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.
Garage rock wasn’t just an American phenomenon. While teenage American knuckleheads were banging on their guitars and singing in fake English accents, English knuckleheads were banging on their guitars and singing in fake American accents. The Troggs, who formed in 1964 in the UK town of Andover, weren’t true garage rockers. They weren’t teenagers; frontman Reg Presley was 25 by the time “Wild Thing” hit. And they weren’t sloppy amateurs, either. “Wild Thing” wasn’t a regional obscurity that hit big; the Troggs were a professional band with a manager and everything. And yet “Wild Thing,” in all its simplistic hammering hormonal brilliance, is a sacred garage rock text — the sort of song that might as well be a standard the first time you hear it.
The man who wrote “Wild Thing” was Chip Taylor, a New York songwriter who happened to be the brother of the actor Jon Voight (which means he’s also the uncle of Angelina Jolie). Taylor’s other big hit was “Angel Of The Morning,” another modern standard, and he had most of his success as a country songwriter. He wrote “Wild Thing” for a New York band called the Wild Ones, who’d been put together by the socialite Sybil Christopher. The Wild Ones’ version of the song, released in 1965, went nowhere, probably because it was an absolute piece of shit.
The Troggs, meanwhile, knocked out “Wild Thing” at the end of a London recording session. Their manager Larry Page had booked a session for an orchestra, but there was a bit of time left over at the end. The members of the Troggs have said that, in the same 15-minute stretch, they recorded their version of “Wild Thing” and “With A Girl Like You,” their other biggest hit, which made it to #1 in the UK. That’s got to be one of the great 15-minute stretches in the history of rock recording.
“Wild Thing” is a dazzlingly, overwhelmingly stupid song, and that’s exactly what’s great about it. It’s a slow, primitive stomp, an elemental drooling club-hammer of a riff. Late in the song, there’s a tootling solo, and I’ve always assumed that it was someone playing a kids’ recorder. (Turns out it was really Reg Presley playing an ocarina.) And then there’s Presley singing in a sex-drunk murmur that turns everything into a double entendre, even if it’s something like “you make everything groovy.”
As a kid, I always wondered why the Troggs got to “you move me” after “I love you.” Shouldn’t “I love you” be the bigger confession? When I got older, I figured out that Presley wasn’t really singing about love. He wasn’t really singing about being moved, either — or, if he was, he was only singing about one specific part of him being moved. In retrospect, it might’ve been more efficient for the Troggs to put their guitars down and just slap their dicks on a table rhythmically for two minutes and 30 seconds.
That protean sex-fury is what makes “Wild Thing” a timeless song, a modern folk anthem. It’s punk rock, 10 years before the fact and not quite sped up yet. It continues to be one of the most basic and amateurish songs ever to hit #1, and it continues to kick ass all over most of the more-sophisticated songs that got there.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jimi Hendrix, a man who never made it past #20 on the US singles charts, covering “the English and American combined anthem” “Wild Thing” at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, quoting “Strangers In The Night” and busting out a backwards somersault during his solo and then humping an amp and setting his guitar on fire:
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Charlie Sheen walking to the plate to X’s cover of “Wild Thing” in the climactic scene of the great 1989 movie Major League: