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.
When Carole King became a pop star, it made a certain kind of sense. Together with her then-husband Gerry Goffin, King had been one of the great pop songwriters of the early ’60s. But then she broke up with Goffin, moved out to California, and started making solo records. King clearly knew how to write a pop song, but on records like 1971’s Tapestry, she did something else. She tapped into the wanderlust of the moment, getting into layered relationship dynamics and in-vogue folk-jazz arrangements. She’d become a perfect voice for her time. I don’t love “It’s Too Late,” the song that took King to #1 as an artist, but at least there’s a tangible historical context for it.
But when Neil Sedaka became a pop star again, there was no reason for it. It’s just a thing that happened. Sedaka, like King, had grown up Jewish in Brooklyn. Their histories had been intertwined. They’d dated in high school, and they’d worked together in the Brill Building songwriting factory. But Sedaka started making solo records long before King, and he hit #1 with the quintessential 1962 doo-wop bop “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” Like King before him, Sedaka reinvented himself in the ’70s, and adapted to a newly mellow era. But King had changed her songwriting style, finding new room for nuance and adult emotion. Sedaka, by contrast, was still writing simpering love songs, songs with nothing to say. He lucked out because, for whatever reason, people were into that again.
“Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” aside, Sedaka had made a bunch of hits in the early ’60s. That was an accomplishment. Sedaka, a former classical student at Juilliard, wasn’t exactly a molten slab of charisma. He gave off ferocious dork-vibes, but he’d started charting in the late ’50s, when he’d recorded songs that he’d written and various pop artists had turned down. Even after finding stardom, Sedaka kept working behind the scenes, writing songs for people like Connie Francis. But back-room professionals like Sedaka immediately fell out of favor when the Beatles arrived, and Sedaka’s hits dried up quickly. Through the rest of the ’60s, he wrote songs for whomever — the Monkees, the Cyrcle, the 5th Dimension. And by the early ’70s, his records weren’t even getting American releases, though they still seemed to do well enough in the UK, where he made a couple of albums with the members of proggy studio auteurs 10cc backing him up. (10cc’s highest-charting single was 1975’s “I’m Not In Love,” which peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)
Sedaka kept an apartment in London, and at a party there, he met Elton John, who’d been a fan. John was starting his Rocket label, and when he learned that Sedaka didn’t have an American record deal, he signed Sedaka. This was a smart business move. After all, the early days of 1975 were defined by defanged covers of ’60s hits: John’s own take on “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” the Carpenters’ version of “Please Mr. Postman.” Sedaka was an actual early-’60s hitmaker who was perfectly happy to not have any fangs at all.
Sedaka recorded “Laughter In The Rain” in Los Angeles, with folk-rocker types like James Taylor’s buddy Danny Kortchmar backing him up. It’s a perfectly sleepy and toothless soft-rock amble. The lyrics are clumsy greeting-card bullshit about a romantic traipse through an afternoon shower: “Oh, I hear laughter in the rain, walking hand in hand with the one I love / Oh, how I love the rainy days and the happy way I feel inside.” Those lyrics had been a result of a literal nap. Phil Cody, Sedaka’s co-writer, wrote the words for the song while he was on a songwriting trip with Sedaka to a house in the Catskills. Sedaka had written the music already. Cody went out for a walk, smoked a joint under a tree, dozed off for a couple of hours, and then wrote the lyrics in five minutes. That gummy-brained indolence really translated to the page.
Sedaka had used his bendable tenor and his falsetto yips to great effect on “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” a jumpy and electric song about being bummed. But “Laughter In The Rain” is a sleepy and aimless song about being content, and Sedaka’s voice, while technically impressive, has no character to it. It’s pure background mush, and I have to imagine that a lot of the people who bought the record had no idea this was the “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” guy. Sedaka surrounds that voice, and his own florid piano with, chintzy backing vocals, bongo-ripples, string-sighs, and a saxophone solo that sounds like the song attempting to will itself into a smooth-jazz stupor. It’s pure goop, almost offensively inoffensive.
“Laughter In The Rain” isn’t nakedly nostalgic, the way previous #1 hits “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Please Mr. Postman” had been. It’s worse than that. Nostalgia, at the very least, is an emotion. “Laughter In The Rain” is numb with self-satisfaction. And immediately after its success, Sedaka had a whole string of hits. I regret to report that we’ll hear from him again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s jazz guitarist Earl Klugh’s somehow-even-smoother 1976 cover of “Laughter In The Rain”:
And here’s Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s 1995 track “Murder Onze,” for which producer Akshunn samples Klugh’s version of “Laughter In The Rain”: