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.
“Listen to me, baby, you gotta understand / You’re old enough to know the makings of a man.” That’s how Lou Christie opens “Lightnin’ Strikes,” his one #1 hit. He sounds like an early-’60s teenybopper crooner, slick and composed. But as the song builds and unfurls, he comes more and more unhinged before jumping into a wild Frankie Valli falsetto on the chorus. And everything he’s singing is totally untenable. He wants a girl to “stick around” and stay faithful to him: “Every boy wants a girl he can trust to the very end / Baby, that’s you.” But when that falsetto hits, he’s wailing about how he can’t control himself if someone else comes along: “Nature’s taking over my one-track mind.” It’s a weirdly sinister double-standards anthem, and to this day, nobody seems entirely certain whether Christie was being serious or satirical.
Christie, born Lugee Sacco in Pittsburgh, was a gifted classical musician and singer when he was a teenager. When he was 15, he met the 37-year-old classical concert pianist Twyla Herbert, and the two of them started a long and presumably pretty unconventional songwriting partnership. Just out of high school, Christie recorded a few singles that he’d written with Herbert, and one of them, 1963’s “Two Faces Have I,” made it to #6 in 1963. Soon afterward, he was drafted into the Army. After being discharged, he signed with MGM Records, but the label didn’t like “Lightnin’ Strikes,” so Christie paid out of his pocket to get radio DJs to play it. The scheme worked out, and “Lightnin’ Strikes,” another Christie/Herbert collaboration, made it to #1 a couple of months after it came out.
It must’ve sounded like a total anachronism at the time. There’s no folk or psychedelia to “Lightnin’ Strikes.” Instead, it’s a guy from the doo-wop era wailing what can only be described as a sexual-political statement in falsetto like the previous three years hadn’t happened. But it sounds charged and cinematic, especially if you don’t give the lyrics any thought. The producer, Four Seasons member Charles Callelo, used New York session musicians to chase the Phil Spector sound. It’s full of pounding pianos and stabbing guitars and howling backing singers, and there’s a wild and borderline avant-garde bass solo in there, too.
The song is lyrically indefensible, and Christie’s Valli-esque vocal is deeply irritating. But it’s hard not to be impressed by all the production muscle that went into the arrangement. So the end result is something like a Michael Bay movie — a repellant spectacle that you can’t quite look away from.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video for the late German synthpop performance-artist weirdo Klaus Nomi’s 1981 cover of “Lightnin’ Strikes”: