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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Earworm Weekly: Accidental Mash-up Featuring Johnny Rivers vs. Dion

Posted By on Tue, Oct 27, 2015 at 10:44 AM

click to enlarge Rivers on October 11, 1975 - EPIC RECORDS
  • Epic Records
  • Rivers on October 11, 1975
It must be autumn and harvest season, because my ears are full of corn. Hybrid corn. That's right, at the moment I have not one but two songs stuck in my head, welded together by the miracle of matching time signatures and a specific frozen-in-time pop aesthetic sensibility. Turn your clocks back to the early 1960s. Elvis had been drafted in 1958, Buddy Holly died in 1959 and the Beatles wouldn't arrive in the U.S. until 1964. The years in between are reflexively disparaged by rock historians as a musical desert. Into this desert we march.

It actually isn't a desert, of course. Lots of interesting things were happening in pop and rock in the early 1960s. Motown opened up shop. Girl-group harmonies were in ascendance. And on the West Coast, surf music was making its debut. In 1964, Johnny Rivers released a remake of a 1960 song by Harold Dorman called “Mountain of Love.” The later version doesn't differ much musically to Dorman's original, but Rivers scaled back the backing vocals (believe it or not), stripped out the strings and added a harmonica, and finished with just enough pathos to his voice to really sell the song. Both the Dorman and Rivers singles sold well but it's Rivers' version that's become a staple of oldies stations everywhere.

“Mountain of Love” tells the story of a heartbroken suitor sitting atop a literal mountain, looking down into the valley below at a “church with a big tall steeple.” His ex-girlfriend is getting married there – to someone else. The wedding bells are ringing, the altar is filled with flowers, and the singer is stranded, abandoned alone. The cantering pace of the song disguises its sad core and also turns it into perfect earworm material. I also admit to taking a strange pleasure in Rivers' distinctive nasal twang, with is enough to give this version some countrified flair.
But my musical memory is perverse and at some point the sprightly harmonica of the Rivers “Mountain of Love” always transforms into the greasy three-note saxophone riff of Dion's 1962 hit “The Wanderer.” You know, the song about how he's got a girl in every port. I'm sure they're all cool with it, wink wink. Every time I hear this song I am reminded that Dion also sang my mother Susan's least-favorite song of all time, “Runaround Sue,” about a girl who is untrustworthy because “Sue goes...out with other guys.” Gasp! Way to go, sexual double standard. (Dion, by the way, would like you to understand that “The Wanderer” is secretly a tragic song. He calls attention to the bridge, which ends with the line “I'm going nowhere.” The song is about a man full of bluster, hiding his empty core. I don't know what his excuse for the distaff version is.)
The two songs merge seamlessly into this weird nonsense song loop. Instead of heading into the “Mountain of Love” chorus after the line “many times I've been here, many times I've cried,” we take a detour to “because I'm the wanderer, yeah, I'm the wanderer, I roam around...” Chorus completed, it then zags back to the verses of “Mountain of Love” like the stitches on a pop-music Frankenstein. “Mountain of Love” and “The Wanderer” are completely incompatible in terms of subject matter, but their superficial musical similarities are enough to make it easy to play mash-up, intentionally or otherwise. Both are built around the 12-bar blues structure, with no guitar solo and a repeated chorus helping to fill the singles out to about two and a half minutes each. Both sound dated now – corny or classic depending on who you ask – because of their similar production, especially those smooth backing harmonies.

Dion was heading toward a long eclipse in his career, during which he would struggle to kick a heroin addiction; Rivers, on the other hand, would continue to see success through the decade, recording another classic earworm, “Secret Agent Man” (a.k.a. “Secret Asian Man”) along with a slew of Motown and soul covers. Both men are still alive and performing. Someday the musical imp inside me will no doubt create another monstrous hybrid that will release these two perfectly respectable musicians from their unholy and unintentional union. In the meantime, maybe the darkness at the heart of “The Wanderer” is finally explained. He was left alone on that high mountainside and swore off relationships forever in response, becoming the callous love-'em-and-leave-'em type, boasting about his conquests while secretly crying inside.

I think we're good as long as no-one tries to tell me that the bride who jilted him was named Sue.

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Lori Selke


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