The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Tommy James & The Shondells’ “Crimson And Clover”

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.

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Tommy James And The Shondells – “Crimson And Clover”

HIT #1: February 1, 1969

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

Brian Wilson once reportedly described the songs on Smile, the Beach Boys album that he never got to finish making, as “teenage symphonies to God.” That’s a great turn of phrase. But for all the symphonic godliness of so much of Wilson’s Beach Boys music, it never sounded all that teenage to me. Wilson made music about teenage life — about dreams and fantasies (and, sure, beaches). But it was done from a certain remove, an idealized distance. Even though Wilson had only just stopped being a teenager when the Beach Boys started making hits, his songs, at least to me, sound like sketched studies of teenage life, and they rarely radiate the confused, awkward, consumed hormonal obsession that’s native to teenagerdom. (There was plenty of confused, awkward, consumed obsession in Wilson’s music, but it was the confused, awkward, consumed obsession of a damaged musical genius, not that of an American adolescent.) So I’d like to nominate Tommy James & The Shondells’ “Crimson & Clover” as the real teenage symphony to God.

If you ever look at the on-paper “Crimson And Clover” lyrics, they’re nothing. They’re half-sentences and drifting-off thoughts. They’re pop-music cliches reduced to monosyllabic pleas: “Now I don’t hardly know her, but I think I could love her.” But in the context of the song itself, those lyrics are a devotional hymn, a guttural sob of need.

The first sound on “Crimson And Clover” is Tommy James’ voice, and it’s just a sound: a sigh, an aah. From there: A spindly glistening tremolo guitar, a wash of cymbals, a nervous descending bassline. “Crimson And Clover” has riffs, just like so many Shondells songs, but James dissolves them into puddles of feeling, using studio effects to turn the ’60s garage rock that made him famous into a dreamlike reverie. By the time the song ends, James’ voice itself is only barely there. It’s a disappearing ghost, phasing in and out of existence.

There’s this truism that famous people stop aging when they first become famous. If you get famous when you’re too young, then you’re too young forever. You don’t develop any further. If that’s true, then Tommy James is 19 until death, which might explain how he was able to make “Crimson And Clover.” James was 19 when “Hanky Panky,” a song that he’d recorded when he was 16, became an out-of-nowhere #1. “Hanky Panky” caught on slowly, bit by bit. For a while, James didn’t know it was happening; he had to assemble a whole new Shondells on short notice because the original teenage band had already broken up.

Given all that, Tommy James’ success should’ve been a weird little one-off. Instead, he was a constant presence on the charts for the next two years, cranking out one enduring hook-monster after another. James’ music got lumped in with the exploding bubblegum phenomenon, when it really served more as a bridge between garage-rock and bubblegum. (Tommy James & The Shondells are to bubblegum as Rage Against The Machine are to nü-metal, basically.) And those hits endured. In 1987, two radically different Tommy James covers became consecutive #1 hits, which is just nuts.

But James saw the writing on the wall. He and the Shondells spent much of 1968 on the campaign trail, traveling with Democratic vice presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, who later wrote the liner notes for James’ Crimson And Clover album. To hear James tell it, by the time the campaign ended, he looked around and saw that music had changed. Singles acts weren’t sticking around anymore. If he wanted his band to endure, they’d have to make the transition to being an album-rock band. They’d have to leave bubblegum behind. They’d have to get looser and weirder and more expansive. James did all that, and he did it by writing the greatest bubblegum song of all time. Funny how that works out.

James had a hand in writing many of the Shondells’ hits, but he was doing that with pro songwriters. “Crimson And Clover” is something different. James wrote the song with Shondells drummer Peter Lucia. James also produced the song, and he played all the instruments except bass and drums. So all the song’s effects — the dazed tremolo squelches, the high-pitched guitar pings, the extended deep-breath pauses, the weirdly evocative imagery of the title phrase — belong to James alone. To make his voice warp in and out at the end, he plugged his microphone into a guitar amp with the tremolo turned on. Even the members of James’ own band didn’t know he had this sort of studio wizardry in him.

James never finished “Crimson & Clover.” While he was still working on the song, he took a rough mix to the Chicago radio station WLS and played it for a couple of people there. The people at the station secretly recorded that rough mix, and then they started playing it on the station immediately after James left. That early version was so immediately popular that James had to release it as it was, which pissed him off. Weirdly, though, the station may have done James a favor. What was he going to do, put strings on it? “Crimson And Clover” is perfect as it is. (The album version is longer than the single one, and it’s also great, but it’s also clearly edited together, with more instrumental zone-out stuff spliced in.)

There’s no real internal logic to “Crimson & Clover”; it’s not exactly a verse-chorus-verse song. Instead, it captures the feeling of being so stuck on someone, so lost in a crush, that you lose focus and drift away, imagining a future for yourself with this other person who you haven’t even gotten up the nerve to talk to yet. It’s all unmoored need and fluttering anxiety, and it makes those feelings sound grand and overwhelming and apocalyptic. And when you’re a teenager, that is how those feelings feel. “Crimson And Clover” captures all of that perfectly. It’s an absolute daydream of a song.

You will never encounter any objectivity in this column; I don’t think objectivity exists when you’re talking about music. But you especially won’t encounter any when we’re talking about “Crimson And Clover.” At my wedding, after my wife and I got married, we walked back up the aisle to “Crimson And Clover.” I loved the song unreservedly before the day I got married. I love it even more now.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: After the Runaways broke up in 1979, the former Shondells keyboard player Kenny Laguna started working with Joan Jett. He became her producer, manager, record label co-founder, and all-around collaborator. (They’re still working together now; they just did an episode of Marc Maron’s WTF together in February.)

Jett’s 1982 cover of “Crimson And Clover” is an all-time great one. It honors the original, and evokes its feeling, while turning it into something tougher and more defiant. And Jett makes the badass-for-1982 decision to leave the feminine pronouns intact. Jett’s “Crimson And Clover” peaked at #7. It’s a 10, too. Here’s her version:

And here’s Tommy James, Miley Cyrus, and Dave Grohl joining Jett and the Blackhearts to perform “Crimson And Clover” at Jett’s 2015 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction: