The bad songs of 1966 were, predictably, largely a blend of trend-hopping opportunism and the outdated ‘50s pop that was still gasping its last few breaths of popular relevancy, with that weird sort of half-50s/half-70s gunk I’ve mentioned before filling up the remainder. By now the ‘60s were in full swing, and plenty of songwriters and singers found themselves scrambling to keep pace with the changing times. Many rose to the occasion and created pop culture mainstays that have stood tall for decades, but listening through the 1966 year-end Hot 100 proved how much it really took to create worthwhile art in such turbulent times, especially for those who came up short in talent, effort, or both. To paraphrase essayist Ian Danskin, “Most people don’t beat the odds. That’s how odds work.” The following 10 songs, needless to say, did not beat the odds. On with the show!
#10: The Rolling Stones- Paint it Black
I don’t like the Rolling Stones. I find the majority of their songs to be forgettable, hookless rehashes of blues and early rock cliches, and more specifically, Mick Jagger’s vocals have never impressed me in the least. They’ve been around long enough to rack up a handful of tunes I love (including this year’s “19th Nervous Breakdown”), but let it be known right now that I am by no means a fan of theirs, and they have no pre-existing goodwill in my eyes to keep them off a worst list when one of their songs rubs me particularly wrong. And, if there’s one song that exemplifies my inability to grasp the Stones’ appeal, it’s “Paint it Black”, one of their best-loved singles. It has a similarly dark vibe as last year’s “Heart Full of Soul”, but because that song was about a guy wallowing over a regular old breakup, that darkness felt like (melo)dramatic coloring to give a common subject matter a unique tone. “Paint it, Black”, on the other hand, is about the narrator’s significant other dying unexpectedly and leaving him spiraling into depression, which I would argue requires a level of lyrical tact that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards simply aren’t capable of. It’s a sullen, pouty bore, nihilism and depression as explained by a pissy 16-year-old. The poetry here is just laughably immature: “Like a newborn baby, it just happens every day” is one of the lamest attempts at simile ever put to vinyl, and the repeated rhyming of “black” with “black” stands out as particularly weak writing. The musical component redeems it a bit: the melody is fairly solid, and there are a couple worthwhile ideas floating around in the composition. Still, the transition from verse to chorus feels blurry and haphazard, and the production is inexcusably shoddy to boot, with the twangy sitar jutting out awkwardly in the mix. Overall, this is one “classic” that I just can’t co-sign, even if it has just enough energy and flavor to it that I can’t outright hate it either.
#9: Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs- Li’l Red Riding Hood
I’ll admit I have a soft spot for spooky, slightly menacing love songs. I think that, broadly speaking, romance and horror is an under-appreciated combination, and the more curdled, unpleasant side of romance can often yield really interesting material. But “Li’l Red Riding Hood” just plain doesn’t work. If you’re going to take the premise of “The Big Bad Wolf singing a love song to Little Red Riding Hood”, you have to play up that danger, go whole-hog on a more predatorial vibe so it feels like a deliberate, cohesive artistic choice. The Pharaohs manage a solid instrumental for this, utilizing a stalking beat and minor-key guitar/bass bounce to conjure the appropriate fairytale creepiness. But the lyrics just half-ass it and the whole thing falls to pieces. Especially that line at the end: “Even bad wolves can be good”? No, dammit! If you can’t give the big bad wolf anything even vaguely threatening to say, why even bother making them the narrator? To make matters worse, Sam the Sham’s store-brand Mick Jagger vocals don’t sell me at all on him as the voice of a wolf, and the chorus especially feels like it stumbles and fails to carry the mood of the verses. There’s a germ of a good idea here, but instead of rising to meet that idea’s potential, this song thoroughly flops.
#8: Tommy James and the Shondells- Hanky Panky
Well, I hope you enjoy listening to Tommy James singing “My baby does the hanky panky” because if you don’t, then you’re SOL for about 70% of this song. This thing is repetitive, it’s repetitive, it’s repetitive, and it’s also repetitive, from the incessant title line to the lone verse, which they repeat twice. Sometimes, if you have a particularly strong musical or lyrical phrase, you can get away with repeating yourself this much, but “Hanky Panky” has nothing to offer but a plain jane, mid-tempo 12-bar blues. I know firsthand how easy it is to write lyrics to a 12-bar blues. Plenty of people make up blues lyrics on the spot, and still manage to sound more intelligent and engaging than James does here. To make things even worse, it’s also produced terribly: the vocals are completely buried by the guitar and drums, and the solo uses the exact same lead tone as the rest of the song. In a format so easy to fudge your way through, this level of non-creativity is almost impressive. Almost.
#7: Tommy Roe- Hooray for Hazel
Tommy Roe is famous for being one of the most popular “bubblegum pop” artists of the late 60s, and I think that genre descriptor is what I can chalk up a lot of my issues with his work to. The same way pink bubblegum offers a very flat, one-dimensionally sweet flavor, bubblegum pop (to me at least) seems to traffic in chipper, upbeat melodies and rhythms with as little substance or bite to them as possible. It’s cheap, disposable, and plastic, and the better specimens of the genre (like the Jackson 5) know that and make attempts to work that to their advantage. Roe’s songs, on the other hand, all just sound like regular pop tunes presented and arranged in an extremely shallow way, and “Hooray for Hazel” is no exception. Bitterly fantasizing about a callous heartbreaker getting her just desserts isn’t illegitimate as a subject matter, but the music is so one-note happy and smiley that it can’t even act as an ironic counterpoint to the lyrics; it just feels like Roe is unaware of what the song is actually about. If you have the stomach for this kind of cotton-candy musical treacle, you might find something to enjoy here, but personally I prefer pop that doesn’t feel like it’s giving me cavities.
#6: B.J. Thomas- I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
First thing’s first: I love Hank Williams. The man’s gift for plain-spoken lyricism that tugs on the heartstrings and for writing melodies that somehow sound like they’d existed for centuries before he uncovered them has yet to be topped in the nearly 70 years since his death, even with the slew of genres and full-fledged musical empire that has been built atop his legacy. Covering Hank Sr. is to country what covering Nirvana or Queen is to rock: you are attempting to reinterpret nigh-sacred texts, and if you only get 90 or so percent of the way there, then it might as well be sacrilege. And 90% is right about where BJ Thomas lands with his rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. The main reason Hank Sr.’s original is so powerful is because of its restraint. There are no showy vocal runs and the instrumentation is barebones and restricted to the back of the mix, leaving Hank’s heartbroken voice to ring out, beautiful and raw. Here, Thomas is simply trying way too hard. He’s just hamming it all the way up, with a Vegas-y croon that doesn’t fit the song’s despondent tone at all, and the simple addition of a flute and horns tips the instrumental over into being entirely too much. It’s still a great song at its core, and Thomas doesn’t totally butcher it or anything, but this rendition nonetheless falls squarely into the “didn’t need to exist” category of cover songs.
#5: The Sandpipers- Guantanamera
“Guantanamera” is a song with a lot of history behind it. It originated in the early 30s as a patriotic Cuban folk song, based on writings by the revolutionary philosopher José Martí. In 1963, folk legend Pete Seeger included a rendition of the song on his live album We Shall Overcome, in the hopes that it would encourage unity between America and Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis, and to that end he included a section where he explained the song’s Spanish lyrics in English, so that his American audience could better connect with it. Three years later, easy-listening outfit The Sandpipers released their own rendition, based on the Pete Seeger cover, and this evolution of the song is a great lesson in sociopolitical recuperation. If the original recordings by Cuban artists were a radical celebration of Cuban national identity, and Pete Seeger’s more broadly palatable version was a well-meaning attempt to bridge the cultural gap between Cuba and America, the Sandpipers version represents the song’s final, recuperated form: stripped of anything that might challenge or threaten a white, middle-class audience, reduced to completely hollow exoticism. Seeger’s version works entirely because of the surrounding context- specifically, the performer’s earnest desire to bring people together. Without that context, the English explanation of the lyrics just feels condescending, as though it’s trying to reassure the suburbanites that they aren’t listening to anything too “ethnic”. The vocals and instrumentation here are fittingly anodyne; they lack any zest or energy, and complete the impression of this rendition as a shallow exercise in cultural tourism.
#4: Johnny Rivers- The Poor Side of Town
Right out of the gate, my reaction to this song bordered on allergic: “What the hell is this? This can’t be Johnny Rivers. Johnny Rivers is a swaggering, rockabilly badass. He’s the “Midnight Special” and “Secret Agent Man” guy, why am I listening to this sappy trad-pop garbage?” If Rivers’ goal in releasing this was to get everyone off his back from swiping so much from his black peers, then it must have been a resounding success, because he is magnitudes worse at impersonating Cole Porter than he is at impersonating Chuck Berry or Harold Dorman. This snoozy tripe had been past its expiry date for ages at this point, and we were finally almost free of its influence on the pop charts, and here it is being dragged back into the top 10 by a guy who by all indications should have known better. I didn’t want to hear this kind of music from anybody in 1966, much less an artist who had already proven himself capable of making something with an actual pulse. The lyrics, about reconnecting with a woman who left him for a guy with bigger pockets, are fine enough, but they just aren’t very well-served by the mellow, orchestrated style here, and more importantly, they don’t offer anything dozens of better songs don’t also offer.
#3: The Lovin’ Spoonful- Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind
The Lovin’ Spoonful have generally stayed on my good side since their chart debut last year. Most of their hits are pretty agreeable little pop tunes, and “Do You Believe in Magic?” might have even squeaked its way onto a best list if it had come out in a weaker year. Their particular brand of lightweight, carefree pop rock has never hit especially hard for me, but frontman John Sebastian usually had strong enough melodic instincts to make their material inoffensive at worst. All this makes the complete failure that is this song all the more confounding. “Did You Ever…” is not a novelty song, but tonally, it hits the exact same note of dunder-headed, 2-dollar hyucks that all the worst ‘60s novelty songs hit. It’s light and silly like most other Lovin’ Spoonful songs, but it lacks any of the likeability of their other hits because the lyric is pure farce, straight out of a terrible sitcom where a character is trying to date two people at once and HiJiNkS eNsUe!!! Musically, it has a more folksy, almost ragtime flavor to it than their previous material, and while that should be a natural fit for the band, who cut their teeth in the Greenwich Village folk scene, it doesn’t click at all, simultaneously highlighting the lyric’s shallow brainlessness and the band’s inability to project any real artistic credibility. Sebastian still manages a few satisfying moments in the vocal melody to save it from complete worthlessness, but all in all this is a thorough disappointment.
#2: Sgt. Barry Sadler- Ballad of the Green Berets
The vast majority of the time, I’m willing to take it for granted that pop songs I dislike were, in fact, genuinely popular in their day. For one reason or another, I don’t think these songs have much artistic merit, and let’s not forget that the charts have never been insulated from third-party tampering or even outright fraud, but I’m not so egotistical as to think that there’s no good reason why something I personally don’t enjoy could ever appeal to average, everyday listeners. But this? No. I refuse to accept that millions of people genuinely thought, at any point, that “Ballad of the Green Berets” was a truly well-written song worth spending their hard-earned money on. If you expect me to believe this was the single most popular song of 1966, you are absolutely out of your goddamn mind. The instrumentation is thin and rigid, Sadler’s vocal performance is as dull and disengaged as it gets, and the message is one of mindless, unquestioning patriotism. There’s nothing here that could possibly hook in anyone who isn’t already ravenous for any media that reaffirms their own hypernationalistic world view. No, this thing was baldly a ploy by the United States military to drum up some amount of jingoistic fervor in a public that was rapidly turning against their violent, unnecessary war in Vietnam, in the hopes of slightly delaying the inevitable backlash against it. If the military didn’t outright buy up copies of this song to inflate its sales numbers, I’d be willing to wager they were at least funneling a hefty chunk of change into pushing this record onto radio stations and into record stores. I might have been able to accept something like this picking up any kind of genuine grassroots traction at the start of the decade, but in the midst of the most creatively fertile period in the history of chart pop? Sorry, but the stench of astroturf and dark money coming off of this song is strong enough to turn my stomach.
#1: Sandy Posey- Born a Woman
The easy route to take with “Born a Woman” is to just say it’s one of the most blatantly misogynistic pop songs of the 60s, and with all the lyrics about how a woman’s purpose is to be society’s punching bag, there’s a pretty reasonable basis to that accusation. But there’s something about that reading that doesn’t sit quite right with me. It makes societal misogyny sound so ugly and unappealing, and never actually tries to justify it. I just can’t imagine any actual sexist writing about sexism the way songwriter Martha Sharpe does here. So is it trying to implicitly condemn misogyny, just by casting it in such an unflattering light? That also doesn’t work for me; the flip at the end, where the narrator says she’s glad to have been born a woman because of how wonderful her man is, flies in the face of everything that precedes it. If Sharpe wanted to criticize our collective mistreatment of women, she wouldn’t have ended the song by dismissing it all over something so trivial. So what is the point, then? Here’s what I think it is: “my husband is so awesome that I’m okay with sexism, actually”. Domestic abuse victims? Single mothers? Rape survivors? RIP them, but Sandy Posey’s different. If only those women had thought to find a good man like Sandy’s. Them’s the breaks. No, this song doesn’t endorse misogyny. It does something even worse: acknowledge misogyny, acknowledge it’s a bad thing, and then essentially say “I don’t care, because I already got mine”. I’m struggling to think of a worse, more unintentionally insulting way to write a song about how much you appreciate your partner. In the protest song era, this song had the gall to stare directly at unconscionable treatment of an entire gender, shrug, and move along on its merry way. Sure, Posey has a pretty voice. Sure, the instrumentation is inoffensive. And it’s all in service of an utterly disgusting message that the songwriter feels only half-aware she’s even sending.