(Pictured: Andy Kim, bubblegum god, coming to take your woman, circa 1970.)
Come with me now into a young boy’s bedroom. Atop the cheap wooden toy chest next to the bed is a radio, a relatively recent addition to the room. It’s a rectangular green box with a large tuning dial on the front, an on/off/volume control on one side, and tubes inside. On this particular evening, the young boy has the radio on, tuned to WLS in Chicago, its dial position marked with a bit of masking tape. Although he hasn’t been listening long, he already knows he has to periodically re-tune the radio because it drifts. Listening at night adds an additional difficulty—the signal on 890 occasionally fades, for reasons he won’t understand for a few years yet.
We are, of course, in the fabled fall of 1970, a season firmly fixed in the mythology of this blog, the beginning of nearly everything that matters the most. It’s late that fall—December, actually, coming on Christmas, when giants walk the earth and play on the radio. Because the boy is only 10, his taste runs toward bubblegum, the Partridge Family and Dawn, and on this particular night, we find him digging on one of bubblegum’s giants, Andy Kim, and one the hottest records in the country at the moment, “Be My Baby.”
0:00: A drum kick that is not so much a kick as an explosion, then echo-drenched piano chords with little dots of bass flicking beneath, as if the guitarist is twitching a string in anticipation but holding himself back, “Now? Wait . . . now?”
0:09: The bassist is unleashed for a quick, tumbling run and the drums fall in, rat-tat-tat.
0:10: “The night we met I knew I . . . needed you so.” The singer sounds woozy from the jump, as if he’s just roused himself from romantic reverie. “And if I had the chance oh . . . I’d never let you go.” Like he has to pause and gather himself between every line.
0:27: Background singers show up, your standard garden variety oohs and aahs. But then . . .
0:45: Background singers go falsetto: “Be my . . . be my baby . . . my one and only baby . . . be my . . . be my baby . . . na-a-a-a-ow.” Years from now, the boy will think that they sound like the Bee Gees. Right now all he can think is sweet mama this is awesome.
1:02: Refrain ends, verse two begins, and the record starts to feel like a freight train at full steam on a fast track—going like hell, but under control.
1:20: “But from the day I saw you, I have been waiting waiting waiting for ya . . .” The boy knows little or nothing about girls yet, but he suspects that waiting waiting waiting is a whole lot more serious than regular waiting.
1:56: The boy does not know it, but 46 years from now, he still won’t know what this sound is, exactly. It might be a violin, double-tracked and processed. It might be a theremin. From time to time during the approximately 15 seconds it plays, it occasionally seems to disappear amidst the galloping band and Andy’s ooh-ing—but only to his future self, who is listening in futuristic high-fidelity stereo. To the boy, listening to a fading AM radio wave through a plastic speaker, it sizzles like a goddamn laser beam.
2:12: Refrain reprised twice, with the singer testifying a little harder now, background singers still falsettoing it up, punctuated by machine-gun bursts from the drummer.
2:50: Fade out.
The boy will learn, of course, that the original 1963 “Be My Baby,” by the Ronettes, is considered one of the greatest records ever made, There must have been some people in 1970 who found Andy Kim’s version to be a cheap, disposable ripoff. But not the boy then, or the old man he has become. Forty-six years later, Andy Kim’s “Be My Baby” holds up as one of the half-dozen greatest examples of the art of bubblegum.