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Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Who Did It Better? The Loco-motion

Who Did It Better?
The Loco-Motion

Today's entry is the last suggestion I have from our dear friend, Anne Marie in Philly. So, I plan on doing this one up big.

There are a dozen versions we will be taking a look at:

Little Eva
Dee Dee Sharp
The Ventures
The Chiffons
The Vernons Girls
Sylvie Vartan
Grand Funk Railroad
Carole King
Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin
Kylie Minogue
Atomic Kitten

Due to the number of competitors, I will do my best to keep my comments brief (I promise.)

We have a lot to get through, so let's get started!

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The Loco-Motion is a song written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King in 1962. It would extend their long list of hit songs, which, at that time, included Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Some Kind of Wonderful, Up On The Roof, and Go Away Little Girl, to name but a few.  

The song is an enduring example of the dance-song genre, with much of the lyric devoted to a description of the dance itself. However, in this case, and contrary to urban legend, the song came before the dance. The oft repeated story behind the song's origin is that King was playing the piano at home and Eva Boyd, her babysitter at the time, started dancing to it and... the dance The Loco-Motion was born!  But there's no truth to it.

The truth is, as told by King in her One to One concert video, there was no dance when the song was originally written, so once the song took off on the charts, Little Eva had to come up with something herself, which is the dance she can be seen doing in all live performances of the song.

Also true? The Loco-Motion is the second song to reach #1 in the US by two different musical acts. The first song to do so? Goffin and King's Go Away Little Girl.  The Loco-Motion is also notable for having appeared in the US Top 3 on three separate occasions. 

Originally written for Dee Dee Sharp, who'd enjoyed a hit with Mashed Potato Time, the singer passed on the song. This created an opportunity for Eva Boyd, who had recorded the demo and at that time had been working as Carole King's babysitter. The two met thanks to The Cookies, a local girl group who recorded for the songwriters. 

After a name change to Little Eva. the single was released on Dimension Records in two different versions; one with handclaps, one without. King would sing backup vocals on both versions.  

The song quickly scaled the charts all the way to #1, becoming 1962's seventh most successful single in the US.

This prompted knock-off versions by The Chiffons (1963), The Ventures (1963), and - of all people - Dee Dee Sharp (1962) (who was probably kicking herself for not doing it when it was first offered.)

Overseas, a British girl group, The Vernons Girls recorded the song, hoping to score a hit. Their version was released in the UK the same week as Little Eva's. Fortunately for Little Eva, The Vernon Girls' version stalled at #47, while hers went all the way to #2 on the UK charts. 

In 1962, a version by Sylvie Vartan was released in France. Singing in French, it was titled Le Loco-motion. Her version snagged the #1 spot in France on October 13, 1962.

In 1974, Grand Funk Railroad was busy recording their new album with Todd Rundgren on board as producer. Rundgren happened to hear guitarist Mark Farner whistling the song in the studio and decided the group should do a version of it. Initially, AM Radio was reticent to play the song due to the guitar solo. This was remedied by replacing the solo with a repeat of the bridge.
Released as a single in February of 1974, the song eventually hit #1 in the US, where it stayed for two weeks. It was also #1 in Canada, #5 in Australia, and #11 in Germany.

Ritz, a disco trio, released a version titled Locomotion in 1979. It would hit #1 in New Zealand and stay there for seven non-consecutive weeks in 1980, becoming the most successful record of the year in that country. Their version also went Top 20 in in Australia, Sweden, and Switzerland.

King would record a version of the song for her 1980 studio album Pearls, a collection of songs she'd written with her ex-husband, Goffin. 

In  the UK in May of 1986, prog-rock keyboardist Dave Stewart (not the Eurythmics guitarist) and Barbara Gaskin would release a version titled The Locomotion as a single. The duo had scored a UK #1 back in 1981 with their cover of It's My Party and were hoping that lightning would strike twice. Despite a huge promo push, the single stalled, never rising higher than #70.

 Kylie Minogue, a popular soap opera star who played a schoolgirl turned garage mechanic on the Australian soap, Neighbors, had a fervent following. To capitalize on her popularity, it was decided she should become a singer. She recorded a version of The Loco-Motion, which was released on July 13, 1987. It was released in Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and Sweden and proved quite popular. 

This was parlayed into a record deal with PWL Records in London, where she would work with the successful production team Stock Aitken Waterman, who had her re-record the song. This new version was released worldwide on July 28, 1988, quickly becoming a major success, reaching the Top 5 in the US, the UK and Canada. It also grabbed the #1 spot in her native Australia and held on for seven weeks in a row! In addition, it hit #1 in Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Israel, Japan, and South Africa.
The song was recorded by the successful UK girl group Atomic Kitten and included on the soundtrack of the 2000 film, Thomas and the Magic Railroad

There you have it. The whole story.

Now? On to the competition!

The Song: The Loco-Motion/Le Loco-motion/Locomotion/The Locomotion
The Competitors: Little Eva vs. Dee Dee Sharp vs. The Ventures vs. The Chiffons vs. The Vernons Girls vs. Vartan vs. Grand Funk Railroad vs. Ritz vs. King vs. Stewart & Gaskin vs. Minogue vs. Atomic Kitten

The Loco-Motion - Little Eva

The Loco-Motion - Dee Dee Sharp

The Loco-Motion - The Ventures

The Loco-Motion - The Chiffons

The Loco-Motion - The Vernons Girls

Le Loco-motion - Sylvie Vartan

The Loco-Motion - Grand Funk Railroad

Locomotion - Ritz

The Loco-Motion - Carole King

The Locomotion - Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin

The Loco-Motion - Kylie Minogue

The Loco-Motion - Atomic Kitten

Little Eva

Classic opening. Horns. Drums. Could be The Ramones for all we know. It's that 1960's swagger. How anybody could mistake that lead voice for Carole King is beyond me. But, yes... there were DJs who insisted that was King, herself singing lead. Oh, we got the version with the handclaps. Yay. Meghan Trainor should have covered this song using this exact arrangement. This is so much fun. 

I must say, I have always been surprised that Goffin/King penned this one. There certainly were similar sounding songs, but this is such an original. That sax is hot. Deep and funky. And I love how Little Eva comes back in with "Bay-ay-yay-yeah!" Aww... fades too quickly. But that's the beauty of the times - nothing ever overstayed its welcome. "Come back! You're lookin' gooood!" Indeed!

Dee Dee Sharp

I like the opening drums. Those backup vocals are so... polite. I hear the color in her voice and I like it. She has a nice tone, though there's something rushed about her delivery - almost dismissive. The arrangement and the production lacks depth. It simply doesn't dig as deep as Little Eva's. The sax is fun. By the 1:42 mark, her voice is a little grating. I do like her yeah-yeah-yeahs.

This is rather tepid, but would have played well on the radio. It lacks the excitement and fire of Little Eva's version.

The Ventures

That trap set sounds like a cardboard box and a couple of dixie cups. Oh. That guitar is a surprise, as are those opening vocals. Huh, the back up singers are much more sassy than expected. And I like all the added syncopation. At least they're putting their stamp on this. 

Oh. I didn't realize there was no lead vocalist. Just that guitar, huh. Zzzz. Although I like that bass rumbling in there. And again, very interesting arrangement. The added syncopation almost sells this. 

But, as is, not a lot going on here. Definitely a product of its time, which gives it kitsch value.

The Chiffons

The Chiffons enjoyed a big hit with the Goffin/King penned, One Fine Day.

I like the opening... those handclaps. Cool. The mix is a little flat-surfaced. And the lead vocals sound distant and tired. There's an immediacy lacking here. The energy improves the higher the lead vocalist sings, though her voice breaks a bit. Plus she has a very prominent vibrato to keep in check. I like that acoustic piano that sneaks in. Huh, no sax solo. Then I wish they would've let the piano go crazy. 

I like it. The backing vocals are great. Lead is fine - gets very messy at the end. It's not mixed hot enough. The arrangement fails to ignite a fire. I doubt this would've been a huge hit for them.   

The Vernons Girls

Boy, those are some farty-sounding horns. These ladies sound a bit butch. And what's with the male backup singers? You'd think the ladies would be doing their own. As is? It's a little too 1950's beach party for me. Very draggy. I find the trio all singing lead to be off-putting. There's no blend and no care. Nothing is rounded. I guess those horns in the beginning were trying to warn us of what was to come. Are they trying to sound tough? Because I feel threatened when they sing, "You gotta swing your hips now." 

Everything is spit out with the same joyless push. Which works in a Shangri-las kind of way, but the visual image of these ladies doesn't play that way. It's like The Pink Ladies got together and did this song for a variety show. "A little bit of rhythm and a lot of soul." This version possesses neither. That sax put the 'whack' in whacky.

This is almost a parody. I wish they had gone even tougher with it. 

Tough girl music is fun. 

This? Is neither.

Sylvie Vartan

Sylvie was so huge in France, her career spanned decades. She actually had her own doll - as in, just like Cher!  

Her vocals are mixed a bit too hot, especially on the high end. It's a very Phil Spector kind of arrangement... lots of ghost in there. I kind of giggle when she sings in her lower register. Okay, she has a certain appeal. A great vocalist? No. But good enough for pop in 1962. The backup singers make me giggle, too; they are so pointed and thin. Sylvie's voice sits on top of them like she's a big fat mama - which may be exactly what the producer was going for. That contrast? It makes Sylvie sound like her voice is bigger and fuller than it actually was.  As far as the arrangement is concerned, there's not a whole lot worth writing about. 

I would say this is a (barely) competent version. 

Nothing that would warrant a barbie doll. 

Grand Funk Railroad

I remember this sound. "Oogga chugga, oogga chugga..." Blue Suede explored a similar sound with Hooked On A Feeling. Except the horns there kept things bright and uplifting. This? This is kind of drudgy. Both songs scared me a little (at the time.) 

This is so pitchy and weird sounding. But that was Todd Rundgren, man. He had a thing for Phil Spector's hollow machine. I don't really have another way to describe it. Rundgren's production work on this is super muddy, so dense and statically distorted that it barely makes musical sense. In fact, I remember getting a hold of a copy of this 45 later in life and was totally convinced it was warped, but... nope. That's the way it was meant to sound. 

That guitar solo is gawd awful. No wonder DJs switched it out for a repeat of the bridge. Actually, I can't imagine this getting played on AM Radio at all. It's so bizarre, like something Dr. Demento would uncover and share. In a way, it's ahead of its time. Listen to early Devo or anything by The Residents and you'll hear what I mean. 

Do you hear someone screaming in there, as in horror movie ghost? How did this go #1? Were high schoolers that fed up with life? This almost seems cynical. Oh my gosh... there was an acoustic piano playing under there the whole time. I only noticed it on the fade. 

Too weird to be real, man. I know that Grand Funk (as they were called when this recording came out) was not known for the musicianship. Their marketing on the other hand? The album this song was on came with a pair of 3-D glasses attached to the album cover. You needed to use them to appreciate the cover. 

Critics hated them. 

And now you know why. 


Blondie called, they want their sound back. Actually, it belongs to Giorgio Moroder, but we all associate it with Blondie's Heart Of Glass. Do you remember when men wore pale pink linen suits and skinny ties? That did not age well. 

Huh. That's a guy singing lead. He has a nice voice. And a different guy singing the falsetto - which I like. I'm glad he's getting such a big slice of the lead vocals. There's also a woman in this group. Other than the vocals, which are fine, and the Blondie rip-off, this is a by the numbers disco cover. Sax solo is a garbled mess. Such simple lines, but sounds like crap. By the 2:40 mark this has worn out its welcome. Oh, the woman finally gets to sing something more than a single line. And she takes us to the fade.  

Carole King

I remember when this album cover came out. I was in a Sears store, staring at it. Well, mostly those boots. My inner baby drag queen really, really wanted those boots. 

King's New York accent kills me. I like the mix, keeping it relatively simple with the backing vocals capturing the feel of the original. King's piano playing is always a treat, and it's kept to the center of the mix here. Her voice? It's serviceable, likable. There's not a lot of color at play - very straightforward. Anytime she strays from the basic melody, things get pitchy. 

Huh. Big guitar there, but not mixed hot. I like the handclaps. The sax is fine. Those backup vocals? Kind of weak. But then... they're supporting King, so... hmm. And, yes, I realize that's King backing herself up there, in the mix. I like that "yeah-yeah" she throws in there. That's the gutsiest thing here.

This is by-the-numbers. No surprises. Pleasant, but, bland and other than to have it on record and recorded by King? I don't see the point. 
Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin

Starts promising, but the moment Gaskin enters, it drags. There's no energy. Lots of strange synth percussion, some atmospherics, but nothing that drives this. I like the industrial/train motif. Lukewarm, at best. I can't think of what audience this was aimed at; it's too slow and quiet for the dancefloor and not complicated or filled out enough to fall into Peter Gabriel territory. 

At the 2:25 mark they go a different direction, before resuming at the 2:40 mark. Ugh. That horn is awful. No. This doesn't work as anything but an interesting experiment. Gaskin's vocals are as dull as dishwater. And it goes on far too long. This is what happens when you ignore the songwriter's original intent. Yes, you can place an alternative interpretation on top of a song, but that alternative interp needs to compliment the source material. 

Kylie Minogue

Oh, dear. PWL/Stock Aitken Waterman. It was the hottest sound going at the time. A tad annoying now. Very dated. Kylie in a lower register. Nice. Her vocals are layered and treated, but fine. Her voice? Let's say - she does a great deal with it. There's more sass than I'd expected. The energy is there and it definitely works; good fit. Those backing vocals? That's some white sugar, there. 

I like the horns throughout. They compliment Kylie and add a lot of color to what could have been a rather rote exercise. I mean, you hit the go button on that rhythm track and... ding, done. That was the beauty of Stock Aitken Waterman - for the longest time, they couldn't miss.

Kylie doesn't disappoint here. It's fun. Of it's time. 

Atomic Kitten

Atomic Kitten is rather unknown, here, stateside, but over in the UK, they enjoyed three #1 hits. 

Hard to believe three grown ass women got together and this is the result, but it is for the kiddies, right. Maybe they each have one? 

The feel of this is very 1996 dance floor. By-the-numbers. Not bad. Not interesting. The mechanical handclaps remind me of Stars On 45 - as in, they could be singing anything and then seamlessly morph into a different song and it would all sound one and the same - no one the wiser. 

The vocals are not unpleasant. They have a certain charm. Had they brought some kind of attitude to the proceedings, perhaps there would be more to consider. As is? This was created for the soundtrack of a movie about a talking train, so... yeah. Lower your expectations. Dialing it in is perfectly acceptable when it comes to children (or so the world continues to indicate.)

The Verdict

If you made it this far, congrats. That was quite a lot to slew through. I have a sneaking suspicion that Anne Marie in Philly most likely wanted me to consider only the first four or five. Personally? I am glad I heard them all. There is something about this song that upon hearing it, in any form, a smile immediately appears on my face and I feel a bit lighter all around. 

Little Eva is my choice. 

I think it would be Anne Marie's choice, as well. 

Here's a brief recap:

Little Eva - Love the energy, love the sound.

Dee Dee Sharp - A tepid reading. Fun, but not exciting.

The Ventures - Love the syncopation and arrangement. But this is an instructional dance song, so without a lead singer, there are no instructions and therefore, not much of a song.

The Chiffons - Vocals are fine. The production work is flat surfaced. Not enticing enough.

The Vernons Girls - Three voices on the lead end up sounding butch - which is fun, but they don't take it far enough.

Sylvie Vartan - Cute. But about as effective as Twiggy singing (which she does) and just about as musically substantial.

Grand Funk Railroad - I have no idea. What? Its as if it was mastered wrong or the record is warped. Worst guitar solo ever. Did they do this as a joke?

Ritz - Heart of Glass aside, not bad. I like the vocals very much. Rather by-the-numbers though. Nice falsetto.

Carole King - Inconsequential. A nice record; as in, the kind you file in a cabinet. 

Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin - Interesting experiment, but a failure.

Kylie Minogue - Great energy. Charming. The Stock Aitken Waterman sound hasn't aged badly. Kylie's winning ways save this one. My second favorite. 
Atomic Kitten - A tad rote. I was expecting it to sound like 2000, though, not 1996. Thinking they phoned this one in.

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And that is way more than enough from me. 

Your turn! Let me know your choice - but, in addition - let me know which you think Anne Marie in Philly would choose. 

That's all for now.

Thanks reading... and listening!

The Loco-Motion - Little Eva
Shindig, 1965

Le Loco-motion - Sylvie Vartan

Locomotion - The Ritz

The Loco-Motion - Kylie Minogue


whkattk said...

The Ventures never had a lead vocalist - it was always guitar. They should've skipped this number.
I kind of like the intro with GFR and Ritz.
But nothing beats the original.

Jimmy said...

Oh how I miss Anne Marie. She was the most important cog in the wheel. I agree with Little Eva. I used to dance The Mash Potatoes to the song The Mashed Potatoes,(lol)sung by Dee Dee Sharp. I think she even did a song called Gravy. I don't remember the Grande Funk version. I was more into A Horse With No Name stuff. Kylie Monogue could "sing a phone book" and sound fabulous! (to quote Randy Jackson).

Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Little Eva all the way. I love the claps and the drums! I have to admit the first time I heard the song was by Kyle and I loved it. I didn't know it was a remake until much later.
I love how people danced in the sixties!!!


Deedles said...

Anne Marie (my little carebear) being an original herself, probably would've went with Little Eva. I'm here to read your take on things. It's always informative without being tedious. I don't really care who does this song, since I hate it (always have) and won't listen.

todd gunther said...

I think Anne Marie would have chosen the Little Eva version, but she may done a shout out to home girl Dee Dee Sharp...just because.
Thank you for remembering my wonderful Warrior Queen. She was truly an original.

Mistress Maddie said...

I agree with you! Although I like Kylie Minogue the a lot, since it was the version I heard first. I do think your also right about Anne Marie. She would like the Little Eva version best, and a few of the first three, although she did enjoy Kylie Minogue...and she most likely would have liked the Ritz too.