Hanky Panky (1964)

Tommy James & The Shondells

Written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich
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hanky panky singles coverA garage band classic that has allowed Tommy James & The Shondells to escape the (unfair) charge they spit out bubblegum songs, “Hanky Panky” takes a standard-issue Brill Building tune and explodes it into the realm of real, raw, dirty Rock.

Is there a guy alive who wouldn’t love to see his baby do the Hanky Panky?

The seeds of “Hanky Panky” can be found in the monotonous, more mild-mannered version by The Raindrops, the group founded by the song’s co-writers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. (The song-smiths were responsible for “Be My Baby,” “Chapel Of Love,” “Leader Of The Pack” and “I Can Hear Music,” a song the Beach Boys recorded to much acclaim.)

Meant to be a throwaway B-side, “Hanky Panky” caught the composers off guard when word reached them that garage bands all over America and England had been covering their simple, sophomoric, repetitive piece.

There’s nothing to it lyrically, of course:

My baby does the Hanky Panky (5x)

I saw her walkin’ on down the line
You know I saw her for the very first time
A pretty little girl standin’ all alone
“Hey pretty baby, can I take you home?”
I never saw her, never really saw her

My baby does the Hanky Panky (5x)

Hanky Panky gets gold record

Tommy James, in black collar, accepts gold record for one million sales on behalf of the group

That’s all they wrote in The Shondells’ version except for assorted “yeah’s” and guttural shouts and groans. James had forgotten the words, so he ad-libbed them on the spot. They recorded it at a Michigan radio station in 1963 – so very early garage band work. “Hanky Panky” became popular in the lower Great Lakes and then couldn’t make any more progress because Tommy James & The Shondells actually had only a tiny regional record company, Snap, behind them, no promoter and no manager. Just that killer sound.

In 1965, “Hanky Panky” resurfaced and began to pull air play in Pittsburgh. James, whose real last name is Jackson, found a local Pittsburgh group to tour with and promote the song because the original Shondells had busted apart once the original release became dormant.

The sheared-close thoughts between the words and the leers behind the exuberance keep the song a hot dance number to this day.

Tommy James with ed Sullivan: Tommy, man, The Wolfman wants his hair back

Tommy James on The Ed Sullivan Show: Tommy, man, The Wolfman wants his hair back

The guitar solo by James is one for the ages. “Hanky Panky’s” got a great, updated Rock-A-Billy vibe, and – even though the genre didn’t exist in ’63 when it was recorded – it has something psychedelic orbiting around it. Very far out… directly connects the soul to the scrotum. Whatever it is, “Hanky Panky’s” nasty good and conveys loud and clear the hormonal thrust of the song.

“Hank Panky” towers as a garage band masterpiece with Van Morrison’s “Gloria”; ? and The Mysterians’ “96 Tears”; The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”; Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs’ “Wooly Bully,” and “Dirty Water,” a song about Boston’s Charles River by the L.A. group The Standells. (Go figure.) In England when you talk garage, you’re talking early Kinks (“You Really Got Me”) and early Who (“Substitute”).

They are all terrific bare bones, mean-ass rockers, but none of them can brag about such an astoundingly great guitar break. (Although “You Really Got Me” comes damn close.) Listening, placing the song within the DNA strands, it’s a reach to even think guitar could have been played that way in 1964.

But it was. And there it stands day after day, still making “Hanky Panky” a Rock-N-Roll roots legend.

  • When “Hanky Panky” was resurrected in Pittsburgh, it sold 80,000 (bootleg) copies in a matter of weeks.
  • The Shondells’ record label, Roulette, had known ties to the Genovese crime family in New York.
  • Tommy James said in his autobiography: “Roulette was used for everything from a social club where these guys hung out to laundering money and God knows what else was going on up there. What we really were dealing with was this criminal enterprise going on as we’re trying to have a career in pop music.”