The Number Ones

June 30, 1979

The Number Ones: Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

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.

One night in the middle of July 1979, a baseball game turned into a drunken anti-disco clusterfuck riot. That night, the Chicago White Sox were scheduled to play a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers at Comiskey Park. White Sox owner Bill Veeck had a reputation for running wild promotions to get people to buy tickets to the games, and that night, his son Mike had gotten together with a Chicago rock-radio DJ named Steve Dahl to plan a big show that would go down in between the games: Disco Demolition Night. If fans brought in a disco album to be blown up, they’d only have to pay 98 cents to get in. Tens of thousands showed up. By some estimates, it was the biggest crowd in White Sox history — though, since so many of them crashed the gate, it’s hard to be sure.

Dahl, wearing some kind of mock army uniform, exploded a vast crate of records in between games, and the drunk and rowdy crowd erupted out of the stands immediately afterwards. They lit fires. They tore up the field. They ignored any and all pleading to return to their seats. Eventually, police had to clear the field, and the White Sox had to forfeit the second game, since there was still debris strewn everywhere.

In the decades since, there has been a great deal written about Chicago’s Disco Demolition Night. Disco was a form of underground music that had improbably risen up out of New York’s black and gay clubs to conquer the pop charts. It upended social norms, changed fashion and drugs, and moved the balance of music-business power away from the petty-aristocrat California singer-songwriters who’d been running things up until then. From a music-history standpoint, it’s possible to see disco as a great democratizing force, a push to turn pop music into something fun and silly and cheap and glamorous. When people like Chic’s Nile Rodgers describe Disco Demolition Night as a fascist rally, that’s what they’re talking about.

I wasn’t there, wasn’t born yet, so I don’t actually know what the tenor of the disco-sucks movement was. By the time of Disco Demolition Night, disco was a sweeping, overwhelming, hegemonic cultural force. It’s possible that people were mad about the idea that their music was being pushed to the side. It’s just as possible, I think, that people were just kind of assholishly huffing about pop music, something we’ve all done.

For the three or four years before Disco Demolition Night, disco really had taken over the charts, to the point where music that wasn’t at least disco-adjacent had a hell of a time selling records in America. I can see how some people would’ve gotten sick of that. When Steve Dahl made fun of disco, he tended to characterize it as rich-cokehead music — yuppie music, though people weren’t using the term “yuppie” yet. This is just the kind of bad-faith caricaturing of other subcultures that just about everyone does — the 1979 equivalent of Kid Rock and Eminem snarling about boy bands. The Bee Gees and John Travolta, the most visible avatars of disco, had nothing to do with disco’s gay underground roots. I don’t know if Dahl even knew anything about that.

I tend to think of Disco Demolition Night less as a conscious re-marginalization move and more of a sort of chaotic drunken mob-rule episode. The kids on that field in Chicago were mostly too young to have taken part in any sort of ’60s anti-war movement, but they were old enough to watch it on TV. So there was a playbook for getting fucked up and attacking the powers that be. The kids doing it just didn’t have a real obvious target anymore. They turned against the guys in the silk suits on TV, and they had themselves a sloppy-ass party about it.

Whatever the actual intent behind Disco Demolition Night and the whole attendant disco-sucks movement, though, it had an effect. Disco Demolition Night did not instantly kill disco; dance songs still dominated the charts for a few months afterward. But the backlash was real, and it turned things around. Disco stars like the Bee Gees and Donna Summer had a much harder time scoring hits after 1979, and the focus of the charts shifted — not toward the Zeppelin-style rock that Dahl and his followers seemed to prefer, but toward the chintzy soft-rock balladry that had ruled the charts before disco’s rise. Dance-pop stayed around, and it stayed successful, but those once-dominant disco sounds mutated into other things.

Something was lost in that anti-disco moment. Consider the song that happened to be the #1 single in America on the evening of Disco Demolition Night: A fun, frisky lightweight dance jam full of barely-disguised sex metaphors and catchy-as-hell hooks. It came from an unknown singer on a tiny regional indie label, and it was cheap and grabby and full of funky cross-rhythms and synth sounds that, at the time, were cutting-edge. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a great piece of music, and it got to have its moment. When disco fell into disfavor, songs like that went away, too.

Anita Ward was working as an elementary school teacher when she recorded “Ring My Bell,” and she was still working as a teacher when it started climbing the charts. Ward, a Memphis native, had sung gospel as a kid, but she didn’t have any grand designs on a singing career. When she was studying psychology at Rust College in Mississippi, a school administrator had heard her auditioning for a role in Godspell, and he’d offered to become her manager. That manager got Ward together with Frederick Knight, a guy who’d been a semi-successful Stax Records singer earlier in the ’70s. (Knight’s one big hit, 1972’s “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long,” peaked at #27.) Ward was supposed to record a few songs as a demo with Knight, but Knight liked her voice, and they ended up making a whole album together.

“Ring My Bell” was one of the last songs they recorded. Ward, who loved singing ballads, didn’t even like the song, but Knight convinced her that they needed a fast one. He’d originally written “Ring My Bell” for Stacy Lattislaw, an 11-year-old kiddie-R&B singer who he’d been trying to sign to his label Juana Records. But Lattislaw instead signed with Cotillion Records, where she had some success in the ’80s. (Lattislaw’s highest-charting single, 1980’s “Let Me Be Your Angel,” peaked at #21.) As originally written, “Ring My Bell” had been a silly song about kids talking on the phone. For Ward, Knight reworked it as a sex-drunk disco jam.

Knight didn’t want to make the song too sexy, since Ward was a clean-living Christian girl. But “Ring My Bell” is pretty obvious nonetheless. Ward has said that “Ring My Bell” isn’t necessarily about sex, that any meaning is in the ear of the beholder. But. I mean. Come on. “I’m glad you’re home/ Now did you really miss me?/ I guess you did, by the look in your eyes/ Well, lay back and relax while I put away the dishes/ Then you and me can rock-a-bye.” She’s not talking about calling on the phone. He’s right there, home from work, she’s putting away the dishes. (The dish thing is a weird detail. Couldn’t the dishes wait? Does anyone get more horny doing housework?)

Really, though, the “Ring My Bell” lyrics barely matter. They’re ecstatic gibberish, especially once the song hits its glorious “ringit ringit ringit owww!” coda. Ward sings it in a breathy, high-pitched jazzy tone, and she’s got a great chemistry with her backup singers, who are constantly cutting in jubilantly. Together, they hit a huge, world-swallowing hook, the kind of thing that immediately propels the song deep into your brain matter: “You can ring my beee-eee-eeelll! Rrring my bell!”

Almost all the instruments in the mix serve the song’s beat. There’s a scratchy guitar, a hard-popping bass, and actual bell. Frederick Knight plays all the percussion, and he puts in work. There’s a whole lot of percussion on the song, including a synthetic drum, a new thing at the time. Knight really goes off on a cowbell, too. I’m not sure there’s ever been better cowbell work on a #1 single. The whole song is one big insistently wormy groove. It’s loopy and dumb and irresistible, and it works better when it goes on longer. For my money, the extended eight-minute version is the superior one.

“Ring My Bell” would be it for Anita Ward. She only charted once more, later in 1979, when “Don’t Drop My Love” peaked at #79. Ward made a few more records that went nowhere, then got into a bad car accident on tour and mostly walked away from the record business. She went back to teaching, though she occasionally still performs.

I love a story like “Ring My Bell,” a little record that comes out of nowhere and then captures a nation’s brain through sheer force of sexed-up catchiness. Those stories kept happening after Disco Demolition Night, after the very idea of disco became a pop-culture punchline. But it still seems profoundly ridiculous that all that anti-disco sentiment happened to come to a boiling point when “Ring My Bell” was at #1. Because how could anyone get mad about “Ring My Bell”? “Ring My Bell” is great!

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince built a 1991 single, also called “Ring My Bell,” out of a hip-house “Ring My Bell” interpolation. Here’s their video for it:

(Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince’s “Ring My Bell” peaked at #20. The duo’s highest-charting single, 1991’s “Summertime,” peaked at #4. Will Smith will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tori Amos’ pretty-great alt-rock “Ring My Bell” cover, recorded for a 1992 NME compilation:

(Sadly, Tori Amos has no top-10 hits. Her highest charting single, 1998’s “Spark,” peaked at #49.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Luniz sampled “Ring My Bell” on a song that’s also called “Ring My Bell,” which they contributed to the soundtrack of the 1996 movie A Thin Line Between Love & Hate. Here it is:

(The highest-charting Luniz single, 1995’s “I Got 5 On It,” peaked at #8. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene in the absurd 2010 movie The Book Of Eli where Denzel Washington and Mila Kunis get the rare post-apocalyptic treat of hearing “Ring My Bell” on a cranked-up Victrola:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Maya Rudolph singing about erasing the earth over “Ring My Bell” on a 2020 episode of The Good Place:

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