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.
Barry Manilow has written a lot of songs, but he didn’t write “I Write The Songs.” (In fact, Manilow didn’t write any of his three #1 hits.) “I Write The Songs” isn’t intended to be a statement of fact. Instead, it’s a vague and expansive tribute to the the very idea of music itself. And according to the person who actually did write “I Write The Songs,” it’s a song about God. That makes it one of the only songs about God ever to get to #1. Praise be.
“I Write The Songs” comes from one Bruce Johnston, an Illinois-born musician who’d been kicking around the fringes of the LA pop industry since he was a teenager. When he was still in high school, Johnston played piano on Sandy Nelson’s 1959 instrumental “Teen Beat,” which peaked at #4. (It’s a 7.) Later on, Johnston became a house producer at Columbia. And in 1965, he joined the Beach Boys.
When Brian Wilson first freaked out and decided that he couldn’t tour anymore, the Beach Boys brought Glen Campbell — then a member of the Wrecking Crew, later a solo star — to replace him onstage. Campbell played with the Beach Boys for a few months, and then the Beach Boys brought in Bruce Johnston as a permanent replacement. Johnston played with the band for years. At first, Johnston was an uncredited band member, but in 1967, they started including him in photos and liner-note credits. And over the years, Johnston even wrote and sang lead on a few Beach Boys songs. In 1972, Johnston left the band and tried to launch a solo career. And in 1975, he wrote “I Write The Songs.”
“I Write The Songs” had a bit of a life before Barry Manilow got ahold of it. The Captain & Tennille — both of whom had been Beach Boys touring members themselves — were the first to record “I Write The Songs.” They included it on Love Will Keep Us Together, their 1975 debut album, but they didn’t release it as a single. And that same year, David Cassidy, whose show The Partridge Family had finished its run in 1974, released his own version of “I Write The Songs.” (As a solo artist, Cassidy’s highest-charting single is his 1971 cover of the Association’s 1966 chart-topper “Cherish.” Cassidy’s take peaked at #9, and it’s a 3.) Cassidy’s version of “I Write The Songs” got to #11 in the UK, where Cassidy was still popular. Clive Davis, Barry Manilow’s label boss, heard Cassidy’s take on “I Write The Songs” while he was visiting London, and he decided that Manilow should record it. (Apparently, Clive Davis wasn’t keeping careful track of Captain & Tennille deep cuts.)
Manilow didn’t like the idea of recording “I Write The Songs.” For one thing, he knew that he didn’t write it. For another, he thought it sounded egotistical — that people wouldn’t get that it’s a song that’s just generally about music (and maybe also about God). But Barry Manilow was a company guy. Manilow didn’t want to record “Mandy,” his first #1 hit, either, but Clive Davis talked him into it. And once again, Davis convinced Manilow to make what would become one of his signature songs.
Manilow was right to be worried. “I Write The Songs,” in its slick and overbearing grandeur, sounds egotistical. On the opening lines, we can hear that “I Write The Songs” isn’t a song about the guy singing it: “I’ve been alive forever / And I wrote the very first song.” But if you miss that line, “I Write The Songs” really does sound like a guy bragging about all the beautiful works of art that he’s created. And it’s not like “I Write The Song” really invites close listening. It’s not exactly a lyrics-first song, especially in its Manilow version.
Really, though, Manilow was the best thing that could’ve happened to “I Write The Songs.” It’s a clumsy, ugly song, one that’s a little too impressed with its own central concept. The rhymes just don’t work: “I write the songs that make the whole world sing / I write the songs of love and special things.” (Maybe I’d like it better if Johnston was a little more specific about what those “special things” might be.) The bridge — “Oh, my music makes you dance / And gives your spirit to take a chance / And I wrote some rock ‘n’ roll so you can move” — is just unbelievably fucking stupid. In these self-conscious times, I can’t imagine anyone singing those lines and keeping a straight face. The ’70s were different.
Manilow co-produced his “I Write The Songs” with Ron Dante. The two of them pile string crescendos and howling backup vocals all over the track. On the bridge, there’s even a tootling piccolo trumpet that seems intended to recall the Beatles’ “Penny Lane.” Manilow treats “I Write The Songs” like it’s a brute-force Broadway showstopper, which is how he always treated so many of its songs.
The Manilow version of “I Write The Songs” is almost oppressively huge, but it’s also firmly professional. It puts “I Write The Songs” in a position to succeed. Manilow sounds sincere when he’s singing it. And by slathering it in orchestral majesty, he gives it weird dignity that it doesn’t really deserve. Manilow’s treatment of “I Write The Songs” absolutely wrecks the Captain & Tennille and David Cassidy’s previous versions. But it’s not enough to turn “I Write The Songs” into a good song.
Manilow would continue to do well by belting out cheesy centrist ballads into the early ’80s. He will appear in this column again. As for Bruce Johnston, he released a 1977 solo album that missed the charts entirely. He did a bunch of vocal arrangements for other artists, including some for Pink Floyd on The Wall. (Pink Floyd will eventually appear in this column.) And in 1978, Johnston returned to the Beach Boys. He’s still a Beach Boy today. “I Write The Songs” won a Grammy for Song Of The Year. That award only goes to songwriters, so for many years, Johnston was the only Beach Boy with a Grammy. (Brian Wilson finally won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 2005. As a group, the Beach Boys have never won a non-honorary Grammy.) In his capacity as a Beach Boy, Johnston will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: The early rap super-producer Marley Marl built his 1988 Biz Markie/Heavy D collab “We Write The Songs” around the Biz’s heartfelt, atonal interpolation of “I Write The Songs.” Here it is:
(Biz Markie’s highest-charting single is 1989’s “Just A Friend,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 10. Heavy D never had a song in the top 10 — 1991’s “Now That We Found Love” peaked at #11 — but the Overweight Lover did co-produce Soul For Real’s 1994 hit “Candy Rain,” which peaked at #2. It’s an 8. As far as I can tell, the highest-charting Marley Marl-produced track is LL Cool J’s “Around The Way Girl,” which peaked at #9 in 1990. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Jermaine Dupri quoted “I Write The Songs” on his 1998 Jay-Z collab “Money Ain’t A Thang,” which peaked at #52. Here’s the video:
(Jay-Z will appear in this column eventually. So will Dupri, but as a producer, not an artist.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First & The Gimme Gimme’s snot-punk cover of “I Write The Songs,” from the 2008 album Have Another Ball!:
THE 10S: Sweet’s ripshit sugar-rush stomper “Fox On The Run” peaked at #5 behind “I Write The Songs.” I think it’s got a pretty face, and it’s a 10: