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.
Think about all the people who made big hits in 2006 and then disappeared from the radio immediately afterward. Think of James Blunt, Natasha Bedingfield, Chamillionaire, Yung Joc, the All-American Rejects, Dem Franchize Boyz. Now try to imagine any of them signing with, say, Drake’s OVO label. And try to imagine any of them suddenly coming back and, even more suddenly, becoming bigger than they’d ever been. Imagine any of them absolutely dominating the pop charts for a year. (Actually, now that I think about it, something a lot like that is happening with Panic! At The Disco right now. So maybe you should just imagine Panic! At The Disco.)
After getting to #1 with the 1962 doo-wop jam “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” Neil Sedaka, once a dependable Brill Building songwriter and occasional solo hitmaker, went into a deep career slump the second the Beatles first touched American soil. By the early ’70s, his records weren’t even coming out in America; he had to rely on his residual popularity in the UK and Australia. But then Sedaka met Elton John, the biggest star in the world at the time, at a party. Sedaka signed with Elton’s Rocket Record Company and staged a massive American comeback that turned out to be more successful than his initial career heyday. In 1975, Sedaka landed his second #1 single with “Laughter In The Rain.” He co-wrote the biggest song of the year, the Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and got a shotout on the track itself. And then, for an encore, Sedaka released his biggest-ever solo hit.
These days, Drake can seemingly will practically any record, however underwhelming, into the top 10 simply by showing up on it. That’s the Drake Effect, a clear sign of a pop star going through what we call the imperial phase. That’s where Elton John was in 1975. Everything he touched turned to gold. He could crank out a thoroughly pointless cover of a Beatles classic, and that cover could hit #1 for weeks at a time. Elton John’s “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” was a pure pop-chart flex, a sign that the man could do anything he wanted and still sell records. And you could argue that Sedaka’s entire comeback was another Elton John flex, but “Laughter In The Rain” and “Love Will Keep Us Together” also capitalized on the public’s general appetite for drippy, heavily orchestrated love ballads. “Bad Blood,” by contrast, is basically an Elton John song, and that’s the best explanation of why it blew up the way it did.
To be clear: Elton John did not write “Bad Blood.” The song came from Sedaka and his “Laughter In The Rain” co-writer Phil Cody. (Cody says that he doesn’t like the song and that he wishes he had time to rewrite the lyrics before Sedaka recorded it.) And Elton John’s backup vocals on the song are uncredited, though everyone who heard it had to recognize that nasal howl right away. But the song basically borrows Elton John’s entire aesthetic, which is why it works. Sedaka, it turns out, sounds a lot better belting out glitzy Broadway-rock than he does crooning sleepy ballads.
Sedaka mostly sang love songs, but “Bad Blood” is really more of a hate song. On “Bad Blood,” Sedaka’s narrator consoles a friend who’s just been dumped, pulling that classic “I never liked her anyway” act: “Bad blood, the bitch is in her smile / The lie is on her lips / Such an evil child.” (I’m pretty sure “Bad Blood” is the first #1 hit to include the word “bitch.” A couple of generations of rappers can thank Neil Sedaka for setting the precedent.) But “Bad Blood” doesn’t sound like a consolation. It sounds like gleeful playground mockery — of both the woman and the friend who just got his heart crushed.
“Bad Blood,” like so many Elton John songs, is big and brash. It’s built on a slowed-down version of the age-old, irresistible Bo Diddley beat, and it’s got some great rumbling keyboards from future #1 songwriter David Foster. The tootling flutes somehow manage not to bog the song down; even those sound more like taunting whistles than like dentists’-office pablum. Sedaka and Elton generate a nice chemistry, throwing the chorus back and forth and launching into a nice little doo-wop pastiche on the bridge. The song’s message hasn’t aged especially well, and Sedaka has said that few people request the song at his shows anymore. But it’s fun, which is not something I can say about too many latter-day Neil Sedaka hits.
As it turns out, there would not be many more Neil Sedaka hits. By the time 1975 was over, Sedaka would record one more crossover success — a chintzy soft-rock ballad version of his original 1962 smash “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” (The 1975 version of “Breaking Up” peaked at #8. It’s a 3.) Shortly thereafter, Sedaka fell out with Elton John and left Elton’s Rocket label for Elektra. This was not a good move. Sedaka would never again find his way into the top 10.
And yet Sedaka remains. At the age of 80, he’s still out there playing shows. And he’s had at least one final taste of US chart success in this century. In 2003, American Idol dedicated an entire episode to Sedaka, and Clay Aiken sang “Solitaire,” another Sedaka single from 1975. Sedaka, sitting in as guest judge, was close to tears. Talking to Aiken, Sedaka said that “Solitaire,” from then on, would “always be a Clay Aiken song.” Later on, Aiken recorded a studio version of “Solitaire” and included it as the B-side of “The Way,” his 2004 single from the Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed soundtrack. (“The Way” peaked at #4. It’s a 4.)
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sedaka singing “Bad Blood” with Andy Gibb, a man who will eventually show up in this column, on a Dick Clark special:
THE 10S: Sweet’s ecstatic big-beat bubble-glam screamer “The Ballroom Blitz” peaked at #5 behind “Bad Blood.” It’s electric, so frightfully hectic, and it’s a 10.