, hearing it from these four doe-eyed little cretins is just dreary as all hell. Next, please God NEXT.
#1: Larry Verne- Mr. Custer
Oh, now this one is without question bad enough to properly hate. The obvious thing to say is that yes, this song is a little racially insensitive. Like on “Running Bear”, the faux Indian calls and chanting are beyond tacky, and I’d imagine there’s a lot of people who don’t particularly appreciate the genocide of native tribes being bandied about like it’s a comedy goldmine. But honestly, the song is still pretty tame, especially by the standards of the day, and while I do think it’s thoroughly tasteless, it’s not exactly worth getting all up in arms over, either. At the end of the day, “Mr. Custer” is first and foremost placed at the top of this list because it is a terrible, terrible song. The production is abysmal. Verne can’t sing. It’s not funny at all. Verne can’t sing. The chorus is a joyless military march that belongs a thousand miles away from any pop radio station. Verne can’t sing. The arrangement sounds like it was tossed off in five minutes. Oh, and did I mention that Larry Verne can’t fucking sing? The man’s wheezing, nasal voice should have precluded him from ever singing anything at all, let alone taking on lead vocal duties for a No. 1 hit single! Even by the low, low standards of early ‘60s novelty songs, “Mister Custer” still managed to plumb new depths of worthlessness. Congratulations.