The Number Ones

November 11, 1989

The Number Ones: Bad English’s “When I See You Smile”

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.

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Journey have never had a #1 hit. In the early-’80s era when FM-radio corporate arena-rock was at its peak, Journey were the undisputed kings, but it just never happened for them. All of Journey’s peers — Boston, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, even Cheap Trick — eventually ended up with at least one #1 hit. Between 1981 and 1987, Journey landed eight top-10 hits, but none of those hits went all the way. (Journey’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “Open Arms,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)

At the very tail-end of the ’80s, when that corporate-rock era was long gone, a bunch of once and future Journey members put on glam-metal drag, and with the help of one of that era’s reigning hitmakers, they made the kind of bland and forgettable power ballad that easily could’ve been a Journey hit seven years earlier. This time, fate was with them. With “When I See You Smile,” Bad English did the thing that Journey couldn’t do. They wailed and wheedled their way to the top of the Hot 100. Corporate rock, it turned out, wasn’t quite dead yet.

Bad English was a marriage of convenience. Before he became a solo hitmaker, John Waite had been the singer of the Babys, a British band that was a minor player in the initial corporate rock boom. The Babys never broke through to the arena-headliner level. (Their highest-charting singles, 1977’s “Isn’t It Time” and 1978’s “Every Time I Think Of You,” both peaked at #13.) The Babys broke up in 1981. John Waite went solo, and in 1984, he had a #1 hit with “Missing You.” Keyboardist Jonathan Cain, meanwhile, joined Journey and became one of that band’s primary songwriters. Cain might’ve been the difference-maker for Journey; he had songwriting credits on all of that band’s biggest songs.

As a solo artist, John Waite never came close to equalling the success of “Missing You.” In the years that followed, Waite’s singles consistently charted, but they usually only scraped the lower ends of the Hot 100. (Waite’s biggest post-“Missing You” hit, 1985’s “Every Step Of The Way,” peaked at #25.) Waite knew that his solo career was on the decline. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, he says, “I realized I didn’t want to make another solo record and I would be happier doing something that had more of a gang feel to it, more of a band thing.”

Around the same time, Journey singer Steve Perry was realizing that he didn’t want to do the band thing anymore. In 1987, Journey were still pretty close to their commercial peak, but Perry was sick of the constant touring, and he was worried that he was damaging his voice. Perry left Journey in 1987, and the band broke up for almost a decade. Backstage at a Heart show in 1988, John Waite reconnected with his former Babys bandmate Jonathan Cain, and they talked about getting back together to make some music. In the Bronson book, Waite says, “I swore I’d never go back with him, but I thought it might be a great diversion, something really different to go that route.”

Waite and Cain brought in another former Baby, bassist Ricky Phillips, and they also recruited drummer Deen Castronovo, who’d been in the Portland metal band Wild Dogs. According to Waite, Neal Schon stopped by one of their recording sessions and asked if they needed a guitarist. Schon had been around. After a stint in Santana, a group that will eventually appear in this column, Schon had co-founded Journey in 1973, and he’d stayed with the band for its entire existence, while also making side-project records with Sammy Hagar and with previous Number Ones artist Jan Hammer. If Neal Schon wanted to be in this new band, then this new band would be happy to have him.

In between recording sessions, this new band would play pool in the studio, and they took the name Bad English after Cain made fun of Waite for putting the wrong kind of spin on his ball. By the time the band started, all the members of Bad English were poofing out their hair, doing whatever it took to fit their aging arena-rock skills into the new glam metal zeitgeist. The band recorded their self-titled 1989 debut with Richie Zito, a former Neal Sedaka sideman who’d become a session guitarist for Giorgio Moroder and who’d produced hits for Eddie Money and Cheap Trick. Cheap Trick’s 1988 chart-topper “The Flame” was a Zito production.

The entire Bad English enterprise had the stink of desperation to it. That self-titled album sucks. As a singer, John Waite’s great gift was the smoldering intensity that powered “Missing You.” Amidst all the pounding synths and neenering guitars of Bad English, Waite’s voice loses all sense of presence, to the point where he sounds like Sammy Hagar’s cheap non-union replacement. The record has none of the melodic swagger of prime Journey, either. You can hear these guys trying to capture the theatrical flash of late-’80s glam metal and just not getting it. It’s rough. Bad English’s first single is called “Forget Me Not,” and that title is pretty on-the-nose. “Forget Me Not” was completely forgettable, and it peaked at #45.

But Bad English had a trump card: John Waite was tight with Diane Warren, who was right in the midst of a big run. Warren had already written #1 hits for Starship and Chicago, and she knew how to put together a power ballad that would do well on radio. (Dianne Warren’s work will appear in this column again very soon.) On his 1987 album Rover’s Return, John Waite had included “Don’t Lose Any Sleep,” a song that Warren had co-written. “Don’t Lose Any Sleep” peaked at #81, but a connection was made.

Warren had written a new ballad called “When I See You Smile,” a big and generic love song, and she didn’t see too much potential in it. (In the Bronson book, Warren says, “I didn’t, in all honesty, think that it was that great.”) But after enough people told her that “When I See You Smile” was good, she sent it to Capitol, thinking it might be good for Sheriff, the Canadian band whose song “When I’m With You” had reached #1 earlier in 1989.

Maybe Warren didn’t realize that Sheriff had been broken up for years; that song only hit #1 after a radio programmer went rogue and threw it back into rotation. Two former Sheriff members had started a new band called Alias, and they almost recorded “When I See You Smile,” but they wanted to save the song for later. They already had a power ballad called “More Than Words Can Say,” and they wanted to push that one first. (“More Than Words Can Say” peaked at #2 in 1990. It’s a 4.) Warren’s publisher didn’t want to wait around, so “When I See You Smile” went to Bad English instead.

It makes sense that Warren thought of Sheriff after she wrote “When I See You Smile.” The freak success of “When I’m With You” had proved that there was still an appetite for early-’80s lighters-up balladry in the late-’80s glam metal era. Bad English, early-’80s guys trying to make themselves as late-’80s as possible, were basically the perfect candidates for the song. “When I See You Smile” is easily the best song on Bad English’s debut album, though that’s not really saying anything at all. The band puts very little flavor or personality into the track, but they deliver it in solidly boring fashion, and that’s really all they had to do.

“When I See You Smile” is all about the chorus. It’s an utter nothingburger of a song, a soft-focus devotional about a guy who would be totally lost without this other person in his life. Sometimes, he feels trapped and hopeless, but then he sees this person smile, and suddenly, he can face the wuuuuhrld, uuuhhh-hooooh, you know he can do any-thang. Sure. Fine. There’s no complexity to a song like that, no specificity, but it’s a nice-enough sentiment. It doesn’t have to be anything other than that, and the melody is solid enough that “When I See You Smile” can serve just fine as a slow-dance number or a radio-station call-in dedication. It does its job.

But there’s an art to a great power ballad, to making it vast and memorable rather than mushy and indistinct. When “When I See You Smile” reached #1, it knocked another power ballad, Roxette’s “Listen To Your Heart,” out of the top spot. “Listen To Your Heart” isn’t a world-conquering classic or anything, but it’s sharp and clean. It’s got hooks and personality. It’s fun. By contrast, “When I See You Smile” is a drag. The song has nice little moments, like the first time it opens up to that chorus, but there’s no urgency to it. All the members of Bad English do their parts, but they all sound like it’s 2PM on a Friday and they just want to get home and drink a beer or play some Nintendo. They sound like they just don’t want to be there.

After “When I See You Smile” took off, Bad English toured with Whitesnake, and they pushed one more single into the top 10. (“Price Of Love” peaked at #5. It’s a 4.) Their self-titled album went platinum, and they fast-tracked a second album, 1991’s prophetically titled Backlash. Backlash bricked hard, and its lead single “Straight To Your Heart” peaked at #42. The band apparently broke up before the mixing job on Backlash was even done.

In a Songfacts interview years later, John Waite said, “It was fun for a year, and then people reverted to type. I think the Journey guys wanted to be back in Journey, and I wanted to be back solo. We had a very valiant attempt at making a second record, but we weren’t given enough time to write it… Everybody in that band was trying their absolute hardest to come up with the goods, but you cannot write a record to follow up a #1 double platinum selling record in a month. You can’t do it. The management thought we could, and it broke the band up.” (For the record, Bad English peaked at #21 on the album charts, and it did not go double platinum. John Waite ain’t getting those numbers right at all.)

John Waite went back to making solo records, and he never made another significant hit. Ricky Phillips went back to his session-musician life. He joined Styx in 2003, and he’s still in the band. Neal Schon and Deen Castronovo formed the glam metal band Hardline, but both of them left almost immediately. (Amazingly, Hardline is still going now.) Eventually, Journey reunited in 1995. The post-reunion Journey managed one decent-sized hit, 1996’s “When You Love A Woman,” which peaked at #12. Steve Perry only stuck around for a couple of years, but Schon and Jonathan Cain were in it for the long haul. Castronovo also joined Journey in 1998. He was out of the band for a few years, but now he’s back in, acting as second drummer alongside Narada Michael Walden, a producer who’s been in this column a bunch of times.

So three out of five Bad English members are currently in Journey. They’re still playing arenas, and they headlined one of the big Lollapalooza stages a few weeks ago. Bad English are a weird little tributary in the larger Journey story, but they managed to do the one thing that Journey never did. That doesn’t mean Bad English were bigger or better than Journey in any way. It just means pop-chart history is weird.

GRADE: 3/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Kim doing a terrible Auto-Tune dancehall interpolation of “When I See You Smile” on her 2018 single “Nasty One”:

(Lil Kim will eventually appear in this column.)

THE 10S: The B-52’s’ gloriously silly utopian party anthem “Love Shack” peaked at #3 behind “When I See You Smile.” If you see a faded sign by the side of the road, it says it’s a 10.

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