Friday, November 25, 2022

Johnny Thunder, doin' his thing

"At the heart of anything good there should be a kernel of something undefinable, and if you can define it, or claim to be able to define it, then, in a sense, you’ve missed the point." That's John Peel, who knew a good rock and roll song when he heard it. He obviously knew something about the mysteries inside of one, also. Lately I've been marveling at Johnny Thunder's storming version of Tommy James and The Shondells' "I'm Alive." I'm not choosing sides here—each version's killer in its own way—yet the differences between the two are stark. One's an earnest, feel-good anthem, the other's nothing less than a conflagration. 

By the end of the 1960s, Thunder (real name Gil Hamilton) had released over twenty singles; his biggest hit was "Loop De Loop," which reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963. None of his succeeding sides were nearly as successful. He moved on from Diamond Records to Calla Records where he teamed up with producer Teddy Vann to cut "I'm Alive" in 1968, released before James' version (which would appear as the b-side to "Crystal Blue Persuasion," and on side two of Crimson and Clover). Billboard mentions "I'm Alive" in the March 15, 1969 issue, where it placed the single in its "Top 60 Spotlight," the place where 45s "predicted to reach the top 60 of the HOT 100 chart" gathered, hopeful. James is credited as Arranger and provider of "Musical Concept," but his considerable commercial fairy dust couldn't propel "I'm Alive" to the top of the charts, or even near it. (A month later, Ed Ochs, in his "Soul Sauce" column in the April 19th Billboard, singles out Thunder, "moving with his first Calla release," and then notes that the singer "is up for the lead in a film, Two-Sided Triangle." To my knowledge, that movie never materialized.) 

Perhaps Thunder's "I'm Alive" was just too hot for the Hot 100. His version is pitched slightly higher than James', and so moves a bit more urgently. Whether this was intentional or a mistake in the mastering process is beside the point. And how is that the fuzz guitar snarls more menacingly in his version? Singing boldly in front of the Shondells' backing track, Thunder makes the song his on his own profoundly moving terms. Trading on his gospel church singing experience as an adolescent raised in central Florida, he transforms the original into a fierce and deeply felt declaration of pride and self-worth, belting out the words as if he himself had written them. Listen to the way he bites off the end of the title phrase in the opening line: he's hear to exclaim, and to prove something, the emotional source as much righteous anger as it is gratitude. James and co-writer Peter Lucia, the Shondells' drummer, were aware of strong new currents in the charged air, singing wisely, if naively, that long hair and racial differences ("I'm red and yellow and black and tan, I'm a man") were merely a distraction. Yet a black man singing these words in 1968 fundamentally changes those words, adds dimension to what in James' voice sound like bromides, however keen and well-intentioned.

Thunder delivered two seismic changes to "I'm Alive." In a ten-bar middle, he strides to the mic and fills a voiceless passage with a heavy-funk call-and-a-response riding Mike Vale's syncopated bass. Building in intensity, with sensuous moans, growls, and guttural affirmations, the passage leads to an explosion of release with the phrase "I'm a man"—a nearly-unhinged statement of purpose more electrifying than anything he'd sung even a minute before. 

In the Shondells version, James, a devotee of hooks and a songwriter and fascinated with the ear-bending possibilities of pop radio, halts things at the two minute mark, allowing for several daring seconds of radio silence before the band reenters. But this vocal arrangement was far too timid for Thunder, who's got work to do and things to say. What he sings, in a duet with himself—who else would understand things better?—
I'm no stone—I'm alive
And I'm no rock—I'm alive
No piece of metal, y'all
simply and powerfully reduces the song's argument to fundamentals, a simple, clear, and affecting cry for the recognized humanity of the singer, of anyone oppressed. This wasn't theatrical showiness. Various events during the tumultuous months that followed the release of "I'm Alive" offer context: on April 19th, Afro-American Society (AAS) members occupied Willard Straight Hall at Cornell University, protesting judicial unfairness and curriculum injustices during a fraught, potentially violent Parents Weekend; on June 28th, 1969, the groundbreaking Stonewall Riots began in Greenwich Village; on October 29, 1969 the Supreme Court ordered the immediate desegregation of every remaining segregated Southern school. Battles for dignity and basic human rights were sounding loudly. Thunder, his voice inadvertently soundtracking burned-out cities and passionate dissent, joined the chorus, muscling "I'm Alive" into one of the most mighty and rocking anthems of the era, detonating a social message the fuse of which lay in James and Purcia's original.


Bob Dylan recently released The Philosophy of Modern Song, his quirky and personal take on the multitude of stories told in songs. I wish that he'd recalled "I'm Alive" when he was writing the book. In an interview in the November 29, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone, he was asked by editor Jann Wenner if there was anything in current rock and roll that struck him as good.

"Yeah," Dylan drawled. "I heard a record by Johnny Thunder. It's called 'I'm Alive'."
Never heard it either, huh? Well, I can't believe it. Everyone I've talked to, I've asked them if they've heard that record.

Is it on the radio right now?

I don't know. I heard it on the radio a month ago, two months ago . . . three months ago. It was one of the most powerful records I've ever heard. It's called "I'm Alive." By Johnny Thunder. Well, it was that sentiment, truly expressed. That's the most I can say . . . if you heard the record, you'd know what I mean.
I know what he means. I hear it new every time I play one of my most cherished 45s.
Johnny Thunder, Tommy James and The Shondells, ca. 1969


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I heard Thunder's version when it was out a time or two, but never knew who it was until some years later The Hound played it on his WFMU show. I never knew it was a Tommy James song.

Joe Bonomo said...

You're welcome! Thanks for reading.