The long, sad death of the Troggs' "Wild Thing," a great rock 'n' roll song
Charlie Sheen lived "Wild Thing" after Major League.
No surprise that the first thing mentioned in each obituary for Reg Presley, the Troggs' lead singer who passed away on Monday, is "Wild Thing." Presley didn't write the song, but he popularized it and with the Troggs recorded it several times. Over 35 years "Wild Thing" transition from a rock and roll standard into a template for novelty music, coinciding with the long, sad decline of rock 'n' roll.
"Wild Thing" was written in 1965 by Chip Taylor, a failed professional golfer and little brother to actor Jon Voight. He had nothing to do with his song's successful breaks -- he had written "Angel of the Morning" for Connie Francis but she turned it down, and his production of the song (sung by Evie Sands) was hardly released and hardly sold. It wasn't until Merilee Rush and the Turnabouts covered it that "Angel of the Morning" became a hit, and the same was true for "Wild Thing," first recorded by the Wild Ones in 1965.
With it's "Real Wild Child" roots, slow rockabilly vamp and "Shake it" demands, "Wild Thing" was a subtle tribute to Buddy Holly's seminal rock 'n' roll. Lead singer Jordan Christopher struts the line between blues and garage rock in his sultry performance.
The Troggs' captivating cover of "Wild Thing" topped the charts in the US in 1966 (it only reached #2 in their native UK). The song is reframed around a driving power chord, played in a subtly flat A major that has confounded generations of teenagers with Stratocasters. Presley's performance is confident and removed, lacking Christopher's breathy sexuality but presaging punk rock by a decade. Early champions of the single include Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop, and the record was rightfully ranked in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
Two separate labels, Atco and Fontana, claimed ownership of the master for the Troggs' "Wild Thing" and it was simultaneously released by both. It is the only single to top the Billboard charts on two labels. The Atco release flipped the songwriter credits and Presley was credited for "Wild Thing," not his own composition on the B-side, "With a Girl Like You." Few hit singles of the '60s capture the ad hoc, disposable nature of 45s as well as "Wild Thing."
Jimi Hendrix, adopted by England, adopted "Wild Thing" in 1967 and performed it at the end of his legendary set at the Monterey Pop Festival, introducing the song as "the English and American combined anthem." For about five minutes on June 18, 1967 "Wild Thing" was the greatest rock and roll song ever written as Hendrix combined the sensuality of Christopher's performance with the Troggs' driving power, rolling on the floor and humping an enormous amplifier. At the end of his performance Hendrix lays the guitar on the stage, kisses it, and sets it afire.
And there begins the long, sad decline of "Wild Thing." The first stop on the way down was a #20 hit by Senator Bobby, a novelty record that mimicked the distinctive Massachusetts drawl of Robert F. Kennedy. During the track a studio engineer is heard encouraging "the Senator" to take a "liberal interpretation" and watch his pronunciation.
Fancy hit the charts with a cover in 1974 but "Wild Thing" remained a novelty record throughout the 70s, reaching its goofy peak with a madcap performance by Animal on the Muppet Show.
Hollywood claimed "Wild Thing" in the '80s, when it was featured in the disastrous Jeff Daniels/Melanie Griffith comedy Something Wild, and played a central role in the baseball comedy Major League. Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Mitch Williams capitalized on the fictional Ricky Vaughn's popularity by taking the song as his theme during the 1993 World Series.
At the height of the MTV era comedian Sam Kinison led a star-studded version of the song in 1988, featuring Slash, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and Billy Idol (among others). The song lent itself to a classic Kinison rant of misogyny and angst. Around the same time Tone Loc added to the song's implicit innuendo with his cover and "Weird" Al Yankovic mocked it with his Gilligan's Island parody "Isle Thing."
And in 1990 this great rock 'n' roll song died in front of a live studio audience on the TV sitcom Full House when Uncle Jesse performed it with a pre-teen marching band.
Reg Presley published a book, Wild Things They Don't Tell Us, in 2002 which chronicled his research into the unknown. His last performance with the Troggs, in December 2011, included the song. "Wild Thing" remains one of the first chord progressions every guitar student learns, even if the song became a novelty somewhere after the Troggs' 1966 single first hit turntables.
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