Now here’s a good way to start a week. To anyone who follows or reads columnist (and weekly telecolumnist on “The National”) Andrew Coyne, it shouldn’t surprise that the man is no less a musichead than you or I. During our last conversation– this happened at a National Post post-Christmas event at the Dominion Tavern– we talked “Starry Eyes” by The Records: its eloquent pop beauty and popcorn-behind-the-teeth guitar riff. We talked about other music, too, because Andrew’s tastes are varied, as evinced here by his tribute to the one-hit wonder phenomenon “Love Me” by The Phantom, a companion piece, I’d say, to Bob Mackowycz’s post about the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. To mention that we are grateful for this post would be to sell short our enthusiasm and appreciation.
The one-hit wonder is the purest expression of pop, in all its instant disposability. It has been widely observed that most groups’ best album is their first: typically, they have a great idea for a sound, but not much more — enough to grind out about 12 tracks before the game is up. The one-hit wonder compresses this still further: one perfect moment of brilliance and it is gone, a sacrifice to the music gods and short attention spans.
But a one-hit wonder that was never a hit, by an artist whose name no one knew, that comes and goes inside of 90 seconds? That’s the achievement of “Love Me,” a crazed 1958 track by The Phantom that is today regarded as among the greatest rockabilly songs ever recorded: a minute and 29 seconds of pounding, reverb-soaked mayhem so intense it leaves its sex-crazed singer drained and, from the sound of things, near death at the end.
The Phantom was the stage name for Jerry Lott aka Marty Lott (the monicker was suggested by Pat Boone, his mentor), a 20 year-old rockabilly singer from Mobile, Alabama. To heighten the air of mystery, publicity pictures showed him wearing a mask, like the Lone Ranger with a guitar. Written in 10 minutes and recorded in two takes, “Love Me” was released on Dot Records (Boone’s label) in 1960 (b/w “Whisper My Love,” a truly dreadful ballad). In addition to Lott, it features Frank Holmes on lead guitar, Pete McCord on bass, H. H. Brooks on drums and Bill Yates on piano. No, I don’t know who any of these gentlemen are, either.
The tone is set pretty much off the top: the singer elects to catch our attention with a hearty scream of — what? pain? fear? disgust? — roughly transcribed as “Aaaayyaagghhh.” There follows an urgent, even desperate appeal to his beloved to, indeed, love him, belted out over a monstrous rockabilly beat. “Press your lips to mine,” the poet tenderly essays, “And whisper I love you/Gotta have a chance that lasts/To do the things we wanna do.” Then the chorus, a miracle of economy, as if to express the impatience of his ardour: “Don’t hesitate, I can’t wait — love me.”
We are all of 20 seconds in, and already it is time for the bridge: “You set my soul on fire” — pronounced “FAH” — “Every muscle in my body’s burning with desire.” Then it’s back to the sweet nothings — “Baby kiss me do/Make me know you’re mine/Love me with desire/Oh honey, this is fine” — before charging off into a solo of such uncontrolled madness that, well, let’s let Lott tell the story:
“I’m telling ya, it was wild,” he told an interviewer in 1980 (quoted in the book Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ’Round the World, Michael Dregni, ed.). “The drummer lost one of his sticks, the piano player screamed and knocked his stool over, the guitar player’s glasses were hanging sideways over his eyes. He looked like he was hypnotized!”
No one seems to know what the lines coming out of the solo are. Could be “I want you to be in my heart.” Could be “I want to obey my heart.” Could even be “I want you to be my bride,” though that seems a stretch, given what follows: “Got to make you mine/If just for a little while.” And you know what that means: “Don’t hesitate, I can’t wait” and all that. He is gasping for breath now, barely able to get the words out, whether from exhaustion or the dawning realization that, despite his entreaties, she intends to make him wait. “Love me.” Twang. More gasps. The reverb is on full now, the echoes cave-like. “Love me.” Twannng. More gasps. “Euhhve me.” A final despairing gasp. “Euhhh me.”
Alas, very few people did euhhh him. By 1960 Elvis was in the army, Buddy was dead and rockabilly was pretty much done. Dot didn’t really know what to do with The Phantom, the single stiffed, and Lott never recorded again, leaving “Love Me” as his sole musical legacy. Perfect, really.