Tommy James, American Pop Legend

Tommy perfected the art of the AM-radio-friendly 3-minute pop song like few others from the 60s. His songs were masterpieces of musical simplicity and endearingly groovy melodies that were finger-snapping cool, energetically sexy, and dance-friendly, helping to get the girls on the dance floor and smiling. Hippies, greasers, jocks, and goody-two-shoes all loved these songs. And the chicks, forget about it: Tommy’s tunes moistened a whole generation of female underpants.

Moreover, every cover of a Tommy James song turned out to be cool too for the 80s generation, by such artists as Joan Jett and Billy idol; even Tiffany’s cheesy-peppy-dorky teen mall rat cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” was annoyingly decent, though you’d have never admitted it to your hipster indie rock friends. But you know you secretly wiggled your butt to it. I wiggled my bootie to it, you pretentious motherfuckers, though mainly because the German hottie I was dating the summer of ’87 loved it. You should have seen Tanya dancing around my apartment in her panties while Tiffany’s version played on the French radio station I frequently blasted on my stereo. Magic, pure magic. Sue me, bitches.

Here are some of his gems:

Crystal Blue Persuasion (1969)
The Summer of 1969; I was 6. My family was visiting my Uncle Don’s lake house near Sturgis. Michigan, with every day at this glorious locale spent swimming and sunning, then at night we had sumptuous cookouts and lots of fun family time, Uncle Don often reminiscing fantastically epic stories of his and my Dad’s youth in South-side Chicago during the Great Depression. I have vivid memories of seeing horrible reports on TV news about the battle for Hamburger Hill in ‘Nam, then watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing, which was one of the greatest experiences of my life. This song was on the radio that magical summer like a guiding beautiful light passing through all the good and bad, uniting life into a glorious sonic cacophony and visual kaleidoscope of psycadelic technicolor perfection. Some memories are better than others.


Mony Mony (1968)

Even now, 50 years later, I still can picture in my mind groovy hippie chicks in mini skirts and knee-length go-go boots dancing lasciviously to this hip little ditty with it’s snappy snare-and-handclaps beat and the tamborurine-led magic of its bridge. And Tommy wailing with his blue-eyed soulful pipes, not quite as badass as Otis Redding or Marvin Gaye or James Brown, but not bad for a whiteboy from southern Michigan. Back in the day you played this at a party to get the gang pepped up and dancing like fools. Billy Idol’s cover of this in the 80s was a sing-along staple in bars and pubs worldwide, with “Drink, get laid, get drunk, get FUCKED!” added by the singing-along crowd during each vocal-less guitar break, and of course “FUCKING BULLSHIT!” sung between the pauses in the chorus instead of “Mony Mony.” Good times.


Hanky Panky (1966)

Along with Louie, Louie, this was the epitome of lo-fi American garage rock. How many kegs were tapped at 1960s frat parties while this was blasting out of cheap record players as frolicking girls twisted and wiggled to its snappy beat? LOTS. The song was naughty in a clean-cut, white-bread way, and yet I am sure the evangelical Jesus freaks swore this was the opening salvo of Babylon taking hold of American hippie youth. Sure, the evangelicals knew black folk had been dirty dancing to their satanic R&B for a decade, but now the white kids were shaking their asses like those dirty negroes, ergo culture was collapsing. Bravo.


I Think We’re Alone Now (1966)

Bubblegum pop perfection. That goddamn bass line just ROCKS, and even an idiot can learn the one-finger organ line in about five minutes. There’s nothing fancy here, just a driving 4/4 beat and cool pop magic that made Tommy the master of AM radio. I stole this 45 from one of my sisters and played the crap out of it on our family’s hi-fi console when I was about 5, dancing around the house like a demon. So maybe in a small way I am channeling that little kid’s memory some 50 years later.


Crimson and Clover (1968)

The Summer of Love was dominated by San Francisco psychedelia-crazy hippies who made great music but were also pretentious douchebags. Tommy took that LSD-driven imagery and placed it into an AM-friendly format that proved he could be as cool as those silly San Fran fucks but without all the annoyingly tedious pretense. The result was some great music, such as this song and the wonderful Crystal Blue Persuasion, two great hippie songs if ever that really meant anything. Even the wankers from The Dead and Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape probably smiled every time this song played on the radio, and at the end they all muttered, “Well played, Mr. James, well played!”


Draggin’ the Line (1971)

By the early 70s AM and FM radio were polar opposites, culturally; FM was where the cool kids played while AM was the home to Country and bad, corny Pop. Tommy James, who was brilliant in both formats, had one last great tune to unleash on the airwaves of both with this snappy, groovy little pop song that rode up the charts merely because it’s awesome. He proved that, despite the popularity of LP albums and 18-minute Yes songs with ponderously boring instrument solos that dragged on forever, there was still a place for the 3-minute pop song, especially cool ones—Tommy James’s forte.

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