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.
Could a song be Lynchian before David Lynch got ahold of it? Before the whole David Lynch aesthetic even existed? “Lynchian” is one of those know-it-when-you-see-it terms, but broadly defined, it’s some version of idealized, plasticine post-War white Americana, but with something strange and wrong and alien thrumming underneath. It’s a dream that becomes a nightmare.
“Blue Velvet” is probably always going to be the song most associated with David Lynch. In Blue Velvet, the 1986 movie that a lot of people still hold to be Lynch’s masterpiece, it’s both a mood-setter and a punchline. And for those of us who weren’t alive in 1963, the song is probably always going to channel images of a zonked-out, eerily still Isabella Rossellini seducing a mic stand in a nightclub while a besotted Kyle MacLachlan looks on and while a high-pitched industrial drone chatters through the sound design.
Did the listeners of 1963, the ones who turned “Blue Velvet” into a #1 hit, hear anything sinister or uncanny in the song? It’s possible. It’s certainly a dreamlike piece of music. Musically, it’s a museum piece, a slow-rotating sigh, full of swooning backing vocals and tingly xylophones. Lyrically, it’s practically Proustian, a heartbroken man flashing back on a past period in his life simply by fixating on the color of the fabric in his lover’s dress: “I still can see blue velvet through my tears.”
“Blue Velvet” would’ve been a throwback even when Bobby Vinton recorded it. Bernie Wayne and Lee Morris had written it almost a decade earlier. Tony Bennett’s smoothly contemplative version had been a hit in 1951. In 1955, the Clovers turned it into slow and stately supper-club R&B. In 1960, the Statues made it into rockabilly-informed doo-wop.
Vinton ended up recording it because he’d had a #3 hit with “Blue Is Blue” and because he’d had the brilliant idea to record a whole album of only songs with the word “blue” in the title. Vinton recorded the song in two takes, nailing a lost-in-memory quality over a track that sounds like slowed-to-a-crawl polka. It’s not my favorite version of the song — that’d be the Statues one — but it’s the one that resonated. It’s a perfectly pretty piece of an old-timey orchestral-waltz pop ballad. Maybe it hints at something deeper; I don’t know. But on its own, it’s not a strong enough song to break away from the image of Dennis Hopper with a medical mask over his face, braying about Pabst Blue Ribbon.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video for the 2013 version of “Blue Velvet” that Lana Del Rey recorded for an H&M commercial, which certainly attempts to go full Lynchian: