“MUSEUM” (WRITER: DONOVAN LEITCH)
ARTIST: HERMAN’S HERMITS
RELEASED 1967 ON 7” 45 AND ON BLAZE LP
Herman’s Hermits were, for a while, nearly as big as the Beatles. You could argue that toothy young lead vocalist Peter “Herman” Noone was the most beloved figure of the British Invasion; he was cute and talented and cheeky.
From late 1964 through late 1966, the Hermits enjoyed 12 consecutive top 20 hits on the Billboard chart. All but two were top ten, seven landed in the top five, and two (“Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” and “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”) made number one.
In a way, the Hermits were trapped by those #1 hits; they were tabbed as old-fashioned, retrograde popsters, even though they also sung hit songs by Ray Davies, P.F. Sloan, and Graham Gouldman, all hip writers amid the pop cognoscenti.
In early 1967, they rebounded from a relative miss (“East West”) with the classic “There’s a Kind of Hush,” then made #18 with “Don’t Go Out in the Rain.” It was the summer of 1967, and everything had changed in pop music.
The next Herman’s Hermits single was among their finest, a cover of Donovan’s song “Museum.”
The lyrics both mocked and celebrated the louche lifestyle of Swinging London’s privileged, those with no job to frequent, the lazy rich who could keep their own hours.
I drink sweet wine for breakfast. I slept but an hour or so.
Part of the growth in vernacular songwriting in the 1960s was an increasing sense of self-awareness, a desire to share one’s view of the world. Never before had pop musicians sung so stingingly about their immediate surroundings. Like Ray Davies and the Beatles, Donovan was an A-lister in Swinging London even while slicing it up with a very sharp knife.
British record wizard Mickie Most produced both Donovan and Herman’s Hermits. He could never
get a truly commercial version of “Museum” out of Donovan, but must have thought it was a great match for the Hermits.
By toning down the drums and omitting some of the lyrics, Most created an easy stroll that stressed the encounter between the singer and a female companion at London’s Natural History Museum.
Noone’s delivery of the lyrics was not nearly as “knowing” as Donovan’s; in fact he sounded a little surprised at what independence and money hath wrought on the rich kids.
There she stood in drag, just lookin’ cool in Astrakhan*
She looked so wiped out, she said I looked like Peter Pan.
Yawning in the sun, it’s like a child I run.
Noone goes on to chide to his young friend, “Don’t do it if you don’t want to/I wouldn’t do a thing like that.” Sweet, innocent Herman! This wasn’t exactly “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.”
When “Museum” debuted on the Billboard charts in late August, just before the kids went back to school, it performed admirably, shooting from #130 to #76 to #62 to #49 to #39 in its first five weeks. Looks like a hit, right?
Nope. The record immediately ground to a halt, stalling at #39 and dropping off the chart almost immediately. The Hermits’ career in America was essentially over; they never made the top 20 again.
First, it’s critical to remember the Billboard Hot 100 chart measured sales, radio play, and jukebox play, not necessarily in that order. Cashbox, a sales-oriented weekly, had “Museum” climbing all the way to #21, a huge difference. Record World had it at #26. But on all the charts, the record was done by the end of September.
“Museum” simply stalled in the 20s in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, according to local radio station surveys. It reached only #19 in Los Angeles and received no noticeable airplay in the Bay Area, Detroit, or Houston. The song failed to go top 10 in any major market.
Some would say that the record failed because Herman’s Hermits just weren’t hip anymore, that their kind of pop fell out of fashion during the Summer of Love. But I wonder if what happened was that MGM simply didn’t promote “Museum” very hard.
I posit this because as “Museum” was stalling on the charts, MGM was pushing a new record, “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things,” by the Cowsills. This was the family band’s first record on the label, and MGM’s only other record on the charts.
It’s not hard to imagine someone at MGM deciding, for some reason, to pull advertising and promotion on the Hermits and throw it all behind the Cowsills—who if anything were lighter, less consequential, and less satisfying than Herman’s Hermits.
“The Rain, the Park, and Other Things” is a nice enough single, and it was a top five hit. Did MGM have a bigger “piece” of the Cowsills’ income because they didn’t have to license their records from Mickie Most? Maybe.
Record promotion/plugging/payola was a dirty business, and good records suffered for what appears to be, for those on the outside, no good reason. I believe that this was the case here. “Museum” is still excellent 50 years later, but if I were Peter Noone, I would have been pissed off.
*Astrakhan = a fur found in expensive coats.