The Number Ones

July 8, 1989

The Number Ones: Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing”

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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For years, “Good Thing” just sat there. Fine Young Cannibals’ second and final #1 hit was a work made for hire, a soundtrack song for a movie that didn’t have a soundtrack album. The group recorded “Good Thing” in 1986, long before they made their deeply satisfying dance-rock smash “She Drives Me Crazy.” “Good Thing” was a work made for hire, and it could’ve easily disappeared from history. Instead, on the back of “She Drives Me Crazy,” Fine Young Cannibals had suddenly become stars, and the stripped-back retro propulsion of “Good Thing” built on the groundwork that their first hit laid. “Good Thing” sounds nothing like “She Drives Me Crazy,” but it had a similarly uncanny power. If Fine Young Cannibals had decided that they wanted to keep making music after that, then they could’ve been all-timers. Instead, they had a quick and beautiful little two-hit run, and we get to remember them fondly.

When they recorded “Good Thing,” Fine Young Cannibals were not exactly big names. Their self-titled 1986 debut album had done well in the UK. It hadn’t made much of an impact in America, but the director Barry Levinson was impressed with the way they took old-school soul influences and made them sound current. At the time, Levinson was making Tin Men, a 1987 comedy where Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito played rival salesmen. (I’ve never seen Tin Men, and I have no idea why. It’s a Baltimore movie, and it had its premiere at the Senator, which was my local theater as a kid. I walked over the little sidewalk square commemorating that premiere a million times. I should really watch the movie. It looks like something I would like.)

Tin Men is a period piece, set in the early ’60s, and Levinson asked Fine Young Cannibals to write a few songs that would fit the time period. At the time, the group was trying to get away from the retro-soul vibe of their first album, but they went along with the request. The movie was already done when the band recorded four songs for Levinson, but he loved the way the songs turned out and the way the band looked, so he found a way to put the group in the movie, casting them as a band playing in a bar. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, FYC frontman Roland Gift says, “We were in England doing the music, and when we were done, [Levinson] got a studio and put in some extras, then filmed us and cut it into the film. He put us in at the last minute.”

Tin Men did OK at the box office, but it wasn’t a huge hit, and it never had a soundtrack album. Roland Gift probably got a career boost for being in the film; soon afterwards, he landed acting roles in the movies Sammy And Rosie Get Laid and Scandal. But that Tin Men appearance wasn’t exactly a career-changer for Fine Young Cannibals. They had those four songs, as well as the cover of the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen In Love” that they’d recorded for Jonathan Demme’s 1986 masterpiece Something Wild. Eventually, they recorded five more songs, and they put together what they had as The Raw And The Cooked, their second album. That album came out early in 1989, and it took off when “She Drives Me Crazy” became an out-of-nowhere smash.

In April of 1989, the same week that “She Drives Me Crazy” reached #1, Fine Young Cannibals released “Good Thing” as the album’s second single. This was a good choice. “Good Thing,” like “She Drives Me Crazy,” has a whole lot of drive. It’s sparse and mean and desperate, and it’s got Roland Gift’s uncanny yelp of a voice working for it. But song’s out-of-time retro sensibility is really what makes it stand out.

“Good Thing” was not the only 1989 chart-topper that went out of its way to evoke the early ’60s. Phil Collins was so intent on recapturing the Motown sound with “Two Hearts,” another soundtrack song recorded for a period piece, that he brought in Motown veteran Lamont Dozier as his co-writer and co-producer. Fine Young Cannibals’ version of the early ’60s is a whole lot less concerned with historical accuracy and a whole lot more concerned with vibe, a thing that turned out to be a rare commodity on the 1989 pop charts. “Good Thing” sounds less like Motown and more like the Northern soul tracks that the FYC guys might have heard in Birmingham as kids. It’s a whole lot leaner and harder and hungrier than “Two Hearts.”

Fine Young Cannibals, it’s worth remembering, were not a band. David Steele and Andy Cox had been the rhythm section for two-tone ska greats the Beat, but they weren’t interested in being a regular touring act anymore. Instead, FYC was a studio project, a setup that allowed the three members to play around with funk and R&B and house and dance-pop. “Good Thing” has all sorts of hallmarks of the early ’60s — the right-on-time backing vocals, the soulful swells of organ, the boogie-woogie solo from guest pianist Jools Holland. But “Good Thing” is also very much an ’80s song, and you can hear that in the rigidity of the brittle beat, programmed handclaps and all. (The three backing vocalists on “Good Thing” would eventually form the group Londonbeat, and they’ll eventually appear in this column.)

Lyrically, “Good Thing” is intentionally simple. A girl has left Roland Gift, and he’s shattered. She’s gone away, and he doesn’t how where, but it’s somewhere that he cannot follow her. People say she’s doing fine and tell him to move on, but he can’t. By the time the song ends, though, the unnamed good thing returns to his life, making this the rare heartbreak anthem with a happy ending: “Morning came into my room, caught me dreaming like a fool.”

Gift’s voice is just as important to “Good Thing” as its eerily out-of-time groove. Gift doesn’t sing “Good Thing” in the same falsetto that he uses on “She Drives Me Crazy,” but he sounds similarly unhinged. On “Good Thing,” Gift’s voice is a pained, delirious yelp. He sounds bereft, but he still has swagger — so much, in fact, that it’s not really much of a surprise when the girl returns at the song’s end. (Gift co-wrote “Good Thing” with David Steele, and all three Cannibals produced the track together.)

“Good Thing” has a truly cool video. Director Peter Care, who would later make The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys, cuts between black-and-white footage of the group playing and scenes of a British scooter gang called the the Orribly Good Scooter Club. Those guys look cool as hell, and Care deserves credit for realizing that “people looking cool” is a perfectly good concept for a music video. There’s no plot to the “Good Thing” video, but as with the song itself, there’s a whole lot of vibe.

In June of 1989, a few weeks before “Good Thing” hit #1 on the Hot 100, The Raw And The Cooked knocked Madonna’s Like A Prayer out of the top spot on the Billboard album chart. The Raw And The Cooked stayed at #1 for seven weeks, and it was double platinum by August. Fine Young Cannibals had a big-selling, critically acclaimed album — one that happens to be really good — and they also had back-to-back #1 hits. The Raw And The Cooked spun off three more singles, and none of them reached the top 10, but the jangly and bittersweet “Don’t Look Back” only barely missed, peaking at #11. One of the dancers in the group’s video for “I’m Not The Man I Used To Be,” an excellently forlorn single that peaked at #54, is a very young Sean “Puffy” Combs, a man who will eventually appear in this column.

After the success of The Raw And The Cooked, Fine Young Cannibals could’ve had a huge career. Instead, the members of the group more or less lost interest. In 1990, FYC recorded a version of the Cole Porter song “Love For Sale” for the benefit compilation Red Hot + Blue, and that was pretty much it. David Steele and Alex Cox kept producing for people like Monie Love, Alison Moyet, and previous Number Ones artist Al Green. Roland Gift kept acting; starting in 1993, he had a run of guest appearances as the excellently named Xavier St. Cloud on the Highlander TV series.

In retrospect, it’s insane that a group a successful as Fine Young Cannibals ended as abruptly as they did. Last year, Gift told The Guardian, “Everyone got inflated after the success. There were squabbles about me being in films and people were telling each of us stuff about the other members… I wish we’d done more together.” In fact, they only did one more thing together. In 1996, Fine Young Cannibals reunited to record “The Flame,” a new song that appeared on a greatest-hits collection. (It’s weird that a group with two albums got a greatest-hits record, but that’s the ’90s for you.) Fine Young Cannibals haven’t worked together since.

In the past few years, Roland Gift has played a few live shows with a band he’s put together and called Fine Young Cannibals, but Steele and Cox haven’t been involved. In 2013, “Good Thing” pianist Jools Holland invited Gift to sing that song on his BBC show. Gift still looked and sounded cool.

Fine Young Cannibals didn’t have a particular sound or scene, but in 1989, they represented a wave that was just starting to crest. Around the same time, a few other groups — R.E.M., the B-52’s, the Cure, Love & Rockets — were starting to cross over from college radio to the upper reaches of the pop charts. In the years that followed, some other acts would follow that same trajectory. We’ll see a few of them in this column.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: De La Soul producer Prince Paul’s remix of “Good Thing” is an antic, sample-heavy bugout, and it’s a lot of fun. Here’s that remix, which appeared on the “Good Thing” 12″ single:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene in the not-great 2008 movie Doomsday where a musclebound apocalyptic warlord entertains his tribe of cannibals by dancing to “Good Thing”:

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