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.
At least in retrospect, the ’70s must have been the wildest, most motley, most all-over-the-place decade in the history of popular music. Some genuine musical revolutions either started in the ’70s or matured during the decade: Hip-hop, punk, disco, funk, prog. But if you look at the ’70s through the lens of the pop charts, as this column does, you see excitement and tedium locked in a constant struggle for dominance throughout the decade, with novelty sneaking around the outside and getting some jabs in.
So really, the ’70s ended the only way they possibly could’ve done: With a badly-sung, infernally catchy soft-rock ditty, an infidelity-themed story-song that ends in an O. Henry twist. Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” has popped up on movie and TV-show soundtracks countless times in the past four decades; it has earned its place within our shared consciousness. And yet I can’t imagine ever being in a situation where I would actively seek the song out, where I would want to hear it. But then, I was three months old when the thing hit #1. Maybe I’m not supposed to know what motherfuckers were thinking.
Rupert Holmes, the man who wrote and produced “Escape” and who thus owns the chart transition from ’70s to ’80s, had been part of the pop-music dream factory for a decade when he got to #1. Holmes was born in the UK, the son of an American Army officer and an English woman. He spent the early years of his childhood in the English village of Northwich and the later years in the New York suburb of Nanuet. Holmes’ parents were both musicians, and Holmes went to the Manhattan School Of Music on a clarinet scholarship. Pretty soon after he finished school, he went to work as a pop-music professional.
Holmes was working as an arranger in the late ’60s when he joined the Cuff Links, an anonymous bubblegum group that also featured Ron Dante, the lead singer of the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar.” When the Cuff Links broke up, Holmes recorded a song called “Jennifer Tomkins.” The single, released under the name Street People, peaked at #36. In 1971, Holmes wrote a cannibalism-themed joint called “Timothy” for the Pennsylvania band the Buoys, and that one peaked at #17. Holmes also wrote ad jingles and scored a little-seen 1970 Western called Five Savage Men. He was in the game.
Holmes released Widescreen, his solo debut, in 1974. Before 1979’s Partners In Crime, the breakout album that gave us “Escape,” Holmes knocked out four solo LPs. None of them sold, but those records helped Holmes build a name for himself as a writer of funny, irony-infused story-songs. Barbra Streisand was a fan, and Holmes wrote songs for her and for the absurdly popular soundtrack for the 1976 film A Star Is Born. Holmes didn’t score a charting single of his own until 1978’s “Let’s Get Crazy Tonight,” which peaked at #72. Private Stock, the label that released “Let’s Get Crazy Tonight,” went out of business when the song was still on the charts.
Holmes got the idea for “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” one night when he was flipping through The Village Voice, the newspaper that once employed me. (“Escape” is the second #1 hit built around classified ads; it arrived eight years after the Honey Cone’s “Want Ads.”) Inspired, Holmes hatched the narrative of a bored couple who, while attempting to cheat on each other, accidentally go out on a blind date with each other. As originally written, the chorus started with the line “if you like Humphrey Bogart.” While he was getting ready to record it, though, Holmes decided that his own songs had too many references to older movies, and to Bogart in particular. He changed “Humphrey Bogart” to “piña coladas” at the last possible minute simply because he didn’t want to let down any of the real Rupert Holmes heads out there.
If you stop to think about “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” for even a second, it’s a pretty nasty little song. The very first line is this: “I was tired of my lady/ We’d been together too long.” The song’s narrator is unhappy with relationship, but he doesn’t do anything to end it. Instead, he sneaks around behind his girlfriend’s back, falling for a sentence in a classified ad. The person described in that ad seems hopelessly basic. Likes: Fruity mixed drinks, rain, champagne, beach fucking. Dislikes: Yoga, health food. But apparently the guy is basic, too, since a few lines of small-print newsprint text are all he needs to ditch his relationship. He takes out his own ad, responding to the first, and he includes grandiose verbiage about planning an “escape.”
He does not successfully execute that escape. It turns out that the girl who took out that classified ad is his own girlfriend, who is just as bored with the relationship as he is. They meet up at an Irish pub and instantly figure out exactly what just happened. The song presents this ending as a happy surprise. In interviews years later, Holmes says that the guy was supposed to be an asshole, and a passive one. The girl, who is also attempting to cheat, was at least the one with the wherewithal to instigate the whole episode. Holmes was hoping that they’d both realize how much they had in common, that they’d recommit themselves to each other. This seems unlikely.
I have questions. For instance: Where does this couple go from here? They both know that they can’t trust each other. They also know that they don’t really know each other. They’ve got all these completely elementary preferences that they haven’t communicated. After that initial rush of recognition, how does the rest of this relationship look? How long do they stay together? How are they not incredibly pissed off at one another from the moment they spy each other across the bar? How are they not, at the same time, both consumed with guilt upon getting caught? I don’t like this couple’s chances.
I don’t know if this is a good story, but it’s good storytelling. I don’t much like the characters or where they end up, but Holmes sketches out the whole narrative in a few quick words, never losing sight of his own melody. This doesn’t change the reality that the actual music behind this story is exactly the kind of wack-ass soft-rock pablum that I cannot stand. It’s got an awkward, clumpy beat that Holmes recorded with two drummers. (Holmes co-produced it, and he says that the studio band played sloppily that day, so he used the 16 bars he liked the best and looped them.) There’s watery piano. There’s a processed-to-death guitar lead. There’s a groove that can’t stop tripping over itself. And then there are those vocals.
Holmes isn’t a bad vocalist, exactly. He a classic ’70s singer-songwriter guy, a conversational speak-singer. But man, I do not like what happens when he cranks that voice up and hits the hook on “Escape.” The hook is, to be fair, instantly memorable. But this is not always a good thing. Holmes hits that upper register, and I just wish I was someplace else. I don’t even know how people functioned when this thing was all over the radio.
Holmes managed one more big hit after “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” “Him,” the single’s follow-up, was another story-song. This time, Holmes sang from the perspective of a guy who figures out that his girlfriend is cheating. “Him” peaked at #6. (It’s a 4.) Holmes kept putting out albums into the ’90s, but none of them hit. He also went back to writing songs for other people. “You Got It All,” a ballad that Holmes wrote for the teenage Tongan-American Minneapolis-based Mormon family band the Jets, peaked at #3 in 1986. (It’s a 6.) Britney Spears, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, covered it on her debut album. Get ready to be incredibly depressed: Holmes wrote the song for his 10-year-old daughter. Before the song took off, she died of an undetected brain tumor.
I don’t know how you bounce back from something like that, but Holmes did. After “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” Holmes has had more success as a storyteller than as a musician. In 1985, Holmes wrote The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, a Broadway musical based on an unfinished Charles Dickens novel. It won five Tonys, including two for Holmes. Since then, Holmes has written more than a dozen plays, many of them hits. He also created Remember WENN, a drama that ran for three season on AMC in the late ’90s, and he wrote all 56 of its episodes. He’s published a few books, too. The man can write, and the best thing about “Escape” is that you can tell that right away.
But Holmes is a whole lot more famous for “Escape” than for anything else he’s ever done in his life. He’s pretty funny when he talks about it, too. In a 2003 Songfacts interview, Holmes said this:
I have a feeling that if I saved an entire orphanage from a fire and carried the last child out on my shoulders, as I stood there charred and smoking, they’d say, “Aren’t you the guy who wrote ‘The Piña Colada Song?'”
Perhaps Rupert Holmes would like to escape “The Piña Colada Song.” So would I.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 1999 episode of The Simpsons — the same storied episode that predicted the Trump presidency — where the not-aging-well future version of Bart sings a parody of “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” during his sister’s presidential addresss:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the weirdly extremely memorable “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” needle-drop from the 2001 film Shrek:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kanye West, noted fan of the aforementioned Shrek scene, quoting “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” on “White Dress,” a song that he contributed to the soundtrack of the 2012 RZA-directed kung fu movie The Man With The Iron Fists:
(Kanye West will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2014’s Guardians Of The Galaxy — which, like The Man With The Iron Fists, stars Dave Bautista — where Chris Pratt steals his Walkman back from the space-prison guard who is enjoying “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the great scene from a 2016 Better Call Saul episode where Bob Odenkirk sings a few bars of “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and spouts some fake biographical facts about Rupert Holmes: