Eclipse of the Sonny

Sonny Bono's 1967 solo debacle captured the moment when pop music passed him by

I never thought I'd cut a record by myself. But I've got something to say, I wanna say it for Cher and I hope I say it for a lot of you.

--"Laugh at Me" by Sonny Bono, 1965

Because Sonny Bono played such a convincing stooge, folks always credit his onetime partner Cher with possessing all the talent. Sadly, it's a common assessment that only Bono's George of the Jungle-ish death at the trunk of a misplaced tree seems to have shattered.

By now, even Newt Gingrich knows Bono was an underrated songwriter, penning great tunes like "Needles and Pins" (recorded by the Searchers, Jackie DeShannon, and the Ramones), "She Said Yeah" (recorded by the Rolling Stones, and Larry Williams) and "Ko Ko Joe" (recorded by the Righteous Brothers). Plus he was an underrated producer/arranger who apprenticed as Phil Spector's flunky until he fashioned his own European version of "the Wall of Sound," a kinda Leaning Tower of Pisa of Sound, if you will. There are enough accordions, oboes, zithers, clarinets and balalaikas on hits like "I Got You Babe," "Bang Bang" (a solo hit for Cher) and "Little Man" to make you think the records could've been issued in a checkered tablecloth with a Menu Touristica slipped inside.

But rather than give Bono his rightful due as the team's Desi Arnaz, he was ridiculed as the team's Andrew Ridgeley, just some schlub along for the ride. Bah! And Cher's ingratitude toward Sonny's Svengali work didn't help any. In those lean years following the couple's acrimonious split, Cher never missed an opportunity to disparage Bono in interviews. How ironic that she could still make headlines dating big rock stars like Gene Simmons while Sonny was reduced to merely playing rock stars on Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. So let her shed her crocodile tears in The Globe now, "Shattered star weeps for Sonny"--ha! In the divorce papers, she charged her former babe with "involuntary servitude." In short, slavery! Well, I don't know if all that's true, but at least Sonny never forced her to appear on records as bad as her album with Gregg Allman, Two the Hard Way. Or, for that matter, her entire '80s and '90s output!

As the teenyboppers' newborn king and queen, Sonny and Cher were red-hot in 1965. So hot that the pair's success even afforded Sonny, who had a voice like the horn on a Hyundai, the chance to bleat on a solo hit of his own--the lovable "why pick on li'l ol' longhaired me" anthem "Laugh at Me." When an insecure and equally unsure-voiced Ian Hunter auditioned for Mott the Hoople, he sang both "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Laugh at Me"--high praise indeed!

For some unexplained reason, Sonny cut an entire album by himself in 1967, two years after "Laugh at Me" hit and its follow-up "The Revolution Kind" flopped. If I hadn't seen it on the dust sleeve of an old Cream album, I never would have known Inner Views even existed. Its cover is a hideous etching of Sonny sitting peacefully, with a smoky genie of Cher billowing next to him, touching her heart and his to assure the remaining fans this is no declaration of independence. The back is even scarier--it prints the lyrics! This supports the notion that at the time of issue, Inner Views was every bit the important statement to Bono that "Laugh at Me" had been earlier.

In Bono's 1991 autobiography, And the Beat Goes On, he admits, "I tried chasing the newer sound for a while but could never get a handle on it. The LP Inner Views was my attempt at psychedelic music. Occasionally, I'll hear some radio station playing 'Pammie's on a Bummer,' a moody, contrived song, and I'll ask, 'God, is that really me?'"

Pammie may have been on a bummer, but she's a canister of Silly String compared to somber Sonny in this set. Since Bono was an outspoken opponent of drugs at this time, one can only assume he's on a natural low. Without a musical role model since Phil Spector stopped making records the previous year, Sonny was left scratching his head wondering where all these sitars and tambouras were gonna fit into his Leaning Tower of Pisa of Sound. The answer: nowhere, but it wasn't for lack of trying. There aren't two grooves pressed together on the whole first side that escape contamination from squiggly sitar runs. Like the dull, droning buzz of a dying bee or the hum of a faulty air conditioner, it runs constant through side one's two songs. Yes, you read right. Two songs! Because Sonny understands the requirements of this new music (to take drugs and do everything to excess) but stubbornly refuses to follow through with those requirements (by doing everything to excess stone cold sober), Inner Views is a most fascinating psychedelic skeleton in the closet.

Inner Views' opener is a studio jam titled "I Just Sit There," which does just that, for 12 interminable minutes. Try imagining a sitar-riddled rewrite of "The Beat Goes On," then imagine Sonny and the band tackling it alone while Cher goes to the grocery stores and supermarts, uh-huh! Bono starts out mumbling, rightfully pissed that the beat is going on without him, everyone is getting stoned and not buying Sonny and Cher records anymore. "Smell the air, it's real uptight," he warns. About six minutes into this ditty, after Sonny's quoted "Ring Around the Rosey" and rhymed "sturgeon" with "virgin," he favors us with a snatch of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and leaves us with this elevated observation: "I wonder why we want to fly/The closer we get to the sky/The less we see with the naked eye/The world looks like a little ball/And people don't exist at all/Oh wow!"

Elevator broken in the brain hotel, you say? Clearly, the Bono man's no Donovan. But he's no harmonica player, either. There's a painfully wretched harmonica solo that must be Sonny exorcising all his Dylan demons in 246 wheezy huffs and puffs.

You think you're out of the woods once the printed lyrics for "I Just Sit There" run out, but after the harmonica solo, Sonny starts right in again at the top of the song, only this time he's suddenly emotionally committed to the work, barking out the lyrics and instructions to the band like he's whipping a team of Alaskan huskies. Yah! HhhhYah! And yes, even the harmonica solo isn't exempt from Sonny's deja-voodoo.

Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord
How about that, they harmonize
With a car that's doing fifty five
Isn't that wild machines can sing
The driver's digging everything
And he joins in while four cats sing
I read the news today oh boy
I just sit there
I just sit there.

Give Sonny credit for some progressive thought--he quotes "A Day in the Life" seven years before David Bowie does the same thing in "Young Americans." But Sonny's not through pinching Pepper just yet. If you skip over to track two, the verses of "I Told My Girl to Go Away" are the exact same melody as "I read the news today oh boy." At a dirgelike speed, no less!

Bono's bad trip improves little on side two. On "I Would Marry You Today," he accuses his bell-bottomed beloved of taunting him and jangling his nerves, while the album's stiff single "My Best Friend's Girl Is Out of Sight" finds him in a jealous rage during a double date ("I watched them kiss I watched them hug/My stomach turned and I got bugged"). All this sets the stage for the album's downbeat finale, "Pammie's on a Bummer." The first two of its seven minutes are occupied with the band sounding as if it is trying to break into an instrument shop without a flashlight. The bad freakout guitars must be by the same person who squawked mercilessly on the harmonica before, one Salvatore Bono. I mean, who'd pay a session guy to play this bad? Once the guitar-raga demonstration is dispensed with, Sonny introduces us to Pammie, a street walker who apparently isn't lovin' life, either: "She started smoking pot just to keep herself from flipping/But it wasn't strong enough so she graduated to tripping/Every day she'd take a ride to hide from the world outside/And all her tears were so cool 'cause they were so easy to hide/Pammie's on a bummer and nobody knows where she's at/Fate gave her one more vicious blow/She got hung up on an untouchable cat."

We never find out whether Pammie's fallen for Elliot Ness, Rico, Youngblood or Phil Spector, but it's a moot point. By the time Inner Views was released, Sonny and Cher were deemed untouchable with the under-30 crowd. Claims to the contrary in the teen mags, Sonny was 30 when he and Cher first said they were young and they don't know.

Well over 30 by the time Inner Views was under way, Sonny had already stopped trusting himself and his grasp of youth culture. As if to hasten that decline, the future congressman came on like a groovy narc in a widely distributed anti-pot educational film shown in grade schools that rivaled Reefer Madness for its flimsy grasp of reality. Bono, dressed in paisley threads and love beads, advised kids that smoking pot would make them so paranoid that they'd jump out of windows. In truth, far more kids probably took that fatal leap after listening to Vanilla Fudge's The Beat Goes On album, easily the worst psychedelic album of all time and one which Sonny was inadvertently responsible for, since it featured nine nauseating revisions of his hit song.

The failure of Inner Views wisely convinced Sonny to forget about the kids and go after their casino-packing parents instead. It's a record Sonny had to make, but it's not a record you have to hear. And you probably never will unless the pro-Bono sentiments get even more militant or Rhino Records gets la-di-da-di-dee, la-di-da-di-desperate.

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