Tuesday, May 20, 2008

It Never Got Better Than This

I love many kinds of music, and many songs that have nothing in common with each other. To be honest, the reactions of my easy-listening friends and my head-banger friends to music that doesn’t suit them disappoints me a bit. I don’t understand how people can develop such a rut that they can’t skip to another groove.

I am going to discuss a song that nearly everyone, regardless of age, level of musical sophistication, self-perceived musical superiority or affiliation with Rolling Stone can sing from memory. Everyone knows this song because there has never been a better pop song.

The song is “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies (Calendar 1008).

Any Major Dude, whom I respect as a champion of spectacular music, has not included this song in the Perfect Pop series on his blog. Maybe he won’t. But I can make a case, both technical and personal, for “Sugar, Sugar” as the definition of popular music, perhaps even populist music. From its misunderstood origins to its effect on the careers of its writers, the song has earned smirks from writers who could not stop humming it. I’m going to get militant as I tell you why a memorable pop song is not by nature a pop song to be avoided.

I start with the genesis of the song. Ronnie Dante says that Jeff Barry had encouraged Andy Kim to come up with something for the Archies to record. Andy got the idea for the first bit and presented it to Jeff over the phone. They developed the tune together, with Jeff providing the keyboard hook and some lyrics I’ll get to shortly.

Other writers and producers had created bubblegum music. “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” and “Chewy, Chewy” come to mind. Are they perfect pop songs? No. Why do I say “Sugar, Sugar” reaches that level?

Jeff Barry aimed a lot of his 1960s songs at young teens. In this respect, he was considerably ahead of his peers in understanding the intellectual power, and the purchasing power, of that demographic. Whereas the Ohio Express songs seek to combine a catchy melody with inane lyrics, Jeff’s songs were vibrant enough to energize the young and vital enough to impress music historians. It’s no accident that “Have I ever told you how good it feels to hold you” has been honored by the Library of Congress, while “I got love in my tummy and I feel like lovin’ you” has not.

The difference is that Jeff did not try to capitalize on the innocence of youth; he celebrated it. He still does. If you lament that children are now singing “Shawty need a refund, needa bring that nigga back/Just like a refund, I make her bring that ass back,” you are not alone, and it’s not age that makes one sad about where lyrics have gone.

When Jeff was asked by Don Kirshner to write for the Archies, Jeff did so with a goal of bridging the gap between kiddie pop and adult pop. Jeff risked his stature as a serious producer/writer when he took on this task. He and Andy Kim succeeded with “Sugar, Sugar,” above all other Archies tunes. Andy got it started, and Jeff knew this was a keeper.

The risk paid off commercially, but the intelligentsia, in the throes of psychedelia and Beatlemania, among other –ias, branded Jeff as a simplistic writer. A number of years later, one critic of this ilk asked Jeff why he didn’t write for adults. Jeff replied that recently he had heard a line by Rod McKuen: “I just can’t believe the loveliness of loving you.” The critic replied that Jeff should have written lines like that.

“Fuck you,” Jeff replied. “I wrote that. It’s from ‘Sugar, Sugar.’”

That is part of why “Sugar, Sugar” is a perfect pop song. It’s not about laughing all the way to the bank, like High School Musical 2. It’s about making music that neither shuts out kids nor sends their parents screaming from the room. Compare “Pour a little sugar on me, honey” with “Pour some sugar on me,” and tell me that the lyric Def Leppard echoed is really more adult than the Archies original.

The “Sugar, Sugar” recording session shows another level of sophistication that people tend not to hear. For the first fifteen or so unnumbered takes, Jeff couldn’t get his drummer, Gary Chester (born Cesario Gurciullo, 1924-1987), to match what Jeff was feeling for the song. Unlike the session for Andy Kim’s “Baby, I Love You,” Jeff persevered. He wound up standing in front of his drummer, swaying to the beat in his head to keep the tempo surprisingly slow. Jeff had no use for the frenetic pace of a kiddie tune here.

As the end of the second chorus approaches, Ron Dante sings “You are my candy, girl, and you got me . . . wanting you.” After “me,” he sucks in his breath, the way people do when someone attractive walks by. I asked whose idea that was, and Ron said it was Jeff’s. It is such a subtle touch that kids would never hear it, yet adults know what it implies. No need to say what “wanting you” means; the lyric stays kid-friendly and the breathing provides the subtext. I didn’t hear it as a kid, but I hear it now, every time, and I nod in approval of the tactic.

Did that mean Jeff controlled the song too much? Ron Dante himself came up with the “Whoa-oh-oh” part that leads out of the second verse. At that point the song crosses into soul music; counterpoint shouts of “honey” crop up, and after Toni Wine sings the low “Betty” version of “I’m gonna make your life so sweet,” she belts the high, Aretha-like “Veronica” version of the same phrase. She told me she crafted that pair of singing personalities.

Now, with a pretty good track ready for release, it was up to the kids to buy it once they heard it, right? Ron Dante said that, after two very kid-oriented singles, this third Archies release met with radio resistance simply because of the artist name. At last someone played it, and the listener response was so intense that the song could not be denied airplay. The result was a single that entered the Top 40 on August 16, 1969, spent four weeks at #1 starting September 20, and logged 22 weeks in the Hot 100. “Sugar, Sugar” was the RIAA Record of the Year for 1969. That consumer-driven success is what makes me call it a populist song as well as a popular one.

I have given you bio information on Jeff Barry and Andy Kim before, but I owe you Ron Dante and Toni Wine. Ron Dante, born Carmine Granito in 1945, sang the Archies hits, as well as “Tracy” by the Cuff Links. He also sang (but not the lead) on “Leader of the Laundromat” by the Detergents, a parody of “Leader of the Pack.” Everyone involved with the parody knew it would be subjected to a lawsuit for royalties by the writers of the original hit, among whom was Jeff Barry.

Ron Dante moved on from the Archies to production work for all of Barry Manilow’s records through about 1981. He sang background on “Mandy” and a number of other hits. He still performs regularly.

Toni Wine, born in 1947, wrote “A Groovy Kind of Love” when she was about 18, and she wrote “Candida” for Tony Orlando after she left the Archies. She and Robin Grean sang the backing vocals on “Candida” and “Knock Three Times”; don’t let Joel Whitburn fool you on this one. Ellie Greenwich didn’t participate in the Dawn recordings, but you can hear her on the Archies songs. Toni tours with Tony Orlando now.

While I’m at it, I should note that Gary Chester played drums on “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” as just the tip of his session-work iceberg.

And now it gets personal. As soon as “Sugar, Sugar” leapt onto WLS in August, 1969, I fell in love with it, along with the rest of the country. At home, I was the daytime caregiver for a very sick mother, and this song kept up my spirits. This one, and “Honky Tonk Women,” of all things.

I didn’t ask anyone to take me to the store to buy the 45, but I didn’t have to. I got a copy of it on the back of a cereal box. Four Archies tunes were featured on a cereal; I believe it was Sugar Crisp. I bought the cereal, hoping to get the right record (the songs weren’t named; you had to play them to know what you had), and on the third try, I had my song.

By 1969, though, my stereo tonearm had been snapped in two by rambunctious siblings, and finally the wires pulled loose. I bought a little record player from a neighbor for a dollar. Its drawback was that it played only 33 1/3 rpm records. So I played my Archies cereal box record at LP speed and imagined that it was playing faster. It was better than nothing. I would still have asked for the actual vinyl single, but it seemed sacrilegious to own such a cheery 45 when I was walking my mom to the toilet every couple of hours. I didn’t turn off the radio, though.

And yet, Mom rallied in late 1969. On November 12, she and I were watching the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, sitting together on the sofa, when Glen and the Lennon Sisters started singing “Sugar, Sugar.” My mom started swaying to the music, but I thought it was a ridiculous performance. If you wanted sacrilege, there it was. I snapped, “They should sing their own songs.”

My mom looked at me, her mouth open in shock, and I stomped off to my room. Fifty-nine days later, she died. And, you know, sometimes you can’t go back and apologize for screwing up a perfectly decent evening. She never asked me about it, and though I tried to make myself explain what had been going through my mind, I never could. That’s too bad, because she would have gotten it, after all those years of nurturing my musical tastes.

The day she died, “Don’t Cry Daddy” by Elvis Presley was #11, heading for #6. “Sugar, Sugar” had slipped out of the Hot 100 on December 20. That was a huge and unwelcome change in the radio landscape for me, but I still had my cereal box cutout, and I still played it at LP speed. Sometimes you have to make do with what you have left.

Saturday I’ll look at another Archies song, one that is evocative for different reasons. Thanks for reading. See you then.

Archies--Sugar, Sugar


Yah Shure said...

A little over a year ago on an xmfan.com discussion board, the subject of Richard Harris' "Mac Arthur Park" had a contributor in a dither. He simply couldn't believe that anyone could possibly like the record, then added, "What's next, a spirited defense of 'Sugar, Sugar'?"

Thank you for providing the most spirited, passionate and convincing defense of a song that continues to delight year after year. Sadly, this is the kind of record that neither radio nor the record companies are interested in today, thereby ensuring that countless young ears will never hear the kind of music that can engage them for the rest of their lives. And that is nothing short of tragic.

Thank you once again for a most eloquent post.

FYI, that xmfan discussion can be found beginning here:


stackja1945 said...

"radio nor the record companies are interested in today,"
So we have the Internet and the radio and the record companies will go out of business.
Not a fan of 'Sugar, Sugar' but I am of Richard Harris' "Mac Arthur Park". But we all have differences. So what.