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.
First, Taupin and synthpopper Martin Page got together to write “We Built This City,” the now-reviled smash from Starship, the band that had grown out of the Jefferson Airplane and the Jefferson Starship. That was the first song that Taupin and Page ever wrote together. The second was “These Dreams,” which would be the first-ever chart-topper for ’70s folk-metal greats Heart. On paper, Bernie Taupin’s lyrics are usually goofy, self-serious high-school poetry. But for a while there, Taupin knew exactly what goofy, self-serious high-school poetry the world wanted to hear, even when Elton John wasn’t the guy singing it.
At the time, Heart needed the help. Up until 1981, the Heart sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson had written or co-written almost all of the band’s hits. But by the mid-’80s, though, those hits were no longer arriving. Heart had come out of the gate in the ’70s with four platinum or multi-platinum albums, then a gold LP, and then two albums that hadn’t reached that level. They were on the decline. But in 1985, on the advice of their producer, Heart started working with outside songwriters and suddenly became a whole lot bigger than they’d ever been. This mid-’80s incarnation of Heart isn’t the best-loved version of Heart, but it’s the version with the hits.
Heart’s story went back to late-’60s Seattle, where the first iteration of the group began as a folk-rock band called the Army. That band went through a lot of lineup changes and a lot of different names: White Hart, White Heart, Hocus Pocus. Ann Wilson didn’t join the band until 1971. A year later, Mike Fisher, brother of Heart member Roger, fled north to Vancouver to escape the Vietnam draft. Soon afterward, Ann Wilson fell in love with Mike Fisher, and the members of Heart all moved, one by one, to Vancouver. Nancy Wilson, Ann’s four-years-younger sister, joined Heart in 1974, and she quickly started up a relationship with Roger Fisher. Mike Fisher became Heart’s manager, so the band, for a while, was a two-interrelated-couples situation.
In 1975, Heart released their debut album Dreamboat Annie on the Canadian indie Mushroom. The album was an assured take on stadium-shaking Zeppelin-style hard rock. Heart stood out by being a rare rock band with two women up front, and they stood out even further by virtue of the fact that they had some seriously stomp-ass songs. Ann Wilson sang about lust in the same mythic, animalistic tones that Robert Plant did, but she had a whole different perspective. The band caught on right away. Dreamboat Annie went platinum, and the single “Magic Man” peaked at #9 and never left rock-radio rotation. (It’s a 9.)
In the years that followed, Heart endured various upheavals and indignities. The band left Mushroom Records in part because of a magazine ad that implied that Ann and Nancy were having sex with each other, and Ann Wilson wrote the blistering 1977 rager “Barracuda” when she was pissed about a radio promoter who’d implied the same thing. Ann and Nancy eventually broke up with the Fisher brothers, and the band kicked Roger Fisher out after he threw an onstage tantrum over it. The whole time, Heart sold albums and played to big crowds that weren’t necessarily used to seeing women onstage.
Early on, Heart weren’t exactly a huge pop-chart presence. After “Magic Man,” the band’s only top-10 hit was a 1980 cover of the Aaron Neville song “Tell It Like It Is.” (Heart’s cover peaked at #8. It’s a 5. Neville’s original, from 1966, peaked at #2. That one is an 8.) Even the almighty “Barracuda” only made it to #11.
That sucks, but it’s not really surprising. In the ’70s, even the biggest hard rock bands didn’t tend to do well on the pop charts. But in 1984, when Heart’s records weren’t getting any traction, Ann Wilson teamed up with Loverboy singer Mike Reno to sing “Almost Paradise,” a song from the Footloose soundtrack. “Almost Paradise,” a melodramatic ballad that didn’t really sound anything like Heart, peaked at #7, which meant it was a bigger hit than any Heart single. (It’s a 3.) That must’ve been a lightbulb moment for the band. (Loverboy’s highest-charting single, 1985’s “Lovin’ Every Minute Of It,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
For their 1985 self-titled album, Heart went to work with Thin Lizzy producer and Led Zeppelin engineer Ron Nevison, and they started making hits. Heart became Heart’s first #1 album. It sold five million copies in the US and gave the band four different top-10 singles, all from pro songwriters who weren’t in the band. The first was “What About Love,” which peaked at #10. (It’s a 7.) The album’s second single was “Never,” which reached #4. (It’s a 6.) Then came “These Dreams,” Heart’s first #1 hit.
Ron Nevison had brought the Austrian musician and Starship producer Peter Wolf in to help out on Heart’s album. Wolf played keyboards, and he also nudged the band in Starship’s synthy pop-rock direction. (Starship’s Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick sang backup on “What About Love.”) Wolf had worked with Bernie Taupin and Martin Page on Starship’s “We Built This City,” and he asked them if they had any songs for Heart. Taupin had actually written the lyrics for “These Dreams” with Stevie Nicks in mind. (Originally, Taupin had called the song “Boys In The Mist,” which is a pretty funny title.) Nicks turned it down, and so did Kim Carnes. But when Heart heard Martin Page’s demo for the renamed “These Dreams,” they loved it.
Taupin’s “These Dreams” lyrics absolutely read like some shit that someone who did not totally understand Stevie Nicks would’ve written for Stevie Nicks: “White skin in linen/ Perfume on my wrist/ And the full moon that hangs over these dreams in the mist.” But Heart had always been big on dreamy imagery; they had, after all, called their debut album Dreamboat Annie. Nancy Wilson usually played lead guitar and sang backup for her sister, but she took the lead vocal on “These Dreams.” Ann Wilson sang backup, and so did Huey Lewis And The News member Johnny Colla.
Heart dedicated “These Dreams” to Sharon Hess, a young Heart fan who met the band and gave Nancy a handmade acoustic guitar. Hess was dying of leukemia, and she spent a few days hanging out with the band in the studio while Nancy recorded the vocals for “These Dreams.” Hess died a few weeks later.
Taupin’s “These Dreams” lyrics are almost admirably silly: “In a wood full of princes, freedom is a kiss/ But the prince hides his face from dreams in the mist.” They are also a total syntactic jumble. Taupin forces his rhymes, and he breaks all kinds of grammatical rules to get them in there: “The sweetest song is silence that I’ve ever heard/ Funny how your feet, in dreams, never touch the earth.” There’s also no metaphor there. Taupin is literally just singing about dreams: “Is it cloak and dagger?/ Could it be spring or fall/ I walk without a cut through a stained glass wall.” The song’s message is basically: Dreams are pretty crazy, right?
But Nancy Wilson sings “These Dreams” as if there’s something more to the song. She sounds ravaged and desperate, like the dreams she’s describing are some kind of much-needed escape, and she manages to elevate what would otherwise be a catchy but stupid little nothing of a song. Maybe that’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re in the studio with a dying fan, or maybe Nancy Wilson is just a really good singer — someone who can communicate feelings that aren’t necessarily there in the words. (Nancy had a cold at the time, but Ron Nevison liked the rasp in her voice, and so do I.)
Musically, “These Dreams” is straight-up ’80s synthpop, with barely any guitars. (Page tells Songfacts that he tried to make the demo sound like “Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark doing ‘Candle In The Wind.'”) Most ’70s hard rockers struggled with glassy keyboard sounds like the ones on “These Dreams,” but Heart had been playing around with ethereal sounds from the very beginning. “These Dreams” doesn’t have the same muscle as Heart’s best songs, but they also sound pretty comfortable with what they’re doing. It’s a departure, but it’s not a rebuke to everything they’d done up to that point.
The “These Dreams” video is pretty funny. The members of the band all have towering, floofed-out ’80s-metal hair, and most of them pretend to play guitar even though the song has precious few guitar sounds. Nancy Wilson dances on a grate while hands reach up from beneath her — but those hands don’t seem to belong to imprisoned souls or whatever, since she high-fives one of them. There’s an army of hooded figures with flashlights embedded in their necks, and there’s also a bit where the members of the band fall into water and then, as the film reverses, up out of the water again. Director Jeff Stein goes crazy with the wind machines and the backlighting. The whole thing comes off as the high-’80s version of ’60s trippiness, which is fun to think about.
The high ’80s were good to Heart. After “These Dreams,” the band managed one more top-10 hit from their self-titled album. (“Nothin’ At All” peaked at #10. It’s a 5.) Heart will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Daniel Lopatin, the man now known as Oneohtrix Point Never, sampled “These Dreams” on “Untitled B6,” a 2010 track from his Chuck Person alter-ego. Here’s “Untitled B6”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: I don’t generally like to put bits from Seth MacFarlane shows in Bonus Beats because fuck Seth MacFarlane. But it’s probably worth including this bit from a 2014 Family Guy episode, since MacFarlane brought Nancy and Ann Wilson in to re-record “These Dreams” as “These Beans”: