The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Michael Sembello’s “Maniac”

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.

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Michael Sembello – “Maniac”

HIT #1: September 10, 1983

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

Steeltown girl Alex Owens is hard at work. She’s got big dreams of studying ballet, but right now, they’re just dreams. She’s holding down a factory job during the day and dancing at a strip club at night. When she has time, she works out, hard. We see her taping up her feet and stretching out in painful-looking ways. We see her shaking her majestic mane of hair, her face showing some beatific form of ecstasy. On the soundtrack, Michael Sembello sings that she’s a maniac, maniac on the floor, that she’s dancing like she’s never danced before. But it seems like she dances like this all the time.

Flashdance, the cinematic story of Alex Owens’ dance journey, opened in theaters in April of 1983. Five months later, Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” followed Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What A Feeling” as the second single from the Flashdance soundtrack to hit #1. The film was one of the big hits of that year, but its theatrical run must’ve been over by the time “Maniac” hit its apex. The Flashdance soundtrack had its own shelf life — one long enough that “Maniac” was able to top the pop charts in September, when American moviegoers had moved on to Mr. Mom.

“Maniac” wasn’t supposed to be a song about a Steeltown girl on a Saturday night. Instead, it was supposed to be a song about a vicious pet murderer. Sembello and his songwriting partner Dennis Matkosky wrote “Maniac” after seeing a slasher flick — possibly Maniac, possibly The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The song’s original chorus: “He’s a maniac, maniac, that’s for sure/ He will kill your cat and nail him to the door.” (I would like to hear that version, but sadly, the demo has been lost to history.)

Sembello was friends with Phil Ramone, a producer who’d worked on big hits from Paul Simon and Barbra Streisand and Billy Joel. Ramone was working as the music supervisor for Flashdance, and he called Semebello to ask if he had any possible songs for the soundtrack. Sembello sent over a tape, not realizing that he’d accidentally included “Maniac” on it. Ramone liked “Maniac” the best of Sembello’s songs, but he suggested a crucial change. That cat-killing lyric wouldn’t really work for the Jennifer Beals sweat montage. “Maniac” got a rewrite and became an early-’80s aerobics-class time capsule.

Maybe it’s telling that “Maniac” didn’t have to change too much in its journey from acid black comedy to uptempo dance-pop strivers’ anthem. Many of the big hits of 1983 were driven by fear and darkness and paranoia: “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Every Breath You Take,” “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This).” If “Maniac” had kept its original lyrics, maybe it would’ve fit in better with that bunch, though it never would’ve had the chance to join them at #1. In its final form, though, “Maniac” might be the fluffiest, most optimistic #1 single of its moment. The mania that Sembello describes is simply ambition — the most insanely sane type of mania.

Sembello wasn’t quite 30 when “Maniac” reached #1, but he’d been kicking around the music business for well over a decade. Sembello grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, and he earned a place in Stevie Wonder’s band when he was a 17-year-old jazz guitar student. Sembello played with Wonder for years. He’s on just about every album from Wonder’s classic ’70s run, and he plays lead guitar on Wonder’s 1977 #1 single “Sir Duke.” From there, Sembello moved to Los Angeles and found work as a session musician and songwriter. In 1981, Sembello and Matkosky co-wrote “Mirror Mirror,” a #8 hit for Diana Ross. (It’s a 5.) In 1982, Sembello released his first single as a solo artist, the theme for the movie Summer Lovers.

“Maniac,” Sembello’s one big hit, is some real archetypal early-’80s dance-pop, and despite the showy shredding of its guitar solo, it doesn’t really offer any clues that it comes from a guy who played a role in Stevie Wonder’s golden era. Sembello’s voice is reedy and anonymous. Sembello tries to convey the urgency of the situation, but his voice isn’t up to it. The music underneath him is glossy and precise and mechanistic. The lyrics are pure mythic inanity: “Changing woman into life”? “A dancer becomes a dance”? “On the ice-thin little line of insanity is a place most never see/ It’s a hard-won place of mystery?” What the fuck is Michael Sembello talking about?

“Maniac” has some big drums and a cool little synth riff, but all that really sets it apart is its hook, which is the kind of thing that absolutely refuses to leave your head for days at a time. That chorus, and the image of Jennifer Beals shaking her head around, are the only reasons that “Maniac” was able to make any kind of cultural mark. Otherwise, “Maniac” isn’t maniacal at all. In an era when virtually every song that topped the Hot 100 was a hugely important moment-defining blockbuster, “Maniac” is simply average.

“Maniac” might’ve originally had some different lyrical concerns, but in its final form, it’s total movie-soundtrack stuff. Sembello sings about the Jennifer Beals character, and then the Jennifer Beals character dances to his song about her. I’ve always wondered about musical cues like that in movies. Is Alex Owens dancing to this song, which is obviously about her? Or is the song just on the soundtrack? We don’t know. It’s fun to imagine that she hears the song and knows it’s about her — that she’s put most of her stripping and steelworking money toward commissioning her own personalized soundtrack album.

Sembello released his debut album Bossa Nova Hotel a couple of weeks after “Maniac” hit #1, and it produced one more minor hit: “Automatic Man,” which peaked at #34. “Maniac” was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar, but it lost to “Flashdance… What A Feeling.” Sembello went on to contribute songs to more movies, like Gremlins and Cocoon, but he never made the Hot 100 again. Instead, he went back to his behind-the-scenes life, doing production and songwriting for people like Chaka Khan and New Edition. But Sembello always be the guy who joined Stevie Wonder’s band at age 17, and he’ll also always be the guy who hit #1 with a song that, once upon a time, was about a dead cat nailed to a door.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Elvira dancing to “Maniac” in the Flashdance-parody bit from the 1988 film Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Chris Farley singing “Maniac” in 1995’s Tommy Boy:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Bounty Killer and Richie Stephens interpolating “Maniac” on a 1996 collaboration that’s also called “Maniac”:

(As a lead artist, Bounty Killer’s highest-charting US single is the 1998 Mobb Deep/Big Noyd collab “Deadly Zone,” which peaked at #79. But Bounty Killer appeared on No Doubt’s 2001 single “Hey Baby,” which peaked at #5. “Hey Baby” is a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Groundskeeper Willie singing “Maniac” on a 1997 episode of The Simpsons:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Keri Hilson singing a bit of “Maniac” on Timbaland’s 2009 track “The One I Love”:

(Keri Hilson’s highest-charting track, the Ne-Yo/Kanye West collaboration “Knock You Down,” peaked at #3. It’s a 5. Timbaland will eventually appear in this column.)