1963 may have marked the point where the pop scene began the uphill climb towards its glorious pinnacle in the latter half of the decade (a pinnacle which, in the eyes of many, remains to this day unmatched), but the operative word there is “began”. In 1963, things were finally starting to liven up a bit, but there was still a long way to go, and the more pernicious mainstream trends of the day were less than eager to relinquish their grasp on the charts. We still saw a fair few brainless novelty ditties, teen idols were on the decline but still very much present, and as trends started to shift and evolve, many a crude opportunist was rushing to copy whatever new sounds were cropping up as cheaply and lazily as possible. You could make a fair case that this is the last properly “bad” chart year we’ll see for a while, and the following are the 10 worst of the lot. On with the show!
#10: Jan and Dean- Surf City
In early 1963, Jan and Dean (who at that point were still best known for their 1959 hit Baby Talk) ran into a young, up-and-coming songwriter named Brian Wilson at a party. Wilson played them a song he was working on called “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, and Jan and Dean were impressed, offering to release the song as a single themselves. Wilson refused, as he was intending the song for his own band, but offered instead to let them record a half-finished tune he had grown disenchanted with and didn’t really have any plans for. That song was Jan and Dean’s big comeback single, and I’ll be damned if “Surf City” doesn’t just scream ‘Beach Boys reject’ from front to back. Everything about it plays like a low-rent version of “Surfin’ U.S.A.”; the recipe is the same, but there’s a vastly inferior cook in the kitchen. The vocal harmonies don’t sparkle the same way, the lyrics don’t conjure the same summery ebullience, and the instrumentals can’t manage the same tightrope balance of simplicity and energy. The “two girls for every boyyyyyyyy” refrain is the only truly hateable part of the song for me, but everything else is, to a tee, a carbon copy of a better band. Wilson’s manager reportedly chastised him for giving away a song that later proved to be a hit, but if you ask me he made the right call keeping this pale imitation far away from the Beach Boys’ name.
#9: Lesley Gore- It’s My Party
Given that Lesley Gore managed to parley her relatively brief moment of pop stardom into a decades-long career as a songwriter and political activist for feminist and LGBT+ causes, I’m tempted to treat her early work with kid gloves. But there’s no two ways about it, Gore’s output this year is teen angst at its very most petty, petulant, and exhausting. I wouldn’t be surprised if “It’s My Party” triggered something akin to PTSD flashbacks in anyone who’s ever had to sit through a rambling story about who kissed who and who got mad at who else at some pointless party over the weekend. It’s the very worst of teen pop- The exact shallow, thoughtless high-school drama that can only inspire an eye-roll from anyone who’s mentally made it past graduation.
#8: Peter, Paul and Mary- Puff the Magic Dragon
I just flat-out don’t like Peter, Paul and Mary. To me, they’ve always sounded like the most spineless, corporatized version of “folk” music anyone could have possibly cooked up in the early 60s, and the fact that so many of their songs are covers of classics by the likes of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger just exposed how completely unchallenging and anodyne they really were in comparison. “Puff the Magic Dragon”, unlike most of their other hits, is actually an original composition, and not a terrible one at that: a sad little fable about a boy outgrowing his childhood imaginary friend. It’s not exactly Shakespearian tragedy, but you’d have to be an awfully miserable asshole to not at least make a sympathetic frown towards the end, when Puff is left all alone. No, the issue here, as with most of the PP&M oeuvre, is in the execution. It’s the exact same dippity-doo blandness as everything else they ever put out, with hardly a passing attempt at actually emoting or singing the song in a way that complements the lyric’s emotional arc. All three singers turn in completely lifeless, limp performances, which is a very big problem when the only instrumental accompaniment here is one (1) acoustic guitar! This is a song I was ready and willing to like (I, like many, have known the tune since childhood), and I suppose I’ve heard worse as far as children’s music goes, but this particular rendition of it falls far short of its full potential.
#7: The Four Seasons- Candy Girl
I’m crossing my fingers that The Four Seasons don’t wind up on these worst lists too many times. After all, there are only so many ways for me to say “I do not enjoy the sound of Frankie Valli’s voice”. As with “Sherry” last year, that’s really the only thing wrong with “Candy Girl”. If you pressed my I suppose I’d say this one has a slightly weaker tune behind it, but Valli’s performance doesn’t get on my nerves quite as much. Overall, it’s just another middle-of-the-road, totally unremarkable pop tune sunk entirely by Valli’s signature falsetto shrieking.
#6: Rolf Harris- Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport
The requisite annoying novelty track of this year comes to us courtesy of Australian musician, comedian, actor and noted pedophile Rolf Harris. “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport” suffers from all the shortcomings that plague the lion’s share of novelty tunes from this era: slipshod production, boilerplate musicianship, and a vocalist who clearly has no business singing on a hit record. I really do suspect that the people behind songs like this believed that having an unusual premise for a song was an adequate substitute for actually writing something worth hearing. Well, it’s not. Just because there aren’t a million other songs about kangaroos and wallabies doesn’t mean I need or want one that sounds like this. Oh, and let’s not forget that since-redacted verse about the narrator’s aboriginal slaves. Delightful. Luckily, now that Harris is a convicted rapist and sex criminal, this song (along with the rest of his work) is actively being buried by the Australian entertainment industry; I can’t say I blame them given their relative dearth of mainstream cultural exports, and if this song is anything to go by, this guy certainly isn’t anyone worth missing.
#5: Little Peggy March- I Will Follow Him
“I Will Follow Him” has one very big problem: that chorus. Every part of it rubs me totally the wrong way. Dissecting the chorus, the repetition of each line isn’t in and of itself a problem, but combined with March’s somewhat-overzealous delivery, it becomes too aggressive; it feels like she’s beating you over the head with each line. “I love him” is not a difficult phrase to parse, and hearing it repeated thrice in each chorus, seemingly as loud as March can possibly sing it, makes it incredibly overbearing. That overbearing aspect is an even bigger problem in conjunction with the subject matter- for a song about how she’ll follow her beloved to the ends of the earth, the fact that it comes across as so smothering cancels out whatever romanticism might have been conveyed with a more restrained approach. This is a song where every failure compounds every other, and the end result is just plain obnoxious.
#4: Jimmy Soul- If You Wanna Be Happy
Jimmy Soul’s only big hit makes it pretty clear why he didn’t end up with a longer career. “If You Wanna Be Happy” is a weird, unlikable song through and through. It’s just catchy and bouncy enough to stick around in your head, but it’s repetitive as all hell, the production is piss-poor, and most importantly, nobody wants to sing along to a song about how you should marry an ugly woman because they’ll cook and clean and not make you feel threatened! It’s too overtly mean-spirited and misogynistic for even most misogynists to have a fun time with, and the actual tune is too basic and unadorned to ignore it. Jimmy Soul’s only other song to gain any success whatsoever after this was “Treat ‘em Tough” (about the importance of occasional domestic violence, natch) and by the time he recorded a follow-up album, times were already changing and his reputation was cemented as an annoying, sexist shithead. Good riddance.
#3: Lesley Gore- Judy’s Turn to Cry
While “It’s My Party” definitely wallows excessively in its own teenage angst, I’m willing to cut it some slack because, hey. We’ve all been there, right? Who hasn’t cried a bit over their own dumb relationship drama, especially as a teen? “Judy’s Turn to Cry” receives no such lenience, pivoting focus from Gore’s own emotional distress to her gleefully spiteful payback against the girl who stole her boyfriend in “It’s My Party”; to a tee, it’s “Misery Business” for the juke joint crowd. However, where Paramore’s punkish leanings allowed Hayley Williams to project some real malice into her vocal delivery and play up the part of the merciless alpha bitch, here the Disnified doo-wop style does the subject matter no favors at all- It feels entirely unaware of its own cruelty, and that tanks the song almost singlehandedly, despite Gore’s worthy vocal performance and a passable arrangement.
#2: Lou Christie- Two Faces Have I
I feel like this song was written and recorded to punish me personally for complaining so much about Frankie Valli. Lou Christie and the suits at Roulette Records somehow gazed into the future, saw me writing these lists, and said to themselves “Oh ho ho, you think that’s annoying?? You think Frankie Valli has an unlistenably terrible voice??? By the time we’re through here, you’ll be begging for his dulcet tones!”. This is the only conceivable measure by which this song does not fail utterly: It does, in fact, make me feel more than a little foolish about bagging on The Four Seasons for Valli’s vocal delivery, because Lou Christie is leagues upon leagues worse. It’s tough to say whether Christie is the single worst pop vocalist of the entire 1960s- Among several others, Larry Verne and Bobby Vee both give him some extremely stiff competition- but at least as far as singing which any right-thinking person ought to reject entirely within seconds of hearing it, he’s certainly up there. If you can listen to “two faces have iiiiiiiii….. I-EE-I-EE-I-EE-I-EE-A-HIIIIIII” without feeling a primal, visceral rage building inside you, then you’re made of stronger stuff than I am.
#1: Bill Anderson- Still
Country crooner Bill Anderson marked his only major pop crossover this year with “Still”, a gag-inducingly maudlin ode to a lover who has left him behind. The pokey, lackluster instrumental brings no life whatsoever to the proceedings, leaving Anderson himself to do most of the heavy lifting with his voice and lyrics- a dire plight for any song. Here’s “Still”: although they’re no longer together, he still has feelings for this girl. It’s a well-worn premise, but the execution misses the mark by a very wide margin. Anderson has always had a very soft, gentle vocal style, and while one might think this could be employed to project some kind of emotional fragility, it’s put to use on two utterly nauseating spoken passages, where Anderson somehow comes off as both completely unperturbed by his recent heartbreak and willfully ignorant of how creepy and pathetic it is to tell your ex that you still love them and have no intention of moving on any time soon. It’s a mirthless, wince-inducing slog all-around, in my opinion the worst hit song of the entire year.