“Wooly Bully” came on the radio.
I’ve been listening to it for a lifetime, but I never really heard it.
It is far, far too easy to dismiss this hopping, hollering, shrieking, stomping habanero’d hash-sling of a screech, almost sinister in its’ hysterical simplicity, as a glorious piece of garage trash, a novelty product of cough syrup and too many late nights playing greasy covers in VFW halls.
But it is so very, very much more.
“Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs is a radical repudiation of the strings, baroque influences, minor chords, and maudlin grace sneaking into pop music circa ’65. Just as the Beatles were confirming their interpolation of the influence of Broadway/Tin Pan Alley pop — REAL music with bridges and modulations an’ everything! – into the rock mainstream, here comes “Wooly Bully,” the lucid, luscious, ludicrous opposite, something BASHED and memorable and probably playable on the very first try by anyone with a few amps and a basement to put them into. At first, “Wooly Bully” appears to be AN ACT OF WAR, a barbarian pouring oil on the fairy dust of the gathering tribes of the soon-to-be-psychedelic ‘60s; but in fact it is the house bands of those tribes, those lovers of sitars, 12 strings, delicate tunings and fancy turnarounds and the studio-bound Beatle boys and their ilk, who were waging the war: the war on the bolt of black and blood that was primitive and perfect American rock’n’roll.
But the aborigines, that is the FIRST SETTLERS, the children of Treniers and Moonglows and Dominoes and Big Mama’s and Piano Smith’s, STILL HAD A FEW BOMBS LEFT IN THEM before the John Phillips and George Martin’s of the world made their kind of Dean Moriarty thug-joy dead forever; and these last feral, fierce cries are the howls of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.
By 1965, the Beatles were making gorgeous wedding cakes out of tape; in ‘65 they recorded “Yesterday,” “It’s Only Love,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” and other songs that would completely redefine what the teen soundtrack would and could sound like. That’s brilliant stuff, it really is, but in that very same year, Sam the Sham stood on a pile of twisting grease and said “This is my little Big Horn, I am American rock’n’roll, I am the sound of the disenfranchised disguised in the cloak of simplicity! Hear me, the story of America is the story of the disenfranchised, and I am going to tell it simple and proud and Dick Clark will play it loud and you will dance and need no cello or piccolo trumpet to do so, Sister Rosetta needed no oboe and neither do I to tell the American story of thump and grind and shout and bridges?, we don’t need no stinking bridges.”
Your Beatles did a lot of beautiful, amazing, stunning things; perhaps most significantly, they formally, fruitfully, and finally married American rock to American pop. By this, I mean that the rock’n’roll of Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ledbelly, Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris and a hundred others had not been significantly infected – or to use a kinder word, influenced – by the songcraft of Tin Pan Alley, and the subsequent Broadway and vaudeville tradition of wordplay and melody that spun off of that (n.b.: I use “Tin Pan Alley” to stand for the idea of workman-like, crafted American songs, full of wit and clever musical and lyrical devices tweaked to create an emotional response). These aforementioned artists – Wynonie, Jerry Lee, etcetera — were, to put it simply, doing their own thing, and what they did was a very goddamn natural growth from the sounds of Basin Street, Beale Street, Congo Square, and Clarksdale; this “other” thing, the “thing” I am lumping under “Tin Pan Alley,” this thing that was a hundred and eight thousand miles from Congo Square, was the (also) thoroughly American music of Jolson and Rogers and Hart and Ukulele Ike and Crosby and Columbo and many, many others; and that (frequently spectacular) music was, well, something else entirely, not only a different branch of the species, but a different species entirely.
Artists had certainly experimented and even succeeded with marrying the two traditions, but by the early-ish 1960s, the engagement was far, far from solidified. When the Beatles entered the American consciousness, they did something so giant that it is almost overlooked, and that may their most significant contribution to the culture: they cemented the relationship between rock and traditional Tin Pan Alley pop music, in essence creating pop-rock, and insuring that the vast majority of rock songs – British and American – that would surface in the public eye in the next decade would be based in Tin Pan Alley’s lyrical, structural, and melodic philosophy. By the way, if you want some hard, cold evidence of this shit, ask yourself this curious trivia question: The first song the Beatles performed on their (literally) world-changing debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was “All My Loving” (which in transcription form would have been perfect for any of the old-school crooners, like Crosby or Columbo or even Jolson); but what was the second song the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show? It was “Till There Was You”, a fairly mawkish and hoary piece of pure Tin Pan Alley songcraft from the hit musical, The Music Man. The Beatles started a revolution that night, but they also ended one.
I am not making any judgment on this, by the way. And I am most certainly not casting any aspersion on the extraordinary achievements of the Beatles and the two extraordinarily gifted songwriters who led the band. I am just pointing out that a lot changed when the Beatles came to America, but perhaps the most important change was the virtually complete integration of the Broadway/Music Hall/Tin Pan Alley approach to songcraft into a form, rock’n’roll (and/or rock-blues), that had previously largely been devoid of it. I mean, there are plenty of times when I find myself genuinely angry at the Beatle-fication of American pop rock, and the entire industry that sprang up to support this ringing, glorious, catchy, rhyming, familiar but new phenomenon; I try to imagine how American music would have evolved, how it would have grown, exploded, chilled, thrilled, shook, soothed, rattled, rasped, and even relaxed us, if the beautifully handsome sharpie that was Tin Pan Alley moon-in-June hadn’t been inserted into American rock’n’roll. But then I remember how completely satisfying and enrapturing, to listeners of any age, experience, and taste, the goddamn Beatles are, and all is forgiven, I mean, except the part where they ruin the art of American rock forever.
So Wooly Bully is a number of amazing things, it is not just a piece of beautiful trash:
It is a repudiation of the rapidly progressing developments in English and West Coast pop rock circa 1965, but in a un contrived, unpretentious sort of way; instead of being a novelty, it’s more of a glimpse of an alternative reality, one shared by the Sonics, the Troggs, even the Velvet Underground, and many etceteras;
It is a insight to a secret alternative history of American rock’n’roll, a keyhole into a world that changed on the night the Beatles arrived on our TV screens, when the simple, pile-driving, parade-rolling rhythms of Bo Diddley and Huey Piano Smith and Jerry Lee Lewis and even Hardrock Gunther and the plaintive, plain, plainly powerful words and god-simple melodies of the Louisiana Bayou Parishes and the Mississippi crossroads were displaced by the Lords of Clever;
It is a presaging of the market correction of 75 – ‘77, when a pile of young bands on both sides of the Atlantic largely repudiated the baroque filigrees of Beatle-ism (and the all the layers of frosting that the 1970s had laid on top of that) and returned rock to the pure sound of ‘50s shave-and-a-haircut shimmers, ‘60s three-chord shrieks (the line between the Sonics and the Ramones is so very small indeed), and the melodic minimalism of Sam the Sham and Question Mark and Herman’s Hermits…
(Because lest we forget, this was all punk was, a long craved and delicious market correction; as discussed last week, very little of actual innovation was spilled or spelled in those heady days, instead it was a perfect bursting of morphed influences, pared and filleted, and a discarding of arena and studio tropes implied by the excesses of the Beatles, but which the Beatles had tastefully and gracefully avoided).
It is a very fucking heavy song, “Wooly Bully” is. It’s what rock could have been, it’s an artifact of the World Without Beatle, a survivor from before the Beatles made it safe to sing Broadway show tunes and call it revolution. You want revolution? You want the sound of America, rebelling?
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