In an attempt to find the perfect ingredients to make a #1 hit, rock groups have bickered for hours in a recording studio trying to put, as the Troggs once succinctly said, “some fairy dust” on a track.
Then there are groups that find themselves having a runaway hit from a song considered a throw-away. One glaring example is Tommy James and the Shondells’ #1 hit of 1966, “Hanky Panky.” Tommy James summed up the song that kick-started his career:
“I don’t think anybody can record a song that bad and make it sound good. It had to sound amateurish like that.”
Three years earlier, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (“Be My Baby,” “Da Doo Ron Ron”) wrote the tune in twenty minutes for their group, The Raindrops. Jeff admitted that the song “was terrible” and “wasn’t written to be a song, just a B-side.”
After a group called the Summits took an unsuccessful stab at it, The Raindrops released their version as the B-side to their single, “That Boy John.” The single sank in the charts but it didn’t deter a 17-year-old James to give “Hanky” a new recording life on the tiny Snap label only for it to meet the same sad commercial fate as its two pop predecessors. Two years later, Tommy was out of work in Michigan but not out of luck when a Pittsburgh DJ gave “Hanky Panky” some airplay; which made the local record-buying public take notice. Tommy soon found himself being courted by several New York-based record companies, only for them to suddenly back away from their initial offers once the mob-connected owner of Roulette Records, Morris Levy, who The Sopranos Hesh Rabkin character was based on, gave his competition an edict they dare not refuse. “Hanky Panky” proceeded to go Number One with a bullet—thankfully, not one from Mr. Levy.
As Tommy recalled: “One night I was playing for twenty drunks in a bar in Michigan and the next night I’m playing for 10,000 screaming fans in Pittsburgh. It was literally overnight.”
Another afterthought song that was recorded over one night was Bachman-Turner-Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” As the singer/songwriter, Randy Bachman, notes:
“It was a ‘work song.’ I used that song in the studio because of the light guitars on the verses and the heavy guitars in the choruses. I was producing BTO and to get an instrumental of light and heavy shades of music, the engineer and I would move the mikes around, get a different guitar, get a different kick drum sound, get a different bass sound, try different mikes. I stuttered over it to tease my brother, who stuttered. The guitars are not even in tune. But then the head of our label, Charlie Fach, came in and said, ‘Well, I’m looking for something to follow ‘Let It Ride’ and ‘Takin’ Care of Business,’ and I want you to get on Top 40 radio.’ And we didn’t have a song. The engineer said, ‘Why don’t you play him the work song?’ I said, ‘No, it’s lousy, it’s terrible.’ And Charlie said, ‘You got another song? Let’s hear it.’ We played him ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,’ and he said, ‘That’s it. It’s charming.’ But it was a joke song.”
This wasn’t the first time a joke song made serious money.
Case in point: The Turtles’ “Elenore.”
Its co-author, Howard Kaylan, said that the song was a slapdash satire of their monster hit “Happy Together” and only written (in one hour) to rile their record company, White Whale Records. He explained:
“It was never intended to be a straight-forward song. It was meant as an anti-love letter to White Whale Records’ who were constantly on our backs to bring them another ‘Happy Together.’ So I gave them a very skewed version. Not only with the chords changed, but with all these bizarre words. It was my feeling that they would listen to how strange and stupid the song was and leave us alone. But they didn’t get the joke.”
But Howard Kaylan certainly had the last laugh against Sirius XM Radio when in 2017, a federal judge approved a $25.5 million class-action settlement against Sirius to resolve claims in Turtle royalties for broadcasting songs that were recorded before 1972.
No word if Howard will sue his old record company; which would mark the first time a Turtle took a big bite out of a White Whale.
Photo of the Turtles (Wikimedia Commons)