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.
I can usually figure it out. Every time I write one of these columns, I look back at the context for a song that was, however briefly, the biggest single in the United States at some point in the past 62 years. Even when I don’t like the song, I can at least get some kind of grasp on what people heard in it, why it captured a nation’s ear. That’s the task I’ve set myself — to take a good, hard look at these songs and to figure out how they resonated the way that they did. With Air Supply, though? Fucking forget about it. No idea.
Air Supply have only had one #1 hit, but for about four years in the early ’80s, they were consistent monster hitmakers. Air Supply landed eight singles in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, all between 1980 and 1983. They were money in the bank. It’s absolutely confounding. I was technically alive when Air Supply’s run was happening; when they hit #1 with “The One That You Love,” for instance, I was a few weeks away from my second birthday. And yet “The One That You Love” still seems like an artifact from an alien civilization to me. I get nothing out of this stuff.
Consider Air Supply’s “The One That You Love” video. Russell Hitchcock’s hair forms a fuzzy four-inch halo around his weird, craggy little hobbit face. The light catches his deep forehead furrows and just gleams off of them. Hitchcock has the facial expression of a soap opera character who is in the middle of getting dumped. He stands there in front of his band, his arms hanging limply at his side, that stupid fucking tiger shirt on, just scream-whining greeting-card inanities. In clumsily-jammed-in flashbacks, he attempts to convey a feeling of romantic bliss but mostly just looks like he’s holding in farts. On the bridge, Hitchcock’s big, gumpy bandmate Graham Russell comes in, singing in a weird little baby voice that does not seem to fit his body at all.
It’s not that the video for “The One That You Love” is dated. It’s that I can’t imagine how anything about it was ever cool — how anyone, at any record label, looked at all of this and said, “We’ve got a hit here!” But somebody did say that. And that person was right. The video is an absolute mystery to me. The song does nothing to solve it.
Hitchcock and Russell met in 1975, when both of them were acting in an Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar. They started singing Beatles covers on the side, and pretty soon they’d formed a band. Their 1976 debut single “Love And Other Bruises” was a hit in Australia. The next year, the band opened for Rod Stewart in Australia, and Stewart liked them enough that he invited them to come tour North America with him. The band’s lineup kept shifting, and a couple of former Air Supply members eventually went on to form the Divinyls. (The Divinyls’ highest-charting single, 1990’s “I Touch Myself,” peaked at #4. It’s a 7.)
Air Supply’s big break came when Clive Davis latched onto their song “Lost In Love,” a 1979 single that had gotten to #13 in Australia. Davis heard money, and he signed Air Supply to Arista. A remixed version of “Lost In Love” became a huge US hit in 1980, peaking at #3. (It’s a 3.) Their follow-up “All Out Of Love,” probably Air Supply’s best-remembered song today, did even better, peaking at #2. (It’s a 5.) Air Supply had found a winning formula in making grand, hammy Barry Manilow-style soft-rock ballads, delivering them with big, demonstrative flourishes that testified to their musical-theatre roots. For a few years there, they just couldn’t miss. America was eating this shit up.
“The One That You Love” came right in the middle of a crazy hot streak; it’s the fourth of seven consecutive top-five singles. Nothing about “The One That You Love” really stands out; it just happens to be the one Air Supply song that went all the way. Graham Russell wrote the song, and the lyrics are just awkwardly banal romantic frippery: “Love is everywhere, I know it is/ Such moments as this are too few/ Oh, it’s all up to you/ It’s all up to you.” You could probably come up with some kind of story for these characters and this situation from those lyrics, but honestly, who could ever possibly give a fuck?
“The One That You Love” producer Harry Maslin is the same guy who co-produced Young Americans and Station To Station with David Bowie, which is honestly mind-boggling to me. Maslin does a real shit job with “The One That You Love.” The moment near the end where the strings come crashing in on the key change should theoretically be stirring and powerful, but all the sounds just melt together into a thick, warm soup, and nothing really stands out other than Hitchcock’s wail. It’s cheese, and worse, it’s ineffective cheese. And yet people bought it. I don’t know. I honestly have no idea.
After “The One That You Love” had its one-week run at #1, Air Supply kept making hits. In 1983, they got back up to #3 with “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All,” a song that theatrical cheese-master Jim Steinman wrote for them. (“Making Love Out Of Nothing At All” is a 6. Jim Steinman’s work will eventually appear in this column.) But then, just as mysteriously, Air Supply’s hits dried up. The band never had another top-10 US hit after “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All.”
Russell Hitchcock and Graham Russell are still doing it. Air Supply are still a band today, and apparently they’re really big in Asia. In 2018, for instance, an Air Supply jukebox musical opened up in Manila. Good for those guys, I guess. I don’t have to understand everything.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s David Anthony Higgins singing a ukulele cover of “The One That You Love” on a 2003 episode of Malcolm In The Middle: