Tommy James and the Shondells seem to be one of those groups that everyone has heard of but few have actually listened to anything other than a handful of their biggest hits. It’s a shame that their catalog is so often neglected, as between 1966 and 1970, the group scored 14 Top-40 singles, two of which went #1, and had a grand total of 19 songs in the Hot 100. Considering their successful run, it’s a bit surprising that they aren’t as revered as some of their contemporaries. Maybe this is simply because they were stigmatized as a bubblegum act for so long. Perhaps everything would have been different had they not turned down that gig at Woodstock, which was essentially pitched to them as, “Some pig farmer wants you to play in his field.” But as it stands, the band’s relative obscurity has left plenty of gems and curiosities buried in their library. From raunchy garage rock and AM pop, to psychedelic rock and whatever Cellophane Symphony is, Tommy James and the Shondells really ran the gamut over the course of their career. Here are a few samples of their eclectic work throughout the years.
1) “I’ll Go Crazy,” Hanky Panky (1966)
As the first album under the Shondells’ name, Hanky Panky is comprised mostly of covers. But unlike its two hit singles, the title track and “Say I Am,” many of the songs on this LP are R&B tunes written by greats like Junior Walker and Curtis Mayfield. The Shondells’ version of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy” is certainly one of the coolest recordings the group ever made. It’s hard to follow a stone-cold classic like “Hanky Panky,” but this track does a pretty darn good job of it. What makes it stand out is James’ particular take on the tune. He isn’t trying to be James Brown, like many other young rockers might have done, but instead puts his own spin on the song with hard-hitting rock ‘n’ roll vocals that would later be resurrected for “Mony, Mony.” It’s quite interesting to see him go in this blue-eyed-soul direction, as the Shondells’ would ultimately turn away from it with their next few releases.
2) “Run, Run, Baby, Run,” I Think We’re Alone Now (1967)
This pop gem goes perfectly with its A-side, “Mirage,” thanks to the similar reverse-tape-player opening. They even threw in a harp for good measure! The Shondells had a ton of songs with fantastic melodies, and this is one of many examples of the memorable B-sides they put out. It’s too bad that Tommy James hated being called bubblegum, because he really was quite good at it!
3) “(Baby, Baby) I Can’t Take It No More,” I Think We’re Alone Now (1967)
With this track, we go from the super sweet, lovey-dovey A-side, “I Like the Way,” to a heartbroken, mournful piece. You can sense a little bit of the Righteous Brothers’ influence here, in the vein of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” which makes me think it would be interesting to hear a more soul-oriented group do a version of this tune. James certainly does a fine job with it, however, delivering one of his more overlooked and underrated vocal performances.
4) “Baby Let Me Down,” I Think We’re Alone Now, (1967)
Like many of the Shondells’ earlier recordings, this song is ridiculously short, clocking in at under two minutes. But something about the way James says, “Baby left me down” at the beginning of each line is so inexplicably catchy and cool. Plus, the mellow, driving groove makes the song fun to listen to over and over again. Plainly put, it’s just a simple-yet-effective feel-good tune.
5) “Love’s Closin’ In On Me,” Gettin’ Together (1967)
Here’s an archetypal bubblegum song if there ever was one. The upbeat organ, light-hearted lyrics, and clapping hands on “Love’s Closin’ In” are clear indicators of the genre, but that isn’t to say it’s mediocre by any means. This two-minute tune is a real treat. I would even argue that it should have been the A-side, rather than”Out of the Blue,” as the chorus is wonderfully memorable and much more fun to sing along with.
6) “Gingerbread Man,” Mony, Mony (1968)
I have to ask, what is “gingerbread man” even supposed to be a euphemism for? Is it a toned-down drug trip reference? Presumably, they were just trying to emulate the nonsensical sunshine-pop songs of the era with some vaguely hippy-dippy lyrics. But whatever it’s supposed to mean, “Gingerbread Man” is musically a solid tune. The organ riff is remarkably catchy, and the lyrics really aren’t that ridiculous. James seems to be taking the subject matter seriously, anyway. He honestly makes being a gingerbread man sound way cooler and more fun than it should.
7) “I Can’t Go Back To Denver,” Mony, Mony (1968)
The diverse range of sounds, even within the Shondells’ albums, can be truly surprising. For example, this track shared an LP with both “Mony, Mony” and “Gingerbread Man,” despite bearing little resemblance to either. Maybe the group was still searching for its sound, or maybe they just wanted to play with a bunch of styles for the fun of it. “Can’t Go Back to Denver” feels a lot like something Mitch Ryder might have recorded, and it’s cool to hear James try that style of singing. The song suits his power-packed vocals very well and further reveals the wide range of genres he could handle.
8) “I’m Taken,” Mony, Mony (1968)
“I’m Taken” easily could have been a lead single with its dreamy, swelling chorus that only the ’60s pop scene could have produced. It’s the kind of song that a record collector in the ’80s would have unearthed on a scratchy thrift store copy of Mony, Mony and shown to all his nerdy friends. Overall, it’s just plain lovely and really deserves a listen.
9) “I’m Alive,” Crimson & Clover, 1969
Though not as well-remembered as its flip side, this song is thematically similar to “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” albeit the notion is conveyed in a much different tone than relaxed, beachside bliss. Instead, we have a fuzz-guitar-laden anthem of celebration. While the “new vibration” was mellow and soothing, “I’m Alive” is an exclamation of joy in finding a fresh take on life. It’s a great follow up to “Crystal Blue” and instantly puts you in a good mood.
10) “I’m A Tangerine,” Crimson & Clover, 1969
Basically, Tommy James gets his freak on, and it’s great. This isn’t even the strangest the Shondells would get (Cellophane Symphony takes that prize), but to be fair, it’s not any weirder than some of the stuff the Beatles had put out at the time (you can even hear a little bit of “Strawberry Fields”). Part of why I enjoy it is that it doesn’t sound like it was written on drugs so much as it’s trying to sound like it was written on drugs. It’s just a little too crazy. But then, it’s always fun to hear the Shondells get crazy and experimental, and this bizarre little song somehow manages to be really amusing.
11) “Kathleen McArthur,” Crimson & Clover, 1969
One of the more commercial tracks on Crimson & Clover, “Kathleen McArthur” takes some of that ethereal late-’60s sound and transforms it into a classic “boy from the wrong side of the tracks meets high society girl” tale. It’s a sweet, dreamy ballad that adds yet another dimension to the Shondells’ repertoire, showing that they could do the baroque pop thing just as well as the next band.
12) “I Know Who I Am,” Cellophane Symphony, 1969
While Crimson & Clover was certainly a departure from the Shondells’ usual Top 40 fare, its follow up was where things got really strange. On one hand, we have the title track’s nine-plus minutes of pure acid trip, and later on, the baffling goofiness of “Papa Rolled His Own.” We can probably blame drug use for at least some of the confusion, and “I Know Who I Am” only adds to the mix. It’s not exactly a remarkable composition, but personally, I’ve always had an affinity for it. I simply love how how “ain’t-give-a-damn” it is. The catchy refrain and James’ riffing give it the feeling of an impromptu barroom singalong, like some drunk guy is writing a song, and all he can come up with is jokey lyrics. It’s simply meant to amuse and certainly succeeds at that, at least for me.
13) “Loved One,” Cellophane Symphony, 1969
Definitely one of the more pop-oriented songs on the album, “Loved One” recaptures the laid back, tropical quality that made “Crystal Blue Persuasion” so great. You can also hear hints of James’ composition “Tighter, Tighter,” which would be a success for Alive ‘N Kickin’ the following year. “Loved One” was the B-side of “She,” but also would have gone along nicely with Cellophane Symphony‘s peace and love anthem, “Sweet Cherry Wine.” At any rate, it breaks up some of the weirdness of the album with tuneful pop sensibility.
14) “Bloody Water,” Travelin’, 1970
Now this is something I would never associate with Tommy James and the Shondells. Psychedelia I can accept, but “Bloody River” simply does not compute, probably because they never had a hit with this style of music. It’s not at all a bad effort though, and it’s cool to hear the band get down and dirty. As usual, Tommy James handles the detour into new territory quite well, and the final product is a pretty solid blues-rock cut.
15) “Red Rover,” Travelin’, 1970
This is the song where we can really hear the Shondells starting to enter the ’70s. It’s interesting to listen to this and think about how they might have continued to grow and change if they had survived further into the decade, but James’ battle with drug addiction made it impossible for them to keep going. Even with that fact in mind, he still sounds great here, and the band demonstrates yet another musical style they weren’t too shabby at, topping off their catalog with yet another entry that proves they weren’t just another bubblegum band.