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.
It’s February of 1979, just before dawn, and a Jamaican crime boss is having an eventful night. He’s rounding up and killing the gunmen who recently tried to assassinate a reggae star. He’s learning of the ties that these gunmen had to the CIA and a Colombian drug cartel. He’s thinking about his own past, all the violence that he’s committed. He’s idly considering the possibility of kidnapping Mick Jagger and holding him for ransom. By the time the sun comes up, he will be dead.
This whole time, there is a song in the crime boss’ head. It moves through him, melting his skepticism, telling him things about himself. It’s a blood pulse and a dark joke. It soundtracks his entire inner monologue: “The lyrics penetrate. Shadow dance for true. We shadow dancing as soon as light set to go. What done in darkness can never come back to light.”
That moment, from Marlon James’ great 2014 novel A Brief History Of Seven Killings, gets at something powerful about “Shadow Dancing,” the Andy Gibb smash that was Billboard‘s #1 single of 1978. “Shadow Dancing,” at least ostensibly, is a love song. But it doesn’t sound like love. The lyrics are vague. The vibe is chilly, elliptical, sinister. Shadow dancing doesn’t sound like something that you’re supposed to do. It could just as easily be a song about cocaine, or about giving in to something dark.
Andy Gibb was 20, a new father, freshly divorced. His first two singles, “I Just Want To Be Your Everything” and “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” had both hit #1. His much-older brothers in the Bee Gees were right in the middle of their absolutely dominant streak. Less than a year after releasing Flowing Rivers, his debut album, Andy would come out with Shadow Dancing, the follow-up. And for the lead-single title track, he’d gotten together with his brothers, knocking something out quickly.
Gibb later said that it only took him and his brothers 10 minutes to come up with the “Shadow Dancing” chorus. The Bee Gees were in Los Angeles, filming their disastrous movie version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the one big blotch on their magnificent year. During a break from filming, Andy and his brothers had themselves a writing session, working together as a unit to concoct “Shadow Dancing.” When Andy recorded the song, big brother Barry Gibb sang backup, and he co-produced it with Bee Gees collaborators Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson, just as he’d done with Andy’s other two #1 hits.
“Shadow Dancing” is by far the biggest of Andy Gibb’s three #1 singles, and it’s also by far the best. That’s probably because it’s the most disco. The song isn’t an all-out banger the way some of the Bee Gees’ other 1978 smashes were, but it moves in ways that Andy’s ballads just don’t. The production is rich and layered, full of sly little touches: The light scratches of the guitar, the unobtrusive bass-pops, the insinuating electric-piano flourishes. Barry Gibb arranged the strings himself, and those strings strut along with the rhythm track, slipping in and out of it. The vocals percolate just beneath the surface of the song.
Andy Gibb wasn’t the singer that his brothers were, but “Shadow Dancing” is where he fully snaps into focus. He breathes with the track, sounding lost and desperate but also nebulously predatory. On the chorus, Barry and Andy lock in together, singing in near-identical harmony, the two of them quietly panting deep in the mix.
On paper, Andy is singing about finding redemption in love: “You got me looking at that heaven in your eyes / I was chasing your direction, I was telling you no lies.” There’s frustration in it, too: “How can I hold you when you ain’t even mine? / Only you can see me through, I leave it up to you.” But I don’t think the Gibbs thought too hard about those lyrics, and I don’t think too many of the people listening thought too hard about them either. Instead, what matters is the danger and exhilaration implied in that hook: “Do it right, taking me though the night / Shadow dancing, baby you do it right.” We never find out what, exactly, shadow dancing is. Our imaginations can do that work for us.
After hitting #1 with his first three singles, Andy Gibb had nowhere to go but down. He was already starting to live a decadent young life when he was still flying high on those three singles, and that life started to get him in trouble. After “Shadow Dancing,” Gibb scored a few more hits. But the end of the disco boom hit the Bee Gees hard, and it hit Andy hard, too. After 1980’s “Desire” peaked at #4, Andy Gibb never scored another US top-10 hit. (“Desire” is a 6.)
During those spotlight years, Andy had developed a serious cocaine addiction. By 1981, RSO Records had dropped him. In the early ’80s, Andy starred in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on Broadway and hosted a season of Solid Gold with Marilyn McCoo, but cocaine made him so unreliable that he sometimes didn’t show up, so he got fired from both gigs. The drugs also cost him his relationship with Dallas star Victoria Principal.
Eventually, Andy found help. He spent time in rehab clinics and kicked his dependencies. He was working on a comeback album, and the Bee Gees had also talked about making him a full-time member. But in March of 1988, Gibb was hospitalized for chest pains, and he died five days after his 30th birthday. All that coke had inflamed and weakened his heart, and an inflammatory heart virus killed him. Andy Gibb tried, but he never came back to light.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lauren Graham car-dancing to “Shadow Dancing” on a 2003 episode of Gilmore Girls:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Skrillex chopping up a “Shadow Dancing” sample on his 2010 single “Ny Name Is Skrillex”:
(Skrillex has never had a top-10 hit as lead artist. His highest-charting single, the 2016 Rick Ross collab “Purple Lamborghini,” peaked at #33. But Skrillex did make it up to #8 with “Where Are Ü Now,” the 2015 Justin Bieber track that he and Diplo released under the name Jack Ü. “Where Are Ü Now” is a 10. Skrillex also co-produced at least one song that will appear in this column.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: The former Stealers Wheel frontman Gerry Rafferty’s noir-dazed soft-rock simmer “Baker Street” peaked at #2 behind “Shadow Dancing.” It’s a 9.
THE 10S: ABBA’s colossal, bulletproof ultra-pop harmony party “Take A Chance On Me” peaked at #3 behind “Shadow Dancing.” It’s magic, and it’s a 10.