Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider The Loco-Motion, one of the great ‘dance craze’ songs from the 60s. We will review the original version by Little Eva, and covers of that song by Grand Funk Railroad and Kylie Minogue.
Little Eva and The Loco-Motion:
Writing this blog is a lot of fun, and I enjoy learning more about the world of rock music and my favorite artists. However, it is always disconcerting whenever I find that a favorite story about rock music is just an urban legend. That’s certainly the case with Little Eva.
Little Eva had one smash hit, The Loco-Motion. It was written by the great husband-wife song-writing team Gerry Goffin and Carole King, shown in a photo above that appears to be from the early 60s. The story I had heard was “Goffin and King were so great at writing pop songs that they had their baby-sitter record one of their songs, and it went to #1!”
That statement turns out to be partly true. Eva Boyd, aka Little Eva, was indeed a nanny for Goffin and King. However, Gerry and Carole knew that Boyd was a singer, so when Dee Dee Sharp turned down their offer that she record their new dance song The Loco-Motion, Goffin and King subsequently asked Little Eva to record it.
Here is an August 1963 publicity photo for The Loco-Motion, showing Eva Boyd with Dimension Records producers Don Kirschner and Al Nevins at L, and song-writers Gerry Goffin and Carole King at R.
Indeed, The Loco-Motion was a gigantic hit, eventually reaching #1 on the Billboard pop charts. As usual, Goffin’s lyrics manage to encapsulate the essence of the song in plain language with maximum efficiency. The song describes a dance that is easy to master:
Everybody’s doing a brand-new dance, now
(Come on baby, do the Loco-motion)
I know you’ll get to like it if you give it a chance now
(Come on baby, do the Loco-motion)
My little baby sister can do it with me
It’s easier than learning your A-B-C’s
So come on, come on, do the Loco-motion with me
You gotta swing your hips, now
Here is the only known video of Little Eva performing her great song. It is from an episode of the pop music TV show Shindig from March 3, 1965. The clip lasts just over a minute.
It is interesting to note that when the song was written, there was no dance to accompany it, so Little Eva and others made up a dance to go with the song. You can work out the mechanics of the dance by observing the backup singers and the Shindig dancers who appear in profile at the back of the stage. Apparently the dance consists mainly of rocking back and forth, moving your arms forward and back while thrusting your pelvis backward and forward, opposite to the direction of your arms. By the way, the otherwise competent Shindig dancers seem dangerously out of synch on this piece!
Since we got such a short snippet of the song from Shindig, here is the audio of the entire song from Spotify.
The song has since been covered by dozens of artists. Another myth I had heard was that Little Eva was paid only $50 for performing this song. My research suggests that this was actually Boyd’s weekly salary as a nanny. However, regardless of how much money Eva Boyd was paid for this record, she did not fare well in her music career.
Unfortunately, Little Eva’s success with The Loco-Motion type-cast her as a “dance song” artist. She had one more hit that I know of, the song “Let’s Turkey Trot” which was also written by Goffin and King. I have to say that this is the weakest Goffin-King song I’ve ever heard – the music is surprisingly dull (in fact, the tune is remarkably similar to a song called Little Girl of Mine), and the lyrics are positively embarrassing.
Little Eva was out of the music business by 1971, when she moved to South Carolina with her three children. By that time she had essentially no money left from her recording career, and she lived in poverty and subsisted on welfare until 1988, when Kylie Minogue’s cover of The Loco-Motion made it into the top 10 pop list. At that time Eva Boyd returned to singing and had some success performing at oldies concerts.
Eva Boyd was diagnosed with cervical cancer in fall 2001 and died in spring 2003. After a public campaign to acknowledge her achievements, in fall 2008 she was provided with a
new grey gravestone [that] has the image of a steam locomotive prominently engraved on the front and the epitaph reads: “Singing with the Angels”.
Grand Funk Railroad and The Loco-Motion:
Grand Funk Railroad is an American power-pop trio. They first appeared on the scene shortly after the Beatles had broken up. Guiarist Mark Farner and drummer Don Brewer from the band Terry Knight and the Pack teamed up with bassist Mel Schacher from Question Mark and the Mysterians. The aforementioned Terry Knight became the group’s manager. Below is a photo of Grand Funk Railroad in action. From L: Mel Schacher, Mark Farner, Don Brewer.
The name of the group was very witty – it was named after Michigan’s Grand Trunk Western Railroad. The group was modeled after Cream, the original hard-rocking power trio. However, Grand Funk offered nothing like the blazing, dazzling blues-rock guitar licks of Eric Clapton, the blistering bass lines of Jack Bruce, nor the creative, jazz-inspired drumming of Ginger Baker.
No, Grand Funk was more like a really great garage band, producing pulsating, straight-ahead power rock with few frills. As a result, the critics treated Grand Funk fairly harshly. One British critic (I haven’t been able to find his name) said that
‘All three are pretty bad, but outstanding in his awfulness is Brewer, whose drumming is so pedestrian it’s laughable… the riffs they play are simple in the extreme, verging on the monotonous. Vocals are flat, but usually mercifully short introductions to dire lead guitar solos.’
Hey man, don’t be coy and sugar-coat your review, tell us what you really think!
Grand Funk Railroad first gained public attention for their appearance at the 1969 Atlanta Pop Festival. That concert, which took place just a month before Woodstock, featured twenty different acts, including Booker T and the MGs, Janis Joplin, CCR, Joe Cocker and Canned Heat. The unknown Grand Funk appeared first on the bill, but apparently their act was extremely popular.
Following the appearance in Atlanta, Grand Funk Railroad became a hot ticket, and soon began headlining shows. One of the things that apparently drove the critics wild was that, despite their negative reviews, Grand Funk consistently sold out huge arenas – and once the Beatles performed at Shea Stadium, the 70s became the days of tours sited in gigantic venues. In fact, GFR reportedly broke the Beatles’ record for speed in selling out Shea Stadium.
Part of the success of Grand Funk was due to Terry Knight’s over-the-top, aggressive style in promoting the group. He seemed to enjoy needling the group’s critics, while trumpeting the band’s popularity.
I am a bit wary of some of the claims on GFR’s Wikipedia site. For example, did Grand Funk Railroad really sell more albums than anyone else in the 70s? It’s certainly true that they sold a ton of albums. I always thought their sixth album E Pluribus Funk had one of the coolest album titles ever. They produced a string of solid hits, that remain staples on classic-rock radio stations. And they were widely copied by other heavy-metal acts in the 70s and 80s.
So, here is Grand Funk Railroad performing The Loco-Motion live, accompanied by members from the group Wet Willie, at a concert in Los Angeles in June, 1974.
Well, this is definitely the 70s! To paraphrase Little Red Riding Hood — what big hair you have, Grandma. And those costumes! Mark Farner is shirtless, while Mel Schacher has on a yellow jumpsuit. In addition, Farner is wearing what appears to be a Speedo over shiny vinyl pants, topped off with a pair of garish orange fringed boots.
But forget about their looks, GFR are simply a terrific and enjoyable garage band. They manage to convert a bouncy 60s dance tune to a 70s power-rock anthem. Plus the railroad theme is kind of cool — Grand Funk Railroad producing a cover of The Loco-Motion!
Now let’s listen to the audio of Grand Funk’s version of The Loco-Motion. This was produced by the musical genius Todd Rundgren. Listen carefully during the guitar solo – it appears that there is a bubble machine going crazy in the background.
Pretty neat, huh? A few years ago, my colleagues Glenn Gass and Bernice Pescosolido created a class that featured the music of Todd Rundgren. We were able to get Todd to visit Indiana University for two weeks and serve as a guest lecturer for that class. What a treat!
Rundgren is an incredibly versatile performer and a pivotal figure in the world of rock and roll. He was an extraordinary producer, and he has also been in the forefront of several technological innovations in the music business.
I have no doubt that a significant part of Grand Funk’s lasting success is due to their association with Rundgren. For example, Todd produced both of GFR’s best-selling albums. He was producer on the group’s 1973 album We’re An American Band, whose title cut hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts. In addition he also produced the 1974 Shinin’ On album, which contained The Loco-Motion that also hit #1.
The years 1973-74 marked a real turnaround for Grand Funk Railroad, which had hit a major stretch of bad track in early 1972. At this time the band members began to question Terry Knight’s managerial style. In addition, they became convinced that Knight was also cooking the books and short-sheeting the revenue owed to the band.
This resulted in a bitter series of legal claims and counter-claims. You can watch an episode of VH1’s Behind The Music to see that both parties remain angry about the breakup – and both sides stick to completely incompatible stories regarding the situation.
Grand Funk Railroad broke up in 1976, and the members pursued their separate interests. Mark Farner became a born-again Christian and wrote a book, From Grand Funk to Grace. For several years now, Don Brewer has been a drummer with Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band.
In 1996 Grand Funk reunited and began to tour again; however, Farner left in 1998. Brewer and Schacher subsequently assembled a group of musicians that currently tours as Grand Funk Railroad.
Kylie Minogue and The Loco-Motion:
Kylie Minogue is an Australian actress and singer. She is a fascinating example of a person who can be considered one of the top celebrities or personalities in a few countries, while failing to gain much traction in other parts of the world.
Minogue became famous in Australia in the late 1980s, when she played a tomboy garage mechanic in the Australian soap Neighbours. The program became Australia’s top-rated TV program, and millions of people followed the twists and turns of her TV love life.
Here is a photo of a perky Kylie Minogue taken in 1989.
Following her rapid rise to fame in Oz, Kylie began recording songs. She issued an album of dance-pop tunes in 1987, which went to #1 in Australia. A single from that album, a cover of The Loco-Motion, went up to #3 on the Billboard pop charts one year later. She hit the US charts one more time with the dance song Can’t Get You Out of My Head. According to her Wikipedia bio,
In January 2012, NME had listed the song at number 4 on their Greatest Pop Songs in History.
That statement is more than a bit suspicious, since NME published a list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2014, and Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head was nowhere on that list!
In any case, in Australia and the UK, Kylie Minogue’s albums frequently hit #1 on their charts, while they bombed in the US. To give an example of her popularity, Australia’s Who Magazine listed Kylie among “The 30 Most Beautiful People in the World.” And the British public-service TV Channel 4
listed [Kylie Minogue] as one of the world’s greatest pop stars.
On the other hand, she does not make the list in Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Artists of All Time.
Let’s face it: not everyone appreciates Kylie Minogue’s talent. Some critics are decidedly uncharitable about her singing: a review of one of her albums by Chris True in AllMusic stated that
“her cuteness makes these rather vapid tracks bearable”.
The same goes for her acting. After Kylie appeared with Jean-Claude Van Damme in the film Street Fighter, reviewer Richard Harrington in the Washington Post called Minogue
“the worst actress in the English-speaking world”.
Anyway, here is Kylie Minogue performing her cover of The Loco-Motion, I believe this is at the Australian Bicentennial Concert in 1988.
So, was this live or lip-synched? It’s hard for me to believe this performance was live. OK, what do you think of the song? My personal reaction is that it would be fine to hear this at a dance club – the beat is persistent and easy to dance to. And it is pretty amazing that a single song can go right to the top of the Billboard charts with three dissimilar versions, in three different decades (The Loco-Motion hit #1 in the 60s and 70s, and #3 in the 80s).
On the other hand, the fact that Kylie Minogue made it to #3 on the US Billboard charts seems to be a reflection of the dismal state of pop music in 1988. Apparently all you needed was to grab a synthesizer, turn on a drum machine, assemble a capable group of backup singers, and you could get yourself a pop hit. I would rate Kylie Minogue’s treatment about 90 for danceability, but close to zero for creativity.
I visit Australia fairly frequently, and it is still common to see Kylie on the cover of Aussie pop-culture magazines. The same is true in Britain, where she is a major celebrity. Funny that she is still more or less unknown in the US (had you heard of Kylie Minogue before?).
Since we have been fairly critical of Ms. Minogue in this post, let’s finish by recognizing some admirable ways that she has used her celebrity status. A breast-cancer survivor, Kylie Minogue has played a major role in educating women about breast cancer diagnosis and treatment in Australia and the UK. Also, she is reportedly very generous in volunteer efforts and fund-raising for various charities. So, good on you, Kylie.
Wikipedia, The Loco-Motion
Wikipedia, Gerry Goffin
Wikipedia, Carole King
Wikipedia, Little Eva
Wikipedia, Grand Funk Railroad
Wikipedia, Kylie Minogue
Teenage Tutelage blog, 8/29/07 Grand Funk Railroad