The Number Ones

January 26, 1991

The Number Ones: Surface’s “The First Time”

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.


Songwriting is an intuitive thing, and you’d be a total fucking idiot if you interpreted every pop-song lyric on a literal level. Sometimes, though, those presumably-figurative lyrics just stick in your head and conjure certain images. Consider the chorus of “The First Time,” a tender R&B ballad that was the only #1 hit for the group known as Surface. As “The First Time” hits its chorus, squeaky-voiced tenor Bernard Jackson sings about something that sounds a whole lot like a social faux pas: “The first time I looked into your eyes, I cried.” That’s a red flag! If someone gazes deep into your eyes and then bursts into tears, you probably don’t need that person in your life! That sounds like too much drama!

Other than that one lyric, we don’t get a whole lot of indication that Bernard Jackson’s narrator is some kind of pioneer in the field of radical sensitivity. This is not a Smiths song. Instead, Jackson sings “The First Time” from the perspective of an adult looking back on the happy early days of that relationship: “You know, I won’t forget the times we shared together holding hands and walking in the park.” It doesn’t seem like Jackson is bringing all this up because the relationship has started to go bad. Instead, he uses that imagery to pledge his eternal devotion: “Can’t you tell from the look on my face that I love you more today?” Presumably, then, he still cries every time he looks into their eyes.

On that chorus, Jackson sings about how this other person wiped his tears away, so maybe “The First Time” really is supposed to be literal. Maybe Jackson’s narrator started off this first date with some immediate weeping. Maybe the act of cleaning up his spontaneous tears brought this couple closer together. If that’s the case, though, I want to know more. Is Jackson’s significant other really into guys who cry? What did they talk about immediately afterwards? Did anyone think this emotional display was weird? A song that answered those questions would probably be a whole lot more interesting than “The First Time.” This isn’t saying much, though, since “The First Time” is dog-ass boring.

“The First Time” doesn’t sound anything like a 1991 song, and that’s because it’s not a 1991 song. The group actually recorded “The First Time” in 1986, when they were putting together their self-titled debut album. “The First Time” didn’t make the cut on that album, and Surface didn’t release it until 1990, when it became the lead single of their third LP 3 Deep. R&B was starting to shift in brighter, bolder directions by then, and “The First Time” sounded like a relic of the smoothed-out quiet storm ’80s. Maybe that’s why people liked it. Maybe it sounded reassuring.

For reasons that probably have something to do with their deeply generic band name, Surface aren’t the kind of group who most people remember. They were a trio of fairly unassuming songwriters and musicians without any particular persona. For a few years, though, Surface were mainstays on the R&B charts. Some of their singles crossed over and became pop hits, and some didn’t. “The First Time” got love at R&B and adult contemporary stations, and maybe that’s why it had enough juice to spend a couple of weeks at #1 on the Hot 100. Still, this is absolutely one of those songs that vanished from mass consciousness as soon as its chart run was done.

Surface started in early-’80s New Jersey. Guitarist David Townsend was the son of Ed Townsend, a Korean War veteran whose single “For Your Love” reached #13 in 1958. Later on, Ed Townsend co-wrote Marvin Gaye’s 1973 chart-topper “Let’s Get It On,” and he taught his son David how to structure a pop song. In the ’70s, David Townsend played guitar for the Isley Brothers for a little while. (The Isley Brothers’ highest-charting single, 1969’s “It’s Your Thing,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

David also played in a group called the Port Authority. One of David’s Port Authority bandmates was bassist David Conley, who later spent a few years playing in the funk band Mandrill. (Mandrill’s highest-charting single, 1973’s “Fencewalk,” peaked at #52.) After he left Mandrill, Townsend and Conley formed a new group called Surface, with Conley’s girlfriend Karen Copeland singing. Surface signed with Salsoul Records and released their debut single, a deeply repetitive 10-minute disco odyssey called “Falling In Love,” in 1983. It made a slight dent in the R&B charts but didn’t go anywhere near the Hot 100.

After a couple of singles, Conley and Copeland broke up, and Copeland left the band. Surface auditioned some singers to replace her, but none of the women they heard fit right. One day, as a favor to his uncle, David Townsend went to meet with a young singer named Bernard Jackson in New York. Jackson, a few years younger than either Conley or Copeland, had grown up in Stamford, Connecticut. He wanted to break into the music business, and his godfather happened to be Townsend’s uncle. Townsend didn’t expect anything to come of the meeting, but Jackson impressed him. Eventually, Jackson became the new singer for Surface.

Jackson, Conley, and Copeland got a gig writing songs together for EMI. New Edition recorded one of their songs, and Sister Sledge recorded another. Emboldened, the members of Surface moved to Los Angeles to seek out a better record deal for themselves, and they eventually signed with Columbia. Surface released their self-titled debut in 1986, and their glossy synth-soul single “Happy,” a cover of a song from the UK group Hi-Tension, reached #2 on the R&B charts and #20 on the Hot 100. Pretty good song, too.

In 1989, Surface went on a serious run of R&B hits. Three straight singles from their platinum sophomore album 2nd Wave reached #1 on the Billboard R&B charts. But only one of those songs became significant Hot 100 hit, which really goes to show how far apart the pop and R&B charts were in that era. (That one crossover hit was “Shower Me With Your Love,” which peaked at #5. It’s a 3.) Around the same time, the members of Surface also wrote and produced “Don’t Take It Personal,” a Jermaine Jackson single that peaked at #64.

In any case, Surface were a brand name in R&B by 1990. At that point, all three members of the group were in their thirties, so maybe the felt like they had to keep cranking out records before their collective clock ran out. Maybe that’s why they resurrected a years-old outtake and made it the first single from 1990’s 3 Deep. Bernard Jackson first heard “The First Time” when visiting his friend Brian Simpson, a keyboardist who was part of Janet Jackson’s touring band and who later become pretty prominent as a smooth jazz pianist. Simpson had written an early version of “The First Time,” and Jackson loved it. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Jackson says, “It was a special song. It reminded me of Chicago, and I heard a little Earth, Wind & Fire in it. I heard drama.”

Jackson did some more work on “The First Time”; he got credit for co-writing the song with Simpson. Surface recorded “The First Time,” in Simpson’s garage. They got ahold of a truck that had a 24-track studio, and they parked it outside Simpson’s house. Jackson: “We hooked up all the instruments into the truck, brought a microphone out of the truck and into Brian’s house, and I sang ‘The First Time’ right there in Van Nuys.” Simpson played keyboards and synth-bass on the song, and he also did some of the drum programming.

Those Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire comparisons make a certain kind of sense. “The First Time” recalls a moment when soft soul and soft rock weren’t all that far apart from one another. A lot of Surface’s songs have a certain synthy midtempo glide working for them, but “The First Time” is much slower and sleepier than any of them. The whole thing also sounds just remarkably cheap and antiseptic. I can almost admire the audacity of putting out a song that sounds this thin as a single, and then taking that single to #1. Or I would admire the audacity if I thought “The First Time” was a remotely good song. But I don’t.

At least theoretically, there are some things about “The First Time” that I can talk myself into liking. Bernard Jackson’s voice is profoundly soft and fragile. He’s a grown man who can hit notes while sounding like a crushed-out little kid. It’s kind of cool that all the instruments on “The First Time” sound like synthesizers. And maybe I should cheer for the success of a song this deeply vulnerable. But good lord, “The First Time” is a drag. It just kind of simpers unpleasantly for four endless minutes, and then it vanishes without leaving any residue. I can’t even imagine singing along to “The First Time.” Singing along would require committing any part of that melody to memory, and I just can’t do it.

“The First Time” turned out to be the pinnacle for Surface. 3 Deep went gold, but it didn’t sell as well as the group’s previous album. After “The First Time,” only one more Surface song even made the Hot 100. (“Never Gonna Let You Down,” a ballad every bit as flavorless as “The First Time,” peaked at #17.) In 1994, before Surface got around to making another album, the group broke up. Surface eventually got back together and released a 1998 independent album called Love Zone. In 2005, shortly after the group had announced plans to tour together, David Townsend was found dead in his home. He was 50.

GRADE: 2/10

BONUS BEATS: I can’t find anything for “The First Time,” so we’re dipping further back into Surface history for this one. In 1995, producer Buckwild built the beat for Kool G Rap’s Nas collaboration “Fast Life” from a sample of Surface’s 1986 single “Happy.” Here’s the “Fast Life” video:

(“Fast Life” peaked at #74; it’s Kool G Rap’s highest-charting single. Nas’ highest-charting single is 2003’s “I Can,” which peaked at #12.)

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