Who invented punk music anyway? We can be certain it wasn’t the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and glam-rock trash aesthetic embracers The New York Dolls definitely didn’t. Iggy and the Stooges? Well, there’s some credibility there. Maybe The Velvet Underground. That takes us back to 1967, but what about The Troggs? Of course the real answer is “nobody” since, like all genres of music, punk is both an amalgam of what came before it and something emergent in its own right – there’s no unique progenitor, just a sequence of them. And there’s no correct answer to “who invented punk”. But “Wild Thing” with its profoundly simple three-chord verse and two chord chorus, played by a band who sound like they’ll never both to learn any more, delivered with a snarled vocal over primitively-recorded instruments? Well, that sounds pretty much like the punk scene that would materialise a decade after Reg Presley and his merry band of troglodytes threw the hand-grenade of “Wild Thing” at the public then ran away gleefully to see what the explosive effect would be.
As with the last couple of entries, The Troggs didn’t write “Wild Thing”. In an era where the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and thousands of other bands were doing away with Tin Pan Alley and the very idea of “professional songwriters” it’s remarkable just how many songs continued to be written and recorded in the old-fashioned way. Not that Presley didn’t write, but he didn’t write this. The song itself was composed lightning-quick – it shows, and not to its detriment – and on demand. It’s sexual, but there’s nothing remotely sexual in the lyric. The title is suggestive, sure, but Reg Presley’s big declaration is “I think I love you / but I wanna know for sure”. The music is primal but we’re still very much in an age where the idea of sex, or at least explicit sex, as the subject of a song destined for (very nearly) the top of the charts just Isn’t A Thing Yet. It’s a song which takes just slightly over two and a half minutes to blast out its declaration. It’s idiomatic of the 60’s (“you make everything groovy”) but there’s only about a dozen lines in the entirety of the song so there’s not a whole lot of analysis to be done on the lyric. Reg Presley himself is – or rather was, since he passed away in 2013 – a terribly nice chap with an absolutely charming oo-arr West Country accent more reminiscent of The Archers (or any given pirate) and in no way seems like a natural fit for this growling piece of libido.
And yet he’s absolutely perfect. Even the name of the band – it doesn’t exactly take a Masters in music theory to work out the derivation of the name Troggs – is suggestive of the primitive. And “Wild Thing” is primitive in every way. The wailing opening note sounds like the death cry of a bird shot out of a prehistoric sky. The thudding drums might as well be two rocks being smashed together. The guitar sound, crude and basic, barely sounds like it’s even being played through an amp. The bassline is two notes and might as well be being played on a tea-chest-and-broom. And oh yes, we mustn’t forget the flute solo. Erm, yes, the flute solo. Not obviously compatible with a broodingly sexual mini masterpiece, but there it is anyway.
Yet things aren’t quite as primitive as they seem (even given the oddity of a flute rather than, say, a guitar solo). There’s a really clever little ability to build and deliver tension throughout the song. It’s not structured verse-chorus-verse chorus. Indeed, it starts with the chorus, but even then we get the song’s primary riff first, and then the music hangs on the D chord for two bars before finally plunging into the chorus and Reg’s first drawled “wild thaaang” (and the vocal is double-tracked, another sign things aren’t simply stand-up-and-blast). And then everything stops. Just so Reg can declare his love for the song’s unidentified subject. Another quick, pugnacious burst of guitar. And he wants to know for sure. Another pause while he asks to be held tight before slithering out “I… love you”. And in kicks the guitar riff again.
It’s a terrific demonstration of how to achieve a huge amount with extremely little, and it carries on throughout the song, using the same technique after the flute solo as the song hangs on the D chord again, building expectations that we’ll plunge back into the chorus… except this time we wait for four bars instead of two, ratchetting the tension up even further before the final climactic release of the chorus arrives and we shudder our way towards the end of the song and fade out (the fade out may be the one error in the recording, dissipating the built-up energy rather than concluding it, though it’s hard to be too critical).
“Wild Thing” is a great little song. It does everything you could ask of a two and a half minute blast of power. It wouldn’t go on to be The Troggs best-known song – that would be “Love Is All Around” and the horrors of the Wet, Wet, Wet version – but it’s their best. And, sure, a little progenitor of punk, why not? This isn’t a song that concerns itself with trivialities like staying power. And that’s precisely why it’s got it. In a musical landscape where the very ideal of music was developing at an astounding pace – no more “groups”, now people join “bands” – “Wild Thing” represents the old way of doing things, and the old way would, in time, become the new way again. The cycle will repeat and repeat, but The Troggs were the first time through the loop. And absolutely one of the best.
What Else Happened In 1966?
Let’s get the Beatles stuff out the way first. John Lennon says they’re more popular than Jesus – cue book burnings and record burnings – and meets Yoko Ono (these events are not connected). Revolver is released, they play Japan (more troubles there) and play their last ever “proper” gig, rooftops excepted. Brace yourself for tartan overload in about a decade – The Bay City Rollers are formed. Of slightly more musical importantance, so are “supergroup” Cream. Simon & Garfunkel release The Sound Of Silence and the Byrds embrace psychedelia with “Eight Miles High”. Since Revolver has been released we could scarcely pass on mentioning Pet Sounds, as well as Brian Wilson starting the ill-fated Smile sessions. Ike And Tina give us River Deep, Mountain High in case your geography was in need of improvement, and right at the end of the year The Who give us A Quick One, very much signalling where they’re going to be heading. The Jimi Hendrix Experience release their first single (“Hey Joe”) and, rather joyfully in fact, the very first episode of The Monkees is broadcast in America. The Rolling Stones release “Paint It, Black”, a boon for all comma and sitar lovers, and Gerry And The Pacemakers call it quits, upsetting almost exactly no-one. And after years of the 60’s finally nailing the 50’s coffin shut it suddenly creaks back open again – Frank Sinatra unexpectedly has the biggest single of the year with the twee, soppy “Strangers In The Night” (it’s not very good). The rest of the top five songs of the year are The Beatles and The Beach Boys (including the sublime “Good Vibrations”), so don’t give up hope.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
The year started with Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound Of Silence” occupying the Number 2 position in the U.S., a worthy contender but it only occupies that slot for a couple of weeks before sliding down the charts – in the UK it was Cliff Richard yet again and he’s never going to be in this series. Nancy Sinatra spent a few weeks at Number 2 with “These Boots Are Made For Walking” (it did stamp briefly to Number 1 before falling back again). There’s that Frank Sinatra song but really, fuck Frank Sinatra. The Beach Boys gave us a plethora of possibilities “Barbara Ann”, “Sloop John B”, “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” (held off the top spot in the UK by “Eleanor Rigby” / “Yellow Submarine” and if you had to choose between whether “Eleanor Rigby” or “God Only Knows” is a better song, well good luck making that call). The Supremes spent a couple of weeks at Number 2 with “You Can’t Hurry Love” but sadly Phil Collins traumatised me with that song as a teenager – one of the very worst cover versions in the history of music – so sorry that’s not happening. But yeah, honestly? Not a lot.
1. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
2. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
3. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
4. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
5. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
6. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
7. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”