The Number Ones is a new column where I’ll review every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The steel guitar is a fascinating instrument. Most instruments mimic the human voice in one way or another, but the steel guitar sounds all the more alien for how close it can come to forming words without actually forming those words. It’s a key part of Hawaiian music and of country and western swing, which is just one of those weird musicological odysseys, like how the accordion went from German beer-hall marches to Mexican rancheras via some slow, strange, organic process of cultural exchange. And because it sounds so unlike anything else, the steel guitar can feel both otherworldly and deeply, comfortingly familiar. I think that’s why Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” works; it uses the instrument for both of those effects at once.
Santo and Johnny Farina were two young brothers from Brooklyn. The legend is that their father decided that they should learn to play steel guitar because he’d heard it on the radio when he was in the Army, stationed in Oklahoma. “Sleep Walk,” their first single, isn’t a country song or a Hawaiian song. Instead, it’s pretty standard of the slow, ornate R&B ballads that were popular in the era. But the difference, of course, is that it’s an instrumental. And in the place where the vocal would ordinarily be, we get that lonely, wandering steel guitar.
On a surface level, “Sleep Walk” is a very pretty, albeit undemanding, piece of music. But there’s something about the sound of that instrument — how central it is to the song, the murmuring melody that it plays — that pushes it toward something dreamlike and Lynchian. (How did people describe things like this before David Lynch was making movies?) Maybe, in the moment, it was just a pretty song. Or maybe people could hear the quiet ominousness in all that beauty even then.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Modest Mouse’s “Sleepwalking (Couples Only Dance Prom Night),” a lyrics-added version of “Sleep Walk” that the band included on their 1996 EP Interstate 8:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: And because I can’t pick just one, here’s Deftones’ gorgeous and oddly faithful “Sleep Walk” cover: