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.
The Crystals didn’t sing “He’s A Rebel.” They didn’t even know anyone was making the song. The members of the group heard the song on a car radio in New York, then heard the DJ introduce it as the new song from the Crystals. They didn’t have any idea what had happened.
Here’s what had happened: The singer/songwriter Gene Pitney had heard and loved “Uptown,” a hit that the Crystals had recorded earlier in 1962. He’d written “He’s A Rebel” specifically with them in mind. But the Crystals were home in New York when producer Phil Spector got Pitney’s demo for the song. He knew it would be a hit, and he also knew that Vikki Carr had a competing version of the song in the works. So Spector recorded the Blossoms, a girl group led by the great session singer Darlene Love, singing the song, and that’s the version that came out. The Crystals had their name on the song, but they didn’t have anything to do with it. They immediately added it to their live show, even though lead Crystal La La Brooks couldn’t hit the same high notes as Carr.
All of this is, of course, music-business fuckery of the highest order, with people in charge, like Spector, treating the performers as interchangeable chess pieces. It’s morally bankrupt as a matter of course, as if nobody involved had even ever considered doing things a different way — these grown men writing and arranging a song that, at least theoretically, is for teenage girls, while not treating the actual young women who sang the song as human beings, refusing to even give them credit for the work they’d done.
All that said: What a song! “He’s A Rebel” was Spector’s first #1 since the Teddy Bears, his old high-school group, had gotten there with “To Know Him Is To Love Him” five years earlier. And while the orchestral hugeness that came to characterize Spector’s production isn’t there on “He’s A Rebel,” the song still exemplifies so much of what he did so beautifully. The Wrecking Crew, the group of session-musician murderers who recorded so many Spector songs, were on their absolute A-game. The song’s got a hard, driving beat, and all of the instrumentation just snaps: that busily clanging piano, those perfectly timed handclaps, that Glen Campbell stritchy-scratch guitar, the little drumroll that opens the song. On the chorus, everything becomes a series of stabs, and then you get the euphoric little rush of all the instruments flooding back in. It’s just gorgeous.
Lyrically, the song is simplicity itself: There’s a boy who doesn’t get any respect because “he doesn’t do what everybody else does,” but the girl loves him, and she defends him with her own starry-eyed devotion. Love sings the song with a sort of gospel-derived fervency, delivering those lines with a calm that builds in intensity without ever losing the thread of the melody. It’s a minor pop-music miracle, and so many more would follow. Spector was a monster — an abuser and an exploiter and, eventually, a murderer. But as a maker of songs, the man knew what he was doing.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the sadly-broken-up Brooklyn pop-punk band Chumped playing a fun, spirited cover of “He’s A Rebel” for the AV Club’s AV Undercover video series: