July 19, 1966
“Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells
#1 on the Billboard Hot 100, July 16-29, 1966
Every generation thinks the one that follows is dumber, lazier, more vulgar. When rock ‘n’ roll hit the scene in the mid-20th Century, one of the constant refrains was that rock music wasn’t just a step down from the sophisticated pop of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and the like, but a long dive off a steep, slimy cliff.
In that sense, “Hanky Panky,” as performed by teenage rockers Tommy James and the Shondells, is the epitome of what the elder generation thought all rock ‘n’ roll sounded like. Its relentless repeated line “my baby does the hanky panky” manages to sound both juvenile and lewd — and, in fact, perfectly encapsulates juvenile lewdness. The distorted guitar riff that drives the song is of a piece with the overall murky and shoddy production values, far from the lush orchestration and satiny voices that previously ruled the airwaves.
“Hanky Panky” began life in 1963 as a rush-written B-side for songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s vocal project the Raindrops. As the writers of such pop classics as “Be My Baby,” “Chapel of Love,” “Leader of the Pack,” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” among many more, Barry and Greenwich had an astonishing talent for constructing infectious songs that aptly captured the teenage mindset.
They were also talented enough to know not to waste their good material on the flipside of a potential hit. The original “Hanky Panky” is a bit of girl-groupish filler, a dance craze cash-in for a dance craze that didn’t actually exist. The sole verse namedrops some of Barry and Greenwich’s inspirations: the Tokens, the Drifters, the Coasters. In short, it was not something that the writers strained themselves too hard over. Years later, Barry, talking to writer Fred Bronson, said he considered it “a terrible song.”
By the time the Shondells discovered the song the following year, it had passed from one garage band to another like a message in a game of Telephone, morphing in the process into a junior varsity “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” James, or someone else along the line, swapped out the list of vocal groups for a rough sketch of an encounter with an elusive “pretty baby.” He sees her walking by herself and asks to take her home; he then insists he “never ever saw her.” Was she the invention of an oversexed imagination? Is he covering for something?
The Shondells’ reimagining of “Hanky Panky” may have been mildly risqué when it was recorded in 1964; when it finally became a national hit in mid-1966, it was almost quaint. The buzzing guitar and James’s ripe delivery hint at the existence of sex without really being sexy — an adolescent fantasy (“I never saw her”?) rather than “Be-Bop-A-Lula”’s (or “Satisfaction”’s, or “Day Tripper”’s) matter-of-factness. In the process, James and the Shondells had stumbled on the prototype for bubblegum: bright, catchy and repetitious, with a hint of plausibly deniable innuendo.
It was a very nearly a dead end, however. In the two years that had elapsed since the recording of “Hanky Panky,” the Shondells went the way of many teenage bands, dissolving once its members graduated high school. It was only when the record was plucked from obscurity by a DJ in Pittsburgh that “Hanky Panky” became a sensation, albeit unbeknownst to the Michigan-based band. The Shondells had finally found fame; the problem was, only Tommy James was interested in pursuing it. Undeterred, James recruited a new batch of Shondells to promote the single, eventually becoming one of the most reliable hitmakers of the late ’60s.
The band refined and developed their sound on their next several singles, from bubblegum masterworks like “I Think We’re Alone Now” into more mature psychedelic pop such as “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” The Shondells’ 1968 hit “Mony Mony” even borrows elements from “Hanky Panky,” but sets them in a more dynamic, better-constructed song. While “Hanky Panky” is essentially a first draft for the better singles the Shondells would release afterward, its amateurishness is kind of the point. A record this raw and racy could never have been a hit in an earlier decade; it belonged fully to the younger generation.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.