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.
The Swedes were coming. In April of 1974, Max Martin, the absurdly efficient songwriting scientist whose glittering vision would come to colonize American pop radio in the years ahead, was three years old. And yet the seeds were already there. The entire Swedish pop-music superstructure, the industrial-strength hooks and vacuum-sealed cleanliness that Martin would come to represent, was just coming into being. On April 6 of 1974, the Swedish group ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest with their track “Waterloo,” and their performance at the dizzy spectacle helped launch them to international stardom. (“Waterloo” would eventually peak at #6 in the US. It’s a 9. And ABBA will, of course, eventually show up in this column.)
And through one of those beautiful cosmic coincidences, the day that ABBA won Eurovision was also the very same day that a Swedish group topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time ever. In this case, the song was an exceedingly goofy cover of a cover, a second-generation mutation of a song that had been popular in the US five years earlier. And yet even in that one strange case, you can see the beginnings of the Swedish monster-pop aesthetic at work.
The roots of “Hooked On A Feeling” went back five years, to Memphis. The song came from Mark James, the same songwriter who wrote “Suspicious Minds” for Elvis. It was the first hit for Number Ones fan B. J. Thomas, who would soon get to #1 with “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” (Thomas will appear in this column again. I bet he can’t wait!) “Hooked On A Feeling” is a supremely goofy love song that very lightly draws lines between infatuation and drugs. In Thomas’ hands, it’s a Vegas version of psychedelia, with the man’s full-throated lounge-singer beltings sharing space with a meandering electric sitar. Thomas’ version was big enough to peak at #5, and yet, when you hear it now, it sounds like a footnote. There’s something missing.
Jonathan King would figure out that something. King, a UK pop singer who’d had some success in his own country, recorded a “Hooked On A Feeling” cover in 1971. King’s version is markedly inferior to the original in just about every category. King couldn’t really sing. His mannered, withdrawn delivery has none of the cheesy confidence that the song demands, and the dinky reggae beat doesn’t help much. But King’s version does add a couple of crucial parts to the song: a huge, honking horn riff and a weird ooga-chaka background chant that King had taken from Johnny Preston’s ultra-problematic 1960 hit “Running Bear.” King’s version of “Hooked On A Feeling” would become a hit in the UK and nowhere else. (King’s other claims to fame include producing the first six Genesis albums, discovering 10cc and the Bay City Rollers, and getting sentenced to seven years in prison for child molestation. So that’s his story.)
Blue Swede weren’t even a band when the Jonathan King version of “Hooked On A Feeling” came out. Blue Swede started in 1974, as a vehicle for the Swedish pop singer Björn Skifs. Skifs, who’d started out in the excellently named Swedish rock band Slam Creepers, started Blue Swede as a cover band called Blåblus, which is some kind of Swedish pun involving the word “blues.” That same year, they recorded their big, ridiculous version of “Hooked On A Feeling.” Blåblus had started covering the Jonathan King version of “Hooked On A Feeling” live. (Blue Swede’s arrangement was supposedly based on “Do You Like Worms?,” an unfinished and widely bootlegged Beach Boys song, but the only real similarity I hear is in the deeper chanting.) Blue Swede recorded their version, and it became a big Scandinavian hit. So it got an American release, and Blåblus got an English-language stupid-pun name. (“Blue Suede.” I know.)
Credit the ooga-chakas — or, if you prefer, blame the ooga-chakas. With their version of “Hooked On A Feeling,” Blue Swede took that dinky fake war chant from the Jonathan King version and weaponized it, transforming it into a loud-as-hell brain-destroyer. The ooga-chakas mean nothing, and they don’t have anything to do with the whole love-as-drug metaphor. (In any case, Blue Swede took out even the most harmless drug references, turning “I’ll just stay addicted and hope I can endure” into the even-more-meaningless “I just stay a victim, if I can for sure.”) And yet that chant just bulldozes its way into your skull and stays there forever.
And it’s not just the ooga-chakas. Blue Swede’s version of “Hooked On A Feeling” cranks up the catchiness of the original further than it should be allowed to go. Everything about their arrangement seems scientifically calibrated to stick with you: the blaring horn riff, the high-cheese guitar line, the perfectly timed drum hits during the “IIIIIIII’m” of the chorus. Skifs howls over all of it with Tom Jones levels of brio, making B. J. Thomas sound twee by comparison. It’s so shameless, and it’s so good. Blue Swede took a half-decent American pop song, one that would’ve probably otherwise been forgotten by now, and turned it into a fucking wrecking ball, the kind of thing that drunk yahoos in karaoke bars are going to be gang-shouting for as long as there are drunk yahoos and karaoke bars.
Blue Swede were not built to last. The band would land exactly one more American top-10 hit, a version of the Association’s 1967 tune “Never My Love” that peaked at #7 later in 1974. (It’s a 4. No ooga-chakas.) But the damage had been done. Swedes had discovered their power to raid our pop-radio stations like viking berserkers. A few decades later, they would become unstoppable.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Hooked On A Feeling” needle-drop from Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 movie Reservoir Dogs:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: David Hasselhoff recorded an even-sillier cover of “Hooked On A Feeling” in 1997, and his truly absurd music video for it was one of those things that was constantly passed around during the early days of YouTube. Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the (possibly Hasselhoff-induced) “Hooked On A Feeling” needle-drop from James Gunn’s 2014 movie Guardians Of The Galaxy:
“Hooked On A Feeling” once again became inescapable because of that movie, its surprise-hit soundtrack, and the way Marvel used it in the trailer. So here’s the trailer:
And while we’re at it, here’s the trailer for 2017’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2, which also featured “Hooked On A Feeling”: