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.
Madonna’s film career has been one hell of a mixed bag. There have been highlights (Desperately Seeking Susan, Dick Tracy, A League Of Their Own), and there have been lowlights (just about everything else). Madonna’s presence within film has always seemed bigger than it really is, if only because Madonna has always been a pop star who carried herself as a movie star. Her videos are musical set-pieces. Her different sounds are characters that she embodies and then abandons. And her star persona — imperious, horny, slightly dangerous — could be modeled on any number of classic-film femmes fatales.
In the video for her 1985 single “Material Girl,” Madonna essentially re-staged one of Marilyn Monroe’s musical sequences from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. That moment is an early sign that Madonna understood her own iconography right away. She was willing to make those connections to past screen legends explicit, to present herself as being part of the grand American sexpot continuum. When “Material Girl” reached its chart apex in the early days of 1985, Madonna had already made her way into the mutliplexes of America. (“Material Girl” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)
A pre-fame Madonna actually made her film debut way back in 1979, when she starred in a cheap and notoriously shitty exploitation flick called A Certain Sacrifice. That movie went unreleased until 1985, when whoever owned the rights attempted to cash in on Madonna’s newfound fame. But Madonna’s first real film appearance is a quick scene in Vision Quest, one of many variations on the Rocky formula that came out in the ’80s. Vision Quest isn’t a huge movie, and Madonna’s appearance in it amounts to a one-scene cameo with no dialogue. But that one scene might still be the most famous thing about the movie.
In Vision Quest, human Labrador Matthew Modine plays Louden Swain, a high-school wrestler in Spokane. Louden spends the movie desperately trying to cut weight so that he can take on an undefeated mythic figure named Brian Shute. Along the way, he gets into an affair with an older woman, an art student who’s renting a room in his father’s house. (That woman is Linda Fiorentino, who looks like she will eat Modine alive.) Somewhere along the way, Louden wanders into a bar, and Madonna is just up there, singing for an apparently-disinterested clientele — something that seems just as implausible as Louden’s eventual victory over Shute.
The music supervisor for Vision Quest was Phil Ramone, who produced #1 hits for Billy Joel and who essentially put together the soundtrack for Flashdance, another one of those variations-on-Rocky ’80s movies. With the Vision Quest soundtrack, Ramone essentially had himself a mini-Flashdance. Many of the songs on that soundtrack were rock songs that were a few years old at the time: Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded,” John Waite’s “Change,” a memorable use of Red Rider’s “Lunatic Fringe.” (“Hot Blooded,” from 1978, peaked at #3. It’s a 7.) But Ramone also lined up some new joints from big guns. Journey, for instance, contributed “Only The Young,” the song that plays during the movie’s triumphant final moment. (“Only The Young” peaked at #9. It’s a 5.)
And then there were the two Madonna songs. Phil Ramone had gone to the songwriters John Bettis and Jon Lind, hoping that they could come up with something for the movie. Both of them were music-industry types with plenty of credits to their names. Bettis, who wrote the lyrics, had started out in the band Spectrum with Richard and Karen Carpenter, and he’d co-written the Carpenters’ 1973 chart-topper “Top Of The World.” Lind, who wrote the music, had co-written “Boogie Wonderland,” the 1978 Earth, Wind & Fire/Emotions collaboration that peaked at #6. (“Boogie Wonderland” is an 8. As a songwriter, Lind will appear in this column again.)
Bettis and Lind had the idea that their big ballad should describe everything that’s going on during that scene in the bar, where Modine dances with Fiorentino. That makes it a sort of musical number, with lyrics describing the feelings that a character won’t just come out and say. Ramone had met with Madonna, and he’d been impressed. He gave her the song, an act of smart corporate synergy on his part. (Warner Bros. was the studio behind Vision Quest, and Madonna was signed to Sire, a Warner subsidiary.) But Bettis and Lind thought of Madonna as a dance-pop singer, and they didn’t think she could handle their ballad. When they went to an early recording session, their fears were confirmed. Madonna wasn’t up to it. They worried that the song wouldn’t even make it into the movie.
Madonna handled the song just fine, of course. Madonna turned out to be a great ballad singer. She’s never been a vocal powerhouse, and the warble-wail singing style so popular on ’80s-movie ballads wasn’t something she could do. But Madonna communicates. “Crazy For You” isn’t exactly a love song. Madonna’s narrator never uses the word “love.” Instead, “Crazy For You,” like so many other Madonna songs, is about attraction.
Madonna’s narrator sees someone from across a smoky room as she watches other people pair off. She wills this person to come over and talk to her — “Can’t you feel the weight of my stare?” — but the person never approaches. So Madonna walks over, and they find a wordless connection. She sings that she’s crazy for this person. She doesn’t sound crazy. She sounds perfectly in-control. But she also sounds nervous and vulnerable — like she hasn’t quite come to understand her own power yet, or like she’s aware that she’s surrendering that power to someone else.
Madonna had already proven herself as a dance-pop singer long before “Crazy For You,” but she hadn’t sung this kind of torch song before. She nails it. Her voice is confident and nervous at the same time. She doesn’t sound horny, and she doesn’t sound like she’s preying on someone else’s horniness. Instead, she sounds like she’s driven by an aching need. When she stretches out that title phrase, she almost sounds like a country singer. I love how the song doesn’t end with a big note. Instead, Madonna stops singing altogether and just talks, deadpanning the phrase, “I’m crazy for you.” That’s acting.
For “Crazy For You,” Madonna worked with another artist who didn’t have any history with ballads. Bronx native John “Jellybean” Benitez was a dance-pop DJ and in-demand remixer who’d produced Madonna’s first real hit “Holiday.” (“Holiday,” from 1983, peaked at #16. As a lead artist, Benitez’s highest-charting single is the 1987 Elisa Fiorillo collab “Who Found Who,” which also peaked at #16.) Benitez had been Madonna’s boyfriend. “Crazy For You” was his first ballad, and he says that he did everything on pure instinct, since he didn’t really know what he was doing. Like Madonna, he crushed it.
“Crazy For You” doesn’t sound like an early-’80s movie ballad; that’s why it works. The sounds on the song are dance-pop sounds rendered in a ballad context. The keyboards ripple and hum. The synth-bass brings a purposeful strut. The gated drums boom and echo. The backup singers sigh beatifically. The only part I don’t really like is the oboe that wanders through the song, adding a chintzy easy-listening element that the track doesn’t really need. But “Crazy For You” did cross over enough to reach #2 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Maybe the oboe helped.
Madonna and Benitez also recorded another track for the Vision Quest soundtrack, and it’s a banger. “Gambler,” the song that Madonna sings when Modine first walks into the bar, is a classic early-Madonna dance-pop jam. “Gamber,” which Madonna wrote, never came out as a single in the US, but it went top-10 in the UK and Australia. In both countries, Madonna was such a big deal that Warner capitalized by releasing Vision Quest under the title Crazy For You.
Vision Quest hit American theaters in February of 1985 — right after “Like A Virgin” had fallen out of the #1 spot, and while “Material Girl” was still rising. Sire, Madonna’s label, was adamant that her Vision Quest songs should not become singles, since they would detract attention from the Like A Virgin album. Various different entertainment execs yelled at each other behind the scenes, and the compromise was that “Crazy For You” would be a single and “Gambler” would not.
A month after Vision Quest came out, Madonna became a movie star. Madonna was just a supporting actor in Desperately Seeking Susan, which hit theaters in March, but she’s awesome in it. She plays the title character — a mysterious figure so wild and magnetic that Rosanna Arquette’s bored housewife turns her whole life upside down trying to figure out Madonna’s whole deal.
Madonna’s “Into The Groove,” one of her all-time great singles, was her contribution to the Desperately Seeking Susan soundtrack. “Into The Groove” was a global smash, a #1 single in the UK and almost a dozen other countries. In the US, “Into The Groove” was huge in clubs, and it topped Billboard‘s Dance Club Songs chart and went top-20 on R&B radio. But after the whole “Crazy For You” kerfuffle, Sire wouldn’t let Madonna release “Into The Groove” as a single in the US. That meant it never made the Hot 100, a travesty of chart justice. Instead, “Into The Groove” became a B-side on the maxi-single of Madonna’s Like A Virgin single “Angel.” (“Angel” peaked at #5. It’s a 7.)
Still, it’s a pretty amazing stroke of luck that the Vision Quest producers managed to get Madonna when they did. In the spring of 1985, Madonna was one of the biggest stars in pop music, and she took a pretty great first step toward movie stardom, too. She launched her Like A Virgin arena tour, released multiple huge singles, and dominated the press. The lack of an “Into The Groove” single release is probably the only reason she didn’t have another #1 single during that stretch. And yet we were supposed to believe that she was just up there singing in some Spokane dive.
Madonna will appear in this column again, but you already knew that.
BONUS BEATS: In the UK, “Crazy For You” peaked at #2. In 1991, another version of “Crazy For You — a Shep Pettibone remix — came out and once again reached #2. Here’s that remix, which isn’t terribly different from the original:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The UK dance group Beats International released a reggae version of “Crazy For You” as a B-side to their 1991 single “The Sun Doesn’t Shine.” Here’s that cover:
(In the US, Beats International’s two highest-charting singles, 1990’s “Dub Be Good To Me” and “Won’t Talk About It,” both peaked at #76. Both are great. Beats International mastermind Norman Cook later started recording under the name Fatboy Slim, and his highest-charting US single, 1999’s “Praise You,” peaked at #36. That one’s pretty good, too.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a slightly-remixed version of “Crazy For You” soundtracking the end of the 2004 movie 13 Going On 30:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Crazy For You” pop-punk cover that New Found Glory and Say Anything’s Max Bemis released on a 2007 compilation:
(New Found Glory’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “My Friends Over You,” peaked at #85.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the incredibly obnoxious version of “Crazy For You” that Me First And The Gimme Gimmes included on the 2014 album Are We Not Men? We Are Diva!: