The Number Ones

June 8, 1991

The Number Ones: Extreme’s “More Than Words”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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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In the ’60s, the duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel became one of the biggest acts in the world by singing hushed profundities in angelic choirboy harmonies over acoustic guitars. A quarter-century later, two Boston glam-metal doofs had an epiphany. For one song and one song only, the two of them ditched their wheedling guitars and their lyrics about the tawdriness of society, and they went for something different. They adapted that old Simon & Garfunkel model, but instead of singing philosophy-class musings, they sang about being shitty and manipulative boyfriends. They didn’t become one of the biggest acts of the ’90s, but that one song was fucking everywhere for a little while. I hated it before I totally understood the message of the song, and then I hated it even more after.

“More Than Words” is one of the all-time great pop-music okey-dokes. Extreme’s Gary Cherone and Nuno Bettencourt sound like they’re singing sweet little love-song nothings, but that’s not quite what’s happening. They have an agenda. The point of the song is that it’s not enough to say that you love someone. In interviews, the members of the band would claim that “More Than Words” was really about how the word love gets diluted through overuse. But it’s not too hard to read between the lines on that one. Cherone wants the song’s target to know “how easy it would be to show me how you feel.” He never comes out and says that he’s talking about fucking, and I might respect “More Than Words” more if he did. Instead, the song plays out as a kind of horny, passive-aggressive simper, a sweaty attempt to close the deal. It’s dumb, and it’s gross. It’s also some kind of landmark in the field of fake sensitivity.

“More Than Words” was an atypical song for Extreme, who were basically a slightly pretentious glam metal band. As a slightly pretentious glam metal band, they were doing fairly well for themselves before “More Than Words.” But “More Than Words” came to dwarf the entire existence of the band, to the point where the members of Extreme came to resent their own biggest song. To this day, the image of Gary Cherone and Nuno Bettencourt making black-and-white puppy-dog eyes through their hair-curtains is the only thing that most people remember about Extreme.

Extreme got together in Boston in 1985. Gary Cherone had sung in a succession of local hard rock bands, the biggest of which was called the Dream. Extreme drummer Paul Geary was also in the Dream, while Bettencourt and bassist Pat Badger were in other local bands. Bettencourt, born in Portugal, had moved to Boston as a kid, and he’d dropped out of high school when high school came to interfere with his guitar-shredding time. Cherone and Bettencourt met because their two bands got into some kind of green-room fight in a local club, but they bonded quickly. When the Dream broke up, Cherone and Geary recruited Bettencourt and Badger to form Extreme. The band’s name is a truly wack play on words; two of the four members of the band were ex-Dream.

Extreme gigged locally for a couple of years, built up a following, and got some managers. After a few years, they signed with A&M, and they released their self-titled debut album in 1989. None of that album’s singles charted on the Hot 100, but the LP sold in the respectable six-figure range, and the song “Play With Me” soundtracked the great Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure scene of historical figures running amok through the San Dimas mall.

Extreme didn’t waste much time in putting out their sophomore album Extreme II: Pornograffitti, a vague concept LP about a kid growing in a world that was going crazy with sex and violence. The band recorded it with the German producer Mike Wagener, a former member of Accept who’d moved to Los Angeles and become a glam-metal specialist. Wagener produced big records for bands like Dokken, Skid Row, and White Lion, and he also mixed Janet Jackson’s hit glam-metal experiment “Black Cat.” Presumably, that’s how Nuno Bettencourt came to play on the single mix of “Black Cat.”

Pornograffitti is a lousy album. It’s full-on processed-to-death glam metal, but it seems to think that it has something to say, which makes everything so much worse. It’s long, and it’s full of guitar pyrotechnics and goofy left turns. There’s catchy stuff on there; the song “It (‘s A Monster)” gets stuck in my head for no reason about once a year. But the whole record is 10 pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. I sometimes see people refer to Pornograffitti as a funk-metal album, but it doesn’t sound anything like the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Faith No More or Primus. This is one of those cases where “funk” seems to be code for “some of the songs have horns on them.” Also, I blame that album title for my own persistent inability to spell the word “graffiti” without spellcheck.

At first, Pornograffitti did about the same kind of business as Extreme’s debut. The first two singles, “Decadence Dance” and “Get The Funk Out,” got rock-radio airplay but missed the Hot 100. After those two singles did what they did, Extreme’s managers and label reps told the band to get to work on their next album. Extreme had other ideas. The album had this one harmony-heavy acoustic ballad that got big singalongs at all their shows. They thought it should be a single. Their label disagreed.

Gary Cherone and Nuno Bettencourt wrote “More Than Words” one afternoon on Cherone’s front porch. The band resisted the urge to record it as a big, booming power ballad. Instead, they kept it to just an acoustic guitar and a couple of harmonizing voices. They started playing it live, and it got big reactions before it was even out. In a Rolling Stone oral history a few years ago, Bettencourt said that Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach told them that the song would be a huge hit as soon as he heard it in the studio: “He goes, ‘This is fucking huge! It’s a Number One. Number One.’ And then, what he does, he says, ‘I’m going to manage you guys.’ He wanted to be our manager because of that song. He started calling people. He says, ‘I’m going to manage; forget your manager, I’m managing you.’ He was so out of control. But he knew.” (Sebastian Bach did not become Extreme’s manager. Skid Row’s highest-charting single, 1989’s “18 And Life,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.)

Extreme’s managers and label reps did not agree with Sebastian Bach. “More Than Words” was an atypical song for Extreme and for hard rock in general. By 1990, glam metal was getting softer and wimpier, but it hadn’t made a full-on dive into soft-rock harmonizing like what Cherone and Bettencourt did on “More Than Words.” Bettencourt says that he even threatened to quit Extreme multiple times if “More Than Words” didn’t become a single. Eventually, the label tested the song out in a couple of rock-radio markets, and it took off. Finally, they capitulated, and “More Than Words” was a single.

The pop-crossover success of “More Than Words” probably owes a lot to the video. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the married directing team who later made Little Miss Sunshine, filmed Cherone and Bettencourt in crispy black-and-white. Cherone wears a puffy white pirate shirt. Bettencourt tosses his impressive horsey-hair a lot. Both of them are hunky in an extremely 1991 sort of way. At the beginning of the video, they unplug their amps. Occasionally, the camera catches the other two members of the band, who didn’t play on “More Than Words,” reading magazines or holding up lighters. There’s a cute dog in there, too. The whole video has an appealingly casual vibe — or, at least, it would if I found Extreme or “More Than Words” remotely appealing. I don’t. They suck.

If “More Than Words” was a seduction song, that would be one thing. Seduction songs can be great. But “More Than Words” doesn’t seduce. Instead, it guilt-trips. It wheedles and cajoles and projects softness everywhere. Even the guitar line seems to simper. The song is certainly effective. It’s full of memorable little bits. Cherone and Bettencourt sing some nice harmonies. In the early ’90s, a whole lot of #1 hits promptly disappeared from the world, and nobody remembers anything about them today. “More Than Words” is not one of those songs. Everyone who was alive in 1991 remembers every single part of “More Than Words.” I certainly do. That’s probably why I hate it.

There’s real craft in “More Than Words.” It’s a canny piece of songwriting. It’s catchy, and I have to respect it for that. But sometimes, a catchy song that you hate can be so much worse than a bland song that you can comfortably ignore. “More Than Words” is soft, but it’s not unobtrusive. Whenever the song plays, it elbows its way into my consciousness. I wish I could ignore it.

When “More Than Words” reached #1, Extreme were on tour in Europe. In that Rolling Stone piece, Bettencourt says that the band’s manager called them late one night in Germany to tell them that they were about to have a #1 hit: “We just ran down the hall in our underwear, banging on people’s doors.” The band followed “More Than Words” by releasing the only other vaguely acoustic song from Pornograffitti, the nebulously bluesy reel “Hole Hearted,” as a single, and it peaked at #4. (It’s a 4.) Eventually, the album went double platinum.

It’s funny. Extreme’s label didn’t want to release “More Than Words” as a single, but the song accidentally caught a weird little updraft. In the spring of 1991, glam-metal was quickly crashing off of the charts, and grunge hadn’t quite arrived yet. In that little void, a whole lot of folky and acoustic rock songs found their way onto the pop charts. The week that “More Than Words” topped the Hot 100, R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” was at #6, on its way to peaking at #4. (It’s an 8.) At the same time, Queensrÿche’s Floyd-eque ballad “Silent Lucidity” had just fallen out of the top 10 after peaking at #9. (It’s a 7.) Extreme were nothing like R.E.M. or Queensrÿche, and “More Than Words” sounded nothing like “Losing My Religion” or “Silent Lucidity.” But the same radio stations played all three of those songs, and those three songs must’ve scratched some of the same itches. It’s probably not a coincidence that MTV Unplugged, which had aired its first episode in 1989, really picked up over the next year or so.

Extreme didn’t have any interest in becoming an acoustic band, though. They came to detest “More Than Words,” even refusing to play the song live at some of their shows. They also cashed in all their goodwill by recording the follow-up LP III Sides To A Story, an absurdly overblown three-sided concept album. That record’s two singles both scraped the very bottom of the Hot 100 — “Rest In Peace” at #96, “Stop The World” at #95. After that, Extreme never appeared on the Hot 100 again.

Extreme released one more flop of an album before breaking up in 1996. Nuno Bettencourt went on to a solo career that didn’t amount to anything. Gary Cherone, on the other hand, landed a new high-profile gig. Sammy Hagar, the second lead singer for former Number Ones artists Van Halen, quit the band that same year, and Van Halen brought in Cherone as their third singer. With Cherone, Van Halen came out with the album Van Halen III in 1998. It was a spectacular, calamitous failure. Before Cherone came on board, every Van Halen album had at least gone double platinum. Van Halen III barely limped to gold. None of its singles made the Hot 100. Van Halen’s label reportedly rejected their next album a couple of times, and before long, Cherone left the band. Nobody wanted a version of Van Halen with Gary Cherone in it.

Around the same time as he debuted in Van Halen, Cherone become one of the few prominent rock singers to announce himself as being loudly anti-abortion. Cherone, representing a fringe organization called Rock For Life, wrote an open letter to prominent pro-choice rocker Eddie Vedder in 1999. “More Than Words” would’ve hit different if Cherone had included a lyric about how you need to carry a fetus to term if you get pregant.

Extreme eventually reunited in 2004, playing occasional shows and even releasing one more album. But the band had to work around Nuno Bettencourt’s new job. In 2009, Bettencourt became the touring guitarist for Rihanna, an artist who will eventually appear in this column a whole bunch of times. Bettencourt also played on a few Rihanna records, including the 2016 single “Kiss It Better,” which peaked at #62.

It was a fun little surprise when Nuno Bettencourt started showing up on TV, shredding behind Rihanna, frequently shirtless and still hunky. It was always like: Oh! Hey! That guy! Good for him! So Bettencourt, at least, found a way to stick around. So did drummer Paul Geary, who left the band in 1995 to become a music manager and who eventually came to guide the career of Creed, a band that will eventually appear in this column. (Maybe Geary was hitting the books in all that time that he wasn’t playing on “More Than Words.”) But we won’t be seeing Extreme around these parts again. I don’t have any more words for them.

GRADE: 2/10

BONUS BEATS: Over the years, the world has seen many, many parodies of the “More Than Words” video. The first of those arrived in 1992. “Weird Al” Yankovic’s song “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” is not an Extreme parody, but he fully clowned “More Than Words” with that song’s video. Here it is:

On a 2009 episode of How I Met Your Mother, Jason Segel sang a song called “Best Night Ever,” and Nuno Bettencourt played himself in the “More Than Words”-spoofing video. Here’s that:

And here’s the shot-for-shot remake of the “More Than Words” video that Jack Black and Jimmy Fallon did on a 2015 episode of The Tonight Show:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7. Jimmy Fallon’s highest-charting single, the 2014 Will.I.Am collab “Ew!,” peaked at #26. Jack Black’s band Tenacious D got as high as #78 with their 2006 single “The Pick Of Destiny.”)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cast of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia just nailing those “More Than Words” harmonies on a 2006 episode:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Mike Myers singing “More Than Words” in his baffling 2008 film The Love Guru:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the deranged 2012 film version of Rock Of Ages, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta make eyes at each other while singing a medley of “More Than Words” and Warrant’s “Heaven.” Here’s that ridiculous scene:

(“Heaven” peaked at #2. It’s an 8. Julianne Hough’s highest-charting single, 2008’s “That Song In My Head,” peaked at #88.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the doom-folk version of “More Than Words” that Marissa Nadler and Cave-In frontman Stephen Brodsky released in 2019:

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