Review: ‘The Number Ones’ examines backstories behind pop’s largest hits

On the Shelf

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the Historical past of Pop Music

By Tom Breihan
352 pages

In case you purchase books linked on our web site, The Occasions could earn a fee from, whose charges help impartial bookstores.

In February 1964, Paul McCartney boarded a aircraft for his first transatlantic journey to New York. Issues positively gave the impression to be on the upswing. He and his Beatles bandmates had been booked to play the favored “Ed Sullivan Show” and two units at famed Carnegie Corridor. Lower than per week earlier, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the exuberant sing-along that he had co-written with John Lennon, hit No. 1 on the Billboard Sizzling 100.

Nonetheless, the younger McCartney apprehensive. Capitol, the band’s American label, thought so little of the Beatles that it had refused to launch any of their earlier singles. As a substitute, Chicago label Vee-Jay put out “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You,” whereas Swan Data, a Philadelphia-based imprint co-founded by Dick Clark of TV’s “American Bandstand,” launched “She Loves You.” Not one of many songs charted.

On that long-ago Pan Am flight to the Massive Apple, McCartney sat subsequent to Phil Spector, the architect of the Wall of Sound and future producer of “Let It Be.”

“Since America has always had everything, why should we be over there making money?” McCartney requested Spector. “They’ve got their own groups. What are we going to give them that they don’t already have?”

Nothing greater than a musical and cultural revolution, in keeping with Tom Breihan, creator of the participating, illuminating and exhilarating “The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.” The Beatles, Breihan notes, paved the way in which for the British Invasion, went on to have a report 20 No.1 singles and reworked fashionable music.

“In terms of pop-music impact, the Beatles’ arrival was a comet striking the earth,” Breihan writes. “If ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ merely announced the band’s American arrival, it would be one of the most important hit singles of all time. But ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ did more than that. It opened the floodgates.”

In “The Number Ones,” Breihan brings a laser-like focus and fan’s sensibility to stone-cold traditional No. 1 hits comparable to The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry” in addition to to fluff like Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and BTS’ 2020 Ok-pop smash “Dynamite.” Breihan selects six No. 1s from the Sixties, 4 from the Nineteen Eighties, 4 from the Nineties and 4 from the 2000s. Curiously, he options solely two songs from the seminal music of the Seventies, together with the forgettable 1974 hit “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae, “the first disco hitmaker,” in Breihan’s phrases.

Breihan concedes that his decisions aren’t essentially the most effective Sizzling 100 chart-toppers of all time. As a substitute, they “marked new moments in pop-music evolution— the ones that immediately made the previous weeks’ hits sound like relics.”

That’s debatable. Actually, one of many nice joys of “The Number Ones” is second-guessing the creator.

Was 1990’s “Ice Ice Baby” actually the primary rap music to high the charts? What about Blondie’s “Rapture,” which reached #1 9 years earlier and options an prolonged rap and even references hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy? The place’s “Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones’ iconic 1965 chart-topper that launched a thousand storage bands and impressed raunchy, blues-based rock for many years to come back? What about landmark No. 1s by Stevie Marvel, U2, Drake, Beyoncé and different defining artists?

Maybe no person writing about music as we speak is best geared up to grapple with these questions than Breihan. A senior editor on the music information web site Stereogum, he has spent the previous 5 years writing about each No. 1 within the historical past of the Billboard Sizzling 100, starting with Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” in 1958. Thus far, he has made it to 2005.

Whether or not in his column or “The Number Ones,” Breihan reveals fascinating nuggets about even probably the most pedestrian songs. Like a Russian nesting doll, his writings comprise multitudes.

Take “Ice Ice Baby,” the ridiculously catchy trifle that rode a hook from Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” to the highest of the charts. As Breihan recounts, Suge Knight, a former NFL prospect and future convicted felon, threatened to throw Vanilla Ice off his lodge balcony except he agreed to signal over a few of the royalties from the smash hit. Mario “Chocolate” Johnson, a Dallas rapper and one in every of Knight’s purchasers, claimed he had written “Ice Ice Baby” and different Ice songs however by no means acquired paid.

A terrified Vanilla Ice rapidly acceded to Knight’s calls for. The entrepreneurial Knight leveraged his monetary windfall to co-found Demise Row Data, launch Dr. Dre’s solo profession with the blockbuster “The Chronic” and make superstars of Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. In essence, Vanilla Ice’s success helped lay the groundwork for the gangsta rap that killed his profession.

Rapper T-Ache, left, and Usher.

(Christian Petersen / Getty Photographs; Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Photographs)

Via T-Ache’s “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’),” which hit No. 1 for one week in Could 2007, Breihan chronicles the event of the voice-warping Auto-Tune know-how that the artist took to the acute and popularized. Then the backlash started, with Usher allegedly telling T-Ache that he had ruined music. Different musicians groused that Auto-Tune diminished the significance of actual singing. Though rappers to this present day proceed to high the charts by emulating T-Ache’s Auto-Tune model, the person himself has at occasions moved in a unique path. In 2014, he confirmed off his beautiful vocal chops by showing with out filters on NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” video. 5 years later, T-Ache received the primary season of Fox’s “The Masked Singer” TV present. Fascinating stuff.

That doesn’t imply that Breihan at all times strikes the precise chord. In his zeal to cowl as a lot floor as doable, he generally sacrifices nuance to overgeneralization. In a chapter about “Good Vibrations” by the Seashore Boys, as an illustration, Breihan rightly notes that the group largely stopped producing large hits after its 1966 psychedelia- tinged No. 1. Nevertheless, the Seashore Boys most actually didn’t “lose their relevance as a pop act.” Within the early Seventies, they did a few of their strongest work, together with 1970’s “Sunflower,” which critics rightfully hailed as a inventive rebirth. Equally, the Human League didn’t instantly fade away and discover themselves relegated to the oldies circuit after their ’80s business heyday. The synth-pop group, whose MTV-fueled “Don’t You Want Me” topped the charts in 1982, reached the Billboard High 40 with “Tell Me When” 13 years later in 1995.

These are minor quibbles. With “The Number Ones,” Breihan has penned a piece that resembles a few of the indelible hits he spotlights: memorable, timeless and value revisiting repeatedly.

Marc Ballon, a former L.A. Occasions reporter, teaches a complicated writing class at USC. He lives in Fullerton.