Hand it to the folks at Collector’s Choice Records for once again finding some obscure musical treasures and bringing them back into the light in such a way as to not only generate notice for a forgotten artist, but also to probably lead rock historians to use the releases as the basis for meaningful re-evaluation of an artists’ career. In this case, rocker Tommy James and his band The Shondells get the reissue treatment as Collector’s Choice has recently reissued a handful of the band’s albums and a James solo album as well. While most modern music listeners probably do not recognize the name, it is safe to say James (and his band) were one of the most successful hit machines ever to grace the latter half of the ’60’s. The band scored first with the garage rocker Hanky Panky, moved on to such oft-covered hits such as I Think We’re Alone Now, Mony Mony, and Crimson and Clover, among many other songs which hit the charts during the end of the decade. The band split up in the beginning of the ’70’s and James went on to have a succesful solo career, scoring several hit singles throughout the rest of the decade.
No doubt part of the reason the band doesn’t receive their due is due to the band’s reputation as one of the first bubblegum pop acts. While it’s true most of their hit songs were simplistic and lacked deep meaning, James and band were just as innovative and explorative as many of the more highly regarded acts at the time. In fact, James and band experimented with psychedelia (as was de riguer at the time) on the album Crimson and Clover and synths on the VERY over-looked and under-praised album Cellophane Symphony and were constantly trying to morph their style as times changed. Unfortunately, the big hits were inescapable on the airwaves at the time, leading many to think the band was a simplistic singles act despite their recording several outstanding albums. Hopefully these reissues will finally afford the band their just due in the eyes of music fans.
James began his career in music at an incredibly young age, forming his first band in 1958 when he was 11 and recording his first single at the age of 17. By that time, the Shondells had been together for four years and had built up a decent enough following to entice a local DJ to record the Barry/Greenwich song “Hanky Panky”. While a bit of a hit around James’ hometown of Niles, Michigan, the record label didn’t have the resources to push the song at a national level and the single was forgotten. As luck would have it, a full year later a DJ in Pittsburgh found a copy of the single and played it on the air, telling his listeners it was a new recording. Positive response encouraged other DJs to play the song locally and it was picked up by a local bootlegger, who pressed tenbs of thousands of copies of the song to meet demand. Eventually, Morris Levy, founder and owner of Roulette Records, found out about the song’s popularity and bought the rights to the original recording.
By the late summer of 1966, the song was the top-selling single on the Billboard charts. It took two years, but James and his bandmates had finally had a hit song with their very first single! In fact, the song took so long to become a hit, James was playing with a whole new set of Shondells by that time, finding a new band in Pittsburgh when the song started becoming big enough to warrant James playing shows around the area. But James was always resourceful, not only choosing the best songs from other writers while slowly and surely learning the game himself but also in choosing how those songs would sound, often shaking things up with different musical formats and obscure effects. While often dismissed as a mere bubblegum act (a stigma that still haunts James and the band, unfortunately) if one takes the time to listen to their albums, they will find some of the best pop music of the ’60’s contained on them.
In fact, the band (or any band at the time for that matter) couldn’t have had a much better hit album than I Think We’re Alone Now. It’s definitely in the ballpark of great for it’s time, if you’re into danceable pop aimed at no higher than a teenage audience. While some might think that damning, take into account the whole rock and roll industry was geared towards children and sullen teenagers, and the album was aimed squarely into the market most record labels covet the most, and still do. At least, the few that still exist. Preceded by a couple albums that were basically cobbled together to take advantage of whatever hit single James and the Shondells had going at the time, the album (while still more a collection of great songs than a cohesive statement) shows the band hitting their stride. No longer using just a single or two and padding the rest of the album with filler, the band starts to assert itself as more than just a group assembled to score a few fast hits and fade away. Not only is the title track one of the most remembered songs of the ’60’s, it has been redone by several artists since, turning it into an evergreen song which has hiot the charts more than once by various artists.
After the band’s hitmaking, uber-danceable I Think We’re Alone Now album, James and the Shondells coalesced as a unit on the tougher, slightly more experimental Gettin’ Together, an album of which James is still proud. Calling it the first album where the group started sounding and acting as an actual band, James also lauds the album as containing some of his better songs. Composed on the road during down time, James and bassist Mike Vale’s contributions sound just as strong as the songs “bought” from the hired guns from bwhich the band usually drew their outside material. While still a band more regarded for their singles than their albums, the album is a watershed moment for James and The Shondells as the album shows a definite progression from their simple dance hits into songs delving into deeper topics than just hanging out with girls. While not quite on a par with other albums put out at the same time, such as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, the album nonetheless takes advantage of then-recent technological innovations while still maintaining sharp pop sensibilities and a simplicity which makes the songs (if not the recordings) timeless. Standout cuts include the title cut and Love’s Closing In On Me.
James and the Shondells’ last album together, Travellin’, is also easily their best. Following the psychedelic Crimson and Clover and the synthesizer-laden Cellophane Symphony, the band once again changed direction and, for this effort, came up with a solid hard rock album full of rocking songs and incendiary performances from James and the band. After two albums full of musical (and chemical) experimentation and studio trickery, James and the band pared down their sound and kept the effects to a bare minimum, allowing James’ songs and the band’s music to shine unencumbered. Smart move. Even though the album had no hits apart from the relatively minor chart-burner “She”, the record is the most solid effort by the band, with every song a killer and absolutely no filler. Taking their cue from bands such as Creedence Clearwater and the Sir Douglas Quintet, James and the Shondells dropped all the artifice, turned up their amps and allowed plenty of roots rock and country to seep into their sound, making it very much right in style with what a lot of acts we’re doing at the time, including the Byrds and English bands such as Brinsley Schwartz. Say anything you want about the band’s hits: the act was as versatile as anyone, including the Beatles. Few bands touched on as many stylesas James and the Shondells. From garage to bubblegum to dance to psychdelia to artrock to country-rock choogle – the band did it all and scored hits with whatever sound they decided to use, making all of their various musical personas sound like a natural progression. The album is so good its’ amazing it was their swan song, though it wasn’t meant to be that way.
Which brings us to James’ third solo work My Head, My Bed and my Red Guitar, one of James’ most accomplished and interesting albums. By this time, James had long jettisoned the Shondells, but not on purpose. After roughly five years of non-stop touring, hit singles and best-selling albums, the band had decided as a unit to take a sabbatical from one another after Travellin’, to give each other some space. Unfortunately, the band simply did not reunite after their break. There was no animosity involved with the split, just the fact the band never reconvened after wishing each other well and going off their own way. It was for the better though, as the band had pretty much run its’ course as bubblegum titans despite their ambitious stabs at psychedelia and the album-rock market. After two solo albums featuring James’ flirtation with Christian rock, James’ restlessness with his musical path was once again present and experimentation was in the air. James decided once again to broaden his musical horizons and take a chance on becoming an artist who was taken seriously. This album proves he was more than up to the task. Not only has James never sounded as involved, he sings as if this is the album he has finally gotten a chance to make. The band was a great vehicle for James, but left to his own devices, James was free to take advantage of his own muse free from the constraints of a band democracy. While little known today, this is James’ masterpiece and the album which features his abundant talent most advantageously. The songs are gorgeous, the sentiments simple but not trite and James seemed poised to take over the singles market which unfortunately did not happen, though James continued to have a presence in pop music, scoring several more hits as the decade progressed.
While most music fans have historically dismissed James’ music as Bubblegum rock due to his most famous hits, his music encompasses so much more than that and such beliefs fail to acknowledge James’ artistically succesful explorations into country/folk and other genres during his solo career. Thanks to the infinite wisdom of the Collector’s Choice folks, hopefully this set of reissues will open up people’s ears, allowing James and his bandmates to get their due once and for all. It is true James never attained the same heights as a solo artist, but the subsequent life of his and the Shondells work both during and after his involvement with the Shondells prove the act had talent to spare. In just a short two week span in 1987, Billy Idol’s cover of James’ hit “Mony, Mony” supplanted Tiffany’s cover of the act’s other hit “I Think We’re Alone Now” as the number one song on the Billboard charts. If nothing else, the feat was definite proof that although James’ songs may be dismissed by the musically ignorant as slight throwaways, there is always a market for a catchy melody to which people can hum, sing and dance. Now, if only people would take the time to explore the rest of the band’s work, they’ll finally see the true, mineshaft-like depth of a band dismissed as mere ’60’s dance hitmakers.