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.
There’s a longstanding urban myth about “Love Rollercoaster,” the second and final #1 hit from Dayton funk freaks the Ohio Players. About midway through the song, we can hear a sustained, high-pitched screech — a sound that someone might make while riding a rollercoaster, or while really, really enjoying having sex. Someone, somewhere, decided that this was the sound of a woman being murdered. There were different versions of the rumor. Like: It was a recording of a woman falling from a rollercoaster and dying. Or: It was the model from the Honey album cover, accidentally dripping hot honey on herself during the album-cover photoshoot and howling. The loopiest, most far-fetched version of the story was that it was the model from the Honey album cover being murdered by the Ohio Players’ manager. (In this iteration, she’d barged into his office and threatened a lawsuit after injuring herself via hot honey.)
None of those stories was true. The scream was just Ohio Players keyboardist Billy Beck, letting loose with the sort of sound that you might make if you were in a funk band and riding a particularly nasty groove. (It’s not even the only deep-in-the-mix scream on “Love Rollercoaster.”) But when those rumors started up — and they started up almost immediately — the members of the band agreed that they’d never correct the story. If someone asked them about the scream in an interview, they would not comment. That silence only encouraged the rumor-swirl, and it might have been part of the reason that “Love Rollercoaster” hit #1 almost exactly a year after the Ohio Players had first topped the charts with “Fire.”
Really, though, “Love Rollercoaster” presumably hit #1 mostly because it was both infernally catchy and uniquely suited to its cultural moment. By the early weeks of 1976, disco was well on its way to conquering American pop music. The Ohio Players didn’t make disco, but their wild-eyed, streamlined funk wasn’t all that far removed from the genre. And “Love Rollercoaster” was a fast and efficient funk song, one jammed with instantly identifiable hooks. Like plenty of disco acts — and, for that matter, plenty of funk bands — the Ohio Players didn’t really bother with lyrics. Instead, “Love Rollercoaster” is just a couple of phrases repeated over and over. The band doesn’t even develop the song’s central metaphor. They insist that your love is like a rollercoaster, baby, baby. But their only explanation is this: “I wanna ride.” Fair enough. The sprightly, pulsating groove and the general lack of subtlety were fully on-trend.
The Ohio Players’ tracks came out of long, free-wandering studio jam sessions. The members of the band all got songwriting credits on “Love Rollercoaster,” and they all produced it together, too. There’s an origin story to the song. The Ohio Players had just been through a scary, turbulent flight. When they got off, someone commented that they must be committed to their jobs if they were willing to endure a “love rollercoaster” like that flight. That, in any case, is the version of the song’s origin story that the band members have repeated. I’m not sure it’s any more real than the murder-scream. After all, “Love Rollercoaster” is not the kind of phrase that you’d need a near-death experience to coin.
“Love Rollercoaster” doesn’t really have a structure, and it doesn’t need one. It’s a big, goofy, exhilarated groove. It dips and swerves and varies, but it never pauses. The single version is less than three minutes long, but it seems like it could keep going forever. Elsewhere on the 1975 album Honey, the Ohio Players played around with balladry, attempting to wander into soul-desolation breakup-song territory. But “Love Rollercoaster” is simply an endorphin-rush song. It doesn’t even sound like sex; there’s no longing, no building tension. It sounds like a dog sticking its face out the window out of a moving car. It sounds like elation.
I prefer the deep, noise-addled nastiness of “Fire” to the playful goofiness of “Love Rollercoaster,” even taking into account the tricky, vaguely Stevie Wonder-ish keyboard squirm-riff that might be the secret “Love Rollercoaster” weapon. On “Fire,” the Ohio Players’ vocals were full-throated roars. On “Love Rollercoaster,” they’re pinched upper-register squeaks. If I’m not in the right mood, those voices can become oppressive within 30 seconds. But it’s still glorious that a song this simple, this raunchy, and this deeply silly managed to hit #1.
The Ohio Players would never make it into the top 10 again after “Love Rollercoaster,” even though they kept cranking out records into the ’80s. In the last couple of decades, most of the members of the original lineup have died. But the Ohio Players’ place within pop-chart history will always be secure. In a time of clean, professional pop music, the band managed to land two different pieces of horny, sweaty, cartoonish funk at the top of the charts. That, and not the fake murder story, is the narrative they deserve.
BONUS BEATS: Brooklyn boho-rap greats the Digable Planets built their 1994 Blowout Comb single “Blackitolism (9th Wonder)” around a slowed-down “Love Rollercoaster” sample. Here’s the video:
(“Blackitolism (9th Wonder)” peaked at #80. Sadly, the Digable Planets never had a top-10 single; 1992’s “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” only made it as high as #15.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Salt-N-Pepa also rapped over a “Love Rollercoaster” sample on 1996’s “Champagne,” their contribution to the soundtrack of the Adam Sandler/Damon Wayans buddy-cop movie Bulletproof. Here it is:
(Salt-N-Pepa’s highest-charting single is the ebullient En Vogue collab “Whatta Man,” which peaked at #3 in 1994. It’s a 9.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Also in 1996, the Red Hot Chili Peppers covered “Love Rollercoaster” for the soundtrack of the great cinematic epic Beavis And Butt-Head Do America. They added the Anthony Kiedis quasi-rapping that I guess someone thought the song needed. The Chili Peppers’ version of the song was a top-10 hit in the UK, where the Ohio Players’ original never charted. Here’s the Chili Peppers’ animated video:
And here’s the Beavis And Butt-Head Do America montage where Beavis and Butt-Head dance to a casino band’s rendition of “Love Rollercoaster”:
(The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ highest-charting single, the plaintive 1991 heroin ballad “Under The Bridge,” peaked at #2. It’s a 9.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2006’s Final Destination 3 where two young women, both of whom are about to get fried to death in their tanning beds, sing along to “Love Rollercoaster”: