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For some reason the Rascals, sometimes billed as The Young Rascals, don’t loom anywhere near as large in the public consciousness as other comparably successful Sixties acts, but they were a constant Billboard presence in the latter half of the decade, scoring big with chart-toppers like Groovin, Good Lovin’, You Better Run, and People Got to be Free. Solid, enjoyable pop songs all, but nothing like the delicate, wounded, superbly melodic ode to unrequited love that is 1967’s How Can I Be Sure?, an artifact of the psychedelic era that wasn’t psychedelic at all, and wasn’t rock ‘n roll, either, nor was it joyful and uplifting in the manner of their previous hits. Composers/band leaders Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati thought of it not merely as a departure, but something of a risk, yet like so many of the era they were inspired to go off on a bold creative tangent by asking themselves if those English kids can do it, why can’t we? “The only reason we were brave enough to do it was The Beatles did Michelle and Yesterday” said Cavaliere, and all these years later the extent to which they grabbed the ball and ran with it remains astonishing. Brave? More like audacious: a melancholy D minor melody with pivots into D major, then C major at the end of each chorus, set to 3/4 waltz time and accompanied by brass, strings, and an accordion borrowed, apparently, from some after-hours cabaret in Salerno. It’s utterly and quite literally timeless, hewing particularly to the first rule of the Top of the Pops by grabbing the listener’s undivided attention from the get-go; surely no song ever established a mood more effectively and immediately, with those soft, repeated notes on the piano sounding like gentle rain, embellished by the subtle pizzicato on the strings, while Eddie Brigati’s wistful vocal communicates a whole world of almost weary doubt and longing from the very first lines:

How can I be sure
In a world that’s constantly changing?
How can I be sure
Where I stand with you?

…such that after just 20 seconds, you’re already transported. Two brief minutes later and it’s ending gracefully the way it began, after which, if only they’d had even a scintilla of sensitivity, contemporary AM Dee Jays would have been leaving a few respectful seconds of silence before getting back to the regularly scheduled yammering.

Attached above is both the original and an excellent cover by Dusty Springfield. While doing well on this side of the pond, the Rascals’ version made little impression in the UK, and the song wasn’t a hit there until covered five years later by – get this – teenybopper idol, and perennial centerfold of Non-Threatening Boys Magazine, David Cassidy (remember him?), who was almost faithful to the spirit of the thing. Like I always say, tough to kill a tune like that.

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