The Number Ones

November 12, 1988

The Number Ones: The Escape Club’s “Wild, Wild West”

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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“We started off with a drum beat, and we finished it within one day.” That’s the hilariously named Trevor Steel, frontman of British band the Escape Club, talking about the process of writing his group’s sole #1 hit. “It was a really quick song to write. I went home that night and wrote the lyrics… It wrote itself.”

It would appear that Trevor Steel is bragging. If that really is pride in Steel’s words, then I would suggest that this pride is misplaced. Artistic inspiration really can strike out of nowhere, and plenty of the greatest pop songs in history are quick, dashed-off affairs. But listening to the Escape Club’s “Wild, Wild West” today, it’s pretty clear that Trevor Steel should’ve maybe taken another pass or two at this one.

One big issue with “Wild, Wild West” is that the song did not write itself. The problem — or one of them, anyway — is that Elvis Costello had already written a superior version of the same song a decade earlier. Costello and the Attractions’ 1978 single “Pump It Up” starts off with a drum beat and a bassline, too. They’re not the same drum beat and bassline as the Escape Club would use on “Wild, Wild West,” though they are pretty close. But when Trevor Steel starts singing, he barks out frantic, nervous non sequiturs in the exact same cadence that Costello used on “Pump It Up.” It’s blatant enough that it would be legally actionable today. It probably could’ve been legally actionable in 1988, too.

Maybe Elvis Costello decided that he didn’t really want a piece of “Wild, Wild West,” or maybe he was too modest. Costello is quick to defer credit for “Pump It Up.” In his 2015 memoir, Costello wrote, “‘Pump It Up’ obviously took more than a little bit from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,'” Bob Dylan’s 1965 single. (“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dylan’s first Hot 100 hit, peaked at #39. Costello’s highest-charting US single, 1989’s “Veronica,” peaked at #19.) In turn, Dylan himself has said that “Subterranean Homesick Blues” wasn’t wholly original: “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business,’ and some of the scat songs of the ’40s.” That’s how music is supposed to work. Songs inspire other songs, and ideas return again and again, a bit different each time — a vast cultural game of telephone that spans generations.

That said, “Wild, Wild West” is the worst kind of biting. It’s not just that the Escape Club’s song sounds like “Pump It Up”; it’s that it uses the base elements of “Pump It Up” in pursuit of rictus-grin fake-fun banality. “Wild, Wild West” is a song about partying and getting laid in what seemed to be the last days of humanity — a truly rich topic. And yet the Escape Club turn this apocalyptic scenario into an excuse for smirky good-time mugging. It should be fun. Failing that, it should at least be interesting. It’s neither.

The Escape Club started in London in the early ’80s, growing out of a new wave band called Mad Shadows. The band released their first single, a broody synth-rocker called “Breathing,” in 1985. On that one, the Escape Club sounded like they very, very much wanted to be a lite version of Bauhaus. This strategy did not work. The Escape Club’s debut album White Fields did not secure the Psychedelic Furs/Echo And The Bunnymen bag. EMI released White Fields in the UK, and it went nowhere. The album never even got an American release. So the Escape Club made a conscious decision to rethink things. They stopped playing live shows altogether, and they figured out how to reformulate themselves as a dance-rock band.

For their second album, the Escape Club went to work with Chris Kimsey, who’d produced the Rolling Stones’ underwhelming 1983 album Undercover and who’d gone on to work with the Psychedelic Furs and Killing Joke. (He’d later do the Stones’ even-more-underwhelming 1989 album Steel Wheels. Kimsey’s work won’t appear in this column again.) With Kimsey, the Escape Club recorded their Wild, Wild West album, a clear attempt to run grandly pouty T. Rex-style ’70s glam rock through an ’80s dance-beat filter. That’s an intriguing idea, but the Escape Club didn’t get much further than the idea.

The Escape Club were still on EMI when they recorded Wild, Wild West, but when the label heard the finished product, they weren’t impressed. So the band shopped the album around, and they ended up on Atlantic. EMI wasn’t wrong. Even though lead single “Wild, Wild West” made it to #1 on the Hot 100, the song never even charted in the UK. In fact, the Escape Club are the only British band ever to top the American chart while missing the British charts entirely.

Beyond the Elvis Costello cadence, “Wild, Wild West” is a big, goofy collision of self-satisfied rattled-off references and singles-bar pickup lines; it sounds a bit like what might’ve happened if Huey Lewis And The News had written “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Trevor Steel’s lyrics dance around hot-button issues. “Got to live it, live it up, Ronnie’s got a new gun”: He’s talking about the strategic missile defense program and the idea that World War III could happen at any moment. “Sitting in a back room, waiting for the big boom”: He’s talking about the looming threat of nuclear strikes at the tail end of the Cold War. “Gimme gimme wild west, gimme gimme safe sex”: He’s talking about fucking in a climate where people were starting to figure out that this could be dangerous. “Mandy’s in the backroom, handing out valium/ Sheriff’s on the airwaves, talking to the DJs”: I don’t know what he’s talking about. (Trying to update “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” I guess? I bet even Trevor Steel doesn’t know.)

In theory, it’s cool that the Escape Club found ways to work the big, scary ills of the late ’80s into the lyrics of a pop song. If nothing else, they give the song a time-capsule quality. But “Wild, Wild West” is not exactly Watchmen. Steel’s running commentary has no weight, no urgency. It’s all a backdrop to Steel loving some lady’s eyes and her wild, wild hair. Steel’s voice is a sort of flirty bray. He’s trying to sound like Marc Bolan, and he’s also trying to hide his British accent. He sounds very, very pleased with himself. I find the whole thing truly off-putting.

There are a few musical elements on “Wild, Wild West” that are, I think, genuinely fun: the heavy use of cowbell, the cowboy-movie bullet-ricochet sound effects. But it’s hard to enjoy those things when you’re dealing with Steel’s voice, with the bar-band horn stabs, with the howling backup vocals, with the trebly guitar solo. All of this is bad, but none of it is as bad as the fake-dancehall toasting near the end of the song.

I don’t know who does the deejay chatting on “Wild, Wild West.” In the video, a couple of the non-Trevor Steel Escape Club members lip-sync that part. Looking at the single’s credits, the responsible party might be someone named Plum, who has no other Discogs credits. Whoever it is, he fucking sucks. He rolls his R’s all over the place, and he claims that he rides the rhythm like he’s a-riding a bike. He must be very, very bad at riding bikes.

Weirdly, “Wild, Wild West” is the second British single to reach #1 in the fall of 1988 and to feature some attempt at dancehall-style deejay chatter. The break on “Wild, Wild West” really makes you appreciate what UB40 member Astro’s “you keep me rockin’ all of the time” bit brings to “Red Red Wine.” Compared to Plum or whoever, Astro sounds like Sizzla. Maybe “Wild, Wild West” took off in the US just because it conformed with the apparent late-’88 appetite for vaguely Caribbean-adjacent luxury-vacation partytime music. (Actual dancehall will eventually appear in this column, but that won’t happen for a while.)

In theory, I should be able to get behind a song like “Wild, Wild West.” I like bubblegum dance-rock. I like random-ass one-off hits. I like glam rock and dancehall and late-’80s club music, and “Wild, Wild West” is at least an attempt at all of those things. At a time when adult-contempo ballads ruled the charts, I should be happy that something came in with some energy. But the energy on “Wild, Wild West” feels fake and forced.

In the UK, where real reggae and real dance music did well on the charts, the Escape Club had no shot. Maybe the Escape Club knew that. Maybe that’s why they waved around American flags in the “Wild, Wild West” video. A 1989 Orlando Sun-Sentinel story on the Escape Club claimed that “Wild, Wild West” had been “banned from television throughout England,” but that sounds to me like the kind of thing a guy in a band says to explain why his song wasn’t a hit in his homeland. But if the “Wild, Wild West” video had been banned, British censors would’ve been acting in the public interest. In the clip, director Nick Brandt uses funhouse-mirror effects to make it seem like there are disembodied arms and legs floating around, grabbing at the pant legs of Escape Club guys. It’s pretty easy psychedelic trick-shot, and it’s also pure nightmare fuel. I hate looking at it.

The members of the Escape Club had never been to the US before “Wild, Wild West” reached #1. When the single topped the charts, the band went on a quick promotional American tour, feeling utterly on top of the world. A few days after their song fell from #1, the LA Times critic Jim Washburn shitted all over an Escape Club live show, writing that they “came off as yuppie overlords” and that they “seemed singularly unprepared to handle such success.”

The Escape Club followed “Wild, Wild West” with a song called “Shake For The Sheik,” which tried to recapture that dance-rock-plus-smirky-topical-lyrics magic. It peaked at #28. The Wild, Wild West album went gold, but it didn’t get any further. In 1991, the Escape Club returned with an album called Dollars & Sex — great wordplay, guys — and they actually returned to the top 10, narrowly avoiding one-hit wonder status. (The love song “I’ll Be There” peaked at #9. It’s a 3.)

The Escape Club broke up in 1992. Trevor Steel and fellow Escape Club escapee John Holliday went on to produce for UK and Irish pop acts like Atomic Kitten and Westlife. In 2005, Steel reunited the Escape Club, and they’ve self-released a couple of albums since then. Those records have made no impression. The “living in the ’80s, heading for the ’90s” line in “Wild, Wild West” turned out to be overconfident. But in at least one way, it was right. In the early ’90s, fluffy British dance-rock enjoyed a moment of pre-grunge popularity in the US. Most of that stuff was better than “Wild, Wild West,” and some of it will even show up in this column before long.

GRADE: 3/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1989, a lot of people got pissed off at the news that Michael Keaton had been cast as the lead in Tim Burton’s Batman movie. One of those people was Wally Wingert, an LA radio DJ and voice actor, who thought the role should’ve gone to ’60s-era TV Batman Adam West. Wingert made his case by recording a “Wild, Wild West” parody called “Adam West.” Here it is:

(The Batman soundtrack will soon appear in this column.)

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