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 takes some real balls to claim that your creepily-horny song is really a concerned-about-social-issues song. That’s the story that Nick Gilder attempted to tell when his panting power-popper “Hot Child In The City” randomly ascended to #1 for a single week. Talking to Rolling Stone at the time, Gilder seriously attempted to pass off a song that is literally titled “Hot Child In The City” as a lament about the plague of child prostitution in Los Angeles: “I’ve seen a lot of young girls, 15 and 16, walking down Hollywood Boulevard with their pimps. Their home environment drove them to distraction, so they ran away, only to be trapped by something even worse. It hurts to see that, so I tried writing from the perspective of a lecher — in the guise of an innocent pop song.”
You don’t have to spend too much time with “Hot Child In The City” to hear that it’s not an innocent pop song. It is also, quite plainly, not about how sad it is to see teenage sex workers out walking the Sunset Strip. Instead, “Hot Child In The City” is a Tex Avery cartoon-wolf song, a downright filthy awooga about both wildly horny and excited to be wildly horny. Fortunately — or, hell, maybe unfortunately — “Hot Child In The City” is also a jam.
There’s at least a vague possibility that “Hot Child In The City” is the first new wave song ever to hit #1, though that’s probably a stretch. Gilder came from glam-rock. Born in England but mostly raised in British Columbia, Gilder had first found Canadian fame leading the Vancouver glitter-rock band Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd got together in 1975, and they hit #1 in Canada with the 1976 shuffle-screamer “Roxy Roller,” another song that was definitely not the slightest bit conflicted about how horny it was: “Foxy from the Roxy might turn some heads tonight / Flashlight dream, peaches and cream delight.”
When “Roxy Roller” blew up in Canada, Gilder and his bandmate James McColloch left Sweeney Todd and moved to Los Angeles, and they released their own version of “Roxy Roller” in the US. Their old bandmates, meanwhile, kept Sweeney Todd going and replaced Gilder with a series of frontmen. (One of those frontmen was Bryan Adams, who will eventually appear in this column.) Sweeney Todd tried releasing two of their versions of “Roxy Roller” in the US to compete with Gilder’s. Gilder’s solo take on the song got as high as #90 on the Hot 100; neither of the other versions charted. Apparently, that was enough for Gilder to get his foot in the door and to find the exact right producer.
The right producer was Mike Chapman, the Australian who’d come up working with UK bubble-glam stars like Sweet and Mud. Chapman would turn out to be a hugely important figure in the rise of American new wave, and with Gilder’s “Hot Child In The City,” he landed his second consecutive American #1. (It hit the top spot right after Exile’s Chapman-produced and co-written “Kiss You All Over,” which is also very horny but which otherwise sounds nothing like “Hot Child In The City.”) Its yelpy, polished hooks call back to glam and forward to what would become new wave, though they really have nothing to do with punk, the thing that came in between those two genres.
“Hot Child In The City” doesn’t sound much like anything that was happening in circa-1978 American pop, but that contrast works for it. Chapman sings in a strangulated hiccup, a high-pitched androgynous yip that communicates a certain desperation. The song, which Gilder co-wrote with his old bandmate James McColloch, is full of sticky riffs that jab and growl and purr. And Gilder manages to do all those things with his voice, too.
“Hot Child In The City” is a dirty song that somehow becomes dirtier when you learn Gilder’s explanation of why it’s not actually dirty. Early on, Gilder describes this particular hot child in drooly terms: “Danger in the shape of something wild / Stranger dressed in black, she’s a hungry child.” Later on, Gilder paints a picture of what happens with this hot child is running wild and looking pretty: “When she goes downtown, the boys all stop and stare / When she goes downtown, she walks like she just don’t care.” And then, on the bridge, he straight-up propositions her: “Come on down to my place, baby, we’ll talk about love / Come on down to my place, woman, we’ll make love.” He delivers that last love and a drawn-out scream — “lawwwwwwve! — and then follows it up with a hesitating gasp. It is truly blatant.
There is absolutely no redeeming social value to a song like “Hot Child In The City,” and matters get worse when Gilder attempts to pass it off as something other than what it is. God knows it’s creepy; there is no reason Gilder couldn’t have just called it “Hot Girl In The City” or something instead. But the song works, possibly in spite of its creepiness and possibly because of it. It’s a tight, well-constructed rocker that’s produced about as well as a song like that could be produced. It gleams.
Gilder followed up “Hot Child” with a single called “Here Comes The Night,” and it peaked at #44. He never got anywhere near the top 10 again. Instead, he spent the ’80s as a soundtrack-rock guy, contributing songs to movies like The Wraith and Youngblood. Gilder also wrote tunes for an absolutely random assortment of musicians: Bette Midler, Joe Cocker, Pat Benatar, my beloved Maryland glam-metal crew Kix. (Gilder co-wrote the new-wavey “Body Talk,” from Kix’s straight-up classic 1983 album Cool Kids. Kix, tragically, have no top-10 hits; they peaked at #11 with the 1989 monster ballad “Don’t Close Your Eyes.”)
Only one of the songs that Gilder wrote in the ’80s was an actual honest-to-God hit. “The Warrior,” which Gilder and Holly Knight co-wrote for Scandal featuring Patty Smyth, peaked at #7 in 1984. (It’s a 7.) I don’t know what Gilder was doing in the ’90s and ’00s. A few years ago, though, Gilder reunited with Sweeney Todd. They’re still playing now. Gilder won’t be in this column again, though Mike Chapman will.
Honestly, Gilder was probably born about eight years too early. By the mid-’80s, Sunset Strip glam-metal bands were blowing up with songs that felt a whole lot like “Hot Child.” Gilder’s yippy tenor would’ve fit in just fine in that scene, and he wouldn’t have had to adjust his sound too much. In that scene, Gilder never would’ve had to act like he was above his own horniness.
BONUS BEATS: It’s not embeddable, but there’s a 2013 video of Kelly Hogan and Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan covering “Hot Child In The City” on what appears to be a double-decker bus for the AV Club’s AV Undercover series. You can watch it here.