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 Monkees were not a real band until they became one. TV producers had assembled the four fresh-faced actors in 1966, casting them in a sitcom about the struggles of a go-nowhere band. Those same TV producers hired the producer Don Kirshner to oversee the Monkees’ music. Kirshner hardly ever let the actors who’d been cast as Monkees play on records, and those records often ended up being truly great.
The Monkees were not into this. They wanted to be a real band, and they did not like the way they’d become a punchline in the music world. They fought and fought for their independence. And eventually, they won. They started making their own decisions, pivoting to bugged-out psychedelic pop music. In 1968, the Monkees TV show was cancelled, and the Monkees themselves made Head, a surreal and perplexing movie that Jack Nicholson co-wrote.
The Monkees, Michael Nesmith in particular, resented the hell out of Kirshner, the executive who spent years preventing them from being in charge of their own musical destinies. For Kirshner’s part, he got fired from the show after releasing the Neil Diamond-written Monkees single “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” without authorization from the show’s producers. The band members were pressuring the show’s producers for more musical control, and they were pissed off about one more song that had no real input from them. They were deemed more important than Kirshner, so Kirshner was out the door. (“A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” peaked at #2, and it absolutely rules. It would’ve been a 9.)
For his next project, then, Kirshner found a way to do away with human band members entirely. He ended up as the man in charge of the music on The Archie Show, the Saturday-morning cartoon adaptation of the comic books that had existed since 1941. The Archies were not a real band; they were simply Archie and his cartoon friends making music together. Bassist and backing vocalist Reggie Mantle never got pissed off at frontman Archie Andrews for naming the band after himself, since Mantle was just a drawing on an animation cel, and so was Andrews. Jughead Jones’ dog Hot Dog was a member of the band. He was the conductor. None of these fictional characters ever tried to get Don Kirshner fired.
In putting together the Archies, Kirshner drew on the Brill Building songwriters and session musicians who were getting left behind in the album-oriented psych-rock explosion of the late ’60s. And the music that they made fit right into the nascent bubblegum-pop wave. “Sugar, Sugar,” the one Archies single to hit #1, is both the biggest and the best thing to come out of bubblegum. It’s a beautifully engineered ballistic missile of a pop song, a towering edifice built out of nothing but hooks.
Jeff Barry was a pop genius who, in the early ’60s, had co-written “Be My Baby” and “Then He Kissed Me” and “Chapel Of Love” and “Leader Of The Pack.” He co-wrote “Sugar, Sugar” with Andy Kim, a Lebanese-Canadian singer and songwriter who was on the way to a pretty decent run as a solo performer. Ron Dante, who sang the lead Archie part, was a former novelty-song guy who would go on to produce records for Barry Manilow and Pat Benatar. Toni White, who’d co-written “A Groovy Kind Of Love” for the Mindbenders, sang the Veronica part. Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry’s ex-wife who’d co-written most of those classic songs with him, also contributed. These were professional music-biz lifers who didn’t fit with the era’s excesses but who knew their way around a hook.
And “Sugar, Sugar” is a merciless hook machine. It’s a bright and shiny love song, aimed at actual toddlers, that tries to express nothing other than non-threatening warmth. And it hits that mark so hard. There’s an almost mechanical precision to the beat — bass, drums, handclaps, guitar-strums. The half-mocking keyboard riff on the chorus will remain in your head through any calamity that doesn’t kill you. And the song stabs away with its own scientifically calibrated power, building to a weirdly overwhelming crescendo.
Do people still get snobby about “Sugar, Sugar”? Probably not, right? A song like that does what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to do. It fills you up and gives you weird little dopamine rushes, and then it lingers. Lester Bangs once called “Sugar, Sugar” “a rock & roll classic to which something like the Grateful Dead’s ‘Dark Star’ can’t hold a candle,” and Bangs also goaded Lou Reed into admitting that he wished he’d written it.
Does it matter that the Archies were not actual humans? I think it makes the whole stunt even more audacious. Nothing like “Sugar, Sugar” could happen now; the closest thing in recent memory, unless I’m forgetting something, is the fleeting success of Crazy Frog. If the Archies had been an art stunt, rather than a commerce stunt, we’d be talking about them in hushed tones. But it doesn’t matter what kind of stunt they were, since “Sugar, Sugar” still bangs.
BONUS BEATS: Wilson Pickett’s Southern soul cover of “Sugar, Sugar” kicks many different varieties of ass, and it peaked at #25 in 1970:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: There were, as you can probably imagine, a great many covers of “Sugar, Sugar.” One of them, I am delighted to just now learn, came from Bob Marley’s Wailers. Here’s their cover, which they released in 1971:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here is Homer Simpson singing “Sugar, Sugar” while hallucinating:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Nobody ever talks about the 1995 alt-rock tribute compilation Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits anymore, but I remember it ruling pretty hard. Liz Phair and Material Issue doing the Banana Splits theme! Helmet doing Gigantor! The Ramones doing Spider-Man! Here is Mary Lou Lord and Semisonic’s video for their cover of “Sugar, Sugar”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here is the cast of the recent gritty Archie reboot Riverdale, a show I probably should’ve tried harder to get into, doing the inevitable obnoxiously-updated “Sugar, Sugar” cover:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s beautifully nasty swampwater gargle “Green River” peaked at #2 behind “Sugar, Sugar.” It’s an 8. Here it is: