Some pop-history errands, one comes to regret.
Like the time I thought: “What could a pop song about a rapist nailing his wrist to the wall of his cell possibly sound like?”
This unlikely question grew from a seasonal seed — one that the pop historians in my readership have probably already seen coming.
It was in July of 1969 that a pair of Nebraska-born singers, Denny Zager and Rick Evans, hit paydirt with the single “In The Year 2525” (grandiosely subtitled “Exordium & Terminus.”)
The song, a gloomy, strummy portrait of man’s decline and eventual rebirth over the centuries, has never done much for me.
But it resonated with baby-boomer record buyers in a big way. It zoomed from No. 35 on the Billboard chart to No. 8 to No. 1 over a three-week period, and stayed at No. 1 for six weeks.
An astounding array of classic songs made the Top 10 during those weeks — among them “Spinning Wheel,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “My Cherie Amour,” “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” “Sweet Caroline,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and Three Dog Night’s “One.”
None could bump Zager and Evans’ dystopian single from the top of the chart. It took no less than “Honky Tonk Women,” possibly the finest, rawest, lustiest single in the entire Rolling Stones catalog, to finally dislodge “In The Year 2525” from the No. 1 spot.
Zager and Evans were never able to repeat that success, or anything close to it. Within a few years they were fodder for DJs’ trivia questions and lists of curiosities — perched alongside the Silhouettes and the Singing Nun on the roster of acts who hit No. 1 and then disappeared.
Nowadays, the Internet knows all, and pop fans who wonder what happened to Z&E after their big hit need only do some searching.
What came next is usually summed up in a single sentence, something like this one from the duo’s Wiki entry:
Despite the record’s massive success, follow-up singles such as “Mr. Turnkey” (a song about a rapist who nails his own wrist to the jail wall as punishment for his crime) went largely unnoticed by the public.
Somewhere in the labyrinth of the Internet, there’s probably an interview in which Zager or Evans explains why they chose such a horribly bleak song for their follow-up single.
Maybe they were committed to what they perceived as telling-it-like-it-is realism. Maybe they were concerned about being typecast as stargazers and skywatchers, and felt a first-person lament from a jail cell would be a good contrast to the century-jumping flights of their first hit.
Or maybe they’d already grown sick of being pop stars, and were looking to chase the whole thing away with a song they knew would never land them on “American Bandstand.”
I didn’t care enough to dig into the backstory. But after a while, I got to wondering about the music.
Was there a worthwhile tune there that America had failed to discover? Some nugget of inspiration that maybe had gone overlooked because of the subject matter? Did they make an honest attempt to push boundaries, only to find listeners weren’t willing to go that far? I wondered.
If I could enjoy nine minutes of Mick Jagger mugging and strutting through “Midnight Rambler” from the fall of ’69 — and I have — I couldn’t turn up my nose at “Mr. Turnkey” on any kind of moral principle. So I figured I’d check it out.
God knows I’d never heard this song on the radio, and probably never would.
(I was surprised to find “Mr. Turnkey” on 42 local radio charts in the ARSA database, suggesting that it did find pockets of airplay here and there in the autumn of ’69. It rose as high as No. 10 at the radio station at the State University of New York at Oswego, and No. 5 as part of a two-sided single in Wausau, Wisconsin, though I question which side got most of the spins. Still, 42 charts is pretty paltry, given that “In The Year 2525” appears on more than 650.)
Anyway, the song must be on YouTube, right?
Yup, afraid so:
I’m not sure where to start reviewing this one; but I suspect if I started I wouldn’t stop for a while.
So, suffice it to say I found “Mr. Turnkey” musically bland and forgettable, and lyrically charmless, gauche, heavy-handed, wrong-headed and repetitive (I counted fourteen mentions of the title in 2:21).
Just … no.
For a master class in how to make a criminal interesting, human, and believably regretful through the use of detail and figurative language, listen to “Folsom Prison Blues.” In fact, if you sat through “Mr. Turnkey,” you probably ought to go ahead and do that, a couple of times, just to clear your palate.
So, yeah, I wasn’t missing any hidden treasure, and the program directors who took a pass on “Mr. Turnkey” in 1969 (and those on oldies stations who continue to do so today) were probably doing us all a solid.
If nothing else, the Wichita Falls Chamber of Commerce is probably still breathing a sigh of relief that Zager and Evans didn’t put their city permanently on America’s pop-culture map.