THAT THING YOU DID
Updated: Jun 6, 2020
I was inspired to resuscitate my blog-writing vanity by the over-whelming effect of the Covid-19 crisis and its subsequent worldwide lockdown. So many people were sharing their current listening, creating playlists and generally reminiscing and of course, the aim of my paltry essays was always simply to get people to look again at their once-beloved record collections. Hence, to the keyboard I headed once more.
Undoubtedly, the healing power of music has proved it is one of the few constants we can always rely on.
The crisis has already claimed thousands upon thousands of casualties and the record industry has also seen its own tragic stories unfold. Therefore, I wanted to remind you of what I consider a particularly fine achievement by Adam Schlesinger, who sadly died of the virus in April.
Schlesinger had been a founding member of Fountains Of Wayne and went on to write a huge portfolio of work for theatre, television and cinema with contributions to movies as varied as "There's Something About Mary", "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Ice Age". He won Emmys and a Grammy, was nominated for Oscars, Tonys and Golden Globes, which by anyone's reckoning is quite a resume.
His Grammy had come (for me rather inexplicably) with his band Fountains Of Wayne and their hit "Stacy's Mom". There was a whole series of American bands around this time, like Wheatus, Sugar Ray and Weezer who were comprised of grown men pretending to be teenage dropouts and so, for me, lacked any real authenticity. Put simply, they just should have known better. Still "Stacy's Mom" became a big hit on the back of support from MTV who loved their "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" influenced promo film. Now I am not going to criticise any film that has Rachel Hunter at her poutiest but I cannot help but think there is a lot that would (and should) have been classified as deeply unseemly.
Somehow, the record won a Grammy as well.
However, Schlesinger also wrote the title song to the 1997 movie "That Thing You Do", a fictional account of a mid-60s American teenage beat group, called the Wonders (or "The Oh-needers" as they are initially misbilled) who gain overnight success with a hit that makes them the hottest band in the country.
The movie was directed by Tom Hanks and he himself starred as the band's impresario, the genial Mr White - interestingly in one of the scenes not included, there is a hint of his character's gay lifestyle doubtless because it was seen as unnecessary (either to the plot or Hanks's everyman persona) but is very redolent of such svengali management figures of the time, like Brian Epstein or Larry Parnes. A similarly loaded inter-racial relationship was also removed from the movie.
Despite this apparent eradication of more complex character developments, if you haven't seen the movie, it's charming, accurate (watch the styling of the "Weekend at Party Pier" sequence) and funny, exploring many of the classic inter-group tensions that had been dissected so successfully in "The Commitments" about five years earlier. Hanks himself had been a thwarted garage band star and one of his group's compositions "Voyage to the Moon" by The Saturn Five, pops up as a b-side, fulfilling a lifetime ambition no doubt. All of the ridiculous overwrought angst of being in a band is beautifully portrayed plus an early appearance by Charlize Theron, a cameo from Chris Isaak and Liv Tyler has never been so utterly adorable.
Hanks was obviously a particular fan of this period and around ten years later he was to deliver the most heartfelt fan note as he inaugurated The Dave Clark Five into the Rock and Roll of Fame.
Schlesinger's song has none of his alternative rock heritage but is the most astonishing and genuine tribute to this period you can imagine. And what's more it never grates - it features at least four times in the film - and yet supplies am ear worm that never irritates. Its achievement really comes from its accuracy. All American bands in 1965 wanted to sound like the British Invasion bands but perhaps owing to a lack of RnB heritage, inevitably sounded a little more frothy and a little more polished. It's a fine balance but one that is managed beautifully.
I imagine Schlesinger spent a lot of time listening to Sir Douglas Quintet, Tommy James and The Shondells and especially The Monkees to understand the subtle difference. From the Hal Blaine style opening drum crack to the Turtles backing harmonies it screams mid 60's American pop down to its very bones.
Certainly the song's authenticity and sheer delight caught the imagination of the movie awards juries and it was rightly nominated as Best Song for both the Golden Globes and the Oscars - losing out to Madonna's rather dreary "If You Don't Love Me" from "Evita".
Life did not imitate art however, and the single of "That Thing You Do" only managed to make the US Top 50 and UK Top 30 unlike its #2 position in the movie (though I imagine had it been released at the time...). However, I imagine the greatest testament to the genius of the recording is that, in 2015, when the Monkees reformed for their 50th anniversary album "Good Times", it was Schlesinger who was drafted as producer to provide authenticity for the occasion.
And for a real student such as him that must have been a source of justifiable pride.