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.
Conventional wisdom says that 1984 was one of the greatest years in pop-music history, if not the greatest. A year earlier, Michael Jackson had changed the math with Thriller, showing that global dominance through pop music was possible. MTV had provided musicians a new way to establish star-level identities. British art-school synthpop had come along and washed out the anonymous adult-contempo American studio rock that had cluttered up the charts in previous years. Ambition levels were high, and titans walked the earth. That’s the narrative.
I don’t know if 1984 is the best pop year. I don’t really think in those terms. Instead, I like to think of pop music as a series of moments — tiny catalysts and happy accidents and fads that only turn out to be society-shaping forces in retrospect. It’s a grand and ridiculous saga, and the calendar year is a pretty arbitrary way of chopping it all up. That said: 1984 was pretty great! Prince and Bruce Springsteen and Madonna came into their own as dominant, towering figures. Rap and glam metal and college rock percolated in the background. American underground rock became its own alternate universe. 1984 is the year of Purple Rain and Ride The Lightning and Zen Arcade and Run-D.M.C. and The Unforgettable Fire and Powerslave and Double Nickels On The Dime and Reckoning and Treasure. Not all of those albums had an impact on pop music, but a pretty shocking number of them did.
1984 was not a year for one-hit wonders. It was a year for giants. Prince was the man of his moment, but he shared that moment with Phil Collins and Duran Duran and Tina Turner and Van Halen and Cyndi Lauper — all hugely important artists in one way or another. Over the course of 1984, 19 different songs ascended to #1, and 18 of those songs held down the top spot for multiple weeks. The whole year, only one single had its run on top limited to a single week. That one song was a fairly generic power ballad from a British rock journeyman who didn’t exactly etch his name in pop-music history. The song in question didn’t come from a movie soundtrack. It didn’t have an attention-grabbing story. It didn’t attempt to seize the zeitgeist. It was just a big, emotional, goofy, heartfelt song — a really good one, at that.
John Waite. Handsome guy. Great cheekbones. Dangly earring. Haircut that managed to be puffy and severe at the same time. Soulfully strained voice. Mostly made deeply anonymous color-by-numbers rock music. For one song on his second solo album, though, Waite summoned something. He convincingly played a devastated man, one who was determined to show some kind of strength or resilience even though he felt none.
Waite’s song “Missing You” didn’t stand out stylistically. It cribbed the tick-tock guitar sound from the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” the previous year’s biggest hit, and put it in service of the kind of ultra-clean studio-rock that you might expect to hear from Journey, a group that featured one of Waite’s ex-bandmates. But that shit worked. And for seven days in one of pop’s golden eras, it worked well enough to land at #1.
John Waite came from the English city of Lancaster, and he first got to show off his cheekbones as the lead singer of the Babys, a London band that didn’t sound even remotely London. Waite joined the Babys in 1975, when he was in his early twenties. Shortly afterward, Chrysalis signed the band for an attention-grabbing amount of money, and the label moved the band to Los Angeles. The Babys were pretty good at their chosen sound — emotional and vaguely soulful corporate rock, basically — and that sound did pretty well in America. But the Babys never managed to ascend to the level of a Foreigner or an REO Speedwagon. (The Babys’ two highest-charting singles, 1977’s “Isn’t It Time” and 1978’s “Every Time I Think Of You,” both peaked at #13.)
In 1981, disappointed over their inability to break through, the Babys broke up. Keyboardist Jonathan Cain joined Journey and quickly became one of that band’s main songwriters. (Journey’s highest-charting single is 1982’s “Open Arms,” which Cain co-wrote with singer Steve Perry. It’s a 7.) A couple of other ex-Babys went on to play with Rod Stewart. John Waite went solo. Waite got a lot of early-MTV play with 1982’s “Change,” his debut solo single, but it didn’t even chart on the Hot 100. (Later on, when “Change” showed up on the soundtrack of 1985’s Vision Quest, a reissued version of the single peaked at #54. Another song from the Vision Quest soundtrack will eventually appear in this column.)
Waite has said that “Missing You,” the first single from his sophomore album No Brakes, flooded out of him in the vocal booth, that he didn’t even write some of those lines before he sang them. Waite’s story is that “Missing You” took him 10 minutes to write, that it all came out as an emotional outpouring while he was thinking about his then-wife back home in England. I don’t know about all that. Waite is one of three credited writers on “Missing You,” and the song has that gleam of mid-’80s rock professionalism all over it. But Waite clearly feels everything he sings on “Missing You.” He goes straight for the jugular with that shit.
Lyrically, “Missing You” is a song delivered from the perspective of a totally destroyed man, one who’s utterly adrift in the world and who can’t stop thinking about his ex. The song’s first line is the title of one of Waite’s old Babys hits: “Every time I think of you…” From there, Waite lets us know that he can’t stop thinking about this ex, try as he might. He can still feel the happy warmth of those memories: “I hear your name in certain circles, and it always makes me smile.” But this person’s absence has left him reeling, and there’s a storm that’s raging through his frozen heart tonight.
Waite seems to be singing “Missing You” to himself, about himself. But he also sings about one particular phone call — a heart that’s breaking down this long distance line tonight. There’s a message in this wire, and he sends out this signal, but he doesn’t get the answer that he wants. So he hits the big crescendo on the chorus, belting out the phrase “I ain’t missing you at all.” He’s lying. He knows it. His ex knows it. Even his friends know it. But he sings that line again and again, as if he can will it to be true. It’s the kind of bullshit that you wish you could take back after you say it. But Waite never takes it back. He sticks to his line, even though everything else in the song contradicts it.
Waite delivers “Missing You” in a clenched white-soul growl, cutting his heartache with impotent fury. The guitar softly glimmers underneath him. Morse code synths try to console Waite, while tasteful power-chord crunches quietly echo him. Backing singers softly murmur the phrase “missing you,” even though Waite insists that he is not missing you. Not at all.
In the “Missing You” video, Waite elegantly moons around downtown Los Angeles, ignoring any women who might be trying to eyeball him. He sits alone in a room with one of those swinging lamps. He gets so mad at a payphone that he shatters it into a million pieces, like he’s the Hulk. (’80s payphones were not that easy to break. I know this because I was the kind of kid who tried to break payphones for boredom-related reasons. You could screw the cap off the receiver, but you couldn’t shatter it like that.)
“Missing You” is some high-grade power balladry, but it’s the outlier on Waite’s album No Brakes, which is otherwise plain old forgettable major-label rock filler. The album sold a million copies on the strength of “Missing You,” but it didn’t yield any more big singles. None of Waite’s other solo singles made it into the top 10; his next-biggest hit, 1985’s “Every Step Of The Way,” peaked at #25. But in 1988, Waite got together with Journey’s Neil Schon and with a couple of his former Babys bandmates, and they formed a new band called Bad English. As a member of Bad English, John Waite will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: The third episode of Miami Vice aired the week that “Missing You” was #1, and “Missing You” soundtracked the opening of the episode. Here’s that intro:
(Miami Vice will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1996, 14 years after “Missing You” knocked her single “What’s Love Got To Do With It” out of the #1 spot, Tina Turner released her own version of “Missing You.” Here’s the video for the Tina Turner take on the song:
(Tina Turner’s “Missing You” cover peaked at #84.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Given that Nashville country has basically absorbed the aesthetic of the ’80s power ballad, you probably won’t be too surprised to learn that there have been a couple of prominent country covers of “Missing You.” Here, for example, is Brooks & Dunn’s video for their 1999 version of “Missing You”:
And in 2006, Alison Krauss got together with John Waite himself to record “Missing You” as a duet. Here’s the video for that version:
(Brooks & Dunn’s version of “Missing You” peaked at #75. The duo’s two highest-charting singles, 2001’s “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You” and 2003’s “Red Dirt Road,” both peaked at #25. As lead artist, Alison Krauss & Union Station’s highest-charting single is 1995’s “When You Say Nothing At All,” which peaked at #53. As a guest singer, Krauss’ highest-charting single is Kenny Rogers’ 2000 joint “Buy Me A Rose,” which peaked at #40.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Missing You” soundtracking the zombie/human meet cute in the 2013 zombie/human romantic comedy Warm Bodies:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Her’s the bit from 2014’s 22 Jump Street where Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill miss each other while “Missing You” plays in the background: