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.
MTV started broadcasting in August of 1981. Music videos had already existed, in one form or another, for more than a decade. Some artists, like Queen, had already figured out how to use videos to juice up their personas. MTV didn’t immediately conquer popular culture, either; it would be more than a year before the network really started to shape the charts. But the beginning of MTV still stands as a landmark in pop-music history — the genesis of an era when flash and spectacle became pop-stardom prerequisites. So it feels karmically appropriate that the man who had the #1 song in America on MTV’s first day was some guy from TV.
The Australian-born Rick Springfield grew up between his homeland and the UK. As a young man, he led a few bands. One of them was Zoot, which became an early-’70s teenybop sensation in Australia. Zoot broke up in 1971, and Springfield had an Australian hit with his debut solo single “Speak To The Sky.” Shortly thereafter, Springfield moved to the US and signed with Capitol. “Speak To The Sky” is a weak oompah-fart bubblegum song, but it did well in the US, peaking at #14. Springfield kept making records after that, but most of them landed with dull thuds, something he attributes to record companies who wanted him to fit into the unthreatening teen-idol mold better than he could.
After a few years of struggling, Springfield, on the advice of an actual teenager, got into acting. For a while in the mid-’70s, Springfield was dating the Exorcist star Linda Blair. (She was 15, and he was 25. Not great! They’re still reportedly friends, though.) Blair encouraged him to try out acting, and for a while, Springfield became the sort of stiffly good-looking guy who would show up for a week on The Rockford Files or The Incredible Hulk. In 1981, Springfield became one of the stars of the massively successful soap opera General Hospital, where he played the perfectly named Dr. Noah Drake. His timing was good.
Around the time that Springfield started his General Hospital run, he came out with Working Class Dog, an album of solidly punchy power-pop that had a bit of a muscly, Springsteenian tinge to it. This was Springfield’s fifth album, and it could’ve easily fallen flat the way his others had. But Springfield had written a direct, plainspoken lead single about a debilitating crush on a friend’s girlfriend — a classic bubblegum-pop scenario. That song, combined with his new TV exposure, made Springfield, however briefly, into a pop star. The cover of the “Jessie’s Girl” single advertised Springfield as Dr. Noah Drake from General Hospital.
Springfield says that he wrote “Jessie’s Girl” about a particular girl, though he doesn’t remember her name or anything else about her. (Springfield was once a guest on Oprah, and the producers tried to find the “Jessie’s Girl” girl, but they didn’t have any luck.) Springfield had been taking a class on making stained-glass windows, and he’d gotten to know a guy named Gary, as well as Gary’s girlfriend. Springfield was into this girl, this girl was into Gary, and Springfield knew that “Gary’s Girl” was not a good name for a song.
“Jessie’s Girl” pretty much rules. It’s not new wave, exactly, but it’s driven by the same sense of simplicity that powered a whole lot of new wave. Producer Keith Olsen, former bassist for ’60s garage-rock greats the Music Machine, urged Springfield to shorten and tighten the song. The studio craftsmanship just sparkles: The clicking guitars, the bleating synths, the way the vocals explode out on the chorus. And it’s got hooks piled up on top of hooks; it’s’ the sort of song where the melodies on the verses are good enough to be choruses. The song’s tension-and-release dynamics serve a purpose. Springfield is both horny and upset, and that goes from low boil to frustrated tantrum at all the biggest, most dramatic moments.
“Jessie’s Girl” is a fundamentally silly song — a guy in his early thirties venting his rage about an extremely teenage romantic dilemma. Some of the lyrics are awkward and ungainly: “You know I feel so dirty when they start talking cute/ I wanna tell her that I love her, but the point is probably moot.” Springfield is presumably a smart enough guy to know how goofy he sounds, but he never smirks. Instead, he brings all his soap-opera hamminess to the song, smoldering through the quiet bits and firing up to rock harder on the hook. He knows how to sell that silliness.
Springfield presumably made the “Jessie’s Girl” video before MTV, but it’s still a great example of early-MTV aesthetics at work. Springfield looks faintly ridiculous in a stereotypical-greaser leather jacket, mooning after the girl in the video. He makes his intentions plenty clear, and he and Jessie don’t seem to like each other much. (Steve Antin, the actor who played Jessie, would go on to play the asshole Troy in The Goonies. He also directed 2010’s Burlesque, a vehicle for both Number Ones all-star Cher and future Number Ones subject Christina Aguilera.) During one melodramatic beat, Springfield acts out his frustration by smashing his bathroom mirror with his guitar. And then there’s the final-shot plot twist, where Jessie and his girl are watching Springfield play “Jessie’s Girl” — the two of them sitting behind the formally-dressed bull terrier from the Working Class Dog album cover.
In some ways, the Rick Springfield of “Jessie’s Girl” might be an early example of a durable ’80s type: Square-jawed sub-Springsteen mainstream rockers who played around with synths and set their sights fully on the radio. Others, like John Cougar Mellencamp and Bryan Adams, will eventually appear in this column. (Springsteen himself never will, unless you count “We Are The World.”)
Springfield never had another smash on the level of “Jessie’s Girl,” but he had a decent run as a consistent hitmaker for a few years in the early ’80s. He got to #2 with the 1982 single “Don’t Talk To Strangers.” (It’s a 5.) And Springfield was able to land a single in the top 10 as late as 1984, when “Love Somebody” peaked at #5. (It’s a 7.)
After Springfield’s pop career faded, his acting picked back up, and he went back to his old life as a guy who was on TV sometimes. He starred on mostly-forgotten shows like Nick Knight and High Tide. He spent time on Broadway. He went back to General Hospital for a few years in the ’00s. He played a sexed-up version of himself on a few episodes of Californication. Springfield had a pretty big year in 2015, acting opposite Meryl Streep in Jonathan Demme’s Ricki And The Flash and showing up in season two of True Detective. He also wrote a reportedly-pretty-good memoir in 2010. He’s still out there, still working.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s pro-wrestling manager Jimmy Hart’s “Jessie’s Girl” parody “Eat Your Heart Out, Rick Springfield,” a contribution to the WWF’s 1985 compilation The Wrestling Album:
(Jimmy Hart has never had a top-10 single as a solo artist, but in his pre-wrestling life, he was a singer for the Gentrys, whose 1965 single “Keep On Dancing” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the extremely tense scene from 1997’s Boogie Nights where Alfred Molina sings along with “Jessie’s Girl” and claims to be a friend of Ricky Springfield:
(Mark Wahlberg will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Craig Robinson singing “Jessie’s Girl” and playing keyboard with his tongue in 2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Jessie’s Girl” cover that the Finnish metal band Children Of Bodom released in 2012:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Rick Springfield playing “Jessie’s Girl” with the Foo Fighters at one of Dave Grohl’s Sound City shows in 2013:
(The Foo Fighters don’t have any top-10 hits. The band’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “Best Of You,” peaked at #18.)