Mr. Big 'To Be With You' and the unfussy joy of hair metal [March 15, 1992]
Plus: Ride, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Springsteen, The Lightning Seeds
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Welcome to the week of March 15, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
‘Stays’ — Shakespears Sister (=)
‘I Love Your Smile’ — Shanice (=)
‘My Girl’ — The Temptations (=)
‘America: What Time is Love?’ — The KLF (=)
‘Tears In Heaven’ — Eric Clapton (↑)
We’ll be exploring some of the Top 40 and listening to our Album of the Week, but first, let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 8: ‘To Be With You’ — Mr. Big
Previous editions of this newsletter may have given the impression that hair metal was dead in 1992, vanquished by the pious might of St Kurt of Seattle.
But like the monster at the end of a horror movie, hair metal was merely playing possum, lulling us into a false sense of security before launching its final assault: a Godzilla-sized international hit for the very hairy Mr. Big.
Mr. Big are kind of a supergroup, with connections to Van Halen, Journey, The Knack, and Santana. They burst onto the L.A. scene towards the end of the 80s, winning an enthusiastic live following, but struggled to translate that into chart success.
There’s a fantastic story about Mr. Big from their time as strugglers on the live metal scene. Someone once asked guitarist Paul Gilbert how fast he could play, and Gilbert thought, “well, how fast is it possible to play? Could I set the record?”
Almost as a joke, he tried attracting a plectrum to an electric drill. The results sounded incredible, and the drill solo became a staple part of the Mr. Big live experience.
One night in Atlanta, the band were opening for Rush and the crowd were into it. The time came for the drill solo and Gilbert started playing as normal.
But this time, his hair got stuck in the drill.
In an interview with Classic Rock magazine, singer Eric Martin described the scene:
“The crowd burst out laughing. Paul was running across the stage like a chicken with its head cut off. One of the crew guys hit the ‘reverse’ button [on the drill], and although Paul’s hair unzipped, it got caught in the other direction.”
No footage exists of the incident, but here’s an artist’s recreation:
Wait, there’s more.
A year later, the band returned to Atlanta and decided to poke a little fun at themselves by recreating the drill catastrophe. Gilbert put on a wig and the plan was to pretend that his hair had gotten caught again.
Except, of course, he messed it up and got his hair caught in the drill again.
For the second time in a year, Gilbert found himself running around on an Atlanta stage with a drill attached to his head while stagehands tried to save his luscious locks.
Isn’t that just the most delightfully Spinal Tap shit you’ve ever heard?
Say what you like about hair metal, but it was a lot of fun.
‘To Be With You’ also offers something that was curiously absent from grunge: sex.
Sex is an atomic element of rock’n’roll. The phrase rock’n’roll is literally a euphemism for sex. And yet, much of 90s rock barely touched on the subject. The lyrics were introverted and lonely; the ragged, raw guitars refused to offer any kind of carnal rhythm.
Maybe a few acts like Stone Temple Pilots slipped a little sensuality into their music, but have you ever tried to have sex to a Pearl Jam record? I have (Yield, thanks for asking) and I would describe it as something you do not so much to Pearl Jam as in spite of Pearl Jam.
Grunge is just not sexy music. That’s probably because of all the heroin and clinical depression, neither of which are aphrodisiacs.
Mr. Big were, like many hair bands, overtly sexual. ‘To Be With You’ is not a sexy song as such, but it’s clearly written by someone who is hoping to get laid, and there’s no doubt that the song inspired much snogging in the 90s, and some of that snogging probably went a lot further.
There are people in the world who got laid because of ‘To Be With You’, I’m sure of it. When you think about it, that’s a remarkable achievement for any songwriter.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 11 (New Entry): ‘Human Touch’ — Bruce Springsteen
The opening salvo from Bruce Springsteen’s double-album extravaganza, which we’ll be looking at soon.
Springsteen had spent much of the past eight years reeling from the overwhelming success of Born in the USA, which had almost swallowed him whole. I’m tempted to launch This Week in the 80s just so we can talk about how Live Aid and MTV pushed some of our greatest artists (Springsteen, Bowie, Stevie Wonder) to the edge of creative oblivion.
‘Human Touch’ gave us a taste of what lay ahead. The Boss still had a strong sense for a pop hook, but he was on a path back to his roots that would eventually lead to things like The Ghost of Tom Joad, which is about as far as you can get from that horrible ‘Dancing In The Dark’ video with Courtney Cox.
Number 18 (New Entry): ‘Sweet Harmony’ — Liquid
One of many 90s tracks to sample the 80s dance masterpiece, ‘Someday’ by CeCe Rogers. This track uses the phenomenal piano loop from ‘Someday’ and sticks it on top of a hardcore beat. The result is pretty good.
Number 28 (↓ from 26): ‘Under The Bridge’ — Red Hot Chili Peppers
I’m speaking entirely from memory here, but I feel like the single release of ‘Under The Bridge’ didn’t make this song much more popular than it already was?
Blood Sugar Sex Magik had been released six months previously, and I think that ‘Under The Bridge’ had kind of gone rogue and invaded radio playlists before the official single release.
Maybe this was just the case in Ireland, a nation that has always clasped the Chilis to its bosom as if they were our own lads. I moved to London in 2001 and a big factor in that decision was that I wanted to live in a place where Californication wasn’t playing in every pub, cafe, and shop.
Number 33 (New Entry): ‘Don’t Lose The Magic’ — Shawn Christopher
Shawn Christopher is one of those names that pops up in the strangest of places. She started out as one of Chaka Khan’s backing singers, then joined up with rock weirdoes My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, and then she sang on the vocal mix of Li’l Louis’ seminal dance classic ‘French Kiss’.
‘Don’t Lose The Magic’ is one of the few records to appear under Christopher’s own name. As was the style at the time, it’s a dance record that overtly mentions ecstasy. This style will peak in a few months when ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ reaches Number One.
Number 39 (New Entry): ‘The Life of Riley’ — The Lightning Seeds
Remember Big In Japan? Neither does anyone else. They passed through the post-punk scene without making a ripple, but the individual members of Big In Japan all went on to do amazing things.
Budgie became the drummer in Siouxie and The Banshees. Holly Johnson founded Frankie Goes To Hollywood and became a global sensation. Bill Drummond ended up as one half of art terrorist faction The KLF, who are probably still the most interesting band to ever appear in the Top 40.
Ian Broudie has possibly outsold all of them, but not because of The Lightning Seeds. No, Broudie is one half of the trio that produced the unofficial English national anthem, ‘Three Lions’, a song that surges in popularity every two years. That one track has ensured an ironic kind of mega-fame for a lad whose whole vibe is “The Quiet One”.
The Lightning Seeds wrote some fine pop songs and ‘The Life of Riley’ is one of their best. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Broudie should have been on guitar, standing behind a more charismatic frontman.
Album of the Week
Going Blank Again — Ride
Reviewing things is hard.
It’s even harder when you’re on a tight deadline. You listen to a record twice or watch a movie once, and then you have to immediately dump out 500 words based on your first impressions, knowing that what you write can make or break someone’s career.
Lot of pressure. Very hard to do well.
That’s why I don’t often make fun of reviewers when they get it horribly wrong, such as NME’s original review of Going Blank Again by Steve Lamacq.
Lamacq loved the record in general, but he made one bizarre criticism: that opening track ‘Leave Them All Behind’ is a “a drab and indistinct record” that starts the album off in “dour fashion”.
Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but it’s super weird to identify ‘Leave Them All Behind’ as the weak point on the record. It’s like saying ‘A Day in the Life’ is the weakest part of Sgt Peppers, or ‘Ice Ice Baby’ was the low point of To The Extreme.
‘Leave Them All Behind’ song was the lead single from Going Blank Again. It was the band’s biggest hit, getting to the Top Ten ahead of Mary Chain and Primal Scream. Quite frankly, it’s the only Ride song that a lot of people still remember.
Lamacq was right about one thing though, which is that the epic 8-minute opening track does feel very different from the rest of Going Blank Again.
Once you survive the opening barrage, you’re greeted by a quite straightforward pop song, ‘Twisterella’, which has a guitar hook you can actually dance to.
This hopping between moods is kind of the point of Going Blank Again, which often feels like Ride showcasing the breadth of their abilities, and their influences.
(Irony corner: One of Noel Gallagher’s biggest influences was Andy Bell’s work here on Going Blank Again. Bell even ended up joining Oasis later on. But one of Bell’s biggest influences was Graham Coxon. Which means that Oasis’s main inspiration was… Blur.)
‘Cool Your Boots’ sounds like Primal Scream before they discovered ecstasy. That's immediately followed by ‘Making Judy Smile’, which is pleasant 60s psychadelia. Right after that, there’s ‘Time Machine’, which has hints of very early New Order.
All of this might sound like Going Blank Again is just some chin-stroking muso noodling session, but it’s not. Okay, it is a bit, but it’s also more than that. This is a very tight, lyrical record. It’s confident and inviting, almost enchanting at times.
That said, it does peak during track one. You would have to be a tone-deaf weirdo to think that ‘Leave Them All Behind’ wasn’t the best song on the album.
Or a reviewer on a deadline.
This newsletter is generally quite positive, but next week we’re mostly going to be complaining about an irritating bunch of dipshits. Normal service will then resume with a look at kd lang’s breakthrough album.
Thanks for reading! We’d love to have you come back next week. Subscribe now to get the next issue by email. 👇
Fans of RHCP in my school were divided into 2 very distinct camps; those that liked early records, and those that liked Under The Bridge. It was like oil and water. Looking back, some of that's probably down to snobbery ("I liked them before they got big"), but a lot was likely down to the song being played non-stop in our city. To be honest, I'd be okay never hearing it again.
Besides "Pure & Simple," I'm not sure I could've named another Lightning Seeds song before this morning. And Football might be coming home, but New Order's "World In Motion" will always be my favorite WC-related track.
P.S. "Twisterella" sounds as good as ever.
Love the Mr Big drill story! Amazing!
RHCP journey from underground rockers to the alt-rock U2 is a weird one and it’s all down to Under the Bridge. It’s astonishing how big they became. I was chatting with a Belgian guy in France one time and I mentioned that I saw them live in Dublin in 94. He asked if there was a huge psychedelic spiral projected onto the stage backdrop - there was. He owned the pirate video of the gig.
I too have a ban on Californiacation. I’ve heard it more than any other album in history and if I never hear it again I’ll be delighted.
I remember Rammstein beat them for best live act at the MTV VMAs in the mid 2000s. One of the Chilis was asked about it and he said it was fair enough. The Chilis play in their underpants while Rammstein set the lead singer on fire.