10:31 a.m. - May 05, 2006
What’s the reason for this omission? It’s just too…too…something not to write about on its own.
My good friend Violet claimed it’s “the best song ever written.”
It was the centerpiece of the early 1970’s Nuggets collection that Lenny Kaye put together, collecting all of the forgotten about ‘garage’ rock singles from the 60’s.
It’s a song that has a fascinating back story, which is true to life.
It features a band that was, in reality, a minor blip of the musical world in the 60’s, except for the fact they were featured on one of the most important films about rock and roll, they recorded what some people have dubbed (inaccurately) the first ‘punk rock’ single, and are known for their drummer more than anything else.
The song itself does not feature the band that is on its label (which is a practice that was somewhat rampant in the 60’s) but instead features members of a very famous ensemble that at the time was backing a very famous person.
The song also is about the drummer of the band, and is HIS story. Yet he did not receive writing credit for the song, though the credit is split between four people.
The band? The Barbarians.
I’m sure you can find it somewhere on the internet, legally or illegally. It’s also available on some collections as well.
Why is it so compelling? Well, here’s the back story.
Moulty, who is actually Victor Moulton (yeah, “Moulty” would be more of a rock thing than Victor, right?) was the drummer for the Barbarians, a band from New England that was the typical sounding ‘garage’ band for the time. They played a lot of cover versions of popular songs, and just went out and had a good time thrashing out songs.
They were a little radical in that they grew their hair longer than the Beatles, and wore sandals instead of “Beatle” boots.
Oh, and one teeny other thing.
Moulty had a hook for a left hand.
Yes, long before Def Leppard, there was a drummer with just one hand. However, unlike Rick Allen, Moulty actually USED his hook to hold a drumstick and play the drums.
He lost his hand building a pipe-bomb as a teenager, but persevered and learned to play the drums.
During the throes of the British invasion, when record companies were trying to find the American version of the Beatles, the Barbarians were signed even though they had only been together less than a year.
They released a single that rather much bombed, but were put on the lineup for the “T. A. M. I. Show” anyway. That film is one of the seminal moments of rock and roll history, and it’s unfortunate that it’s rarely seen because of the rights issues involved.
Who else was on the “T. A. M. I. Show” along with the Barbarians?
The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, James Brown, Marvin Gaye. You know, unknowns! (Heh…)
With that momentum, the Barbarians released “Are You A Boy, Or Are You A Girl”, which was a fabulous single. It was a little bit ragged, sure, but it was a fun song, very Beatles influenced and has a memorable hook. Moulty does a fine job on the drums as well.
Some say it’s a punk rock single, because it’s kind of a sneer and has an attitude, but listening closely it’s just a product of the time, when bands were trying to be the Beatles or the Stones using the equipment they had and what they did on stage.
Because of the nature of the charts then, the song was a big hit in some markets and unknown in others. It hit #55 on the Billboard chart, and they got to release an album and put out a couple more singles.
They had enough buzz that there soon was another band, the Cryan’ Shames, that had a percussionist that had also had a hook for a hand (though he just played the tambourine, danced and sang, sort of like that one dude with the Happy Mondays). They released a few singles and hit it somewhat big with “Sugar And Spice”.
During the sessions for the album, the producer of the band had an idea for a song in tribute to the one-armed drummer. The rest of the band went back to Boston, but Moulty stayed behind with the producer.
A recording session was set, and the band that came in were members of Bob Dylan’s backing band, The Hawks. As you may now, The Hawks morphed into The Band a few short years later.
The song is simple. It’s starts off with a plaintive wail of a harmonica, and the Moulty appears in his VERY New England accent, and tells his life story. If you listen closely, you can really tell that Garth Hudson is on the organ – he’s got that sound, you know.
First, he remembers the days when things were bad, and he was going to give up his hopes and dreams.
Something inside told him to keep going on and on, though, despite his troubles. The band then kicks into overdrive, and the backing vocalists shout “Don’t Turn Away!”
Then Moulty tells how he found he loved music, and formed a band that’s ‘starting to make it’, and then encourages others who feel ‘different or strange’ to keep going on, because he’s lived through it all. “Don’t Turn Away!”
But then he says he wants just one thing in life. He ‘don’t want no pity’, but what he wants is a ‘girl’ – a ‘real girl’ (unlike a blow up doll, I suppose – right Moose??) and then he’d be the complete man, so listen to him now – “Don’t Turn Away!”
And that’s it.
The combination of the life story of Moulty, which is poignant and touching, yet almost overdoes the pathos, with the sad harmonica, and the manic refrain of “Don’t Turn Away” makes this record at once ridiculous but at the same time compelling.
Listen to it once, and your eyes may roll, but for some reason you are drawn into it. You are rooting for Moulty not to turn away, but to keep going on, yeah, on.
So the song was cut, and the producer and the record company agreed not to release the single unless Moulty agreed to it. Moulty, who recorded it as a lark, decided he didn’t want it released, so it wasn’t put on the album.
However, the record company thought they could cash in, so they put the single out there after another single stiff.
The band was furious, though it became a minor hit (it hit the low 90’s in the national chart and again was regionally popular in certain areas) and they had to learn it to put it in their stage show.
The rumor is that Moulty himself went to New York, barged in on the president of the record company, and started to break copies of the single over the dude’s head. Now I don’t think that’s true, but it is a hell of a rock and roll thing to do, eh?
Whatever the reason, after “Moulty”, the record company dropped them, and the band split up, with the other members of the Barbarians moving west to form a primordial metal band called “Black Pearl” that Lester Bangs loved and I have never, ever heard.
Going back to the song, though, it is a tad bit ridiculous that it was released as a single, AND that it hit a national chart. It’s not exactly a toe-tapper, and while the message may be inspirational, it is also almost too sappy for words. You could not even come close to releasing that now and scoring a major hit (though some novelty songs still sneak through now and then…)
Yet, for people like me, it’s those exact reasons that it is a song that will live forever in our hearts and minds.
Because, listen to me now, because I’m here to tell you…DON’T TURN AWAY!