It has to be clarified here that, whenever I say a chart year was “good” or “bad”, I’m always speaking pretty broadly. Every year delivers a wide range of quality: you get some good, some bad, and a whole lot of just-kinda-ehh. That’s just the way it is when you’re looking at stuff marketed to such a broad audience. Even the worst years have their share of highlights, and more to the point, even the best years aren’t exempt from the rotten stuff. For all the wonderful, forward-thinking music 1965 gave us, we also got enough duds to round out another year’s rogue’s gallery. An interesting thing I’ve noticed around this period is that, stylistically, the bad music tends to occupy a sort of dead zone between bad ‘50s music and bad ‘70s music- too overwrought and schmaltzy to be of a piece with the previous decade, but still too stiff and bland to predict the sounds that would take hold as the cultural upheavals of the 60s settled into a new status quo. Much of it doesn’t feel particularly reflective of its time- not least because its time was good, and these songs are anything but. On with the show!
#10: Patty Duke- Don’t Just Stand There
Over the years, I’ve found that the vast majority of actors who attempt careers as musicians are simply not up to the task. Whether it’s teen starlets like Zendaya trying to prove their versatility as entertainers, or middle-aged eccentrics like Johnny Depp trying to stave off a midlife crisis, most of the time it just feels like vanity. Sadly, actress Patty Duke is no exception to this. Duke actually bailed on her recording career after less than three years and never looked back, and if that doesn’t give you an idea of how unenthused she was about singing, then her utterly half-hearted performance on “Don’t Just Stand There” should really hammer it home. She just flat-out isn’t a professional singer, nor does it sound like she has any particular inclination to be one. It’s a shame, too, since the half-decent composition could have been brought to life much better by a Ronnie Spector or even a Lesley Gore. But hey, at least Duke quickly realized she wasn’t cut out to be a pop star, and spent the rest of her career focusing on what she was actually good at. I think we’re all much better off for it.
#9: The Beau Brummels- Laugh, Laugh
“Laugh, Laugh” opens with these lines: “I hate to say it, but I told you so/Don’t mind my preaching to you”. Right off the bat, if you think that comes off as rather taunting and smug, then believe me, nothing in the rest of the song is going to win you over. As nuanced and powerful as “Like a Rolling Stone” is, “Laugh, Laugh” is on-the-nose and graceless. Bob Dylan was able to get away with so brutally castigating his song’s subject, both because he phrased it all so poetically and because the vitriol was largely implied, letting his delivery and the forceful instrumentation color his words. Here, it’s all laid out explicitly, in broad, stupid daylight: “you didn’t listen to my advice, and it bit you in the ass, so neener-neener, guess I was right then, huh bitch?”. The lightweight pop-rock instrumental fails to lend it any kind of greater texture or emotion, leaving the song as a flat, one-dimensional exercise in mean-spirited mockery.
#8: Little Anthony & the Imperials- Take Me Back
Songs where the singer begs for forgiveness from a scorned ex-lover can be pretty tricky to pull off. You need to manage the tone extremely well, and projecting genuine remorse and desire to rekindle a romance while not coming off as desperate or overly-needy is not an easy line to toe. “Take Me Back” errs decisively on the side of “desperate and overly-needy”. The narrator is prostrating himself before his ex, literally begging them to not only scold but hurt him, begging the question of just what kind of relationship they had prior to their split. It comes off as completely pitiful, and not in a good, so-brutally-honest-it’s-compelling way. Singer Anthony Gourdine’s slightly-too-nasal vocals only make it seem more blubbering and clingy, and the instrumental has a Broadway-ish melodrama to it that completes its impression as overwrought and generally unlikeable.
#7: The McCoys- Hang on Sloopy
“Hang on Sloopy” isn’t an awful song overall. The vocals are fine. The arrangement is kind of boring but still passable. Even the lyrics are mostly okay, if a little underwritten: It’s about how the narrator’s girlfriend is a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, but he doesn’t care if people judge him for going out with her. I can’t find anything to object to here, except for one major, MAJOR thing. The girl’s name is “Sloopy”. Her name, which they repeat incessantly throughout the entire song, is fucking Sloopy. I cannot possibly overstate how much this one single word hurts the song. It’s a completely ridiculous name for a character, and singer Rick Derringer (yes, that Rick Derringer, of “Rock and Roll Hoochie-Koo” and “Real American” fame) plays it dead straight. Why? Apparently she was based on an actual woman who went by Sloopy, but if one specific detail makes your entire song a thousand times worse, you can just change that detail to something else. There are dozens upon dozens of two-syllable feminine names that would have fit the vocal cadence flawlessly, and they never even rhyme it with anything (probably because most of the words that rhyme with “Sloopy” are even more unpleasant to hear sung), leaving absolutely no excuse for the songwriters to use a name that was so utterly doofy. There’s a very good reason why almost everyone who has fond memories of this song remembers the instrumental marching band renditions popular at sporting events in The McCoy’s native Ohio, and not the original article.
#6: Joe Tex- Hold What You’ve Got
I haven’t been shy in trumpeting the virtues of the soul and R&B of the 60s. I have a lot of affection for the genre as a whole, but just because a song has that classic sound doesn’t automatically guarantee I’ll fall head-over-heels for it. R&B lifer Joe Tex, who had been struggling for nearly 10 years to ride the rising tide of soul to mainstream success, finally got his big break in late 1964 with “Hold What You’ve Got”, and it really is a shame that he couldn’t have broken through with a better song. It’s mostly just a little dull, poking along inoffensively in 6/8 time, until those damned spoken sections come in. I’ve complained about this before, but it always bears repeating: if you don’t have the charisma and presence to 100% knock it out of the park, a spoken section in your song is almost always a terrible mistake that can tank even an otherwise decent tune. And oh boy, does Joe Tex tank here. Not only do the spoken sections highlight the extremely patronizing, soapboxy tone of the whole song, they also parrot some stereotypical gender roles that were already eye-rollingly passé in 1965. Come on here, the woman stays at home and cooks and cleans while the man works hard and brings home the bacon? This stuff had been beaten into the ground years before Tex had the temerity to chide listeners for- get this- allowing their partners to cheat on them. When I listen to soul music, I want passion, energy, good vibes and romance. All this delivers is a lecture from a rightfully bygone era.
#5: Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders- Game of Love
Ah, and on the topic of “bad songs from genres I usually like”… I think I’ve made it plain that I’m in agreement with the critical establishment that the British invasion was a much-needed breath of fresh air into the charts of the 1960s, finally ending the reign of stodgy, beige doo-wop and brill building pop. A critical piece of the mythos of the British invasion, however, is that it ushered in a time of changing ideals, a time of rethinking and challenging the social orders of the day, and while that isn’t entirely untrue, I think it can sometimes be a bit overstated. I’ve read enough rock biographies and tell-all memoirs to know that Keith Richards and Dave Davies weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to get out and march in the streets with MLK or Gloria Steinem. As it turns out, freaking out the squares is not, in fact, the same thing as effecting any actual change, but in my view this is only a real, pressing issue in the case of groups like The Mindbenders. With “Game of Love”, Wayne Fontana and co. attempted to use the hip new beat style to smuggle the exact same restrictive gender norms into a new era of chart pop. “The purpose of a man is to love a woman/And the purpose of a woman is to love a man”? This is the exact same Adam-and-Eve Sunday school drivel that had been clogging up pop for well over a decade at this point, with only a thin veneer of free-love coolness slapped on top to try and get the kids dancing to it. It’s bad enough that this stuff was even still around in ‘65, but the flimsy attempts to sweeten the bitter pill of biological essentialism only make it all the worse.
#4: The Kingsmen- Jolly Green Giant
The Kingsmen are best known for their rendition of “Louie, Louie”- as the history books tell it, the first garage rock song ever to reach a wide audience. However, by the time “Louie, Louie” was topping the charts, drummer Lynn Easton, who had the rights to the band’s name because his mother was the one who registered it, had declared himself the new frontman and relegated singer Jack Ely to the kit, leading to Ely’s resignation shortly thereafter. By the time they put out “Jolly Green Giant”, only two original members remained- Easton and guitarist Mike Mitchell. Now, I’m pretty lukewarm on “Louie, Louie”- whatever genre-birthing vibrancy it had in 1963 has, I feel, dulled substantially over time- but the drop in quality from that to “Jolly Green Giant” is still completely galling; garage rock fans in ‘65 must have been rioting over this. There’s no way around it: This is a commercial jingle, right down to the dumbass low voice saying the names of various vegetables between every line. It predicts the modern phenomenon of indie rock being swallowed whole by ad agencies in the worst way, a humiliating fate for a group now thankfully remembered for much better work.
#3: Herman’s Hermits- I’m Henry the Eighth, I am
As the British invasion tightened its grip on the charts, it was inevitable that, along with trailblazing innovators like The Beatles and affable second-stringers like Manfred Mann, some less-than-stellar groups would be swept in along with them. High tides raise all ships, after all, even the vessels that barely pass for seaworthy. For a prime example, look no further than Herman’s Hermits, who in 1965 exploded into nigh-on Beatlesque levels of popularity, notching 5 entries on the year-end list. Of those, none particularly impressed me, but “I’m Henry the Eighth, I am” was the only one to truly get on my nerves. I’m honestly given to wonder if the reason for their sudden popularity was because label heads were scrambling to export any young British group stateside, and Herman’s Hermits are one of the most screamingly British groups I’ve ever encountered. Vocalist Peter Noone sings both this and the slightly-better “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” in a Lancashire accent so nebbishy and nasal that comedians of the day must have been scratching their heads trying to think up a more exaggerated parody of the newly omnipresent British pop stars. All this wouldn’t have mattered much if the song was actually worthwhile, but it’s a goofy, barely-there scrap of a tune that exhausts its entire arsenal of ideas by the 30-second mark, making its slight 1:50 runtime feel interminable.
#2: Tom Jones- What’s New Pussycat?
Comedian John Mulaney has a story about how he and a friend once trolled a local diner by queuing over a dozen plays of Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat?” on the in-house jukebox. It’s a fantastic bit, and deservedly one of Mulaney’s most well-known. Given that Mulaney’s audience generally trends towards younger, internet-savvy millennials and gen-Zers, the comments section for the official YouTube upload of this song is naturally lousy with people joking about the infamous Salt and Pepper Diner. Crucially, many of those comments say something to this effect of “now I understand why everyone in that diner got so mad”. Much like “Surfin’ Bird” last year, “What’s New Pussycat” is a song that feels uniquely suited to torturing unsuspecting strangers. Tom Jones has a vocal style I can only describe as “brassy”. It wouldn’t be fair to call him a bad singer- he clearly isn’t- but if the man has one single ounce of subtlety or restraint in his entire body, it certainly isn’t anywhere near his vocal chords, and “What’s New Pussycat?” is arguably his worst song because the composition does so little to mitigate the overwhelming flavor his voice has. The squonking tuba, the crazed waltz time, the tinkling harpsichord, all of it just blurs into fleshy extensions of Jones’ braying baritone. It’s so full-thrust bombastic that listening to it becomes almost physically taxing by the end of a single listen, let alone five or more. It’s the kind of song that makes it feel like the world is playing a cruel joke on you if it comes on when you’re already in a bad mood. Oh, and lyricist Hal David drastically underestimated how unpleasant hearing the word “pussycat” belted out over and over is.
#1: Shirley Ellis- The Name Game
Before listening through this year’s hot 100, I knew “The Name Game”. Of course, I knew “The Name Game”, just like everyone else who has attended an American primary school or church youth group at any point in the past half-century. It just never occurred to me that this song had ever been, you know, a real song. A capital-S Song that was recorded and released by a professional singer and purchased by enough people to be forever etched into pop history. And I don’t hate “The Name Game”, really, I don’t. It’s good the same way “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Frere Jacques” is good: it’s an effective way to introduce toddlers to the concept of music (or in this case, help them remember the names of their classmates). I’m going to take a hard stance here. Nursery rhymes in general and “The Name Game” in particular do not belong on the charts. I don’t care if they got a hip R&B track to put it over, I don’t care that Shirley Ellis has a decent singing voice, THE GODDAMNED NAME GAME DOES NOT BELONG ON THE POP CHARTS. It belongs in kindergarten classrooms and nowhere else. These songs are not meant to be listened to, they’re meant to be taught and sung, specifically by kids who are learning how to sing for the first time. Why on earth would anybody put this thing on for the pleasure of just hearing it? The main melody has TWO NOTES. That’s why it became a nursery rhyme, because it’s at a level of complexity a tiny child’s brain can grasp and process. People who’ve graduated potty training generally need a little more to stimulate their grey matter, and the fact that this was released for a general audience can only be read as a scathing insult to the intelligence of the listening public from everyone involved in its creation.