Greatest Songs, #487: “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters

Year: 1964
Written by: Arthur Resnick & Kenny Young
Billboard Hot 100: #4

 From Rolling Stone:

Released in June 1964 and replayed on beach-town jukeboxes every summer since, “Under the Boardwalk” evokes the carefree sounds of the shore. But its recording was no day at the beach. Johnny Moore was drafted to sing lead because the track’s original singer, Rudy Lewis, died of a heroin overdose in his hotel room the night before the session.

From allmusic:

“Under the Boardwalk” was the Drifters‘ last major hit… That was right around the time the Drifters’ heavily orchestrated New York pop-soul was started to pass out of fashion. But there are few better orchestrated New York pop-soul records than “Under the Boardwalk,” a record where a great song, vocal, and production contributed about equally to the creation of a classic. Like many other 1960s Drifters songs, “Under the Boardwalk” adheres to a Latin American rhythm, one that puts more emphasis on the later beats of a measure than the earlier ones. The inventive instrumental introduction puts a perky, ascending bass against a scraping percussion noise and a triangle. That sets an upbeat mood for a pleasant tune that could almost be a calypso, or a Mexican ballad, with a cantina-like guitar trilling away in back of Johnny Moore’s lead vocal. It’s not the Caribbean or Mexico, however. It’s America, and “Under the Boardwalk” has vivid images of coastal American beaches, with the boardwalk, hot sun, hot dogs, French fries, and carousels. These verses might have been enough alone to sell the song to radio and listeners. But they’re outshone by the devastating chorus, in which the song suddenly goes into a vaguely ominous minor key. The way the backing Drifters sing-chant the title phrase is ominous too, almost threatening, as though something dangerous and momentous is going to happen under the boardwalk. Moore keeps serenading away about falling in love under the boardwalk as the backup singers counterpoint him in a moodier fashion. When Moore reaches the line about falling in love under the boardwalk, though, the backup vocal suddenly becomes a cappella and briefly changes rhythm, ending with an emphatic minor-keyed “boardwalk,” as if a point of no return has suddenly been reached. In the best Drifters fashion, the orchestration becomes more elaborate as the song goes on, adding sumptuous strings, particularly in the instrumental break, punctuating the backup chants of the title with dramatic staccato strokes on the last chorus. The end of the song is most creative, too, ending cold on a final “under the boardwalk.” It’s an ending that takes listeners by total surprise the first couple of times they hear it, as they expect the song to go back into the verse, but it doesn’t. Too, that lends an air of finality to the song’s mini-operetta, and also implies that whatever’s gone on under the boardwalk might be a little sinister, in addition to being romantic. And what exactly does go on, under the boardwalk, other than the couple falling in love? It’s not spelled out, but you don’t go under the boardwalk to soak up the sun, and they’re probably enjoying a romantic interlude, whether it’s kissing or going quite a bit further than that.