“96 Tears” took one small step for underground music

“96 Tears” took one small step for underground music

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.

The ’60s changed everything. It’s a tired, well-worn observation, to say the least, circa 2014, but it’s no less true today than it was five decades ago. Even taking into account everything our battered, frayed history books told us about Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, Woodstock, the space race, and Haight-Ashbury, it can be hard to fathom just how much social upheaval the world stomached in a single 10-year period.

Every word and gesture seemed to carry the potential to push the world in a radically new direction in the ’60s, but these tectonic social shifts weren’t exclusive to war, presidential assassinations, and other headline-grabbing fare. There were smaller, comparably frivolous occurrences that similarly demonstrated people’s changing moods and tastes. Whether watching Easy Rider, listening to Dylan, or riding the wave of Beatlemania, even the pop culture landscape had its way of turning people on to new ideas that once seemed too taboo, or at the very least too weird, to seriously consider.

Enter ? And The Mysterians, a band who even today are still a pretty far cry from a household name. For but a brisk seven-day stretch in October 1966, the progenitive garage outfit bumped shoulders with some of the biggest heavyweights in the history of pop music. That in and of itself amounts to little more than an amusing bit of pop trivia. But the slow, drawn-out ripple effect made by band’s ascent to the top of the Billboard charts would prove to signify something much bigger. With “96 Tears,” ? And The Mysterians helped pry open the door for grunge, alternative, and more music that otherwise would have been predestined to hang out in the outer margins of popular music. Even if the group’s role as a grunge catalyst was separated by far too many degrees for it to receive any of the credit, The Mysterians may have been the first band to take the crucial step of helping legitimize music that toiled tirelessly in the underground.

To fully paint the picture of just how much of a curious addition ? And The Mysterians were to the top of the Billboard charts in 1966, look no further than the company the band kept. Simon And Garfunkel kicked off the first week of January at No. 1 with “The Sound Of Silence.” The Young Rascals’ classic “Good Lovin’” held court in late April. The Rolling Stones pulled double duty when “Paint It Black” claimed the top spot for two consecutive weeks in June. The Beatles registered no fewer than two No. 1 singles that year with “We Can Work It Out” and “Paperback Writer.” If that alone didn’t signify the stiff competition, other artists who laid claim to No. 1 hits in 1966 included The Beach Boys (“Good Vibrations”), The Four Tops (“Reach Out I’ll Be There”), Frank Sinatra (“Strangers In The Night”), The Supremes (“You Can’t Hurry Love”), and The Monkees (“Last Train To Clarksville”), among others. Where the hell do a group of guys from Bay City, Michigan, fit in with that lot? The climb to the top of the pop music food chain is never easy, but the Mysterians’ slope seemed particularly steep and unforgiving.

The diverse nature of the songs that took the top spot on the charts that year suggested that people could be talked into almost anything. But while fans sent pop, rock, soul, R&B, and folk screaming up the charts, none of that really had anything to do with “96 Tears,” a quirky, organ-driven track as curious as the name of the band that penned it. Whereas the year’s other No. 1 hits were finessed to a spit-polished shine, the Mysterians’ inroad to the pop charts was raw and primal. “96 Tears” lacked the studio perfection of George Martin or Brian Wilson. Instead, it sounded like a bunch of guys who crowbarred their way into the studio after hours one night, banged out a single, and split without a trace. It’s not unreasonable to think that would have been the case, except the band didn’t even have the luxury of using a proper studio. They had a porch.

Not that it at all mattered, because the song’s rough edges, trippy psychedelic vibes and unfettered production suited it well. “96 Tears” was an anti-pop song crafted by a band from a world happily divorced from any thoughts of Billboard charts or hit singles. Garage bands were ugly and dangerous, and while The Mysterians were far from the first band to let their wild side hang out on record, they were the first to bottle up the urgency of ’60s garage rock in the form of a single with widespread mass appeal.

As comparatively untended as it was, “96 Tears” was also helplessly catchy in its own crude way. All apologies to Rudy “Question Mark” Martinez, but this had little to do with the lyrics. It’s unlikely kids at school and people at work were preaching about how they were “gonna cry… cry, cry, cry now.” But good luck getting the singer’s now-legendary organ riff out of your skull for a good week or two. The way it perfectly tip-toes the fine line between silly and cryptic, it’s a hook that has as much staying power as any slice of Lennon-McCartney pop poetry or sleazy Stones lyric. It was a good lesson for the group’s garage-rock peers and the many bands that would come after: Songs didn’t necessarily have to be baroque, flashy, or ornate to be catchy. Sure, it doesn’t hurt, but it isn’t a prerequisite.

Although the song’s stay atop the Billboard charts was literally as brief as can be, “96 Tears” never really went away. With the advent of punk and glam as legitimate musical forces a decade later, the song steadily kept its momentum. Next came metal, which later cross-pollinated with punk to form grunge. By the time that Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson off of his pop music pedestal in 1991, the idea of ugly rock ’n’ roll laying claim to the top of the charts didn’t seem like a heretical anomaly. For The Mysterians, it was an all too familiar story. They planted that first seed, even if their successors made off with the crops.

Outside of Seattle, the song also influenced more palatable strains of pop music. As obnoxious as Smash Mouth was (and still is), it’s impossible not to envision Steve Harwell playing the song on repeat while trying to pen the band’s 1997 breakthrough hit “Walkin’ On The Sun.” More to the point, the band turned a cover of The Mysterians’ “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” into a late-’90s teen-flick anthem.

Yet as important as the song has been for so many bands that have come after them, it’s also been pretty good to the Mysterians themselves, if in a far more subdued way. Forty-eight years later, “96 Tears” continues to buoy the band. It’s given second, third, and fourth winds in the form of on-again, off-again reunions at festivals and in the set lists of garage bands large and small the world over. It’s two minutes 56 seconds of dopey, infectious pop perfection that slyly nudged rock music in a different direction, which isn’t too bad for a group of guys hanging out on the porch.

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