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.
I’ve been thinking about how to describe “I’ve Been Thinking About You,” the only #1 hit from the group known as Londonbeat. It’s not easy. “I’ve Been Thinking About You” doesn’t belong to any known genre of music, or maybe it belongs to a good half-dozen different genres of music. The song’s thundering kickdrum thump is full-on house music. The florid, pounding piano also comes from house. But the bouncy bassline is some more nebulous form of dance-pop. There’s also this bright guitar-jangle all through the track. As the song goes on, the guitar switches up and starts doing spy-movie things. The vocal arrangement is full-on Motown. Somehow, all these pieces click perfectly into place.
In fact, that combination of sounds is so smooth and seamless that its success seems almost overdetermined. If I didn’t remember the song, you might’ve been able to convince me that “I’ve Been Thinking About You” was an underrated gem from the late-’90s boy-band era. It has some of the sleek, dizzy, omnivorous shamelessness as Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” a song that will eventually appear in this column. But the lead vocal on “I’ve Been Thinking About You” is not a boy-band lead vocal, or even an ex-boy band lead vocal. It’s a tingly old-school soul-gospel rasp that seems to have no place on a song as knowingly silly as this one. I would’ve never guessed that the guy singing that vocal was pushing 50, but now that I know, it makes its own strange kind of sense.
As a group, Londonbeat was also a hybrid beast. Only one of the four members of Londonbeat was even British. Two were American — one from Florida, one from Atlanta. One was from Trinidad. Other than the non-singing British guitarist, all of those guys had been around forever, making records on both sides of the Atlantic and never quite breaking through. In his attempt to explain the group’s name, Jimmy Helms, the Florida native, once said, “One of the reasons we’re called Londonbeat is simply to pay homage to the city. And we thought that to ever succeed in America, the fact that London is in the name might somehow be a plus.” Therein lies the rub. These guys wanted to make it.
Jimmy Helms was five months away from his 50th birthday when “I’ve Been Thinking About You” made it to #1 in the US. Helms, whose background is Black and Native American, had moved from Florida to Ohio as a teenager, and he’d released “You’re Mine You,” his first single, in 1963. When Helms’ music career didn’t take off, he served in the Army, then acted in a production of Hair. Eventually, Helms settled in the UK. In his adapted homeland, Helms made one solo hit, an imitation Philly soul song called “Gonna Make You An Offer You Can’t Refuse” that peaked at #8. He also sang backup on David Essex’s “Rock On,” the strange psychedelic bubblegum hit that would later top the American charts when Michael Damian covered it. (In the US, Essex’s “Rock On” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.)
In the ’80s, Jimmy Helms wrote and recorded British ad jingles, and he also sang backup on records for Madness and Lloyd Cole and the Deacon Blue. He became friendly with Jimmy Chambers, a Trinidadian singer who was doing the same session-work grind. Chambers had once been in DaDa, a late-’60s group that also included former Number Ones artist Robert Palmer. Chambers had also sung backup on Amii Stewart’s disco version of “Knock On Wood,” a #1 hit in America in 1979. The two of them also hooked up with George Chandler, an Atlanta-born singer. In the ’60s, Chandler served in the military, and while he was stationed in Italy, he formed the Four Kents, a group who recorded Italian-language covers of American pop songs. Later, in the ’70s, Chandler fronted a British disco-funk band called the Olympic Runners, who had a few minor hits in the UK and on the American R&B charts.
When they formed Londonbeat, Jimmy Helms, Jimmy Chambers, and George Chandler were all in their forties. They’d all been around, and they were all still working. In different configurations, the three of them sang backup for Wham!, for the Stranglers, for Paul Young, for Tina Turner. All three of them sang on “Good Thing,” a Fine Young Cannibals song that eventually made it to #1 in the US. In forming Londonbeat, they teamed up with Willy M, a British guitarist who’d been living in New York, working with new wave groups, and who’d only just moved back. When they first got together in 1987, the members of Londonbeat agreed that they should give up on the group if they couldn’t write a hit song in three hours. Within 45 minutes, they came up with a track called “K.I.S.S.” It wasn’t a hit, but it did get them a management deal.
Dave Stewart, half of former Number Ones duo Eurythmics, signed Londonbeat to his Anxious Records imprint in the UK. In 1988, Londonbeat went to the Netherlands and recorded their debut album Speak, with Willy M working as producer. The record wasn’t a hit, and it didn’t even come out in the US. But one single, a sort of mutant soul ballad called “9AM (The Comfort Zone),” reached #19 in the UK.
When they started work on their second album, 1990’s In The Blood, Londonbeat recruited Martyn Phillips, a young producer who came from the UK’s exploding acid house scene. Phillips had produced a bunch of dancey tracks for a group called the Beloved, including “The Sun Rising,” a minor UK hit that I just absolutely love. The members of Londonbeat cold-called Phillips after they found his phone number on a cassette. Shortly after “I’ve Been Thinking About You” reached #1, another Phillips-produced track, Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now” peaked at #2 on the Hot 100. (It’s an 8.)
UPDATE: Hey, look at this!
All that context might help explain why “I’ve Been Thinking About You” works the way that it does. The three singers in Londonbeat were all old-pro session-musician types, and they were shamelessly chasing commercial success. In the early-’90s UK, that meant that they were flirting with the sound of acid house, which itself is a mutant genre — a euphorically druggy take on Chicago house, made by young DJs who’d grown up on post-punk and indie and rap and dancehall. But other than maybe Willy M, the members of Londonbeat weren’t kids. They were middle-aged men who’d been working since the Motown days. Jimmy Helms, who sang lead on the track, had serious roots in American R&B, and you could hear it in his voice. All four members of Londonbeat wrote “I’ve Been Thinking About You” together, and maybe that’s why it works so well, too. All these guys presumably had ideas, but they were able to make those ideas work together.
Lyrically, “I’ve Been Thinking About You is about as simple as it gets. Jimmy Helms’ narrator is hung up on a crush, and he’s torturing himself, marinating on what might’ve been: “We must have been stone crazy when we thought we were just friends/ ‘Cause I miss you, baby, and I’ve got those feelings again.” (The “stone crazy” bit is great. That’s just not an expression that was in common use in the early ’90s, so even if this guy is recording this futuristic house/R&B banger, his vocabulary is still ’60s.) Helms really sounds tortured about this crush. He communicates a certain yearning, a weird void that you might feel when you’re thinking about old flames who aren’t in your life anymore.
On “I’ve Been Thinking About You,” there’s an otherworldly keening intensity in Helms’ voice. Other than general obliviousness to genre boundaries and backup-vocal credits, I think that quality is why people sometimes compare Londonbeat to Fine Young Cannibals. But Jimmy Helms doesn’t really sound like Roland Gift. He sounds more like David Ruffin, honestly. (He’s not as good as David Ruffin, but nobody is.) Fine Young Cannibals were mostly done by 1991, so maybe they would’ve gone in the direction of Londonbeat if they’d stayed together. To me, though, “I’ve Been Thinking About You” doesn’t really sound like anyone else. It’s its own wonderfully strange little creation.
One of the things I really like about “I’ve Been Thinking About You” is that these three singers, all clearly capable of making real soul music, weren’t trying to make anything prestigious or credible. They were trying to make something that the people of 1991 would like. George Chandler and Jimmy Chambers might sing Four Tops-style backing vocals, but they also inject little nonsense phrases as punctuation: “Sssh-pow-pow!” Meanwhile, Willy M’s guitar winds and sparkles, and those drum machines bubble and thump. The whole thing just moves with an energy that I find totally irresistible.
For whatever reason, the music-video version of “I’ve Been Thinking About You” sounds nothing like the album one, which is the one that everyone knows. The edit in the video is nearly seven minutes long, and it’s got more of a moody house backbeat, with all the guitar action buried deep in the mix. I’m pretty sure the video version is David Morales’ Def 12″ Mix, which isn’t anywhere near as energetic as the real song but which also sounds pretty good.
“I’ve Been Thinking About You” became a #1 hit in 13 different countries, though not in the UK, where it peaked at #2. (Mayber Londoners were skeptical about that name.) In the US, the track topped the club charts and also did surprisingly well at Adult Contemporary, where it peaked at #7. The song turned out to be Londonbeat’s only big hit, though their follow-up single “A Better Love” made it to #18 on the Hot 100. Good song, too.
Londonbeat’s next album 1992’s Harmony, didn’t even get an American release — a serious plummet for a group that had just landed a #1 hit. In 1994, Londonbeat’s self-titled fourth LP did come out in the US, and their Euro-club single “Come Back” made it onto the Hot 100, peaking at #62. Title aside, though, that didn’t lead to an actual Londonbeat comeback. The album didn’t chart, and Londonbeat didn’t release another LP until 2003.
Londonbeat are still going. They’ve had a bunch of different lineups over the years, and only two of the four founding members, the two Jimmys, are still in the group. Jimmy Helms is 80 years old. He’s still performing, and he still looks great.
Londonbeat’s one big hit was a product of a moment. R&B and house and Euro-club and jangly-guitar music all moved in radically different directions over the next few years, and they’d simply never exist in that same configuration again. If you tried to combine those sounds now, it wouldn’t work as well. Londonbeat was an organically inorganic thing, an anomalous combination of young and old energy that briefly became more than the sum of its parts. That combination might be gone now, but I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve got it on my mind. Ssh-pow-pow.
BONUS BEATS: The Swedish dance group Alcazar sampled the beat from “I’ve Been Thinking About You” on their 2004 single “Physical.” Here’s the extremely goofy “Physical” video, which is full of impossible haircuts: