The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Bryan Adams’ “Heaven”

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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Bryan Adams – “Heaven”

HIT #1: June 22, 1985

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

Bryan Adams should not have been allowed to call his album Reckless. It’s false advertising. There has never been anything reckless about Bryan Adams — other than maybe his decision to headline a COVID-era stadium show in Germany, which ended up getting cancelled anyway. Seen from a certain perspective, Bryan Adams is a paragon of conservatism — not political conservatism, but aesthetic conservatism. This guy played the middle of the road better than almost anyone of his rock ‘n’ roll generation. In an era of pop theatricality, Adams went full T-shirt-and-jeans everyman, and he got away with it.

Adams’ durable style — slightly growly rockers with big riffs and sticky hooks and enormous production — might’ve been a missing link between Bruce Springsteen’s mid-’80s working-class stadium-rock heroics and the poodle-haired glam metal overlords that took over the charts soon after. But Adams himself wasn’t a warrior-poet showman like Springsteen, and he wasn’t into stagy preening like the Sunset Strip bands. Instead, Adams got over on down-the-line sincerity, something he was able to sell on MTV. His lack of persona was his persona. It worked out for him.

When Adams finally had his first moment atop the Billboard Hot 100, it wasn’t a happy accident. It was fully calculated. Adams had paid attention and watched what was succeeding on the charts, and then he made his own version of it. This was a canny choice, though I can’t say it made for a great song.

Adams was only 25 when “Heaven” hit #1, but he was already a music-business survivor with a handful of hits to his name. “Heaven” itself was nearly two years old. Adams was born in Kingston, Ontario, but he didn’t grow up there. (The #1 single in the US on the day of Adams’ birth was Bobby Darin’s “Mack The Knife.” Adams was 10 years old in the summer of ’69, so that song is either about someone else or something else.) When Adams was a kid, his father, who’d spent time in the British and Canadian armies, worked as a UN peacekeeping observer, so a young Adams lived in Lisbon and Vienna and Tel Aviv before settling in Vancouver.

When Adams was 15, he became the new singer for the Vancouver glitter-rock band Sweeney Todd. (Sweeney Todd’s original frontman was Nick Gilder, who had left for Los Angeles and who soon hit #1 with “Hot Child In The City.”) Adams recorded one album with Sweeney Todd, and he was 16 when he left the band. Shortly afterward, Adams met Jim Vallence, the former drummer of the Vancouver rock band Prism. Vallance had left Prism because he wanted to make it as a songwriter. He was seven years older than Adams, but the two decided to start up a songwriting partnership anyway.

In 1978, Adams signed with A&M Records for a one-dollar advance, and the label remixed his debut single “Let Me Take You Dancing,” releasing it as a disco song. Adams came out with his self-titled debut album in 1980, and he cranked out his first three albums over a four-year stretch. The first two of those albums didn’t do much business. During that run, Adams and Vallance also wrote songs for people like KISS, Bonnie Raitt, and Vallance’s old band Prism. (Adams and Vallance wrote Prism’s highest-charting US single, 1981’s “Don’t Let Him Know,” which peaked at #39.)

Everything started to click for Adams after he came out with his third LP, 1983’s Cuts Like A Knife. The album made the top 10 and went platinum in the US, and it hit triple-platinum status in Canada. The single “Straight From The Heart” was Adams’ first real US hit, and it peaked at #10. (It’s a 7. The follow-up single “Cuts Like A Knife” peaked at #15, and it remains an absolute rock-radio banger to this day.)

Adams spent much of 1983 on tour, opening for Journey. A year earlier, Journey had scored their biggest-ever hit with the power ballad “Open Arms,” which peaked at #2. (It’s a 7.) But Adams was more into the newest Journey power ballad. While they were on tour together, Journey had come out with the single “Faithfully,” which eventually peaked at #12. Every night, Adams watched crowds losing it to “Faithfully.” He wanted to write a song like that. Before long, he had an excuse.

That summer, producer Gene Kirkwood was finishing up a movie called A Night In Heaven, which I had literally never heard of before I sat down to write this piece. (Turns out it’s a romantic drama about a male stripper, played by The Blue Lagoon’s Christopher Atkins.) Kirkwood had hired Danny Goldberg, the former rock critic and future Nirvana manager, to produce the soundtrack, and Goldberg had the idea to bring in Bryan Adams. Adams had seen the script for the movie, and he thought it looked bad, but he agreed to record a song for the soundtrack anyway. He and Jim Vallance spent a day writing “Heaven” in Vancouver, and they recorded it in New York during a couple of days off from the Journey tour.

Adams co-produced “Heaven” with the awesomely named Bob Clearmountain, a master of big-’80s sounds. Clearmountain had mixed Tattoo You and Sports and Let’s Dance and Born In The USA, and he’d co-produced “Out Of Touch” with Daryl Hall and John Oates. While they were working on “Heaven,” things ran long, and drummer Mickey Curry had to leave before recording, since he also had a session with Hall and Oates that day. So Adams called up Journey drummer Steve Smith, who was staying in a nearby hotel, and Smith came in to play on “Heaven.” On tour, Smith and Adams had become friendly, and Smith would warm up every night by sitting under the stage and playing along with Adams’ set. When you’ve intentionally set out to rip off another band’s song, it must be an amazing luxury to have a guy from that band come in and play on your record.

A Night In Heaven came out in November of 1983. Critics hated it, and it lost money. At the time, Adams didn’t release “Heaven” as a single, though a lot of rock stations played it anyway. (“Obsession,” another song from the Night In Heaven soundtrack, would later become a #6 hit for Animotion. That song is an 8. Jan Hammer, who did the score for A Night In Heaven, will soon appear in this column.) Adams didn’t like “Heaven” much, and he initially wasn’t going to include the song on Reckless, his next album. He changed his mind at the last minute, and the song made the cut.

Reckless turned out to be a huge album, a total stadium-rock calling card. There are 10 songs on Reckless, and six of them became top-20 hits. Lead single “Run To You” peaked at #6. (It’s an 8.) Adams followed it with “Somebody,” which peaked at #11. “Heaven” was already blowing up on the radio before Adams finally released it as a single. He shot a couple of videos for the song with director Steve Barron, the more famous of which is the melodramatic saga of a girl who leaves behind her drunk-driving boyfriend, wanders into a Bryan Adams show, and locks eyes with the singer. Adams then runs offstage to try and find this girl, which makes me question his professionalism. You’re at work, buddy! Finish the show!

I can understand why Adams didn’t want to put “Heaven” on Reckless. Reckless is a gleaming, streamlined mid-’80s rock album, but it’s a rock album nonetheless. “Heaven” is not a rock song. It’s almost defiantly wimpy. Adams growl-coos over watery keyboards and dramatic synth-strings, and even when the giant drums come crashing in, it remains pretty washed-out. Adams, with his big chin and his sincere eyebrows, could sell longing and devotion, and his vocal is a fairly majestic version of the standard white-soul bellow. The hook from “Heaven” is strong enough to get stuck in your head, and the arrangement does all the classic things that power ballads need to do, building from the soft opening to the fiddly-guitar climax. But I never get the sense that the song expresses anything urgent, that it has any real reason to exist.

The problem, I think, is that Adams and Vallance clearly wrote “Heaven” for a movie, right down to the way they clumsily build the thing around a word from the film’s title. There’s no central conflict to “Heaven,” no sense of heartbreak or story arc. It’s a love song of Lionel Richie-level simplicity. Adams remembers long ago, when he and someone else used to be in love. And then he says: Hey, look, we’re still in love. He doesn’t say anything about fighting and making up, or about getting through hard times together. It’s just: We’re in heaven.

Adams, for whatever reason, sounds deeply pained when singing “Heaven,” even though there’s nothing pained about those lyrics. It’s like he’s trying to imply a sadness that just isn’t there on paper. It doesn’t work for me. I tend to like “Heaven” better when other people sing it.

Even though “Heaven” had been around for more than a year before Adams released it as a single, the song took off. It helped push Reckless to quintuple-platinum sales. The album’s next single was the totemic “Summer Of ’69,” which peaked at #5 and which lived on in rock-radio rotation forevermore. (It’s a 9.) At the end of 1985, Billboard named Reckless the #2 seller of the year, behind only Born In The USA. Bryan Adams was a made man. He’ll appear in this column again.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: In 2001, the Spanish producer DJ Sammy, along with the German DJ Yanou and the Dutch singer Do, released an extremely silly Euro-house version of “Heaven,” which became a major international hit. Here’s the video:

(In the US, DJ Sammy’s version of “Heaven” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Queens duo Nina Sky interpolating DJ Sammy’s version of “Heaven” on their 2010 song “Beautiful People”:

(Nina Sky’s highest-charting single is 2004’s “Move Ya Body,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The second-season American Idol winner Ruben Studdard teamed up with Boyz II Men to sing a glossy R&B cover of “Heaven” on his 2009 album Love Is. Here it is:

(Ruben Studdard’s highest-charting single is 2003’s “Flying Without Wings,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 2. Boyz II Men will appear in this column many, many times.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In a possible nod to OG male-stripper movie A Night In Heaven, there’s a scene in the extremely entertaining 2015 movie Magic Mike XXL where Matt Bomer entertains a party full of horny women with his rendition of “Heaven.” Here’s that:

(As far as I can tell, nobody in that scene has ever had a charting single. Donald Glover, who will eventually appear in this column, is one of the strippers, but he’s not in that scene. But Big Sexy Kevin Nash is a former WWF Champion and a five-time WCW World Heavyweight Champion, so that’s pretty good.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the affecting moment in the pretty-great 2019 indie film Her Smell where Elizabeth Moss sings a solo-piano version of “Heaven” to her daughter: