Monday, March 2, 2009

'66: Johnny Rivers, the Beach Boys

Johnny Rivers: Secret Agent Man

Here's a clip of Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man" by my friend Paul Stingo's covers band The Rockinghams. Released on Imperial 66159, it was Rivers' third Top Ten, his fifth chart single, and the first to not begin with "M," following "Memphis," "Maybelline," "Mountain of Love," and "Midnight Special." Attaining the chart March 19, 1966, "Agent" ascended to #3 a few weeks later.

The song was given an added boost when it was chosen as the opening theme song for Patrick McGoohan's British spy show, Danger Man. The show was retitled Secret Agent for the American market, and its theme song in Britain, the instrumental "High Wire" was replaced by Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan's "Secret Agent Man." The lyrics, which mention the Riviera and Bombay (today's Mumbai) presciently say: "they've given you a number and taken away your name." Meant to refer to the Bondian-Get Smart Agent 007 theme, they predate McGoohan's follow-up TV show, The Prisoner, in which a retired spy is kidnapped and held in a glorified prison called The Village until he gives up certain information; in The Village no one has a name, just a number. McGoohan, who was born in Astoria, Queens, passed away in January 2009 at age 80. Sloan and Barri would go on to create the Grass Roots.

I always mistook the "swingin' down the Riviera one day" line for "swingin' on the rivy Irrawaddy."

Beach Boys -- Sloop John B.

So how many of you thought "Sloop John B." was Brian Wilson original? I did for many years -- the real story is that it was a West Indies folk song about a notorious fishing boat from early 20th Century, revived by the Weavers' Lee Hays in the 1950s, the Kingston Trio in 1958, and Lonnie Donegan in 1960. It was the Kingston Trio's version that Al Jardine heard and played for Brian Wilson, and it inspired the Beach Boys' recording, with Brian singing lead on the 1st and 3rd verses and Mike Love the second, all backed by the Boys' trademark harmonies. Jardine had lobbied for a lead vocal assignment, since he had brought the song to Brian's attention. He would later sing lead on another Beach Boys cover, "Cotton Fields." The song made the Billboard Hot 100 April 3, 1966 and ascended to #3, B-sided by the excellent "You're So Good To Me."

Later in the year, "Sloop John B." was included in the Beach Boys' classic LP Pet Sounds, which was pretty much rejected by the public at the time but has since been recognized as Brian Wilson's zenith as a songwriter and producer.


Andy Baum said...

"Secret Agent Man" was recorded live at the Whisky-A-Go-Go. The Rockinghams are live at Coney Island's Surf & Turf tomorrow night.

The Beach Boys' video of "Sloop John B" was on a bonus DVD that was included on their "Sights and Sounds of Summer" compilation from 2004. Also included was their performance from the T.A.M.I. Show, their 1968 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show and a live performance montage of "God Only Knows" from '67/'68.

The Weavers' version of "Sloop John B" is on their greatest hits (RCA?)

Lidian said...

"Secret Agent Man" was something I heard quite a lot as a kid because my father liked watching Patrick McGoohan (and Mission:Impossible, Hawaii 5-0 etc) and therefore we all did. So this clip takes me right back to our apartment circa 1966 with the rabbit-eared TV.