|"Just this hit, not one fuckin' more." (True story.)|
When I started this series with Bobby Day, it felt like I was really on to something. Day, as it happened, had enjoyed a long, storied career, and on top of floating two-three bona fide hits into the pop culture ether. Bob & Earl, The Hollywood Flames, shows at the Apollo Theater, all the way across the country from his Los Angeles base of ops.
It’s the opposite with The Monotones. The one hit they had - “The Book of Love” - was massive. Possessed with the cultural stickiness of, say, Soft Cell's “Tainted Love,” The Monotones’ takes people back to their youth, almost physically with the way they tell it. And it sounds all kinds of 50s, of course, the clean, signature-swing back-beat of doo-woop, nice tempo, nice, polite vocals: it’s a step away from radio standards, but not a huge one, not yet. “Novelty” was a word that I kept coming across when reading up on the band, and that fits “The Book of Love.” It riffs off a conceit about books; one chapter of a book in one couplet, another chapter in the next. (Then again, when have I never shit on Elvis Costello’s “Every Day I Write the Book”?)
My point is, it’s the song of a generation by way of nostalgia, not content. The earth moved under no one’s feet, and not a single mind got blown by The Monotones 2:18 of pop confetti. It’s a fun tune, though, an easy sing-along (that’s four parts to vibe with, minimum), and with good, clean lyrics that absolutely no one but a moral maniac could object to.
And that’s where the (mild) tragedy kicks in (c’mon, they had their 15). All the half-dozen sites I found on The Monotones hit the same anecdotes: the story of how Charles Patrick came up with the song (toothpaste commercial), the brick coming through the window at the recording session, called back forever more with the bass-drum kick before “who wrote the book of love” of the opening. Those stories get less interesting each and every time you read it, and that’s the kicker: the “happy” for this band ends, more or less, with “The Book of Love.”
Before dragging through the dirt, it’s worth taking a detour into how they arrived. A famous church choir (wait for it) and a housing project threw together the seven members of The Monotones: Patrick, Warren Davis, George Malone, Frankie Smith, John Ryanes, and Warren Ryanes. The Housing Project was Baxter Terrace, which mattered more to those seven young men than it does to history, but the choir was the New Hope Baptist Choir directed by Cissy Houston, yes, mother to Whitney Houston, aunt to Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick (and, having been raised Lutheran, I understand the concept of “directing” a choir, but without thinking I’ve actually seen it). I grew up on those names, and it’s possible I could have hummed “The Book of Love” by the time I reached 30, but attaching that song to The Monotones and naming even one member? There’s no way in Hell I could have done that. And that’s the rest of the story…