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Broken Record

When the going gets tough, the tough sing ‘Besame Mucho.’

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By JOE QUEENAN
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A friend, now long dead, once told me that when the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on their second album, they found themselves one track short. So Paul McCartney suggested recording “Besame Mucho.” The way my friend recounted it, when Paul suggested including this innocuous little ball of hot-tamale flapdoodle on the album—a song the Fab Four had played at their Decca Records audition—John Lennon flew into a rage and threatened to quit the band. This was presumably because Lennon deemed the tune, written in 1941 by a love-smitten 25-year-old Mexican girl, to be totally uncool and sad and pathetic. Cooler heads prevailed and “Besame Mucho” was scotched in favor of “Till There Was You,” a saccharine, infinitely lamer, ballad from The Music Man.

Broken Record

Carlo Hermann / AFP / Getty Images / Newscom

For whatever the reason, the decision to record the treacly show tune, which provided the first warning of the Brobdingnagian sappiness that lurked in the recesses of Sir Paul’s soul, and to ditch the ethnic chestnut, placated Lennon. The rest, as we know, is history.

Partly out of deference to my long-dead friend, but mostly because I love this story, I have never bothered to find out if it is true. Lennon’s drawing a line in the sand regarding “Besame Mucho” has always struck me as both principled and sagacious; Lennon, who had probably played the song literally thousands of times during the Beatles’ formative years in Hamburg, trembled before the song’s Promethean corniness, and felt that its cloying, hyperbolic cutie-pie quality and general ethnic inanity might make the Beatles look silly, grounding their flight to the stars before they even got off the runway. 

I agree. To this day, I can think of no single song that will prompt me to exit a restaurant, a subway car, a relationship, or a society faster than “Besame Mucho.” Not a one. Usually, I leave on the dead run.

“Besame Mucho” is not the worst song ever written; it is certainly not in the same category as “Feelings,” “Piano Man,” “Sometimes When We Touch,” “I Am Woman,” “Cherokee Woman,” “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” or more recent abominations like “[Had a] Bad Day.” These are songs that emit a kind of Chernobylyjoelyean hideousness from the moment they are first recorded, heartrendingly awful songs with the power to make ordinary people lose faith in humanity and start chugging carbolic acid. These are songs that make people who do not believe in the Devil believe in the Devil.

This is not what we are talking about here: “Besame Mucho,” a harmless ditty about puppy love, is not so much a bad song as a bad habit. Like “Danny Boy” and “Volare,” it falls into the category of overplayed ethnic hooey, harmless piffle from another time and place that has survived and even prospered long after it should have gone the way of “Danke Schön,” “Sukiyaki,” “The Song of the Volga Boatmen,” and yes, perhaps even “Thumbelina.” Much like that revoltingly murky coleslaw that is always served up in diners, extraneous and inedible, “Besame Mucho” is a song that abides and endures and adamantly refuses to go away, even though no one is entirely sure how it got here in the first place. 

Yet 70 years after its release, “Besame Mucho” is still very much with us. What’s more, long after innocuous fluff like “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and “Macarena” have faded from memory, “Besame Mucho” will continue to be warbled, croaked, hummed, strummed, or fingered on the accordion in restaurants, subway cars, bus stations, banquet halls, arcades, underground passageways, Andrea Bocelli’s shower, and execution chambers everywhere. “Besame Mucho,” a song that kills, is a song that literally refuses to die.

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