The Number Ones

April 4, 1987

The Number Ones: Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

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.

***

They don’t make movies like Mannequin anymore. That’s probably a good thing. Mannequin is a cocaine fever-dream of a movie, a hijinks-heavy romantic comedy about a mannequin who magically comes to life at night. A post-Pretty In Pink Andrew McCarthy plays the department-store window-dresser who falls in love with the mannequin. A pre-Sex And The City Kim Cattrall plays the mannequin who’s only alive when she’s alone with the window-dresser guy. She’d been an Egyptian princess before that? I don’t know, man. It doesn’t make any fucking sense at all.

Mannequin was critically reviled; Roger Ebert, usually an exceedingly forgiving critic, gave it a rare one-half-star review. And yet Mannequin made money. The film earned $38 million at the domestic box office, enough to make it a moderate hit. (On the year-end list of 1987 movies, Mannequin comes in at #30, right between Spaceballs and No Way Out.) The movie also spawned a 1991 sequel, though it’s one of those sequels where the original cast members don’t return. Also, Mannequin got nominated for an Oscar.

I’m about to spoil Mannequin for you. At the end of the movie, the window dresser and the mannequin get married in the department store’s window display. The song playing on the soundtrack at that climactic emotional moment is Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” That song earned Mannequin a nomination for Best Original Song. (It lost to a song that’ll eventually appear in this column.) “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” also scored Starship their third and final #1 hit.

“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” isn’t exactly an important song, but it does mark the arrival of Diane Warren, a songwriter who will be in this column a whole lot of times. The song is Warren’s first #1 hit, and it’s also her first to be nominated for an Oscar. (At this point, Warren has been nominated for 11 Oscars. She’s never won.) These days, Warren is famous for her grand and sweeping ballads, but that’s not how she started.

Warren, a native of Van Nuys, started writing songs in the late ’70s, and she came into her own by writing synthy, uptempo pop hits. Warren got her big break working with Laura Branigan, and she co-wrote “Solitaire,” a 1983 Branigan single that peaked at #7. (It’s a 7.) A couple of years later, Warren wrote DeBarge’s “Rhythm Of The Night,” the smooth-gliding dance-pop classic from the Last Dragon soundtrack, which peaked at #3. (It’s a 9.)

In 1986, Warren started writing songs with Albert Hammond, a guy who’d been cranking out hits since the early ’70s. As an artist, Hammond had reached #5 with the 1972 single “It Never Rains In Southern California.” (It’s a 5.) That song was the only hit that Hammond ever recorded, but Hammond co-wrote “When I Need You,” a Leo Sayer single that hit #1 in 1977. Hammond also co-wrote and recorded the original version of “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” in 1975. Nine years later, Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias recorded that one as a duet, and they took it to #5. (Their version is a 4.)

Mannequin director Michael Gottlieb commissioned a song from Hammond and Warren, and when they got together to write it, Hammond had just finished divorcing the mother of his son. (As a member of the Strokes, Albert Hammond, Jr.’s highest-charting single is 2005’s “Juicebox,” which peaked at #98.) The elder Albert Hammond felt like his previous marriage had been keeping him from marrying his girlfriend, and so he put those feelings into “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” a song about love overcoming adversity. I guess Hammond felt like he could build this dream together, standing strong forever — like nothing was gonna stop him now.

Warren and Hammond wrote “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” as a duet. They thought about giving it to Laura Branigan and John Parr, or to Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald, but an A&R person at RCA suggested Starship, who already had one male and one female singer. Starship’s usual producer Peter Wolf didn’t like the demo version of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” so the band recorded it with Narada Michael Walden, who’d just had a huge hit with Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know.” Walden loved the song. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Walden says, “It was really good, big and broad. It had a lot of echo on it. Immediately, I thought of Phil Spector. I thought this is my big chance to impress the world with my Phil Spector imitation.”

“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” doesn’t sound anything like Phil Spector, but it is big and broad, and it does have a lot of echo. As a producer, Walden doesn’t really turn “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” into a Spector pastiche, but he does make it into a pretty impressive piece of sweeping, dramatic big-’80s pop. He makes it surge and twinkle and take flight.

This is an entirely meaningless statement, but “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is easily the best of Starship’s three #1 hits. 47-year-old Grace Slick, who’d been in the Jefferson Airplane 20 years earlier and who still had a ton of icy power in her voice, is the key difference-maker there. She belts the hell out of the hook, really wailing it and making it sound like it means something.

Walden builds the song around Slick. She utterly owns the song from the moment she arrives. The main problem with just about every Starship song is Mickey Thomas, the band’s other singer, who sounds like a damp pillow come to life. Thanks to Walden’s arrangement, Thomas is less of a problem than usual, and Slick gets all the big spotlight moments. Walden also wasn’t going to let the members of Starship fuck up his groove, so he replaced most of them with studio musicians. Walden programmed the LinnDrum himself.

The end result is a fairly generic piece of ’80s synth-rock, but it’s the good kind of generic. Considering that Starship had already reached #1 with “We Built This City” and “Sara,” two actively shitty songs, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” stands as a remarkable improvement. It’s almost like someone noticed that Grace Slick was still in the band and that she should always be the center of attention.

In recent years, Grace Slick has enjoyed clowning everything she ever did with Starship. But Walden has said that Slick was into “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” and she was evidently OK with playing a mannequin in the song’s utterly ridiculous video. In 1988, though, Slick had had enough of Starship. She left the band and rejoined most of the classic Jefferson Airplane lineup. They made one more album in 1989, and they toured. Once that tour was finished, Slick retired from music completely. She has stayed retired. These days, Slick does visual art and occasionally gives hilariously devastating interview quotes. (My favorite: “All rock-‘n’-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.”)

Starship kept going without Slick, replacing her with backup singers. At the Oscars in 1988, Slick must’ve already been out of the band, since Starship performed “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” with Gloria Estefan replacing her. The band’s performance really shows that Grace Slick’s presence is not the kind of thing that anyone can replicate. Gloria Estefan is a great singer, but she sounds like calcified boogers on that version of the song. (Estefan will eventually appear in this column.)

After “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” Starship landed one more top-10 single; “It’s Not Over (‘Til It’s Over),” the follow-up from their 1987 album No Protection, peaked at #9. (It’s a 3.) Of course, when an aging band has consecutive hits called “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and “It’s Not Over (‘Til It’s Over),” that band is tempting fate. Starship’s improbable hitmaking run quickly ended in dramatic fashion.

One night in 1989, Starship were on tour in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Mickey Thomas got into a fight with drummer Donny Baldwin. This was a bad idea. You should never fight a drummer; drummers are crazy strong. Judging by the “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” video, Donny Baldwin looks like the absolute wrong person to fuck with. That night, Baldwin beat the absolute shit out of Thomas, and Thomas needed titanium plates put into his skull. Baldwin immediately left the band, and Starship only made one more unsuccessful album before RCA dropped them. These days, Thomas still tours with something called Starship Featuring Mickey Thomas, which does not feature any other ’80s-vintage members of Starship.

Diane Warren and Albert Hammond, however, did well for themselves. They kept writing hits, both separately and together. Some of those songs didn’t become hits for a while. In 1986, for instance, Warren and Hammond wrote “Don’t Turn Around” for Tina Turner. Turner released “Don’t Turn Around” as a B-side. The British reggae group Aswad covered “Don’t Turn Around” in 1988, and it became a #1 hit in the UK. Then, in 1993, the Swedish dance-pop group Ace Of Base turned “Don’t Turn Around” into a massive international hit. (On the Hot 100, “Don’t Turn Around” peaked at #4. It’s an 8. Ace Of Base will eventually appear in this column.)

Starship and Albert Hammond won’t appear in this column again. But in the years ahead, we’ll see a whole lot more of Diane Warren.

RATING: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the pop-punk cover of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” that the Starting Line released in 2001:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s dance producer Mylo sampling the “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” drum intro on his 2004 track “Soft Rock”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig doing an impressive “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” lip-sync in the 2014 film The Skeleton Twins:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” soundtracking a tragic balloon drop in a 2017 episode of Veep:

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