Monterey Pop, one of the earliest rock festivals, launched 45 years ago in 1967 during the “Summer of Love.”
Two years before Woodstock, 50,000 people gathered at California’s Monterey County Fairgrounds for 3 days of music by headliners like the Who, Jefferson Airplane and Otis Redding. But the most electrifying set came from Jimi Hendrix, who was introduced by Brian Jones as “the most exciting guitar player I’ve ever heard.”
Hendrix ended his set with a virtuoso cover of Wild Thing, the #1 hit by British Invasion group the Troggs. It was classic Hendrix, as he alternately played his guitar with his teeth or behind his back. To close, Hendrix knelt before his guitar, drenched it with lighter fluid and set it ablaze. The sacrifice complete, Hendrix repeatedly smashed the guitar against the stage and threw what remained into the crowd.
Though the song was later covered by Bruce Springsteen, the definitive version ofWild Thing will always be the raw, visceral hit by the Troggs, four working class Brits from Andover who formed in 1964.
But the Troggs’ classic was itself a cover; the song was born in the USA, first recorded by the Wild Ones, the house band at New York City discotheque Arthur. Rock Cellar Magazine recently spoke with Pete Staples, original member and bass player of the Troggs, Larry Page, who produced the Troggs’ hit; and Chip Taylor, who wrote Wild Thing.
Taylor was then a young songwriter who’d had success in the early 1960s penning country tunes like He Sits at My Table for Willie Nelson. The brother of actor Jon Voight, Taylor was by 1965 a staff writer at April-Blackwood Music, the publishing arm of CBS who had started writing a few rock tunes.
Chip Taylor. He wrote “Wild Thing.”
Chip Taylor: I got a call from Gerry Granahan, who was a good writer himself and was producing a group, Jordan Christopher and the Wild Ones. He said, “Chip, you don’t know me, my name is Gerry Granahan, I heard you’ve been writing some really cool rock and roll songs. Do you have something for me? I need something by tomorrow. There’s a group recording and I’m not all that happy with the songs I have. I’d like to get something to have a shot at something new and fresh. You have anything in mind?”
I started just chuggin’ away on a couple of chords and within a couple of minutes of getting off the phone I had the chorus and I was kind of likin’ it. I didn’t really know what I was going to say in between but I was thinking there was something cool and sweaty about this.
So I went to the studio. Ron Johnson was a wonderful engineer and that studio, Dick Charles Studios, had a cool little sound to it.
Because it was a sexual-kind-of-feeling song, I didn’t want to be embarrassed, I wanted to let myself sing it, so I asked Ron to turn the lights out when I got there and have my stool ready and have my microphone ready and when I got there, I said, “Put the tape in record and just let it go and let me just keep playin.’ — Chip Taylor
And then I stomped on a board, just to give a cool little edge to it and I banged on a tambourine and then Ron was foolin’ around. As the track was playing back, he was doing this little thing with his hands, like when you put a blade of grass in there and you get a whistling sound? Only he was able to it without the blade of grass in it. It sounded cool.
[Taylor hummed the notes to an instrumental break for Johnson to whistle in the studio while Taylor took over the controls. Johnson’s whistle became the finishing touch to Taylor’s Wild Thing.]
CT: I listened back and I thought it sounded great. I was a little afraid to play it for people because it was so different than anything I’d done before; it wasn’t one of those pretty little country songs. And it was very sexy.
[The next day the demo of Wild Thing was sent to Granahan and recorded by the Wild Ones. With a track that featured acoustic and electric guitars, harmonica, tambourine and a snarly vocal by guitarist Chuck Alden, the Wild Ones’ single had none of the raw feel of Taylor’s demo and died a quick death. It took a fortuitous visit to April-Blackwood to give Taylor’s song another chance.
Larry Page said that after ATCO Records turned down a demo of Wild Thing, Fontana Records released the song in the US. When it hit, ATCO released an identical version of Wild Thing, claiming it had a verbal agreement with Page. Because the recordings were identical, their sales were combined by Billboard; thus Wild Thing became the only single to top the charts for 2 companies. Perhaps as a result of its hurried release, the ATCO label lists Reg Presley as the writer of Wild Thing; it was later corrected.
Larry Page had been a successful teen pop star in Britain who toured with Cliff Richard and appeared at the Royal Albert Hall. The early 1960s found Page managing the Kinks; by 1965, he led the Larry Page Orchestra and was in the States scouting for new material. At April-Blackwood, Page met with Chip Taylor and manager Dave Rosner; Taylor’s demo was one of a few songs Rosner played for Page, who thought the song would be a good fit for a new group Page had agreed to produce: the Troggs – lead singer Reg Presley, guitarist Chris Britton, drummer Ronnie Bond and Pete Staples on bass.]
April-Blackwood’s Dave Rosner, producer Larry Page & Chip Taylor. (photo courtesy Chip Taylor)
Larry Page: I came back with a couple of Lovin’ Spoonful tracks and things like that, butWild Thing to me, I loved the simplicity of it and Reg’s voice worked on it. I could hear it, I could hear his speaking voice doing that song.
Pete Staples: He gave us Wild Thing and said, “Go away and rehearse that.” It was only 3 chords, so it didn’t take long rehearsing. He said, “I’ve got a recording session coming up with my orchestra. If there’s any time left over, you can come in and bash this one off and see what it sounds like.” So we drove up to London, we waited outside the studio, and then somebody came out and said, “Right, come and get your gear in and set it all up and just see what we can get with this Wild Thing number.”
Rock Cellar Magazine: Tell us about the recording session.
LP: They weren’t great musicians, the Troggs. So I knew that if we went more than two or three takes, we’d lose the magic. And for me, so many hits were lost because the magic was always in the first or second take. The Troggs didn’t go in the studio unrehearsed. Wild Thingwas rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed before we got in there.
RCM: Did Reg sing while you were playing or did you overdub?
PS: We always used to play with Reg singing, that’s the only way we could do it. We all had the cans on playing so we could hear what he was singing. It was quite a quick recording, really.
Pete Staples of The Troggs.
RCM: What was behind Reg’s vocal? Was that his regular singing style or did he change it for Wild Thing?
PS: I think because there was no melody there you have to put a certain amount of feeling and aggression into it. I only played 3 notes in there, A, D and E, but I had to play it with so much feeling, otherwise it would sound sloppy. It was the same with Reg, there was no way that he could have just sang it like a lullaby, he had to sort of put a bit of sex in there. Chris, when he played the guitar on Wild Thing, he really hit the strings just so he can get some feeling in it. Ronnie really, really bashed the drums.
LP: Ronnie was not the greatest drummer in the world, but he could get a sound out of those drums that no other drummer could get! I used to say to him, “The sound is shit, Ronnie, it sounds as though you’re hittin’ fuckin’ dustbins.” And he would go back in the studio and he would be hittin’ those drums like it was my head. And I knew it. But that’s how I got the magic out of him.
Larry Page; producer of “Wild Thing”
[Wild Thing was made complete when Page asked his musical director, Colin Frechter, to duplicate the whistling riff of Taylor’s demo by playing an ocarina. The flute-like wind instrument was perfect for the solo, which would later be played in concert by Reg Presley.]
LP: I personally then walked around the BBC and everybody hated it. Everybody in the BBC hated Wild Thing.
And I was walking up Bond St. in London and I met a gentleman called Brian Willey, who was an ex-BBC producer. And he said, “How are you?” and I said, “I’m actually pissed off because I’ve got a hit record and everybody hates it. – Larry Page; producer
LP: So he said, “Well, I don’t know whether you know but so-and-so is away on holiday this week and I’m doing his program on Saturday. Would you like me to put it in?” And he put it in a program called Saturday Club. And that was it, it just took off. Now without bumping into him, Wild Thing might still be in the archives.
RCM: What did you think of the Hendrix version?
CT: It was wonderful. The Hendrix version is very similar to the Troggs’ because Jimi loved the Troggs’ version. That’s the reason he recorded it. If you hear the demo, you hear the Troggs and you hear Hendrix. Hendrix’s version has the same sweaty feel except that he slowed it down.
PS: He was a very, very fine guitarist, a real, real showman but I don’t think he improved on our version because it was so simple. We did such a simple version of it that I don’t think it’s a song that you can do a terrible lot more with.
[Punk pioneers Iggy Pop, the Ramones and the Buzzcocks have credited Wild Thing as a “formative influence” on their music. The 1989 baseball film Major League and its 1994 sequel featured a version by LA punk band X that was used as the walk-on song for pitcher Rick Vaughn (Charlie Sheen).]
RCM: The first punk rock record. What do you think of that connotation?
CT: Sounds like it to me. The way I was doing my rock and roll stuff and Wild Thing, that was all in the same kind of honest energy that would come with the Velvet Underground and Joan Jett and all those people. The demo of Wild Thing is very garage-sounding, very punk-sounding. And the recording of it is very garage-sounding and probably the first record that was done like that.
LP: Yeah, I agree. I know Jack White and REM are big fans of the Troggs.
RCM: What was the secret to Wild Thing’s success?
LP: Intros to me are always very special and we had a great intro, very, very simple lyric and all the little kids were playing it on their guitars. And now, if you go into any karaoke bar, everyone can sing it (laughs).
PS: I think it was just so new, I think everybody was trying all these different things and we came along with something so simple that I think it just appealed to people.
CT: Wild Thing is a therapeutic song. It lets you relax. And I think that’s the secret to it. It’s simple and it feels good. It’s sweaty. Sweaty things are good (laughs).
[Chip Taylor, who went on to write hits like Try (Just a Little Bit Harder) and Angel of the Morning, has continued to record and perform chart-topping Americana music. The latest album by Chip Taylor and the New Ukrainians, Fuck All The Perfect People, as well as a safe for work version, Screw All The Perfect People, is available from Train Wreck Records, or at the Rock Cellar Magazine record store HERE.
For a look back at the career of the Troggs, including vintage personal photos from their tours, check out Pete Staples’ site by clicking here.
To learn more about Larry Page’s work with both the Troggs and the Kinks, click here to visit his site.