The Number Ones

February 4, 1989

The Number Ones: Sheriff’s “When I’m With You”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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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When UB40’s “Red Red Wine” reached #1 in the fall of 1988, the track itself was five years old. The song had already been on the Hot 100, and it had already fallen off. UB40 had moved on to other things. But then a radio programmer in Phoenix went rogue, rejecting UB40’s newest single and playing “Red Red Wine” instead, and the song found a second life. Nobody planned for “Red Red Wine” to become a #1 hit five years after the fact, but when the song broke through, UB40 were at least around to soak up that success. When something similar happened with the Canadian band Sheriff’s screechy ballad “When I’m With You” a few months afterward, Sheriff themselves had been broken up for four years.

Other than some piercingly high white-guy vocals, “When I’m With You” and “Red Red Wine” don’t have anything in common musically. But the two songs followed strikingly similar chart paths. Like “Red Red Wine,” “When I’m With You” was a years-old song that had only been a moderate hit when it first came out. Like “Red Red Wine,” “When I’m With You” made a grand comeback because a radio programmer, going against all record-label wishes, threw the song into rotation. It’s hard to know what to make of these old songs that suddenly caught on in the late ’80s. Maybe record buyers were simply not into the newer stuff that they were presented. Or maybe it was simply a paleolithic version of the thing where ancient pop hits sometimes go viral on TikTok these days.

In a way, “When I’m With You” might be the ultimate anonymous ’80s power ballad. As a band, Sheriff were a short-lived phenomenon; they only lasted a few years and only made one album. In the US, Sheriff were a true one-hit wonder. “When I’m With You” is the only Sheriff song that ever charted on the Hot 100, though the song itself at least charted twice. As the deeply generic band name implies, Sheriff were part of the flood of virtually indistinguishable studio-rock bands that dominated rock radio in the late ’70s and early ’80s. At least initially, though, Sheriff were a very small part of that wave.

Sheriff came together in Toronto in 1979, and they scored a contract with Capitol Records’ Canadian arm pretty quickly. The band’s self-titled 1982 album is a deeply forgettable piece of radio-rock — the sound of a band trying to be Journey or Boston and just not quite getting there. Opening track and first single “You Remind Me” is a pretty good indicator of what Sheriff had to offer. It’s solid and catchy-ish and boring and not even a little bit memorable. Even in Canada, the song didn’t really break through. (“You Remind Me” peaked at #28 in Canada, and it never charted in the US.)

“When I’m With You” is by far its softest moment on the Sheriff album. Keyboardist and guitarist Arnold Lanni wrote “When I’m With You” as a Valentine’s Day present for his girlfriend, since he was too broke to buy her an actual gift. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits, Lanni says what he told her: “I don’t have anything. This is all I can really give you right now. It’s yours.” Aw. She married him two years later.

Lanni took “When I’m With You” to the other guys in the band, and they liked the song enough to start playing it live. When they recorded their album with producer Stacy Heydon, “When I’m With You” was a last-minute addition. Heydon asked the band whether they had any more songs, and Lanni told him that they had this other one but that it was “kind of a wimpy song.” Heydon admitted that the song was “kind of nice,” and it made the cut on the album. Later on, when Capitol decided to release “When I’m With You” as a single, singer Freddy Curci asked to go back in and re-record his vocals, since he didn’t think they were good enough the first time. On the single version, Curci really stretched out his last falsetto note. Maybe that made all the difference. “When I’m With You” made it to #8 on the Canadian charts, and it got as high as #61 on the Hot 100.

Sheriff never released another album, and the band broke up in 1985. Two members, Lanni and excellently named bassist Wolf Hassel, went on to form a new band called Frozen Ghost, who did pretty well in Canada for a few years. Frozen Ghost’s very bad 1987 single “Should I See” peaked at #69 in the US, and then they never made the Hot 100 again. Meanwhile, Sheriff singer Freddy Curci and guitarist Steve DeMarchi found jobs as couriers in Toronto. They were still working as couriers when “When I’m With You” had its improbable American comeback.

There are differing accounts as to which radio station program director excavated “When I’m With You” in 1988. Depending on where you look, it was either a guy named Jay Taylor in Las Vegas or a guy named Brian Phillips in Minneapolis. Either way, people liked what they heard. In the context of late-’80s radio, “When I’m With You” must’ve sounded deeply gentle. The song was a relic of a just-past age — a lighters-up rock ballad with no gated-drum booms, no blaring synths, and no squeedling guitar solo. Maybe the radio listeners of the late ’80s had simply grown nostalgic for some REO Speedwagon-ass shit without even realizing it. Maybe “When I’m With You” was the REO Speedwagon-ass shit that they secretly craved.

In any case, Arnold Lanni was absolutely correct about “When I’m With You” being a wimpy song. It opens with the kind of watery electric-piano tinkles that early-’80s easy-listening types loved so much. Freddy Curci sings in a high, wounded yip, and he does that deeply Canadian thing where he seems to enunciate just a tiny bit too much. The song follows the standard power-ballad formula. The first power chord kicks in when the chorus arrives. When that happens, Curci’s voice jump up a couple of levels, and he wails out the word “baby” with as much drama as he can muster, while the other guys in the band do ahh-ahh harmonies behind him. Eventually, there’s a key change, and then a stretched-out final-note denouement where everything gets quiet again. You know the routine. You’ve heard it all before.

The lyrics for “When I’m With You” are pure lovey-dovey Hallmark-card piffle: “Maybe it’s the way you touch me with the warmth of a sun/ Maybe it’s the way you smile/ I come all undone.” If she really touched Freddy Curci with the warmth of a sun, then Freddy Curci would burn to death on the spot. I would probably like “When I’m With You better if it was about a lady with terrifying fire-powers. That would be interesting, anyway. As it is, the nicest thing I can say about those “When I’m With You” lyrics is that I like how they sometimes get all syntactically tortured: “Lost in love is what I feel when I’m with you.”

“When I’m With You” is not a charmless song. Those power-ballad tricks became clichés because they work. I like that power chord at the beginning of the chorus. I like Curci screaming the word “baby.” I especially like those backup harmonies, which briefly give the song a sense of sweep. But “When I’m With You” is not a remotely interesting song. It takes no unexpected turns. It does nothing to elevate itself above mediocrity. Instead, “When I’m With You” is the kind of song that you can hear a bajillion times and not remember at all. Maybe that’s why it did so well at radio in the late ’80s. Maybe program directors were simply searching for music that wouldn’t cause anyone to change the station, and maybe something as vague and fluffy as “When I’m With You” fit the bill.

Enough radio stations started playing “When I’m With You” that Capitol pressed up new singles. The people at Capitol weren’t especially happy about this. Talking to the LA Times in 1989, Capitol VP John Fagot said, “We should be looking forwards rather than backwards. There are so many great artists out there who deserve exposure that it’s kind of a waste of time to expose these old records. You don’t have anything to build. There’s no future in it.”

The members of Sheriff were equally mystified. Lanni told Fred Bronson, “I didn’t want to believe it. The band had broken up, there’s no video, the record company has punched holes in the album, it’s deleted. They threw it out there… They didn’t even call me to find out if I wanted to remaster it for CD.” Lanni must’ve agreed that there was no future in “When I’m With You.” Freddy Curci and Steve DeMarchi wanted to reunite Sheriff to capitalize on the song’s success, but it never happened. Maybe Lanni thought he had too much going on with Frozen Ghost.

Curci and DeMarchi did manage to find a future in “When I’m With You,” though, at least for a little while. The two started a new band with a bunch of former Heart members. They wanted to call it Sheriff II, but that didn’t work out. Instead, they chose the name Alias, which is pretty funny. Alias signed to Capitol, and their self-titled 1990 featured “More Than Words Can Say,” a power ballad that was clearly written to sound as much like “When I’m With You” as possible. The song took off, peaking at #2. (It’s a 4.) Another Alias single called “Waiting For Love” made it as high as #13.

The Alias rebirth didn’t last, and the band broke up in 1991. Steve DeMarchi went on to become a touring guitarist for the Cranberries. (The Cranberries’ highest-charting single, 1993’s “Linger,” peaked at #8. It’s a 9.) Alias got back together without the Heart guys in 2009, and they eventually released another album. They’re still going now. In 2014, the former Sheriff/Frozen Ghost bassist Wolf Hassel joined Alias, so now three of the five Sheriff guys are in Alias.

Arnold Lanni, the one who actually wrote “When I’m With You,” has done well for himself. After Frozen Ghost broke up in 1993, Lanni carved out a reputation as a producer and songwriter in Canada, working mainly with Canadian rock bands. He’s had his name on records from Our Lady Peace, Finger Eleven, and Simple Plan. Lanni has, in fact, produced and co-written most of Simple Plan’s hits — including 2003’s “Perfect,” the band’s highest-charting single, which peaked at #24.

In the wake of “Red Red Wine” and “When I’m With You,” a bunch of other radio programmers started pushing their own old favorites, and some of those old favorites became hits. Jimmy Harnen & Synch’s 1986 ballad “Where Are You Now,” which had previously stalled out at #77, peaked at #10 upon its 1989 re-release. (It’s a 3.) Benny Mardones’ exceedingly creepy and strange “Into The Night,” which had peaked at #11 when it was first released in 1980, came back in 1989 and got to #20. But that whole trend died out pretty quickly. In the years afterwards, old songs would sometimes rear up again on the charts, but they’d usually need to show up on movie soundtracks to do it. And barring some kind of stunning cataclysm, we won’t see Sheriff in this column again.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “When I’m With You” soundtracking the sight of Brittany Daniel riding a horse in the 2001 film Joe Dirt:

(Kid Rock’s highest-charting single, the 2002 Sheryl Crow duet “Picture,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “When I’m With You” playing in the background as Jake Johnson shaves Max Greenfield’s mustache on a 2018 episode of New Girl:

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