Ring Bell Hard to Tell if Anything Is Gonna Sell

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about “the gulf between kids’ music and what was perceived as adult pop” for most of the 1960s and how wide it was until sometime in 1970 or 1971, when the top hits on the Easy Listening chart and the top hits on the Hot 100 begin to converge. Commenting on a succeeding post about the Beatles on the Easy Listening chart, our friend Yah Shure noted the importance of Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were The Days” in paving the way for the eventual appearance of the Beatles on the Easy Listening chart, and also reminded us of something that throws a wrench into that theory about the gulf between genres. In the spring of 1965, Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was a substantial Easy Listening hit, going all the way to #6.

Wait, what? “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement thinkin’ ’bout the government”? Really?

Yah Shure observes that in 1965, “Bob was a grownup while the Beatles weren’t.” Although both John and Ringo were older by a few months, perception is reality. On the cover of Dylan’s then-current album, Bringing It All Back Home, he looks a bit like a pompadoured 50s rocker and not like a moptop. So maybe that’s it. But “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” with its speedy and layered wordplay, is not remotely like anything else on the adult chart at the time.

I’m looking at the Pop-Standard Singles chart from the issue of Billboard dated May 8, 1965. The chart would bear this name for only an eyelash of time—it had been “Middle-Road Singles” since late in 1964 and would become Easy Listening in June. The chart includes the following note: “Not too far out in either direction, the following singles, selected from the current Hot 100, are the most popular middle-road records of the week. Rank order here is based on relative standing in the Hot 100.” So the chart is not really a tracking of sales or actual adult radio airplay, although it certainly would have had an impact on the latter. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is at #7 on this chart. Ahead of it are “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” by Sounds Orchestral, “Baby the Rain Must Fall” by Glenn Yarbrough,” records by Perry Como and Andy Williams, Elvis Presley’s “Crying in the Chapel,” and the Allan Sherman novelty “Crazy Downtown.” Farther down the chart are crooners Patti Page and Vic Damone, bandleaders Herb Alpert and Bert Kaempfert, trumpeter Al Hirt, and two songs from the Mary Poppins soundtrack, among others.

To say that “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sticks out like a sore thumb in that company is to understate just how far out a sore thumb can stick.

In an April edition of Billboard, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” topped a full-page Columbia records ad that also touted new songs by Williams and Barbra Streisand. Given that Bringing It All Back Home represented the breakout hit for an artist who had generated a great deal of buzz in the preceding couple of years, Columbia surely wanted to expand Dylan’s market reach. Even so, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” seems like a strange horse to bet on, given the nature of adult pop in 1965. It made #39 on the Hot 100, which accounted for its relatively high placing on the Easy Listening chart given that chart’s methodology at the time—but somebody at Billboard still had to choose to include it, in a year when they would choose not to include the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”

Before the end of 1965, “Positively 4th Street” and “Like a Rolling Stone” would hit the pop Top 10, but neither one would chart on Easy Listening. Dylan would not return to the adult chart until 1969 with “Lay Lady Lay.” “Wigwam” charted in 1970, and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” returned Bob to the adult Top 10 in 1973.

One thought on “Ring Bell Hard to Tell if Anything Is Gonna Sell

  1. Is there anything else on that chart that *sounds* remotely like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”?
    The other Dylan songs you mention to make that chart are all sort of sonically well-groomed (“Wigwam” is that rare beast, a Bob Dylan instrumental), so they might actually fit in with what was around them without sounding out of place.

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