After two greatest hits records, I finally delve into a full Tommy James and the Shondells album, one of three records they put out in 1969. You could say this hits up on the edges of psychedelic pop. Pretty standard but good pop songs with some experimental sounds.
Once again, this came right in that winter semester of 1980, which in some ways was when started to go in hard on my ’60s mania. The movie “Hair” played on campus that semester. I was taking courses in the ’60s, revolution, and nonviolent change. I was listening to Tommy James. While I had only been a child in the ’60s, now I was revisiting all that hard, and only a decade later. Our Beatlemania of the previous year or so had certainly prepped us, and now I started to dig in hard, buying as many ’60s records as I could. Most were half-remembered singles, hits from our childhood, and we’d give them a try and see what the rest of the group’s output was like. That led to great discoveries like The Hollies, The Byrds, and The Turtles, and of course, Tommy James and the Shondells.
This album, being right on the edge of psychedelic, certainly fit my ’60s revival mood. And it was, and is, a great album. It opens with the now-classic “Crimson & Clover,” does a little socially conscious love-across-the-classes thing in “Kathleen McArthur,” has a few other songs on the edge of psychedelia, and otherwise delivers solid pop rock. There isn’t a bad song on the album.
But speaking of trippy: the back cover liner notes are by Hubert Humphrey. The one who had been vice president, and the presidential candidate in 1968. There was nothing about Hubert Humphrey that excited the youth vote in 1968. Other than that he wasn’t Nixon, he had nothing going for him from the point of view of anyone seeking change in the country, and certainly not from the point of view of many hip music fans. When I bought this in 1980, I could not imagine what Tommy James had been thinking, trying to get out the vote for Humphrey. It was only much later that I learned Tommy James had been making appearances at rallies for Robert F. Kennedy, who certainly did have more of the youth vote, and when Kennedy was killed, they were asked to continue. And as a result, we have the only album in my collection with liner notes by a vice president. (Although: my copy of “London Calling” was ruined by a vice president’s wife.)
I used to like the HHH liner notes for their kitsch value, because I was 100% certain that Humphrey had no appreciation for the music of Tommy James, so it served as a symbol of how out of touch the older generation was, etc. But I failed to appreciate what James and the band had tried to do, and what would have happened had they succeeded. If you don’t know about the political maelstrom of 1968, I highly recommend reading up on it. Had anyone succeeded in getting any kind of enthusiasm behind the Democratic nomination (which probably required that the Chicago riot at the Democratic National Convention didn’t happen, and that the south hadn’t gone for the Independent race-baiter George Wallace), Nixon wouldn’t have won (his popular vote victory was quite narrow), and pretty much everything would have turned out differently. Of course, the youth vote that was supposed to be courted by getting a group like Tommy James and the Shondells involved didn’t exist yet: 18-year-olds still couldn’t vote in 1968.
As I said, still a great album, not one that gets a lot of rotation, but it sure used to.