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.
There are a couple of different ways of looking at Wilson Phillips, the girl group who had a huge pop-chart run in the first couple of years of the ’90s. You could, if you wanted, regard Wilson Phillips as a pure, cynical pop product made possible through nepotism. The three members of Wilson Phillips were all the children of fantastically successful ’60s stars, and they found success by singing inoffensive, anodyne adult-contempo jams. Baby boomers who’d grown up with the music made by these women’s parents could look at the trio as a kind of respite — a new version of heavily harmonized ’60s and ’70s soft rock, getting heavy radio play at a time when rap and house were ascendant. From that point of view, then, Wilson Phillips were a conservative force, a group who made it big by serving a demand for fresh-faced songs that reflected old values at a time when a lot of pop music was looking forwards. I understand that viewpoint, but that’s not how I look at Wilson Phillips.
I look at Wilson Phillips as a sort of support group. The three members of Wilson Phillips all grew up rich, with show-business connections, but that doesn’t mean that things were easy for them. If anything, it was the opposite. Consider their fathers. General consensus says that John Phillips, the leader of the Mamas And The Papas, was one of the the biggest assholes in rock history, and that’s a truly competitive category. When his daughter Chynna was a preteen, John did prison time for drug trafficking. After John died, Chynna’s half-sister Mackenzie claimed that she and John had been in an incestuous relationship for a decade. John’s marriage to Chynna’s mother, Mamas And The Papas member Michelle Phillips, didn’t last; both of them kept cheating on each other. There’s no way Chynna Phillips had a stable childhood.
Brian Wilson, father of Carnie and Wendy Wilson, has always come off as a sweet man, not a raging dickhead like John Phillips, but it can’t have been too easy to grow up with that guy, either. Brian’s struggles with mental health and drugs have been chronicled to death. Brian was just gone. By the late ’60s, when Carnie and Wendy were born, Brian was already a famously eccentric and reclusive figure. He’d spend their childhood in and out of institutions. By all accounts, he was not a remotely functional father.
From that perspective, it’s a small miracle that the three members of Wilson Phillips all turned out to be healthy and normal people. This was the image that they presented to the world in 1990, when they made their debut, and that image doesn’t seem manufactured. I imagine that the three young women in Wilson Phillips had to rely on each other a whole lot. In any case, “Hold On,” the song that made Wilson Phillips famous, is absolutely a support-group song.
Chynna Phillips and Carnie and Wendy Wilson were close ever since they were babies. In 1968, when both Chynna and Carnie were born, Brian Wilson and John Phillips had a routine. They’d go play basketball together at a school, and their wives would bring their baby daughters to hang out while the fathers hooped. When Wendy was born a year later, she became part of that, too. The three girls grew up with each other, and they were singing together from the time they were toddlers.
By high school, Chynna Phillips was going in a different direction from the Wilson sisters. Chynna started up an acting career, appearing in movies like Some Kind Of Wonderful and Say Anything. She also started partying young; by the time she was 19, she was already in recovery for drugs and alcohol. At some point, she heard from Owen Elliott, the daughter of her father’s late bandmate Mama Cass. Owen had an idea to make an anti-drug song with a bunch of kids of ’60s rock stars. Moon Zappa passed on the idea. So did Chynna’s Say Anything castmate Ione Skye, Donovan’s daughter. But the Wilson sisters were down.
In the late ’80s, the four young women practiced and figured out how to layer their own harmonies. Owen Elliott turned out to be a bad fit, and she either left or got kicked out of the group. But the other three had plenty of practice singing together, and their voices gelled. Both the Beach Boys and the Mamas And The Papas had been famous for their own harmonies, so that kind of singing came naturally.
Michelle Phillips put the trio in touch with Richard Perry, a producer who’d made a bunch of big hits in the ’70s. Perry heard them harmonizing on a couple of lines from Stevie Nicks’ “Wild Heart.” He thought they were funny, and he decided to work with them. At the time, though, Perry was working with the Pointer Sisters, and he wanted to record Wilson Phillips as a dance act. Wilson Phillips tried that style, and it didn’t work. So Perry passed the trio along to Glen Ballard, the Quincy Jones associate who co-wrote Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror.”
Ballard loved Wilson Phillips’ harmonies, and they worked with him in his Encino garage studio for a while, figuring out songs to record for their demo. One day, Ballard gave Chynna Phillips a backing track that he’d written. Ballard had music but no lyrics. Chynna listened to the music while driving back to her mother’s house, where she was still living. Sitting in her car outside that house, Chynna drew on her AA experiences and wrote most of the lyrics for “Hold On” down on a legal pad. Talking to Rolling Stone last year, Chynna said, “I thought to myself, ‘Well, AA tells me, just hold on, just one day at a time.’ I thought, ‘OK, if I can just hold on for one more day, then I can do this.'”
“Hold On” isn’t specifically a song about addiction, even if that’s how Chynna meant it. Instead, it’s a song of all-around encouragement. Wilson Phillips sing the whole song in second person, giving a pep talk to whoever might be listening. Those lyrics acknowledge that shit can get really bad, and they make a point not to let the listener off the hook: “You’ve got no one to blame for your unhappiness/ You got yourself into your own mess.” But “Hold On” isn’t a song about blame. It’s about the idea that shitty times don’t last forever: “Don’t you know things can change?/ Things’ll go your way if you hold on for one more day.” That kind of lyrical vagueness usually drives me nuts, but if “Hold On” catches me in the right moment, it can be terribly moving. It can be exactly what I need to hear.
Chynna brought “Hold On” to Ballard and the Wilson sisters the next day, and they all loved it. Carnie Wilson added a few more lyrics of her own. Together, singing into a single microphone, the three members of Wilson Phillips figured out the song’s intricate, layered harmonies. I love those harmonies. Chynna sings lead on “Hold On,” but the three voices all blur together in some gorgeous ways. On the chorus, where the words get fast and cluttered, those three voices sound like they’re pushing each other, willing each other on. They sound kind. They sound like good friends.
Glen Ballard produced the studio version of “Hold On.” Ballard himself played keyboards, and he brought in a bunch of different session-musician aces: Michael Landau, Paulinho da Costa, John Robinson. The former Eagle Joe Walsh came in to do some soft-rock shredding on “Hold On.” (Walsh’s highest-charting solo-artist single, 1978’s “Life’s Been Good,” peaked at #12.) Ballard’s production is dated and ultra-clean, but I really like it. “Hold On” has all the dinky keyboard sounds and big drum booms that helped sink so many of the chintzy ballads from the turn of the ’90s, but on “Hold On,” those touches help give the song a weird sort of glow. These are all kid-brain associations, but I was 10 when “Hold On” came out, and I hear a certain bittersweet warmth in its sound. It reminds me a bit of the first couple of seasons of Beverly Hills 90210 — of the way the show’s whole tone was already nostalgic for its own moment.
A demo that included “Hold On” got a few labels interested, and Wilson Phillips eventually signed with the just-launched EMI imprint SBK. SBK released “Hold On” as the trio’s debut single in February, three months before Wilson Phillips released their self-titled album. The trio worked the single hard, traveling around the different radio stations and trying to get interviewers to stop asking about their parents. Eventually, “Hold On” gained enough steam to conquer the charts.
In the summer of 1990, “Hold On” was inescapable. Even though the only had a week at #1, it became such a radio staple that Billboard eventually named “Hold On” the #1 hit of 1990. This was the first time since 1962 that a song that had only topped the Hot 100 for the week became the year’s top single. When it first happened in 1962, the song in question was Mr. Acker Bilk’s mellow trad-jazz instrumental “Stranger On The Shore” — another calm throwback that came just before a moment of sudden, disorienting progress. But “Hold On” is a way better song than “Stranger On The Shore.” It’s a good enough song to transcend its context, to hang with the straight-up pop classics of its era.
After “Hold On,” Wilson Phillips held on. They’ll be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the best scene from the deeply enjoyable 2004 film Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, in which John Cho and Kal Penn have a “Tiny Dancer” moment with “Hold On”:
(One of the other songs from that scene will be in this column soon.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a scene from a 2010 Chuck episode where Tony Hale attempts to enjoy “Hold On”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the grand-finale wedding scene of the 2011 classic Bridesmaids, Wilson Phillips show up to sing “Hold On,” and it fucking rules. Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the folky version of “Hold On” that Murder By Death released in 2013:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson singing “Hold On” with Wilson Phillips on a pre-pandemic 2020 episode of her talk show:
(Kelly Clarkson will eventually appear in this column.)