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.
Some things just don’t translate. Up until now, I have written more than 350 Number Ones columns, and all of them have been about songs that came out before I was born. In most of these cases, whether or not I like the tracks, I can at least piece together some idea of why these songs managed to resonate the way they did. I can find the appeal, or I can locate them within their eras’ musical trends. It’s usually not that mysterious. But with “Love Will Keep Us Together,” I’m just utterly at sea. This one baffles me. People really thought this shit was cool?
Of course, “Love Will Keep Us Together” has its own context, too. That part isn’t hard to figure out. Soft rock was absolutely huge in the mid-’70s. Early-’60s pop artisans like Neil Sedaka, who co-wrote the song, were coming back; Sedaka had just scored a big hit with “Laughter In The Rain.” Stevie Wonder and Elton John were introducing synth sounds to mainstream pop, and there are plenty of those in “Love Will Keep Us Together.” As a duo, the Captain And Tennille were industry-connected; both of them had worked as touring keyboardists for the Beach Boys. This was also an era when every pop star seemed to be auditioning to host a variety show, and these two were apparently likable enough that they got their own shot at it in 1976.
I know all that. And still I look at this piece of unbearably chintzy gloop, sung by this toothy and sparkly Broadway-voice lady while this boating-hat doof plays piano and looks on, and I feel like I’m staring at a relic of some alien civilization. People willingly subjected themselves to this! How? Why?
Things weren’t going so well for Neil Sedaka when he and his old co-writer Howard Greenfield wrote “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Sedaka had fallen so far that he couldn’t even keep an American record deal. He and Greenfield had co-written countless songs over the years, including “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” the doo-wop jam that had been Sedaka’s first #1 way back in 1961. Sedaka and Greenfield were both creatures of the Brill Building era, but that era was long over. It didn’t make financial sense for them to keep working together. They wrote “Love Will Keep Us Together” in 1973 — during their last-ever co-writing session, before Greenfield moved to California. The song is about a couple fighting to keep their flame alive, but Sedaka says that he and Greenfield were really writing about each other. Sedaka also says that they were crying when they finished writing it.
That’s a sweet story, but it doesn’t come through in the song at all. When Sedaka recorded “Love Will Keep Us Together” for his 1973 album The Tra-La Days Are Over, he sang from the perspective of a man constantly worried that his female companion will find somebody else: “Think of me, babe whenever some sweet-talking man comes along / Singing his song / Don’t mess around / You just got to be strong.” There’s some passive aggression in there, too: “Young and beautiful, someday your looks will be gone / When the others turn you off, who’ll be turnin’ you on?”
A year before Sedaka wrote that song, the Captain met Tennille. The Captain was Darryl Dragon, a touring keyboardist for the Beach Boys. Mike Love had nicknamed him “Captain Keyboard,” and he’d steered into the nickname, wearing captains’ hats onstage. (Imagine having a name as cool as “Darryl Dragon” and opting to go with “the Captain” instead.) The Beach Boys were on a break from touring, so the Captain auditioned to play keyboards in a rock musical called Mother Earth that was set to open in Los Angeles. Toni Tennille had co-written the play, and she hired the Captain. When the musical ended its run, the Captain put in a good word and got Tennille hired as a second keyboardist for the Beach Boys. They liked playing music together, and they started doing it in clubs after that Beach Boys tour ended. They signed with A&M, and “Love Will Keep Us Together” was their first single. On the fade-out, Tennille worked in a “Sedaka is back” ad-lib, which was nice of her.
The Captain played almost all the instruments on “Love Will Keep Us Together.” (The only other musician on the song is the wizardly session drummer Hal Blaine.) The song has a weird bounce to it, a sprightly-but-clumsy clippity-clop rhythm. Those early analog synths were capable of all these great warped sci-fi sounds. But in layering them up, the Captain makes them sound cheap and chintzy and lifeless. His solo sounds like a happy robot doing a soft-shoe routine. Meanwhile, Tennille yowls out every line without anything even resembling subtlety. That delivery style — grand, stagy, brassy — betrays absolutely no anxiety that the Captain will stray to the next sweet-talking girl. And, I mean, fair enough. Look at him. If you were married to the Captain, you probably wouldn’t be too worried, either.
It’s all just singularly unappealing, that combination of demonstrative showroom belting and synthetic gurgle-burp. It’s a competently written song, and a competently delivered performance. (Blaine is really on one with those drums.) It’s also a blight upon humanity. And it became the biggest single of 1975. I don’t even know. Nothing makes sense.
Later that year, the Captain and Tennille got married, and they would stay married for the next 39 years — until love stopped keeping them together, or until Tennille decided that she didn’t want the Captain to do that to her any more times. They kept cranking out hits until the end of the ’70s. We will hear from them again. We’ll hear from Sedaka, too. He really was back.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s 84-year-old screen legend Mae West and future James Bond Timothy Dalton singing a disco version of Love Will Keep Us Together to each other in the 1978 movie Sextette:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the long tracking-shot opening of the 2001 movie Get Over It, where Vitamin C serenades a forlorn Ben Foster with “Love Will Keep Us Together”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Joy Division’s video for their 1980 song “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which was presumably meant as some kind of answer to “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and which has aged considerably better:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Linda Ronstadt’s cover of the Everly Brothers nugget “When Will I Be Loved” peaked at #2 behind “Love Will Keep Us Together.” It’s an 8. Here it is:
(The Everly Brothers’ original version of “When Will I Be Loved” peaked at #8 in 1960. It’s a 9.)
PROGRAMMING NOTE: I’ll be on vacation next week, so this column will return the following Monday.