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.
Billy Ocean was going nowhere. The Trinidadian-born and UK-raised singer was in his mid-thirties, and he’d been making music for years. He’d had brief and tantalizing moments of success. In 1976, for instance, he’d recorded a Four Tops pastiche called “Love Really Hurts Without You,” and it had made it to #2 in the UK and gone top-10 in a few European countries. The single had even made it to #22 in the US. Another single, 1977’s “Red Light Spells Danger,” had brought Ocean back to #2 in the UK. But after that, it had been crickets for him.
By 1984, Epic, Ocean’s label, had shunted him off to the side imprint Jive Records, which had only really had success with the synthpop group A Flock Of Seagulls. (A Flock Of Seagulls’ highest-charting single, 1982’s “I Ran (So Far Away)” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.) Ocean’s latest single was a sleek and infectious club track called “European Queen (No More Love On The Run),” and it was exactly the sort of Michael Jackson-inspired pan-genre funk-pop that seemed primed to do well in the summer of 1984. But “European Queen” landed with a thud in the UK, peaking at #82.
A young exec at Jive’s New York office heard “European Queen” and told Ocean that the song was good but that the title didn’t work. “European Queen” sounded too stuffy — as if it was actually a song about royalty. Ocean listened. For the “European Queen” 12″ single, Ocean and producer Keith Diamond added a couple of different versions of “European Queen”: “Caribbean Queen” and “African Queen.” They didn’t re-record the track; they just dropped out the word “European” and dropped in the new title. That one change made all the difference.
When Ocean released his newest single in the US, he didn’t go with “European Queen,” since that song had already bricked in the UK. Instead, Ocean and his label released the “Caribbean Queen” version. The re-edited “Caribbean Queen (No More Love On The Run)” took off, and Billy Ocean became a global pop star for the rest of the ’80s. Life is weird.
Fetishization probably played into it. Less than a year earlier, Lionel Richie had scored a huge hit by trying on a fake Jamaican accent and singing the smooth dance-pop track “All Night Long (All Night).” “Caribbean Queen” is a track with a similar vibe, and it seems plausible that plenty of mid-’80s record buyers liked fantasizing about finding romance while going on vacation someplace warm. But then, maybe “Caribbean Queen” clicked because it put Billy Ocean in a context that made sense. After all, he was already a Caribbean king.
Leslie Sebastian Charles was born in southwestern Trinidad when it was still a British colony. As a young kid, he moved to London with his family. Charles’ father had been a musician, and Charles wanted to be one, too. As a teenager, he worked as a Saville Row tailor during the day and sang in clubs at night. Charles recorded a couple of orchestral ballads in the late ’60s, but they were never released, and he went on to sing for small-time groups with names like the Shades Of Midnight and Scorched Earth.
In the mid-’70s, Charles started calling himself Billy Ocean. He’d taken the name from Ocean’s 11, a local soccer team in Trinidad, who in turn had taken their name from the 1960 Frank Sinatra/Sammy Davis Jr. heist movie. Ocean had early success with “Love Really Hurts Without You” and “Red Light Spells Danger.” LaToya Jackson had covered a couple of his songs, but those covers weren’t hits. In 1984, the same year he broke through to stardom, Ocean also did gigs like singing backup for the bugged-out art-rocker Scott Walker.
When Ocean moved from Epic to Jive, his new label hooked him up with the producer Keith Diamond. Diamond was based in New York, not London. But Diamond and Ocean were the same age, and they’d both come from Trinidad. Together, Diamond and Ocean came up with a smooth, urbane sound. Their version of R&B was glossy and bubbly and club-ready, and it had clearly taken some lessons from the success of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.
Ocean and Diamond wrote the song that would become “Caribbean Queen” together. They both programmed the drum machines, and Diamond played a synth-bass line not too different from the one that Michael Jackson had used on “Billie Jean.” “Caribbean Queen” didn’t really have to change much when Ocean changed the title, since it wasn’t really about where this particular queen originated. Instead, it’s a song about two horny, sexy people orbiting each other and then surprising themselves by falling in love with each other.
“Caribbean Queen” is slight and a bit silly, but it’s also a lot of fun. The hiccuping guitars and electro-disco strings are all there to ornament the big drum-machine beat. Ocean stays on top of that beat, singing about all the things that he likes about the Caribbean queen, the painted-on jeans and the electric eyes that you can’t ignore. Ocean describes their meet-cute: “In the blink of an eye, I knew her number and her name/ She said I was the tiger she wanted to tame.” As he lays out the story, sound effects turn it into a radio play: Wolf whistles, heavy breathing. When he mentions electric eyes, we hear a laser beam, which is fun. When he says that he’s the tiger she wanted to tame, we hear evil cartoon-villain laugher, which makes no sense and which is even more fun.
In the video, Ocean disappears in a puff of smoke during that evil laughter. The video is a beautiful nonsensical ’80s cocaine fever dream. Ocean and the Caribbean queen are rehearsing some kind of stage show, and they keep catching each other’s eye and walking in on each other. Then they’re performing together, doing some kind of deeply strange strobe-lit performance-art thing, with a fucking mime doing the great wailing saxophone solo for some reason.
“Caribbean Queen” doesn’t really work as a love song, since these two don’t really sound like they’re in love with each other. Ocean insists that their hearts now beat as one. He might play his music in the sun, but he no longer gets his loving on the run. I don’t believe him. Ocean wails that they’re sharing the same dream, but he just seems to mean that they’re both really into banging each other. “Caribbean Queen” is more flirty than passionate, but that’s fine. Flirty is good, and the track works as the party song that it was always meant to be. (The album version of “Caribbean Queen” is eight minutes long, which is way too much “Caribbean Queen,” but the four-minute single edit is just right.)
The silliness of the song does everything to flatter Ocean. As a ballad singer, Ocean could be a bit plummy and generic, his deep and velvety voice turning a bit stagey. But Ocean’s got a great command of rhythm, and he knows how to deliver a simple and direct hook like the one on “Caribbean Queen.” Ocean doesn’t really have to carry “Caribbean Queen”; the beat does that. Ocean just has to dance through it, sounding convincingly enraptured. He does his job.
“Caribbean Queen” does not sound like the work of a career hitmaker, but it turned Ocean into a star. The album Suddenly went double platinum, and it launched two more top-10 singles. In 1985, Ocean got to #2 with “Loverboy,” a streamlined and rock-influenced track with an absolutely bananas sci-fi video. Ocean and Keith Diamond co-wrote “Loverboy” with the Def Leppard/Cars producer Mutt Lange. (“Loverboy” is an 8. Mutt Lange’s production work will eventually appear in this column.) Then Ocean made it to #4 with the ballad “Suddenly.” (It’s a 5.)
Billy Ocean was just getting started. He’ll be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: It brings me great pleasure to report that there’s a 1985 episode of Miami Vice where an utterly ridiculous-looking Gene Simmons plays a drug kingpin named Newton Blade. (Do I need to start watching Miami Vice?) Here’s “Caribbean Queen (No More Love On The Run)” soundtracking a party on Newton Blade’s yacht:
(The highest-charting single from Gene Simmons’ band Kiss is 1976’s “Beth,” which peaked at #7. It’s a 4. Don Johnson’s highest-charting single, 1986’s “Heartbeat,” peaked at #5. It’s another 4. Miami Vice will eventually appear in this column.)