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Hit Record

Little Eva, she of The Locomotion and other bubblegum pop hits used to babysit for master songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King. One night she turned up covered in brusies and disclosed that she received regular beatings from her boyfriend. When Goffin and King asked why on earth she stayed with him, Eva told them in total sincerity that her boyfriend’s beatings were done out of *love for her. Shocked, they sat down and penned an uncomfortable classic.

He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss) was like nothing else the songwriting team had written. Goffin and King’s subject matter tended to focus on the highs and lows of teenage relationships; make-up songs (The Best Part Of Breaking Up Is When We’re Making Up), break-up songs (Take Good Care Of My Baby) and ‘what if’ songs (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?) but never the delicate matter of domestic abuse. To take that subject and stick it in a pop song for Phil Spector to throw the kitchen sink at was very….well, what, exactly?

Can you imagine 80s hit makers Stock, Aitken and Waterman following up Kylie’s version of The Locomotion with a production line hit record cataloguing domestic abuse? Or one of Simon Cowell’s pop charges power ballading their way through similar themes, key changes, sweeping strings ‘n all? It’s unthinkable, but that’s the modern day equivalent, which is why Goffin & King’s decision to write the song and Phil Spector’s decision to record the song was nothing short of revolutionary. And a little bit stupid.

He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss) was given to The Crystals to record. Presumably, Phil felt he couldn’t give it to The Ronettes or he’d have had all sorts of accusatory fingers pointing at him. Quite ironic really, given how he treated Ronnie (or where he currently resides).

The CrystalsHe Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)

Spector treated this song with (for him) a rare understatement. There are still reverberating walls of shimmering strings (when they see-saw their way in at the start of the second verse it’s unnervingly fantastic) and there’s multitracked female choirs in the background every other line, but (only after Spector had her do take after take to get the requisite downtrodden vocal) Barbara Alston’s main vocal line is stark and nervy. The creeping bassline only adds to the sense of unease. By the time the key change has arrived most listeners are well aware they’re listening to something that shouldn’t really be in a pop song, least of all a Spector production, which was until this point the audible equivalent of the American Dream in under 3 minutes.

Almost immediately Spector’s Wall Of Sound was met with a wall of outrage and the record was banned. Radio stations refused to play it, the record was quickly withdrawn and the only way to hear it, if you were brave enough, was on The Crystals’ He’s A Rebel LP.

Time hasn’t been kind to the song. The golden oldies stations that pump out wall-to-wall 60s hits will never play it, yet it’s there like the bad apple that can’t be thrown away. It’s an undeniable part of Spector’s terrific back catalogue but doesn’t appear on (m)any of the hit compilations, although it does find its chronological way onto the Back To Mono box set, the black yin to the sun-kissed golden yang of Spector’s output.

In 2012 Carole King expressed her regret at having a part in it. “I wrote the music to He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss). Obviously, I’m complicit in having written that song. I kind of wish I hadn’t written any part of that song, but Gerry wrote that lyric. … And I think in some ways – I’m only speculating – that for some women that may be the only manifestation of what they perceive as love. And that’s certainly true for the woman in that song. And you know, that’s all wrong. So, again, that’s one song I kind of wish I hadn’t had any part of writing.”

The song hasn’t quite been swept under the carpet though. Courtney Love and Hole did a particularly caustic version at many live shows for a while, Love ironically introducing it as a feminist anthem. Amy Winehouse, no stranger to disfunction and domestic abuse has often cited He Hit Me… as her favourite-ever song. And Spiritualized, never ones to miss a 60’s-influenced druggy reference point recorded She Kissed Me (It Felt Like A Hit) on their 2003 album Amazing Grace. It’s far more Iggy than Phil though, but you probably knew that already.

SpiritualizedShe Kissed Me (It Felt Like A Hit)

*As an aside, Little Eva married that same boyfriend.

Hard-to-find

Neil Young. He’s a bad boy. 

Aurora Borealis, the icy sky at night, Paddles cut the water in a long and hurried flight, 
from the white man to the fields of green. And the homeland we’ve never seen.’

What a terrific, scene-setting opening couplet.

 neil young 70s

It’s from Neil Young’s Pocahontas, although I expect you probably knew that already.

Pocahontas is, as you might’ve worked out, Neil’s ode to the indigenous Native American Indians and their massacres at the hands of the U.S. cavalry. It’s one of many stellar compositions that clutter the highways and byways of Neil Young’s archives.

Rust Never Sleeps version:

The song has its genesis in the early 70s and has been subject to all manner of tunings, keys and arrangements, from solo ham-fisted piano versions to the drop D acoustic ballad that defines its only official releases to date, on 79’s Rust Never Sleeps and on 1993’s MTV Unplugged LP. I love the 12 string version on the latter release.

MTV Unplugged version:

neil young 77

My favourite version though comes from the unreleased Chrome Dreams album. Chrome Dreams could well have been Neil Young’s most era-defining LP of the 70s, had he decided not to bin it, and many of its tracks. Some of them would end up on future releases – Like A Hurricane on American Stars And Bars, for instance, and Look Out For My Love on Comes A Time, but as a studio album (and sequenced to perfection) Chrome Dreams would’ve been a cracker.

Outtakes of Pocahontas remained tantalisingly out of reach, before the advent of the World Wide Web, when previously mythical bootlegs suddenly became as easily available as ordering oranges online from Tesco. What a wonderful thing!

The version of Pocahontas from Chrome Dreams is classic Neil, driven by a winning combination of major and minor chords, hammer ons and pull offs and Young’s trademark clunk-a-thunk fingerpicked rhythm, all topped off with the distinctive high, reedy vocal. “Whiny Neil,” as my wife would say.

Chrome Dreams version:

I prefer to think of his voice in a similar way to whisky – first time you try it, you don’t particularly like it, but as you age, you come to appreciate the reliable warmth and beauty of it. Either that, or it gives you heartburn, a thumping sore head and a dose of the boaks, I dunno. He’s brilliant, though, ol’ whiny Neil, isn’t he?

neil young 70s 2

I’ve always thought of Neil Young as a bit of an original. The music he plays has so many obvious influences but he’s a true trailblazer in so many ways.

Imagine my surprise then when, a few days ago, the iPod shuffled out Carole King‘s He’s A Bad Boy.

 carole king

It‘s standard teen girl fare about falling in love with the wrong kinda guy. The melody though….. and the chord pattern….not to mention the wheezing, asthmatic harmonica solo…..it was Pocahontas, reimagined as a plaintive girl group heartbreaker!

Except, it wasn’t. Given that Carole King wrote her song in the Brill Building in 1963, around a decade earlier than Young ‘wrote’ Pocahontas, we’d be more accurate saying that Pocahontas is He’s A Bad Boy reimagined as a folky, political ballad. Neil Young – just like the white man who stole from the Natives – he’s a bad boy indeed.

carole king bad boy