Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Vinyl find: Tommy James & The Shondells / "Crystal Blue Persuasion" b/w "I'm Alive"

(Check out the first post in this series for the back story.)

Artist: Tommy James & The Shondells
Album: "Crystal Blue Persuasion" b/w "I'm Alive" 45 RPM 7" single
Label: Roulette Records
Released: June 1969

I grew up on oldies radio. It's what I heard on the radio in the car and it's what I played at home, pretty much up to and through high school, even. My parents didn't have a turntable (but they did have a hidden record recollection, albeit a sparse one, that I only found out about and dug into in the last few years after buying a turntable myself) and the CD collection mostly consisted of greatest hits compilations of various Motown groups and oldies artists, which were actually pretty enjoyable (and soundtracks of films, musicals, etc. which were impressively unenjoyable). So between those compilations and the singles perenially chosen by oldies DJs, I essentially ingested nothing but regurgitated radio hits 30ish years after their release until I hit college. Considering my appetite for new and undiscovered music these days, I can't help but feel slightly bitter about the stunted growth of my musical appreciation that could have been flourishing for so many more years, but at the same time, I couldn't think of a better foundation (no matter how narrow it is) to build upon than oldies/classic rock hits.

Okay, enough personal-history rambling. The bottom line is this: I've heard songs by Tommy James & The Shondells more often than I could possibly count, and I'm a mathematician. Chances are you know "Crimson & Clover" (I remember my friend's P2P mp3 file labeled that one as a Simon & Garfunkel song haha) and "Mony Mony" (c'mon, you've been to a cheesy high school dance, haven't you?) and maybe even "Hanky Panky". But the reality is that TJ & The Ss had a bunch more hits (in the charts sense) and a handful of other great songs, too (in the sense of my opinion). I confess that I hadn't actively listened to them in a long time before stumbling across their Crimson & Clover LP at Jerry's for $3 a couple years ago, but the name caught my eye and brought back all those memories of hearing "Crimson & Clover" on the radio, and some other stuff. Buying that used record may be one of the best $3 purchases I've made, because I almost wore that record out in the first couple of months after buying it. It has so many fun (and funny, at that!) songs and builds beautifully on the psych-pop genre of that time. They aren't featured on the single I'm explicitly discussing here, but I have to point out the playful humor of "I Am A Tangerine" and the oh-so-sweet psychedelic love in "Kathleen McArthur" and the triumphant rock of "Breakway". All of them are on that LP. And then there are the popular hits!

The A-side on this one is "Crystal Blue Persuasion", one of the softer and slower songs that the group played, with carefully-picked guitar, bongos leading into the verses, and some overdubbed horn parts on the single version (absent on the LP version, for some reason, hmmm). It's one of the better uses of Tommy's surprisingly sweet vocals and, hell, it was featured in the pilot episode of The Wonder Years. What's not to love?

The B-side here is the deliciously upbeat and exultant rock 'n roll cut "I'm Alive". It builds and it retreats and builds again, playing off high-pitched organ chords, rollicking bass, and Tommy's shouting. It's mighty fun, with a guitar lick that makes you (or me, at least) wanna play air guitar along while shouting "I'm alive!"

Side note: one of the books I've been meaning to read since hearing about its existence is Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells, a biography of sorts by TJ about his time in the music industry and dealing with the shady behind-the-scense business work. Sounds interesting to me.

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