The Number Ones

January 22, 1994

The Number Ones: Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart, & Sting’s “All For Love”

Stayed at #1:

3 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.

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If you love pop music, you have to be able to suspend your disbelief. Some part of you knows that this music has been packaged and sold to you as pure product. A pop song’s release involves real work from professionals at all points in the process, and there is money on the line. You, the consumer, are the mark. When you decide whether or not to pay money to buy a certain product — or, more recently, to not pay money to stream that product — your decision has spreadsheet implications. You know all of this on an intellectual level. For any pop star, one of the most important jobs is to make you forget what you know.

Even if you know that pop music is pure product, nobody wants to think of it that way. We all want to think of pop product as pure expression. We want to feel like we’re hearing someone baring the depths of their soul at us. Sometimes, that’s exactly what those performers are doing. It’s not easy, but a song can work as art and commerce at the same time. (Plenty of rappers make songs about capitalist domination as the hard-fought reward for their own Horatio Alger stories, which is certainly one way to handle that whole suspension-of-disbelief problem.) But a pop song doesn’t have to be great to convince us that it’s art rather than commerce. We want to be marks. We want to believe.

It always feels weird when a pop song flaunts its status as pop product. This column is, in part, all about the processes and motivations behind the songs that conquer the charts. But when you’re listening to a song, you probably don’t want to hear the gears of the mechanism turning. On “All For Love,” the big and hoary soundtrack song from three down-the-middle rock stars, you can hear exactly what those three stars are trying to do, and you know exactly why they’re doing it. The song itself isn’t noteworthy enough to obscure all the machinery at work behind it. That’s a problem. Even if you like “All For Love,” you can’t admire any of the impulses that went into its creation. It’s not impossible to enjoy a song like this one, but it’s really not that different from enjoying a TV commercial.

Even before you hear “All For Love,” you know exactly why the song exists. In 1991, the raspy Canadian corporate-rock groaner Bryan Adams, in a bit of a career lull, recorded the power ballad “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” so that something could play during the end credits of the Kevin Costner medieval-middlebrow action flick Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Film composer Michael Kamen wanted to get someone like Kate Bush or Annie Lennox to record that end-credits song, but he ended up with Bryan Adams, who used the love-theme melody from Kamen’s score and co-wrote the rest of the song with producer Mutt Lange, the master of maximalist stadium-rock crunch.

Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves was a huge hit, and so was “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.” In the US, the song topped the Hot 100 for seven weeks — longer than any song since the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” eight years earlier. In the UK, Bryan Adams’ song spent even longer at #1, holding the spot for a record-shattering 16 weeks. That success set off a career revival for Bryan Adams, who included “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” on his 1991 album Waking Up The Neighbors. That LP went quadruple platinum, and Adams got to #2 with the follow-up single “Can’t Stop This Thing We Started.” (It’s a 3.)

Bryan Adams was still riding high on the charts at the beginning of 1994. A few months before he returned to the top of the Hot 100, Adams released the greatest-hits collection So Far So Good, which eventually went platinum six times over. That compilation included the new song “Please Forgive Me,” another big power ballad co-written and co-produced by Mutt Lange, and that song peaked at #7. (It’s a 4.)

In the fall of 1993, Disney came out with The Three Musketeers, the latest adaptation of the 1844 Alexandre Dumas novel. A new big-budget Three Musketeers movie seems to show up every decade or so, and this version was full of young faces. Disney brought in promising director Stephen Herek. (Herek’s first four movies are Critters, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, and The Mighty Ducks — all bangers. From an artistic perspective, Herek really should’ve retired in 1992, even though I’m sure he got properly paid for Mr. Holland’s Opus and the 101 Dalmatians remake and all the other crap that he did.) Herek’s Three Musketeers had Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, and, weirdly, Oliver Platt in its central roles. Chris O’Donnell took the d’Artagnan part after Brad Pitt and Stephen Dorff turned it down. Winona Ryder was supposed to play Milady de Winter, but she dropped out just before filming, and Rebecca de Mornay got the role instead. Tim Curry plays the villain, just as he did in so many mid-grade ’90s action-ish movies.

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the 1993 Three Musketeers, though I couldn’t swear to it. (The bit in the trailer where Rebecca de Mornay threatens to cut off Tim Curry’s dick rings a tiny bell, but maybe I just remember the TV commercial?) It definitely seems like the kind of movie that you might watch in the afternoon and then forget completely by the time you fall asleep that night. The Three Musketeers got terrible reviews but did decent business. Domestically, The Three Musketeers was the #21 movie at the 1993 box office. It brought in about $54 million — less than Tombstone, more than Rookie Of The Year — and then it promptly disappeared from the collective memory forever.

Given that the cast included Young Guns stars Sheen and Sutherland, the whole picture definitely reads as Disney’s attempt to Young Gun-ify the whole swashbuckler genre. Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves had just reestablished the popular appeal of a swashbuckling movie, so Disney had something to chase. Naturally, the studio needed its own Bryan Adams ballad for this movie, too. This plan worked. “All For Love” was the longest-reigning #1 hit from a Disney movie until this past Monday. In this column, we’ll eventually talk about the song that broke its record.

“All For Love” is the second #1 hit from the strange songwriting team of Bryan Adams, Mutt Lange, and Michael Kamen. Disney hired Kamen to score The Three Musketeers, and those three songwriters got together in a clear attempt to recapture whatever magic they’d managed with “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.” In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Kamen is commendably transparent about their motivations: “Bryan Adams, Mutt Lange, and I decided to repeat deliberately what we had done accidentally with Robin Hood — to see if we could come up with a successful record at the same time, working on the same song. With ‘Everything I Do,’ we were in three different cities, and I had never met them.”

Once again, the three songwriters built their song from the melody that Kamen had written for the film score. When they were working on the song, Mutt Lange, evidently not a big Musketeer head, asked whether the Three Musketeers had a motto, and Kamen had to tell him that they did: “All for one, and one for all.” In the Bronson book, Kamen reports Lange’s response: “It’s pretty good, but I can’t see them dropping their knickers for it in Kansas.” (Lange may have underestimated the people of Kansas, since a group called All-4-One will appear in this column very soon.) So the trio changed the wording of that motto. “All for one” naturally became “All For Love.”

The initial plan was for Bryan Adams to record “All For Love” himself, but then he realized that The Three Musketeers would come out around the same time as his own greatest-hits album. Kamen suggested that Adams record the song with two other singers, which would theoretically keep Adams from competing with his own record and which would mirror the whole Three Musketeers thing. Adams’ first choice was Sting, who was immediately down to do it. Coming up with a third “All For Love” musketeer was harder. For a while, they wanted Luciano Pavarotti, which would’ve been extremely funny and also terrible. Then, it was going to be Jon Bon Jovi, who’d gotten to #1 with his Young Guns 2 song “Blaze Of Glory.” Kamen even flew out to write a song with Jon and with Richie Sambora. But before that song was done, Adams told Kamen that Rod Stewart would be the third guy.

This particular three-way team doesn’t make a whole lot of aesthetic sense. Adams, Sting, and Stewart were all stadium rockers with long histories of hits, but beyond that, they didn’t have that much in common. Rod Stewart had started his career when Bryan Adams and Sting were kids, and his elemental rasp had been a hugely influential force in rock history. Bryan Adams was clearly a Rod Stewart disciple, but his own rasp was a sort of Muppet Babies version of the original. Sting was less of a power-belter, but he brought a bit of Stewart’s international-playboy vibe. None of the three singers really needed a hit, but none of them were above chasing one, either.

“All For Love” was actually the only #1 hit that Sting ever made during his solo-artist years. As the frontman of the Police, Sting had been to #1 with “Every Breath You Take,” and he’d also sung guest vocals and landed a co-writing credit on Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” in 1985. That same year, Sting officially launched his solo career, and he got to #3 with his debut single “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free.” (It’s a 6.)

As a pure solo artist, Sting never got past that #3 peak. Over the next few years, Sting landed a few more top-10 hits, and he made it to #5 with 1990’s “All This Time.” (It’s a 5.) Sting was still a big draw, but by 1994, he was less of a pop-chart presence and more of a prestige-y Grammy guy. Sting’s 1993 album Ten Summoner’s Tales went triple platinum, but its lead single “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” couldn’t get past #17.

Rod Stewart, meanwhile, was still enjoying a very, very long run as one of the most shameless pop stars of all time. After breaking into the American market with the bluesy, folky, horny 1971 standard “Maggie May,” Stewart landed two more chart-toppers by the end of the ’70s. Both of those hits came by way of unabashed trend-chasing — horny adult-contempo studio-pop with “Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright),” horny disco with “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Rod Stewart hadn’t topped the Hot 100 in the 15 years between “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and “All For Love,” but he hadn’t ever left the pop charts, either.

Rod Stewart had started making music videos in the ’70s, and he transitioned into the MTV era much more smoothly than most of his generational peers did. In the early MTV years, when the network just didn’t have that many videos to play, Stewart stayed in heavy rotation, and he reaped the rewards, racking up nine top-10 hits over the course of the ’80s. Stewart’s ’80s records deployed that voice over misty keyboards and canned blues-rock guitars, and the voice was enough to make the songs stand out. Implausibly enough, Stewart started the ’90s by taking his cover of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” all the way up to #3, which has to be the biggest pop impact of any Tom Waits song ever. (Stewart’s cover is a 7.)

Rod Stewart’s hits kept coming in the early ’90s, too. Stewart’s Trevor Horn-produced 1991 take on René Shuman’s “Rhythm Of My Heart” peaked at #5. (It’s an 8.) Stewart also played the nostalgia card as it suited him, and that same year, he got to #10 by teaming up with the Temptations on a self-explanatory number called “The Motown Song.” (It’s a 4.) Stewart was also one of the first big names to tape an episode of MTV Unplugged. Stewart’s 1993 album Unplugged… And Seated went triple platinum, and its cover of Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately” peaked at #5. (It’s a 7.)

From all accounts, the recording of “All For Love” was a logistical nightmare. Because it took so long to find a third singer, Mutt Lange didn’t have time to produce it. Trevor Horn came in to replace Lange, but he dropped out, too. Instead, Bryan Adams co-produced “All For Love” with Chris Thomas, the veteran Pink Floyd/Sex Pistols collaborator who appeared in this column for producing INXS’ “Need You Tonight.” The INXS recording engineer David Nicholas also got a producer credit. Adams and Sting recorded their parts of the song without any problems, but per Kamen, “it was a question of nailing Rod to the floor long enough to get his vocal.” It seems like that’s only a slight exaggeration.

Bryan Adams caught up with Stewart in LA, got his vocal on tape, and then immediately flew the tape to Vancouver to mix the song. With the film’s deadline looming, the labels of all three artists got into a pissing war over clearing the release. Kamen called the whole process “one of the biggest bloodbaths I have ever been witness to… Bryan would call me at four in the morning: ‘It’s off, man.’ And then an hour later: ‘It’s on again.'” At the last possible minute, the song was finished, and the contracts were signed. “All For Love” only barely made it into The Three Musketeers.

Would anyone even notice if “All For Love” had not been on the movie soundtrack? By presenting three big-deal male vocalists on the same track, “All For Love” qualified as some kind of pop event. But pop events have a way of fading from memory awfully quickly, especially when those events lead to boring songs. “All For Love” is a boring song, a song that begs to be forgotten. Lyrically, “All For Love” is pure filler. It means nothing. The message is: Love is important. The three singers express that sentiment in the vaguest possible fashion, awkwardly jamming their catchphrase into the chorus: “When there’s someone that should know/ Then just let your feelings show/ And make it all for one and all for love.” Thanks, guys. Great advice.

Musically, “All For Love” couldn’t possibly be more obvious. It’s got everything you expect: Big piano chords, clean session-musician guitars, an obligatory solo. That whole studio-rock sound isn’t exactly unpleasant, but there’s nothing that sets the song apart other than the spectacle of these three guys all shout-singing in different directions. These three singers clearly recorded their parts in different studios, and there’s no chemistry at work among them. They’re all just bellowing as hard as possible, as if they’re all slightly worried about being overshadowed by the other guys. Naturally, Rod Stewart brings more swagger to the proceedings than the other two, but he definitely sounds like he’s paychecking even harder than usual. That’s an issue.

As a pop star, Bryan Adams always came off as an aggressively average everyman. That aggressive averageness took him a long way, and it led him to make some honest-to-god rock-radio bangers. “Cuts Like A Knife”? “Run To You”? “Summer Of ’69”? Good songs! To sell his ballads, though, Adams always had to radiate sincerity. On “All For Love,” he’s in fine grunt-howling form, but the song itself drips insincerity, and the video makes it worse.

I like the “All For Love” video, mostly because it’s fun to see these guys interacting. Before the song starts, there’s a long bit where Sting and Adams sit around waiting for Stewart to show up, with Sting joking about how he won’t wear tights for the video. (I don’t know if Stewart’s lateness is a comment on how hard it was to get him to sing on the song or whether he was just late for the video shoot. I’d put my money on the latter.) When Stewart does show up, he and Sting rib each other over the feathery mullet that Sting once had and that Stewart still has.

Both Sting and Stewart have smirky, quasi-ironic smarter-than-thou British sensibilities, and those sensibilities are on full display in the “All For Love” video. Adams, the guy who co-wrote and co-produced the song, seems out-of-place, even though he was the most successful of the three at the time. He’s just not funny like those guys, and he can’t fake it. The video gets a lot shittier when the song starts and these guys’ massive, shiny faces fill up the camera frame. Even then, though, we get Sting doing the classic gimme-five/too-slow bit with Adams. Sting and Rod Stewart both seem to realize that they’re above all of this, and they’re probably right. Bryan Adams is not above this, and he knows it. Those power dynamics are a whole lot more interesting than the song itself.

After “All For Love,” Sting never returned to the top 10. (We’ll talk about Sting in this column again, though; one of the biggest hits of the ’90s is built on a Police sample.) In the years that followed “All For Love,” Sting’s biggest chart hit was 2000’s “Desert Rose,” a team-up with the Algerian musician Cheb Mami, and that song peaked at #17. But Sting has never stopped touring and recording. He’s been nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar four different times, though he’s never won. He made an album with Shaggy, a guy who will eventually appear in this column. He apparently had a whole lot of tantric sex. He’s done some acting, and he’s always good at it. Playing himself on Only Murders In The Building last year, Sting was funny as hell. (Sting’s Only Murders co-star Selena Gomez will eventually appear in this column.)

Sting has also lent his name to a number of good causes, including the cause of the website that you are currently reading. In 2020, when we launched a whole Save Stereogum crowdfunding campaign, we had a Zoom party for donors, and Sting sent in a video of himself playing solo-acoustic. It was just all these indie rock bands, and then it was Sting singing like a motherfucker in his beautifully appointed home studio. Shit was nuts.

“All For Love” was Rod Stewart’s last top-10 hit, too. Stewart charted a few more times in the ’90s, but none of his hits were especially notable. In 1998, Stewart got to #39 with a cover of “Ooh La La,” a song originally recorded by the Faces, the band that Stewart joined decades earlier. Stewart had a big run of success in the ’00s with his series of albums of American standards. He also got married and divorced a few more times. (Stewart’s Wikipedia page notes that Stewart is “a model railway enthusiast.” I’d add that Stewart is also noteworthy for enthusiastically railing models.) (I’m sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

If Sting or Rod Stewart were bummed about dropping off of the pop charts after “All For Love,” they never showed it. The two of them have made ungodly sums of money over the years. They’re both hundred millionaire men of leisure, which seems nice. In 1994, the year that “All For Love” reached #1, Stewart was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. He’s now in the Hall twice, both as a solo artist and as a member of the Small Faces. Sting is in there, too, as a member of the Police. Bryan Adams is not.

But Bryan Adams is the one “All For Love” singer who stuck around on the charts for a few more years. The man had figured out his lane. I don’t know why big, demonstrative movie ballads were so popular in the ’90s; maybe it had something to do with movies themselves existing at the center of popular culture. But there were a lot of those things on the charts at the time. The last two entries on this column are on Janet Jackson’s “Again,” a movie ballad, and Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” which was written to be a movie ballad but which Mariah kept for herself.

In any case, Bryan Adams spent the ’90s presenting himself to the world as a movie-ballad guy, and this was a lucrative thing to be. In that capacity, Adams will appear in this column again, and he’ll have his friends Mutt Lange and Michael Kamen with him.

GRADE: 3/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beavis and Butt-Head enjoying the “All For Love” video and coining the phrase “Traveling Dingleberries”:

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