Tommy James and The Shondells: I Think We’re Alone Now

Rock singles-band transitions to studio pop

Tommy James and The Shondells kicked around their Michigan stomping grounds for several years before finding regional success in 1963 with a cover of Barry & Greenwich’s “Hanky Panky.” By the time the single was rediscovered two years later by a Pittsburgh radio station, the original Shondells had gone their separate ways. James recruited a band to be the new Shondells, and in 1966 toured behind the single, cut a deal with Roulette Records and turned their flop into a chart-topping hit. Line-up changes ensued and the band hooked up with songwriter Richie Cordell who gave them the hit title track of this 1967 release, their third studio album.

Cordell wrote or co-wrote (often with an uncredited Bo Gentry) ten of this album’s dozen songs, filling out the track list with covers of the Riviera’s “California Sun” and the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Like the title tune, Cordell’s songs tended to pop melodies and adolescent professions of love, creating strong appeal for teens and pre-teens. Cordell later contributed more explicitly to the bubblegum genre with songs for Crazy Elephant and the 1910 Fruitgum Company, but the seeds were sewn here as he helped Tommy James and The Shondells’ transition from garage-styled frat-rockers to studio-produced pop. The album’s second hit, “Mirage,” borrows most of the hooks from “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and they were fetching enough to merit a second visit to the Top 10.

The album’s songs stood in contrast to the psychedelic works of 1967 (Sgt. Pepper’s, Are You Experienced?, Surrealistic Pillow, et al.), but unlike the group’s previous albums, which consisted mostly of material drawn from the label’s publishing catalog, these titles were fresh. Better yet, the band and their arranger, Jimmy “Wiz” Wisner, added some great instrumental touches. Wisner’s strings and horns lift “Trust Each Other in Love” beyond its bubblegum roots, and the ‘50s-styled ballad “What I’d Give to See Your Face Again” is given a terrific twist by the country piano and fuzz-guitar break. There’s a Stax-styled rhythm guitar on “Baby Let Me Down,” and the harmony vocals of “I Like the Way” are topped with a perfect horn-line.

The sound quality of these tracks varies, with most in stereo that suggests 3-track recording (instruments panned left and right and vocals in the middle), despite the 4-track studio. Tracks 1 and 11 are mono, with the latter subtly shifted to one side, moving sloppily towards the center at the 24-second mark, and popping fully into the center at the 35-second mark. The original mono single mixes of “Mirage” and “I Like the Way” can be found on the collection 40 Years: The Complete Singles (1966-2006). For most listeners, the singles collection, or hit anthologies Anthology or The Definitive Pop Collection are better places to start; but starting with this album, the band and its writers and producers had something more to say than would fit on the singles charts.

Collectors’ Choice’s straight-up 12-track reissue clocks in at under 30-minutes, leaving one to wish they’d doubled-up with a second album (or add bonus tracks), as they did for recent reissues of Jackie DeShannon, Waylon Jennings, B.J. Thomas and others. This is one of four albums (also including Gettin’ Together, Travelin’ and James’ third solo release, My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar) billed as an initial offering from the entire Shondells and Thomas solo catalogs. The six-page booklet includes full-panel reproductions of the album’s front and back covers, and newly struck liner notes by Ed Osborne that add fresh interview material from James himself. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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