Some years are easier than others when it comes to choosing material. Ray Charles very nearly had it this time out, though it would likely mean discussing either “I Can’t Stop Loving You” or “You Don’t Know Me”, neither of which are remotely his best material and both of which are syrupy slop. Elvis rears his inevitable bequiffed head again but will not be distracting us. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” made it to Number 2, though discussing it would consist of a lot of legal talk about how artists get screwed over copyright. Anyone for “The Loco-motion”? No? Fine, then let’s go with Chubby Checker, owner of the award for the most successful single in Billboard 100 chart history. That song – “The Twist” – isn’t what we’re talking about this week though. Instead we’re discussing “Let’s Twist Again”.
Dance crazes are a peculiar feature of the singles charts. Nobody – not even the astoundingly successful Checker – made an album dedicated to a particular craze. That would be madness. Checker’s album may have been called For Twisters Only (featuring – you guessed it – a cartoon tornado on the cover) but it’s mostly a collection of rock and roll standards including such long-in-the-tooth material as “Rock Around The Clock” and “Blueberry Hill”. There’s only two songs which refer to the Twist, and neither of them are “Let’s Twist Again”.
That song came out a year earlier in 1961, on the album It’s Pony Time / Let’s Twist Again, and is the only song on that album to mention The Twist (though the Mashed Potato and – bizarrely – the Charleston get a look-in). So yes – this trend remains strictly the purview of the singles charts. The Mashed Potato became popular in 1962 as well – is popular the right word? – and dance crazes remain an occasional feature of the charts right up until today. “Gangnam Style” is nothing but the Twist for the 21st century, after all – a novelty single designed to do nothing more than catch the ear, shift units, and be forgotten about until some kind of “I Love The [insert year here]” nostalgia programme rolls round to drag the whole mess back up again.
What’s curious about “Let’s Twist Again” is that it practically announces its own obsolescence. Obviously it’s a sequel to Checker’s runaway hit “The Twist”, itself a cover, with the original released in 1959 and a modest success before Checker’s version made it inescapable. But by admitting that the song wants the listener to do what “we did last summer” it’s already tacitly admitting that it’s time has been and gone and is now trying to be recaptured. Since “The Twist” topped the charts twice (in 1960 and 1962) the “last summer” bit isn’t even accurate – it manages to fall exactly between the two stools when it did happen because it wasn’t released as a single that year. Great work, everybody!
It’s an oddly old-fashioned song as well – the recording sounds astoundingly primitive even by 1960’s standards and it wouldn’t sound especially out of place in a run-down of 1940’s hits, never mind the 60’s. That’s partly due to the instrumentation – the most prominent instrument is a whacking big bassline right in the middle of the song. And it’s a walking bassline as well which can’t help but feel old-fashioned, even this early in the decade. Most of the rest of the instrumentation is pushed into almost inaudibility – the percussion in particular is basically just white noise and there’s a squall of brass on the instrumental break that sounds like it might as well have been played on a paper and comb.
Thanks to some legal shenanigans, Checker had to re-record a lot of his hits to get them played, but given the poor quality of the original recording this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What remains the most engaging aspect of the record itself is Checker’s voice. He doesn’t have a vast amount of range but what he does have is power. He’s singing this silly little novelty song like it really matters to him. When he beseeches his audience to go “round and round and up and down” he’s really compelling the listener to do just that. It’s corny in places – he can’t really land the spoken-word intro nor the “is it a bird?” part of the song but when he actually sings it’s not hard to understand why the charts fell to such an apparently silly little song. Also, if you listen to any of those Mashed Potato songs this seems like Shakespeare and Mozart by comparison, so it’s not like the competition was up to much.
But dismissing the competition as poor – which it absolutely was – does “Let’s Twist Again” a disservice. It’s success, built off the work done by its predecessor and a great performance from Checker, is earned if fairly inconsequential. It’s not a great song in its own right, but it’s a fairly representative one. The 60’s – at least, in their cultural sense – still haven’t really taken off yet. It’s a cliché to point to 1963 and the unshakable arrival of The Beatles as the start of that cultural development but it’s still largely true if a little overstated. Songs like “Let’s Twist Again” have both feet in the past and are unashamedly appealing to nostalgia in a way that neither of the first two entries in this series are. Even “Three Steps To Heaven” with its crooning feels of the mid-to-late 50’s, whereas if you found out Glen Miller had played the trumpet on the instrumental break from “Let’s Twist Again” shortly before his death in 1944 you wouldn’t be that surprised. 1962 is still very much part of the Long 50’s, the cultural force that’s about to be swept away. Checker’s career, which will peter out in terms of U.S. hits about three years from now, will be swept away with it. Novelty hits, however, will remain a part of the musical charts and Checker is an important – and endearingly silly – part of that legacy.
What Else Happened in 1962?
Well, the Beatles are infamously turned down by Decca, though that story has a happy ending (both in the sense of The Beatles getting picked up by EMI, and Decca getting the not-exactly-poor second prize of The Rolling Stones). Pete Best also departs the group and his place in history to be replaced by Ringo Starr. Bob Dylan’s inventively-named first album, Bob Dylan, is released and kicks off the whole folk thing that’s going to be kind of unavoidable in the 60’s. Actually eponymous albums are quite the thing in 1962, with Howlin’ Wolf releasing Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddly releasing Bo Diddly and John Coltrane releasing the at-least-slightly truncated Coltrane. The 50’s are still hanging on though – Tony Bennett scores a number nineteen hit with his signature song “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”. Elsewhere, Dinah Washington releases the utterly amazing Drinkin’ Again. The biggest hit of the year goes to Elvis with “Return To Sender” (at least better than dreck like “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, which takes the number four slot. The Sun years really are a long way away now, aren’t they?). “Telstar” becomes the first British single to top the U.S. charts. And to end as we began, the Beatles release their first single. It’s “Love Me Do” and does not kick-start Beatlemania.
1. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
2. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
3. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”