What makes a hit? Gimmicks, among other things. Pop records have always provided their fair share of ‘water-cooler moments’ – “Have you heard that one?” – and it helps if they have a couple of good lines, or a sound that grabs you, or if their performer gives good visual. If the word ‘gimmick’ is too crass for you, substitute ‘hook’ – but there is a difference. A song with a terrific melody will probably have a great hook, but the average listener might not be able to reproduce the melody. But everyone who heard “Sixteen Tons” could click their fingers, and manage a deep-voiced “company sto-o-o-o-o-ow”, and repeat a couple of the song’s many great lines. The main musical hook – that rueful, shoulder-shrugging horn line that kicks things off – is also a marvel, but “Sixteen Tons” is a record stuffed with gimmicks.
It’s also absolutely distinct in mood from anything to hit No.1 before it. There’s humour, but it’s desperately black. The record appeals to the audience for sparse Americana, but “Sixteen Tons” has none of rock and roll’s vigour; its overall mood is a sort of nihilistic swagger. The singer was born working, he will die working, and even when he dies his soul will keep on working, and with his fists of metal he’s almost a machine himself. His hints of bad-boy toughness are matched by an acknowledgement of the price that toughness comes at. I don’t always demand depth from pop music – too often shooting for depth means botching the breezier things that pop does better than any other art – but “Sixteen Tons” achieves it (and something just as rare, mystery) while staying pop to the core: catchy, idea-filled, instantly memorable.