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.
In the first few months of 1981, two different women hit #1 in the US with big, brassy, cheery down-the-middle midtempo songs about the 40-hour workweek. In fact, the Scottish singer Shena Easton’s “Morning Train (Nine To Five)” originally came out in the UK as “9 To 5.” For its American release, it had to get a new title so that nobody would confuse it with the Dolly Parton banger that had the exact same name. That’s a pretty weird coincidence! I have no idea how things like that happen!
Given that the two songs landed at the same time, it’s impossible to avoid comparing Parton’s “9 To 5” to Sheena Easton’s “Morning Train (Nine To Five).” That’s not exactly fair. Dolly Parton, who wrote her own hit, is an American treasure and a living deity. Florrie Palmer, the British woman who wrote “Morning Train (Nine To Five),” doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. But I can’t resist. The contrast is too rich.
In Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5,” she’s the one out there working, dealing with bullshit bosses who take credit for her ideas. But on “Morning Train (Nine To Five),” Easton doesn’t work at all. Instead, she sits around all day, bored, waiting for her baby to make it home from his job. It’s a conservative fever dream: A woman whose happiness is entirely dependent on her man’s labor, and who seems perfectly content with this.
Easton herself was not a conservative fever dream, and she was nothing like the character she played on “Morning Train.” When Easton scored her one American #1, she’d just turned 22, but she’d already been married and divorced. (The #1 song in America when Easton was born: The Fleetwoods’ “Come Softly To Me.”) Easton, like Dolly Parton, came from a big and poor family. She was born in the Scottish steel-mill town of Bellshill, the youngest of six kids. When Easton was 10, her father died, and her mother had to provide for all those kids herself. Easton says she decided to become a singer after watching Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were.
Easton’s career might be the earliest possible example of the reality-TV effect. In 1979, the 20-year-old Easton auditioned for a BBC documentary series called The Big Time. The show followed young nobodies who were trying to become famous, and Easton became one of those nobodies. The Big Time producers arranged for Easton to get an audition with EMI, but if EMI decided not to sign her, the show wasn’t going to use the footage of her. An EMI A&R guy was impressed, and the BBC cameras followed Easton as she inked her deal, recorded a couple of singles, and watched the first of those singles crash and burn.
It’s weird to watch the footage from The Big Time now. Even with cameras pointed at their faces, various radio and label people weren’t shy about being total fuckheads on Easton’s career prospects. In that episode, we watch as Easton’s debut single, the dance-pop song “Modern Girl,” peaks at a disappointing #56 on the UK charts. But when The Big Time aired in the UK in 1980, both “Modern Girl” and “Morning Train,” Easton’s follow-up, became huge hits. Both were in the UK top five at the same time. Pretty soon afterward, “Morning Train” became Easton’s first American single.
In the decades since, we’ve seen variations of this story again and again. It’s a whole lot easier for the public to get behind somebody once we’ve seen that somebody struggle and fail on TV. This was a new phenomenon in 1980, and it makes sense, in retrospect, that Easton was able to break through in the US the way she did. It’s a bit more surprising that “Morning Train” hit in the US. Like a lot of UK hits, “Morning Train” has a cheap and chintzy and clumsy sheen to it. It sounds like somebody’s halfway-effective attempt at replicating old American pop music.
The best thing that “Morning Train” has going for it is its big, silly chorus, the kind of thing that will absolutely rattle around in your head all day. That chorus does everything it can to save the song. Easton sings it with the enthusiasm that it demands. Vocally, she delivers everything with musical-theater hamminess. It’s not great, but it works for the song. Easton’s voice on “Morning Train” is thin and a bit anonymous, especially since she hides her great Scottish accent. But she does what she needs to do with that hook.
The real problem with “Morning Train” is everything else. The song has a clomping, graceless music-hall beat, a cheap synthetic oompah that doesn’t have the first idea of how to move. The verses are weak and inert. The session-musician saxman needs to be violently murdered. And then there are the lyrics.
Look: It’s possible to write a compelling pop song where a woman sits around all day, waiting for her man to get home from work. It’s been done. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil did it in 1962. The Crystals’ “Uptown,” which peaked at #13, is a near-perfect piece of music, and it tells the same story. But on “Uptown,” lead Crystal Barbara Alston is full of sympathy for the indignities that her man faces during his working day, and she’s determined to make their home a haven. There’s an unspoken racial component to the song: The world robs this man’s dignity, and she does everything she can to restore it. That’s powerful. There’s nothing powerful about “Morning Train.”
Instead, “Morning Train” is an absolutely empty-headed piece of writing. Easton’s narrator literally just seems to sit around bored, waiting for this guy: “All day I think of him/ Dreaming of him constantly/ I’m crazy mad for him/ And he’s crazy mad for me.” Easton is only happy when the man gets home. They have sex, they go to a restaurant, and they go to a movie, possibly not in that order. We don’t find out what the man does; we only learn that he’s willing to “work all day to earn his pay, so we can play all night.”
In the video, Easton’s baby seems to work on the train, as a conductor or something. There’s nothing in the song that specifically contradicts that, though it’s got to suck if you have to take a train to work and then your work is on a train, and then you have to take another train back home. That’s too many trains.
Point is: Sheena Easton did not exactly present an interesting pop-star persona on “Morning Train.” But Easton still had a good career that took her in a bunch of different directions. Later in 1981, Easton sang “For Your Eyes Only,” the theme from the James Bond flick of the same name. (“For Your Eyes Only” peaked at #4. It’s a 4.) Easton won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1982. That year, she moved into adult-contempo country, duetting with Kenny Rogers on the 1982 Bob Seger cover “We’ve Got Tonight,” which peaked at #6. (It’s a 5.) She made a Spanish-language album in 1984, and she won a Grammy for it. And then she met Prince.
On her 1984 album A Private Heaven, Easton jumped into funky ’80s dance-pop. This was extremely good timing. Funky dance-pop had a great year in 1984. Prince, the circa-1984 king of funky dance-pop, took an interest, and he wrote Easton’s remarkably horny single “Sugar Walls,” which peaked at #9 and made Tipper Gore extremely uncomfortable. (“Sugar Walls” is an 8. Prince will appear in this column a bunch of times.)
Prince and Easton kept working together for years. They wrote songs together. They performed together. They may have dated, though Easton has denied it. Working with Prince, Easton became a presence on American R&B radio, which I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted after “Morning Train.” Easton won’t be in this column again, but she made it up to #2 with 1988’s “The Lover In Me,” a squelchy new jack swing-adjacent dance-pop jam that she recorded with writers and producers LA Reid and Babyface. (“The Lover In Me” is a 7. Babyface’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “When Can I See You,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8. As writers and producers, Babyface and Reid will both show up in this column eventually.) Easton also sang on Prince’s 1987 single “U Got The Look,” another one that peaked at #2. Easton didn’t get a featured credit on “U Got The Look,” but she’s in the basically-perfect video, and you’ve never seen a pretty girl look so tough. (“U Got The Look” is a 10.)
Easton didn’t score any US hits after the end of the ’80s. In the ’90s, she made a jazz record, acted in a couple of Broadway musicals, and played a few different voice roles on Gargoyles, a cartoon that I happen to love dearly. (Gargoyles is on Disney+ now, and I’ve been rewatching it with my kids. That motherfucker holds up.) Easton also got married and divorced three more times, and she raised some kids. She still occasionally tours and acts. She’s not exactly a star anymore, but she’s still had a much, much better run than “Morning Train” promised.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Morning Train (Nine To Five)” soundtracking a George-fakes-a disability montage on a 1997 episode of Seinfeld:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2004 film EuroTrip where a couple of hapless Americans avoid a Vinnie Jones-led soccer-hooligan beatdown by singing “Morning Train (9 to 5)”:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Grover Washington Jr. and Bill Withers’ elegant smooth-soul reverie peaked at #2 behind “Morning Train (Nine To Five).” It’s an 8.
THE 10S: Juice Newton’s howling, mythic country-rock power ballad “Angel Of The Morning” — a cover of a 1968 Merrilee Rush song — peaked at #4 behind “Morning Train (Nine To Five).” Maybe the sun’s light will be dim and it won’t matter anyhow, but it’s a 10.
(The original Merrilee Rush “Angel Of The Morning” peaked at #7. It’s a 7.)