Let’s warm up by ascertaining the worst single track in The Beatles’ canon, discarding the weird, experimental stuff because that would be too easy. What we want is something more traditional. And that on which we agree, after only a moment’s deliberation, is George’s irredeemably ghastly ‘Blue Jay Way,” from Magical Mystery Tour. It doesn’t rock. It doesn’t swing. It doesn’t lilt. It groans, and who can blame it, given that its composer whines it through his adenoids. What was it Nik Cohn said about George’s songs having come at this point to be cheap sonic souvenirs from the Taj Mahal? Guilty as charged! We endured “Within You, Without You” because it felt as though we might learn something. (As indeed we did: we’re all one!) Here we learn that George is annoyed with unspecified acquaintances being late to a rendezvous, and keeping him up past his bedtime. It just doesn’t get worse than this!
But it wasn’t released as a single, and thus is ineligible for consideration as The Worst Single of the Rock Era. We immediately rule out horrid novelty records like “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha” because we do not shoot fishes in barrels around here. We are better than that. We consider only bona fide attempts to make engaging music by genuine recording artists.
Immediately we think of Paul Anka’s smarmy, excruciatingly smug “You’re Having My Baby,” and, from the same era, the unspeakable — musically puerile, lyrically truculent — “Sweet Home Alabama.” Boo, boo, boo, indeed! Stuck in a mid-70s, uh, mindset, we think of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” the most insipid pop single of the last 700 years, one that makes the celebrated violinist Eleanor Roth Atherton cringe in revulsion, as it does me. We don’t include Elton’s “Candle in the Wind,” though it’s built on the most inane lyrical conceit in the history of popular music (look at the title!), because the melody’s attractive.
That on which we of course alight, breathing through our mouths, is Eric Burdon & The Animals’ monumentally awful “San Franciscan Nights,” from 1967. Musically, it doesn’t rock, doesn’t swing, and doesn’t lit, but instead sort of…tinkles anemically. It is (very) vaguely baroque, I suppose. Fresh from doing very effective, sometimes even thrilling (as in “House of the Rising Sun”) Joe Turner impressions with an earlier version of The Animals, Eric had by this time divined that his true calling was as a holy fool, and had ceased to be content to sing about out sex and privation. Now he was The Great Commentator, and, of course, a poet, as witness: “Cop’s face/ full of hate/ heavens above/ he’s on a street called Love.” A witty reference to San Francisco’s Haight Street, you see!
Eric wasn’t just observing, though, but teaching. “Look, young people of America, [and other countries in which my record is likely to be released], those who you were taught to believe are in the business of serving and protecting you might not be what they appear, whereas those we’ve been taught to abhor might deserve reconsideration.” Witness the verse in which Eric sings admiringly of his fellow rebels, the Hell’s Angels. “Old Angel? Young Angel? Feel all right!” See you at Altamont, you beautiful people.
Insipid music. Inane lyrics. And, most importantly, flagrant grandiosity. I submit that no other record in our lifetimes surpasses “San Franciscan Nights” in terms of all-fronts awfulness.
[A note about the title. Tell 1000 Brits that “San Franciscan” (like Californian) is a noun, and not an adjective, and do you know how many will act on that knowledge? None! They used to have an empire on which the sun never set, and are not going to let the likes of you push them around! On the other hand, pronounce either Leicester or Gloucester, on your first try, as having three syllables, and they are guaranteed to die laughing. Oh, you stupid, stupid, irony-challenged Yank rube, you! Conversely, assure them that Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, has four syllables, and they will as surely keep leaving off the last one as breathing. Brits!]