Monday, September 17, 2012

In Defense of "Bad Boy"

Among the germinal rock & roll moments for me as a kid was listening to the Beatles' "Bad Boy" in the basement of the house I grew up in in suburban Washington D.C.. Featured on the U.S.-only Beatles VI, Larry Williams's "Bad Boy" was a longtime favorite of John Lennon's (he also recorded Williams's "Bony Maronie" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" in his career). The song's history in the U.K. was a curious one, cut as it was at the request of the American Capital Records label to satisfy the need for more Beatles Product in the U.S.. "Bad Boy" wasn't released in England until December of 1966 on a now-rare best-of compilation, A Collection of Beatles Oldies, the title of which is a pretty good barometer of how antiquated "Bad Boy" must've felt to the moustache-wearing, acid-tripping Beatles on the cusp of making Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Now junior, behave yourself...
I always loved the track, one of Lennon's last great pure (read, traditional) rock & roll vocals in the Beatles, before drugs, politics, and irony changed his outlook. Two music critics who I admire essentially ignore "Bad Boy." Tim Riley in Tell Me Why calls the vocal "rip-snorting" but devotes no space to the recording, and Ian MacDonald in his inestimable Revolution in the Head dismisses the song as "pressured hack-work." I beg to differ. Though certainly rushed—the song, along with "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," was cut on Monday, June 10, 1965 during the hectic middle of filming the movie Help! with the album only half-completed and industry and personal pressures rising—"Bad Boy" to my ears bears no traces of hastiness or inattention. The band is tight, the arrangement is precise but not at all fussy, the guys are having fun, and Lennon is in fantastic form.

Grooving down in the rec room and basement with my brothers, I loved Lennon's vocal on this song immoderately. It's still one of my favorite Lennon vocals, and the song encompasses everything I love about mid-1960s rock & roll: the group makes the already-dated song swing and danceable; the hooks are sharp; Lennon howls in the guitar solos and leaps into falsetto at irresistible moments ("spinnin' in a hooola hoop"); the words tackle juvee behavior in a playful, funny way. And best of all it's over in two minutes and twenty seconds. The "beat group" dynamic is here in all of its excitement, an aesthetic soon to be challenged by the experimental, skeptical band: a month after recording "Bad Boy" the band cut "I've Just Seen A Face," "Yesterday," and "I'm Down," the first two songs pointing the way toward new sound landscapes, the latter a look backward (MacDonald adroitly pegs "I'm Down" as a "genre prank"). In the middle of Lennon's self-described "fat Elvis years," at a time when their sound was threatening to become rote to them, mere generated product that would take a back seat to experimentation in sound and lyrics, the group, a half decade removed from gritty Hamburg, cut this rock and roll burner.

John Lennon allegedly never like the sound of his voice. If anyone ever begged to disagree with him, I hope their argument led with "Bad Boy."

The Beatles', and Larry Williams's horn-driven original from 1959. Turn it up:


5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yay, Joe. Thanks! Super read.xomimi

Richard Gilbert said...

The Beatles are a gold mine. Their music grew so sophisticated and skillful, but they could still rock.

Anonymous said...

great!

I love those records when George tries to replicate his solos by double-tracking them, missing a bit in the phrasing but creating something really special.

and that "Collection of Oldies" cover contains a trove of clues for the "Paul is Dead" crowd.....

bob in peoria

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