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.
Richard Page is good at smoldering. The man smolders when he’s driving through the desert, the wind in his hair. He smolders when he’s staring out a sunny window, idly plucking at his bass. When Page notices the camera, he smolders hard, moving towards us and staring deep into our collective eyes. Page might be wearing an extremely Miami Vice trench-coat/T-shirt ensemble, and he might be handsome in the blandest way possible. But when he gets stormy, he makes you feel that shit.
If you’re looking for reasons to make fun of ’80s pop music — the fashion, the keyboards, the blaring guitar leads, the almost disarmingly terrible band names — then Page’s band Mr. Mister makes for a great target. Mr. Mister didn’t rock. They made ultra-produced, vaguely worded expensive-digital-studio music, and they embodied a moment when that was what pop radio wanted. There are all sorts of reasons to clown Mr. Mister, but you can’t deny that smolder. Everything else about “Broken Wings,” Mr. Mister’s first hit, remains forever anchored to late 1985, but that smolder is forever.
Maybe you learn how to smolder when you grow up in the desert. Page was born into a family of musicians in Iowa, and he also lived in Alabama as a kid, but Page had most of his formative experiences in Phoenix. That’s where Page went to high school and where he met his friend and future bandmate Steve George. After high school, Page and George moved to Hollywood, and they became session musicians. Eventually, they both joined Andy Gibb’s backing band, and they spent 1977 touring with him.
When they weren’t playing behind Gibb, the members of Gibb’s band worked on their own music. They made a demo tape, and that tape got them signed to Epic. Gibb’s backing band took the name Pages, presumably because Richard Page was the main guy in the group. Page’s cousin John Lang also joined the band. Lang couldn’t sing or play any instruments, but he wrote their lyrics, and that was apparently enough to qualify for membership. Pages released three albums in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but they didn’t score any hits. (Their one charting single, 1979’s “I Do Believe In You,” peaked at #84.)
After Pages broke up in 1981, the members of the band went back to session-musician life. Richard Page sang backup for REO Speedwagon and Amy Grant and Al Jarreau and Neil Diamond and DeBarge. He sang on John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion).” He sang for metal bands like Mötley Crüe and Twisted Sister, though he hated doing that. (Here’s Page, talking to the LA Times in 1985: “I had problems singing those lyrics about Satanism. I don’t need money that badly. I don’t need to sing junk like that. I had nightmares about it.”) Page also developed a bad cocaine habit, then kicked it. Somewhere along the way, Page got back together with Steve George and formed Mr. Mister.
Around the time Mr. Mister got together, Page turned down some big job offers. In that LA Times interview, he claims that he was recruited for lead-singer roles in some bigger bands — replacing Bobby Kimball in Toto, replacing Peter Cetera in Chicago. He turned both gigs down, and he may have regretted it. Mr. Mister’s first album, 1984’s I Wear The Face, didn’t do much better than the Pages records had done, and their single “Hunters Of The Night” peaked at #57. But you can’t smolder like that if you don’t have confidence. Page knew things would work out.
Mr. Mister produced their sophomore album Welcome To The Real World themselves, and lightning struck during one songwriting session. Page, Steve George, and their old Pages bandmate John Lang wrote “Broken Wings” together in one quick burst. They started out with a drum-machine beat and Page’s bassline, and they had a complete song 20 minutes later. Lang wrote the lyrics, and he based them on Broken Wings, a philosophical 1912 novel from the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran. Page has said that they did not take inspiration from the Beatles, who’d already had a line about taking these broken wings and learning to fly on the 1968 classic “Blackbird.” Page explained that the Beatles had also been inspired by Gibran. That’s all. Just a big coincidence.
I don’t buy the Beatles explanation for a minute, but lyrical thievery, intentional or not, doesn’t change change the reality that “Broken Wings” just slaps. It’s a song that I will always associate with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a game that I used to play until my eyes bled, and with the uncanny sensation of speeding down fake-Miami highways while the sun set over the digital ocean. The song’s level of drama is absurd, almost fantastical, and it pulls it off.
Lyrically, “Broken Wings” is an attempt to keep a relationship together through the magic of flowery language: “Take these broken wings/ And learn to fly again, learn to live so free/ When we hear the voices sing/ The book of love will open up and let us in.” Those words are grandiloquent enough to be self-parody, but Page delivers them all perfectly straight-faced. He means every bit of it. In Page’s mouth, the word “take” becomes a desperate animal yelp. I love it.
I also love how overproduced “Broken Wings” is. The song is all ominous churn, and it never really kicks in. Instead, it captures a state of sustained anticipation. The synths drone and sigh. The guitars whine and howl. The bassline mutters dejectedly to itself. Little funk-guitar ripples glide across the surface. Even when the drums come thudding in, they’re off-kilter, never quite locked-in. “Broken Wings” works as a five-minute digital gasp. It’s like the whole song is holding its breath, waiting to see if the whole “take these broken wings” line is going to save this relationship.
The “Broken Wings” video extends that feeling. There’s nothing remotely original about the video. It’s mostly just Richard Page driving a classic convertible through the California desert — exactly the same thing as Curt Smith had done a few months earlier in Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” video. Director Oley Sassone, who would later make Roger Corman’s never-released 1994 Fantastic Four movie, films the whole thing in the same kind of stately black-and-white that Jean-Baptiste Mondino had used a year earlier in Don Henley’s video for “The Boys Of Summer.” (“The Boys Of Summer” peaked at #5. It’s a 9.) So the “Broken Wings” video is two different ripoffs at the same time, and yet it works. Like “Broken Wings” itself, the video finds majesty where there should only be cheese.
Mr. Mister didn’t fully exhaust their reserves of majesty on “Broken Wings,” either. They will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: The posthumous 2Pac track “Until The End Of Time,” released in 2001, samples “Broken Wings,” and it’s got guest singer RL Huggar singing a version of Mr. Mister’s chorus. Here’s the video:
And here’s the “Until The End Of Time” remix, which features Richard Page coming in to sing that same version of his own band’s “Broken Wings” chorus:
(“Until The End Of Time” peaked at #52. 2Pac will eventually appear in this column. RL Huggar will also be in the column as a member of Next.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Foxy Brown rapping over a “Broken Wings” sample on the title track of her 2001 album Broken Silence:
(Foxy Brown’s highest-charting single, the 1997 Jay-Z collab “I’ll Be,” peaked at #7. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Broken Wings” soundtracking an extremely goofy sex scene in the 2010 film MacGruber: