Putting you on the spot, there’s every chance you can’t name a song by Tommy James & The Shondells. You know them and will emit an elongated “ohhhh” when prodded but you’ll think nothing more of it and go back to forgetting their name again almost instantly. I realise this is a tremendous opening salvo to drag you into a review of a six-disc box-set. This is symptomatic of so many bands and artists of the 60s and 70s – not only were their names often very similar but their songs changed hands at extraordinary speed and regularity. It was perfectly fine for The Beatles to make others’ songs their own, as it was other bands to return the ‘favour’ – and that’s before we get onto bands whose work was less obviously traced. For the record, of course you know “I Think We’re Alone Now”. Ohhhh…
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Tommy always made music – apart from a stint as a child model, he went from school bands aged 12 to writing songs at almost sickening rates. There was certainly a formula of sorts – melody was king, followed by harmonies and easy to remember lyrics. The lyrics didn’t have to be any good, if they rhymed that was a massive win (example – “love makes the world go ’round/and love baby makes the see-saws go up and down” – “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round”). You know what straight forward rules like that bring you? Three gold singles, nine platinum albums and around 110 millions sales worldwide. And yet still, bands will try and merge hony-tonk with grime and metal.
Tommy’s route to success came via a remainder bin of reduced-price 7” flops, his first single, Hanky Panky, finding its way from a local dance promoter to a bootlegger to hitting the top of the Pittsburgh charts. It opens this collection, alongside every note Tommy and the band recorded under the Roulette Records banner. This is where the whole story gets exciting. Roulette Records were not your typical label – or perhaps they were entirely your typical label, except that they were more overtly run by the mob. More specifically, they were run by Lucky Luciano and his family, the Genoveses, one of the five main crime families who pulled the strings in New York City and New Jersey from the 1930s through to the present, with their current dabblings including off-shore-based internet gambling ventures. This was proper, full-on mafia fun with names like Benny Squint, Fat Tony and Big Mike. What this meant for the bands on their label was a healthy chunk of their royalties going to the family but a completely hands-off approach to what they were doing artistically. For many, Tommy included, this was a fair trade.
Run primarily by Morris Levy of the Gambino family, that’s not to say that life on Roulette was a barrel of laughs. The label’s artists HAD to make money. Lots of it and by any means necessary. Artists regularly booked their own tours so that the bottom line going to Levy wasn’t affected. Levy’s power and ego led him to attempt to copyright the phrase “Rock n Roll”, coined, allegedly, by one of his clients, DJ Alan Freed. He failed. Lack of interest in the band had initially perplexed Tommy, though he later learned Levy had told all the majors to not touch The Shondells as they were his. Huge amounts of pressure were put on acts and there was no confusing what failure might mean for them. They were free to record what they wanted, when they wanted but the price was huge – in Tommy’s case $30-$40 million huge in royalties. It wasn’t until EMI and Rhino bought Roulette that Tommy started to see any real returns, indeed his book on his time on Roulette, Me, The Mob and the Music, wasn’t released until he was confident anyone even slightly connected to the family who might be a bit miffed, was dead.
Having dipped his toes and some of the rest of his feet into the jazz world, buying and running the Birdland venue and releasing records from the likes of Louis Armstrong and Count Basie, it was inevitably rather more commercial fare which brought in the real money for Levy. Until 1974, that responsibility largely fell on Tommy James’ shoulders. As befitting a band controlled by the mob, it’s almost impossible to keep track of who The Shondells were at any one time. There have been at least 29 members – possibly even you were in The Shondells. Have a think. “Hanky Panky”, after some re-jigging, went to number one. Other chart hits followed – “I Think We’re Alone Now”; “Mony Mony” (yes, that one); “Dragging the Line” (also, yes, that one); sixties-end-of-school-dance-special, “Crimson and Clover”. Perhaps no song has more suggested fumblings under shirts and in pants more than Crimson and Clover. It really is filth and all through sound, there’s nothing saucy lyrically at all, again the title only in use as the words sounded nice in Tommy’s head. Five-and-a-half minutes of quivering, knee-trembling guitar and some strange, intangible, grinding force. The man and the band were far more than these hits though, there is a surprising range of styles, from rock n roll to bubblegum to AOR and no shortage of psychedelic voyaging.
Some highlights – “On Behalf of the Entire Staff and Management” – a bizarre, inspired and strangely troubling song from the album, Cellophane Symphony – an almost bar-room sing-along as someone leaves the job they’ve hated for years, with the horrible exchanging of pleasantries and gold watches, a jangling harpsichord and, as the music threatens to gently fade out, a barked “I HATE YOU” and silence. If they’d recorded nothing else, this is an extraordinary song and one which urgently needs rediscovering (that’s me issuing a request – thanks).
“On the back you’ll find the words we want to say
‘Thank you, Mister What’s-your-name
For nine thousand, one hundred and twenty five days of your life’”
From the album, Crimson and Clover is “Kathleen McArthur”, a delicate song filled with pastoral recorder tooting and messing about with the young daughter of the estate owner you do the gardens for:
“Kathleen, so serene, Daddy’s unaware
Of the mask you wear and the love we share”
Equally enjoyable are “I Am a Tangerine”, as deeply drenched in daftness and hallucinogens as you would imagine lyrics spoken to a banana and “Sweet Cherry Wine”, a lesser hit (comparative to hit mega-sellers) and touching on the Vietnam War, drink and drugs (or Christianity and the blood of Jesus if you believe Tommy) and enough brass, Moog and studio effects to satiate the greediest of palates. Certainly, alongside the hits and much-covered singles, these two psychedelic albums are the most fascinating, seeing Tommy transition, necessarily from singles machine to long-player artist. It’s this that rather sets Tommy apart – his ability to churn out fully-formed pop songs as well as keeping an eye on the musical world around him, as was the case when he found himself on the campaign trail of Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Crimson and Clover was a tremendous success for Tommy but at a cost – the pills, booze and pressure led to his physical collapse and in 1970, The Shondells were shunted aside for a solo Tommy James experience.
These two efforts – a self-titled, fun country affair and a less fun rebirth jobby “Christian of the World” are also include, alongside, lost takes, B-sides, all that malarky. It’s really very good indeed overall, though you’d me mental to attempt it all in one sitting. Or even two or three. It goes without saying that Tommy now lives a very comfortable life indeed. Any stolen cash has been amply replaced by the huge revenues from cover versions and sync uses of his tracks on television and film. His aforementioned book is at SOME level of pre-production in the hands of Barbara De Fina, ex-wife of Martin Scorsese and producer of some of his greatest hits, including Goodfellas, Cape Fear and Casino.