Music Reviews: The Complete Tommy James & the Shondells, Plus Lloyd Cole Live

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Tommy James has racked up a whopping 17 Top 40 hits, including two No. 1s, and sold more than 100 million records. And his music has been covered by everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Dolly Parton to Lene Lovich, Tiffany, Billy Idol, and Joan Jett. Yet you won’t find an entry for James and the Shondells, the group with which he recorded most of his hits, in such books as The Rolling Stone Album Guide. That’s undoubtedly because they are often dismissed as purveyors of lightweight so-called bubblegum music. 

Granted, their opening statement—a 1966 garage-rock hit called “Hanky Panky”—is about as sophisticated as, say, the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.” It consists primarily of an insistent beat and the line, “My baby does the hanky panky,” repeated more than two dozen times. Yes, the number also includes two verses, but the first goes like this: “I saw her walking on down the line / You know, I saw her for the very first time / A pretty little girl standing all alone / Hey baby, baby, can I take you home? / I never saw her, never really saw her.” As for the remaining lyrics, to quote Herman’s Hermits, “second verse, same as the first.”

But that initial hit—penned, incidentally, by the famed team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich—was a fluke and hardly representative of what James could do. He recorded it when he was all of 13, and it faded away then due to lack of a national distributor. Five years later, though, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, radio promoter called him out of the blue and told him the record was selling up a storm.

As James recalled to me in a 1974 interview, “Somebody had gotten ahold of the original record…and had bootlegged copies. Bootlegged 80,000 records and unloaded them in 10 days.” James convinced the Roulette label to buy the master disc and sign him to a contract.

In the years that followed, he and the Shondells proved they had more to offer than “Hanky Panky.” Yes, they delivered their share of sugary confections. But they also served up well-hooked, artfully constructed pop-rock. They experimented with musical styles ranging from psychedelia to country and produced a significant amount of noteworthy material.

All of the work from their hit years has been gathered in one place for the first time on the massive new Celebration: The Complete Roulette Recordings 1966-1973. This clamshell-boxed six-CD package includes every track from 11 of James’s group and solo albums, plus non-LP singles and songs that have previously appeared only on best-of collections. A 36-page booklet adds data about all the songs, archival photos, and a history of the group.

Celebration’s first disc opens with the band’s debut album, Hanky Panky. In addition to the title track, that record includes a second hit, “Say I Am (What I Am),” which James cowrote, as well as surprisingly good covers of songs ranging from James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy” (with electrifying sax) and Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” to the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’” and Deon Jackson’s “Love Makes the World Go ’Round.”

The disc also features the instrumental “Thunderbolt,” the B side of the “Hanky Panky” single, which sounds reminiscent of the Ventures, as well as six contemporaneous outtakes and It’s Only Love, the band’s second album, whose title cut was a catchy but inconsequential hit. Like the debut, this LP devotes the lion’s share of its program to covers culled from multiple genres—everything from Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya” to Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

The group’s third and fourth albums—I Think We’re Alone Now and Gettin’ Together, both on disc two of the new anthology—feature fewer covers and a good deal of excellent material written expressly for the band. This is where they really come into their own. 

The guitar chords and percussion that begin the title cut of the former album—written, like many of James’s smashes by the team of Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell—make it sounds like a hit even before the vocal kicks in. It’s a classic tale of teenage lust, and it’s not the only bit of ear candy here: the disc also includes “Getting’ Together” and “I Like the Way,” not to mention the irresistible and deftly produced pop hit “Mirage,” a romantic fantasy that lyrically recalls the Temptations’ great “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).” (Incidentally, both “Mirage” and “I Think We’re Alone Now” employ the distinctive electronic keyboard instrument known as the Ondioline, which Al Kooper used in the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat, & Tears and which is closely related to the Clavioline, which features on such songs as Del Shannon’s “Runaway.”)

The hits continue on disc three of the anthology, which includes the group’s fifth and sixth albums, Mony Mony and Crimson and Clover. The title cut of the former is a bit of a throwback to the simplicity of “Hanky Panky,” but the latter LP’s namesake is something else entirely. Yes, it’s an obvious attempt to jump on the psychedelic bandwagon, but it’s a gem nevertheless—especially in the nearly six-minute album version that’s featured here. The single edit is here, too, as are such other super-catchy hits as “Sugar on Sunday” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” 

Things go a bit downhill on discs four, five, and six, which is not to say that they’re totally devoid of strong material: the fourth CD includes “Sweet Cherry Wine” and “Ball of Fire,” two well-deserved hits that didn’t appear on any of the original albums, and the fifth disc incorporates James’s biggest solo hit, “Draggin’ the Line.” But the material—at this point mostly by James and an old friend of his named Bob King—isn’t as consistently compelling as the earlier work, nor are the performances—and there are more than a few bona fide duds here.

Casual listeners will likely be satisfied with Rhino’s 1989 Anthology, a 27-track set that embraces all of the hits (though not the long version of “Crimson and Clover”). But if you want to dig deeper, this new package is the place to go. As noted above, it’s uneven and at times utterly forgettable, but it also contains lots of buried treasure that fans of the hits may be glad to discover.

Also Noteworthy

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Lloyd ColeLive at the Union Chapel and (with the Leopards) Live at the Brooklyn BowlNeither of these releases is brand new—Union Chapel came out in the States last year and Brooklyn Bowl dates from 2019—but both are new to me and both merit attention.  

Lloyd Cole has been making great music ever since 1984, when he and his then group the Commotions debuted with the single “Perfect Skin” and the folk/rock album Rattlesnakes, one of the best records of the 80s. Since then, he has been a prolific purveyor of evocative, literate vignettes and hook-laden acoustic-based rock that carves out a space somewhere between early Velvet Underground and Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.

Newcomers would be well advised to start with Rattlesnakes and work their way forward, but if you’ve already done that, a good next step might be this pair of London concert recordings. Both are two-CD sets, though Brooklyn Bowl could have fit on a single disc.

The 29-track Live at Union Chapel finds Cole performing solo and focusing heavily on his 1980s work with the Commotions. It includes six of the best numbers from Rattlesnakes (“Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?,” “Charlotte Street,” “Forest Fire,” “Perfect Skin,” “2CV,” and the title cut), plus such other standouts as “Brand New Friend” “Cut Me Down,” “Lost Weekend,” and “Perfect Blue” from Easy Pieces; and “Jennifer She Said,” “My Bag,” and “Hey Rusty” from Mainstream. Also here are such later solo efforts as “Don’t Look Back,” “Downtown, “No Blue Skies,” and “Undressed.” 

The 20-track Brooklyn Bowl, which features a first-rate full band (including Cole’s son William on two tracks), is arguably even better. Cole again taps the Commotions’ debut, here with versions of “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” “Charlotte Street,” “Forest Fire,” “Perfect Skin,” “Rattlesnakes,” and “2CV.” He also delivers a smattering of numbers from throughout his later career, including deep cuts (“Everyone’s Complaining”) and a well-executed Dylan cover (“I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)”).

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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