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.
When the Supremes first reached #1 with their 1964 single “Where Did Our Love Go,” Motown boss Berry Gordy knew he had something, and he quickly turned that something into a formula. Gordy instructed Holland-Dozier-Holland, the songwriting and production team behind that song, to come up with a whole lot more songs just like that one. Holland-Dozier-Holland complied, and what followed was one of the all-time great pop-music runs.
Over the next few months, the Supremes cranked out the Holland-Dozier-Holland singles “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” and “Back In My Arms Again.” All of those songs became #1 hits, and all of them sound a whole hell of a lot like “Where Did Our Love Go.” Since “Where Did Our Love Go” is a great song, and since the people involved were all genius-level professionals, nobody got mad about this group persistently hitting #1 with variations on the same theme. The formula worked.
After the oaken-voiced young potato-face Rick Astley reached #1 on both sides of the Atlantic with his debut single “Never Gonna Give You Up,” Astley’s songwriting and production team Stock-Aitken-Waterman figured they had a formula, too. While working on Astley’s debut album Whenever You Need Somebody, the three of them decided that they didn’t have a song that sounded enough like “Never Gonna Give You Up.” They set out to write another cheery uptempo love song that would bang home Astley’s whole moony nice-guy image. With “Together Forever,” that’s exactly what they did. “Together Forever” became another trans-Atlantic smash. Once again, the formula worked.
Unfortunately, Rick Astley is not the Supremes, and “Never Gonna Give You Up” is not “Where Did Our Love Go.” Stock-Aitken-Waterman were successful in their attempt to replicate the magic of “Never Gonna Give You Up,” but that really just means we’ve got two trash-ass #1 Rick Astley hits instead of one.
When British the press would complain about Stock-Aitken-Waterman’s merciless and unyielding dominance of the late-’80s UK charts, Pete Waterman would compare the trio to Motown. The times were different, he would insist, but the assembly-line model was the same. This was obviously self-serving bullshit, and the relative limpness of the SAW sound can really help you appreciate what the people at Motown were able to do. Cranking out material at a similar rate, serving a similarly booming market, the songwriters and producers at Motown were able to come up with a shocking number of artful, drum-tight little pop masterpieces.
Stock-Aitken-Waterman certainly had some bangers; Dead Or Alive’s 1985 hi-NRG jam “You Spin Me Right Round (Like A Record),” the trio’s first UK #1, is a total pop classic in every sense. (“You Spin Me Right Round (Like A Record)” peaked at #11 in the US. It’ll eventually appear in this column in sampled form.) Once they started making hits, though, Stock-Aitken-Waterman found repeated success with a rigid, simplistic model. They’d find fresh-faced good-looking kids, and they’d have them sing brightly about crushes over blurpy synth-basslines and jittery Linndrum handclaps. Every song would sound like every other song, and not in that magical Motown way. Instead, the trio would use their one hammering beat to pound the English public into submission.
The plan worked. Over a five-year period, 16 Stock-Aitken-Waterman productions reached #1 in the UK. That number is ridiculous, and it doesn’t even fully capture how totally the trio dominated the sound of late-’80s pop in their homeland, smothering all the acid house and hip-hop that was bubbling up at the time. “Together Forever,” for instance, didn’t make it to #1 in the UK. The single stalled out at #2 because another SAW track, Kylie Minogue’s fearsomely perky “I Should Be So Lucky,” had the #1 spot on lock. (In the US, “I Should Be So Lucky” peaked at #28.)
“Together Forever” and “I Should Be So Lucky” are basically the same song: The rat-tat-tat drum programming, the glaringly synthetic horn-stabs, the oppressively obvious choruses that repeat themselves again and again to the point of brain liquefaction. Only the voices are different. With Rick Astley, SAW knew they had a fun, salable curiosity: a kind and bashful young redheaded boy with a big, deep bellow of a voice. In the UK, SAW got a lot of mileage out of the idea that Rick Astley sounded Black. (I once saw an interview where one of the SAW guys compared Astley to Luther Vandross. I couldn’t tell you which SAW guy said that, since I immediately threw my laptop out a window.)
But Astley didn’t sound like an R&B singer. He didn’t even sound like a student of R&B, the way his chart peer George Michael did. Astley didn’t let his voice linger on notes. He didn’t savor the taste of words in his mouth. Instead, Astley sounded like a guy with a deep voice and a halfway serviceable sense of rhythm. He just bleated everything out, communicating a general sense of peppiness but nothing much beyond that. Stock-Aitken-Waterman’s copy-paste sound did him no favors.
“Together Forever” is a bone-simple love song, just like “Never Gonna Give You Up” before it. Astley booms out promises of eternal fidelity. He’s not smooth or seductive. Instead, his big selling point is his puppydog intensity, his single-minded devotion. He doesn’t promise rapture or excitement. He just promises effort: “I wouldn’t ever wanna see you frown/ I’ll always do what’s best for you.”
Musically, “Together Forever” has slightly more going on than “Never Gonna Give You Up.” The bounce of the synthetic bassline has something to do with Detroit techno. (It sounds like a distant descendant, even though Detroit techno was only a few years old at the time.) The gleaming synth melody is effective enough to stick in your head. But even on a song this simple, there’s still bullshit cluttering up the mix, like watery funk-guitar flourishes and jackhammer synth-horn riffs. Also, Stock-Aitken-Waterman don’t bother to write a bridge. They just bring the chorus back again and again, until it’s less of a catchy hook and more of a 1984-style example of propaganda through repetition.
The “Together Forever” video does a much better job selling Astley’s particular form of doofy charm than the song itself could ever do. The plot is pretty simple: Astley has a meet-cute with a blonde woman, and then he calls her up and asks her on a date. She says yes. That’s it. The video ends with a freeze-frame on Astley’s shit-eating grin. In between, we get scenes of Astley singing in front of neon Trapper Keeper-looking backgrounds while the girl and two others do fun, clumsy choreographed dance steps behind him. Maybe that’s supposed to be what Astley sees when he daydreams. This isn’t exactly a music-video masterwork, but it’s got an endearing silliness working for it. The video can’t save the song, but it makes me like Rick Astley a little more.
Maybe I should be grateful to “Together Forever.” Maybe the song was such a self-copy that America quickly got sick of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman sound. While SAW lorded over the UK charts, America lost interest. After “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Bananarama’s “Venus,” “Together Forever” was SAW’s third American chart-topper. It was also their last. SAW would continue to crank out UK chart-toppers for another two years, but America was done.
After his consecutive chart-toppers, Rick Astley’s never made it back to #1 in the US, either, but he lingered for a few years. Astley’s debut album Whenever You Need Somebody yielded one more American hit; “It Would Take A Strong Strong Man” peaked at #10. (It’s a 4.) The album went double platinum. Astley returned in 1989 with his sophomore LP Hold Me In Your Arms, which didn’t do as well. The album stalled out at gold, and lead single “She Wants To Dance With Me” peaked at #6. (It’s another 4.)
After two albums with Stock-Aitken-Waterman, Rick Astley was understandably sick of making the trio’s hyper-repetitive dance-pop. He got himself out of his contract with them, moved over to RCA, and grew out a lustrous mane of hair. On his 1991 album Free, Astley moved into restrained adult-contempo quasi-soul, a style that suited his voice much better. (The titles of both Free and lead single “Cry For Help” feel like coded messages about Astley’s years working with Stock-Aitken-Waterman, but maybe that’s just me finding unflattering things where I want to find unflattering things.) The album didn’t sell as well as the previous two, but “Cry For Help” made it as high as #7. (It’s a 5.)
Astley released one more RCA album, 1993’s Body & Soul, and he got to #28 with the ballad “Hopelessly.” That was the last Astley song to chart on the Hot 100. After Body & Soul, the 27-year-old Astley took a long hiatus from the music business, raising his daughter and letting his career languish. This was a smart move. Astley seems like a relatively healthy and normal human being these days, which isn’t something that too many other late-’80s pop stars can say.
Astley came back in 2001 and eventually released four more albums, one of which, 2016’s 50, was a #1 hit in the UK. The whole rickrolling phenomenon gave Astley’s career a lot more juice, and he’s been on a few ’80s-nostalgia package tours. Astley put out a Christmas song last year. He’s out here covering Post Malone during quarantine and shit. He seems fine. (Post Malone will eventually appear in this column.)
Stock-Aitken-Waterman scored their last UK chart-topper, Kylie Minogue’s cover of the Little Anthony And The Imperials oldie “Tears On My Pillow,” in 1990. Over the course of the ’90s, the trio slowly dissolved, and the world moved on. Nobody misses them.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the twee indie-pop cover of “Together Forever” that the Softies released in 1996:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: A couple of months ago, the coaches of the current season of The Voice covered “Together Forever” and parodied the video. Here it is:
(Kelly Clarkson and John Legend will eventually appear in this column. Nick Jonas will also appear in the column as a member of the Jonas Brothers. As a solo artist, Jonas’ highest-charting single, 2014’s “Jealous,” peaked at #7. It’s a 6. Blake Shelton’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Boys ‘Round Here,” peaked at #12.)