On Saturday night after an all-day visit, my wife Anna and I dropped our daughter-in-law Sarah and one-year old grandson Charlie off at their place in the west end. We were tired but in a great mood, they’re just so much fun to hang out with and Charlie has all kinds of new stuff going on. He’s walking now (kinda like Frankenstein sometimes) and has a lot of funny faces, some new laughs and games. He’s saying a few words, but seems to understand everything that’s said, which is a little scary. The other night Anna said “Granna has to put on her shoes” and Charlie went over, got them and brought them to her, I swear to God.
On the way back home, my mistress of schlock Anna had an AM oldies station on in the car and an old tune came on that got our attention right away because it started with just drums, playing the basic rock-beat that every guy I knew in Grade 6 tried to play, either on the drums or in the air. You know the one :
Boom Ksshhh, de-Boom Boom Ksshhh. Boom-Boom Ksshhh, de-Booma-Loom Ksshhh.
The rest of the band came in, a cheesy Farfisa organ sound in the mix – don’t get me wrong, used properly like this, cheesy Farfisa organ sounds are perfectly fine with me. The boy singer entered :
“I went to a da-aannce the o-otherrr night,
I saw a girl the-ere who looked outta sight.”
OK, OK, not exactly Wordsworth I admit, but hey – boy or girl – when you were 13 or 14, going to a dance and seeing somebody who looked outta sight was pretty much what life was all about, right? That, and having the right kind of jeans.
Anna recognized it immediately as “Oh Sweet Pea” and got all excited, went straight to teeny-bopperhood, granny-style. “Ooooh! I used to love this one!!” She went heavily into head-bobbing mode and has great curly “rock-chick” hair for this, it bounces and flops all over the place. “Who is this, is it Herman’s Hermits?”
I resisted the temptation to clip her one gently on the back of the head, which would have been a grievous error. For one thing, it would have ruined “the mood” and for another her head was a moving target, not to mention she was driving. “No, it’s not Herman’s fucking Hermits, it’s……”
I have to admit I couldn’t remember who the hell this was either or even whether it was a UK or an American band. Gary Lewis & the Playboys? Nope. The Honey-Combs? Nope. For some reason the name Del Shannon came to mind, but I think he might have been a ballplayer….. Jesus, what a moron I am.
Being a grumpy old jazz-guy, I managed to stave off the retro-high school gym-nirvana endorphin-rush longer than Anna did, but by the time the band got to the impossibly cheerful and catchy refrain, I succumbed, turned into a singing and elated fool, what Jackson Browne once described in one of his lyrics as a “happy idiot” :
“Oh! Sweet Pea! C’mon and dance with me!
C’mon c‘mon c’mon and dance with meeeeeeee-ee-ee-ee!!”
That did it, we were gone, it was now 1966 and, inside at least, we were ten-year-olds again (actually in 1966 Anna was only seven, that bitch.) We had the windows down, the radio cranked up and were singing along at the top of our lungs, it was great.
We hadn’t heard this one in years and there was more to it than we remembered. Another solo-drum break exactly like the first one (this guy was no Sid Catlett) and then – holy crap – a key change! The adolescent-hormone-romance story escalated giddily, building to another ludicrously happy refrain with even stupider words, which only made it more fun :
“Oh! Sweet Pea! Won’cha be my girl?”
Won’cha won’cha won’cha be my girrrrrrrr-rr-rr-rl?!”
We were loving the shit out of it, but my lunatic-obsessive-nerd brain was still trying to figure out who the hell the band was. Gary Puckett & The Union Gap? No you dope, they came later. The Hollies? Nahh, they sang better than this. Tommy-somebody and the Shirelles? I don’t think that was even a real group, dummy. It was driving me nuts, admittedly a short trip……
When it was over, thank God the announcer said “That was Tommy Roe with ‘Oh Sweet Pea’ and folks, good luck trying to get this one out of your heads for a few days.”
“Of course, Tommy Roe!!” we both howled. I love making up stupid band names and a funny one spawned and flashed through my mind. “Tommy Roe & The Fish-Eggs!” I croaked and Anna just about drove off Rosedale Valley Road. She punched me on the arm to remind me for the thousandth time not to say anything too funny when she’s driving.
It’s tempting and easy to say that old AM pop tunes like this are silly, of course they are. But at the same time, if you liked them in the first place and give in to them, they can make you feel really, really happy for two or three minutes, that’s what they’re for. There’s no harm in this and you don’t have to think about it, they just take you back to when you were a kid and these were on the radio all the time and life seemed more innocent and simple, so you maybe sing along or shake your ass a little bit.
Of course there are many way better than “Sweet Pea” but there’s a kind of genius at work in this kind of tune – puerile and shallow, maybe – but if it’s so dumb, then why does it make me feel so good? (It’s maybe tempting to answer that it’s because I’m also puerile and shallow and this is a good point. But I’ve grown up, listened to and played lots of so-called “serious” music since being a teenager and this kind of stuff still fills me with a nameless joy I’m unable to resist.) You can’t stay young in body forever, but if you keep a little bit of kid alive in your heart and mind, it can help you feel young once in a while at least for a few minutes, which is better than nothin’.
Bubble-gummy as it is, the refrain of “Sweet Pea” is hard to resist. The melody intervals and rhythms, while not exactly Beethoven, are really infectious, they burrowed right into me. The radio guy was dead right, I haven’t been able to get the damn thing out of my ear for very long and it’s been days now. It’s pretty embarrassing to be walking around in the adult world humming “Oh Sweet Pea, c’mon and dance with me……..etc.”, especially when you go around a corner and bump into someone you know and respect and they eyeball you with that “Geez, what a loony” look.
I guess it’s a function of my age and partly nostalgia, but I still love pop-rock (or “prock” as I like to call it) from the ’60s and early-’70s, before it got all gummed up with pretense and excess as in “progressive-rock”, Satanic-, heavy-metal-, glam-, glitter- and other pseudo-operatic, over-cooked genres. I mostly experience prock only on the car radio and it’s one of my guilty pleasures, the surprise and joy that comes over me when an old favourite I haven’t heard in ages comes on and I realize that no matter what, the next three minutes are gonna feel good, be fun. “Twist and Shout”, “Waterloo Sunset”, “Carrie Anne”, “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “The Mighty Quinn”, “Magic Carpet Ride”, “Brown-Eyed Girl”, “The Weight” and dozens of others I’ll admit melt me. Along with reams of dreck I could do without, needless to say.
Don’t even get me started on R&B/Motown, I love it. Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?”, the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love”, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, anything by Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding. And above all, my favourite pop/Motown single of all time, Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman.” It’s impossibly perfect in every detail, like “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” only with black people and a little more soul. The prayerful tune itself, Percy’s singing, the quiet, churchy organ, the Motown-horn guys in the background, the gently twanging guitar and most of all the Connie Kay-inspired snap of the great drumming, it all just kills me every time. The only thing wrong with the record is that, like most good things, it doesn’t last long enough.
As for the ear-worm of “Oh Sweet Pea”, I know just what’s going to happen. The refrain will worm its way deep down into my subconscious and surface as a quote during one of my bass solos on a jazz gig in the future. In fact I’ll deliberately make sure of it, maybe as a way of exorcizing this demon. I first became aware of the potential for this sort of thing when I heard a fellow local bassist, the great Neil Swainson, do something along these lines over 30 years ago. I forget where, but the band was playing a minor-modal tune and during his bass solo Neil quoted the melody from The Association’s “Windy” – “Who’s peekin’ out from under a stairway? Calling a name that’s lighter than air…..” It was hysterical, I spit a whole mouthful of perfectly good beer right on to my lap.
Since then I’ve tried to work similar sly pop quotes into my bass solos, though never quite that wittily. The Rolling Stones are a favourite source, I’ve managed to work the sitar-riff from “Paint It Black” in, and the opening line of “Mother’s Little Helper” (“What a drag it is, getting old”) which have brought some laughs. Come to think of it, another local bassist, the wonderful Pat Collins, is fond of quoting the theme from “Perry Mason” in his solos, which takes some doing. A true original is our Pat and a very sick boy, not that I should talk.
This kind of quotation thing works both ways, as I discovered when I finally realized (eons after first hearing it) that Eric Clapton quotes the melody of Rogers & Hart’s “Blue Moon” in his guitar solo on “Sunshine of Our Love”. It’s so weird, because when I first heard that Cream hit at about 12, I naturally had no idea about Rogers & Hart or “Blue Moon” and by the time I did, I’d pretty much stopped listening to Cream and that kind of stuff. 38 years later it all randomly intersected by way of car radio and I recognized a psychedelic “Blue moon, I saw you standing alone”, my jaw dropping as I wondered whether the quote was intentional or not. It was one of my first “I’m getting old” moments, just as goofy pop hits like “Oh Sweet Pea” make me feel like an adolescent, if only temporarily.
They say smell is the sense that most evokes memory, but I’d have to say that hearing – at least hearing music – is a really close second.
© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.