Graded on a Curve:
The Dave Clark Five, “Try Too Hard” b/w
“All Night Long”

Of all the marquee British Invasion acts, nobody typified the concept of “singles group” more than The Dave Clark Five. Of albums they had many, but the qualities that made them a special and enduring outfit are best served by the two brief sides of a 45. During the mid-‘60s their short-players stormed both the US and UK charts with a frequency that remains impressive, and “Try Too Hard” b/w “All Night Long” from 1966 is one of their finest efforts.

While they are well-remembered today, I also suspect that few people these days would rank the Dave Clark Five as one the tiptop exemplars of the Brit Invasion, and that’s an interesting scenario because during the phenomenon’s initial wave, only The Beatles achieved a higher level of popularity. Contemplating the subject for a bit leads me to a handful of reasons for the lessening of the DC5’s status over time.

Perhaps the biggest factor is that none of the Five’s non-compilations have landed in the rock ‘n’ roll canon. I tend to think that any well-rounded, historically focused record collection is incomplete without the inclusion of Clark and company, and no doubt many others feel the same way. But I also agree with those asserting that in the run of albums they made while extant, nothing represents them better than UK Columbia’s ’66 release of the 14-track The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits.

This is not to infer that the original long-players are negligible. To the contrary, ‘64’s Glad All Over and the following year’s Coast to Coast, both issued in the US by Epic, are quite good.  But starting in the mid-‘70s and continuing until 1993, none of the Dave Clark Five’s music was commercially available in any format, leaving the used bins and the radio dial as the only ways one could access their discography.

Unless one purchased the 45 and LPs the first time around, and yes, droves of consumers did just that. But even though they kept selling records in their home country right up to their breakup in 1970 (after which they transformed briefly into Dave Clark and Friends), unlike The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who, and key figures from The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Spencer Davis Group, and The Hollies, the Dave Clark Five’s continued significance is based almost entirely on their output from ’63-’66.

Three years of chart dominance is frankly more than any overnight sensation could muster. And while only those with unrealistic standards would consider them to be a flash-in-the-pan, the DC5 often get downgraded for not transitioning into the more ambitious and sophisto regions of the ‘60’s latter portion. That’s unfortunate, but given the circumstances it’s hardly unexpected.

If that were the end of it, the whole situation would really be no big deal. However, notions do persist over the Five being limited instrumentally in the creation of a sound that was inferior to the achievements of their cohorts. In the evaluation of some, they were even borderline corny. And in all these instances I emphatically disagree.

For starters, nobody put the beat in Beat Group quite like these guys, and since the bandleader was the drummer this shouldn’t be a surprise. But if an insistent and very distinctive (some might say flamboyant) element in their recordings, Clark kept his rhythmic approach in synch with the other players in the service of their highly rocking goal. Expressing this very well are the hits “Glad All Over,” “Bits and Pieces,” and “Any Way You Want It.”

Some have complained that the Five lacked range in their pursuit of the rocking imperative, but the above three tracks show otherwise. “Glad All Over” is focused on forward momentum with strategic pauses for emphasis, while “Bits and Pieces” is a dense stomper that’s motion is spastically vertical (it’s a terrific pogo song), and “Any Way You Want It” is a shout-along raver that’s loaded with wisely executed dynamic shifts and well-employed studio effects.

Rockers the DC5 definitely had, but like any well-rounded teen-oriented act from the period (and the band spans all the way back to ‘57 as the Dave Clark Quintet) they also featured a high ratio of ballad material. And “Because,” one of their biggest US hits (though not in the UK, where it was only a b-side) falls squarely into their number.

Ordinarily, the frequency of this impulse would pose a major problem, but with the understanding that a small percentage of the Five’s balladic stuff is best forgotten, the circumstance injures their reputation far less than one might suppose and a few have actually suggested. No, they don’t attain The Beatles’ heights with these songic endeavors, but neither did any of the other invading Brits.

On a few occasions though, the DC5 do come close. I’d say listen to “Because” for evidence, but anybody who’s spent more than two hours within earshot of an oldies station has certainly already heard it’s highly adroit blend of devotional vocalizing and reserved but sturdy instrumental tactics. Severe romantic cynics will no doubt scoff and remark that true rock immortality is based upon greater (or lesser) subjects than amorous desire, and to that I can only respond with awe and a little sadness at the sheer hardness of heart.

For after taking “Because” for a few recent personal spins, its stature as a fine little tune, one that’s strong enough to even momentarily turn those harboring a few doubts over lovey-dovey concerns into true- blue believers, was only reinforced. And speaking of such matters, like the rest of their peers the Dave Clark Five were complete and utter converts to the church of rock ‘n’ roll.

Their covers are often downgraded as second-rate though, and I’m not sure why. No, the Five’s versions of The Contours’ “Do You Love Me” and Brit Invasion holy figure Chuck Berry’s “Reelin’ and Rockin’” don’t equal their sources, but I’d say the same thing about the cover choices of The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Stones, and yes even The Beatles.

The point of it for all these bands wasn’t to best the originals but to adapt and integrate them into what they were offering as a whole, adding weight and context as the main focus stayed on the heft of execution in their own compositions. And yet along the way the DC5’s “Little Bitty Pretty One” (by either Bobby Day or Thurston Harris, pick your favorite) becomes a succinct nugget, and while I’m fairly positive R&B purists to this day ridicule their take of “I Like it Like That” as a brutalization, I’ll retort that Chris Kenner’s sensitivity and panache was clearly beyond them. It was better to just go for broke.

Sure, a few of the covers are merely okay, but the only really questionable decision in their book is a head-scratching “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah” that flounders mightily under the test of time, but even it is not terrible (though Sasha Frere-Jones might disagree.)  This leaves the issue of corn to consider, and it’s wrapped up in issues of image and delivery.

While I guess Herman’s Hermits are the undisputed Brit Invasion champs of good comportment, the Five weren’t particularly threatening either, and in ’64 no loud rock outfit other than The Beatles combined a friendly image with a professional attitude and the goal of serving the needs of their root audience quite like they did.

For a time they truly flourished under the spotlight, nailing down eighteen appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and like the Fab Four in their early days, they possessed an energy level that implied they could rip it up in a packed club or hall well into the wee hours. Along the way they even starred in one of the very best of the ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll movies, the John Boorman-directed Catch Us if You Can, aka Having a Wild Weekend in the USA.

But where The Beatles’ constant growth transcended their early image as smart and eager nice guys to become the most popular band in rock’s history, in the late-‘60s the Dave Clark Five landed increasingly in the Middle of the Road, with art’s requirements of versatility and edge in longevity unmet. And their prime work even gets occasionally shouldered with accusations of cheesiness due to the use of organ and saxophone.

While that honking horn might give off an aura that’s somewhat innocuous today, it also does very little harm to their music’s intensity, and it combines with Clark’s drum thunder as a key proto-punk wrinkle. The Beatles, Stones, Animals, Yardbirds, and Kinks all had a greater overall impact on the Nuggets scene, but the DC5 were integral to the shaping of one of the wildest of all garage units, The Sonics. I do agree that The Sonics at their best are an improvement upon the Five’s template, but it’s also plainly obvious “Psycho,” “Shot Down,” and “Have Love Will Travel” are in heavy debt to Clark and his crew.

Hopefully the above does a thorough job of covering all the bases in why the Dave Clark Five still matter. Many who have long appreciated them may think it’s all a bunch unnecessary ballyhoo, and will point to their enshrinement in the Rock Hall of Fame as evidence of their current cultural value. But for every unabashed Five lover I’ve met, I’ve encountered two or three folks that just shrug them off as fitfully okay or even worse, downright square.

To my grizzled lobes, no DC5 single refutes these claims better than “Try Too Hard” b/w “All Night Long,” a 45 that hit the racks toward the end of their peak period. Though it scored them a #12 hit in the States, it didn’t chart for them at home, which is odd given how well it fits into the musical disposition of ’66.

If they were either unable or unwilling to step into the psychedelic arena, that environment hadn’t fully reared its head yet. And based on “Try Too Hard” it’s difficult to imagine many people lobbing accusations of creative staleness in their direction upon its release, for the song is a brief slab of inventive pop-rock that’s exquisitely done.

Hearing it in rotation with selections from contemporaneous groups of the same rough disposition finds it holding up quite well to the test, as the cut shrewdly adjusts elements in their musical personality while nudging up against a sound that’s remindful of The Turtles. This is mainly down to the thick carpeting of Denny Payton’s baritone sax, with his playing notably diverse from the more spirited mode that was his norm. But the Turtles-like motions also relate to its vibrancy and brevity.

Dave Clark Five numbers aren’t known for wearing out their welcome, and one of their faults might be that some of the tunes are too short. “Try Too Hard” chalks up just a shade over two minutes in duration, but in this instance the entirety in no way registers as incomplete or undernourished. Mike Smith’s vocals are amongst his very best, and if he doesn’t rank as one of the ‘60’s finest rock singers, the evidence here lends him more adaptive range than his rep generally indicates.

For if concerned with issues of the heart, “Try too Hard” is no mere ballad unwrapped from safekeeping and smelling like two-year old mothballs. During the track Smith plays not organ but crisp piano lines, Lenny Davidson’s guitar lands comfortably into ‘66’s pop-rock zone, and Rick Huxley’s bass is felt more than it’s conspicuously heard. This leaves Clark’s drums as the largest connective tissue to the DC5’s music circa ’64, and his heavy backbeat and copious fills surely clued-in the audience to exactly who it was they were listening to.

He’s sometimes derided as a sort of rock equivalent to Buddy Rich, but I’ve always dug Clark’s beefed-up Sandy Nelson-ish style, and it indeed sounds sweet here. It’s even better on the rocked-out flip “All Night Long.” Even though Smith whoops and howls up a storm, it’s basically an instrumental, with Clark establishing a loose but torrid at times almost Diddley-esque beat as everybody scrambles to keep up.

Smith’s back on organ with Payton switching to harmonica as Huxley and Davidson both get moments to shine on their axes. It’s three minutes of top-notch mania, and if somebody had played it for me while also lending misinformation that it was a live recording of some mysterious lost ‘60s band captured as they threw down for the benefit of a small but intensely devoted crowd of teens from the back of a flat-bed truck in a McCrory’s Department Store parking lot…well, until a few years ago I would’ve easily believed it. That potent is the vision of rattling maracas and tinted rectangular glasses it conjures.

And yes like many others, shortly after that long drought of commercial availability briefly ended with the release of the 2CD bonanza History of the Dave Clark Five, I quickly got in line to buy a copy. But after taking it home and perusing its contents the fifty cuts it contained registered like an overloaded banquet table, and I somehow ended up missing the worthiness of both “Try Too Hard” and “All Night Long” as they opened the second disc.

But not too far back I stumbled onto a second-hand copy of this 7-inch. It was a little worn and with no picture sleeve, but since it was cheap I sprung for it. And what an eye-opener it was. It offers the DC5 not as a strong and likeable group unfortunately burdened by limitations but instead as simply an imperfect but occasionally outstanding maker of rock ‘n’ roll singles. Just cue up its sides, get a nice boost and then if needed, repeat.

Yes, the Five are in the Hall of Fame, but the story goes that for their last song at their final gig, The Ramones knocked out a cover of “Any Way You Want It.” And I can think of no better tribute to the lasting worth of Dave Clark Five’s music than that.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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