That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
Was 1966 the pivotal year in popular music? Jon Savage’s 1966: The Year the Decade Imploded makes a strong case for it, pointing to epochal records by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, and many others. Fueled by tectonic changes in politics and culture—the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, LSD, the pill, the yawning abyss of the Vietnam War—popular music burst through a perceptual wall, in the process changing from being the soundtrack behind events to being the events themselves. Nothing of the sort had ever happened before, and it’s possible nothing like it will ever happen again.
A wealth of inspired rock songs bubbled up to seize the public’s attention that year: The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.”
Oh, and the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.”
Does this crude three-chord stomp deserve a place among such exalted works? We won’t presume to settle that weighty question. But if “Wild Thing” lacked the gravitas of, say, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” or the game-changing production of “Good Vibrations,” the song has inspired generations of rockers, proto-punks and ne’er-do-wells.
Jimi Hendrix set the stage alight with the song—literally—at his first major U.S. appearance, at the Monterey Pop Festival. In the ensuing decade, the Ramones, Iggy Pop and the Buzzcocks would all cite the song, and more broadly the Troggs, as an influence. Later still, X, the Creatures, Liz Phair, Cheap Trick, the Divinyls, Animal from the Muppets, and others would all cover the Troggs’ primal blast of guttural arousal.
Of course, the Troggs didn’t actually write it.
That honor goes to Chip Taylor, a country-and-western songwriter who also happens to be the brother of actor Jon Voight. In 1965, he was asked to pen something “new and fresh” for the Wild Ones, the more or less fabricated house band at New York City’s Peppermint Lounge. With only a day in which to write and record a demo, Taylor booked time at a studio and hoped for the best.
“Wild Thing” may be rated PG by today’s standards, but in the mid-60s its sexual directness was a hard slap in the face of polite sensibilities. As Taylor later recounted in a 2012 interview, “Because it was a sexual-kind-of-feeling song, I didn’t want to be embarrassed, I wanted to let myself sing it, so I asked (producer) Ron (Johnson) to turn the lights out when I got there.”
With the song only half-written, Taylor imagined himself with the titular Wild Thing and sang “whatever came to mind.”
What ended up on tape was rough, halting, and primal, but the song had a special spark, and Taylor knew it. Rather than polishing his diamond in the rough, he called it done. The only embellishment came from Johnson’s fortuitous skill at whistling through air gaps in his hands, a primitive stab at a sound that would return to delight/haunt millions of listeners a few months later.
As regular Cover Me readers, you’re well aware that our feature stories often serve to expose previously unknown—but arguably superior—versions of well-known songs. The debate over who recorded the better version of “Hanging on the Telephone,” “Tainted Love” and many other songs continues to haunt the waking hours of several dozen fanatics to this very day.
That said, this is not one of those stories. Let’s cut to the chase: The version of “Wild Thing” the Wild Ones recorded the day after Chip Taylor’s demo? It’s terrible.
Ditching the original song’s primal grind, “bluesified” by an obtrusive harmonica part, and perhaps most of all lacking Troggs’ singer Reg Presley’s inimitably halting / leering delivery, the Wild One’s version of “Wild Thing” sank gracelessly without a trace.
It was only through a serendipitous meeting between Chip Taylor and English producer Larry Page that “Wild Thing” got a second chance. Already managing the notoriously unmanageable Kinks, Page had recently taken on another client. Hailing from Andover, a small city southwest of London, the Troggs had none of the cachet of hipper bands from the capital. Nor, it must be said, did they have much in the way of raw talent. As Page drily put it in a 2013 interview, “They weren’t a band that could count themselves in.”
That said, what the band lacked in skill and polish they made up for with a thumping, driving delivery—the band’s original name was the Troglodytes—and a taste for raw, simple rock tunes. The Troggs had already released a single, “Lost Girl,” which had gone nowhere despite a frantic, fuzzed-out guitar break reminiscent of Dave Davies’ better efforts.
Well aware of the band’s limitations, Larry Page insisted they rehearse all three chords of “Wild Thing” until there was no chance of failure, then hustled them into the studio on the tail end of one of his own orchestra’s recording dates.
Put down live to 4-track, the second take was the one. So primitive it’s almost eerie, with the guitar blasting out through not one but two Vox AC30s, the Troggs’ take on “Wild Thing” managed to distill all of early rock and roll’s hypnotic lust and power into a single two-and-a-half minute blast. Even the pauses sound dirty, not so much pregnant as knocked up. It’s so dumb it’s genius, so genius it’s dumb. The only overdub was the infamous ocarina solo, played here by Larry Page’s musical director Colin Frechter.
The song now enshrined on magnetic tape, Page set to work selling it. The problem was that no one was interested. As he recounted in the same 2012 interview as Chip Taylor, he roamed the halls of the BBC seeking a sympathetic ear. Instead, he was greeted by the same answer over and over: no. “I personally then walked around the BBC and everybody hated it. Everybody in the BBC hated ‘Wild Thing.’”
Dejected and angry, he left the building and was walking down Bond Street, wondering what to try next, when he ran into ex-BBC producer Brian Willey. Willey happened to be filling in that week as host of the popular Saturday Club program; after hearing Page’s story, he offered to play the song, sound unheard, on the next show.
If not for that chance meeting, the Troggs would most likely have joined the untold thousands of garage bands consigned to history’s great cut-out bin. Instead, the band strapped themselves to a rocket and headed straight to the big time. Entering the charts in the summer of 1966, “Wild Thing” quickly went to #1 in the US and #2 in England, remaining in the Top Ten for some two months.
Oddly, the same recording was released on two labels in the States—Atco and Fontana—due to a legal dispute over distribution. Thus “Wild Thing” is one of only two singles to have simultaneously reached #1 on two recording labels, at least thus far. Is there a difference between the two versions, you ask? Why yes, there is! Though both versions were taken from the same mono master tape, Atco’s release was somewhat altered, likely by legendary producer and engineer Tom Dowd. Employing audio forensics, some enterprising analysts speculate that Dowd employed heavier limiting, added a slight echo effect (also the tool used to create “fake stereo” mixes in those days) and boosted the low end a Decibel or two at 150Hz.
Ready for some conspiracy theory catnip? This is perhaps of mild interest to detail-obsessed vinyl enthusiasts, and likely no one else. But in a massive, potentially internet-breaking coincidence—or not—the only other song to hit #1 on two different labels, Eileen Barton’s 1950 release “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake,” was the very first production credited to none other than…Tom Dowd.
As for the Troggs, they had a good run for the next few years, despite their native limitations. They’d find fortune (“Love Is All Around”) and infamy (if you don’t know about the Troggs Tapes, you need to) before they shriveled their way onto the nostalgia circuit.
Still, their song persists. Punk was a distant dream—a dream of a dream—in 1966. Slightly brutish bands like the Troggs, the Standells, and the Count Five were uncomfortable interlopers between the friendly world of pop and the darker undercurrents just then making themselves known: Teens slinging suggestive lyrics over snotty fuzztone riffs, but still mooning about in matching suits and smiles.
Soon, their musical progeny would make their implicit menace all too clear, as Iggy Pop, The Ramones, and many others would demonstrate. It would take a long time for the mainstream culture to accept these misfits into the fold, for bands like the Stooges to go from being mere drugged-out losers to scoring Nike commercials. But before them, before all those weirdos and loners and straight-up sociopaths felt like they had a shot, there was a rough, untutored, somewhat hapless band from suburban England called the Troggs. And there was a song called “Wild Thing.”
The original “Wild Thing,” on Amazon, will make your heart sing.