We Five's "You Were on My Mind":
Ode to a Sometimes-Maligned Song

by Charles H. Smith, Western Kentucky University

     In the fall of 1965 the California pop/folk group We Five had a major national hit when they released their adaptation of the Sylvia Fricker- (of Ian and Sylvia fame) penned song "You Were on My Mind." The single crashed the top five just about everywhere, reaching number one in some markets and even managing top-ten-for-the-year ranking in a few places (for example on the station I listened to as a teenager, WDRC in Hartford, Connecticut, where it ended up at number nine for 1965, and on Billboard, where it found its way to number four). A little over a year later, an obviously We Five-influenced cover of the song by Crispian St. Peters did just as well in Britain, proving that its success here was no fluke.

     We Five had relatively little success other than with this one release, though their small body of work contains some pleasant period explorations within the general world of folk, pop, and Broadway. Their lead singer, Beverly Bivens, possessed one of the loveliest voices of that era, but she retired from commercial music-making just a year later, and the band was forever doomed to "one-hit-wonder" status.

     There has been a growing tendency over the years for various sources to try to further marginalize their already small place in music history by complaining that their adaptation of Fricker's song cheapened it. Indeed, the group did take a lot of liberties with Fricker's original composition, changing words here and there, substituting all sorts of chords, and generally transforming it into a new product. Some have castigated the group, for example, for leaving out a section in the second verse where Fricker's original protagonist gets drunk and sick before coming home: that is, for "cleaning it up" so as to be "more appropriate" for a mass market.

     I completely disagree with this appraisal. While Fricker's original version works perfectly well in its country/folk setting as a simple story of a failed relationship, We Five's manipulation of its starting point raised the product to a wholly new level. Before trying to defend this assertion, let's take look at the lyrics to the song as commonly given on the Internet (these are not exactly Fricker's original lyrics, but instead a hybrid of several online attempts to reproduce the group's version), and compare them with what I heard from a really close listening to the actual performance recently, from the CD collection Two Classic Albums from We Five. My punctuation in the latter rendition comes from both what I hear being sung, and what seems to make grammatical sense, in context:

Typical printing of lyrics on the Web purporting to be what We Five sings:

When I woke up this morning
You were on my mind
And you were on my mind
I got troubles, whoa-oh
I got worries, whoa-oh
I got wounds to bind

So I went to the corner
Just to ease my pains
Yeah, just to ease my pains
I got troubles, whoa-oh
I got worries, whoa-oh
I came home again

When I woke up this morning
You were on my mi-i-i-ind and
You were on my mind
I got troubles, whoa-oh
I got worries, whoa-oh
I got wounds to bind

And I got a feelin'
Down in my sho-oo-oo-oo-oes, said
Way down in my sho-oo-oes
Yeah, I got to ramble, whoa-oh
I got to move on, whoa-oh
I got to walk away my blues

When I woke up this morning
You were on my mind
You were on my mind
I got troubles, whoa-oh
I got worries, whoa-oh
I got wounds to bind

What We Five actually sings:

When I woke up this morning
You were on my mind,
And... you were on my mind.
I've got troubles, woe, oh woe,
I got worries, woe, oh woe,
I got wounds to bind.

So I went to the corner
Just to ease my pai-ai-ai-ai-ain--
(I said,) just to ease my pain.
I got troubled (woe, oh woe),
I got worried (woe, oh woe),
I came home again.

But I woke up this morning
And you were on my mi-i-i-ind,
Then... you were on my mind!
Well, I got troubles, woe, oh woe,
I got worries, woe, oh woe,
I got wounds to bi-ind!

Hey, and I've got a feelin'
Down in my sho-oo-oo-oo-oes--
[ --------- ? ] way down in my sho-oo-oes--
That I gotta ramble, woe, oh woe,
I gotta move on, woe, oh woe,
I gotta walk away my blu-ues!

When I woke up this morning
You were on my mi-i-i-i-ind,
Then... you were on my mind...
Hey! I got troubles, woe, oh woe oh,
I got WOR-ries, woe, oh woe oh,
I got wounds to bi-i-i-ind!

     The differences individually may not at first seem so very substantial, but cumulatively they end up giving We Five's version a looming power Fricker's original never had. Recall first that the "cleaned up" version leaves out the line about getting drunk and sick. In so doing, a bit of vagueness is injected into the lyrics that leaves the listener unable to conclude just what or who really IS on the protagonist's mind. In other words, the song quickly switches from "girl loses boy" fare to portraying something that is potentially a good deal more ominous.

     The weight of this dramatic device is accented by the often maligned repeating, with slight variations, of the second line in the first, third, and fifth verses. In We Five's version as I hear it, there is an actual pause in the singing after the first word of the third line in verses one, three, and five (one "and" and two "then's"), a device one supposes is used to suggest not only that "you were on my mind" but that try as he (or she, of course) may, the protagonist cannot get past this barrier to his concentration--that is, that on waking up this is not only the first thought, but the only possible thought.

     He then goes "to the corner" for some relief, but by (perhaps as we may believe) the next day's morning, has still been unable to escape his torment. The rest of the song, performed with ever-increasing intensity, ends up with nothing short of a scream, a cry for help.

     Now maybe you think I'm being melodramatic here, but just why do you suppose the protagonist ends up taking a walk to the corner? In Fricker's version, we understand well enough: to get blasted to forget about Mr. ex-boy-toy. In the We Five version, none of this is built in, and we begin to construct our own, often troubling scenarios... Perhaps we are dealing here with a heroin addict, and the "you" in the song is his habit--it seems obvious enough what a "trip to the corner" might mean in this instance, and how in the end the results of the trip might not do much toward relieving the problem.

     Or maybe the protagonist is a shell-shocked military veteran, now cowering in a barren apartment, unable to shake the memory of seeing his closest friend blown to shreds ten feet away from him during the last war: a drink with some buddies at the corner pub won't end up making even a dent in that kind of pain... Or perhaps he/she is a now-in-tatters fifteen year old runaway living on the street, thinking of mom but still unable to deal with the memory of his/her sex-offending father... Or a battered housewife... Or a really soured casualty of a love relationship gone bad... Unfortunately, there are a lot of "you's" in the world whose lives might be inundated by such pain and hurt, and we get to take our pick.

     And all of this sung by a squeaky-clean-looking bunch of college youngsters from Southern California--as if to remind us that in the turbulent years of the late twentieth century, it has not only been the dregs of society who have been banished to such fates.

     The musical arrangement and exact words as sung by We Five cleverly contribute to the drama. The instrumental lead-in on drums and bass is barely an uneasy shuffle, perhaps designed to mimic a disturbed, hypnogogic dream state. But then the final note, punctuated on guitar, intervenes, and the protagonist is rudely awakened. The description of events begins in the past tense, but then the confessional quickly switches into present tense: "I got troubles, woe, oh woe"... I don't know where the "whoa-oh" came from in most transcriptions of their reading of the song, but they are actually singing "woe, oh woe," as clearly can be heard, and besides, this wording better suits both the immediate setting and a reference to the old lament "woe oh woe is me."

     In the second verse the basic theme of the attempt to escape the pain of the situation is introduced via the "went to the corner" device. In most transcriptions one sees the plural word "pains" ending the second and third lines, but We Five actually sing "pain," which increases emotional focus. Further, in the fourth and fifth lines the words "troubles" and "worries" are not repeated from the first verse; instead the past tense "troubled" and "worried" is employed, providing a real reason for the next, rather simply stated, line: "I came home again."

     The third verse more or less repeats the first, but the pace has picked up and by now we realize that this is a person with real troubles. The fourth provides a bit of relief from the intensifying pace with more key changes and a rush of words that almost seem to be tossing around a solution to the whole mess: getting away and getting on with his/her life. But this is a hollow suggestion, and the protagonist knows it, the result being a final verse which merely recapitulates the slow statement of the problem, and a final buildup to a cry for help.

     But the end is not the end. After the singing stops, there is a remarkable five-beat instrumental coda which concludes the song. Interestingly, it has no obvious relation to the rest of the piece, yet admirably completes its mission by perfectly discharging its remaining rhythmic and emotional momentum. Beyond that, however, it does so in a way closely mimicking the kind of pounding heartbeat and excited, heaving, breathing that such a revelation of emotion would produce in a "real world" setting. Really brilliant! The effectiveness of this device may have been appreciated by later musicians--note the structural similarity of the final five-beat punctuation in The Who's 'Won't Get Fooled Again' (which strips the effect "down," eliminating the physiological element in favor of, appropriately, a strictly dramatic one).

     This is very heady stuff, especially for 1965. I can't help but wonder how We Five came to this particular interpretation of the song, as there is nothing in the rest of their oeuvre which in any way approaches it. The Crispian St. Peters version is a bit darker and sung nicely, but the mood is torpedoed by the instrumental arrangement, which features a saxophone at just the wrong time.

     I have also often wondered how We Five performed the song live--at least, when they were not committed to some context that called for television cameras and having to fit in with a horde of silly, jiggling, Hullabaloo-style dancers. A couple of period performances of the latter variety have been put up online on Youtube.com; sigh, posterity can sometimes be so cruel!

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Also see my essay "The Best Ten Hit Message Songs of the 60s: A Reflection".

Copyright 2007-2009 by Charles H. Smith. All rights reserved.