The Number Ones

July 20, 1991

The Number Ones: EMF’s “Unbelievable”

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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“Epsom Mad Funkers.” When they made it to #1 with their debut single “Unbelievable,” the members of the British dance-rock group EMF claimed that their name stood for “Epsom Mad Funkers.” To hear them tell it, they’d named themselves after an unofficial New Order fan club, or maybe after a crew of New Order groupies. Legend had it that these particular New Order fans would use epsom salts to recover from hangovers. This backstory never really held water, and it never really needed to hold water. A band-name acronym hadn’t been such a wink-nod open secret since the world had been led to believe that former Number Ones artists MFSB had shortened their name from “Mother Father Sister Brother” and not “Motherfucking Sons Of Bitches.” With EMF, it was even more obvious.

EMF were children of a whole new drug culture that took over the UK in the waning days of the ’80s. After years of stultifying Thatcherist rule, the young people of Great Britain had gotten really into Chicago house, Detroit techno, and MDMA. They’d started throwing vast all-night dance parties in remote fields and abandoned castles. British kids who might’ve once started punk bands started putting together their own acid house tracks, and the smartest rock bands all reconfigured their sounds to meet the moment.

It must’ve been such a blast. When time machines are invented, one of my first stops — maybe before even Downtown ’81-era New York and Revolution Summer DC — will be England during the Second Summer Of Love in 1988. (I actually was in England during the Second Summer Of Love; my family temporarily moved to London that August. But I was eight years old, so I didn’t get to do much raving. I’m still grateful for hearing acid house on Top Of The Pops.) By 1991, the sounds of that summer had radiated out of the UK and into the rest of the world. At the time, those massive raves were still just a whisper in America, but it was still pretty easy to figure out that EMF really meant “Ecstasy, Motherfucker.”

“Ecstasy, Motherfucker” isn’t just a fun band name. It’s a beautiful little explanation for how a song like “Unbelievable” could happen. These kids from some little middle-of-nowhere town came up with a party-up rock song that was too bleary and head-fuzzed to fit into any proper genre. It was a shambling mess, with fuzzy guitars and shuffling breakbeats and quasi-rapped lyrics and Andrew Dice Clay samples. It was nuts, but it was also a product of its moment. And nearly a year after its release, it was a chart-topping summer jam in America.

The members of EMF came from Cinderford, a tiny rural town in the Forest Of Dean, near the Welsh border. When they made “Unbelievable,” some of them were still teenagers. A couple of them had moved to London to start bands. One of them owned a skate shop in Cinderford, which became a sort of clubhouse. The oldest member of the band was guitarist Ian Dench, who was in his mid-twenties and who’d spent some time in Apple Mosaic, a fizzy alterna-rock band who’d put out one album on Virgin.

EMF formed in 1989, when the whole rave thing was still spreading. Cinderford is nowhere near Manchester, but EMF most certainly took inspiration from the bands coming out of that city — the scene of starry-eyed psychedelic dance-rock bands that came to be known as Madchester. I don’t believe that EMF really named themselves after a New Order fan club, but I have absolutely no doubt that they were fans of New Order, whose success helped make the whole Madchester thing possible. I’m certain that they were also fans of the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, the two big Manchester bands to come out of that moment. (None of those bands, it’s worth noting, ever made huge hits in the US. Over here, New Order’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Regret,” peaked at #28. Happy Mondays made it onto the Hot 100 once, when 1990’s “Step On” got to #57. The Stone Roses never reached the Hot 100 at all.)

EMF songwriter Ian Dench thought of himself as a rocker. Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits quotes Dench as saying, “I’ve always had a white-rock background — the Smiths, Echo And The Bunnymen, that type of stuff. I was coming from that direction more than sort of hip-hop. But the hip-hop thing was all around us, and you couldn’t help picking up on it, really.” You couldn’t help picking up on rave and Madchester, either. In other early-’90s interviews, Dench would compare EMF to post-punk bands like Joy Division and Killing Joke, too. Maybe EMF were essentially a post-punk band, too. But around the turn of the ’90s, post-punk had dispersed outwards, and it had merged with house and rap and retro-psychedelia into a whole other thing. EMF were part of that thing.

The members of EMF were bumfuck country kids; out in the Forest Of Dean, they once rented a sheep barn out to play a show. But they didn’t have to work the sheep-barn circuit for long. EMF drummer Mark Decloedt had been friendly with an A&R guy at EMI, and that A&R guy signed EMF after the band had played only five shows. The group recorded “Unbelievable” in a cheap studio before putting together the rest of their album. Their producer was Ralph Jezzard, a guy who’d started out recording thuggish British street-punk bands like Cock Sparrer and the Business before moving on to acid-house acts like Bomb The Bass. Nobody who worked on “Unbelievable” was a polished professional, and the immediacy of its rickety rawness was probably part of the appeal.

All five members of EMF had songwriting credits on “Unbelievable,” but everyone seems to agree that Ian Dench really wrote the song. Dench had been out partying with keyboardist Derry Brownson one night, and he came up with the melody during a hungover bike ride the next morning. On paper, “Unbelievable” is a song about being deeply annoyed with a significant other: “You say to me I don’t talk enough/ But when I do, I’m a fool/ These times I’ve spent, I’ve realized/ I’m gonna shoot through and leave you.” But even on paper, all sense of meaning breaks down when you get to singer James Atkin’s breathy quasi-rapped breakdown. None of that stuff means anything at all. Atkin is just saying stuff: “Seemingly lastless, don’t mean you can ask us! Pushing down the relative! Bringing out your higher self!” Ecstasy, motherfucker!

Musically, “Unbelievable” is a work of delirious collage. It’s full of samples. The entire track is built on the drum loop from the Soul Searchers’ 1974 funk instrumental “Ashley’s Roachclip,” the same breakbeat that had powered Milli Vanilli’s chart-topper “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” two years earlier. One of the soundclips on the track — the one that sounds like “Fup! Bup!” — is reportedly someone yelling “what the fuck” at a Black Panther rally. I haven’t been able to confirm that sample. But millions of American kids who heard “Unbelievable” in the summer of 1991 would’ve recognized the “Ohhhh!” as coming from Andrew Dice Clay.

It’s hard to explain Andrew Dice Clay to anyone who wasn’t around to witness it at the time. Somehow, a Brooklyn native and journeyman stand-up comic Andrew Clay Silverstein had hit upon this swaggering dickbag character and become enormously popular. Clay’s whole gimmick revolved around reciting dirty versions of nursery rhymes and smoking a cigarette while putting his hand behind his head, and this made him galactically famous. It doesn’t make any sense, but the sneering viciousness of the Diceman’s act hit some kind of cultural nerve. In 1990, the year that EMF recorded “Unbelievable,” Clay sold out Madison Square Garden for two nights and starred in a deeply strange action-flick vehicle called The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane.

“Unbelievable” was one of Clay’s catchphrases. Another one was “ohhhh!” On “Unbelievable,” EMF cut up those two catchphrases and practically turned them into part of the rhythm section. Clay’s actual jokes were nasty little playground-bully snarls that don’t deserve any kind of reconsideration. I’m not putting the original Clay tracks in this column because you really don’t need them in your life. Just know that the sample of Clay saying “it’s unbelievable” is taken from a whole extended bit where Clay grapples with the idea that sometimes men are gay. That’s what’s unbelievable to him.

In sampling the catchphrases from Clay’s act context-free, EMF took the parts that worked and left the toxic stuff aside. (It’s not possible to sample “looking like the Fonz,” the other thing that Clay did pretty well.) In any case, Clay’s whole act eventually dried up, and now Andrew Dice Clay has found a weird little second life as a tender, understated character actor. I really liked him as the father of Lady Gaga, someone who will eventually appear in this column, in A Star Is Born.

There’s at least one other sample on “Unbelievable,” too. The voice saying “one” is Ya Kid K, the Congolese-Belgian rapper from Technotronic. The vocal clip comes from “Spin That Wheel,” a hip-house track that Techontronic recorded under the name Hi Tek 3. I knew “Spin That Wheel” well because the song was on the soundtrack of the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Pretty good song! (“Spin That Wheel” peaked at #69. Technotronic’s highest-charting single is “Pump Up The Jam,” which peaked at #2 in 1990. It’s a 10.)

“Unbelievable” works as a glorious little nugget from the short little stretch of time where artists were just sampling shit from all over the place without worrying about getting sued. It’s got the “Ashley’s Roachclip” breakbeat, Andrew Dice Clay, Ya Kid K, and a Black Panther yelling, and it forces all those things to make sense together. The non-sampled bits from the song are a similar mishmash. “Unbelievable” has the wormy Roland TB-303 synth-squiggle sound, a sonic signature of acid house. It’s got a giddy wah-wah guitar riff that eventually flares up into a solo that sounds like Slash giving you a hug. It’s got James Atkin delivering all his lines in a sort of breathy rhythmic shout that’s not rapping but also not not rapping. Atkin sounds pissed off, and he also sounds like he’s having a great time, which is the exact right tone for a song like this.

The “Unbelievable” video is just a bunch of fast-edited live shots of the band playing, but it’s full of little time-and-place touches. The fashion, for instance, is beautiful wacko shit. The Oakland A’s hat worn off to the side! The tie-dyed shirt with a sun on it! The baggy shorts! The puffy sneakers! The Vision Street Wear shirt! The drummer with no shirt and giant headphones! The floppy-haired DJ who comes out from behind the turntables to dance whenever he’s not scratching! The T-shirts tucked into sweatpants! The glitter falling from the ceiling! It’s unbelievable.

“Unbelievable” became a #3 hit in the UK, but critics were mean to EMF, and the band complained in every American interview that British papers wouldn’t stop comparing them to New Kids On The Block. Over here, though, “Unbelievable” sounded like a new, weird thing. If you didn’t know the context of all those other Madchester-influenced acts, “Unbelievable” didn’t sound like nobodies cashing in on a trend. It sounded like a new, weird, exciting pop song. When EMF toured America, Ian Dench stayed home to keep working on records, and the rest of the band played “Unbelievable” multiple times at every show. They also used backing tracks to disguise the fact that they were a really, really sloppy band; observers noticed that the sound didn’t change whenever the keyboards got thrown on the ground.

“Unbelievable” fed into some weird hunger that American kids like me were feeling around that time. I was 11 when “Unbelievable” reached #1, and I loved it. It sounded like rock and rap and house, and it sounded like teenagers partying and having fun. There was nothing sleek or treacly about it. “Unbelievable” got play on pop and mainstream rock radio, but I remember hearing it most on WHFS, the DC alternative station. Like Fine Young Cannibals and Sinéad O’Connor before them, EMF were an alternative act who’d come from across the Atlantic and topped America’s pop charts with something that ran against just about everything else on the pop charts. For a minute, that whole Madchester-influenced dance-rock sound felt like the coolest thing in the world. The week after “Unbelievable” topped the Hot 100, Jesus Jones, another Madchester-adjacent band, made it to #2 with their own hard-to-categorize smash “Right Here, Right Now.” (It’s an 8.)

Actual acid house had a quick moment on the American charts, too. The KLF, a duo of theory-crazy British pranksters whose whole deal is too complicated to get into here, crashed the top 10 of the Hot 100 a few weeks later, when their “3AM Eternal” peaked at #5. (It’s a 9.) For a hot second there, Madchester and acid house probably seemed like the new wave of alternative music that was about to conquer the American charts. It didn’t pan out that way. Grunge happened, and the trajectory changed.

I definitely used my BMG Music Club six-free-cassettes offer to get both EMF’s Schubert Dip and Jesus Jones’ Doubt. (I didn’t get the KLF’s The White Room, but that album still went gold in the US.) I liked both Schubert Dip and Doubt, but neither one lingered for long. Other than “Unbelievable,” Schubert Dip was mostly known for the intro from “Lies.” The band sampled Mark David Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon, reading the lyrics of Lennon’s “Watching The Wheels” in a documentary. (“Watching The Wheels” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.) Former Number Ones artist Yoko Ono took legal action, and that intro was taken off all the future pressings of Schubert Dip. After “Unbelievable,” “Lies” was the only EMF track that ever made the Hot 100; it peaked at #19.

Schubert Dip went platinum, and the “Unbelievable” single went gold, but EMF will always be remembered as a one-hit wonder in America. The group made two more albums after Schubert Dip, and they did pretty well on the UK charts. In 1995, they teamed up with comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer on a cover of the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer,” and that song, like “Unbelievable” before it, was a #3 hit in the UK. But those other two EMF albums didn’t even chart in the US.

EMF broke up in 1995, and Ian Dench went on to start another band called Whistler. In 2002, former EMF bassist Zac Foley died of a drug overdose at the age of 31. The other members of EMF reunited a few times over the years, but none of those reunions has led to any new music. Whistler didn’t last long, either, but Ian Dench eventually became a full-on pop-music professional himself. As a songwriter, Dench has done a lot of work with Stargate, the hitmaking Norwegian production duo whose work will eventually appear in this column. After “Unbelievable,” Dench’s biggest chart credit comes from co-writing “Beautiful Liar,” the 2007 duet from future Number Ones artists Beyoncé and Shakira. (That song peaked at #3. It’s a 7.)

It is fucking insane that the guy from EMF was partly responsible for “Beautiful Liar” and, for that matter, for a few other Beyoncé songs. Ian Dench even got a Golden Globe nomination once for co-writing a song that Beyoncé sang in the movie Cadillac Records. This doesn’t make any sense, but that’s pop-music history for you. It’s unbelievable.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Tom Jones loved “Unbelievable,” and he covered it during his live shows around that time. In 1993, Jones got together with EMF to perform “Unbelievable” on British TV. Talking to Jones, one of the Epsom Mad Funkers said that Jones singing “Unbelievable” in Las Vegas is “sort of the apex of our career, really.” He wasn’t wrong! Here’s that beautiful vision of a delighted Tom Jones wailing “Unbelievable” for a bunch of going-off kids:

(Tom Jones’ highest-charting single, 1971’s “She’s A Lady,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the sarcastic noise-rock cover of “Unbelievable” that Killdozer released in 1993:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the even-more-sarcastic grindcore cover of “Unbelievable” that Anal Cunt released in 1994:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the 2011 film The Zookeeper, “Unbelievable” soundtracks a scene of Kevin James taking a talking gorilla to TGI Fridays. Nick Nolte voices the gorilla. Here’s that scene:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the weird, fun cover of “Unbelievable” that Kelly Clarkson sang during one of her talk show’s quarantine-era episodes last year:

(Kelly Clarkson will eventually appear in this column.)

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