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.
For a stretch of about four years in the mid-’80s, Billy Ocean was an absolute pop-chart monster. It’s funny how things like that can happen. The man reached his mid-thirties without making much impact outside the UK. Even in England, he’d only made a few pre-1984 hits, and his star had faded. But then Ocean came out with the trans-Atlantic hit “Caribbean Queen (No More Love On The Run),” and everything changed.
Billy Ocean was never particularly flashy. He wasn’t a huge presence on MTV. He didn’t have much in the way of public persona. He didn’t even really have a signature sound. None of this stopped him from going on a run, cranking out top-10 hits and platinum albums with breezy efficiency. By 1986, Billy Ocean’s music was so omnipresent that his hits were inspiring his other hits.
After “Caribbean Queen,” Ocean made it to #2 with “Loverboy,” an ultra-catchy synth-rock jam that Ocean and “Caribbean Queen” producer Keith Diamond co-wrote with Foreigner/Cars collaborator Mutt Lange, a producer whose work will eventually appear in this column. (“Loverboy” is an 8.) Shortly after that, Ocean reached #4 with “Suddenly,” a gloopy and anodyne ballad with fairly generic love-song lyrics: “You wake up, and suddenly, you’re in love.” (“Suddenly” is a 5.)
On his next album, Ocean worked with two producers, Barry J. Eastmond and Wayne Brathwaite. Eastmond got the idea for the song “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” from a story that his wife told him. A friend of hers had been through a breakup, and while she was at a party, she heard Ocean’s “Suddenly” and broke down crying. Eastmond’s wife’s friend was already in a new relationship by that point, but “Suddenly” reminded her of her ex. That story became the basis of Ocean’s next hit. Ocean’s hitmaking run had become a self-sustaining system.
Before “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry),” Ocean came out with “When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going,” the main theme from the Romancing The Stone sequel Jewel Of The Nile. Ocean, Brathwaite, and Eastmond all co-wrote that one with Mutt Lange. It’s a big, bold silly dance-pop song. In the video, the Jewel Of The Nile stars Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito wear white tuxedos and play Ocean’s backup singers. “When The Going Gets Tough” became Ocean’s only #1 hit in the UK, and it peaked at #2 in the US. (It’s a 6.) Given that “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” is a fairly boring and anonymous song, I feel like its success on the American charts might’ve had something to do with people being into “When The Going Gets Tough.” But who knows, maybe “Sad Songs” really did make people cry.
On its own, “Sad Songs” is perfectly innocuous filler — the type of song that’s all too easy to ignore. The track has all the hallmarks of mid-’80s adult-contempo soul: The tinkly electric piano, the fake strings, the brief glimmers of ultra-processed guitar. With its synth-string arrangement and its oohing backup vocals, “Sad Songs” aims for the grandeur of ’60s Motown. It falls short.
The self-reflexive lyrics also gesture at Motown. Ocean is singing about sad love songs, but he’s really singing about sadness and love: “There’ll be sad songs to make you cry/ Love songs often do/ They can touch the heart of someone new/ Saying ‘I love you.'” So Ocean’s narrator, I think, is trying to console someone else while also professing his love to this person. It’s all a little muddy and indistinct. The songwriting team of Billy Ocean, Wayne Brathwaite, and Barry J. Eastmond just didn’t have the kind of economical precision that Motown’s writers had. They couldn’t lay out a situation with the same clean focus.
When ’80s producers tried for canned studio-pop Motown approximations, it usually ended in disaster. “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” definitely isn’t good, but it’s not quite a disaster. Mostly, that’s down to Billy Ocean himself. Ocean’s voice has a warm glide to it. He’s not showy, and he doesn’t go for big swoops of melisma. Instead, he pleads gracefully, and that’s enough to elevate “Sad Songs” to merely-forgettable status. Apparently, merely-forgettable did the trick for him, since “Sad Songs” hit #1 on both the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts, as well as the Hot 100.
Like Ocean’s breakout LP Suddenly, his Love Zone album went double platinum in the US and sent three singles into the top 10. After “When The Going Gets Tough” and “Sad Songs,” Ocean made it to #10 with the slick midtempo floater “Love Zone.” (“Love Zone” is a 6.) Billy Ocean’s run wasn’t over yet. We’ll see him in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Elephant Man’s video for his 2012 single “Crocodile,” which interpolates the melody from “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)”:
(Elephant Man’s highest-charting single as lead artist, the 2004 Lil Jon/Twista/YoungBloodz/Kiprich collab “Jook Gal,” peaked at #57. As a guest artist, Elephant Man’s highest-charting single is Kat DeLuna’s “Whine Up,” from 2007, which peaked at #27.)