The Number Ones

June 6, 1987

The Number Ones: Kim Wilde’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”

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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When new versions of old songs start tearing up the charts again, that’s generally a pretty good sign that pop music is in a rough place. If nostalgia starts to replace the rush of the new, then it usually means pop music needs some kind of shakeup. In 1975, for instance, the Hot 100 took a great leap backwards. Many of that year’s #1 hits were pure ’60s nostalgia: Elton John doing “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” the Carpenters doing “Please Mr. Postman,” Linda Ronstadt doing “You’re No Good.” At the same time, early-’60s hitmakers like Neil Sedaka and Frankie Valli were staging comebacks, returning to #1 with their first hits in years. But in 1975, the shakeup was already happening. Disco was already ascending the charts. Within a few months, its takeover was complete.

In 1987, something similar happened. In a 12-month period, three different covers of past #1 singles became #1 hits themselves. Bananarama did it first, hitting #1 in September 1986 with their version of Shocking Blue’s “Venus.” Then Club Nouveau’s take on Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” topped the charts in March of 1987. Three months later, the young British singer Kim Wilde sang a blippy club-pop version of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” a song that had hit #1 more than 20 years earlier, and she got her biggest-ever hit out of it.

Really, nostalgia was everywhere on the charts in 1986 and 1987. Resurgent ’60s-vintage stars like Steve Winwood and Aretha Franklin topped the Hot 100. Grace Slick, once of the Jefferson Airplane, had led Starship to three #1 hits in a shockingly brief window of time. Billy Vera And The Beaters’ “At This Moment,” a throwback soul ballad even when it was first released in 1981, became a surprise #1 after showing up on Family Ties a couple of times. Maybe pop music needed another shakeup.

There were shakeups coming. In 1987, there wasn’t one specific thing like disco looming on the horizon and waiting to take over. Instead, there were lots of smaller movements: Glam metal, Latin freestyle, house music, even U2’s miasmic stadium-rock. There was also rap music, which wouldn’t start topping the Hot 100 for another few years but which was already reaching artistic maturity. In fact, the three hit remakes that reached #1 actually Trojan-horsed new sounds onto the pop charts. Club Nouveau’s version of “Lean On Me” might’ve been the first new jack swing song to hit #1. Kim Wilde’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” like Bananarama’s “Venus” before it, was a rare chart breakthrough for hi-NRG, the post-disco sound that flourished in gay clubs through the mid-’80s.

Hi-NRG was essentially just disco, sped up and synthesized and stripped of all traces of funk. The genre took its name from “High Energy,” an Evelyn Thomas single that peaked at #85 in 1984. The UK crew Stock Aitken Waterman, who produced Bananarama’s version of “Venus,” had taken inspiration from the sound, importing its bleeps and handclaps and drum-machine thumps. Kim Wilde and her producer brother Ricky essentially gave the same makeover to the Supremes classic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” drenching it in keyboard flutters and distorto-guitar growls and big-boom drums. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” could handle it.

When the Supremes first recorded “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” in 1966, Holland-Dozier-Holland, their production and songwriting team, were trying to write a rock ‘n’ roll hit. With its needling guitar intro and its steady four-four thump and the desperate snap of Diana Ross’ vocal, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” came out sounding more like a not-too-distant ancestor of disco. But before the ’60s were over, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” did become a rock hit — just not for the Supremes. Proto-metal power trio Vanilla Fudge recorded a sludged-out psychedelic version of the song in 1968, and they took it to #6. (The Vanilla Fudge version is an 8.)

Really, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” never went away. Wilson Pickett’s hoarse 1969 soul cover of the song peaked at #92, while a Jackie DeShannon medley of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and Little Anthony And The Imperials’ “Hurts So Bad” reached #96 in 1970. The Supremes reprised “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” with the Temptations in 1968. Tom Jones, Jackie Wilson, the Box Tops, Rod Stewart, and Colourbox all covered the song. Since “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was basically already a proto-disco song, and since hi-NRG was essentially disco by another name, the song translated just fine to the new sound. With the Kim Wilde cover, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” became the first song ever to reach the top 10 three different times.

As for Kim Wilde, she already had experience heralding the arrival of a new sound. Years earlier, she’d helped introduce the world to new wave. In fact, she may have helped popularize the term. On her 1981 debut single “Kids In America,” Wilde made an announcement: “New York to East California! There’s a new wave comin’, I’ll warn ya!” That’s one of pop history’s great unintentionally goofy lyrics: East California? To hear Wilde tell it, the new wave apparently came crashing down somewhere around the Inland Empire. If you live along the coast, no new wave for you. You’ve got to love it when a song romanticizes the idea of America through lyrics that show a total lack of understanding of how America even works.

But geography aside, Wilde was right. There was a new wave coming, and “Kids In America” works as a warning and as a glorious example of the form. “Kids In America” stands as an absolute classic of the synthy, self-aware pop music that flourished in the wake of punk rock — a wistfully giddy banger about waiting around for better things to arrive. I love it. It’s perfect.

Kim Wilde was not a kid in America. She grew up in London, a second-generation pop star. Wilde’s mother was a choir singer, and her father was Marty Wilde, one of the UK’s original rock ‘n’ roll teen idols. In the late ’50s, Marty Wilde scored a string of UK hits, most of which were covers of American songs: Dion And The Belmonts’ “A Teenager In Love,” Ritchie Valens’ “Donna,” Phil Phillips’ “Sea Of Love.” In that pre-Beatles era, most of England’s rockers, guys like Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele, sang in fake American accents, and Marty Wilde was no exception. America had no interest, though one Marty Wilde single, the fun little rockabilly original “Bad Boy,” reached #45 in 1960.

By the time Kim was born in 1960, Marty Wilde’s hitmaking career was mostly done. (On the day of Kim’s birth, the kids in America had made the Four Seasons’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry” the #1 single.) As a kid, Kim sometimes sang backup for her father or for her younger brother Ricky Wilde, who had a mostly-unsuccessful run as a pre-teen pop heartthrob in the UK. Kim grew up out of the spotlight, and she studied at the art school St. Alban’s College. Kim started recording her own music in 1981, and “Kids In America” was an immediate smash, going to #2 in the UK and making top-10 lists all around Europe. In America itself, “Kids In America” didn’t hit quite as hard, but it still hit, peaking at #25.

Kim’s father and brother co-wrote “Kids In America,” and it’s fun to imagine the song, and the “East California” lyric, as an extension of Marty Wilde’s love of American music despite his near-complete lack of success in America. Ricky also produced “Kids In America.” For Kim’s first few albums, Marty and Ricky wrote all the songs together, and Ricky produced everything. Those records were pretty big in the UK, where Kim scored a couple more top-10 hits in the early ’80s, and they were even bigger on the European mainland. In the US, Kim only charted once in the six years between “Kids In America” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” (1984’s “The Second Time,” retitled “Go For It” in America, peaked at #65.)

It was Ricky Wilde’s idea for Kim to cover “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Ricky had always loved the song, though neither he nor Kim realized it had ever been a big hit. Soon after her version reached #1, Kim told the UK pop newspaper Record Mirror, “It had been in the can for 12 months, so I can honestly say to you that it wasn’t a cynical decision to try and get a hit single. Mind you, I don’t expect anyone to believe me.”

Even if Kim Wilde’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was a cynical attempt at hitmaking, I can’t hold that against it. I’m of the opinion that virtually every hit single is, at least on some level, a cynical attempt at a hit single. That’s fine. No problem. The issue with Wilde’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is that it has none of the electric force of the Supremes’ original. Diana Ross sang that song with righteous, humiliated rage and desperation. She sold the idea that this asshole kept stringing her along, that it was tearing her apart. Kim Wilde, on the other hand, sings “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” like it’s a fun old song.

Of course, Kim Wilde is right. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is a fun old song. I’ve always liked Wilde’s voice. She’s got the breathy deadpan of her new wave peers, but she doesn’t have the arch distance. She sounds open-hearted and vulnerable. But when you hold Wilde up against Diana Ross — something that a cover like this practically forces you to do — Wilde is left wanting. She doesn’t have the pipes or the presence of Ross. When she tries to hit a high note — “let me find somebody ellll-lllse” — things get dicey fast.

But Kim Wilde does ground her version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” — a necessary thing, since the track is so cluttered. Ricky Wilde didn’t come from the world of hi-NRG, but he adapts to the sound just fine. As producer, Wilde piles stuff all over the track: Strobing and dramatic Bulls-intro keyboards, percussive guitar scratches, slap-bass popping, orchestra-hit synth-bursts, wheedly guitar shredding. It’s all a bit overwhelming, but almost everything serves the beat of the song. I’m sure it sounded good in the club.

Ultimately, the Kim Wilde version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” sounds like a fluke hit. Its goals are much more modest than those of the Supremes’ original. Wilde’s not trying to extend a world-historic hitmaking streak. She’s just making a fun, busy, uptempo dance track that everyone will recognize. On its own terms, her cover works OK. Considered in the grand lineage of #1 singles — a lineage that includes the Supremes’ original — it suffers.

Kim Wilde later said that she’d never heard anything about her cover from Diana Ross, which can probably lead us to assume that Ross hated it. But Wilde did get a congratulatory telegram from Lamont Dozier, the song’s co-writer. He must’ve been psyched; with the version, the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team scored their 13th #1 hit, and their first in the 20 years since the Supremes’ “The Happening.” (Brian Holland had actually notched up another one in 1975. Before Holland-Dozier-Holland came together, he’d co-written the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” which means he got credit when the Carpenters’ cover of the song got to #1. Lamont Dozier’s work, amazingly enough, will appear in this column again.)

After “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Wilde landed a couple more minor hits in America. Her 1987 follow-up “Say You Really Want Me” peaked at #44, and the charmingly-titled “You Came” made it to #41 a year later. But Wilde was a much bigger deal in Europe. In the UK, Wilde never quite managed a #1 hit, but she did get eight singles into the top 10 over the course of the ’80s. I lived in London for a year between 1988 and 1989, and Wilde was one of seven or eight pop stars who routinely got written up in kids’ magazines. In Europe, Wilde opened Michael Jackson’s Bad tour. She was a big enough deal to release a greatest-hits album in 1993.

Wilde’s singles eventually stopped hitting in the UK, and she moved on to other things. She acted in a West End production of the Who’s Tommy musical in the ’90s, and she’s since become an award-winning gardener, writing a couple of books about it. But Wilde’s pop stardom remained intact on the continent, especially in Germany, for years. She’s way bigger around the world than she ever became in America. Kim Wilde won’t be in this column again, but we’ll see plenty more nostalgic pop remakes before we’re out of the ’80s.

RATING: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Producer Dame Grease sampled Kim Wilde’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” on incarcerated Harlem rapper Max B’s 2011 mixtape track “Tattoos On Her Ass.” Here it is:

(Max B doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits as lead artist, but he’s a guest on the 2017 French Montana/Weeknd collab “A Lie,” which peaked at #75.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” that Kim Wilde and the German pop star Nena recorded for Wilde’s 2006 album Never Say Never:

(Nena’s highest-charting US single, 1983’s “99 Luftballons,” peaked at #2. It’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2015 episode of Scream Queens where Emma Roberts struts out of jail while Kim Wilde’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” plays on the soundtrack:

THE 10S: Bon Jovi’s beautifully preposterous cowboy lament “Wanted Dead Or Alive” peaked at #7 behind “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” It walks these streets, a loaded six-string on its back. It plays for keeps ’cause it might not make it back. It’s been everywhere. Still, it’s standing tall. It’s seen a million faces, and it’s rocked them all. It’s a 10.

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