[14 May 2009]
Tommy James would like you to know he’s still alive, and he kept making music long after you stopped caring. Instead of loading his latest, supposedly definitive anthology with out-of-print album cuts and forgotten B-sides from his Shondells heyday (bait for those who still like to crank up “I Think We’re Alone Now” or “Mony Mony”), he has sanctioned a career-spanning “singles collection” that tracks his excruciatingly slow, apparently reluctant and quite well-deserved retreat into has-been land.
Thus, 40 Years: The Complete Singles Collection does a disservice to a first-rate American bubblegum-pop singer, rivaled in his era only by Mark Lindsay and arguably the teenage Alex Chilton. Though billed to Tommy James and the Shondells, only 19 of the compilation’s 48 cuts predate James’ solo career, and for an act inextricably linked to the ‘60s, the vast majority of the music was released after 1970. Furthermore, every song on the first disc made Billboard’s Hot 100; only four cuts from the second disc did likewise.
On paper, such a disjointed compilation seems laughably excessive and quite inessential, but ultimately harmless. For anybody slogging his way through disc two, hearing James’ sleepwalk his way through faceless MOR drivel too airily tame for even your dentist’s office, it’s an utter travesty, full of songs not just forgettable but often unlistenable. Its best track, a cover of Gary Glitter’s “I Love You Love Me Love”, drains the song of its irony, even striking those all-important commas and sanitizing glam-rock years before the Bay City Rollers did (with far less-resistible results). Taken in totality, 40 Years illustrates a pop star’s fall from grace, too focused on that elongated (not to mention boring) fall rather than the brief-but-exhilarating grace.
So what the hell happened? How was the snotty, lecherous teen smirking and strutting his way through “Hanky Panky”, the dramatic lothario of “Mirage” and the guy who revisits his first orgasm (“You make me feel…soooo….good”) in the chorus of “Mony Mony” reduced to just another yacht-rocking MOR drone? Simply put, Tommy James was a great singer, but he was never much of a songwriter, and therein lies the problem. Like most great bubblegum acts, the Shondells were puppets, and producer-songwriter team Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry were the Henson-and-Oz of the teen-pop sugar rush, churning out lively bursts of super-melodic teenage kicks. They fitted these assembly-line confections for James’ almost-gritty voice, a pleasantly impassioned instrument with the just the right hints of rebellion for kids not ready for soul or blues.
These numbers succeed not just as vocals or compositions, but as records full of intense atmospherics and what-the-hell kitchen-sink flourishes: the palpitating bassline of “I Think We’re Alone Now” echoing the collectively beating hearts of teenage America, the spatial chaos of “Mony Mony” and the tremolo vocal effects on “Crimson and Clover”. At his best, James was a garage rocker (the verses of “Hanky Panky” were improvised, and the record took two years and a lot of fortuitous coincidences to become a hit) turned pop star. He brought his Nuggets soul to Peter Noone’s fanbase, and while it lasted, it was great for all parties involved.
Like so many big-headed performers, drunk on pride and plaudits, James’ ego began to exceed his talent, and he eventually parted ways with Cordell and Gentry. No longer did he add his exhilarated rasp to stellar-bubblegum tunes. He was now an artist, one both enamored and firmly out of step with the late ‘60s zeitgeist. “Crystal Blue Persausion” is a second-hand approximation of psychedelia from a guy too scared to down the heavy drugs. “Sweet Cherry Wine” is a gospel-tinged peace-and-love song, vaguely political, vaguely religious, too commercial to be anything but vague. And while the world was becoming a ball of confusion, James was extolling some benevolent ball of fire in the sky watching over you and I.
His records were still reliably melodic (though never as indelible as “I Think We’re Alone Now”) and surprisingly rhythmic: The galloping-cowpoke groove of “Gotta Get Back to You”, the plummeting drums of “Do Something to Me” and the testifying horns of “Chuch Street Soul Revival” all beg to be sampled. However, his lyrics were consistently terrible: too often preachy and overly serious, unaware of their own sheepish nonsensicality. He sells his shallow words as if they offer deep psychic insight, and it’s enough to make you miss the red-faced kid running as he fast as he could from those busybody adults who just didn’t get young love, man.
As the ‘70s wore on, and James dropped the by-now ceremonial Shondells from his billing, the music only got worse: the records less sonically compelling, the vocals more tired and rudimentary and the songs duller and more cliché-ridden. James cut a couple low-charting CCM numbers that offer some muted excitement (“Nothin’ to Hide”, “I’m Comin’ Home”), glimpses of a more-fruitful-but-unheeded career path that would more effectively use his talents and interests. Lite-radio staples “Sweet Cherry Wine” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” hint at that spirituality; one that draws influence from gospel and CCM, but James is as much businessman as Christian, so his religious songs remain vague, addressing a “you” that could just as likely be a woman as a deity.
Instead, James remained a pop slave. He co-wrote “Tighter, Tighter”, the one hit for studio conceit Alive & Kicking. James’ version is so labored that it actually leaves you fondly recalling Alive & Kicking. So inept was his ‘80s material that he couldn’t even capitalize on the comeback potential of ‘60s nostalgia (The Wonder Years, mass-produced tie-dye) and a string of hit covers, from Joan Jett to Billy Idol to Tiffany. This should have been resounding proof that the Shondells’ hits were more about the songs than the singer.
But of course, Tommy James is no quitter; he’s not even one to take a hint. He persevered for the next couple decades with increasingly insignificant blandness, even revisiting “Sweet Cherry Wine” with a generic gospel choir and hollow over-production. Instead of taking a God-bless-him-for-trying approach, the 40 Years liner notes (by Ed Osborne and Martin Fitzpatrick) stress that James’ 2004 singles were top-ten Adult Contemporary hits (not on Billboard charts, mind you, but the relatively obscure FMQB airplay charts, though even that claim is suspect).
The compilation closes with the collector-baiting “Long Ponytail”, a disheveled 1962 recording by a 15-year-old James and his then band, Tom and the Tornadoes. It’s immediate, joyous, urgent and happily imperfect—everything James’ post-Shondells material was not. Such is the life of a bubblegum pop singer, even a great one: Maturity proves to be his artistic downfall.