In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Fair warning here: I am about to spoil the ending of Jon Landis’ 1981 black-comic masterpiece An American Werewolf In London, a movie you should absolutely see. (Skip down a paragraph if you haven’t seen it.) In the final scene, David Kessler, the movie’s hero, has turned into a ferocious monster and gone on a killing spree. But Alex Price, Kessler’s girlfriend, tells Kessler that she loves him. He pauses for a second, then snarls, blood dripping from his jaws. The police surrounding Kessler open fire, and we see the human version of Kessler lying there, dead and naked, shot full of holes, as Price sobs. And then the Marcels’ “Blue Moon” plays, immediately turning everything that came before into a vast, dark joke. In the movie, the song functions like a fart noise. It’s great.
“Blue Moon” was not, on the face of it, a ridiculous song. It was decades old by the time the Marcels got to it. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had written it for a never-released Hollywood musical in 1934. It had been a hit for Billy Eckstine in 1947, for Mel Tormé in 1949, and for Elvis Presley in 1956. (A couple of other versions of the song played earlier in An American Werewolf In Paris.) All those versions of the song were sad and tender and romantic. But for the Marcels, it was a dizzy cartoon burp. The Marcels’ version is an act of beautiful vandalism.
The Marcels, a mixed-race doo-wop quintet from Pittsburgh, had never recorded anything before “Blue Moon,” and they’d never go on to have another real hit. But their “Blue Moon” is two minutes of daffy pop magic. Bass singer Fred Johnson had started it off with a madcap stuttering riff, and then the rest of the group had sung the song by emitting goofy noises over one another, all of it somehow coming together into beautifully choreographed chaos.
None of the Marcels gives any consideration to the song’s emotional focus. Nobody cares. They just mine the song for hooks. They treat it like a bouncy castle, and all of them take turns doing backflips. It’s a truly ridiculous interpretation, and that’s what makes it great.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s M.I.A.’s frantic 2017 single “P.O.W.A.,” built from a sample of the Marcels’ version of “Blue Moon”: