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.
You couldn’t manufacture a band more widely and instantly hated than Nelson. It would be impossible. Nelson simply had too much going for them in that category. The twins Matthew and Gunnar Nelson existed at some previously unimagined nexus between three musical genres — glam metal, soft rock, and teen-pop — that were all generally despised. They looked like freaky-beautiful apparitions — blinding teeth, shining horsey hair, flouncy purple trench coats. They grew up rich, with George Harrison living next door and with famous parents, famous grandparents, famous uncles. They played Saturday Night Live when they were unsigned 19-year-olds. And when the Nelson twins put out their first single, that single was a #1 hit.
Nelson had all the makings for a perfect-storm backlash, and a perfect-storm backlash is exactly what they got. Before that backlash hit, though, they sold millions of records and topped the Billboard charts — an act that, for them, was practically a family tradition.
The Nelson family’s pop-chart history went back decades, deep into the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era. In the ’30s, Ozzie Nelson, a former college football star at Rutgers, became an easy-listening jazz bandleader. In 1935, Ozzie Nelson And His Orchestra reached #1 on a pre-Hot 100 Billboard chart with the thoroughly forgettable single “And Then Some.”
That same year, Ozzie Nelson married Harriet Hilliard, a singer in his orchestra. Ricky Nelson, the second of their sons, was born in 1940. By the time Ricky Nelson was a teenager, he was already famous. With their singing careers, Ozzie and Harriet had become regulars on Red Skeleton’s radio show, and Ozzie started producing The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet, his own radio sitcom about his family, starting in 1944. In 1949, Ozzie and Harriet’s sons started playing themselves on the radio show, and they kept those roles when The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet moved to TV in 1952.
The young Ricky Nelson was exactly the right age to become a teen idol — maybe the first teen idol of the TV era. Nelson started making rock ‘n’ roll records in the late ’50s; his first single was a 1957 cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.” Ricky sang some of his songs on Ozzie And Harriet, which made him hugely popular. In 1958, the week that Billboard first instituted the Hot 100, the #1 song in America was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool.”
In 1963, Ricky Nelson married the actress Kristin Harmon, sister of future NCIS star Mark. When they married, Ricky was 22, and Kristin was 17 and pregnant. Their twin sons Matthew and Gunnar were born in 1967, after Ricky’s hitmaking career was mostly over. (When the Nelson brothers were born, the #1 song in America was Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe.”)
As Matthew and Gunnar grew up, their parents went through well-publicized marital issues and addiction problems. They had become hard-partying rich hippies in the ’60s, and Ricky had reinvented himself as a Laurel Canyon folk-rocker. (In 1972, Rick Nelson And The Stone Canyon Band made it to #6 with “Garden Party,” a self-referential song about getting booed offstage at a Madison Square Garden oldies show. It’s a 5.) Ricky bought instruments for Matthew and Gunnar when they were kids, and he recorded them singing a song they’d written at 11. At 12, the Nelson brothers formed a band called Strange Agent, and they started playing with new wave bands on the LA club circuit.
When Ricky and Kristin finally divorced in 1982, Kristin got custody. When they turned 18, though, the Nelson brothers moved in with their father. (Gunnar later said that Kristin Nelson was “a horrible excuse for a mother.”) A few months later, Ricky Nelson died while flying to Dallas for a comeback-tour concert. The Nelson twins were totally unmoored. In Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock’s recent glam metal oral history Nöthin’ But A Good Time, Gunnar says, “We spent a year of our lives spending money we didn’t have, impressing people that didn’t matter, just trying to medicate our grief.”
During that year, the Nelson twins became the first unsigned band to play Saturday Night Live. Strange Agent had changed their name to the Nelsons, and their manager was friends with Lorne Michaels, who had just returned to the show after a few years in exile. The Nelsons were the musical guests on a 1986 episode that Ron Reagan, Jr. hosted. (I wish I could find videos of that performance on the internet.) UPDATE: Holy shit, look at this! That hair!
At that time, Matthew was the bassist, and Gunnar was the drummer. But while flying back from the SNL performance, Gunnar says that he had a vision. He wanted to learn to play guitar, and he thought the band should be him and his brother, standing up front. Matthew thought he was crazy, but he went along with it.
The Nelson brothers had an idea of how they wanted this new band to sound. Gunnar: “I wanted to combine the country-rock vocalizing that I grew up with and the majesty and power of the guitar work that I heard with bands like the Scorpions, Dokken, and Boston.” Nelson were never supposed to be a glam metal band; musically, they probably had more in common with Wilson Phillips, the other group of pop-star kids who ruled the charts in 1990, than with Poison. But Nelson presented as a glam metal act, albeit a deeply wimpy one. This would become a problem for them.
The Nelsons started writing songs with Marc Tanner, a former soft rocker who hadn’t had a ton of success as a solo artist. (The Marc Tanner Band’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “Elena,” peaked at #45.) The Nelsons decided that they wanted to sign with Geffen A&R guy John Kalodner, and they basically besieged Kalodner with demos. Eventually, they ran into Kalodner’s office with acoustic guitars and played him “Love And Affection,” a song that they’d written with Tanner. In Nöthin’ But A Good Time, Gunnar tells the story:
When it was done, it was silence for, like, 30 seconds. They he just reached over and called business affairs and said, “Send the check for the Nelsons — they’re ready.” Then he got off the phone and he goes, “I’ve been waiting for you guys to do something like that. For you to not listen to anybody. Because when you guys release this, everybody in the world is gonna want to tear you down. And I felt if you didn’t have the balls to come in here and stand up to me, you certainly weren’t gonna have the balls to stand up to anyone else.”
While they were working out their deal with Geffen, the Nelsons got together with their friend Dweezil Zappa and co-wrote a song called “Two Heads Are Better Than One” for the soundtrack of the movie Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But Kalodner wouldn’t let them use their names to record the song, so they’re on the soundtrack under the in-retrospect-hilarious name Power Tool. This did not stop them from soundtracking a truly glorious montage.
The Nelsons put together a band of metal guys, and they recorded their 1990 debut album After The Rain with Marc Tanner and with David Thoener, one of the producers of John Waite’s “Missing You.” “Love And Affection” became the album’s opening track and first single, and Geffen pushed it hard. (It was retitled “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection” to avoid confusion with Joan Armatrading’s “Love And Affection” — which, in retrospect, was not really something that anyone had to worry about.) The Nelsons played their acoustic guitars on radio shows and on Dial MTV, and they made a “Love And Affection” video with Jim Yukich, the Phil Collins collaborator who would later make the Double Dragon movie.
Matthew claimed that he wrote the riff for “Love And Affection” while looking at a magazine picture of Cindy Crawford. Gunnar later told Songfacts that it’s really about his high-school experience getting friendzoned: “It seemed like all the hot chicks used to come to me to get advice about their dirtbag boyfriends, and I made them feel better about themselves, and they’d go right back to the dirtbag boyfriend.” The Nelsons spend “Love And Affection” begging some nameless woman for attention, pleading that they need this person without mentioning why this nameless woman should bother with them. “She thinks I’m a waste of her time,” they sing, and they don’t really make any case for why they’re not.
In another world, “Love And Affection,” might work as a pretty-good power-pop song. The Nelsons sing nice harmonies, and their melodies have strong bones. The main “Love And Affection” guitar riff is florid and pretty, and the backing vocals sometimes remind me of the Cars or Cheap Trick. But the song’s glam-metal production drowns its hooks. If Nelson had been recorded to sound more like REO Speedwagon, then “Love And Affection’ might’ve been OK.
Instead, the song’s squeedly guitar solo and timid riff-crunches strand it in some nowhere-land — not tough enough to work as actual hard rock, not sweet enough to be anything else. There is some real catchiness in “Love And Affection,” but the song somehow doesn’t rock as hard as “Travelin’ Man,” a #1 hit for the twins’ father in 1961. That’s an issue.
The “Love And Affection” video is funny. It starts off in sepia-toned black-and-white. Matthew wants to work on a song, and Gunnar wants to stare at a girl in a magazine. (Nelson didn’t get Cindy Crawford in the video. Instead, it’s Judie Aronson, an actress who’d been in Weird Science and American Ninja and Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter.) When they start playing the song, the video snaps into weird dreamlike color, and the Nelsons and their bandmates are suddenly wearing some truly gaudy clothes. They sometimes seem to sing and play while floating eerily backward. (Yukich filmed them in reverse. The members of the band had to learn to sing and play backwards, so that the lip-syncing would match up — an effect used much better in the Spike Jonze video for the Pharcyde’s “Drop.”)
“Love And Affection” reached #1 the week after the Nelsons turned 23, and they spent months playing headlining shows to hoards of screaming preteen girls. When they later tried to jump on glam metal tours, things didn’t go so well for them. The absolute quote-machine Gunnar: “We went from an audience full of chicks that came to see just us and loved us unconditionally to Cinderella’s audience, who were mostly dudes that wanted to fucking kill us.”
After “Love And Affection,” the Nelsons’ follow-up single “After The Rain” peaked at #6. (It’s a 3.) Two more singles charted — “More Than Ever” at #14, “Only Time Will Tell” at #28 — and the album eventually went double platinum. But this was clearly a band with a shelf life. When it came time to record their sophomore album, Nelson made an ambitiously proggy concept record called Imaginator. Geffen had no interest in releasing it. Instead, the label sent them back to the studio to record a lighter album called Because They Can. It came out in 1995. By that point, Nelson had been punchlines for years. The album and its singles didn’t chart.
I tend to resist the narrative that Nirvana came out in 1991 and instantly made every glam metal band look hopelessly uncool. Things are always more complicated than that, and Nelson would’ve probably had a short pop-chart moment even if Nevermind had never happened. (After all, Cinderella fans thought Nelson didn’t rock hard enough.) But it’s still pretty funny that Nelson were labelmates with Nirvana. And Nirvana definitely didn’t have nice things to say about Nelson.
In 1992, SPIN published its first cover story on Nirvana, and the band invoked Nelson’s name. In the article, Dave Grohl says, “Nelson have a room they go into before each show where they turn off the lights and meditate with incense burning.” Kurt Cobain follows with this: “So we’re gonna have the Nelson room where we burn effigies of them before we go onstage.” As far as I know, there’s no evidence that Nirvana actually burned Nelson in effigy before each show. Just joking about it in a magazine is bad enough, though. (“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana’s highest-charting single, peaked at #6. It’s a 10, and I wrote a whole bonus column about it last year.)
Geffen dropped Nelson after Because They Can tanked, and the band released Imaginator on their own. Since then, Nelson have played a lot of shows and put out a lot of independent records — sometimes as Nelson, sometimes as the Nelsons, and sometimes as Matthew & Gunnar Nelson. Sometimes, they play shows as Ricky Nelson Remembered, a tribute act dedicated to their father. The Nelson twins have weathered a whole lot of backlash, and they’ve kept working. That’s worth something. It doesn’t make their songs any good, but it’s worth something.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beavis and Butt-Head watching the “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection” video on a 1993 episode of their show:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Natural, one of the boy bands that Lou Pearlman started after the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC both fired him, released a cover of “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection” in 2002. Here it is: