Nothing Really Matters: Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Wasn’t It You”

[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #60]

Great songs often come from both imagination and personal experience; the great songwriters are the alchemists that can combine those sources and create something unique. The element of imagination means that what’s going on in a song may not always be what’s going on in the songwriter’s life. But in the case of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, it’s entirely possible that the tension in their personal relationship sparked their ’66 composition ‘Wasn’t It You’.

Goffin and King married in ’59, when he was 20 and she was 17. Starting with the Shirelles’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ in ‘60, they established themselves as a highly successful songwriting team. By the mid-‘60s they had earned enough money to live comfortably in suburban New Jersey with their two young daughters. But both were restless. Despite her musical success, King felt trapped in the traditional roles of mother and housewife; Goffin, inspired by Bob Dylan, wanted to explore life beyond pop songs and parenthood. Upheavals in American society – the civil rights movement, feminism, anti-war protests – and the musical changes personified by the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix also motivated Goffin and King to explore new creative directions.

In ’65, in partnership with journalist Al Aronowitz, Goffin and King started their own record company, Tomorrow Records. Tomorrow’s first signing was the Myddle Class, a five-piece New Jersey rock band. However, much to King’s distress, Aronowitz also introduced Goffin to LSD, which precipitated a mental health crisis for him; King, in her own words, “sought relief by going to clubs, concerts, and other activities more appropriate for a young single woman”.  Through going to watch the Myddle Class play in New York City clubs, King was introduced to a range of artists and musicians that included James Taylor and future members of the Fugs.

Not surprisingly, given that turbulent environment, many of Goffin and King’s ’66 compositions – ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’, ‘Goin’ Back’, ‘Yours Until Tomorrow’ – alluded to dissatisfaction; ‘Wasn’t It You’ followed a similar direction. Goffin’s lyrics taunted someone who once claimed that “life’s a holiday”, but was now “feeling down” after their “gypsy friends” deserted them to entertain someone else. King’s musical framework of minor chords and a surging melody contributed to the sense of abandonment and disillusion.

‘Wasn’t It You’ was never recorded by its composers, and was never a hit. But the number of times that it’s been covered suggests that musicians and producers recognized that it’s a great song, particularly for strong female voices. So it was fitting that Petula Clark did the first cover version of the song, released in the UK in the same year the song was written.

Clark herself was going through an artistic transition in ’66. I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love, the album that included ‘Wasn’t It You’, was her first album to feature songs from writers other than Tony Hatch, her long-time producer. Despite the hyper-romantic title, the album featured a number of songs with a cynical take on romance, and Clark’s precise diction and powerful vocals give a particular edge to ‘Wasn’t It You’. I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love reached #11 on the album charts and remains Clark’s highest-charting album in the UK.

Billie Davis – “a performer, a craftswoman” according to Simon Frith – released ‘Wasn’t It You’ as a single in ’67. Davis was widely recognized as a highly distinctive and skilful singer, but was unable to establish a successful recording career. ‘Wasn’t It You’ was a fabulous fit for what Tom Hibbert described as Davis’ “beautifully controlled, shivery voice”, but the single failed to chart. Spanky and Our Gang, the US group led by singer Elaine ‘Spanky’ McFarlane, also recorded ‘Wasn’t It You’ in ’67 as part of a live album, although the album itself was not released until ’70.

Next off the starting blocks were London mod legends The Action, who were
including ‘Wasn’t It You’ in their live act as early as mid-’66; a Melody Maker review of a September gig that year describes the song as “well-arranged [and] smartly executed”. The group were recording regularly with George Martin at Abbey Road throughout ’66 and cut ‘Wasn’t It You’ in August, when Petula Clark’s version was still a month away from release. The Action’s take, dappled with their trademark Miracles-inspired harmonies and Reggie King’s
deeply soulful lead, joined the supply of material being stockpiled for the group’s stillborn album and didn’t see the light of day until it sneaked out on a German-only B-side in ’68.

Three other ’68 versions of ‘Wasn’t It You’ are connected in different ways to producer/manager Lou Adler. Canadian folk-pop act 3’s A Crowd regularly performed the song in concert, and then recorded ‘Wasn’t It You’ for their sole album, Christopher’s Magic Matinee. The album was co-produced by Cass Elliot of the Adler-managed the Mamas & the Papas. Elliot sang backing vocals on ‘Wasn’t It You’, and the combination of her vocal harmonies with those of lead singer Donna Warner make this one of the more impressive versions of the song.

Australian singer Lynne Randell – “Australia’s Miss Mod” – had several hits in her home country and then relocated to the US, where she scored the opening spot on a ’67 tour featuring Hendrix and Adler’s clients the Monkees. Her ’68 version of ‘Wasn’t It You’ was her third US single, and sadly went largely unnoticed despite Randell’s dramatic vocal and the groovy organ-driven arrangement.

Adler also produced actress Peggy Lipton’s self-titled album in ’68, which included ‘Wasn’t It You’ along with several of Lipton’s own compositions and two other Goffin/King songs (‘[You Make Me Feel Like A] Natural Woman’ and ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’). Unlike most of the female singers who covered ‘Wasn’t It You’, Lipton had a soft, gentle voice. This alone didn’t doom her interpretation of the song, but unfortunately her vocals are often overwhelmed by the loud and elaborate instrumentation.

Oddly, covers of ‘Wasn’t It You’ featuring male vocalists are relatively rare. Hamilton Streetcar, a band initially produced by Lee Hazlewood, released their lone album on Dot Records in ’69. Their ‘Wasn’t It You’ sounds heavily Doors-influenced, with Ralph Plummer’s deep vocal reverberating atop ominous keyboard chords and piercing guitars. Another Hazlewood-affiliated act, the Kitchen Cinq – led by singer/guitarist Mark Creamer – recorded ‘Wasn’t It You’ sometime in the late ‘60s, but this brassy interpretation remained unreleased until Light in the Attic’s 2012 anthology When The Rainbow Disappears. And in 1991, Norwich’s Goober Patrol thrashed and shouted their way through an unlikely punked-up version.

Goffin and King’s marriage ended in ’67, but their musical collaborations have endured as classics of modern pop and rock songwriting – and their songs continue to appeal to new audiences, as shown by the success of the recent jukebox musical Beautiful.  ‘Wasn’t It You’ may have initially reflected Goffin and King’s own personal conflicts, but its sharp depiction of painful rejection resounded with much wider audiences. It may be one of the lesser-known songs in the Goffin/King canon, but its themes make it timeless.

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