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.
Yacht rock was not a genre. In the ’70s and ’80s, nobody used that term. It’s a retrospective thing — a mid-’00s web comedy series that went viral enough to reclassify an entire era of American pop music. But the music itself was just sitting there, begging to be reclassified. Songs like Player’s “Baby Come Back” never really belonged to any particular genre, but they very much belong to their era.
If Player had a genre, it was soft rock. The members of Player were studio guys, guys whose various previous music ventures hadn’t really gone anywhere and who came together in a not-totally-organic way. The music that they made wasn’t rock or disco or blue-eyed soul, but it sounded a bit like all those things. It sounded a lot like what Daryl Hall and John Oates were making at the time, but those guys were at least trying to make their own version of Philly soul. Player were not. They were simply making pop music. And in the late ’70s, pop music — non-disco pop music anyway — sounded like what we now know as yacht rock.
Player singer and guitarist Peter Beckett was a Liverpool native who’d auditioned for Badfinger and played in the prog-rock band Paladin. Later on, he moved to Los Angeles and spent some time in a group called Skyband. One night at a party, Beckett met a Texan musician named JC Crowley, and they got together and started playing music. Pretty soon, they filled out the rest of the band with similar pop-journeyman types. Drummer John Friesen had been an assistant musical director for the Ice Follies; bassist Ronn Moss had played in one band called Punk Rock and another called Count Zeppelin And His Fabled Airship. Keyboardist Wayne Cook had briefly been a member of Steppenwolf in the mid-’70s period when Steppenwolf weren’t making hits anymore.
Player recorded their self-titled debut album for Haven Records, but that label went out of business before they got a chance to release it. So Player moved over to Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood’s RSO label. Player’s one big hit “Baby Come Back” eventually replaced the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” at #1, and it helped set the stage for the ridiculously dominant run that RSO would enjoy in 1978. Player didn’t really have anything to do with the Bee Gees, but their music had some of the same cinematic sheen to it, and the checks that they generated helped to keep Stigwood on top of the world.
Peter Beckett and JC Crowley wrote “Baby Come Back” together. Both of them had recently broken up with girlfriends, and they put that into “Baby Come Back,” a song about regret and loneliness. Beckett sings lead, getting quietly melodramatic and attempting drawn-out soul notes: “All day long, I’m wearing a mask of false bravado/ Trying to keep up a smile that hides a tear/ But as the sun goes down, I get that empty feeling again/ How I wish to God that you were here.” But the part everyone remembers is the chorus, where Beckett, Crowley, and Moss sing together in yelpy harmony: “Baby come back! You can blame it all! On! Me!/ I was wrooooong! And I just can’t live without you!”
While the players in Player sing about being wracked with regret, the song itself tells a different story. The track is a mellow, easy lope, recorded with clean precision. Moss’ bassline is a pleasant amble. Crowley and Cook’s keyboards sound expensive. Near the end, Beckett launches into a showy guitar solo that’s a little bit too triumphant for what the song is supposed to express. This is wind-in-your-hair music, purple-skies-at-sunset music. The lyrics say I care, and the music says I actually don’t care at all. It’s a weirdly compelling combination.
“Baby Come Back” is a slick, catchy song that doesn’t sound even remotely emotional. The members of Player don’t sound like regretful ex-boyfriends. They sound like sort of scumbaggy ex-boyfriends who are performing their own regret, and not doing it all that convincingly. That’s the quality that landed “Baby Come Back” in all those Swiffer commercials a little more than a decade ago.
One of my roommates in college was a huge emo guy who drove a cool-as-hell ’89 Ford Probe and who loved “Baby Come Back.” At one point, he made a mix CD for everyone in the house, and it had “Baby Come Back” nestled in there next to Bright Eyes and Mineral and Sunny Day Real Estate. “Baby Come Back” didn’t fit in with that stuff at all, and I think that’s what he liked about it. Its sincerity is so insincere that it jumps right out at you. It’s also exactly the kind of song that sounds amazing when wafting out of the tinny sound system of an ’89 Ford Probe.
After “Baby Come Back,” Player would only land one more single in the top 10. “This Time I’m In It For Love,” another song from their self-titled debut, peaked at #10 later in 1978. (It’s a 5.) Player spent the year opening for people like Eric Clapton and Heart on tour, and they released their sophomore album Danger Zone in that same year. But toward the end of the year, the band members got into a bad fight, and Peter Beckett left the group. Player kept recording in various different configurations, for various different labels, for years afterward, but they didn’t have any more success. These days, when they play, they mostly play on Yacht Rock Revue-type shows. Various current and former members of the band have also sued each other over the rights to the name.
The different members of Player did just fine for themselves on their various different endeavors. Beckett wrote and co-wrote ’80s songs for people like the Temptations, the post-Lionel Ritchie Commodores, and the pre-Control Janet Jackson. He co-wrote Olivia Newton-John’s 1983 “Twist Of Fate,” which peaked at #5. (It’s a 6.) In the late ’80s, he joined the Little River Band, an Australian group who’d had success around the same time as Player were having their run, and he toured with that band for eight years, singing “Baby Come Back” at their shows. (Little River Band’s highest-charting single, 1978’s “Reminiscing,” peaked at #3. It’s a 4.)
JC Crowley moved to Nashville and made a couple of minor country hits in the late ’80s, and people like Johnny Cash and the Oak Ridge Boys recorded songs that he’d written. Ronn Moss turned to acting. In 1987, he started playing Ridge Forrester on the CBS daytime soap opera The Bold And The Beautiful, and he kept playing that role for the next 25 years. He still looks great. He looks like he owns a boat of some sort.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Biz Markie rapping over a “Baby Come Back” sample on his 1989 song “Things Get A Little Easier”:
(Biz Markie’s highest-charting single is 1989’s “Just A Friend,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the moment, from a 1992 episode of The Simpsons, where Homer discovers that “Baby Come Back” is the hold music at the Department Of Missing Babies:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the moment in Michael Bay’s 2007 film Transformers where Bumblebee attempts to use “Baby Come Back” to help Shia LaBeouf woo Megan Fox:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Freeway rapping over a “Baby Come Back” sample on his 2008 track “Doing Anything”:
(Freeway doesn’t have any top-10 singles. His highest-charting single is the 2002 Beanie Sigel collab “Roc The Mic,” which peaked at #55 even though I remember it being huge.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2014 version of Player, including Peter Beckett and soap opera veteran Ronn Moss, playing “Baby Come Back” on an episode of General Hospital:
THE 10S: Styx’s majestic, melodramatic, utterly preposterous prog-pop opus “Come Sail Away” peaked at #8 behind “Baby Come Back.” A gathering of angels appeared above my head; they sang to me that this song is a 10.
(Styx will eventually appear in this column.)