The Number Ones

January 21, 1984

The Number Ones: Yes’ “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

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.


Selling out gets a bad rap. Usually, that bad rap is justifiable. But every once in a while, selling out will absolutely fucking rule. Some artist will compromise an overarching vision in a thirsty quest for money or mass acceptance, and you will think to yourself: Yes. Good job. You figured it out. “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” is one of those moments. Yes, leading lights of the ’70s prog aethersphere, reconstituted themselves, upended their sound, and came out with an absolute banger that, at least for me, is galaxies beyond anything they’d done before.

“Owner Of A Lonely Heart” is a craven pop-chart move from a band who’d previously specialized in exploratory, filigreed pomp-rock. It’s a total betrayal of everything that the band had done before. Not coincidentally, it also kicks ass. Sometimes, things work out like that.

“Owner Of A Lonely Heart” wasn’t supposed to be a Yes song. The band that recorded the song wasn’t even supposed to be called Yes. Yes had broken up. They were finished. The members of the band wanted to move onto other things, and they only assented to calling themselves Yes because their label demanded it. The primary songwriter of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” hadn’t ever been a member of Yes, and he was uncomfortable with the song coming out under that name, with that history attached. The history of the Yes franchise was already plenty complicated before “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” had come to be. But the song became by far the biggest hit from a band who had once made a point of recording songs that couldn’t become hits, almost by design.

Yes started off as a nightclub band in late-’60s London, and their lineup went through a bunch of different permutations before they even released their self-titled 1969 debut. Yes came into being right as one wave of British rock was ending — they opened Cream’s final show in 1968 — and as another was beginning. Contemporaries like King Crimson inspired them to focus hard on improving their chops, and they were recording with orchestras by 1970.

In 1971, Yes fired their keyboardist Tony Kaye to make room for classically trained noodle-king Rick Wakeman, and they started making expansive, indulgent records like 1973’s Tales From The Topographic Ocean, a double album that consists entirely of four long-ass songs. In this era, the band recorded one honest-to-God hit: A shortened edit of their 1972 song “Roundabout,” which peaked at #13 in the US. Mostly, though, Yes didn’t need to make hits. Their albums went platinum without radio play, and they sold out arenas and stadiums in the US and in Europe.

Along the way, Yes became avatars of bloated, self-serious ’70s excess; punk rock sprang up in the UK, at least in part, as a reaction against bands like Yes. By 1980, Yes’ commercial fortunes had started to flag, and both Wakeman and singer Jon Anderson had left the band. As replacements, in a transparent attempt to update their sound, Yes brought in singer Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoff Downes, the two members of a new wave duo called the Buggles.

The Buggles’ highest-charting single, 1979’s “Video Killed The Radio Star,” peaked at #40 in the US, but it topped charts across Europe and in Australia, and it took on totemic significance in 1981, when it became the first music video to air on MTV. It’s weird to think that these guys, who clearly enjoyed the idea of pop music evolving swiftly and brutally, would join and aging institution like Yes. But Yes had never even been radio stars, so maybe it fit.

In any case, the former Buggles members Horn and Downes only recorded one album, 1980’s Drama, with Yes. Drama wasn’t a huge success, and its singles didn’t even chart in the US. Yes finally broke up in 1981. Trevor Horn became a full-time record producer, buying up expensive synths and making records with UK new wavers like ABC and Spandau Ballet. Downes and former Yes guitarist Steve Howe teamed up with a bunch of other prog-rock veterans and formed Asia, and their self-titled debut LP somehow became the biggest-selling album of 1982 in the US. (Asia’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “Heat Of The Moment,” peaked at #4. It’s a 7.)

Enter Trevor Rabin. Rabin came from South Africa, and he spent much of the ’70s leading a South African rock band called Rabbitt. Rabin started making solo records in the ’70s, but even when labels were interested, being from apartheid-era South Africa threw up too many roadblocks to Rabin’s career. So Rabin moved to London and released a few solo albums that didn’t go anywhere. One day, while sitting on the toilet, Rabin wrote the bulk of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” He shopped its demo around, and Clive Davis told him the song was too weird to be a hit in America.

Rabin almost joined Asia, but the chemistry wasn’t right. Phil Carson, an Atlantic Records A&R guy who’d liked Rabin’s demo, introduced him to some former members of Yes — keyboardist Tony Kaye, bassist Chris Squire, and drummer Alan White. Together, they formed a new band called Cinema. They thought about bringing in Trevor Horn as their new singer, but Horn decided to produce their album instead. Cinema spent hundreds of thousands of dollars recording their debut album, and while they were working on it, they brought in the former Yes singer Jon Anderson. (On “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” Anderson sings the verses, and Rabin sings the chorus.) Eventually, everyone agreed that they should go along with what the labels wanted and just call the new band Yes.

The possibly-apocryphal story on “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” is that Trevor Rabin didn’t even think of it as a Yes song, but that he’d gotten up to go to the bathroom while playing a demo tape of his songs for the rest of the band. Trevor Horn heard “Lonely Heart” and decided that it could be a Yes song. I don’t know if this story is true, but I love the idea that all the most important moments in the song’s evolution happened because Trevor Rabin was taking a shit.

Rabin’s demo version of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” is mostly complete, with its big synth sounds and its central riff and its big fuck-off chorus. But it also has a bunch of clumsy parts that sound like halfassed REO Speedwagon, bits that were later deleted. Trevor Horn and other members of Yes re-wrote bits of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” polishing it and making it sound bigger and weirder.

While laboring over the song, Horn and various Yes members fought over things like drum sounds in the studio. They also rewrote the lyrics a bunch, finally turning the song into a series of koans that look utterly absurd on paper: “Watch it now!/ The eagle in the sky/ How he dancing, one and only/ You! Lose yourself!/ No not for pity’s sake/ There’s no real reason to be lonely.” The song’s basic idea is that it’s OK to be on your own and that you can decide your own destiny rather than putting all your energy into falling in love. But you could be forgiven for just hearing “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” as a series of cool noises.

And “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” is a series of extremely cool noises. Its central riff is nasty — some real hard hammerhead shit. Horn’s production is both clean and harsh — a whole lot of big, blocky sounds that are cleanly separated from one another. The guitar solo sounds like an angry alien cat, and the vocals float above everything with a lovely detached serenity. Horn had spent thousands on one of the first Fairlight CMI synths available in the UK, and he used it to fill “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” with weird, sudden blurts like the famous orchestra-hit effect that would become beloved among every child who owns a Casio keyboard.

Most importantly, there’s a fucking sampled breakbeat in there, which makes “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” a crucial landmark in pop-music history. That jagged jumble of drums — the one that appears on the intro, and then again on the breakdown — comes directly from “Kool Is Back,” a 1971 instrumental Kool & The Gang cover from an obscure Indiana band called Funk Inc. Yes took the drum breakdown from the middle of “Kool Is Back,” sped it up, stripped it of its context, and used it as a burst of bracing chaos.

How did they know to do this? Trevor Horn was, at the very least, aware of hip-hop, the music that had come out of using breakbeats just like this. In 1982, Horn teamed up with Malcolm McLaren, the former Sex Pistols svengali, on “Buffalo Gals,” McLaren’s awkward and fascinating experiment with early scratch-centric hip-hop. Horn produced and did the DJ scratching on “Buffalo Gals,” a song credited to McLaren And The World’s Famous Supreme Team. Maybe that’s where Horn got the idea. I don’t know.

This was when sampling was in its infancy — when even rap groups tended to use studio musicians on their records. Yes didn’t clear the “Kool Is Back” sample on “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”; sample clearance simply didn’t exist yet. Turnabout would be fair play; plenty of people would sample “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” in the years ahead. In any case, Yes and Trevor Horn made something honest-to-God funky and otherworldly with that breakbeat, and it’s truly wild to think that the whole tradition of sampled breakbeats got its pop-music introduction from some washed-up prog dudes.

Of course, “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” doesn’t sound like the work of washed-up prog dudes. It sounds like absolutely nothing else. Nothing in the Yes discography — even on the big triple-platinum Horn-produced album, 90125 — moves like “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” Horn produced a lot of cool, futurist music in the years ahead — the Art Of Noise, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Grace Jones, the Pet Shop Boys — and yet none of it rocks like “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” Instead, “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” is a strange and mysterious beast, the only one of its kind.

The video reflects that weirdness beautifully. It starts out as a straight performance clip, but then the song fades out, and Jon Anderson’s voiceover says, “Hang on! Maybe there’s another way to do this!” Then the members of Yes turn into animals, and when the song picks back up again, we follow a harried worker drone who’s bedeviled by those animals and arrested? And then he escapes and fights a guy in a boiler room? And comes out onto a rooftop? But the members of Yes are human again, and they surround him? And he freaks out and falls off the building? It’s fucking crazy! It doesn’t make any sense!

The video’s director was the excellently named Storm Thorgerson, co-founder of the design firm Hipgnosis. Hipgnosis had designed a lot of prog art for bands like Pink Floyd, and they’d also done two late-’70s Yes albums. With the “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” clip, Thorgerson successfully translated the magnetic absurdity of the prog album cover to the coked-out delirium of early MTV, and he also freaked a lot of kids out by filming maggots crawling all over the poor lead actor’s face.

Yes never had a top-10 hit after “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”; their next-biggest single, the follow-up “Leave It,” peaked at #24. The band’s constant internal turmoil kept up. (Keyboardist Tony Kaye isn’t in the “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” video because he left during recording and later re-joined. Thorgerson had to edit out most of the shots of his temporary replacement.) Yes kept recording, but people kept leaving and re-joining, to the point where there are now two different touring versions of Yes. (Both versions are OK with each other, and they haven’t been in any long, protracted legal battle over the name. So that’s nice.)

Trevor Rabin is currently in the version of Yes that also features Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, but he’s also gotten heavily into film scoring, especially for Jerry Bruckheimer productions. Apparently, Rabin once gave guitar lessons to Steven Seagal, and Seagal, as a favor, made introductions. Rabin co-wrote the score for the 1996 Seagal/Keenan Ivory Wayans buddy flick The Glimmer Man, and he went on to score some huge movies for Bruckheimer, including Armageddon, Gone In 60 Seconds, Remember The Titans, and National Treasure. Rabin worked with Dr. Dre, another musician who will eventually appear in this column, on the score for 2003’s Bad Boys II. (The Bad Boys II soundtrack will also be in this column eventually.)

Trevor Horn, meanwhile, went on to become one of the defining producers of the ’80s. It’ll take a while, but another Horn-produced track will eventually be in this column, too.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: It did not take long for rappers to start using samples of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” LL Cool J, for instance, rapped over producer Rick Rubin’s “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” sample on “That’s A Lie,” a track from his classic 1985 debut album Radio. Here it is:

LL Cool J’s two highest-charting singles both peaked at #3: The 1995 Boyz II Men collab “Hey Lover” and the 1996 Total collab “Loungin’“. “Hey Lover” is a 4, and “Loungin'” is a 6. As a guest-rapper, LL will eventually appear in this column.

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Salt-N-Pepa rapped over an “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” on “I’ll Take Ya Man,” a jam from their 1986 debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious. Here it is:

Salt-N-Pepa’s highest-charting single, the 1994 En Vogue collab “Whatta Man,” peaked at #3. It’s a 9. And speaking of En Vogue! They also sang over an “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” sample on their 1990 single “You Don’t Have To Worry.” Here’s the video:

“You Don’t Have To Worry” peaked at #57. En Vogue’s three highest-charting singles all peaked at #2, which is some Creedence Clearwater Revival shit. 1990’s “Hold On” is an 8. 1992’s “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” is a 9. 1996’s “Don’t Let Go (Love)” is another 9. En Vogue: Extremely underrated!

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 1993 Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode where Tom Servo goes into an extended bit on the implications of the “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” lyrics:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” cover that Grizzly Bear released on the 2006 EP Sorry For The Delay, back when Ed Droste was still the only member of the band:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne, Boo, and Mack Maine rapping over an “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” sample on Wayne’s 2007 mixtape track “I Like It”:

Boo doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits as a lead artist, but his highest-charting single as a guest rapper is R. Kelly’s “Fiesta (Remix),” from 2001, which peaked at #6. I haven’t figured out how the fuck this column is going to deal with R. Kelly, so I’m just not going to give that one a rating right now. Mack Maine doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits as a lead artist, either, but he’s on the 2009 Young Money track “Every Girl,” which peaked at #10. It’s a 4. Lil Wayne will eventually appear in this column.

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