HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 10: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”)

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (U.S. Version-1965)
Artist: The Animals
Writers: (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil)

CIRCA 1966: Songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil pose for a portrait circa 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

(Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, circa, mid-sixties)

You’ve got to start somewhere.

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” seems to have started as an extra beat in Barry Mann’s ambitious heart.

Barry Mann the wannabe singer that is.

Barry had a big hit in the early sixties with “Who Put the Bomp” one of those great half-serious, half-goofy odes to rock and roll transcendence that occasionally lit up the charts back then. It wasn’t quite as great as Johnny Cymbal’s “Mr. Bass Man,” but it was still pretty darn great. That said, even “Mr. Bass Man” wasn’t quite the sort of record for a singer to build a career on. Too much competition in those halcyon days for “now what” to be the logical question about a follow up.

Besides, everybody knew who Barry Mann was. Barry Mann was a songwriter, and, especially after he met his soulmate, Cynthia Weil, a very great songwriter. (Of the three marriage/partner teams around whom the Brill Building was built, Mann and Weill were the ones who wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and the ones whose marriage lasted–they call it art for a reason)

But Mann didn’t exactly give up on his idea of being both a singer and a songwriter. After the advent of the Beatles and the rise of Bob Dylan, he probably started getting ideas. And who could blame him?

If they can do it, why not me?

So he planned and schemed and wrote and used his contacts and his talent to put pressure on the powers-that-be. It wasn’t too long before he secured a recording contract with Red Bird records and decided the demo he was shopping to the Righteous Brothers (as a followup to “Lovin’ Feeling”…there’s run for you) would make his own perfect debut.

Thus he recorded this:

Not bad. Kinda different, which wasn’t the curse in those days it is now. A little murky on the production end, maybe, and Barry Mann wasn’t a Righteous Brother, let alone, two Righteous Brothers. But lots of records of similar quality found their way up the charts even in that hyper-competitive era. It could have happened for Barry.

Certainly what happened next had to leave him wondering if it was his singing career’s great might-have-been.

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The Animals, whose producer, Mickie Most, had been slipped a demo by the era’s most ubiquitous hustler, Allen Klein (he’d later end up managing both the Beatles and the Stones), had recorded their own version for the UK market. It had been released there days before Mann’s record was set to be released in the U.S. Mann and Weil’s overseer and friend, Brill Building honcho Don Kirshner came to break the news.

The Animals’ version had come out that week and smashed high on the British charts.

Cynthia Weil had one question.

“How do we keep it from coming out over here?”

Answer:

“We can’t.”

The Animals eventually hit #2 in the UK, with this, the “correct” official version.

Better. It was kept out of the UK top spot by the Beatles’ “Help,” which was the kind of record it took in those days to keep a record like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from climbing all the way up the mountain. In the UK, at least.

If this were the only version that existed, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” might still have become all the things it did become: a trans-Atlantic smash; a permanent oldies’ staple in both countries; something close to the official anthem of Viet Nam grunts stuck in the jungle mud, forever being asked to take some plot of ground which the brass already fully intended to give back at all costs.

Something funny happened, though, along the way.

Somehow or other, a version that was never meant to see the light of day ended up being shipped to the States and becoming the American hit.

Remarkably, what became to be known as the “U.S. version” was the stronger record (and I’m sure I’m not just saying that because I heard it first and most). The rhythm was tighter. Eric Burdon’s fine original vocal was replaced by one of his fiercest yowls. The slightly langorous space around the beat was squeezed out. The distance between lament and fury was squeezed out along with it.

More than all that, two key lyric changes were made (they’d already improved slightly on Mann’s original). One of the changes was real: “Watch my daddy in bed a dyin'” became “See my daddy in bed a dyin'” which was, as Mark Twain might have had it, the lightning bug turned into lightning, not to mention a lot more singable.

But I have to confess it was the other lyric change, the “imaginary” one, that always grabbed me.

At the top of Mann’s version, the “real” lyric was clearly “In this dirty old part of the city,” and, in the subsequent UK and “live” versions, Eric Burdon clearly sang those words.

But what I heard for years, in the “U.S.” version–and what I hear now, is the far more forceful and poetic “In the still eye of the city.”

Or, if you like:

“in the still-l-l-l EYE of the city…”

Now, I know those aren’t the real words. No lyric sheet anywhere on the internet suggests such a change. No live version Burdon has sung, from the mid-sixties to yesterday, that I can find on YouTube, suggests he ever so much as thought of singing any words except “In this dirty old part of the city.”

Even the recorded UK version doesn’t quite suggest it, though if you listen close you could almost get confused.

But the U.S. version–the one most Americans heard for two decades, before the CD releases began and Klein, still owning the master, began insisting on the “proper” version being the only version–exchanges all that clarity for another sort of clarity.

Namely, that, whatever technological trick (or malfunction) was applied to the accidental release–whatever splicing or compression gave my ear “still eye” where “dirty old part” should have been, doubled the record’s power and turned “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” from a really good record into something that actually deserved everything it became.

These days, you can find the “U.S.” version on a comp or two (2004’s Retrospective has it for sure). You can also hear it on YouTube…

..and, of course, you are free to hear it any way you want. Just don’t think you’re gonna change what I hear.

That’s hardly where the story ends. In whatever version,  “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” went as many places, affected as many lives, as any record ever has.

The most interesting story I ever heard was some years back on Public Radio. Mann and Weil were being interviewed by Terry Gross, and, inevitably, the subject of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” came up. Gross was well aware of the song’s history and pressed them for details on their feelings about having what was supposed to have been Mann’s big shot at a solo career effectively pulled from under him by a twist of fate.

About that, Mann waxed philosophical. Regrets, sure, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t had a great life.

Then Gross asked if he preferred his own version to the Animals. Mann danced around the question for maybe two minutes before conceding that, yes, maybe the Animals’ version was better. It became the hit, after all.

Eventually, he quit talking.

Without being asked, Cynthia Weil immediately added:

“I prefer the version by Barry Mann.”

After which I no longer needed to wonder why theirs was the marriage–and the partnership–that lasted.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Bill Medley Up)

“Brown Eyed Woman”
Bill Medley (1968)
#43 Billboard Pop
#37 Billboard R&B
Recommended source: The Righteous Brothers Anthology: 1962-1974

billmedley2

(The cover of Bill Medley’s first solo album after leaving the Righteous Brothers. These days, you can buy it for sixty bucks used on Amazon…which means you should shop elsewhere!)

The hits came and went and came and went, but the Righteous Brothers always made great records, together and apart.

They were making great records when Phil Spector found them in the mid-sixties and put them in front of his own greatest record, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” where they easily held their own. They made great records with him. Then they made some great records without him (but very much in his style and spirit). Then they split up and made some great solo records. Then they got back together and made some more great records, straight on through “Hold On” in the mid-seventies (which I should have added to the secret treasure list in my Barry White piece a few days ago).

After that, they quit making records–dead stop–and became an on-again, off-again oldies’ lounge act, at which I do not doubt they were great as well.

Like a lot of duo acts, they had sort of a love-hate relationship, each man longing in some part of himself, to prove he could make it on his own.

“Brown Eyed Woman,” released in 1968 just after their first breakup, was the deep-voiced Medley’s second single. Why is wasn’t his first (the perfectly fine “I Can’t Make Alone” took the honor and went nowhere) is a mystery. But it might explain why this didn’t do better. Not much else does. When your really good first single, off your first solo album when you are trying to break away from a group identity, flops, it doesn’t do your really great second single any favors.

Medley never sang better than here, not even on “Lovin’ Feelin’,” which is the only pop record that has ever given me an out of body experience similar to a religious one (I’ve had them,, too, so I have a more than theoretical frame of reference). There’s not much information available on the recording itself. Medley took the production credits (with Barry Mann), as he had with later Righteous Brothers’ records. I assume he just assembled Spector’s old crew and applied what he had learned. Plenty good, too. Spector himself could not have done better.

But the shattering vocal is all Medley’s. One thing Spector didn’t do much in his otherwise obsessive-to-the-point-of-madness sessions was coach his lead singers. He was too smart for that. He was smart enough to know his greatest gift was as a talent scout.

He never found a bigger talent than Medley, and If the bass half of the Righteous Brothers had managed even one major hit in the late sixties, the rest of his career might have been very different. As it was, he must have known early on that it wasn’t in the cards. If this, a record I can imagine lighting a fire in his good friend Elvis just as he was about to remake the world again, didn’t make it, then what would?

He was certainly never going to beat it. And the singers, they always know…

MY FAVORITE ONE-HIT WONDER (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

Aww, come on. Nobody who knows the heart of rock and roll has one single all time once and forever favorite one-hit wonder. You think it’s remotely possible? Take a look at, say, 1961:

That’s just a sampling of the vocal groups. In 1961 It doesn’t even include the all time homage to the vocal groups…In 1961

And it doesn’t include (from 1961) something like this…

Which, believe me, actually would put this otherwise impossible argument to an end, except Dick and Dee Dee actually had other hits (not that you’d know this by listening to your average oldies’ station or probably even a really great oldies’ station, for the last fifty years and counting).

That’s just a glimpse into one aspect of a single year, a year that, according to many a certified crit-illuminati scribe was rock and roll’s nadir from which we never would have been saved if the British hadn’t invaded a few years later. And I’m not even saying I love every one of those records up there enough to put them in a serious competition for the title of my favorite one-hit wonder (though I’d certainly include a few of them).

Start counting surf instrumentals or Troy Shondell doing “This Time” or Freddie King doing “Hideaway” or Ernie K-Doe doing “Mother-In-Law” or any of a few dozen others that I could imagine being somebody’s favorite even if they wouldn’t quite be mine (well, maybe “Mother-In-Law”) and you begin to see the pure ridiculousness of the exercise.

Like I said. Impossible. Crazy. Even to pick a favorite, forget a best or greatest. Just for 1961 (well, maybe “Mother-In-Law).

So I just have to go with the first record that popped into my head when I thought of the category and I couldn’t quite manage to dislodge no matter how long and hard I thought about it.

Okay, I didn’t really think about it all that long and hard. Because the second record I thought of was this one….

And I figured if that couldn’t knock the song Lyndon Johnson should have listened to before he sent any more troops into Viet Nam (and the American Experiment straight to Hell right along with them), out of my head, then nothing could.

I’m sure our sunny present day circumstances had nothing to do with it coming to mind…or refusing to leave…

Here comes summer!

Again.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Bo Diddley Cover)