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.
Check this out: You know how the horizon is usually horizontal, right? Like, it’s a line that goes across? That’s actually where they got the word “horizontal” from. Because it’s like the horizon. But what if the horizon was vertical? Like, what if it went up and down? You could be watching the sunset, and the sun would be coming in from the right. Or maybe even from the left! That shit would be crazy. Would you even be able to call it the horizon anymore? Or would it be, um, the vertica?
I mean, look, I guess you could by lying on your side and looking at the sunset. And then maybe the sun would look like it was going into the ground from the side. But you’d still know that the horizon was horizontal. That’s not what I’m talking about. You’re getting my words twisted. I’m saying: What if the horizon was vertical for everybody? What about that? It’s just something to think about.
Anyway, “Everything You Want,” the only big hit from the band Vertical Horizon, really fucking sucks.
The term “alternative rock” was always fuzzy and indistinct, and it always carried an implicit question: Alternative to what? In the late ’80s, when Billboard first started running its Modern Rock Tracks list — the weekly chart that came to be known as Alternative Airplay — it surveyed the radio stations that were playing music from a few related corners of the music universe. The stuff that got played on alternative radio could be romantically windswept British guitar music, stuff that carried at least some theoretical connection to the punk explosion that had happened a decade earlier. (The first #1 hit on that chart was Siouxsie And The Banshees’ “Peek-A-Boo.”) Those stations also played music from America’s college-radio universe, which had already turned R.E.M. into stars, or from bands that had bubbled up out of the punk and noise-rock undergrounds. “Alternative” was a catchall term, and it worked well enough for a while.
In the early ’90s, something funny happened: Alternative became the dominant strain of rock ‘n’ roll. After Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and their peers rose up to arena status, AOR programmers started taking cues from the alternative stations, even as the AOR DJs made fun of their alt-rock competition. The stars of that moment still had some tertiary connection to some kind of underground. Soundgarden had been on SST at one point. Soul Asylum had been distant third-place finishers in the Minneapolis scene that the Replacements and Hüsker Dü had ruled. Live had started off as a baby version of R.E.M., and the Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison had produced their octuple platinum 1994 breakout Throwing Copper. (Live’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “Selling The Drama,” peaked at #43.)
But then the careerists came in, or maybe the careerists were always there, hiding in plain sight. Stone Temple Pilots might’ve started after Scott Weiland met Robert DeLeo at a Black Flag show, but they never wanted to be anything other than a massively popular hard rock band; grunge was simply the vehicle that took them where they wanted to go. Candlebox, a band with no connection to any underground scene, got themselves signed and got alt-rock airplay simply because they were a rock band from Seattle, a literal case of right-place/right-time. Bush had a stupidly handsome frontman, and they sounded just enough like Nirvana that they could slot in next to them on radio playlists. On it went.
This stuff became big business. WHFS, my local alt-rock station, started holding its annual all-day show, the HFStival, at a Reston park in 1990. Gang Of Four headlined the first year. By 1993, the HFStival had moved to RFK Stadium, and they booked past Number Ones artists INXS as headliners. My first HFStival was the 1995 one. I was 15. The Ramones played last, but Soul Asylum were the real headliners. Courtney Love did a surprise solo performance. So did Tony Bennett, back when he was attempting his kitsch-fueled alt-rock comeback. (I got high and moshed when Tony Bennett was on. Might’ve crowdsurfed, too. Weird times.)
During this whole process, “alternative” went from a kind of positioning, a left-of-the-dial signifier that grouped a whole lot of different subgenres and subcultures under one banner, to a vague stylistic descriptor. As the grunge flame slowly burned out over the course of the ’90s, alt-rock stations started playing anything that sounded anything like grunge. If the band was led by a guy who sang in a chesty, growly bellow, that was good enough. If Everlast, the guy from House Of Pain, picked up an acoustic guitar and started singing in a suitably grungy voice, he was invited to the party.
As this stuff moved from the fringes and into the center, it changed. For example, look at what happened to the aforementioned Live, a band I saw play (um) live at two different occasions in the ’90s. In 1994, Live were low on the bill at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD festival, my second-ever concert. At that show, they looked like stringy, nondescript collegiate types. In my mind, frontman Ed Kowalczyk was wearing a grey T-shirt and glasses. I liked the band, but I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. At that point, the band was just starting to take off. Four years later, I saw Live at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in DC, and they sucked dog turds. By this point, Kowalczyk had a shaved head, a chain wallet, and some leather pants. He still looked like a fucking dork, but he’d become an arena-rocker, and he’d started dressing the part.
Alternative rock became a Y2K-era equivalent to early-’80s corporate rock so slowly and so steadily that nobody really noticed. Around 2000, it dawned on me that nobody really knew what counted as alternative anymore. The rise of nü metal had something to do with that, but the dominance of vaguely grunge-gesturing soft rock was the real culprit. In 2000 and 2001, Three Doors Down and Fuel and Lifehouse and Staind all had #1 hits on alternative radio. In the second half of 2000, Spin put Matchbox 20 and Creed and Papa Roach on its cover. (Matchbox 20 and Creed will both appear in this column soon.) Vertical Horizon never topped the alt-rock chart, but they did use that vague soft-alt sound to top the Hot 100, kicking off a weird little moment when some of the world’s wackest rock bands held dominion over Billboard’s big chart.
Vertical Horizon frontman Matt Scannell was born in Boston and grew up mostly in Worcester, Massachusetts. (When Scannell was born, Shocking Blue’s “Venus” was the #1 song in America.) Scannell went to the fancy-ass boarding school Deerfield Academy, and then he went to Georgetown to study psychology. I bet he went to some of those HFStivals. Vertical Horizon eventually played the HFStival in 2000, playing second on a main-stage bill that Rage Against The Machine and Stone Temple Pilots headlined. The Blue Man Group also played that year? This Wikipedia page is crazy.
Vertical Horizon started off as the duo of Scannell and his fellow Georgetown student Keith Kane. In 1992, the year that they both graduated, Scannell and Kane self-released There And Back Again, Vertical Horizon’s debut album. They recorded it on a four-track that Scannell’s parents had bought him, and they sold a few thousand copies of it on their own. At that point, there was nothing remotely grungy about Vertical Horizon. Instead, they made sincere and extremely wimpy acoustic rock.
Matt Scannell and Keith Kane moved to Boston after graduating, and that’s where they built an audience for themselves. When they recorded their 1995 sophomore LP Running On Ice, Vertical Horizon were still a duo, but they brought in guest musicians like the Dave Matthews Band’s Carter Beauford. (A digression: A couple of weeks ago, I briefly locked eyes with Dave Matthews at Wegman’s. I was like, “Huh, that’s either Dave Matthews or a guy who looks a lot like Dave Matthews.” Then, seconds later, this whole family started freaking out over the presence of Dave Matthews, so yeah, it was him. Of course it was him. I live in Charlottesville. If I think I see Dave Matthews somewhere, it’s almost certainly really Dave Matthews. This is what always happens whenever I encounter celebrities in the wild. I’m never sure it’s the person, and I never interact with them in any way. Dave Matthews, if you were wondering, was buying like three cases of Ranch Water and nothing else.)
At some point, Matt Scannell moved to New York, and Vertical Horizon got themselves a full-time bassist and drummer. They signed with RCA after an A&R guy saw them at SXSW. For 1999’s Everything You Want, their first major-label album, RCA paired the band up with two producers. Ben Grosse had gotten his start working with early Detroit techno artists like Cybotron before becoming a major-label functionary, producing for rock bands like Filter and Fuel. Mark Endert had been a recording engineer on big ’90s records from Fiona Apple and Madonna and Ricky Martin, but he’d only just started his production career, working with bands like Phantom Planet and Creeper Lagoon. (Endert’s work will appear in this column again.)
Matt Scannell came up with the idea for “Everything You Want” while lying in bed one night. He sang some chords into a microcassette recorder that he kept by his bed, and then he came up with some lyrics. Those lyrics were vague and misty things about “skinned knees and skidmarks” and “echoes of angels that won’t return.” Obviously, Scannell was writing about a girl who didn’t like him. Here’s how he explains it in a Songfacts interview: “I was basically in love with this beautifully complex and crazy person who could see everything around her except for the thing that could actually help her. And I just thought of a tormented glass-is-half-empty person who was in pain about a bunch of things that had happened to her in her life, and always wound up looking to the wrong places to find solace and to find help.”
So this is yet another case of some dork writing a song to a woman who, at least from this guy’s perspective, is hurting herself by getting involved with people who aren’t good for her. He’s like: But why don’t you want to go out with me? I could save you! We have seen so many permutations of this basic-ass lyrical template over the course of this column, and I’m sure we’ll see more. I am reasonably certain that I’ve been guilty of this kind of dumbfuck thinking in my younger years, and thank fucking God I never wrote a song about feeling that way, let along a hit song. Jesus. Can you imagine? You immortalize your weak-ass simp-ass crying-in-the-wilderness sentiments on record, and then have to you go around singing it for the rest of your life? No thanks. Sounds like hell.
In the case of “Everything You Want,” those lyrics gesture in the direction of poetry without even approaching it. On the chorus, Scannell grouses that some other guy seems like the perfect man, but “he means nothing to you, and you don’t know why.” If Scannell sang this song in the first person, that would be one thing. Instead, he’s diagnosing this poor woman who he presumably doesn’t understand that much at all. He thinks he does, though: “There’s always another wound to discover/ There’s always something more you wish he’d say.” I hate that fake-deep bullshit so much.
As music, “Everything You Want” is a deathly trudge, a march into nothingness. The one thing that I kind of like is the backwards guitar sound on the intro. That was apparently added by producer Ben Grosse, so Vertical Horizon can’t even lay claim to it. (In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, the song’s producers talk about all the stuff that they re-did, so it’s not entirely clear how much of the track came from Vertical Horizon themselves.) Scannell sings the whole thing in a whimpering yarl, the voice used by every adult-contempo balladeer who was somehow getting alt-rock radio spins in that cursed moment in rock history. On the bridge, the song briefly threatens to rock for a second or two, but it settles back down quickly.
I have a hard time hearing a song like “Everything You Want” as anything other than pure rock-radio filler, something intended to fade into the background seamlessly enough that nobody reaches for the dial for four minutes. I’m sure “Everything You Want” meant a lot to Matt Scannell, but a song like that has zero expressive qualities for me. It’s vaguely moody churn, a sad lump that dissipates into the air immediately. I’ve heard “Everything You Want” a great many times in my life, but I could’ve never assigned it to any particular band. It simply didn’t warrant any thought — certainly not enough to commit the dumber-than-dirt phrase “Vertical Horizon” to memory.
The “Everything You Want” video is pretty funny. Director Clark Eddy films everything through the same dull blue filter that seemed to factor into every rock video in 2000, and the screen keeps flashing doofy-ass slogans, ripping off what former Number Ones artists Van Halen did with “Right Now” eight years after the fact. (“Right Now” peaked at #55.)
In the clip, the Vertical Horizon guys go around, looking about as anonymous as a rock band could possibly look. Matthew Scannell comes off like he’s straining to look like circa-’98 Ed Kowalczyk, which is a deeply unfortunate thing. He rocks one of those little chin-brush goatees and perhaps the least flattering long-sleeve T-shirt I’ve ever seen in my life. He also does that move where he looks like he’s sexlessly humping. He’s the kind of baldheaded rocker who has never, ever had to worry about being mistaken for a skinhead in his entire life. Anyone could take one look at that dude and realize that he started shaving his head the second the male-pattern baldness set in. There’s a moment in the video where a pick-up artist almost runs over the entire band on his lowrider bicycle, and that guy looks like way more of a rocker than anyone in Vertical Horizon.
“Everything You Want” was the second single from Vertical Horizon’s Everything You Want album, and it was the first time that the band made the Hot 100. “We Are,” the LP’s first single, didn’t make it anywhere near the Hot 100, and it only got to #21 on the alternative chart. “Everything You Want,” on the other hand, took off at radio, getting as high as #3 on the Hot 100 as an airplay-only single. The track had started to slip down the chart when RCA released an “Everything You Want” single commercially, and that was apparently enough to push the song all the way to #1 for a single week. That would be Vertical Horizon’s only time in the top 10.
Two more Vertical Horizon singles made the Hot 100, and both of them came from the Everything You Want album. Neither were what I’d call big hits. “You’re A God” peaked at #23, while “Best I Ever Had (Grey Sky Morning)” only got to #58. At this point, I resent this column for making me learn about these other fucking Vertical Horizon songs. The album went double platinum. Vertical Horizon followed the LP with their 2003 record Go, which did absolutely nothing commercially. When you make one completely anonymous hit, you can’t exactly count on your audience to stick around.
After Go bricked, RCA dropped Vertical Horizon, and the band went on hiatus for a few years. Drummer Ed Toth joined former Number Ones artists the Doobie Brothers, and he’s still a Doobie Brother today. Scannell put Vertical Horizon back together to release the independent album Burning The Days in 2009. The late Rush legend Neil Peart co-wrote one song from that LP and played on a few more. (Rush’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “New World Man,” peaked at #21.) Co-founder Keith Kane left Vertical Horizon in 2010, but Scannell kept it going.
Since Burning The Days, Vertical Horizon have released two more albums, and none of Scannell’s current bandmates were in Vertical Horizon when they made “Everything You Want.” Scannell is also buds with Richard Marx, a guy who’s been in this column a handful of times. Marx and Scannell have recorded a couple of albums together, which makes perfect sense. Vertical Horizon is to post-grunge as Richard Marx is to glam metal. But at least Richard Marx had “Right Here Waiting.” Vertical Horizon just had “Everything You Want.” I almost feel bad for them. Almost.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson giving Vertical Horizon the undeserved honor of covering “Everything You Want” on a 2020 episode of her talk show:
(Kelly Clarkson will eventually appear in this column.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.