That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
In the summer of 1982, sharp-eared listeners heard something rather unusual issuing from their transistor radios. Sandwiched between the glossy arena-prog of Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” and the fist-pumping sports-rock of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” a surfy, strangely tribal tom-tom beat fairly leapt out of the speakers. A few bars later, crunching electric bass and an irresistible guitar melody — wait, is this a Latin dance track? — joined in. By the time the vocals began, sung by a perky-sounding young woman spinning a playground rhyme about a “guy who’s tough but sweet,” it was all over: Like sugar itself, this song was going to prove itself nearly impossible to quit.
Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” was one of the defining moments of New Wave, an earworm that continues to work its magic some 36 years after it was recorded, and long after the band itself had dissolved into acrimony, innumerable lineup changes, and — worst of all — competing Facebook pages.
Bow Wow Wow was a punk-pop confection masterminded by impresario Malcolm McLaren. After the dust raised by the implosion of the Sex Pistols had settled, McLaren poached Adam Ant’s backing band, suggested a world music bent inspired by the Burundi Black album — an arguably exploitative hybrid of field recordings and Western pop arrangements — and paired the skeptical musicians with one 14-year-old Annabelle Lwin, whom he’d “discovered” working at a dry cleaners. The arrangement didn’t last, but the band did produce some memorable music, notably their debut single “C-30, C-60, C-90, Go!”
But “I Want Candy” didn’t begin with Bow Wow Wow. It was actually written and performed in 1965 by a band called the Strangeloves. Their story is even, well, stranger than Bow Wow Wow’s, and a reminder that in pop music as in life, image often trumps substance.
The Strangeloves were a trio of Australian brothers — Miles, Giles, and Niles Strange — who came saddled with the unlikeliest of backstories. Raised on a remote sheep farm, they had made a fortune by pioneering a new method of sheep crossbreeding, producing the long-haired “Gottehrer” variety (as registered with the Feldman-Goldstein Company of Australia), and now spent their days crafting quirky rock songs.
If all this sounds a bit too improbable to be true, that’s because it is. In actuality, the Strangeloves were the songwriting team of Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, and Richard Gottehrer. The New York-based trio scored a major hit with “My Boyfriend’s Back” for the Angels in 1963. By the following year, recognizing that girl groups were being displaced from the charts by British Invasion bands, the team followed suit and styled themselves into a ready-made Beat group, hence the Strangeloves.
The choice of Australia rather than England as home base was simple: None of them could convincingly fake a British accent. Exactly why Feldman, Goldstein, and Gottehrer decided to turn a more or less conventional songwriting collaboration into a piece of performance art is a larger and less tractable question. But regardless of its utter implausibility, it worked, up to a point. In August 1965, the Strangeloves’ second single, “I Want Candy,” shot to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Suddenly, the “group” had a problem: They had to perform. After a few uncomfortable live performances, the songwriters simply hired the session players who’d recorded the song to take their place. But before this occurred, the “original” Strangeloves (that is, songwriters Feldman, Goldstein, and Gottehrer) shared a stage in Dayton, Ohio with a band called Rick and the Raiders. Impressed by the bandleader, 17-year-old Rick Zehringer (soon to become Rick Derringer), Feldman and company brought him to New York to sing over a track on the Strangeloves’ sole album. Renamed “The McCoys” — perhaps to imply how “real” they were — the band’s song, “Hang on Sloopy,” became a smash hit, going to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1965.
As for the Strangeloves, they’d go on to release several more singles over the next several years. None of which made a major dent in the charts, even in Australia, where, unsurprisingly, no one seemed to buy their cover story. Admittedly, the band’s impact may have been dissipated by their practice of crediting releases to different artists, including The Sheep, Rome & Paris, and, most memorably, The Rock & Roll Dubble Bubble Trading Card Co. of Philadelphia 19141.
Years later, Richard Gottehrer would resurface and play a not-insignificant part in the shaping of the early New York punk scene, among others. After co-founding Sire records with Seymour Stein, they’d go on to sign the Ramones, Blondie, and a then-unknown Madonna.
It seems altogether fitting that a long chain of tall tales and music-industry string-pulling produced “I Want Candy,” that catchiest earful of spun sugar. While neither the Strangeloves nor Bow Wow Wow would have a massive effect on pop culture, for brief moments they both made a delightful and inescapable noise. Now, who wants some candy?