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.
Minneapolis wasn’t funky enough for Steven Greenberg. That was the problem. “I wanted to get out of here,” Greenberg said years later. “The scene was very bland… A very vanilla market.” He wanted to make a move to a town that was right for him. A town that would keep him moving, keep him grooving with some energy. So he wrote “Funkytown.”
Greenberg, the son of a storage mogul, was a part-time record producer and a party and wedding DJ. He figured he could write his own disco song, and the song he wrote was one of the simplest, catchiest earworms ever to hit #1. Lipps, Inc. eventually became a full-on multiracial seven-piece band. (The name, I somehow only just learned, is a pun.) Early on, the project was just Greenberg. Then it was just Greenberg and Cynthia Johnson, a former beauty queen from Saint Paul who was working as a secretary for the police department. Johnson had experience; she’d sung lead and played saxophone for the local Minneapolis funk band Flyte Tyme. In 1979, Greenberg had written a disco song called “Rock It,” and he called Johnson cold, recruiting her to sing it after some friends recommended her.
“Rock It” got Lipps Inc. signed to Casablanca, and it did pretty well in the clubs, peaking at #64 on the Hot 100. Lipps, Inc.’s album Mouth To Mouth had already been out before “Funkytown” became a single. As soon as “Funkytown” came out, though, it became a worldwide smash, the kind of thing that continues to show up in commercials or on movie soundtracks for decades. It overwhelmed everything else that Steven Greenberg would ever do.
I’m both baffled and fascinated by the idea that “Funkytown” is a song that laments the lack of funkiness in Minneapolis. For one thing, “Funkytown” plays as a joyous work of total silliness, not of one person’s discontent. For another thing, Prince, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, had already been putting out records for two years when “Funkytown” hit. Pretty soon, mostly thanks to Prince’s efforts, Minneapolis would be known as, quite possibly, the funkiest town on earth.
For example: Flyte Tyme, Cynthia Johnson’s old band, would eventually recruit a new singer named Morris Day, and they would change their name to the Time. They’d fall into Prince’s orbit, play the villains in Purple Rain, and basically define absurdist theatrical funk for entire generations. (Prince produced and co-wrote the Time’s highest-charting single, 1990’s “Jerk Out,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 9.) Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, two of Cynthia Johnson’s former Flyte Tyme bandmates, will appear in this column many times as producers.
Steven Greenberg obviously had no idea that any of this was coming. (Greenberg never did leave Minneapolis. Sometimes, you just need to take a step back to appreciate the funkiness of your own town.) Some of the musicians who would later play in Lipps Inc., like Cynthia Johnson, would have various peripheral Prince connections. “Funkytown” sounds absolutely nothing like Prince, but it does bridge eras in a similar way, connecting the dying embers of disco to the bleepy synthpop that was still taking shape in 1980.
The thing I love the most about “Funkytown” is how it adapts Giorgio Moroder’s gleaming, synthetic Euro-disco sound, transforming it into something beautifully dinky and amateurish. Spiritually, “Funkytown” is a kind of cousin to ? & The Mysterians’ “96 Tears” — Midwestern amateurs bashing out a delirious, simplistic, insidiously catchy approximations of more-sophisticated imported sounds. (“Funkytown” is to Moroder as “96 Tears” is to the Rolling Stones.) Just like ? & The Mysterians, Lipps, Inc. caught a wave, fluked their way into a #1 hit, and went down in the annals of one-hit wonder infamy.
This sounds like faint praise. It’s not. “Funkytown” fucking rules. I like it even better than “96 Tears,” though I like it for many of the same reasons. “Funkytown” has personality. The song might have a backstory about dissatisfaction and wanderlust, but you can’t hear any of that in the finished product. Instead, “Funkytown” is all explosive absurdist sugar-rush joy, a vertiginous pile-up of explosive hooks.
“Funkytown” is, at base, a disco song. It’s got the thumping four-four beat, the vaguely utopian lyrics, the soaring but anonymous diva vocals. And yet the song’s chilly sparseness and its endless supply of dinky one-finger keyboard hooks look forward into the coming synthpop explosion of the ’80s. Johnson sings the intro verse through a vocoder that turns her voice robotic and inhuman. Almost every element of the track sounds programmed and processed — even the guitar and the saxophone.
The timing of all those little bits in “Funkytown” is just perfect: The galumphing drum sounds, the constant nattering cowbells, the chilly string refrain, the horn-beep sound-effect on the intro. And there are riffs. It’s laser-targeted pleasure-center music. The track remains metronomic, but it keeps piling on more cheap and appealing little blurts of sensation, especially in the definitive eight-minute 12″-single version.
Steven Greenberg idolized Kraftwerk, and “Funkytown” is funky the same way that Kraftwerk is funky. It’s stiff-funky — all those interlocking computerized parts finding their own primitive programmatic grooves. But Cynthia Johnson belts the song out with a real gospel-trained verve that the elevates the track. The two bring unlikely, opposite sonic sensibilities to the track. They shouldn’t work together, but they do.
There a weird racial thing going on with the “Funkytown” marketing. Given the band-name pun and all, Lipps, Inc. were probably supposed to be a totally faceless venture. But it’s still a bit weird that this song, sung by a black woman, only featured stylized white-lady faces in its cover art. And then there’s the best-known “Funkytown” music video. It’s hard to find a lot of information about this online, but it appears that someone hired a blonde British woman named Debbie Jenner to serve as the face of Lipps, Inc. in West Germany and the Netherlands. (“Funkytown” went to #1 in both countries.) In the music video, Jenner makes an absolute ham out of herself. Her dancing and lip-syncing are truly ridiculous. She looks for all the world like an Amy Poehler SNL character.
Now: This is obviously some racist-ass shit. Nobody should be hiring white people so that music made by black people can be more marketable. Thanks to a bit of that Debbie Jenner video appearing in a commercial for an early-’00s compilation of old pop songs, Debbie Jenner’s face is the one that my brain associates with “Funkytown.” And yet I can’t even be all that mad at it since the resulting video is so gloriously goofy. (Jenner went on to front a group called Doris D. & The Pins, who had a few “Funkytown”-esque hits in the Netherlands in 1981.)
Anyway, Cynthia Johnson turned out OK. Lipps, Inc. recorded three more albums after Mouth To Mouth, and none of their post-“Funkytown” songs charted on the Hot 100. Johnson left Lipps, Inc. in the early ’80s, and Steven Greenberg briefly replaced her with two other singers before dissolving Lipps, Inc. in 1985. Johnson went on to become a busy session singer and a member of Sounds Of Blackness, the gospel-inflected R&B group who had a number of black-radio hits on the ’90s. (Sounds Of Blackness only charted on the Hot 100 once; their 1994 single “I Believe” peaked at #99.)
“Funkytown” is a moment, a wonderful piece of bubblegum near-gibberish that spanned two different musical trends and wedged itself permanently into our collective unconscious. The song’s premise is faulty; plenty of funky Minneapolis songs will appear in this column. But then maybe “Funkytown” never was an actual place. Maybe it was always a state of mind.
BONUS BEATS: The Australian new wave band Pseudo Echo turned “Funkytown” into a global hit for the second time in 1986. Pseudo Echo’s rocked-up cover of “Funkytown” was a #1 hit in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and it peaked at #6 in the US. (It’s a 7.) Here’s the video for the Pseudo Echo version:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The UK dance-rock group Pop Will Eat Itself used one of the “Funkytown” synth riffs in their 1988 single “Def Con One.” Here’s the video:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the flashback scene from a 2004 Friends episode where Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston dance to “Funkytown”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Funkytown” soundtracking a big-city montage in the 2004 film Shrek 2:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Toro Y Moi’s video for “Empty Nesters,” a 2015 song that interpolates bits of “Funkytown”:
THE 10S: Gary Numan’s sleekly dystopian synth-banger “Cars” peaked at #9 behind “Funkytown.” It’s a 10.