The Number Ones

November 7, 1987

The Number Ones: Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone 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.

Tiffany Darwish arrived at a moment of generational flux. Ever since the ’60s, the Billboard Hot 100 had reflected, more than anything else, the shifting tastes of the baby-boom generation. Boomers were never a uniform consumer bloc, but they still represented a demographic that record labels relentlessly chased.

Boomers had bought Beatles and Motown singles. They’d bought folk-rock and blues-rock and singer-songwriter pop and Philly soul and disco. They bought the synthy, expensive-sounding records that bands like Dire Straits and Genesis released in the ’80s. We don’t tend to think of Michael Jackson and Madonna and Prince, the holy trinity of ’80s blockbuster pop, as being boomer phenomena, but Jackson, Madonna, and Prince were all born in the same three-month stretch in the summer of 1958. That means all three of them were younger-side baby boomers. Presumably, many of the people buying their records were baby boomers, too.

Tiffany Darwish is not a baby boomer. When she scored her first #1 hit, Tiffany had only just turned 16. She was the first ’70s baby to top the Hot 100. (On the day that Tiffany was born, the #1 single in America was Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.”) Tiffany emerged in the midst of a storm of new kinds of music — rap, house, glam metal, Latin freestyle, new jack swing — that targeted boomers’ kids more than boomers themselves. Tiffany herself was part of a whole new wave of bubblegum-pop kids who were aggressively marketed to America’s teenage and preteen kids, her own generational cohort.

But even if Tiffany didn’t really make music for baby boomers, she still hit #1 with her version of a baby-boomer bubblegum anthem — a song older than she was.

Ritchie Cordell, the man credited with writing “I Think We’re Alone Now,” was a Brooklyn native who spent most of his life in the music business. Cordell was a teenager himself when he recorded his 1962 debut single “Tick Tock.” Former Number Ones artist Paul Simon wrote that song, back when Simon was still calling himself Jerry Landis, and Cordell, like Simon, existed in the world of Brill Building pop. Cordell soon started writing songs for himself, and then, when his recording career didn’t go anywhere, for other people. In the mid-’60s, Cordell became a staff songwriter at Roulette Records, the mobbed-up New York label run by notorious criminal Morris Levy. That’s where Cordell was when he wrote “I Think We’re Alone Now.”

In his memoir, Tommy James wrote that “I Think We’re Alone” came from Ritchie Cordell and his writing partner Bo Gentry, but Gentry was under contract to another label, so Levy decided that Cordell would get sole writer credit even though the two writers would split the royalties. Cordell and Gentry brought the song to Tommy James And The Shondells, the teenage garage band who’d taken “Hanky Panky” to #1 in 1966. James recorded the song with the Shondells in 1967, when James was 19. The band sped the song up, and James sang it with a horny sort of desperation. James later wrote, “Without realizing it, we invented ‘bubblegum’ music.”

In its original form, “I Think We’re Alone Now” is a simple and effective song. It’s fast and driving, but it’s got a sensitive edge to it. James’ narrator really, really wants to get laid, but finding space for two teenagers to spend time together isn’t an easy thing. When James hits the chorus, the music gets quiet, and James’ voice falls to a near-whisper: “I think we’re alone now/ The beating of our hearts is the only sound.” Then the music drops away completely, leaving only cricket chirps and a drum made to sound like a heartbeat, and those little effects make the feeling all the more visceral. That original “I Think We’re Alone Now” quickly became the Shondells’ second big hit after “Hanky Panky,” and it reached #4. (It’s an 8.)

After crafting a few more early-bubblegum hits for Tommy James And The Shondells, Ritchie Cordell joined Super K Productions, the big bubblegum production house of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Cordell co-wrote hits like Crazy Elephant’s “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’” and 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “Indian Giver,” both from 1969. (“Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'” peaked at #12. “Indian Giver” made it all the way up to #5. It’s a 7.) Later on, Cordell and ex-Shondell Kenny Laguna co-produced Joan Jett And The Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” the biggest hit of 1982. Cordell also produced records for the Ramones and Bow Wow Wow. Around the same time that Cordell was doing all that, Tiffany began her singing career.

Tiffany Darwish came from Norwalk, California, a suburban city outside Los Angeles. Tiffany was nine or ten years old the first time she sang in public; her father urged her to get up onstage with a country band at a barbecue. That led to performances with oldies-circuit stars like Jerry Lee Lewis and to a trip to Nashville to sing on the radio. In 1985, Tiffany sang Jennifer Holiday’s “I Am Love” on Star Search and finished in second place.

Around the same time, Tiffany recorded a demo at a studio in LA, and the studio’s owner was impressed. George Tobin, that studio owner, had been kicking around the music business for years. Tobin had produced Robert John’s 1979 chart-topper “Sad Eyes,” and he’d made hits with people like Kim Carnes and Smokey Robinson. The day that a 12-year-old Tiffany recorded her demo in his studio, Tobin was actually in a different room, working with Smokey Robinson. Tobin thought Tiffany’s voice was huge and powerful, and when she turned 14, he signed her to a management deal.

Tobin produced Tiffany’s self-titled 1987 debut album, and he got her signed to MCA, but the label didn’t exactly make Tiffany a priority. She was too young to perform in clubs, so Tobin came up with a new promotional strategy, which many teen stars’ handlers later copied. Tobin sent Tiffany around the country to sing over pre-recorded tracks in malls. There would be news stories about this kid who’d be singing in whatever local mall that week, and eventually, Tiffany began to draw pretty good crowds. Still, her debut single “Danny” failed to chart. It took a Salt Lake City radio programmer to help push her next single.

On that debut album, George Tobin had the idea for Tiffany to cover “I Think We’re Alone Now,” a song he’d always loved. Tiffany didn’t like the song or understand it, but Tobin put together a percussive dance-pop backing track. Tiffany’s friends liked that version, so she agreed to record it. That cover was a deep cut on Tiffany’s album, but Lou Simon, program director of the Salt Lake City station KCPX, heard Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” and started playing it on the radio. The people of Utah were into it. So Simon started calling MCA, lobbying the label to release “I Think We’re Alone Now” as a single. After weeks, the label gave in. The video for “I Think We’re Alone Now” mostly consisted of footage that George Tobin had shot on those mall tours. It makes an amazing time capsule of that era’s mall culture.

Tiffany’s take on “I Think We’re Alone Now” is nothing like the Tommy James And The Shondells version. Tommy James sings that song with a harried, almost fearful sort of desperation. He sounds like he’s taking a big risk in looking for a place to be alone with a significant other. The music reflects that horny anguish, and it drops into a hush on the chorus.

By contrast, Tiffany sings the song with a confident, booming bellow, a sort of unformed teenage take on Stevie Nicks’ mystic rasp. Tiffany doesn’t sound like she’s worried about being caught. She sounds like she’s taking complete control of the situation. Tiffany doesn’t modulate her singing, the way James does, but I love the way she belts out the “tried to get away into the niiiight” bit. She sounds like she’s really not worried about whether or not they’re alone now.

George Tobin’s production is a cheap, blippy thump that’s not terribly far-removed from hi-NRG. Everything other than Tiffany’s voice seems to be fully synthesized. There’s no real dynamic range to the song. On the chorus, Tobin doesn’t let everything drop away. Instead, it keeps up its same generically energetic boom throughout. As a result, Tiffany’s version of the song lacks drama. But in its cheap and low-key way, it still mostly works. That melody pairs delightfully with those lyrics, and the rawness of Tiffany’s voice helps things. When you’ve got teenagers singing about teenage things, it’s fine for the end product to sound a bit unprofessional. It adds to the charm of the thing.

I generally like my teen-pop to be a bit more naturalistic than Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Around the same time that Tiffany was on the rise, her close contemporary Debbie Gibson was writing her own songs, and Tiffany would eventually start to do the same thing. (Debbie Gibson will eventually appear in this column.) But on “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Tiffany is singing a song that was a hit four years before she was born, and there’s a clear disconnect there. Her version of the song is a perfectly digestible pop product, but it never sounds like anyone’s world exploding. The best teen-pop songs — including some of the best Tommy James And The Shondells songs — are the ones that bring that urgency.

“I Think We’re Alone Now” simply didn’t mean that much to Tiffany. The singer knocked out her vocal quickly, and she didn’t fully understand what the song was about. Later on, Tiffany told The Guardian, “I don’t think I realized that the song was about the prohibition of teenage sex, but we got away with it.” In that same Guardian piece, Tommy James said, “Tiffany came up to me at a convention to apologize for covering us. I said: ‘Are you nuts? I should be thanking you.’ She did a great job, and she’s a real sweet girl.”

The whole turn of events must’ve been baffling for Ritchie Cordell. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Cordell says that Tiffany’s version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” “was very foreign to me. It just wasn’t the same song. All I can say is I don’t argue with #1 records.” Maybe Cordell didn’t understand what had happened with his own song, but its success makes sense.

Teenagers and preteens could hear Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” as a kid their own age singing about matters of the heart. Their parents could hear a lovably naïve flashback to one of the hits of their own youth. “I Think We’re Alone Now” could work as a common-ground car-radio song. “I Think We’re Alone Now” turned Tiffany into a star. Her debut album sold four million copies and made it to #1 on the album chart. We’ll see Tiffany in this column again.

Whether anyone involved knew it, Tiffany’s version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” nailed the zeitgeist. Updated covers of oldies-radio standards were all over the charts in 1987: Club Nouveau’s “Lean On Me,” Kim Wilde’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Los Lobos’ “La Bamba.” As luck would have it, another cover of a late-’60s Tommy James And The Shondells hit was tearing up the Hot 100 at the exact same time. That one will appear in this column very soon.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: “Weird Al” Yankovic, who was really on a roll in the late ’80s, parodied Tiffany’s version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” on his 1988 album Even Worse. Here’s “I Think I’m A Clone Now”:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Dave Coulier, Candace Cameron, and Jodie Sweetin dancing to Tiffany’s version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” on a 1988 episode of Full House:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Over the years, a lot of pop-punk bands have covered “I Think We’re Alone Now”: Screeching Weasel, Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Most of those covers are probably versions of the Tommy James And The Shondells original, and they don’t necessarily have much to do with Tiffany’s take. But Snuff, a British band who I once saw open for NOFX, released their version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” in 1989. Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” was a #1 hit in the UK as well as the US, so Tiffany’s version must have been on the band’s mind. Here’s their take on the song:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the 2012 film Ted where Giovanni Ribisi dances creepily to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now”:

And here’s the callback scene from 2015’s Ted 2 where Ribisi is unable to stop himself from dancing to “I Think We’re Alone Now,” even though he’s wearing a Ninja Turtle costume and trying to stay hidden:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the first episode of the 2019 debut season of the Netflix show The Umbrella Academy where the entire cast dances to Tiffany’s version of “I Think We’re Alone Now”:

(The Umbrella Academy is based on a comic book written by My Chemical Romance leader Gerard Way. My Chemical Romance’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “Welcome To The Black Parade,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 9.)

THE 10S: The Pet Shop Boys’ ecstatic queer Catholic-guilt anthem “It’s A Sin” peaked at #9 behind “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It’s a! It’s a! It’s a! It’s a 10!

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