Some songs are written specifically for films or TV shows. Then there are those songs that seem like they’re tailor-made for just about any kind of filmed production. “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” a mellow masterpiece from 1969 by Tommy James and the Shondells, falls into that latter category.
James proved to be a steady hitmaker for Roulette Records from the mid-60s on, deftly straddling the line between garage rock and bubblegum pop like few of his era. As he told American Songwriter, he had to adjust on the fly again after returning from a tour in support of presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.
“When we left on the campaign in August of ‘68, it was all singles acts,” James says. “It was The Rascals, Creedence, Gary Puckett, The Association, Mitch Ryder and us. And when we got back, 90 days later, it was all albums. It was Crosby, Stills & Nash, Led Zeppelin, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Cocker. The world had turned upside down.”
“Thankfully, we were working on a little song called ‘Crimson and Clover’ at that moment. ‘Crimson and Clover’ allowed us to make that pivot from AM Top 40 singles to progressive FM album rock. Therefore, that Crimson and Clover album became hugely important to us. Everything we put on the album got a lot of scrutiny.”
“Crystal Blue Persuasion” was one of those album hopefuls, spurred on by a chance encounter. “We were playing a college in Atlanta,” James remembers. “Afterwards, we would do meet and greets, sign autographs and stuff. A kid ran up to me with a poem. And he said, ‘Tommy, please just take it with you.’ He was really fanatical about it, so I said, ‘OK.’
“As a songwriter, you’re always looking for interesting word combinations and stuff. And the title of this poem was ‘Crystal Persuasion.’ I just thought that was a fascinating title. I had no idea what it meant, but it sounded very profound.”
James realized afterwards that the title fit with his budding interest in religion, with the words sourced from the Biblical Book of Revelation. “I was also going through a change in my life,” James says. “I was becoming a Christian at that moment. So this all seemed to fit together. We took it back to the hotel room and wrote it. We didn’t really use the poem, just the title. To make the rhyming scheme work, I needed one more syllable, and ‘blue’ sounded like the right word and it became ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion.’ Eddie Gray played guitar for me then, and he came up with that little riff. Mike Vale and I wrote the lyrics and it just came together, just kind of fell out of our face right there in the hotel room.”
As easy as the writing was, the recording proved to be a bear. “When we got it into the studio, we just overproduced it, plain and simple,” James recalls. “We got it done and listened to it and we said, ‘That’s not the song we wrote.’ I spent the next month or so going in the studio every week pulling stuff out and putting stuff in, trying to make it work. Finally, in about four weeks, we had pulled out the drums completely. We took out all the guitars except for my rhythm guitar on tremolo, and Eddie had a little flamenco guitar part that he played. One keyboard, just kind of a trickling Hammond organ. And a bongo drum. And that was it. About 80 percent of the instruments on there, we had to pull out. We let it breathe.”
That last comment is apropos, because “Crystal Blue Persuasion” is the aural equivalent of a deep breath of cool, cleansing air. The sentiment of “peace and good/brotherhood” never goes out of style, even if the new day coming always seems tantalizingly out of reach. Many people heard only the flower power of it all and missed James’ intended message. “To me, it was very definitely a religious tune,” he says. “It was about becoming a Christian and about things that were happening at that moment. I think most of the things you write are snapshots of where you are as a person. They should be if you’re going to be an artist.”
Dozens of filmmakers have taken their turns interpreting “Crystal Blue Persuasion” pretty much since it first hit the Top 5 in 1969. Some use it in an obvious fashion when they need to depict scenes of unmitigated happiness. Others use it subversively, coaxing an ominous mood out of those blissful chords. Tommy James is all right with all of it.
“On Breaking Bad, it meant crystal meth,” he laughs. “But I guess you take it where you can get it. I can’t believe the reach that song has had over the years. It’s really a magical little record, and I’m very honored that people feel that way, because I feel that way.”