Sunday, 30 September 2012

Cult Album: '96 Tears' by ? & The Mysterians

Album Review of:
(ABKCO, 2005)

Sometimes, groups are one-hit wonders for a reason. Sure, as the academic archivists are quick to point out, ? And The Mysterians scored other minor chart entries. But essentially they are “96 Tears”. And that’s more than enough. They need do nothing more. “96 Tears” is the Punk-Garage snotball classic that topped the 1966 American chart against all expectations, to lodge in Psych-Beat racial memory, regurgitated – but never equaled, in later years by the Stranglers, Cramps, Primal Scream, Inspiral Carpets… and even the mighty Aretha Franklin. To Phil Hardy and Dave Laing, “96 Tears” is ‘the most timelessly moronic records of all time’ (‘The Encyclopedia Of Rock’), and who can argue? Not me.

Back then, briefly, the window of opportunity not so much opened, as got smashed into fragments. The cosy US Pop-world, which had confidently resumed control after the unseemly eruption of 1950’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, was complacently feeding the networks a diet of pretty fan-mag pin-up boys crooning safely anaemic Pop. Until the British invasion upset everything. Overnight all preconceptions hit free fall, the industry nervously scrambling to come to terms with new expectations, without much idea of what they were. Record labels hunting out the next big beat group, signing anything with a ragged fringe. Radio DJ’s anxious to chance their air-waves to catch the next big sound. Anything with a vaguely British accent was in favour, with the Beau Brummels from San Francisco – produced by a young Sly Stone, among the first to reclaim momentum. Then the Knickerbockers xeroxing Beatle-harmonies to score two big hits. Then the deluge, Byrds, Turtles, Association, Seeds, Count Five. But even among that luminous constellation ? And The Mysterians were amazing, and at any other time in Rock history, would be unlikely even to have got a radio-hearing.

Surely it was Tex-Mex, from somewhere between Chris Montez and the Sir Douglas Quintet…? Except that it wasn’t. What was to become the Mysterians – named for a Japanese Sci-Fi movie-shocker, got together as early as 1962 in the formerly-industrial city of Saginaw on Lake Huron. Although at various times vocalist Rudy claimed to be from Mars and to have been famous across multiple lifetimes, the band-history was of first-generation Chicano-Hispanic implants with roots in Texas, with the group gravitating around Mexican-American Larry Borjas (bass gtr), Larry’s cousin Robert ‘Bobby’ Balderrama (lead guitar), and Robert Martinez (guitar, bongos). Playing instrumental surf-beat inspired by the likes of Link Wray or the Ventures, Martinez soon switched to drums.

Then Robert’s older brother, Rudy, from Flint Valley in Saginaw’s Tri-City catchment, joined as the charismatic vocalist hiding, not only behind his ubiquitous shades, but behind the ‘?’ in Question Mark and the Mysterians. He’d always nurtured big ambitions. In an interview with ‘The Guardian’ (24-30 October 1998) he told Miriam Linna how, as a kid barely into two digits, he’d done odd-jobs to raise $7 for a mail-order recording-machine he’d seen in the small-ads pages of a comic-book. The purchase proved disappointing, but he taped his first recording on it. Adapting Huey Piano Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu” with his own lyrics as “Shake-A-Ma-Roll”. Now, just as the new line-up were readying to start recording, Robert was drafted, with Borjas opting to enlist with him. So they recruited Rudy’s brother-in-law Eddie Serrato (19, drums), who brought in ‘Big’ Frank Lugo (19, bass guitar) to replace them. The addition of fourteen-year-old ‘Little’ Frank Rodriguez Jr on Vox Continental organ (not the Farfisa!), completes the definitive lineup.

Next, Rudy wrote “96 Tears” expanding on something he’d sketched out four years earlier as “Too Many Teardrops”. Why so precise an estimate of the number of tears to be shed? Why not a hundred, a thousand, a river? Such antique Rock mythologies tend to breed tales so oft-told, elaborated, reinvented, exaggerated out of all proportion it’s impossible to excavate truth. It’s said the original draft was ‘69 Tears’, until the numerals were reversed to avoid sniggery innuendo. As Bryan Adams got away with his celebration of a season of mutual oral sex in “Summer Of ‘69”. Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever, the song was recorded 13 March 1966 in true garage-band fashion on a converted house-porch of Art Shield’s ‘studio’ at 405 Raymond Street in Michigan’s Bay City, from the opening two-finger organ-figure, looping into Rodriguez’s insanely catchy ear-worm bedspring-Vox signature-riff that nags relentlessly through it like a vein. It was one-take, with primitive hollow bass-sound. As raw as an abrasion. Arrogant passive-aggressive vocals running from self-pity (‘too many teardrops for one heart to carry on’) to revenge (‘I wanna hear you cry, night and day, yeah, all night long, uh-ninety-six tears, cry, cry, cry’), with plaintive chorus and compulsive bare-bone styling fed in by the group. The original intention was to promote Rudy’s “Midnight Hour” (not the Wilson Pickett soul classic) as the ‘A’-side but, at Rudy’s insistence, it was flipped, and “96 Tears” was first pressed up – for an alleged $50, in an edition of only 780-copies as a single by Pa-Go-Go Records, a label owned by record store manager Lillian Gonzales.

Impatiently, Rudy harassed and agitated local radio stations WTAC in Flint and CKLW in Detroit to give the single high-rotation, he even wrote and posted hundreds of postcard requests to the stations under a variety of names, with the result that it swiftly attracted attention as a regional hit. Until it was picked up by Neil Bogart at Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway, a once-top label boasting a roster of artists including Bobby Rydell, the Orlons and Chubby Checker, but now floundering hitless. Rudy liked Cameo-Parkway, because it’s label was his favourite colour – orange. Without realising that the design was due for a make-over! Once released nationally, at this one fortuitous moment, the single’s outsider status chimed. It was boosted by a slot on ‘Where The Action Is’ – where ‘NME’ suggests their sixteen-year-old drummer was ‘American TV’s first live coast-to-coast glue-sniffer’ (30 May 1987). The record caught fire. Charted. And “96 Tears” became the newly black & red label’s final number one, a bolt from the blue. These were the glory days… the glory month. And what a chart! It nudged the Four Tops “Reach Out I’ll Be There” out of the way and replaced it at numero uno, to be then dislodged in turn by the Monkees “Last Train To Clarksville”. “96 Tears” sold in excess of a million, qualified gold, and entered Punk-Rock history.

In far-off Yorkshire I follow its American progress up the ‘Cashbox’ chart printed in ‘Record Mirror’, and once alerted, grabbed a listen on pirate radio, to be instantly mesmerised. I have to order the single (Cameo-Parkway C428), bought it and played it to death, although it barely scraped into the British Top Fifty. It entered the ‘New Musical Express’ Top 40 at no.40 (24 November 1966), a chart headed by the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’”. It peaked the following week at no.37, before falling back to no.40 for its final appearance (8 December).

In the rare press photo which I studied, they look to be a groovy bunch, Rudy fronting in his check wide-belt hipster pants. A more visceral version of Love’s Arthur Lee. I soon had my own strutting pair of check wide-belt hipster pants. While Rudy goes to court to change his name legally to ? (not ‘Question Mark’) – decades before Prince amended himself to a symbol. And, over the ensuing decades, like “Gloria” and “Louie Louie”, “96 Tears” became a standard part of the punk-garage repertoire, recorded in dozens of different versions. David Bowie selected the single as part of his BBC ‘Top Twelve’ on Radio One’s version of ‘Desert Island Discs’. Alan Vega of Suicide recalls how ‘seeing “96 Tears” on ‘American Bandstand’ was like holy shit for me, these five Mexican wetbacks in shades and black leather, junked out of their minds… the keyboard-player was, like, fifteen, he was snortin’ so much glue he couldn’t even move his fingers. That song is, like, the National Anthem as far as I’m concerned’ (to ‘NME’ 10 September 1983). The way Rudy remembers it is ‘I wanted to go on ‘American Bandstand’ and show those kids how to dance. I mean, did you ever see that show? They were so stiff! They needed help!’

Meanwhile, their next two singles also chart, if somewhat lower, and – as the ungracious claim, all three are the same song sung sideways. First, “I Need Somebody” – urging ‘hey, alright, c’mon, I need somebody to help me out, yeh, c’mon, help me, c’mon and help me’ with tambourine and weird ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ keyboard insertion added to the mix. It peaks at US no.22 in November. Then “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” – which, despite being written outside the group by Sandy Linzer and Danny Randell, replicates the ‘96’ opening and threads an identikit riff throughout its brief 1:55-minute duration, easing into ‘wishing that there were two you’ with just enough noodling back to the hit to establish its provenance. It gets no higher than no.56 in March 1967. Yet there’s just enough to show that there’s promise of more – as indeed, a Smash Mouth cover version of “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” would eventually reach a US no.14 in 1998.

And a tie-in ‘96 Tears’ album was hastily assembled, adding eight new tracks to both sides of the first two singles. On “Midnight Hour” he’s gonna dance with ‘a girl who lives by the railroad track’, with twinkling keyboard over rudimentary drums. It conjures Go-Go images of Teen-Beat mini-skirt dancers frugging and Walking the Dog. The thumping “8-Teen” is as strong as its ‘A’-side (“I Need Somebody”), suggesting eighteen ways to love you over a bratty riff, with a better-than-most chorus-build before accelerating into a skewed cranked-up pleading tacked-on finale-section. At the other end of the scale they add an inessential take on T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” done as a shot at Blues with testifying walking guitar over churchy organ. And “Set Aside”, a throw-away Bar-room Blues piano instrumental, fine only as background soundtrack for Truck-Stop or Juke-Joint. Among the best of the rest, “You’re Telling Me Lies” betrays a debt to the twelve-bar shuffle-riff of Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She About A Mover”. The jittery guitar break of “Ten O’Clock” switches to a more Thirteenth Floor Elevators vibe. His girl hasn’t turned up for their date. She’s missed her train. Now ‘it’s too late Babe’, her name’s erased from his little Black Book. “Up Side” has a teasing organ, a riff, a groove, a rudimentary lyric – he’s got a love so fine, so true, so kind, ‘and that’s no lie’, and a final break into a speedy exit. Of the remaining three – “Don’t Tease Me” makes useful use of chiming guitar, a gritty bass figure and smoother organ-sound. “Don’t Break This Heart Of Mine” finger-clicks as the organ fades in and out. He’s got one heart, baby, and he can take no more. Then “Why Me”. They’d had a very good thing, but she left him this morning, so she’d better come on back. It ends with a self-pitying ‘why me? why me? why me?’

You could accuse they’d accidentally lucked into a hit sound, and stuck with it. Or maybe they had a signature sound all along, and “96 Tears” is just the one that got away big. To say that the title hit is their most fully-realised song, production and arrangement on the album is to emphasise just how slight are the rest. None of them hangs around long enough to be more than brief single-idea bursts of catchy energy. It’s the Punk thing – if you can’t say it in two minutes, it’s not worth saying. Combined with Chuck Berry’s attitude to guitar-tuning, ‘that’s close enough for Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

Belatedly, the second album – ‘Action’, catches the group at the peak of its musicianship, better-arranged and structured, but without a spin-off hit it fares less well. With “96 Tears” they were ahead of the curve. The next wave of bands – Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother And The Holding Company, were still a local San Francisco Bay phenomenon yet to catch fire. With ‘Action’ events were rapidly overtaking the Mysterians. Yet it remains darker and weirder, pungently odd, with spiraling synapse-frying shape-shifting riffs. Opener “Girl (You Captivate Me)” was a single that barely scraped into the Hot Hundred – no higher than no.98. There’s a talking build over stinging fuzz guitar, already more varied than anything so far from the debut LP. As on its predecessor there’s a superfluous cover, and a token instrumental. An OK version of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” work-out – already adequately covered by Lulu and the Animals, complete with audience-participation and the louder-softer bits. And “Do You Feel It”, another frugging Go-Go soundtrack for a 1960’s movie party sequence, with Rudy entering in the fade exhorting us to ‘feel it’.

Better, there’s “Got To” with deep bass, spidery keyboard, and Rudy’s talking testifying ‘did you ever have a love that you loved so badly, but she belonged to somebody else’. So, he tells us, he’d sent this one love away, and now regrets it – and he’s got-to-got-to find her. And “I’ll Be Back”, slight and effortlessly catchy with drumbeat and sha-la-la-la chorus. He’s down because she’s going with someone new, but hey, he’ll bounce back. And “Hangin’ On A String” with lightweight Del Shannon organ. “Smokes” is yet stronger and stranger. He doesn’t know what her face looks like. He doesn’t know how she looks in the light. He doesn’t care anyway. She could be blue or red – he’ll take her anytime! With “It’s Not Easy” he’s throwing her a chat-up line, it’s not easy to find a love you can trust, but he’s got good loving, and Baby you can take all you want. So c’mon over here, he’s got kisses, he can hug you, and he can… we never actually find out as the fade snatches the final word away. Maybe we can guess…? There’s more cheeky fun to be had as he pleads “Don’t Hold It Against Me”, he’s been caught out cheating, but ‘you were gone, she was there’, it’s not his fault because ‘she came on so strong’ and anyway his girlfriend was asking for trouble by ‘leaving him on his own’, he’s a guy after all. That’s what guys do. Never knowingly guilty of ambition, finally there’s the pleasantly slight “Just Like A Rose”, an upbeat shot at romance as ‘their love will grow, just like a rose’.

There was one last tilt at potential greatness, with a single “Do Something To Me”. Salvaged as bonus-tracks onto the Edsel CD it’s a sweet smoothly-polished well-lubricated group-Pop product that had the misfortune of being overshadowed in competition with a later Tommy James And The Shondells version. Otherwise it might have fared better. It’s flip-side, “Love Me Baby (Cherry July)” is more contagious Pop as Rudy begs his girl to ‘love me like a cherry-pie, love me like a fourth of July’. Undeniably better-crafted, but oddly, by slicking up, it lost everything that made “96 Tears” unique and appealing. Which was its raw spontaneous simplicity.

Beyond the scope of the CD, and after the demise of Cameo-Parkways itself, the group went on to briefly record with Capitol, Tangerine and Super K Records as the line-up changed with original members leaving for other projects. Mel Schacher, future Grand Funk Railroad bassist, briefly played with them. In 1969, bassist Richard Schultz replaced Schacher and co-wrote numerous songs with Rudy, including a strong “She Goes to Church on Sunday”. But at their lowest point, before Punk rescued them from obscurity, it was possible to pick up both Mysterians albums from Virgin at £1.99 apiece. Then Rudy recorded with Kim Fowley in 1978, and then the Stranglers took “96 Tears” to no.17 in the British charts during February 1990. The group had played a reunion concert at the Dallas Arcadia in 1984, leading to renewed interest and subsequent dates. But the core of their set remains the two sixties albums. Essentially ? And The Mysterians are “96 Tears”. And that’s more than enough. They need do nothing more. For sometimes, groups are one-hit wonders for a reason.


1966 – “96 Tears” (Rudy Martinez) c/w “Midnight Hour” (Martinez) (Pa-Go-Go 102)

1966 – “96 Tears” c/w “Midnight Hour” (Cameo-Parkway C428), no.1 on US Billboard, no.37 in UK

1966 – “I Need Somebody” c/w “8 Teen” (Cameo-Parkway C441), no.22 on US Billboard October

1966 – ‘96 TEARS’ (Cameo Parkway, SC2004) (no.66 on US Billboard Pop chart) Produced by Neil Bogart and Rudy Martinez, with “I Need Somebody” (Rudy Martinez), “Stormy Monday” (Crowder-Eckstine-Hines, as by T-Bone Walker), “You’re Telling Me Lies”, “Ten O’Clock” , “Set Aside”, “Up Side”, “8 Teen”, “Don't Tease Me”, “Don't Break This Heart of Mine”, “Why Me” (with Tony Orlando harmony-vocals), “Midnight Hour” (Martinez), “96 Tears” (Martinez), all other tracks by Balderrama-Lugo-Martinez-Rodriguez-Serrato

1967 – “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” c/w “Smokes” (Cameo-Parkway C467), no.56 on US Billboard

June 1967 – ‘ACTION’ (Cameo Parkway, SC2006) Produced by Neil Bogart and Rob Reno, with “Girl (You Captivate Me)” (2:17, DiFrancesco-Dischel), “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” (1:57, Linzer-Randell), “Got To" (2:22, Martinez), “I'll Be Back” (2:02, Martinez), “Shout (Parts 1&2)” (5:31, Isley Brothers), “Hangin’ on a String" (2:15, Darrow-Shayne), “Smokes” (1:52, Martinez), “It’s Not Easy” (2:43, Martinez), “Don't Hold It Against Me” (1:57, Crane-Ross), “Just Like a Rose” (2:10, Darrow), “Do You Feel It” (2:25, Martinez)

1967 – “Beachcomber” c/w “Set Aside” (Cameo-Parkway C468), released as by ‘The Semi-Colons’

1967 – “Girl (You Captivate Me)” c/w “Got To” (Cameo-Parkway C479), no.98 on US Billboard

1967 – “Do Something To Me” (Calvert-Marzano-Naumann) c/w “Love Me Baby (Cherry July)” (Balderrama-Lugo-Martinez-Rodriguez-Woodman) (Cameo-Parkway C496), no.110 on US Billboard

1968 – “Make You Mine” c/w “Love You Baby (Like Nobody’s Business)” (Capitol 2162)

1969 – “Ain’t It A Shame” c/w “Turn Around Baby (Don’t Ever Look Back)” (Tangerine 989)

1969 – “Sha-la-la” c/w “Hang In” (Super K)

1972 – “Talk Is Cheap” c/w “She Goes To Church On Sunday” (Chicory 410)

1973 – “Hot ‘n’ Groovin’” c/w “Funky Lady” (Luv Records 159)

1976 – “96 Tears” featured on ‘Philadelphia Freedom Vol.2’ LP (London Records HAU8501) compilation from Cameo-Parkway archives with Dovells, Orlons, Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell etc. Import copies of reissued “96 Tears” single available on LR322. July 1976 “96 Tears” single (Decca-London HLU 10534)

October 1979 – “96 Tears” included on soundtrack LP ‘More American Graffiti’ (MCA MCSP 303)

September 1985 – ‘? AND THE MYSTERIANS DALLAS REUNION TAPES: 96 TEARS FOREVER’ cassette-only edition (Reach Out International ROIR A137), recorded in 1984 it features a 8:57-minute “96 Tears”, a 7:25-minute “Don’t Tease Me/ Smokes” medley, plus “Love Me Baby”, “You’re Tellin’ Me Lies”, “I Need Somebody”, “Girl (You Captivate Me)”, “Make You Mine”, “Ten O’Clock”, “Do Something To Me”, “Got To”, “Midnight Hour”, “I Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” and “I’ll Be Back”. In April 1990 it was issued as a CD by French Danceteria label (Danceteria CD032)

1998 – ‘DO YOU FEEL IT BABY: THE CAPTIVATING SOUNDS OF QUESTION MARK AND THE MYSTERIANS’ (Norton Records CED-262) with “Do You Feel It”, “Smokes”, “Make You Mine”, “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby”, “I Need Somebody”, “Do Something To Me”, “Why Me”, “Got To”, “Girl (You Captivate Me)”, “Ten O’Clock”, “Don’t Tease Me”, “Love Me Baby (Cherry July)”, “Midnight Hour”, “96 Tears”, “I’ll Be Back”, “8-Teen”, “Ain’t It A Shame”, “Don’t Break This Heart Of Mine” and “ND Side”, a reunion show recorded live in New York

1998 – “Sally Go Round The Roses” c/w “It’s Not Easy” (Norton-45-096, 7” vinyl)

1999 – ‘MORE ACTION’ (Cavestomp Records CS! 5002-2) 2CD with Enhanced video of “Sally Go Round The Roses”, plus “96 Tears (En Espanol)”, “Don’t Give It Up Now”, “Feel It”, “Hangin’ On A String”, “96 Tears”, “Girl (You Captivate Me)”, “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby”, “Ain’t It A Shame”, “Cheree”, “Beachcomber”, “It’s Not Easy”, “I’ll Be Back”, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Love Me Baby (Cherry July)”, “Sally Go Round The Roses”, “Don’t Hold It Against Me”, “Do You Feel It?”, “Satisfaction”, “Strollin’ With The Mysterians”, “Are You For Real?” and “I’ll Be Back (2)”

1999 – “Are You For Real?” c/w “I’ll Be Back” (Norton Records 45-083, 7” vinyl) from ‘More Action’ CD, both undubbed demos dated 12 February 1966 with Question Mark (vocals), Frank Rodriguez (organ), Bobby Balderrama (guitar), Larry Borjas (bass), Robert Martinez (drums)

2005 – ‘THE BEST OF ? AND THE MYSTERIANS: CAMEO PARKWAY 1966-1967’ (Abkco) twenty-seven track compilation

2007 – “Let’s Go Crazy” c/w “Loose” (Are You For Real?, RYFR?96A/B), Question Mark solo 7" vinyl single, limited to 550 copies. Sold via the official website

2008 – ‘96 Tears’ CD-EP (Magic Records) with “96 Tears”, “Midnight Hour”, “I Need Somebody” and “8" Teen”


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