In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing 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.
Petula Clark was sometimes called “the first lady of the British Invasion,” which was pretty funny if you’ve ever heard her version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Clark wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roller, and she didn’t really have anything to do with the explosion of teenage excitement that was coming out of her country at the same time that she scored her biggest hit. Instead, she was an old-school orchestral-pop belter, a part of a lineage that would come to include singers like Dusty Springfield, Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick.
Clark’s career stretched way back to the pre-rock era. As a child, she’d sung for British troops during World War II, becoming a sort of symbol of national perseverance in the process. Later on, she’d acted in a few movies and become a pop star in France, where she scored hits by singing Serge Gainsbourg songs. She’d never even had an American record deal before “Downtown,” but an American record exec loved the song, figuring that its magic was in seeing America through a foreigner’s eyes.
And there is magic in the song. It’s an ode to getting lost in the city, to escaping loneliness and sadness by disappearing into a teeming mass of humanity. Clark enunciates every syllable with crystalline clarity, and she sells the hell out of it, building up to an absolute monster of a chorus. And the song itself seems to build its confidence right along with Clark — strings and horns exploding in after that first chorus, a wailing cartoon trumpet only kicking in when the song is just ending. If you’re confident, or drunk enough, it’s a perfect karaoke song.
Songwriter and producer Tony Hatch had written the song after a trip to New York, where he’d gone to learn from the songwriters of the Brill Building. Hatch knew that he wasn’t especially good yet, and figured he’d get better by studying the masters of the craft. But his real inspiration came from the city itself. He’s said that the song started to come to him when he was walking through Times Square at night. He didn’t even know Times Square was in midtown.
Clark recorded the song with a massive 40-piece orchestra behind her, and Hatch, producing the song, has said that the challenge was to get this orchestra to play like a rock ‘n’ roll band. It didn’t really work. “Downtown” doesn’t sound remotely like rock ‘n’ roll, even if it won a Rock And Roll Grammy, making Clark the first British singer to score one. A young Jimmy Page was one of the 40 musicians on the song, though you can’t really hear him. But what’s great about the song is how definitively un-rock it is. It’s grand and corny and in love with its own resilience, and that’s why it rules.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the B-52s’ deconstructed “Downtown” cover, from their beyond-classic 1979 self-titled debut:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Groundskeeper Willie singing “Downtown” on The Simpsons, a moment that continues to make me laugh whenever I think about it:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS:
Here’s Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie singing “Downtown” in the 1999 movie Girl, Interrupted:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS:
Here’s Jerry and George parsing the lyrics of “Downtown” on an episode of Seinfeld: