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.
The week that John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the top three positions on the big chart were all theme songs from movies. Movie soundtracks had been a driving force on the pop charts almost since the dawn of the Hot 100; consider Percy Faith’s easy-listening instrumental “Theme From A Summer Place,” a nine-week chart-topper way back in 1960. But in the mid-’80s, a particular strain of synthy, upbeat pulse-rock absolutely ruled the radio, and it became the sound of Hollywood in that early blockbuster era.
That week in August of 1985 is probably the peak of a trend that started a few years earlier with the Flashdance soundtrack — with the whole idea of a big Hollywood movie cut to the beat of pop songs, presented as a glamorous visual spectacle not too distant from what kids were watching on MTV. The movie-soundtrack songs that did well on the charts didn’t necessarily fit a Flashdance formula, but most of them achieved some sense of fired-up propulsion — a vague feeling of Reagan-era optimism that the films themselves didn’t always reflect.
St. Elmo’s Fire, an elaborate young-adult bed-hopping drama with about as many romantic twists as a full season of Gossip Girl, was a decent-sized hit. The movie starred a bunch of young actors from the so-called Brat Pack, including three (Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, and Ally Sheedy) who’d only just been in The Breakfast Club a few months earlier. St. Elmo’s Fire was an early directorial effort from Joel Schumacher, a former costume designer who would go on to have a whole lot of commercial success without ever earning much of a critical reputation. (Another song from a Schumacher soundtrack will eventually appear in this column.) Critics totally despised St. Elmo’s Fire, but it still went on to earn about $38 million at the box office — way more than its budget, and good enough to make it the #23 movie of 1985.
As it happens, the #24 movie of 1985 was Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a much better film with an actual pop star in its cast. The week that Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire” took the #1 spot on the Hot 100, Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” was at #3. (“We Don’t Need Another Hero” would peak at #2. It’s a 7.) And while St. Elmo’s Fire was never a box-office threat to Back To The Future, Parr’s song was able to compete with Huey Lewis And The News’ “The Power Of Love.” That week, Parr knocked Lewis down to #2, and he did it with an even goofier song.
Unlike Tina Turner and Huey Lewis, John Parr was not a pop star. Instead, he was part of the be-mulleted army of yowly studio-rockers who laid siege upon the world in the wake of Boston and Journey and REO Speedwagon. Parr came from Worksop, a small town in England’s East Midlands, and he spent years in bands, playing in the UK small-club circuit before getting his shot. One night in 1980, Parr got hurt in a brawl at the London club the Rainbow, and the Who’s stage manager John Wolff took care of Parr and eventually took Parr under his wing.
Pretty soon after meeting Wolff, Parr wrote songs for the Who’s Roger Daltrey and for Meat Loaf. (The Who’s highest-charting US single, 1967’s “I Can See For Miles,” peaked at #9. It’s an 8. Daltrey’s highest-charting solo single, 1980’s “Without Your Love,” peaked at #20. Meat Loaf will eventually appear in this column.) Finally, Parr signed to Atlantic and had a decent-sized hit of his own with his 1984 debut single, the horny rocker “Naughty Naughty,” which peaked at #23. In the video, Parr played an American-flag guitar, despite not being American, and got slapped by a pre-Melrose Place Lisa Rinna.
“Naughty Naughty” is what convinced corporate-pop king David Foster to call on Parr. Foster had already produced and co-written Chicago’s 1982 chart-topper “Hard To Say I’m Sorry,” another generic and hard-striving rocker from another pretty trashy movie. Columbia brought in Foster to oversee the entire score and soundtrack for St. Elmo’s Fire, and then the studio, convinced that it had a big summer hit on its hands, moved up the film’s release date. Foster didn’t have much time to get the soundtrack done, and he and Parr wrote “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” together in a single afternoon.
Parr hadn’t seen the movie, so he couldn’t really write a song about it. Instead, Foster, a Canadian, showed Parr a video clip of Rick Hansen, a disabled athlete and activist who had become a kid of Canadian national hero. Hansen was on what he called his Man In Motion tour, raising money an awareness for spinal cord research, and so Parr basically wrote about that. You can’t really tell, though. “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” isn’t really a song about much of anything.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen St. Elmo’s Fire all the way through, though I’ve definitely seen at least 15 minutes of it on cable a few times. (I meant to watch it last night for the purposes of this column, but then I fell asleep.) As far as I can remember, though, Parr’s song doesn’t exactly fit the movie’s tone. The movie is about a bunch of uncertain and frequently stupid young people getting into romantic entanglements with each other. The song is a grandly motivational you-can-do-anything rocker. Maybe that’s why the song broke through in ways that the movie didn’t.
St. Elmo’s Fire is a silly movie, and “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” is a silly song, but they’re silly in different ways. In the movie, St. Elmo’s is the bar where all the good-looking young people hang out and flirt with each other, and where Rob Lowe plays sweaty sax solos. In Parr’s song, the titular phenomenon is some gleaming and nebulous future goal. Years later, Parr told Songfacts, “To me, it was the embodiment of a dream, a focus to strive towards as it glows in the sky.” I like that Parr talks that way in real life, too.
Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire” lyrics are ridiculous in all the best ways. He seems to be celebrating his own striving: “I can see a new horizon underneath the blazing sky! I’ll be where the eagle’s flying, higher and higher!” As a singer, Parr doesn’t have a whole lot of personality. He’s a replacement-level central-casting arena-rock rasper who can hit some big notes. But the way he sings the words “higher and higher” is perfect. He believes that shit. And he believes it just as hard when he wails that he can climb the highest mountain, cross the wildest sea, and feel St. Elmo’s fire burning in him.
Musically, “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” is also right in that weirdly-satisfying mid-’80s radio-rock zone. The pulsing dance-pop synth-bass that runs all through the song is a lot of fun. The drums go boom. The exuberant horn-stabs and the melodramatic electric pianos come close to throwing the whole thing off, but that never quite happens. The glistening power chords hit at just the right time. It’s thoroughly professional fluff. Since it’s a David Foster track, that’s not a surprise.
Foster co-wrote “St. Elmo’s Fire” with Parr, and he also produced and played keyboards. As producer, Foster brought in the best musicians he could find. When he made “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” with Chicago, Foster essentially replaced most of Chicago with members of Toto, another past Number Ones artist. He does the same thing on “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Toto’s Steve Porcaro, David Paich, and Steve Lukather all play on the song. David Amato, who’s already been in this column a couple of times as a member of REO Speedwagon, sings backup. Richard Page, who will soon be in this column as the frontman of Mr. Mister, also adds vocals.
The “St. Elmo’s Fire” video is a glorious little time-capsule. John Parr, once again playing his American-flag guitar, sings the song on the stage at St. Elmo’s, the bar from the movie. Near the end, he gets down from the stage and lip-syncs in the faces of all the film’s stars, sometimes seemingly interrupting their conversations. He’s about a decade older than any of them, and he must know that Rob Lowe’s mullet is a whole lot better than his own, which has an unfortunate Michael Landon-in-Highway To Heaven quality. The entire vision is just deliciously awkward.
Somehow, this display of electric charisma did not make a star out of John Parr. After “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion),” Parr never had another real hit, though a couple of his later singles grazed the lower rungs of the Hot 100. Parr wrote songs for Marilyn Martin, a singer who will soon appear in this column, and he contributed generic-rocker tracks to soundtracks of movies like Three Men And A Baby and The Running Man. (In the late-’80s soundtrack-rock power rankings, I’d put Parr well below Stan Bush, who never had a Hot 100 single but who contributed all-time bangers to Transformers: The Movie and Bloodsport and Kickboxer.) In recent years, it seems like Parr has mostly worked as an opening act for other classic rockers, which seems like a pretty good role for him.
The St. Elmo’s Fire soundtrack produced one more hit: The instrumental “Love Theme From St. Elmo’s Fire,” which peaked at #15. That’s David Foster’s highest-charting single as a lead artist. But as a songwriter and a producer, we’ll see David Foster in this column many more times.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the moment from a 1994 Simpsons episode where Homer is driven to despair by hearing “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” on a car radio:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2012, the spectacle of Tim Tebow’s temporary stardom inspired John Parr to record a whole new version of “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion).” Here’s “Tim Tebow’s Fire”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” making a brief appearance in the No Good Deed, the Deadpool short film that ran in theaters before 2017’s Logan:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Evidently, “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” hit some kind of late-’10s superhero-comedy sweet spot. Here’s the song soundtracking a scene in an absolute fucking masterpiece, 2018’s Spider-Man: Into The Spider Verse:
(The Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse soundtrack will eventually appear in this column.)