There are certain historians of late who have tried to give a different spin on the 60s, on 1967 in particular; these are the sort who will point out the album sales of The Sound of Music were still going strong and that this man, Englebert Humperdinck (a stage name given to him, after the Hansel und Gretel composer) was the true star of the time. All else is hippy-hypey nonsense, so much florid ephemeral noise. The solid majority of folk did not want backwards guitars and baroque orchestration; they wanted a four-square song they could understand, with lyrics that are brief, lovesick and thus romantic. This is true enough; his first hit was on the charts for over a year, and this one stayed around for over six months. He had been working in the club circuit for years, honing his craft as an entertainer (a term he takes seriously) and his management thought that his way forward was to change his name (from the less exotic Jerry Dorsey) and give him some big ballads that would have women and girls a new idol to worship, more or less.
Idol worship is strange; reality shows that try to find one tend to come up trumps a lot of the time as idolatry is really either one of two things: temporary or permanent. It's also another thing: illogical. No Fullers or Cowells can ever really gauge what any given audience will want after a certain point, and the ones that are chosen who succeed tend to do so because they don't agree with their so-called masters. Cliff Richard still has his fans in part because he does what he wants, as does Englebert*. The "too beautiful to suffer" element is also here, of course; idols are adored and glamorized by women who feel they could be the one, if only in their dreams. (In his previous hit he wanted out of a relationship; in this one she's leaving him - how many adult listeners heard these songs as reflections of their own lives?)
And the narrator in this song is a pitiable creature, indeed. He hears her footsteps as she leaves, her last statement as she goes; clearly he has no energy to try to win her back, to plead or beg. That is all done. And so this song seems vast and empty, as if all the air has disappeared from the room. I could be all new age and say that it's not right for someone to be so utterly dependent on someone else (his only possession is her, he now has no reason to live) but again that would be our good friend logic talking. If you have been in the unfortunate situation the narrator is in, you would know better than to judge the absolute extreme he presents, because to him it's real. His heart is broken and there's nothing for him, he can't even speak. He can't move. It is as if a thick black line has been drawn, dividing him from...everything else.
This does seem terribly romantic, this waltzing misery, and yet there is a horrible realism to it, one that stands stoutly next to Procol Harum or Jimi Hendrix (who learned a thing or two about working a crowd from Englebert when he toured with him). The Summer of Love is here, but love is a risky thing that, like idolatry, is either temporary or permanent. Romantics are those in love with love, who maybe even enjoy a good wallow in despair once in a while; and if they can't sing, then they can listen to music that doesn't think they are backwards or old-fashioned, but instead puts them on a kind of eternal plane. (I'm not saying this is a timeless song though: referring to anyone as a 'possession' as if they were a car or house isn't very hip these days, and must have seemed positively Brontesque to some - not all - in '67**. Country songwriter Dallas Frazier wrote it, but then he also wrote "Alley Oop" and "Elvira" amongst many hits, so I can forgive him.)
The realism and romanticism appealed to women, who love him to this day; women who want a handsome man who has a handsome voice and seems to understand that life isn't always pleasant or fair. He may be an idol, but he is grown-up, laid-back, unlike Tom or Cliff or any of the others. 19th century by name, 19th century by nature? 1967 has opened a time warp wherein the past and the future are blending together, or where time has stopped making sense altogether...but then for romantics, Love is eternal...
Next: another bunch of romantics fight The Man plc in the name of Art. Oh yeah!
*Like Tom Jones, Englebert's son is his manager now, since his previous one turned down a chance to appear on a the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach without bothering to ask the singer first, which upset him greatly (as it would any right-thinking person). This gives me an excellent excuse to post this, of course. Maybe next time?
**Two of the musicians on this song - guitarist John McLaughlin and bassist Dave Holland - were a bit tired of playing such traditional music (as well-paying as it was) and not long after this they both joined (at his request) Miles Davis' group; thus they were liberated to play on In A Silent Way, a sublime album every jazz lover should own (if s/he doesn't have it already). They tried their best with this song, goodness knows, but some musicians just aren't cut out for standard country ballads.