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.
The title comes up in gleaming white cursive letters, looking like the old ’50s Chevrolet logo, as an ominous synthetic drone rings out on the soundtrack. That drone gets louder and louder, and then there’s an itchy drumroll, like an engine working to turn over. Suddenly, we cut to an image — the spinning wheel of a black Mercedes, flying down a California highway — just as the guitar comes crashing in. A young and impossibly handsome Richard Gere is driving that convertible, his hair blowing in the wind, his face frozen and impassive. He’s got on a designer suit, and he barely looks human. Debbie Harry screams and snarls and coos, and we watch as Gere cooly shops for even more expensive clothes, flirts with a saleswoman, kisses the neck of a fur-coated woman. It’s all just so glamorous.
This is the opening of American Gigolo, the 1980 film from Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader. Schrader was, and is, a misanthropist to the core, and this fashionable facade will turn out to be a thin shell. Gere’s character is a male hustler. We’ll see him beaten and bedraggled, framed for murder and fighting for his life. Schrader only establishes this glamorous image to break it down, to reduce it to atoms. And yet those first few frames are what we remember. They, and the song that accompanies them, will linger.
By 1980, Giorgio Moroder had conquered pop music, helping transform his longtime collaborator Donna Summer into the biggest star of disco’s final boom period. He’d also begun to change the way Hollywood sounded. Moroder scored Midnight Express, his first film, in 1978, and he won an Oscar for it. Moroder’s sound, chilly and distant and futuristic, resembled nothing else in pop music or in film. He was a natural to score American Gigolo, the story of this blank-faced sex worker getting in over his head. The project would lead Moroder to years of collaboration with the young producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the former ad executive who would quickly perfect a very ’80s blockbuster aesthetic.
We can see that aesthetic at work in that opening scene. Moroder had composed the score, a hard-pulsing disco-rock thump not too distant from what he’d done with Donna Summer on the Bad Girls album. Moroder’s years of collaboration with Summer were winding down by 1980, and he figured that this opening number should be a rock song. Moroder wanted Stevie Nicks to sing the opening number, but Nicks’ contract wouldn’t allow her to work with Moroder. So Moroder turned to Debbie Harry, the leader of the New York punk band whose first #1 single had been a loose attempt at Moroder’s detached disco depravity.
A year earlier, Blondie had hit #1 with “Heart Of Glass,” a shimmering blank-faced quasi-disco jam. Neither Blondie nor producer Mike Chapman had any idea how to make Moroder-style disco, so they essentially taught themselves, and they wound up making something unforgettable. “Heart Of Glass,” had been Blondie’s first Billboard Hot 100 hit, and it made them into stars. But Blondie’s follow-ups were only minor hits. (“One Way Or Another” peaked at #24. “Sunday Girl” peaked at #27.) It would take a team-up with a real disco master to bring Blondie back to the top.
“Call Me” is Moroder’s American Gigolo score transformed into a pop song, something Moroder knew how to accomplish. The first time Debbie Harry heard that music, she was at Paul Schrader’s hotel, watching a rough cut of American Gigolo on video. Immediately thereafter, Harry went home and wrote the lyrics to “Call Me.” She was writing from the perspective of the Richard Gere character — always on call and available for love, at a price.
Harry has never sounded more like a straight-up rocker than she does on “Call Me.” Where she’d sung “Heart Of Glass” as an icy flirt, she became a snarling, wailing human id on “Call Me.” She belts the sound out with a feverish sense of devotion, but she’s not looking for love. She’s looking for money. “Roll me in designer sheets,” she pleads. “I never get enough.” On the second verse, she demands that a customer call her in Italian, and then in French. In the definitive extended eight-minute version of “Call Me,” from the American Gigolo soundtrack album, she demands, “Take me out and show me off and put me on the scene/ Dress me in the fashion of the 1980s.” The single came out exactly 32 days into the new decade. Debbie Harry could just tell.
The other members of Blondie don’t have a whole lot to do with “Call Me,” though we shouldn’t discount the boys in the band all yelling the title phrase on the chorus. Harry could’ve released it as a solo track. It’s a clear collaboration between Moroder and Harry, one that finds an ideal midway point between their sounds. The track is sleek and efficient, a mechanistic marvel. It hurtles forward, and yet Moroder weaves bittersweet synth melodies into all the bombast. But there are also feverish guitar-fuzzbombs everywhere, and Harry goes full werewolf, cranking her intensity up all the way. “Call Me” isn’t disco, and it damn sure isn’t punk. It’s the next thing. It whips you along into the sleazy neon future.
American Gigolo was a mild success upon arrival, but “Call Me” turned out to be the real star of the movie. The song became the year’s biggest single. It fully established Blondie as chart dominators, and it announced Moroder as someone who could thrive in the period after disco, especially when his sounds were paired with Hollywood imagery. It’s an immaculately designed work of engineering — an ideal pairing of European precision and American muscle. There was talk of Blondie recording a whole album with Moroder after the single’s success, but Moroder found working with the band too messy. That album could’ve probably been amazing, but no matter. Blondie and Moroder will both appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Previous chart-toppers Alvin & The Chipmunks covered “Call Me” on their 1980 album Chipmunk Punk. (If you think about it, Alvin promising “sweet delight” really foreshadows that whole Richard Gere gerbil urban legend.) Here’s that:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Debbie Harry performing “Call Me” on a 1981 episode of The Muppet Show:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene in the 1998 film Bride Of Chucky where the bride of Chucky gets all primped up while “Call Me” plays on the soundtrack:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s some extremely shaky footage of No Doubt covering “Call Me” with Garbage’s Shirley Manson and the Distillers’ Brody Dalle at a 2002 show in Long Beach:
(No Doubt’s highest-charting single, the 2002 Ivy Queen collaboration “Underneath It All,” peaked at #3; it’s an 8. As a solo artist, No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani will eventually appear in this column. Garbage have never had a top-10 US hit; their highest-charting single, 1996’s excellent “Stupid Girl,” peaked at #24.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Dandy Warhols’ 2003 cover of “Call Me,” included as a B-side on their “We Used To Be Friends” single: