Golden Oldies: 96 Tears


I once knew this bloke who claimed to have seen ? and the Mysterians live. I never quite believed him, although I myself had seen Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge, and I didn’t question his account of having seen the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. But the Mysterians always had something apocryphal about them, and despite the plentiful evidence that they existed, you always slightly doubted it. That’s an image the man in the sunglasses has done nothing to contradict.

But as to the Mysterians’ signature tune, you’ve probably heard it in one version or another. Aretha did a good cover, and the Stranglers’ version was popular for a while. For years it seemed that the world and its granny were recording “96 Tears”, while the 1966 original was almost unobtainable, and the Mysterians were unheard due to obscure legal reasons. And this for a song that’s as much a part of the canon as “Louie Louie”.

You have the very basic garage sound, augmented by the organ. That irresistible little organ intro, leading into an oddly compelling – and largely one-note – theme. And then there’s the vocal. Lester Bangs said that ? sounded like an insect from outer space, and he wasn’t far wrong. Less expressive than even Lou or Iggy, his inexpressiveness rose to the level of being an expression. ? would almost talk his way through the tracks, Shatner style, though without the hamming it up one associates with Shatner. On a track like “96 Tears”, with its lyric of loss and bitterness, the flatness and coldness becomes downright sinister.

It’s a bit like looking at a musical archaeopteryx. You can hear what came after, in metal, psychedelia and punk. There is a hint of Iron Butterfly – what is “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” but “96 Tears” on acid? – a touch of Atomic Rooster, just a hint of BÖC. So let’s hear it for ? and the Mysterians. And, for the real connoisseur, More Action has a nice version of “96 Tears” en español.

1 Comment

  1. August 10, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    I saw ? and the Mysterians play at a bowling alley/pool hall in Detroit, Michigan in 1997.
    The White Stripes opened the show, which was nearly their first.
    ? was in high spirits and people loved the show.

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