The Number Ones

May 3, 1986

The Number Ones: Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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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It’s not sexy — or, if it is, it’s some bizarre Lynchian version of sexy. There’s no personality, no attraction. Watching it, you don’t think of human beings sweating and grunting and rubbing up against each other. Instead, the whole spectacle is brittle and cold and alien. The five models, all dressed and made up to look identical, stare off into the middle distance and move robotically. When one of them licks her lips, it’s not really seductive. It’s almost threatening.

Those models are all dancing, but they’re dancing to slightly-different beats, none of which quite align with the song they’re supposed to be playing. They clutch instruments, but the things they’re doing with those instruments only incidentally align with the song they’re supposed to be playing. Perhaps in solidarity, Robert Palmer, the guy standing in front of all of them, does a piss-poor job lip-syncing the song.

The song is “Addicted To Love,” and it’s one of those tracks that will never exist outside the context of its music video. The “Addicted To Love” video — the static-sunset backdrop, the barebones set, the blank-faced and disinterested models arrayed behind business-casual Robert Palmer — is actually pretty boring. It’s just that one visual image and nothing more. But the image imprints itself on your brain the first time you see it. It sticks in there. Robert Palmer went back to that image again and again in the years that followed “Addicted To Love.” So did a lot of other people. The “Addicted To Love” video became a pre-internet meme. It’s been referenced and parodied again and again, in videos from people like Tone Lōc and Shania Twain and Bowling For Soup.

Robert Palmer had been around for years before that “Addicted To Love” video seared itself into the cultural consciousness, but he’d never been a star. Instead, Palmer was a fairly successful journeyman — a rock yowler with a clearly-evident love for Black American R&B who was a little too stiff to work as an R&B singer himself. Palmer was in his late thirties before he ever even made the top 10, but everything in his career lined up just right to turn “Addicted To Love” into a monster.

Palmer, the son of a British naval officer, grew up listening to soul on American armed forces radio. As a teenager, he sang for a series of groups, and he caught his big break when he fronted an early-’70s soul-rock band called Vinegar Joe. Vinegar Joe recorded a few albums for Island and then broke up in 1974. As soon as the band splintered, Palmer signed a solo deal with Island. Over the next decade, Palmer worked with a series of great musicians: Little Feat, the Meters, James Jamerson. At some point, he moved to Nassau, in the Bahamas, and he bought the house right across the street from the famed Compass Point studios.

Palmer dabbled in soul and jazz and reggae, but his growly and intense voice was probably best-suited to horny, propulsive riff-rock. Palmer made it to #16 with his boring 1978 quasi-reggae hymn “Every Kinda People.” For years, though, Palmer’s biggest hit was a 1979 cover of Moon Martin’s efficient stomper “Bad Case Of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor).” Palmer’s version of the song peaked at #14, and it sounds a whole lot like a dry run at “Addicted To Love.”

Despite those two hits, Palmer released his first seven albums without ever once going gold. Palmer was a good-looking guy with a flair for fashion and a well-regarded voice, so he kept getting chances. Before “Addicted To Love,” though, Palmer’s greatest success came when he joined another band. Palmer was already working on his Riptide album when two members of Duran Duran, John Taylor and Andy Taylor, talked to him about working together. Duran Duran were taking a break between albums, and the members of the group went off to form two different side projects. One of those was the Power Station, which found Taylor and Taylor working with Chic drummer Tony Thompson. The initial idea was to get a different singer for every song on the group’s self-titled debut album. But the two Taylors like Palmer’s ideas for their songs, so he just became a member of the Power Station.

The Power Station’s debut album went platinum, and it launched two top-10 singles. (“Some Like It Hot” peaked at #6. It’s a 5. A cover of T. Rex’s “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” peaked at #9. It’s a 6.) Palmer didn’t have any plans to tour with the Power Station, and he wanted to get back to making his own album. (Palmer only sang live for the band once, on Saturday Night Live.) But the Power Station were successful enough that they did want to tour, so when they played live, they brought in future MacGyver actor Michael Des Barres to replace Palmer. Des Barres even sang with them at Live Aid.

If the Power Station were pissed about Palmer ditching them, they didn’t hold a grudge. Chic bassist Bernard Edwards produced the Power Station’s album, and then Palmer recruited him to produce Riptide as well. “Addicted To Love” also has Andy Taylor on guitar and Tony Thompson on drums. It’s a Power Station mini-reunion.

Palmer later said that the “Addicted To Love” riff came to him in a dream. He woke up and hummed it into a tape recorder, and then he wrote the rest of the song around it. The song itself isn’t terribly sophisticated. Palmer just sings that someone is addicted to love. It’s not a joke, exactly, but it’s not sincere, either. Instead, this love addict as a sweating heart, a shaking body, and an inability to sleep or eat or breathe. It doesn’t sound fun!

Palmer wanted to sing “Addicted To Love” as a duet with Chaka Khan, who he met at a club. Khan came in to record the song with him, and they planned to release it together, but her label objected. She had her own music coming out, and a duet with Robert Palmer would step on those plans. So Khan’s vocals were erased from the song’s master tape, and Palmer sang all the high parts himself instead. She’s still credited with the song’s vocal arrangement. (Chaka Khan’s highest-charting single is her 1984 version of Prince’s “I Feel For You,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)

“Addicted To Love” would absolutely be a better song if it had Chaka Khan singing on it. Palmer’s vocal might be my least favorite thing about the song. It’s stern and stentorian and weirdly mean. The never works as a seduction. Instead, Palmer sounds like he’s accusing this poor love addict of personal weakness, even when he’s talking about “another kiss, and you’ll be my-eeeeen.” There’s plenty of swagger in Palmer’s voice. He’s got the same white-blues-howl quality as, say, Foreigner’s Lou Gramm, but he sounds more rhythmically assured. Still, he’s no damn Chaka Khan.

But “Addicted To Love” does have an ’80s-rock efficiency working for it. That riff is a nasty little snarl, and the keyboards, from Level 42 collaborator Wally Badarou, add a slick twinkle. Working with dance-music professionals like Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson was the right idea. “Addicted To Love” is a rock song that works in a nightclub. The drums sound huge and mechanized, fully locked-in. It’s a revving engine of a track.

The video came from director and fashion photographer Terence Donovan. Donovan’s clip is supposed to look as icy and alien as possible. Donovan told the models to act like mannequins. He brought in musicians to show them what to do, but he evidently wasn’t too concerned about making sure they got it right. And he had them make up to look like paintings from Patrick Nagel, the artist responsible for Duran Duran’s Rio album cover.

“Addicted To Love” was a career breakthrough for Palmer. Shorty afterward, Palmer made it to #2 with his cover of “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On,” a 1984 single from the R&B singer Cherrelle. In 1988, Palmer again reached #2 with his sleek rocker “Simply Irresistible.” Both “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On” and “Simply Irresistible” had Terence Donovan-directed videos where Palmer wore a suit and sang in front of groups of blank-faced model-bots. The idea wasn’t broke, and Palmer wasn’t trying to fix it. (“I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On” is a 6. “Simply Irresistible” is a 7.)

“Addicted To Love” and its companion-piece videos used to come up in discussions about MTV-era misogyny — about the videos that treated women like objects instead of humans. There’s probably something to that, but I don’t think Palmer’s videos really sexualize women. Instead, the videos are strange space-age visions, more striking than provocative. I’d argue that Palmer doesn’t exactly come off as a human being in those videos, either. His whole horny-businessman schtick is as much a trope as anything the models do.

Anyway, the novelty must’ve worn off at some point, since “Simply Irresistible” was Robert Palmer’s last top-10 hit. Palmer kept cranking out albums and landing singles somewhere in the middle of the Hot 100. He reunited with the Power Station for another LP in 1996. For that one, Bernard Edwards became a full member of the band, replacing a departing John Taylor. But before the Power Station could tour, Edwards died, suddenly and unexpectedly, of pneumonia in Tokyo, where he’d just played a show with Chic. That same year, “Addicted To Love” video director Terence Donovan died by suicide.

Palmer didn’t make it much longer than that. In 2003, Palmer was in Paris, where he’d just taped an appearance on a TV special, and he suffered a heart attack in his hotel room. He died at age 54. That image of Palmer in front of the models has outlived the artist, producer, and director responsible. That’s pop music for you. You never know what’ll stick around.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: “Weird Al” Yankovic naturally parodied “Addicted To Love” on his 1986 album Polka Party!, turning it into a song about potatoes and calling it “Addicted To Spuds.” Here’s the song:

And here’s Yankovic playing “Addicted To Spuds” with an all-potato backing band on MTV’s 1987 new years special:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White And Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 1988 movie Cocktail where a bottle-flipping Tom Cruise leads a full-bar “Addicted To Love” singalong:

(The Cocktail soundtrack will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1988, all four members of Sonic Youth, along with Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis and the Minutemen’s Mike Watt, released an ’80s-pop-themed concept LP called The Whitey Album under the name Ciccone Youth. On that album, Kim Gordon sang a supremely deadpan cover of “Addicted To Love.” Here’s the video that she directed for it:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Former Number Ones artist Tina Turner regularly covered “Addicted To Love” during her live shows, and she released her version of it on the 1988 album Tina Live In Europe. Here’s Turner’s live video for her cover:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Former Number Ones Bonus Beats artist Florence & The Machine released a shivery “Addicted To Love” cover as a B-side of the 2009 single “You’ve Got The Love.” Here’s that version:

(Florence & The Machine’s highest-charting single, 2009’s “Dog Days Are Over,” peaked at #21.)

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