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.
A mechanistic drum pounds out a steady, basic thump. Keyboards make noises — blips, pings, squirts, hums — that sound strange and spartan and alien while still somehow resolving into catchy melodies. A British man deadpans absurdist non-sequiturs, sounding bored but also excited by his own boredom. There’s a video, shot in a stark white studio, full of mirrored sunglasses and skinny suits and women who wear blank expressions and move like robots. In 1979, M’s “Pop Muzik” probably came across as a curiosity, or maybe even as a novelty. But that’s not what it was. “Pop Muzik” was the future.
“Pop Muzik” is pop music, and yet “Pop Muzik” is also outside of pop music. On some level, “Pop Muzik” is a commentary on pop music — an intentionally stiff and awkward pastiche that took delight in its own nonsense. It’s art that takes pains to point out its own artificiality. And yet “Pop Muzik” is also a pretty sublime piece of pop music, a merciless earworm.
From where I’m sitting, M’s “Pop Muzik” is the first real new wave song ever to hit #1 on the US charts. There are other candidates, of course. Blondie and the Knack, two bands that shared a producer and very little else, are both understood as new wave acts, and both of them got to #1 before M did. But “Heart Of Glass” is essentially disco, and “My Sharona” is retro-minded garage rock, British Invasion pastiche. Neither song would’ve been possible without punk, and both represented shifts in popular taste. But “Pop Muzik,” at least to me, is the real jumping-off point — the song that set the stage for the MTV-aided synth-pop invasion that wouldn’t even begin in earnest for another couple of years.
M was an unlikely innovator. Robin Scott, the British man behind the initial, was a long-tenured music-business journeyman for years before he landed on his one true hit. When he made it to #1 in the US, Scott was 32, and he’d spent years trying different things and never breaking through. Scott, as you can probably tell from one listen to “Pop Muzik,” had been an art school kid. While attending Croydon Art College in the late ’60s, he’d become friendly with future Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren. In 1969, Scott released a folk album called Woman In The Green Grass. It went nowhere. Like his buddy McLaren, Scott would keep trying different things for the next decade. As with his buddy McLaren, he’d fail again and again before finally striking gold.
Over the course of the ’70s, Robin Scott made music in a bunch of different modes: Prog, white R&B, pub-rock. He produced the band Roogalator, part of the mid-’70s London pre-punk wave. Scott also started up the indie label Do It Records, which released the first Adam And The Ants album. (Adam And The Ants never had a US top-10 single, but frontman Adam Ant did get to #12 with 1982’s “Goody Two Shoes.”) For a while, Scott moved to Paris and did some production work for the Slits. Then he took on a whole new identity, figuring that it was what he needed to break through. He looked out the window one day, saw the “M” of the Paris Metro, and figured that would be good enough.
Scott released “Moderne Man,” the first M single, in 1978. It didn’t chart anywhere. “Pop Muzik” was his follow-up. He’s said that he needed to record the song three times before he got it right. He tried the song as both R&B and funk. Neither worked. Then he brought in the keyboards, doing an otherworldly all-synthetic take on the song that was inspired, at least in Scott’s telling, by Donna Summer. (It’s probably also worth noting that Blondie were trying to make something Donna Summer-esque with “Heart Of Glass.” Donna Summer was probably more important to the sound of new wave than the Ramones or the Sex Pistols were.)
Musically, “Pop Muzik” is closer to disco than it is to punk rock. Drummer Phil Gould pounds out a steady four-on-the-floor boom. (Around the same time “Pop Muzik” hit #1 in the US, Gould co-founded Level 42. Level 42’s highest-charting US single was 1985’s “Something About You,” which also featured “Pop Muzik” keyboardist Wally Badarou and which peaked at #7. It’s a 6.) The keyboard squiggles sound like cheaper versions of the weird sounds that Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte were making for Donna Summer. The hooks don’t bludgeon; they nag.
And since pop music in 1979 meant disco, “Pop Muzik” is essentially about disco. Scott later said that he envisioned himself speaking as a disco DJ, floating above the crowd and making ridiculous voice-of-God statements. Talking to Melody Maker at the time, he explained, “I get the feeling that people want to know that someone is in control. I see everybody in the disco like being in an enormous army which is waiting to be told what to do. They’ve all rallied under this call, and now they’re sweating out their hang-ups there.”
That sounds potentially apocalyptic, but Scott also came at disco from a place of reserved affection. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits years later, Scott said, “Whereas rock ‘n’ roll had created a generation gap, disco was bringing people together on an enormous scale.” And yet Scott’s distance from disco might’ve helped the song take off in America. “Pop Muzik” didn’t hit #1 over here until six months after it had peaked at #2 in the UK. At that point, straight-up disco was struggling in America, but slightly refracted post-disco sounds were booming. “Pop Muzik” fit the bill.
Scott’s lyrics on “Pop Muzik” are deliriously silly and nonsensical: “Let’s do the milkshake, selling like a hotcake/ Try some, buy some, fee fi fo fum.” But there’s also a part where Scott straight up says, “Wanna be a gunslinger? Don’t be a rock singer.” On the hook, the backup singers, including Scott’s wife Brigit Novik, blankly recite doo-wop gibberish. Elsewhere, Scott mocks the rock ‘n’ roll canon that was really only about a decade old at the time: “I can’t get ‘Jumping Jack’, I want to hold ‘Get Back‘/ Moonlight, Muzak, knick knack paddy wack.” That’s not quite “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” but it’s coming from the same place. (There must’ve been a lot of that going around at the time. In the UK, the Clash released the “London Calling” single a month after “Pop Muzik” hit #1 in the US.) (The Clash’s highest-charting US single, 1982’s “Rock The Casbah,” peaked at #8. It’s a 6.)
“Pop Muzik” works as an art object, especially if you factor in director Brian Grant’s video, which parodies the Saturday Night Fever opening shots and casts Robin Scott as a besuited and expressionless cyborg DJ. But “Pop Muzik” is also sticky and memorable. The synth-bleeps and horn-stabs are sharp and well-timed. The chemistry between Scott and the backup singers, icy as they all might be, works wonders. The whole song has a sense of excitement to it, as if everyone involved knows that they’re getting away with something. And the songcraft is just mercenary, too. The whole thing might’ve been a grand art-student stunt, but they knew nobody would pay attention if they didn’t make it catchy. They overdelivered. “Pop Muzik” will absolutely stick in your head all day. Scott’s chanted refrain — “New York London Paris Munich/ Everybody talk about pop music!” — is gibberish, but it’s glamorous gibberish. You hear it, and you want to talk about pop music. “Pop Muzik” gives you plenty to talk about.
Someone must’ve seen a future in Scott. Scott recorded the first M album, 1979’s New York · London · Paris · Munich, in Switzerland, and new wave inspiration David Bowie came through to contribute handclaps. But nothing else stuck. “Pop Muzik” is the only M single that ever charted in the US. A few singles did hit the UK charts, but nothing came near the top 10. For the next few years, Robin Scott would make music with an interesting array of characters — Ryuichi Sakamoto, Adrian Belew, Thomas Dolby, Gang Of Four’s Andy Gill. Scott would record his final M album in 1984. He still occasionally records today.
M was a definitional one-hit wonder, but “Pop Muzik” is a hell of a legacy in itself. The song prefigured synth-pop, introduced straight-up no-joke new wave into the American mainstream, helped establish the MTV aesthetic that would soon play a vital role, and worked as its own indelible mantra. Robin Scott can always talk about “Pop Muzik.”
BONUS BEATS: During 1997’s PopMart tour, U2 came onstage every night to a deeply shitty “Pop Muzik” remix. Here it is:
(U2 will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the also-shitty “Pop Muzik” cover that Tricky and DJ Muggs released as a B-side in 1999: