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.
There are love songs, and then there are love songs. A lot of people have written songs about the blissful, giddy excitement of falling in love. Many of those songs are great. A few of them are even interesting. But it’s a whole lot harder to write a song about the terror and sadness and vulnerability that can arrive when you realize that your life is all tied up with another person’s life — that a piece of this person is going to be stuck to your soul forever, whether or not you stay together. If you can pull that kind of love song off, you’ve really got something. “Time After Time,” Cyndi Lauper’s second single and first #1, is a love song.
“Time After Time” is not a breakup song or a wistful-memory song, though you can hear it either of those ways. Instead, “Time After Time” is about being totally entangled with another human being but not being sure what that means. Cyndi Lauper spells it all out in the song’s first verse: “Caught up in circles, confusion is nothing new.” She’s singing to another person, but she’s really singing to herself. She wonders if she’s stagnating, if the other person is holding her back. She’s walking too far ahead, or else she’s falling behind. The other person wonders if she’s OK. She wonders the same thing.
“Time After Time” is a marvelously bittersweet song, a warm and gooey ballad about how one other person can’t fix you. That’s the kind of rough and complicated truth that pop music can’t always express. Listening to “Time After Time,” we don’t know whether Cyndi Lauper’s narrator stays with the other person. (The video offers an answer, but even then it’s a bit ambiguous.) What happens to this couple is almost beside the point. What matters is the suspended animation of that searching moment — the point where you feel a deep connection to someone but you don’t know whether that connection is enough.
By the time she made it to #1, Cyndi Lauper was 30, and she’d already lived a whole life. Raised in Brooklyn and Queens, Lauper was a weird kid who dyed her hair different colors and wore outlandish thrift-shop clothes even before punk rock was a thing. Kicked out of high school, Lauper left home at 17, getting away from an abusive stepfather by hitchhiking across Canada. She studied art in Vermont for a year, but she dropped out. Eventually, she returned to New York, where she sang in cover bands. She damaged her vocal chords more than once, and she almost had to quit singing, but she worked with voice teachers and got it back. All of that might help explain why her cartoonish, versatile rasp has such character.
In 1979, Lauper and the saxophonist John Turi formed a retro-tinged new wave band called Blue Angel. Blue Angel released a self-titled album on Polydor in 1980. It didn’t sell. The band fired their manager, but he sued them, which put Lauper in serious debt. Even before Blue Angel finally broke up in 1982, Lauper had to work a bunch of day jobs, most famously at the secondhand boutique Screaming Mimi’s. But anyone paying attention could tell that Lauper had serious, ferocious talent; you can hear it all over Blue Angel’s cover of the 1964 Gene Pitney ballad “I’m Gonna Be Strong.” (Pitney’s “I’m Gonna Be Strong” peaked at #9. It’s an 8.)
One night, David Wolff heard Lauper singing at a New York club. He became her manager and, eventually, her boyfriend. Wolff helped get Lauper signed to Portrait, a CBS imprint. Portrait paired Lauper up with the producer Rick Chertoff, a Clive Davis protege who’d previously worked with Melissa Manchester and Air Supply. On paper, that’s a weird fit — a wild and spirited singer with an outsized personality, teaming up with a music-business professional with a purely middle-of-the-road resume. But on Lauper’s debut album She’s So Unusual, Lauper found the exact right sound.
She’s So Unusual is a ridiculously smart and enjoyable pop record, perfectly crafted to suit to Lauper’s voice and persona and moment. The sound is new wave, more or less, but it’s a bright and supremely digestible version of new wave. She’s So Unusual has synths and guitars and big, echoing drums, but everything stays out of the way of Lauper’s massive, ridiculous, inimitable voice. The choice of covers is smart: The Brains’ underground hit “Money Changes Everything,” the early Prince classic “When You Were Mine,” Betty Boop inspiration Helen Kane’s ’20s oldie “He’s So Unusual.” And on MTV, Lauper truly popped. She was a character, and her whole look — the dyed hair, the chunky jewelry, the frilly thrift-shop dresses — had the added advantage of being real.
She’s So Unusual came out near the end of 1983, and its very first single was “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” a piece of delirious candy-colored fluff that immediately established Lauper as a great person to have around. Lauper doesn’t have a writing credit on “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” but she did rewrite Robert Hazard’s lyrics to make them less sexist, transforming the song into a celebration of girls. (“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” peaked at #2. It’s an 8. As the frontman of Robert Hazard And The Heroes, Hazard peaked at #58 with 1982’s “Escalator Of Life.”)
Before he’d broken through as a producer, Rick Chertoff had been in a band with Rob Hyman. Later on, Hyman founded the Hooters, a Philadelphia rock band who had a whole lot of success despite having one of the worst band names you ever saw in your life. (The Hooters’ highest-charting single is 1986’s “Day By Day,” which peaked at #18, but their obvious monster jam was 1985’s “And We Danced,” which peaked at #21.) Chertoff brought the Hooters in to basically serve as Lauper’s backing band on the album.
Before she and Hyman wrote “Time After Time” together, Lauper thought the album was all done. Chertoff insisted that she needed one more song. “Time After Time” was that song. The track came together quickly, with Lauper and Hyman sitting together at a piano in New York’s Record Plant studio. Lauper had seen the title of the 1979 sci-fi movie Time After Time in an issue of TV Guide. It was a placeholder phrase for the song, but Lauper never thought of anything better, so she kept it. (Beyond its title, the song “Time After Time” has nothing to do with the movie, which is about HG Wells using a time machine to chase after Jack The Ripper.)
The sound of “Time After Time” is a great little snapshot of mid-’80s pop music: A ticking drum machine, a burbling synthetic bassline, some extremely processed guitars, a whole lot of sustain on the synths. It’s a sound built around expensive new-fangled electronic doodads, but it still leaves plenty of room for personality. And Lauper has personality. She plasters that personality all over “Time After Time,” going from contemplative murmurs on the verses to full-on belting out the chorus. Hyman sings the backing vocals, and he syncs up nicely with Lauper, giving her something to build on. I’ve always loved her ad-libbed “IIII will be wayyyy-ting” on the chorus.
“Time After Time” is an intimate song, and it doesn’t have the same kind of forward momentum as many of Lauper’s other hits. But “Time After Time” has scope. That hook has a way of getting inside you. I was a little kid when this song came out, so it’s weird for me to imagine two people sitting over a piano and coming up with that chorus — to picture a time before “Time After Time.” It just sounds like it’s always existed.
The “Time After Time” video is about as personal as a music video can get. Lauper plays a fictionalized version of herself, living in a trailer and missing her mother and wondering if she should leave her floppy-haired boyfriend. Even before the song starts, she’s lost in her thoughts — up late, watching the 1936 melodrama The Flowers Of Allah, mouthing the words along with Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer while her boyfriend sleeps beside her.
Director Edd Griles is a Queens native who’d been working with Lauper since the Blue Angel days. (He’d also done the great “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” clip.) Lauper’s mother plays her mother in the video, and her brother makes a cameo, as does Captain Lou Albano, the pro wrestling manager who’d played Lauper’s dad in the “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” clip. David Wolff, Lauper’s real-life manager/boyfriend, plays her boyfriend in the clip. (Wolff tries hard, but he’s easily the weak link here.) And Lauper really acts in this thing, going so far as to let loose with a single teardrop in the final shot.
Lauper’s label loved “Time After Time” and wanted to release it as the first single from She’s So Unusual. But Lauper didn’t want to be known as a ballad singer, so she kept it until after “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” Ultimately, her instincts were dead-on. She’s So Unusual became a phenomenon, selling six million copies in the US alone and getting nominated for a ton of Grammys. Lauper won Best New Artist, beating Sheila E. and Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Corey Hart and the Judds, but she lost Album Of The Year to Lionel Richie. Ultimately, four different singles from She’s So Unusual made it into the top 10. (“She Bop” peaked at #3; it’s a 9. “All Through The Night” peaked at #5; it’s an 8.)
Chertoff and the Hooters guys never wrote or produced another #1 single. Weirdly, the closest they came was with Joan Osborne’s 1995 philosophy-class ballad “One Of Us,” written by Hyman’s Hooters bandmate Eric Bazilian and produced by Chertoff. (“One Of Us” peaked at #4. It’s a 7.) But Cyndi Lauper will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Miles Davis recorded an instrumental version of “Time After Time” on his 1985 album You’re Under Arrest. Here it is:
Davis loved “Time After Time” so much, in fact, that he included it in virtually all of his live sets for the rest of his life. Here’s video of Davis doing a 10-minute version of “Time After Time” at a 1985 show in Tokyo:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lisa Kudrow, Mira Sorvino, and Alan Cumming doing an elaborate and ridiculous dance routine to “Time After Time” in the 1997 movie Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The New Orleans twin-brother rap duo Kane & Abel interpolated “Time After Time” on their own song “Time After Time,” a 1998 collaboration with their No Limit label boss Master P. Here’s the video:
(Kane & Abel never had a single on the Hot 100. Master P’s two highest-charting singles as lead artist, 1998’s “I Got The Hook Up!” and “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!,” both peaked at #16. As a guest-rapper, P’s highest-charting single is Montell Jordan’s “Let’s Ride,” which peaked at #2 in 1998. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: “Time After Time” returned to the top 10 in 1998, when the singer INOJ released a blippy, jittery R&B cover of the song. Here’s the video for the INOJ version:
(INOJ’s “Time After Time” peaked at #6. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Cam’ron rapping over a “Time After Time” sample on his 2017 track “Dime After Dime”:
(Cam’ron’s highest-charting single, the 2002 Juelz Santana collab “Hey Ma,” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.)