Sunday, May 27, 2018

I Think We're A Random Confluence Of Two Tommy James & The Shondells Covers Now

I once had a conversation with a co-worker about Tommy James and the Shondells. As one often does. I assumed that he, like many people, was familiar with their long string of eminently hummable late '60s hits, but might not have been aware that each of those hits had been performed by Tommy James and the Shondells (I've also had variations of this exact conversation regarding the collected works of Three Dog Night). After I listed several song titles, he nodded sagely and grinned in recognition, before pausing in thought. "You know," he said, "Those are all songs that are kind of about sex, but not quite." I hadn't ever looked at the TJ&S catalog from that angle. "Hanky Panky." "Do Something to Me." "Crystal Blue Persuasion." Hmmm. A fine legacy for an artist. I can almost see the inscription on James's tombstone now: "Master of Songs That Were Sort of About Sex, But Not Quite."

By 1987, James wasn't master of anything other than the oldies revival circuit (although Joan Jett's 1982 cover of "Crimson and Clover" was perhaps a sign of royalty payments to come), but he was in luck: after a period in which pop songs had become more blatant on the subject of fornication, there was suddenly a desperate thirst, once more, for songs that were sort of about sex, but not quite. To paraphrase Huey Lewis, it was hip to be coy. James's time had come.

Fame came much more quickly to one Tiffany Darwish of Norwalk, California (originally of - hold on a second - Irish, Native American, Syrian, and Lebanese descent?). After touring Alaska when she was eleven years old, she appeared on Star Search, finishing in second place (just as she would in her rivalry with Debbie Gibson - burn!). Svengali manager George Tobin, sensing a bloodthirsty appetite for faceless pop among the teens and pre-teens of the world, set Tiffany out on a tour of shopping malls and dubbed it "The Beautiful You: Celebrating The Good Life Shopping Mall Tour '87." Who wouldn't want to head down to the local shopping mall and see that? Never heard of the performer? Who cares, this show's not about the performer, it's about you - the beautiful you. Well in that case. According to Wikipedia, Ms. Darwish initially hated the idea of covering "I Think We're Alone Now," deeming it "neither modern enough nor hip enough." Ironically, in 2018, Tommy James's version may sound both more modern and more hip than Tiffany's version does, but in 1987, at any rate, her instincts couldn't have been more off than if she'd tried to, I don't know, record Irish-Lebanese teen-pop for Alaskans.

There are two moments in the bridge that reveal Tiffany's arguable limitations as a vocalist: 1) When she hits the word "night" on "Trying to get away into the night," she attempts this pseudo-rocker growl that, to these ears at least, sounds amusingly contrived; 2) She tries to string together the words in the line "And then we tumble to the ground and then you say" really sloppily and bluesily, like she's Mick Jagger or Jim Morrison or somebody much raunchier than her. Every time the bridge appears in the song, she delivers these lines with the same exact affectation. It's not a complete wash: the little overdubbed harmony she performs with herself on the line "anyone around" is a nice touch. She definitely sounds like a sad little teen whose parents just won't let her run away with her equally sad little boyfriend. The key to the song's success, of course, was that her target audience (including yours truly) was living in complete ignorance of the original. Here were my eight-year-old thoughts: "Wow! Where did Tiffany come up with this great new song? And if she could come up with a song this great, how many more great songs is she going to come up with?"

Do you think Weird Al intended "I Think I'm a Clone Now" to be a comment on the manufactured and pre-packaged nature of teen-pop sensations such as Tiffany? Or am I reading too much into things? It's funny how the quality of the musical backing on Weird Al's version is easily on par with Tiffany's; the budget for his version might have actually been higher than hers. Most groan-inducing puns: "I guess you could say/I'm really beside myself" and "Cause every pair of genes is a hand-me-down." Humor that sharp could never be ... duplicated.

Like Tiffany, William Michael Albert Broad is better known to the world by a much shorter name. And like Sweet or Kiss before him, he managed to cultivate an image of being a total hard-rocking badass while essentially making radio-friendly pop singles. Lest anyone accuse Billy Idol of jumping on some sort of "Tommy James Revival Train," it should be noted that he originally covered "Mony Mony" in 1981. However, to promote his excellently named 1987 remix collection Vital Idol, he released a live cover of "Mony Mony," which, in one of those Billboard chart oddities that one might be tempted to imbue with some grand meaning, but is probably about as random as the weather, eventually bumped "I Think We're Alone Now" off the top of the charts. Or maybe Tommy James was secretly plotting to take over the world THE WHOLE TIME. If that was indeed the plan, using Tiffany and Billy Idol as his agents of doom was certainly an unexpected strategy. Although I think the live version of "Mony Mony" is strong (as live versions go), I'm ultimately partial to the studio version; both somehow manage to out-sleaze the already-sleazy original. And even though the live version is what officially hit #1, the odd thing is, I feel like I remember Top 40 radio playing both versions. It's been a long time since I've come across the live version on the dial, let's just say that.

I love performers whose hair is whiter than their skin. Also: At first I thought it was amazing how Idol's leather jacket mysteriously managed to fly off his chest at some point between the first and second verse, but then I noticed the little jacket twirl at 1:28, and breathed a continuity sigh of relief. I should also mention the part where he starts to grope the keyboardist in the slinky red dress and she gets a look on her face that seems to say, "Erm, not now Billy, we're on stage!"

So I guess Weird Al figured that, if he was going to parody one recent Tommy James cover on Even Worse, he might as well parody the other, right? Which brings me to, in my humble opinion, one of the unheralded gems in the Yankovic catalog: "Alimony." Al turns James's/Idol's paean to lust into a bitter lament over the unseemly financial fine print of a marriage gone wrong. It's hard to say what Billy Idol was so worked up about in his version, but this guy? No wonder he sounds so sweaty. She took his toothbrush too? Show the poor schlub some mercy. At least no one could accuse Weird Al's take as being a song that's sort of about sex, but not quite; this couple clearly hasn't slept together for decades. Amusingly, "Alimony" is a parody of the live version, complete with fake audience ambiance and the whole works. I'll say this: if Tommy James ever happened to find himself staring down any ugly alimony payments in the late '80s, let's hope he received some nice financial assistance from all this malarkey.


Herr Zrbo said...

I just love Yankovic's attention to detail. Making "Alimony" sound live is just hilarious. He's not just spoofing the song, he's spoofing the version that people at the time would have been familiar with. And he really captures Idol's growling. I put the song on while I went to pour some coffee and I kinda forgot that I wasn't listening to Idol's version.

Little Earl said...

Right? Comedy isn't merely about the content; it's about the delivery. It's as if an Arena Rock superstar suddenly dropped his guard in front of an entire stadium of fans, and started giving them an intimate glimpse into his mundane domestic troubles. I mean, her lawyers are calling him on the telephony ... bleeding him dry as a stony, stony! This is probably the crap that aging rock stars REALLY want to be singing about, not hooking up with some random groupie.