Well, with the good songs out of the way, I’ve no choice but to bite the bullet of wading through the heaps of sub-par pop 1961 had to offer. ‘61 continued the trend of eschewing the truly repugnant in favor of the mind-numbingly dull, and so many of this year’s hits were so thoroughly drab and tedious that sometimes the smallest twinge of annoyance was enough to land a song right near the bottom of the heap. Blegh. 1961 sucked, and these are the ten songs that sucked the most. On with the show!
#10: The Echoes- Baby Blue
This song’s placement on the list is, perhaps, a bit symbolic. By itself it’s just a crappy, boring love song, but this year was so overstuffed with dreck of this exact flavor that it was only right for someone to take the fall for all of it. “Baby Blue” is still totally limp and useless by its own merits though. Lead vocalist Tommy Duffy is just a hair’s breadth above Paul Anka in terms of sheer, suffocating sappiness, the backing vocals are as hollow as a ping-pong ball, and it gets even worse if obvious spelling errors set your nerves on edge. Seriously, you couldn’t have just elongated that first B? It just had to be “B-B-A-B-Y B-B-L-U-E”??? Ugh, this thing is the “Animals-mals” of the ‘60s.
#9: Barry Mann- Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp-Bomp-Bomp)
Ahh, it wouldn’t be an early ‘60s worst list without some good old-fashioned inane novelty tunes, would it? Luckily, this one has a few more brain cells than the likes of “Kookie, Kookie” or “Mister Custer”, and dumb doo-wop songs with gibberish choruses were a pervasive enough trend that I can’t fault Mr. Mann for taking a crack at spoofing the format. In concept, it’s fine. In practice, however, two things happen. Firstly, Mann doesn’t really do a lot with the premise, he just frames it as a thank-you to the people who made those nonsensical tunes because his girlfriend fell for him while listening to them, which is possibly the least funny direction in which to take such a concept. Secondly and most importantly, this song will get stuck in your head until your brain rots out your ear canals. It is insidiously catchy, and while that chorus might be fine enough for two and a half minutes, once it’s been bouncing around your skull for an hour or two, you’ll sell your soul to start absentmindedly humming anything else at all. I generally consider catchiness to be a positive attribute in pop music, but this song makes a pretty strong case for Ryan Schreiber’s assertion that “every pop song you’ve ever truly hated is catchy”.
#8: Ray Peterson- Missing You
In contrast with the infuriatingly earworm-y last song, “Missing You” is so forgettable that if, as I was writing this sentence, someone held a gun to my head and demanded I hum the lead melody, I’d be hard-pressed to do so. With every re-listen it seems to grow more and more grey, unremarkable, and frail, and the lyrics read as increasingly whiny, clinging and desperate for undeserved affection. The only reason this flaccid shrug of a song isn’t higher on the list is that I’ve already forgotten pretty much everything about it. What was I talking about again?
#7: Neil Sedaka- Calendar Girl
Neil Sedaka has overall been one of the less egregious teen idols over the past few years- certainly nothing to write home about, but never offensively bad enough to really make a lasting negative impression, either. “Calendar Girl”, for the most part, follows this trend. Sedaka is still gravely lacking in personality as a vocalist, and the instrumental isn’t terribly exciting, but the lyrical structure is clever enough (each line is about how great his girlfriend is, with some sort of reference to or pun on on a different month of the year) and the melody isn’t too shabby either. But the end of that first verse, man. Holy shit. “You’re the Easter Bunny when you smile”? Really? That’s… He’s saying she has buck teeth. That’s what that is, there is no other possible way to interpret that line. Could Sedaka really not think of any other April-adjacent thing to put there? Something about a “spring” in his step, perhaps? This line by itself is bafflingly incompetent enough to tank the song, but the line for September is terrible too: “I’ll light the candles at your sweet sixteen”. Again, that’s pretty goddamn unambiguous. The girl he’s singing to is, at most, fifteen years old. Sedaka was pushing twenty-two when this song was written. Hopefully the rabbit-toothed teenager of Sedaka’s fantasies managed to find someone her own age and steer clear of this weirdo.
#6: The Dovells- Bristol Stomp
Much like “Calendar Girl”, the crippling flaw at the heart of “Bristol Stomp” is a handful of woefully underthought lyrics, and here they come during the chorus: “The kids in Bristol are sharp as a pistol/When they do the Bristol Stomp”. I’m sorry if this sounds pedantic, but “sharp as a pistol” is not a saying, and if it was it would be a bad one. Pistols aren’t sharp in any sense of the word, and when they say it in the song I have no clue what mental image I’m supposed to build out of the phrase, and this becomes impossible to overlook when they repeat the phrase incessantly throughout the song. Sadly, unlike “Calendar Girl”, the musical component here is thoroughly substandard, with thin, cheap-sounding instrumentals, what has to be one of the most rote, uninspired chorus melodies of the entire decade, and a lead vocalist who can barely stay on-key.
#5: Bobby Lewis- One Track Mind
I’ve listened to a lot of music, across basically every major genre that exists. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’d like to think that, the great majority of the time, I can pretty easily figure out what instrument I’m listening to based on the timbre and the way it’s being played. That said, I have no goddamn idea what that horrible, horrible sound is on Bobby Lewis’s “One Track Mind”. To the best of my recollection, I have never heard it used in any other song, perhaps because it is one of the most thoroughly unpleasant noises I have ever heard in a pop song. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it was some obscure variation on a kazoo? But even if it isn’t, it should not need to be said that kazoos and all kazoo-sounding instruments belong far, FAR away from actual music that adult human beings have to listen to. The rest of the song isn’t too great, either- that little descending “Yeah yeah yeah” refrain has really started to get on my nerves over the last few re-listens, and Lewis’s vocals are exuberant but cloying.
#4: Buzz Clifford- Baby Sittin’ Boogie
Here we have yet another song hamstrung by a singularly ill-conceived audio gimmick- In this case, it’s an actual baby babbling into the microphone at the end of each verse. Like “Who Put the Bomp”, it’s clearly aiming to riff on pop trends of the day, and again, I kind of see Clifford’s line of reasoning here (people say rock ‘n’ roll is just silly music for kids, so what if there was a literal baby who was obsessed with it?), but the whole thing falls entirely flat. First of all, it’s not good rock ‘n’ roll. If you want to lampoon a style of music, you have to convincingly recreate it first, and “Baby Sittin’ Boogie” is fifties rock ‘n’ roll at its absolute stiffest and lamest. Second, the baby is just making regular old baby noises! The whole joke of the song is ‘Wow, look at how this baby can sing along to rock songs’, but the actual baby noises bear only the slightest of resemblances to the genuine article, to the point where it took me multiple listens to even realize that was the intent.
#3: Gene McDaniels- A Hundred Pounds of Clay
I’ve said that the pop charts in 1961 were rife with questionable attitudes towards gender and gender relations, but oddly I found that most of the worst stuff this year didn’t really follow that trend, choosing mostly to find less ideologically-driven methods of sucking. Not so with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay”. I normally try to avoid social media buzzwords like this, but this song really is deeply, deeply problematic. The controversy at the time was that the song suggested that God created women more or less solely for the pleasure of men, and y’know, yikes to that and all, but frankly the angle I take the most umbrage at is the subsequent suggestion that, since God created women for the pleasure of men, He ought to be given credit for all pleasure given to men by women. To quote: “I will thank Him every day/For every kiss you’re giving/And I’ll thank Him every night/For the arms that are holding me tight”. Hey jackass, how about you thank her for all that? He genuinely sounds like he might as well be thanking a friend for giving him a discount on a really nice car or something: “Hey buddy, that object you got me is very useful, that was real kind of you to help me out like that!”. It’s just a slimy, ugly song all around.
#2: Bobby Vee- Rubber Ball
Bobby Vee continued to stake out a reputation as the most punchable man in pop this year, topping the inexplicably annoying “Devil or Angel” with the exponentially more annoying “Rubber Ball”. Vee’s trademark vocal trick seems to be those unbearable, staccato vocal runs he sprinkles into all his songs like rat droppings. Again, I can’t quite nail down what exactly it is about “Rubber ball, I come bouncing back to yoo-hoo-oo-hoo-oo-oo-oo-hoo” that gets my blood boiling, but hey, I can’t argue with instinct. The irritation doesn’t stop there though: the backing vocals are a headache and a half, and the lyrics essentially excuse his partner’s infidelity (again: lots of wince-inducing gender relations this year). I think it’s meant to be a sort of sympathetic portrayal of a hopeless romantic, like he’ll put up with any kind of mistreatment because he loves her so much, but the music is so unremittingly chipper and upbeat that any sort of emotional nuance just gets drowned in a sea of sugary, bubblegummy goop. Excuse me while I go brush my teeth.
#1: The Four Preps- More Money for You and Me
I put songs on my worst lists for a wide variety of reasons, but there are very few songs I can think of that wind up here due to their sheer, seething spitefulness. The Four Preps already demonstrated both their tragically underdeveloped songwriting and their jerkoff sense of humor last year with “Down by the Station”, and “More Money for You and Me” shows them fully realizing their potential for both. You see, the Four Preps were part of the “college group” scene, which was, as far as I can tell, basically a catch-all for any vocal group composed of college-aged young men- so, the Platters, the Kingston Trio, the Highwaymen, those sorts. The Four Preps’ peak of commercial relevance was already several years in the rearview by ‘61, and a new crop of college groups had since sprung up to replace them on the pop charts. The Four Preps responded to this by making a song wherein they mock and/or wish death upon every such group. Leaving aside the fact that most of these acts put out much better songs than The Four Preps could ever dream of writing, the song is just so petty and vindictive, to the point where it completely negates the few moments of genuine cleverness (Even I have to admit, pointing out that the Four Freshmen have been calling themselves freshmen for over two decades is a decent roast). The song takes the form of a medley, comprised of snippets of other songs, that together form a barely-coherent tune only thanks to a mediocre, vaudeville-inspired refrain stringing it all together. I’m self-admittedly biased against showtunes, but hearing dig after shallow, mean-spirited dig set to this Looney Tunes-ass dross sure didn’t do much to change my mind. I’ll take what comfort I can in the fact that after this song, the hits dried up and these insufferable douchebags were able to crank out snippy proto-diss tracks like this without troubling the rest of us. Hallelujah.