Graded on a Curve: Frankie Avalon,
“Beach Party” b/w
“Don’t Stop Now”

It’s easy to say snide things about Frankie Avalon. I myself have called the teen idol who first made his name as a trumpet player, then as a singer, and finally as the star of such immortal motion pictures as 1963’s Beach Party (with Annette Funicello, natch) and 1965’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (with Vincent Price) the worst thing to happen to rock’n’roll this side of the extended drum solo.

I’m being unfair of course. Avalon was just a good Italian kid from Philly who specialized in froth, didn’t have a rebellious bone in his body, and never pretended otherwise. An earnest and wholesome boy as never got hooked on heroin or attempted to reinvent himself as a pinwheel-eyed avatar of the hallucinogenic sixties, was our Frankie. But say what you will about his escapist product, Avalon has always been and will always be true to himself.

As anybody who has ever listened to “Venus” or “Why,” Avalon was a crooner whose saccharine songs sound inconceivable as teen product to anyone reared in the rock’n’roll era. Lush orchestral arrangements, choirs, you name it—Frankie’s producers liked to lard it on, and on, and on. Ah, but once, just once—and it is as glorious a moment as any in the annals of rock—Avalon said to hell with it and got down with his bad self, garage rock style.

I have no idea why. Perhaps he ate an extra-large helping of some rich Italian dessert with a touch too much sweet liqueur, say amaretto, in it. Or drank one too many (as in two) glasses of red wine. Whatever the reason, on one lost day in 1963 a real, real gone Avalon swaggered into the studio, flicked a half-smoked cigarette at some studio hack, and snapped, “Fuck the strings, Johnny, and ditch the backing singers. This is Jungleland.” And proceeded to throw his everything behind as mean as guitar as he could get his goomba (no offense meant) mitts on.

Presumably he did so at the same sessions during which he recorded the merely competent “Beach Party” for the film of the same name. But if “Beach Party”—a serviceable surf tune co-written by early Beach Boy’s collaborator Dick Usher that is redeemed only by its frantic saxophone break—was subsequently released by Chancellor Records as the A-Side of a 7-inch, it’s the vinyl’s flipside that really matters. On “Don’t Stop Now” Avalon proved he had it in him, had he so chosen, to be one badass rebel indeed.

“Don’t Stop Now” can hold its own amongst the innumerable great garage rock songs of the era, from its mean and fuzzed out guitar to the fellas what echo Frankie’s cries of “Don’t stop now!” A couple of the songs on the Beach Party soundtrack featured Dick Dale and the Del Tones, but “Don’t Stop Now” isn’t one of them, and I’ve searched in vain for the genius who abuses his guitar on the song. “Don’t Stop Now” was co-written by Russell Faith, the same fella who co-wrote Avalon’s 1959 hit “Bobby Sox to Stockings,” but that’s about as far as my musical archeology has gotten me.

It’s a tragedy, really, because the guitar on “Don’t Stop Now” is as menacing as they come. And the song doesn’t have so much as a single packet of saccharine in it. It’s stripped down and mean, a stray cat’s howl straight from some garbage-can strewn back alley in the cramped but gaudy row houses of South Philly’s Little Italy. True, Avalon’s voice lacks a certain something—call it smoke or gravel or whatever—but he recklessly throws himself into the song such that you completely forget he’s the guy who gave us the unspeakable Italian wedding song, “Tell Her I Love Her.”

I shouldn’t say that Avalon never recorded another song with cojones. “Let’s Stomp” is a Ray Charles rip complete with some heavy drumming and hand claps, and Avalon actually sings better on it than he does on “Don’t Stop Now.” The rollicking “Zigzag” also belies Avalon’s image as a boy who sang exclusively for girls who squealed. And there may be other songs out there for all I know; unfortunately I lack the intestinal fortitude to listen to the entire Frankie Avalon discography to find out. But between “Don’t Stop Now” and “Let’s Stomp” there is sufficient evidence to prove that Avalon, had he chosen to do so, might have left a much different legacy as a singer.

But like I said before, that wasn’t who he was, or is. Avalon is Avalon, and he’s a crooner, and as long as the world lasts he will be running across Malibu Beach in one American International Pictures’ B-film or another, hand in hand forever with Annette Funicello. He’s immortal. Golden, even if his tan was fake. And you can’t do much better than that.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text