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 dramatic, sparkly synth-rock of the mid-’80s doesn’t really have a name. This stuff wasn’t new wave, it wasn’t hard rock, and it wasn’t adult contemporary, even though it had something to do with all of them. It was slick, textured, generally anonymous stuff. It had big, gated drum sounds and keyboards that were usually louder than the guitars. Most of the singers had artfully billowy trench coats and lightly floofy haircuts, and all of them probably wanted to be Sting but had to settle for being normal-ish good-looking guys who were merely vaguely reminiscent of Sting. Maybe we should come up with a retrospective umbrella genre name for this stuff. Maybe the bands would thank us if we did; the soft rockers of the late ’70s and early ’80s probably started getting better guarantees once people started calling them “yacht-rock.” (My suggestion for these guys: “Sharper Image rock.”)
Most of this music is quite bad — canned, aggressively mediocre trudges that sacrifice all atmosphere for slickness and then don’t offer anything beyond that. The tempos remain stuck in permanent midtempo. The lyrics are often horny, but they’re the self-serious kind of horny, not the fun kind. Every once in a while, though, that whole mid-’80s style would really click, and someone would figure out how to turn it into something majestic. John Waite’s “Missing You” belongs in that category. Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings.” The Outfield’s “Your Love.” (“Your Love” peaked at #6 in 1986. It’s an 8.) Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” isn’t as good as those songs, but it deserves consideration as a minor entry in that canon.
For years, I’ve been vaguely confused every time I’ve seen the name “Cutting Crew.” Were they a DJ group? They don’t sound like a DJ group, but why would anyone other than a DJ group have that name? Turns out that Cutting Crew frontman frontman Nick Van Eede once read an article in the UK magazine Sounds that referred to Queen as a cutting crew. At the time, Queen were recording but not touring. That sounded pretty good to Van Eede.
Nick Van Eede came from a village in the English county of West Sussex, and he started playing shows as a teenager. At first, Van Eede was a solo artist, and he’d open for bigger artists without a backing band — just him, his acoustic guitar, and his kazoo. (This sounds terrible.) Van Eede released a bunch of solo singles in the late ’70s, but none of them did well. Later on, he formed a band called the Drivers, which released one album on a Canadian label. On tour in Canada, Van Eede met guitarist Kevin Macmichael, who was in an opening band called Fast Forward.
Van Eede and Macmichael became friends, and when the Drivers broke up in 1983, Van Eede wanted to write songs with Macmichael. Van Eede moved to Toronto, sleeping on couches for a long time while Macmichael was still playing with Fast Forward. Finally, Fast Forward broke up after a tour-van crash, and Van Eede and Macmichael moved to London, linked up with a bassist and a drummer, and got to work. Cutting Crew didn’t want to grind it out on the touring circuit, so Van Eede set up a London showcase for a bunch of labels, and the band signed with the Virgin subsidiary Siren Records.
Van Eede wrote “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” almost immediately after hooking up with his ex, who was also the mother of his daughter. In interviews these days, Van Eede says that he actually said, out loud, that he’d just died in her arms. This was immediately after sex. Van Eede liked the way it sounded so much that he scribbled a note to himself on a sheet of paper. He wrote the lyrics the next morning, and he had a demo for the song a few days later.
“(I Just) Died In Your Arms” is not a particularly romantic song. Van Eede thought the hookup was a mistake — a moment of weakness. In his lyrics, Van Eede depicts himself as a hopeless naif, unable to resist this woman’s charms: “Who would’ve thought that a boy like me could come to this?” Van Eede sings, again and again, that he “should’ve walked away,” and he gasps out some syntactically tortured lines about how it’s all her fault: “I’ve lost and found, it’s my final mistake/ She’s loving by proxy, no give and all take/ ‘Cause I’ve been thrilled to fantasy one too many times.” A couple of lines indicate that “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” could be a song about post-jizz regret: “Now it’s over, the moment has gone/ I followed my hands, not my head/ I know I was wrong.” (He followed his hand?)
But Van Eede doesn’t sound like someone who regrets what just happened. He sounds like someone who can’t wait to make that mistake again. Van Eede’s not a great singer; his voice is smoky in a forgettable way. But on the chorus of “(I Just) Died In Your Arms,” he comes off like he’s overcome. The words “I” and “died” become animal sounds — long, drawn-out, high-pitched, instinctive. The verses are strictly replacement-level, but that chorus has a real sense of need and urgency. It has stakes.
I like the arrangement, too — the pulsing synth-hiccups, the soft purr of the cello, the boom of the drums, the way Macmichael’s guitar sparkles. Macmichael’s main riff is a splintered, evocative, new wavey thing, though when he gets to shredding, the song loses its sense of personality. Cutting Crew recorded the song with producer Terry Brown, who’d worked on Rush’s peak-era albums, and maybe Brown should get credit for the way Van Eede’s voice arrives on the intro — a rushing whoosh, like a whirlwind deposited him on this song.
“(I Just) Died In Your Arms” was Cutting Crew’s debut single, and they released it in the UK in the summer of 1986. The song did well there, peaking at #4, so Virgin released the single in the US early in 1987. The band also recorded a new video for the song — a generically moody thing with split-screens and silhouettes and models shot in grainy black-and-white. I prefer the original UK video, where the band runs around a soundstage and furiously mugs for the camera. Van Eede swishes his trench coat around, presumably in an attempt to make it look extra-billowy. That video’s antic tone has nothing to do with the song’s pillow-humping anguish, but at least it’s fun.
Cutting Crew didn’t have much luck on the charts after “(I Just) Died In Your Arms.” Their follow-up single, the snoozy ballad “I’ve Been In Love Before,” peaked at #9, and the band got a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, which they lost to Jody Watley. (“I’ve Been In Love Before” is a 4.) After that, though, the band never made the top 10 again. When Cutting Crew came out with their sophomore album The Scattering in 1989, lead single “(Between A) Rock And A Hard Place” peaked at #77, and that was the band’s last time on the Hot 100.
Van Eede blamed the band’s label for taking too long to release the next album, but I think the real issue was that Cutting Crew showed up at the end of that broody synth-rock wave. Within a year or two, glam-metal had pretty decisively replaced that stuff on the charts. Also, the band just wasn’t that good. In any case, the writing was on the wall. Cutting Crew’s bassist and drummer left the group in 1991, and Van Eede and Macmichael carried on as a duo. They released one more album, the 1992’s Compus Mentus. That album flopped, and Virgin dropped them soon afterward. (Maybe Virgin… cut them?) When that happened, Cutting Crew broke up.
Van Eede hung around the music business, sometimes recording demos, and he auditioned to replace Phil Collins when Collins left Genesis in 1996. Macmichael played on Robert Plant’s 1993 album Fate Of Nations, then moved back to Canada. He died of lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 51.
Van Eede formed a new version of Cutting Crew in the early ’00s, with himself as the only original member. They’ve kept touring and recording, and they released a new album — Ransomed Healed Restored Forgiven, mostly orchestral versions of old Cutting Crew songs — just last year. These days, Van Eede is living in Barbados, which sounds pretty nice. Cutting Crew won’t be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: In a great Saturday Night Live sketch from 2000, Will Ferrell and Horatio Sanz play a wedding band who can’t wait to start playing “(I Just) Died In Your Arms.” Every time I hear the song, I think of the way Sanz delivers the “musta been something you said” bit. Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Amerie quoting “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” on her Rich Harrison-produced 2002 track “I Just Died”:
(Amerie’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “1 Thing,” peaked at #8. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The UK singer Mika’s 2007 single “Relax, Take It Easy” sounded so much like “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” that Nick Van Eede got a writing credit. Here’s the “Relax, Take It Easy” video:
(Mika’s highest-charting US single, 2007’s “Grace Kelly,” peaked at #57.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie, a minor cinematic masterpiece, where “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” plays as Bruce Wayne lays eyes on Barbara Gordon for the first time:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” playing during a scene from a 2019 Stranger Things episode where Cara Buono gets ready for a big date:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Jody Watley’s panting club banger “Looking For A New Love” peaked at #2 behind “(I Just) Died In Your Arms.” It’s a 9. People were horny in 1987!