[11 October 2006]
If you’ve only heard REM’s version of “Superman,” you may find it hard to believe that beneath the whiny vocals, pretentious alt-rock arrangement and typically bland performance, there’s actually a pretty good pop song—one that reflects none of the ignominy inflicted upon it by one of the most overrated bands of all-time. Yes, Virginia, “Superman” is a great pop song that originally had no ties to the boring 1980s alternative rock with which it’s so often identified.
Recorded in 1969, the Clique’s “Superman” bursts with intricately overlaid harmonies on the choruses, a spunky arrangement that owes a lot more to the garage bands from several years earlier than the year it was cut, and a sunshine vibe embodying the best 1960s pop. It was also the only song which the Clique actually played on its lone 1969 album, but it was by no means the only highlight in the bunch.
Cut with the able assistance of session men like Hal Blaine and Leon Russell, the album is a consistently rewarding effort that has to rank among the best bubblegum pop albums of its time. While the Houston-based sextet isn’t playing on the bulk of it, the singing—led by the idiosyncratic lead vocals of Randy Shaw—is key to the execution, and also helped the band land hits with “Sugar on Sunday” (#22) and “I’ll Hold Out My Hand” (#45).
Though unabashedly out of step with the “serious” FM rock beginning to dominate at the time, “Sugar on Sunday” not only enthralls with its melody and harmonic chorus, but with a song structure (courtesy of its authors, including Tommy James) that has just the right amount of sweetening to avoid being a blithely commercial stab at the charts. But chart it did, and the soaring harmonies of “I’ll Hold Out My Hand” nearly equaled it in commercial impact, undercut perhaps only by the fact that the record label (White Whale, home of the Turtles) was in financial trouble, and just months away from tanking.
There are other songs on the album with hit potential—and not just “Superman” (which became successful in the wrong hands 17 years later). “Shadow of Your Love” is an excellent yearning ballad with a strong performance by Shaw, whose bittersweet vocal adds to the aura. “Soul Mates” is another winner, with an arrangement straight out of the Brian Wilson playbook, that borrows just a little from “God Only Knows.” Similarly, “Little Miss Lucy” sounds like a more poppy version of “Hang On Sloopy”, while the lugubrious feel of “My Darkest Hour”, and a cover of the Bee Gees’ “Holiday”, occupy the other side of the pop spectrum. The remainder of the album isn’t quite as good, yet it’s stronger than the typical AM pop of the era.
And on this reissue, it gets a boost from bonus tracks, including the single alternates of “Superman” (a little more bass) and “Shadow of Your Love,” and the band’s last (very minor) hit, the bouncy pop ditty “Sparkle and Shine”—which sounds a lot like “Crimson and Clover” (and not surprisingly, Tommy James cowrote this one as well). There’s also the flip of the latter, the uncharacteristically hard-edged, fuzz-guitar-driven “I’m Alive,” plus the equally hard-edged final single, lackluster bar-band versions of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and “Southbound Wind”, which are also average.
Three sides of the two singles by the original Clique (who broke up before the album was recorded) in 1967 and 1968 are also undistinguished; however, this lineup did record a cool cover of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators’ “Splash One” that focuses more on the melody than the groove of the original, and managed to bubble under at #113 in Billboard in 1967.
Like the lineup that succeeded them when the band signed to White Whale in 1969, the original Clique wasn’t meant for the long haul. But both incarnations left enough of an impression in a short time to put them a cut above the average late 1960s pop group.