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 ambiguous-Christian-rock hustle can’t have been easy. In the mid-’80s, the market for contemporary Christian music hadn’t yet matured; it was still its own sort of underground phenomenon. There was gospel, but that and Christian pop music are two distinct phenomena with barely any overlap. Amy Grant, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, had not yet become a pop-chart conqueror. DC Talk were still kids at Liberty University. The only real Christian-pop crossovers were curiosities like Bob Dylan, during his brief and strange born-again era, or the ascendant glam-metal novelty Stryper. It was hard out here for a Christian band.
In a time of pop hedonism, most successful religious musicians had learned to keep things quiet. In interviews, bands like U2 — a group who will eventually appear in this column — would specify that they don’t want to be stuck with the Christian-rock label. In their lyrics, they would avoid direct mentions of Jesus, and they’d instead weave in subliminal references that only the faithful would catch. In the 2013 indie comedy The Way Way Back, there’s a whole bit about Amanda Peet singing the line from the chorus of “Kyrie,” the second and final chart-topper from the LA band Mr. Mister, as “carry a laser.” You can see why she’d think that. “Carry a laser” makes as much sense as anything else.
The line is not “carry a laser.” If she’d been Catholic or Greek Orthodox, Amanda Peet’s character might’ve known that. Apparently, she might’ve known it if she’d been Episcopalian, too. “Kyrie eleison” is an old Greek term, generally translated as “Lord, have mercy,” that’s served an an invocation in various different Christian faiths for centuries. I heard it about a million times in church as a kid without ever wondering what it meant. (If pressed, I would’ve guessed “some church stuff,” and I would’ve been right.) John Lang, the guy who wrote all Mr. Mister’s lyrics, apparently heard it a bunch as a kid, too.
Lang couldn’t sing or play an instrument, but he was a cousin of Mr. Mister frontman Richard Page, and the band relied on him for all lyrical matters. Lang, Page, and Mr. Mister keyboardist Steve George, the same team who had written the group’s previous #1 hit “Broken Wings,” came up with “Kyrie.” Lang knew the phrase “Kyrie eleison” from the Phoenix Episcopal churches where he’d grown up. Page and George had both gone to a Presbyterian church, where Page’s parents directed the choir. The three of them wrote “Kyrie” while touring with Adam Ant, which can’t have been the churchiest of environments. (Adam Ant’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “Goody Two Shoes,” peaked at #12.)
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits, Richard Page does the whole not-a-Christian-band spiel, but he also says this about “Kyrie”: “There’s a lot of power in those words. The song is a prayer, basically.” Lyrically, “Kyrie” is a textbook example of ambiguous worship music. The lyrics are all vague evocations of spiritual journeys and emotional struggles: “The wind blows hard against this mountain side/ Across the sea, into my soul/ It reaches into where I cannot hide/ Setting my feet upon the road.” When the chorus hits, that ancient Greek invocation explodes out of the song: “Kyrie eleison, down the road that I must travel/ Kyrie eleison, through the darkness of the night.” If you know, you know.
By now, you may have guessed that I am not especially sympathetic to the travails of pop musicians trying to sneak declarations of faith into top-40 playlists. I spent way too much of my childhood in a church pew, and I’m not really trying to hear any music that covertly hits me with that messaging. But as a piece of straight-up pop music, “Kyrie” isn’t bad.
The members of Mr. Mister were musicians first and biblical messengers second. They came up as late-’70s and early-’80s session players, and they knew how to make their synths drip with drama. “Kyrie” has top-shelf mid-’80s widescreen grandeur working for it. The intro is an ambient keyboard bloop-hum, like a John Carpenter score. Richard Page’s voice hits sports-movie training-montage registers. When the drums come in, they’ve got that big, juicy Phil Collins echo all over them. And then there’s that chorus, a prayer delivered as a particularly catchy plea.
Like “Broken Wings” before it, “Kyrie” aims for surging majesty, and it mostly gets there. If you want to hear a song like that as pure mythic nonsense, or as “carry the laser,” that’s right there for you. When the key-change lands, when it’s just an echoed-out chorus of Richard Pages singing over that thudding drum, I feel it. In moments like that, it doesn’t really matter that Richard Page is praying at me. Even if you’re not a believer — and I’m not — you can still connect to that sense of searching for something, of finding yourself between the soul and soft machine. (I don’t know what that lyric means. Maybe that’s an Episcopalian thing, or maybe John Lang had a crisis of faith over his love of early-’70s UK prog-rock.)
With “Broken Wings” and “Kyrie,” Mr. Mister had two consecutive #1 singles, both from the 1985 album Welcome To The Real World. The band’s next single, the Welcome To The Real World track “Is It Love,” peaked at #8 after it appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Stakeout. (It’s a 6.) That turned out to be Mr. Mister’s last top-10 hit. Their next album, 1987’s Go On…, went gold, but lead single “Something Real” topped out at #29, and the band never charted again.
In 1988, Mr. Mister backed up the veteran Christian rocker Paul Clark on his album Awakening From The Western Dream. In 1990, they made another album called Pull, but RCA wouldn’t release it, and the band broke up. (Richard Page released Pull himself in 2010.) Page went on to form a short-lived band called Third Matinee and to release a 1996 solo album. He’s since returned to session work and toured with one of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Bands. Steve George spent years touring and recording with previous Number Ones artist Kenny Loggins, and then he spent years after that doing the same with Jewel. (Jewel’s two highest-charting singles, 1996’s “You Were Meant For Me” and 1997’s “Foolish Games,” both peaked at #2. “You Were Meant For Me” is a 4, and “Foolish Games” is a 5.) These days, at least according to his Wikipedia page, George is retired and living back in Arizona.
Six years after “Kyrie” hit #1, the six-time NBA all-star Kyrie Irving was born in Melbourne. I don’t think Mr. Mister had anything to do with that, though.
Mr. Mister won’t appear in this column again, but God probably will.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the House Crew sampling the “Kyrie” keyboard intro on the 1993 rave classic “Euphoria (Nino’s Dream)”: