‘He’s Never Near You . . .’

Originally posted July 22, 2008

You could call it the accidental hit.

The Billboard Book of Number One Hits tells the tale: In 1969, producer Paul Leka joined Mercury Records, and he brought to the label a friend from his hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a musician named Gary De Carlo.

De Carlo and Leka put together four songs and brought them to Bob Reno, the head of Artists & Repertoire for Mercury. Reno thought all four of them sounded like hits and told the duo to go back into the studio and record a B-side. On the day of the session, an old friend of De Carlo and Leka’s – Dale Frashuer – stopped by the studio. The three men had been in a group called the Chateaus in Bridgeport, and Leka and Frashuer dug through the songs they’d written together when they were in the Chateaus

In that jumble of songs, they found a 1961 up-tempo ballad called “Kiss Him Goodbye,” and began to record a B-side for one of De Carlo’s singles. The song ran about two minutes, and the three decided to lengthen it to discourage deejays from flipping the single over and playing the B-side.

In the Billboard book, Leka says, “I started writing while I was sitting at the piano, going ‘na na na na, na na na na . . .’ Everything was ‘na na’ when you didn’t have a lyric.” And someone else added “hey, hey, hey.”

Early in the morning, the track was done, except for the lyrics of the chorus. Agreeing it was just a B-side, the three included the “Na Na Hey Hey” chorus on the record, repeating it a few times.

Well, you know how things sometimes go. Reno heard the song and said it sounded too good for a B-side. He persuaded Leka and De Carlo to let Mercury release it as an A-side on the Fontana label, with the duo and Frashuer agreeing that the record could go out under an assumed group name, not as De Carlo’s single.

“It was an embarrassing record,” Leka said. “Not that Gary sang it badly. But compared to his four songs, it was an insult.”

So Leka came up with a name. He recalled walking out of the studio in the early morning after finishing the record and seeing steam coming out of a manhole. The record would go out under the group name of Steam.

And of course, it went to No. 1, and De Carlo’s records went nowhere. Leka and Frashuer pulled more material from the Chateaus period for an album and composed some new material in De Carlo’s range. Unhappy with the turns of events, De Carlo refused to record as Steam, and Leka went back to Bridgeport and found a local group willing to be Steam.

For my part, I think the single – which spent two weeks at No. 1 during December 1969 – is a great one. Not a great song, mind you. It’s only an okay song. But it’s a great record with an unforgettable hook. One feels for De Carlo, but folks who follow music know that stuff happens. Actually, stuff like that happens in every arena: The gods, the Fates, the dice of the universe – whatever it is that shapes events – turns things one person’s way for no other reason than that he or she was standing there.

The song “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” shows up on about one hundred and forty CDs, according to All-Music Guide. At least half of those are anthologies that include the original single by Steam, but there are still some interesting names on the list: Axxis and Bananarama. The Belmonts, Fancy and the Hermes House Band. The Countdown Singers, those studio phantoms and inveterate cover artists familiar to TV viewers, are listed, as are James Last, Liberace and the Ohio Express. Edwin Starr took a crack at the song, as did the Pioneers. And so did the Nylons.

The Nylons’ version on the Open Air label went to No. 12 during the summer of 1987 under the title “Kiss Him Goodbye” and was included on their Happy Together album. The recording showed up as well, this time titled “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye),” on the group’s 2003 album Illustrious.

So, here is the Nylon’s version from 1987, and although it’s a little omnipresent, I thought I’d post the original by Steam as well.

Steam – “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” [Fontana 1667, 1969]

Nylons – “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” [Open Air 0022, 1987]

(I have two mp3s of Steam’s version, one that clocks in at 4:04 and one that runs 4:08. The album version is timed at 4:12, so that’s no help. Not being sure that it’s the original mix, I posted the mp3 with the higher bitrate.)

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