The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose”

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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Kenny Loggins – “Footloose”

HIT #1: March 31, 1984

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

Dean Pitchford needed Kenny Loggins. If Pitchford didn’t have Loggins, Pitchford’s movie wasn’t going to get made. Pitchford had already had some success as a Broadway actor and a songwriter. He and Michael Gore had won an Oscar for writing “Fame,” the Irene Cara song from the 1980 movie of the same name. (“Fame” peaked at #4. It’s a 6.) But Pitchford had never written a movie before. He’d spent two years scripting Footloose, a film about a Chicago new-wave kid moving to a small Oklahoma town where dancing has been banned. If the studio execs were going to greenlight Footloose, they needed to be absolutely certain that this movie had a Kenny Loggins theme song.

Pitchford was pretty sure he could get Loggins. In 1982, Loggins and Journey’s Steve Perry had gotten to #17 with “Don’t Fight It,” a song that they’d co-written with Pitchford. But Loggins didn’t have a lot of time to spare. So Pitchford flew out to Lake Tahoe, where Loggins was playing a residency.

At the time, Loggins was hurting. He’d taken a bad fall offstage in Utah, breaking some ribs, and he was still recovering. Pitchford, meanwhile, had come down with a bad case of strep throat, and he did everything possible to hide this from Loggins so that Loggins wouldn’t stop working with him. Over four days, the two of them wrote the song that would become the theme of Pitchford’s movie.

Footloose went on to earn $80 million dollars, 10 times its budget and good enough to place at #7 on the list of 1984’s highest-grossing films. (It’s right in between the first Police Academy and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.) The soundtrack album — nine songs, all co-written by Pitchford — sold nine million copies in the US alone. If Pitchford and Loggins hadn’t managed to write “Footloose” together, none of that would’ve happened.

Those executives were on to something. A Kenny Loggins theme song made good business sense. Before “Footloose,” Loggins had never recorded a #1 single, and he hadn’t yet become synonymous with the movie soundtracks of the ’80s. At that point, Loggins’ only movie theme was “I’m Alright,” from 1980’s Caddyshack. (“I’m Alright” peaked at #7. It’s an 8.) But Loggins specialized in a kind of music — bright, uptempo, vaguely nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll — that paired up nicely with the MTV-style montages that were just coming into vogue. “Footloose” is pure montage-rock.

There are a whole lot of montages in Footloose. Besides being loosely based around the idea of dancing, Footloose doesn’t have too much in common with Flashdance, the big hit movie and soundtrack of the previous year. But both movies go in heavy on the idea of showily edited scenes of bodies moving, cut to pop-song beats. Without those pop songs, neither film could exist.

In Footloose, Kevin Bacon — in a role that almost went to both Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe — plays Ren McCormack, a fluffy-haired new wave kid who wants to teach his town to dance. (Madonna, who will soon appear in this column, reportedly auditioned for the female-lead role, which went to Lori Singer. Let’s all pause and imagine young Madonna’s attempt at an Oklahoma accent.) Ren McCormack’s mom makes fun of him for wanting to be David Bowie. I’m pretty sure Footloose is the only teen movie I’ve ever seen where the lead rebel’s parent tries to tell him not to wear a tie to school. I’m not convinced that Bacon’s character would actually listen to Kenny Loggins. But there is still so much Kenny Loggins in Footloose.

If I’m remembering right, “Footloose” plays three times during Footloose. The song plays during the opening-credits montage of feet jumping around, which has nothing to do with the movie’s plot. It plays again during the cowboy-bar scene, where Chris Penn, jealous about his own inability to dance with Sarah Jessica Parker, gets into a fight. And it plays one more time during the movie’s triumphant final scene, where all the newly liberated kids of Bomont, including the suddenly-limber Chris Penn, show off their moves. All those scenes are, more or less, montages. (There’s also another Loggins song on the soundtrack: “I’m Free (Heaven Helps The Man),” which peaked at #22.)

“Footloose” does not play during the most famous Footloose montage — the vaguely hilarious scene where Kevin Bacon and his various doubles angrily dance their way through a deserted warehouse, so full of passion and frustration that they have to do gymnastics about it. Instead, that scene is set to Moving Pictures’ “Never,” one of the few songs from the Footloose soundtrack that wasn’t released as a single. (Moving Pictures’ highest-charting single, 1983’s “What About Me,” peaked at #29.) But whoever was in charge of marketing “Footloose” still used that entire montage and turned it into the song’s music video.

Like so many soundtrack specialists of the era, Kenny Loggins isn’t in the “Footloose” video. But unlike a lot of them, Loggins was already a known quantity. Loggins had grown up in Washington and California. He’d done time in a later lineup of the the late-’60s garage-psych band the Electric Prunes and written songs for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In 1970, Loggins and the former Buffalo Springfield/Poco member Jim Messina formed Loggins And Messina, and they had a good run of hits through the first half of the ’70s. (Loggins And Messina’s highest-charting single, 1972’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)

Loggins And Messina broke up in 1976, and Loggins went solo. Along with Michael McDonald, Loggins co-wrote “What A Fool Believes,” the Doobie Brothers song that went to #1 in 1979. And Loggins made a few hits of his own, including the 1978 Stevie Nicks duet “Whenever I Call You ‘Friend’,” which peaked at #5. (It’s a 6.) After Caddyshack and “I’m Alright,” all of Loggins’ biggest hits came from film soundtracks. Loggins released plenty of solo albums, and his ’80s singles consistently charted, but the ones that weren’t attached to movie soundtracks never did as well. Apparently, people mostly wanted to hear Kenny Loggins’ voice when it came along with a movie montage.

“Footloose” is a perfectly OK piece of music. It’s fast and sprightly and energetic, and it’s got the kind of chorus that sinks its fangs into your brain and never lets go. It’s also deeply cheesy — a thoroughly ’80s take on ’50s rockabilly that cuts its twangy guitar with expensive-sounding drums. I’ve always found the song to be stagey and embarrassing, so maybe it reached its full potential when Footloose became a Broadway musical in 1998.

One big problem for me is Loggins’ voice, a play-acting bray that signals grit without ever actually displaying any. That grunt in his voice clashes badly with the production sheen, creating a disconnect that I’ve never been able to get past. But “Footloose” is also a busy song with a big backbeat, which makes it hard to hate. I like the bridge, an industrial techno-pop version of the “aaah-aaaaah” bit from “Twist & Shout.” Really, “Footloose” is a song for children who want to imagine being teenagers, the same way Footloose is a movie for children who want to imagine being teenagers.

“Footloose” also probably deserves some credit for lyrics that don’t just recap the movie. (Considering that the movie’s screenwriter is also the song’s co-writer, that must’ve been a hell of a temptation to avoid.) Loggins sings about dancing as a necessary valve for built-up tension, a way to escape: “I’ve got this feeling that time’s just holding me down/ I’ll hit the ceiling, or else I’ll tear up this town.” Also, I’m pretty sure there’s no character named Marie in Footloose, so the “ooh-wee, Marie” bit is just directed at generic Maries the world over.

“Footloose” was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar, but it lost to another song that’ll appear in this column. (In fact, every song up for the Oscar that year will appear in this column.) Kenny Loggins went on to score a bunch of other hits from ’80s-movie soundtracks. In 1986, Loggins got to #2 with “Danger Zone,” from the Top Gun soundtrack. (It’s a 7.) In 1987, Loggins peaked at #11 with “Meet Me Half Way,” from the Over The Top soundtrack. And in 1988, Loggins scored his last real hit with “Nobody’s Fool,” from Caddyshack II, which made it as high as #8. (It’s a 4.) Loggins hasn’t been anywhere near the top 10 since.

Loggins seems to be doing fine ever since his movie-soundtrack heyday. He plays the yacht-rock nostalgia circuit with his old buddy Michael McDonald, another artist who will eventually appear in this column. Loggins and McDonald teamed up with Thundercat on “Show You The Way” in 2017, and that was cool. Loggins always seems down to make fun of himself on a sitcom or a game show. His beard remains impressive.

Kenny Loggins won’t appear in this column again, but the Footloose soundtrack will.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kevin Bacon and Eric McCormack dancing to “Footloose” on a 2002 episode of Will & Grace:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Good Charlotte’s 2006 cover of “Footloose”:

(Good Charlotte’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous,” peaked at #20.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Blake Shelton covered “Footloose” for the soundtrack of the 2011 Footloose remake that nobody remembers. Here’s Shelton’s video for his version of it:

(Shelton’s version of “Footloose” peaked at #63. Shelton’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Boys ‘Round Here,” peaked at #12.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2012 episode of The Office where Ed Helms trashes the Dunder Mifflin warehouse while dancing to “Footloose”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of Kevin Bacon’s band the Bacon Brothers covering “Footloose” at a 2016 live show: