The Number Ones

August 1, 1987

The Number Ones: Bob Seger’s “Shakedown”

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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First things first: Beverly Hills Cop II is a good movie. The first Beverly Hills Cop was essentially a cocaine-fever detective story that contorted itself into pretzels to allow Eddie Murphy’s personality to run roughshod all over it. Murphy wasn’t the original choice to play Axel Foley, the Detroit police officer out to get revenge on the LA criminals who murdered his friend. Up until a few weeks before filming, the movie was supposed to be a Sylvester Stallone vehicle. Murphy changed everything, and his electric charisma immediately dominated the film. Beverly Hills Cop was huge, narrowly skating past Ghostbusters to become the biggest hit of 1984. (I wrote an AV Club column about the movie last year.) For the sequel, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer steered into everything that worked about the first Cop, constructing a grand and cheesy action flick around Murphy’s nonstop riffing.

Beverly Hills Cop II is the first movie that Tony Scott directed after Top Gun, and he cranked up the dazed, glammed-out MTV-style visuals into the red. For Scott, Los Angeles was a dizzy kaleidoscope of sports cars and bikinis and explosions. The movie barely makes narrative sense, but it’s stupidly entertaining. It stands as one of the towering examples of that nonsensical, all-sensation ’80s blockbuster aesthetic, and it somehow leaves Murphy enough room to be pretty funny. (Murphy was at the peak of his career around then — so big that pop stardom, however briefly, became a viable side hustle. Murphy’s highest-charting single, 1985’s “Party All The Time,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)

Like its predecessor, Beverly Hills Cop II was a huge hit. It pulled in more than $150 million at the box office; that year, only Three Men And A Baby and Fatal Attraction grossed more. (Weird movie year.) As with the first Beverly Hills Cop, wall-to-wall pop music was a big part of the sequel. In 1983, Bruckheimer and Simpson had landed on a dizzy, quick-cutting filmmaking style with their hugely successful Flashdance. They’d figured out how to make a movie look and feel like MTV, and that sensibility came to dominate the blockbusters of the ’80s. Beverly Hills Cop applied that style to an action-comedy, and it worked about as well as anyone could’ve hoped.

The first Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack launched three different singles into the top 10. The biggest of those was “The Heat Is On,” Glenn Frey’s opening-credits track. (“The Heat Is On” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.) Harold Faltermeyer and Keith Forsey, the former Donna Summer collaborators who’d co-written Summer’s 1979 chart-topper “Hot Stuff,” wrote and produced “The Heat Is On” for Frey. Faltermeyer also scored Beverly Hills Cop, and he had a huge hit himself with the iconically bleepy instrumental “Axel F.” (“Axel F” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)

For Beverly Hills Cop II, Simpson and Bruckheimer didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken. They did everything in their power to make sure the second soundtrack fit the format. Faltermeyer returned to score Cop II. The Pointer Sisters, whose “Neutron Dance” had been a hit in the first Cop, came back with a song called “Be There” on the sequel’s soundtrack. (“Neutron Dance” peaked at #6. It’s a 6.) And Glenn Frey was supposed to sing “Shakedown,” another police-themed song that Faltermeyer and Forsey had written.

A week before he was scheduled to record “Shakedown,” Frey caught laryngitis. (Frey didn’t much like the song, so perhaps this was a convenient illness.) Frey dropped out of the soundtrack, and as a result, he never made a #1 single as a solo artist. (Don’t feel too bad for him. As an Eagle, he’s already been in this column five times.) Instead, the assignment went to Bob Seger, Frey’s old Detroit buddy. Seger sang the song, cashed the check, and ended up with a #1 hit that he might regret.

The fact that a 42-year-old Bob Seger could make a #1 hit in 1987 stands as some kind of testament to persistence, even if the #1 hit in question is just about nobody’s favorite Seger song. Seger was an institution by 1987 — an old-guard rocker who’d become part of the rock establishment mostly by sticking around long enough. Seger was born in Detroit and grew up largely in Ann Arbor; his father, a medic at Ford, abandoned the family when Seger was 10. Seger grew up working class, and he started playing music when he was in high school. Seger’s group the Decibels released their first single in 1961, and Seger went on to lead a series of R&B-influenced garage rock bands all through the ’60s. He also wrote and produced for other Detroit groups, like Glenn Frey’s early band the Mushrooms.

Seger had a slight taste of national success in 1969, when his single “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” peaked at #17. But Seger was really more of a regional phenomenon. He gigged relentlessly around Michigan, and he built himself a huge audience in the area, especially after he put together the Silver Bullet Band in 1974. By the summer of 1976, Seger was a big enough star in Detroit that he could headline the Pontiac Silverdome and play to tens of thousands. In the rest of the country, though, Seger was barely known. When his singles even made the charts, they generally scraped the bottom of the Hot 100. 1974’s “Turn The Page,” now a classic-rock radio staple, missed the chart entirely.

Seger finally broke nationally in the late ’70s. Early in 1977, the horny-reverie classic “Night Moves” became his first top-10 hit, peaking at #4. (It’s a 10.) The 1976 Night Moves album moved six million copies and made Seger a national star. Over the next few years, Seger scored another five top-10 hits. The biggest of those hits was the 1982 ballad “Shame On The Moon,” which peaked at #2. (It’s a 5.) But Seger also co-wrote the 1979 Eagles chart-topper “Heartache Tonight,” and he probably enjoyed his greatest moment of cultural ubiquity thanks to his song “Old Time Rock And Roll.” That one peaked at #28 when it came out in 1979, but four years later, it soundtracked the Tom Cruise tighty-whities hallway slide in Risky Business and became a whole other thing.

Seger wasn’t landing consistent top-10 hits anymore by 1987, but a song like 1986’s “Like A Rock,” the future Chevy-commercial standby, could still climb as high as #12. When Glenn Frey bailed out of singing “Shakedown,” MCA Records head and former Eagles manager Irving Azoff immediately called Seger. Seger had just gotten off of a tour, and he didn’t have anything else going on. Seger rewrote Faltermeyer and Forsey’s “Shakedown” lyrics and earned himself a songwriting credit.

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Seger says, “There were a lot of lyrics about working undercover. I didn’t like them, so I threw them all out. I decided to write it my way, and they trusted my judgment.” Seger kept the chorus, and it’s not entirely clear what the “shakedown” of the title is supposed to be. Seger sings about being a cop, not an extortionist, and it seems like he’s not using the same definition of the term that Gregory Abbott had used on “Shake You Down” a few months earlier. (Admittedly, nobody else was using the Gregory Abbott definition either.)

Seger might’ve rewritten “Shakedown” his way, but he still pretty much sings it in character as Axel Foley: “You can shake me for a while, live it up in style/ No matter what you do, I’m gonna take you down.” If you really wanted to reach, you could see some thematic similarities between Seger’s situation and that of Axel Foley. Seger, after all, was an avatar of Detroit toughness, a quality that Foley was supposed to represent, while Faltermeyer and Forsey’s bleepy, hypercharged synth-rock could be symbolic of LA glamor. But that’s probably giving too much credit to “Shakedown,” and anyway, authorial intent never matters in pop music.

“Shakedown” has a terrible reputation among Seger fans, and I get that. It’s a slickly mechanized pop song, mostly built on Faltermeyer’s metronomic keyboard vwerps. The track transforms Seger into a replacement-level yuppie rocker, doing his white-blues howl over generic techno-pop, and it doesn’t sound anything like that old time a-rock ‘n’ roll. (On “Shakedown,” it almost sounds like you could take Seger to a disco.) When Seger really turns up his passionate yarl — “It’s O-kayyy you want to shine/ But once ya step across that liiiine!” — he sounds pretty great. But if you can muster all that intensity to sing a song about being a fictional cop, then maybe it makes people wonder how sincere you’re being the rest of the time.

As someone who has no particular reverence for Bob Seger’s career, though, I think “Shakedown” is OK. I’ve got to dock it a point for being an unconvincing portrayal of Axel Foley, since it’s the sort of song I can’t imagine Foley or Eddie Murphy intentionally listening to. But as a piece of slick ’80s soundtrack-rock, it could be a lot worse. There’s a catchy bump to that Faltermeyer synth-work, and the song does have a few hooks working for it. Honestly, “Shakedown” would probably sound a bit better as a Glenn Frey song than as a Seger one. The nods toward sweaty soul-rock — the bursts of horn, the attempts at bluesy organ — clash badly with that efficient electro-beat, and Seger himself sounds deeply uncomfortable. He never commits to the role.

Really, the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack has a flattening effect. The album has a bunch of different producers — Giorgio Moroder, Narada Michael Walden, André Cymone — and it draws from acts around the musical landscape. But in imposing a synthed-out uptempo tone on the whole thing, all the acts on the soundtrack — Jermaine Jackson, James Ingram, Ready For The World, Charlie Sexton — pretty much come out sounding like one another. The one exception is George Michael. Michael’s playfully giddy “I Want Your Sex” works that uniform style with a whole lot more verve and inventiveness and personality than anything else on the soundtrack. “I Want Your Sex” holds up much better than “Shakedown,” but a lot of radio stations were nervous about playing Michael’s song, and it peaked at #2. (It’s a 9.) Seger’s song title merely implies extortion, not boning, so it didn’t have that problem.

The week that “Shakedown” was at #1, “I Want Your Sex” was at #4, and another Beverly Hills Cop II single, the Jets’ “Cross My Broken Heart” was at #7, its peak position. (“Cross My Broken Heart” is a 5.) It’s weird that all these songs would reach their apex in August, when Beverly Hills Cop II had been out since May, but maybe things just moved a little slower in the ’80s. In any case, “Shakedown” probably owed its success to the movie’s popularity as much to America’s love for Bob Seger or for the song itself. “Shakedown” ended up being the only song from Cop II to get the Best Original Song Oscar nomination; it lost to another song that will soon appear in this column. Maybe “Shakedown” got the nod because it has the best moment in the movie. After the great opening heist scene of Brigitte Nielsen shooting up a jewelry store, “Shakedown” plays over the opening-credits montage of Eddie Murphy putting on a slick-ass suit and driving off in a black Ferrari.

After “Shakedown,” Bob Seger never scored another top-10 single. Only one more Seger song, 1991’s “The Real Love,” made the Hot 100 at all. (It peaked at #24.) Pop music moved pretty definitively away from Bob Seger, and after “Shakedown,” Seger didn’t make any attempts to meet pop where it was. For years, Seger seemed faintly embarrassed of the idea that he’d made “Shakedown” at all. When Seger released his massively successful Greatest Hits collection in 1994, “Shakedown” wasn’t on it. (“Shakedown” did, however, make the cut for 2003’s Greatest Hits 2. It’s a sequel sort of song.)

In the end, “Shakedown” might stand out as the one moment where Bob Seger really bent his sound to chase a hit. Seger made plenty of hits, but almost all of them — the great ones and the just-OK ones — were natural outgrowths of his chosen sound. Seger wrapped up his career the way he wanted, heading out on a big retirement tour in 2019. At his final show — Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, November of 2019 — “Shakedown” did not make the setlist.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Bob Seger did not perform at the 1988 Oscars, when “Shakedown” was nominated for Best Original Song. Instead, Little Richard sang “Shakedown.” That would’ve been a perfect Bonus Beat, especially given that I can’t find any remotely noteworthy appearances of “Shakedown” in popular culture after 1987. But for whatever reason, the video of Little Richard singing “Shakedown” just doesn’t seem to be online anywhere. So instead, here’s Seger’s 2011 cover of Little Richard’s “Hey Hey Going Back To Birmingham”:

(Most of Little Richard’s biggest hits come from Billboard‘s pre-Hot 100 era; 1956’s “Long Tall Sally,” for instance, peaked at #6. However, Little Richard’s highest-charting single of the Hot 100 era is 1958’s “Baby Face,” which peaked at #41.)

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