'Wild Thing': 50 years of an indestructible song

The Troggs had their biggest hit with "Wild Thing."

Story highlights

  • "Wild Thing" was written more than 50 years ago; the Troggs hit No. 1 in 1966
  • The song has transcended music and is instantly recognizable, easy to play

(CNN)On an afternoon in late 1965, Chip Taylor went to a darkened New York recording studio, sat down with his big old Kay guitar and started banging away.

Out came "Wild Thing."
    The song wasn't Taylor's usual genre -- he was an up-and-coming country songwriter -- nor did he have any preconception of where it would lead. It was, simply, a country-blues song, done by request, written from the heart.
    More than 50 years later, Taylor's song -- described by Allmusic.com as a "garage-punk classic" -- still makes everything groovy.
    The most famous version, released on April 22, 1966, by the Troggs, hit No. 1 three months later. It remains the only chart-topper featuring an ocarina solo.
    Its list of performers is extensive: Jimi Hendrix, X, the Runaways, Hank Williams Jr., Sam Kinison, Liz Phair and perhaps every pimple-faced 16-year-old who's ever picked up a guitar. It's stupid and defiant, powerful and primitive, everything rock 'n' roll ever wanted to be in 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
    "It's the most garage-bandy of all garage-band songs," said author Dave Barry, who's performed the tune countless times with his group of music-playing writers, the Rock Bottom Remainders.
    He reels off the reasons. It's three chords. It has great lyrics. Any novice can probably play it as well as the Troggs, who weren't even tuned properly.
    And you probably don't even have to play it at all: Like Van Morrison's classic "Gloria," "you can throw a guitar on the ground, and it will by itself play (it)," Barry said.
    Why does it move us?

    In the beginning ...

    Chip Taylor was born James Voight in Yonkers, New York. (Yes, he's actor Jon Voight's brother.) He couldn't read or write music, but he had a knack for songwriting, and he landed a job as a staff writer for April Blackwood Music at 1650 Broadway in New York, which Taylor describes as "more sweaty" than the famous Brill Building about a block away.
    "Wild Thing" was written to order for a songwriter named Gerry Granahan, who was producing a local group named the Wild Ones.
    "He said to me, 'Chip, I know you've been writing some great country songs. People tell me you've been writing some very interesting rock 'n' roll songs, and I could use one,' " Taylor, now 75, recalled. "And I said, 'Gerry, I'm so flattered that you called. Let me see if I could write one this afternoon.' "
    That he did.
    A couple hours later, Taylor went to the recording studio to make a demo. Engineer Ron Johnson added some whistling. The song was taken to the Wild Ones, whose harmonica-laced version stiffed.
    Taylor said it wasn't what he had in mind.
    "It's a nice little record, but it isn't that stark, nasty blast in your face," he said.

    Taking it to the Troggs

    That may have been the end of the story, but a few months later, UK manager Larry Page was looking for some songs for his new band, the Troggs. Among the recordings was Taylor's demo. (Also in the selection: the Lovin' Spoonful's "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind.")
    When it came time to record, the well-rehearsed group reportedly knocked out "Wild Thing" in 10 minutes. To duplicate Johnson's whistling, music director Colin Frechter added the ocarina.
    A chance meeting with an ex-BBC producer got the song on the popular UK show "Saturday Club."
    Chip Taylor wrote "Wild Thing" after being asked for a rock 'n' roll song.
    "And that was it, it just took off. Now without bumping into him, 'Wild Thing' might still be in the archives," Page told Popular Culture Elective.
    Taylor says the Troggs' version captured the song's essence.
    "My demo is almost exactly like the Troggs' record. The feel is the same exact spirit," he said. "The thing that hits you is the power, the simplicity: Reg (Presley, the Troggs' lead singer) is coming right at you, with that strum."

    Taking over the world

    In the U.S., because of a distribution dispute, "Wild Thing" was released on two labels, Fontana and Atco. It raced to the top of the charts in six weeks, finally dislodging Tommy James and the Shondells' "Hanky Panky" to hit No. 1 on July 30, 1966.
    Presley, who was working as a bricklayer when the song hit the British charts, described the stratospheric rise as "like landing on the moon I reckon for the first time."
    Then came the covers.
    The Kingsmen -- purveyors of "Louie Louie" -- did it. So did Manfred Mann and the Standells. In spring 1967, a parody version by Senator Bobby hit the top 20.
    And then, in June, Jimi Hendrix played it at the Monterey Pop Festival. Hendrix's version, which includes the immolation of his guitar, was "an amazing transformative performance," wrote music critic and executive Mitchell Cohen. "The song doesn't belong to The Troggs anymore."
    Taylor loved Hendrix's version.
    "I'm always proud that Jimi Hendrix recorded it. It puts you in a different category when you get a Janis Joplin or a Jimi Hendrix recording," he said.
    Since then, the song has been recorded dozens, perhaps hundreds of times, including versions by the Runaways, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Damned, X, Chevy Chase and Sam Kinison.
    Taylor won't say what he's made off the song -- or how others did in the sometimes slippery record business -- but he's happy with his lot.
    "You had hustling publishers that were willing to give you a little advance for writing the song, and they'd give you some money to make the demo, and the deal was very simple: They got half the song, and you got half the song. And that was the deal," he said. "If it wasn't for my great publisher, I wouldn't have had the hits."

    Still 'Wild'

    It's more than music, of course.
    Rick Vaughn, Charlie Sheen's relief pitcher in the 1989 movie "Major League," made the song his intro music. Soon after, real-life major-league pitcher Mitch Williams did the same. The TV show "Full House" staged the song with a marching band.
    Even the phrase "wild thing" is more likely to invoke Taylor's song than, say, Maurice Sendak's classic "Where the Wild Things Are."
    "It's one of a relatively small group of songs that have passed from generation to generation that represent the idea of unbridled fun," said John Covach, a music professor at the University of Rochester.
    Taylor never rested on "Wild Thing," though. He also wrote such hits as "Angel of the Morning," "I Can't Let Go," "Son of a Rotten Gambler" and "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" and has released several well-reviewed albums, including "Yonkers NY" and "The Little Prayers Trilogy."
    He's not worried that "He wrote 'Wild Thing' " will be the only line on his tombstone. As with all his songs, he was just trying to find a certain spirit, the same feeling that's guided him since he first got chills listening to "Abie's Wild Irish Rose" when he was 6 years old.
    It's the way he's always worked.
    "I knew the best of me was to get silent and just allow some blasts to come through me," he said, "and try to trap them if they gave me physical chills."
    But even he admits that "Wild Thing" was quite a blast.
    "Part of the magic of 'Wild Thing' is because it IS so on the spot, at you," he said. "It's not a cerebral song at all."