|Courtesy of Getty Images|
Yet the list of artists who have covered this simple tune include many who sit on top the rock pantheon: Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Patti Smith, Tom Petty, David Bowie, R.E.M., Iggy Pop, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello … Bill Murray strapped on a guitar and played it at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival, the Grateful Dead used to jam on it, and it might be the only song that Jon Bon Jovi and Johnny Thunders have in common.
How did such a minimal song have such a huge impact? Why does it still reverberate today, in arenas, at festivals, in bars and studios? And how did Gloria become such a resilient rock and roll heroine?
What we know about Gloria
Written more than fifty years ago by Van Morrison for his band Them, the story the song tells couldn’t be more archetypal: the singer (usually but not always male) knows this girl and he’s eager to tell us about her, but he doesn’t (again, usually) share much in the way of detail. She comes down the street, up to a room, knocks on a door, enters, makes the singer extremely happy.
She is, nearly all the time, about five feet, four inches tall (on the original demo, she was five feet). As physical descriptions go, that’s at once very specific and very incomplete. Dark-haired or light, curvy or slender, who knows? At just about midnight, she appears. There is, we can assume, something sensual about the way she moves, because the song itself slithers with an air of hypnotic mystery, those three chords (E-D-A) setting the scene.
On the debut studio recording by Them, Morrison takes the listener into his confidence, and it’s a little like bragging, as guys do. He wants to tell us about his baby (on the demo, she’s his “gal”), but aside from her head-to-the-ground measurement, he doesn’t tell us much. She makes him feel good. For some reason, he feels compelled to spell out her name before he says it, “G-L-O-R-I-A,” as though it were something exotic or complicated. It’s not.
OK, so she does whatever she does with Van, and instead of describing what that might be, he spells her name again. He wants to make sure we get that right, maybe in case the police find him in his room one night, the victim of foul play, and we’re asked who the perpetrator might be. I’m not certain, officer, but he’s been seeing this woman who’s about five feet, four inches, and her name is G-L-O-R-I-A.
“Gloria” was cut at Decca’s studio in West Hempstead in the summer of 1964, the first Them session. Them had been doing the song live for a while in Ireland clubs, but from all reports, they were not the most adept musicians in the studio, so the producer brought in some ringers, and here’s where the saga of “Gloria” gets a little fuzzy.
It’s pretty clear from the audio evidence - compare the demo’s sluggish drumming to the finished studio version - that London’s top session drummer Bobby Graham was recruited. Graham told an interviewer for the Independent that Morrison “was really hostile as he didn’t want session men at his recordings. I remember the MD, Arthur Greenslade, telling him we were only there to help. He calmed down but he didn’t like it.”
In addition to Graham, guitarist Jimmy Page was, in all probability, on board. Page: “It was very embarrassing on the Them sessions. With each song, another member of the band would be replaced by a session player … talk about daggers! You’d be sitting there, wishing you hadn’t been booked.”
There’s something so compelling about the record, the rawness, the sudden startling instrumental leap midway through, Morrison’s intensity, the erotic momentum, the flurry of drums at the end. It was the sexiest thing. And it was stuck on a B-side, the flip of Them’s second U.K. single,“Baby Please Don’t Go.”
In England, “Baby Please Don’t Go” went to #10; in America, on Parrot Records, “Gloria” was the side that got a bit of attention, and it made it into the top 100 (#93 peak) for exactly one week in May 1965. That might have been that for “Gloria.” Except it wasn’t. You know the line about how the Velvet Underground’s first album didn’t sell many copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band?
It was like that with “Gloria”: it wasn’t a hit, but all around the world, local bands who discovered it found a Holy Grail. How many group rehearsals everywhere began with “Let’s try ‘Gloria’?” If you hadn’t been playing guitar for very long, this was an instant entry-level classic, and if you were playing gigs and didn’t have many songs in your live arsenal, you could stretch out on “Gloria” for a while, just keep that going. If you had a kid on Vox organ in your little combo, even better.
Which U.S. group latched on to it earliest? Depends who you ask.
Some sources attribute the premiere American cover to the Human Beinz from Youngstown, Ohio, who released it on an independent EP (they later had their one hit with a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Nobody But Me”). There’s also some evidence that the Mississippi band the Gants jumped on the ball first.
It’s a track on their 1965 album, and singer-guitarist Sid Herring, in the liner notes of the compilation Road Runner! The Best of the Gants, says “Our version went to number three in Chicago even though it wasn’t on a single. But our record company kept telling us, ‘That’s not the hit,’ even though we begged ’em to put it out. When I first heard the version by the Shadows of Knight on the radio. I said, ‘Hey guys, they’re playing our record.’ They’d copied it so close that for about ten seconds I thought it was us.” The A&R people at Liberty, the Gants’ label, were probably right; their take on it is a little too unruly to be a radio hit. Even if Shadows of Knight, from Chicago, did hear the Gants’ “Gloria” on the radio and were inspired to mimic it, their version is cleaner and more pop.
By the time the Shadows of Knight record went top ten in the spring of 1966 (Parrot even re-released the Them 45 to compete with it, and it cracked the hot 100 again), “Gloria” was on its way to being ubiquitous. You couldn’t escape it: the Hombres, the Bobby Fuller Four, Thee Midniters, the Outsiders, the 13th Floor Elevators all did it; there were versions in France, Yugoslavia, Indonesia, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Mexico.
An all-girl band called the Belles redid it as “Melvin,” a less mellifluous name to shout (and spell); the Challengers and Sandy Nelson cut it as instrumentals, which sort of missed the point. Most versions were fairly straight-forward replicas of the Them/Shadows of Knight template, but other artists took considerable liberties. It became the “Aristocrats” joke of ’60s rock: once you established the basic premise, you could go off on any kind of improvisatory walkabouts as long as you eventually landed on the punchline: “G-L-O-R-I-A.”
There are all kinds of amendments. Midway through, the singer of the Trashmen says, “This is starting to sound like a Trini Lopez record,” which really makes me want to hear a Trini Lopez version of “Gloria.” And some of the foreign versions don’t get the translation too precise, “What I feel about my baby,” the vocalist of Delfini (from Yugoslavia) starts the song, “She calms me down.” Which is only time you’ll hear Gloria described as relaxing. Also, he seems to spell her name “G-L-O-I.”
By Them and the Shadows of Knight, the song clocked in at a tidy two and a half minutes, but that was too constricting for groups like the Hangmen, the Blues Magoos, and the Amboy Dukes, all of whom easily exceeded the five-minute mark and turned it into early psychedelic-rock. The Standells, live in 1966, turned the song into comedic fodder, the singer saying that Gloria looked like “Jayne Mansfield with a hernia” (whatever that means), making a “booby trap” joke, and confessing that when Gloria came up to his room, she took out her false teeth and gummed him to death.
Part of the brilliance of “Gloria” is in its vagueness and ambiguity. It feels explicit, but that’s a trick. The whole song is an ellipsis. Gloria is an object of desire, someone who makes it all so easy: she comes up to your room, raps at your door (at a Bottom Line gig years ago, T-Bone Burnett compared her knock to the drum beat of Al Jackson Jr. from the M.G.’s), no pining, no scheming (feminists might point out that the feel-so-good factor is one-sided; we don’t know if Gloria’s night ends satisfactorily).
The narrative is a sketch, but over the years, some of its interpreters have felt compelled to flesh it out. Leave it to Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix to make the goings-on considerably more graphic. It was a part of the Doors’s set since their nights on the L.A. club circuit (you can hear how the dynamics of “Gloria” got appropriated for the “Light My Fire” climax, for example), and the American Morrison went much further in his on-stage embellishments, some of which came out officially on posthumous Doors releases.
He addresses Gloria directly, and sometimes there’s a predatory creepiness: “Meet me at the graveyard, meet me after school.” On one released version, he yells, “Here she is in my room, oh boy!” and for nine minutes it’s like a cautionary after-school special: her dad is at work, her mom is out shopping, and he’s giving her aerobic instruction: “Wrap your legs around my neck/Wrap your arms around my feet/Wrap your hair around my skin.” Some of it is like an interview, or a prehistoric internet chat: “Hey, what’s your name, how old are you, where’d you go to school?” What’s her name? Is he missing the whole point of this song?
Not to be outdone, Jimi Hendrix, on a pretty slamming off-the-cuff version with the Experience from October 1968, also asks her name (have they never heard this song before?), and she replies (he says), “It don’t make no difference anyway … you can call me Gloria.” Wait a minute: you can call her Gloria? Has this been a pseudonym all along? Is she a call girl? (that would explain the midnight knocking). A groupie? More likely.
Hendrix mentions that Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding also have “Gloria”s, and there is some kind of “scene” going on that involves the arrival of a pot dealer and, subsequently, the police. “Gloria, get off my chest,” Jimi says. “We gotta get out of here.” Meanwhile, he’s playing some amazing guitar, and Mitchell is just on fire, and the song is a long way from its beginnings with Them.
It still belonged to Van Morrison, who has had a notoriously ambivalent relationship with some of his earlier hits, but has almost always stuck with “Gloria”: it’s on his landmark live album It’s Too Late to Stop Now, and he’s revisited it over and over through the years, on record with John Lee Hooker, live with U2 (who not only have done Morrison’s song, but wrote their own song called “Gloria”) and Elvis Costello, on TV with Jools Holland’s big band.
But in 1975, Patti Smith found a way to radically reinterpret it by incorporating it into the lead track from her debut album Horses. The cut is in two parts, the first ("In Excelsis Deo") starts off with a stark statement of intent - “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” - and keeps building and building until Smith through a window, sees a “sweet young thing,” and she’s transfixed.
It’s almost unbearably tense, the way Patti’s group coils around the melody, the rising excitement in her voice. It’s midnight (naturally: that’s when this always happens), and the woman comes up the stairs in “a pretty red dress” and knocks on the door, and you don’t even realize it, but the song is sneakily turning into Van Morrison’s: Patti asks the girl’s name. “And her name is … and her name is … and her name is … G …” you know the rest.
With this performance, Patti’s done two things. She’s made a breathtaking breakthrough that’s completely new, and connected it with rock tradition (her guitarist Lenny Kaye is steeped in the era of “Gloria,” and compiled the essential garage-rock collection Nuggets). It was a tremendous cultural moment.
Nothing has been able to stop “Gloria” because the song is whatever it needs to be. It’s remained a rock staple. Iggy Pop did it live (and singing “I-G-G-Y-P-O-P”), Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band the 101’ers had it in their repertoire and so did Bon Scott’s group the Spektors, Santa Esmeralda cut in in ’77. On his 1978 tour, Bruce Springsteen often would include it as part of a medley with “She’s The One,” and sometimes “Not Fade Away.” R.E.M. was performing it in the eighties, and so was David Bowie, in conjunction with his own “The Jean Genie” (and, at least once, with “Maria” from West Side Story).
Some more recent live interpretations stand out. At Red Rocks (2001), Rickie Lee Jones starts to play it, and after about a minute and a half, it turns into a reminiscence. The band keeps on riffing on those three chords, those chords that give the singer all the freedom in the world to amplify, to comment, to reflect.
“I was twelve when this song came out,” she says, “and I have never forgotten, I would never forget, that’s why I will never get old, what it felt like to me as he described this [and here she pauses] girl.” “I’m gonna shout it all night, gonna shout it every day,” the song goes, and if you were around twelve years old when it came out, as Rickie Lee was, or you were more like fifteen or sixteen, as Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty were, that shout of ecstasy was something that made possibilities open up for you. And that’s why Springsteen (who introduced it at a 2008 show by saying “Bring it back to where it all started! Follow me boys!”) and Petty can’t stop going back to it. It probably was where it all started, in their nascent rocking days.
Petty makes it almost like a prequel. It became a set-piece for him and the Heartbreakers in the late nineties, and up to this century, and there are versions floating around, from German TV, from Bonnaroo, where he unspools a story about walking on an uptown street and approaching this woman: “Don’t walk so fast,” he tells her. “I’m a true believer and I loved you at first sight.” She spurns him, she bolts (in one version, she tells him he smells like marijuana), and he’s getting nowhere.
Like Springsteen in “Rosalita,” he plays the only card he has. “I got this little rock and roll band,” he says. “Things are going good.” We don’t know what happens, ultimately, except this: all he wants to know is her name, this tiny shred of information. And suddenly, he hears it. Not from her, but from the wind. The wind began to sing her name. At this point, Petty’s audience knows what its part is, and the band has been patiently waiting for this eruptive moment, and like a huge gust of wind, the name rises up from the crowd, louder and louder: “Gloria!” Because even five decades after she first appeared, there’s no one anywhere who doesn’t know who she is, and the power she has.