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.
“Obviously, you can’t be too sexy, right? No one can be too sexy.” That’s Fred Fairbrass, the Fred of the British group Right Said Fred, attempting to explain the central joke of his group’s one big hit in a Rolling Stone oral history many years later. This clarification was not exactly necessary. As far as I know, nobody has ever taken Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” one bit seriously. I was 12 years old when “I’m Too Sexy” had its three weeks at #1 in the United States, and I did not know shit about shit, but I did know that “I’m Too Sexy” was funny. More specifically, I knew that it was funny — to me, anyway — to run around monotoning about how I was too sexy for my homework or whatever. I did not get away with telling my dad that I was too sexy to mow the lawn, and I knew I wouldn’t, but I still tried it. This was the all-pervading power of “I’m Too Sexy,” an inside-joke novelty song that did not exclude one person in the entire world.
Even at 12, I’m pretty sure I had some idea that “I’m Too Sexy” had something to do with gayness. “I’m Too Sexy” never mentions any particular sexuality amidst all of its sexiness, but when Right Said Fred are talking about being too sexy for your pussycat, they aren’t exactly speaking in riddles. The early ‘90s were a wildly, rabidly homophobic time in the United States, but the pop charts, which were just getting a big infusion of house-music energy, were about as gay as they’d ever been. (“I’m Too Sexy,” it’s worth noting, knocked George Michael and Elton John’s version of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” out of the #1 spot.) Just as in the late ‘70s, when the Village People crashed the Billboard Hot 100 with a series of knowingly queer anthems, “I’m Too Sexy” was campy and self-aware and catchy enough that it overwhelmed the shitty cultural currents of its moment. (The Village People’s highest-charting single, 1978’s “YMCA,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)
In some ways, “I’m Too Sexy” was tailor-made for the 1992 zeitgeist. This was the dawn of the supermodel era. There had been ultra-famous models in previous decades, but for whatever reason, the ultra-famous models of the ’90s were more famous than any previous ultra-famous models. Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss might as well have been pop stars. The media documented all of them tirelessly, treating them with a strange fascination that couldn’t entirely be pinned to horniness. In that climate, “I’m Too Sexy” came off as both spoof and tribute — a way to clown the fashion industry that was so gentle that the fashion industry could treat it as an anthem. “I’m Too Sexy” is silliness without stakes and satire without teeth, and maybe that’s why it caught on the way that it did. Or maybe the 12-year-olds of the world simply had a lot of fun talking about being too sexy for things. Either way, the song’s success was random and unpredictable enough that it caught Right Said Fred themselves utterly off-guard.
Richard and Fred Fairbrass, the two muscled-up bald brothers of Right Said Fred, grew up in the UK county of Sussex, and they started playing music together in the ‘70s. During punk explosion, the Fairbrass brothers had a group with the difficult-to-Google band name the Actors, and they played shows with bands like Suicide and Joy Division. (In that Rolling Stone piece, Fred says that they played “acoustic power-pop” and that they never really fit in.) In the ‘80s, the Fairbrass brothers moved to New York for a while, and they worked as session musicians. Richard played bass in David Bowie’s 1984 short film Jazzin’ For Blue Jean, while Fred played a guitarist in Bob Dylan’s 1987 movie Hearts Of Fire. In New York, the Fairbrass brothers got a development deal with Capitol, but it never went anywhere. In 1989, the two of them, back in London and still working day jobs, formed Right Said Fred with guitarist Rob Manzoli. They took their band name from “Right Said Fred,” a 1962 novelty song that was a UK hit for the British singer and actor Bernard Cribbins.
“I’m Too Sexy” was Right Said Fred’s first song. When they came up with the track, Richard Fairbrass was managing the Dance Attic, a London gym. During a demo-recording session at a friend’s studio, one of them programmed a baseline, and while they were trying to come up with ideas, Fred took his shirt off and started singing about being too sexy for his shirt. Fred and Rob Manzoli thought it was funny and that it should become a whole song. Richard Fairbrass thought it was stupid, but he eventually agreed, and he wrote most of the track. Manzoli took the song’s guitar riff from Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 song “Third Stone From The Sun,” which the Fairbrass brothers didn’t realize until “I’m Too Sexy” was already a hit and the Hendrix estate threatened legal action. (Hendrix’s highest-charting single, his 1968 version of “All Along The Watchtower,” peaked at #20.)
At first, the members of Right Said Fred imagined “I’m Too Sexy” as a rock song. They got Heaven 17’s Ian Craig Marsh, one of the founding members of former Number Ones artists the Human League, to help them record a demo. (Richard: “That was the first time I had ever heard sampled brass. I didn’t know you could do that.) They put it together at a cheap studio where a friend let them record at night.
Once Right Said Fred had the “I’m Too Sexy” demo, which I wish I could find online, the group shopped it to every record label that they could find, and all of them turned RSF down. (Fred, in a Guardian interview years later: “Our booking agent sacked us when he heard it. Island Records went to the trouble of sending a fax telling us they hated it.”) But Tazmin Aronowitz, an extremely young receptionist at a London studio, loved the song, and she told Right Said Fred that she’d get the song on the radio if she could become their manager. They agreed. Aronowitz played the song for the record promoter Guy Holmes, who couldn’t tell if he loved it or hated it but who couldn’t get it out of his head.
Holmes told Right Said Fred that “I’m Too Sexy” didn’t work as a rock song but that it might work as a dance track. The group got a DJ named Tommy D to remix the song, and he turned it into the sashaying club track that it became. Tommy built the song’s beat on a couple of sampled breakbeats, both from James Brown-produced records, that were in heavy use at the time. Most of the “I’m Too Sexy” beat comes from “Hot Pants – I’m Coming, I’m Coming, I’m Coming,” a track that Bobby Byrd released in 1972. James Brown had released the original version of the funk track “Hot Pants” in 1971, and it peaked at #15. Byrd, Brown’s longtime hypeman, covered the song, and his version peaked at #85. (Bobby Byrd’s highest-charting single, the 1964 Anna King duet “Baby Baby Baby,” peaked at #52. James Brown’s highest-charting single, 1965’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.)
Bobby Byrd’s version of “Hot Pants” wasn’t as big a hit as the James Brown original, but it became a hugely popular breakbeat in the late ’80s, thanks in part to a 1987 remix called “Hot Pants (Bonus Beats).” In 1991, that pulsating, syncopated drum loop had already powered tracks like Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw,” the Stone Roses’ “Fools’ Gold,” and Black Box’s “Everybody Everybody.” Tommy D used those drums, turning them into juiced-up house. Then, near the end of “I’m Too Sexy,” Tommy also slipped in the break from frequent James Brown collaborator Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It),” a 1972 single that Brown wrote and produced. The “Think” break famously formed the backbone of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s 1988 anthem “It Takes Two,” and it later became the basis for the entire genre of Baltimore club music. (“Think (About It)” peaked at #66. Lyn Collins’ highest-charting single, the 1972 James Brown duet “What My Baby Needs Now Is A Little More Lovin’,” peaked at #56.)
So Tommy D wasn’t exactly being original when he sampled those Bobby Byrd and Lyn Collins breaks. The music that James Brown and his collaborators made in the early ’70s essentially became the basis of just about every form of club-friendly pop music 20 years later, a wild thing to consider. The samples on “I’m Too Sexy” aren’t really all that clever. The song mostly sounds like replacement-level early-’90s dance-pop. It’s playful and frisky and energetic, but so was a whole lot of other stuff coming out at the time. Instead, “I’m Too Sexy” stands out because of that arch and knowing vocal — Richard Fairbrass pronouncing himself too sexy for just about everything in his life.
Richard doesn’t sing on “I’m Too Sexy,” and he doesn’t really rap, either. He just kind of intones his mantras over and over again. He’s too sexy for his love, his shirt, Milan, New York and Japan, your party, his hat, his cat, and this song. It’s basically a meme in song form — one single joke repeated over and over for three minutes until it’s absolutely drilled into your brain. Fairbrass was lampooning the narcissistic gym rats who he knew from working at the Dance Attic, but he inhabits the character well enough that it comes off loving, not vicious. The track presents itself as pure camp, and that’s essentially how the world received it.
I can’t rightly say that “I’m Too Sexy” is a good song. It’s repetitive to the point of deep irritation, and there’s nothing much to it other than that one endless-playback hook. But “I’m Too Sexy” doesn’t really try to be a good song. It tries to get stuck in your head. At that, the song is hugely successful. Plenty of the songs that have appeared in this column essentially vanished from popular consciousness as soon as their radio runs were over. Nobody will ever forget “I’m Too Sexy.” It’s way too memorable for that.
Guy Holmes, the song plugger who took on “I’m Too Sexy,” convinced someone at the BBC to play the single, and the song immediately blew up. Because so many labels had rejected them, Right Said Fred started their own. Holmes launched an imprint called Tug, and “I’m Too Sexy” became an immediate smash in the UK. Charisma Records licensed the single, and “I’m Too Sexy” peaked at #2 in the UK in the summer of 1991 — stuck for four weeks behind Bryan Adams’ chart juggernaut “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.” It took a while for “I’m Too Sexy” to reach the US, but the song took off here, too. The actual members of Right Said Fred were totally unprepared for all this sudden fame. Fred: “We weren’t promoting the song; we were trying to catch up with it.” Richard: “It became a part of the language, in a way — it wasn’t just a song anymore. I think people use that expression even if they’ve never heard the song.”
The “I’m Too Sexy” video was just as memorable as the song. The Fairbrass brothers were outlandish figures — two yoked and oiled-up bald guys with tearaway mesh shirts and leather pants. The whole presentation fit in with the pop tradition of peacocking queer iconography. As with the Village People or Frankie Goes To Hollywood, you could sort of get Right Said Fred’s whole deal in one glance. Years later, Fred Fairbrass happened to be eating in the same restaurant as Jason Statham, and Statham surprised Fairbrass by paying his bill. Maybe Statham, a model and music-video dancer before he came to action-movie stardom, recognized that Right Said Fred had paved the way for societal acceptance of bald, jacked British guys. Or maybe Statham just figured that Fairbrass was too sexy for the tab.
“I’m Too Sexy” topped charts around the world, but Right Said Fred were not exactly built for lasting American pop stardom. The “I’m Too Sexy” single went platinum, and the duo’s not-great 1992 debut album Up went gold. But their more explicitly disco follow-up single “Don’t Talk Just Kiss” peaked at #76, and Right Said Fred never made the Hot 100 again. In the UK, a place where camp and irony are permanent pop-culture fixtures, Right Said Fred did a whole lot better. There, “Don’t Talk Just Kiss” reached #3, and the group’s deeply shitty 1992 single “Deeply Dippy” actually made it all the way to #1.
Right Said Fred didn’t maintain that level of popularity in the UK, but they were still able to chart as late as 2001, when “You’re My Mate” peaked at #18. After producing the Up album, Tommy D became one of the resident DJs at Ministry Of Sound, the London superclub, and he produced for people like Kylie Minogue and KT Tunstall. Richard Fairbrass, meanwhile, started hosting the BBC series Gaytime TV in 1996.
Right Said Fred are still around, and they still play shows sometimes. They’ve become big anti-vaxxers, which is not especially sexy. Right Said Fred will always be remembered as one-hit wonders in the US, but that one hit has never gone away. Tons of songs have sampled or interpolated “I’m Too Sexy,” and two of those songs will eventually appear in this column. Right Said Fred might be too sexy for a lot of things, but they’re not too sexy for your publishing check.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cover of “I’m Too Sexy” that the great UK pop trio Saint Etienne released in 1992:
(Saint Etienne’s highest-charting single, their 1992 version of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” peaked at #97.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “I’m Too Sexy” soundtracking a montage of Sean Astin and Pauly Shore giving unfrozen caveman Brendan Fraser a makeover in the classic 1992 film Encino Man:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1998’s Baseketball where Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine sings “I’m Too Sexy”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tom Hanks and Andy Samberg doing a Right Said Fred impression in the 2006 SNL Digital Short “My Testicles”:
(The highest-charting single from the Lonely Island, Andy Samberg’s group, is the 2010 Akon collab “I Just Had Sex,” which peaked at #30. My favorite Right Said Fred SNL moment is Conan O’Brien’s bit from a 2001 sketch about the Napster trials, but you’ll have to go to Dailymotion for that.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2014, Right Said Fred appeared on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, reimagining “I’m Too Sexy” as a song about Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Here’s their performance: