The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Helen Reddy’s “Angie Baby”

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.

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Helen Reddy – “Angie Baby”

HIT #1: December 28, 1974

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

You can’t boil down David Lynch’s career down to one central idea. There’s too much going on — too much that you and I couldn’t possibly understand, that Lynch himself maybe can’t understand. But if there were one basic thesis to the Lynch filmography, I think it would go something like this: Normal people are the weirdest fucking people in the world. It’s an idea Lynch has hit on again and again: avatars of suburban blandness, seen in a light that makes them seem vicious and otherworldly and bloodthirsty and perverse. I bet David Lynch loves “Angie Baby.”

“Angie Baby” is the third of Helen Reddy’s three #1 hits. For someone who never gets discussed today, Reddy had a hell of a run. In the ’70s, she became a bona fide pop star by delivering broad and brassy and vaguely soothing machine-tooled easy-listening pop music. In her hits — even in a moment-defining hit like “I Am Woman” — you couldn’t get much of a handle on Reddy’s personality. She’s just a big voice, and she delivers lines of female determination with the same brio and cadence that she uses for a deep-South story-song like “Delta Dawn.” She’s a cipher. And in some way, that makes her perfect for “Angie Baby.”

“Angie Baby” doesn’t sound like a weird song. It sounds like standard mid-’70s popcraft. There’s a vaguely bluesy organ that might sound the tiniest bit threatening when paired with another singer. But with Reddy, nothing ever sounds threatening, so it’s simply an ornament. Everything else — the impressionistic strings, the gentle pulse of the drums, the sugary backing vocals — seems calculated to soothe. It’s vaguely pleasant dentist-office music, nothing more. You can hear the song in the background and process none of the lyrics, and “Angie Baby” will simply sound like competently crafted nothingness. But if you actually let those lyrics sink in, “Angie Baby” takes you someplace else.

The story of “Angie Baby” goes something like this: A mentally ill girl spends her days in her room, living off of rock ‘n’ roll radio and the fantasies that it brings. She can’t talk to other people, and her parents take her out of school. So it’s just her in her closed-off reality: “Lovers appear in your room each night, and they whirl you across the floor / But they always seem to fade away when your daddy taps on your door.” Up until this point, it’s a character study, and it’s a relatable one. I’ve been Angie Baby before. If you care enough about music to read this column, you probably have been, too.

But then the twist. One night, Angie Baby is at home alone, yet again, when a neighbor boy comes over “with evil on his mind.” (In the bugged-out animated video, he has a dick for a nose.) He comes on like one of her fantasy lovers: “I’ll show you how to have a good time.” But something strange happens. The neighbor boy gets caught up in Angie Baby’s music “until his soul has lost away.” She turns the music down, and he becomes smaller, until he disappears completely. And then he’s gone. Nobody knows where. Angie Baby isn’t saying anything. “The headlines read that the boy disappeared, and everyone thinks he died / Except a crazy girl with a secret lover who keeps her satisfied.” And then: “It’s so nice to be insane / No one asks you to explain / Radio by your side / Angie Baby.”

Alan O’Day — a songwriter who will later appear in this column as an artist — spent months writing “Angie Baby,” originally basing the idea on the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” O’Day had already written “Rock And Roll Heaven,” the Righteous Brothers song that became the basis for about a million cheesed-out dive-bar velvet paintings. (“Rock And Roll Heaven” peaked at #3 earlier in 1974. It’s a 6.) So O’Day was already writing about rock ‘n’ roll in mythic, mystical terms. But “Angie Baby” takes those ideas further, into a truly wild psychedelic realm. It’s a superhero origin, and it’s also a ghost story. O’Day first offered the song to Cher, who wasn’t recording at the time. But when Reddy and her husband/manager Jeff Wald heard it, they both freaked out. Within just over a week, they’d recorded the song, and it was out in stores.

So what happened to the boy? Reddy’s idea was that he turned into a soundwave, which is fun. O’Day thought something else. Decades later, he wrote, “Angie, it turns out, had more power than he or the listener expected; she literally shrank him down into her radio, where he remained as her slave whenever she desired him to come out.” I like the idea that all of Angie Baby’s imaginary lovers were men she’d trapped in her magic radio, but as far as I know, Reddy and O’Day never addressed that.

“Angie Baby” isn’t a great song, exactly. But its quiet and furious strangeness is a fun place to lose yourself. ’60s psychedelia must’ve made for a good time, but it has absolutely nothing on what it would become in ’70s pop, when you could just have dick-nosed would-be rapists disappearing into nothingness. Apparently, a story like that could make its way to radio, and nobody would treat it like a big deal. Two years later, Eraserhead hit theaters. Maybe there was precedent.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Erick Sermon’s 2002 track “Hip-Hop Radio,” which samples “Angie Baby”: