The Number Ones

April 15, 1989

The Number Ones: Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy”

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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We need chameleons. Without chameleons, you don’t get something like “She Drives Me Crazy.” “She Drives Me Crazy,” the first #1 hit from the British trio Fine Young Cannibals, comes from nowhere and everywhere at once. The song has no fixed genre, and that’s probably because the musicians who made it had no fixed genre, either. It’s a song from three guys who’d come up on the British two-tone ska scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Those guys moved on to retro-soul, and then they tried to make a Prince record. In “She Drives Me Crazy,” you can hear all these little echoes of soul and funk and acid house, and it all comes welded to a big, mean guitar riff that’s been mechanized to the point where it’s almost industrial. On paper, none of those things make sense together. In practice, they work an uncanny sort of magic — the type of magic that only chameleons can make.

Before they started Fine Young Cannibals, David Steele and Andy Cox had been the rhythm section for the Beat, one of the two best ska bands to emerge in the genre’s late-’70s rebirth in England. (The other, obviously, was the Specials.) Steele and Cox formed the Beat with their friend Dave Wakeling in Birmingham, and the band figured out a nervously propulsive take on ska that never seemed too beholden to the genre’s Jamaican roots. Even when they were covering pop oldies like “Tears Of A Clown” or “Can’t Get Used To Losing You,” the Beat were frantic and jittery, and they kept the hooks flying. In the UK, the Beat cranked out five top-10 hits before breaking up in 1983. In the US, where they had to release records as the English Beat, the band never even made the Hot 100. They had bangers, though.

Steele and Cox, whose last names look pretty funny together, learned that the Beat had broken up when they saw a news story that their bandmates Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, the Beat’s two singers, had signed a record deal under a new name. Those two had started a reggae-inflected dance-pop project called General Public, which would go on to decent success in the years ahead. (In the US, General Public’s highest-charting single is their 1994 version of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” which peaked at #22.) Steele and Cox, who have never participated in any of the Beat’s reunions over the years, decided to go a different direction. They’d start a new project that would just be the two of them and a singer, and they’d focus on making music in the studio rather than touring.

After they placed an ad on MTV, Steele and Cox went through hundreds of demo tapes in their search for a new singer. None of those tapes seemed right. Instead, Steele thought of Roland Gift, a guy who’d played saxophone and sang occasional lead vocals in another Birmingham ska band. (When Gift was born, the #1 single in America was Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother In Law.”) Gift had been in Akrylykz, a group that only released a couple of singles and never found any commercial success. Presumably, that godawful band name didn’t help anything. But Akrylykz had opened some shows for the Beat, and Gift had made an impression. By the time Steele and Cox got in touch, Gift was living in London and singing for a band called Bones. He eagerly signed on to the new project.

Andy Cox took the new band’s name from the title of All The Fine Young Cannibals, a 1960 Natalie Wood/Robert Wagner melodrama that nobody in the group had ever seen. The Fine Young Cannibals’ debut single “Johnny Come Home” sounded a bit like the Police, but with more shimmy in the beat and with Gift’s eerily high yelp up front in the mix. FYC couldn’t get a record deal until their “Johnny Come Home” video aired on The Tube, a British music show. It probably helped that Gift was an intensely beautiful man, weird hairline and all. After that video aired, Fine Young Cannibals signed to London Records, the home of New Order and the Happy Mondays, and they released their self-titled debut in 1986.

In the UK, “Johnny Come Home” became a top-10 hit, and so did the Fine Young Cannibals’ cover of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.” Those singles also did well around the world, but they didn’t make much impact in the US, where “Johnny Come Home” peaked at #76 and “Suspicious Minds” missed the Hot 100 entirely. But movie directors loved FYC. The band covered the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen In Love” for the soundtrack of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, and Barry Levinson cast them as a bar band in his ’60s period piece Tin Men. Roland Gift also started acting, taking parts in Sammy And Rosie Get Laid and Scandal. Steele and Cox, meanwhile, started producing for other artists: Muscular dance-rap for the Wee Papa Girl Rappers, muscular dance-rock for Pop Will Eat Itself. They started up an acid house side project called Two Men, A Drum Machine And A Trumpet, and their 1987 single “Tired Of Getting Pushed Around” made the top 20 in the UK.

The three Fine Young Cannibals were busy enough that they didn’t get around to releasing The Raw & The Cooked, their sophomore album, until January 1989. The album is almost a compilation. Three tracks of the 10 tracks had already been on the Tin Men soundtrack, and another is the Buzzcocks cover that had been in Something Wild. For the other songs, the band was hoping to get Prince on board as a producer, which is really shooting for the stars. Their label told them that Prince didn’t take for-hire jobs like that but that there was another guy in Minneapolis, a Prince collaborator, who could work with them. That’s how Fine Young Cannibals got together with David Z.

David Z is the older brother of Revolution drummer Bobby Z. (The middle brother in that family is Stephen E. Rivkin, who edited the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies and Avatar and who really should’ve considered using the name Stephen E. Z.) David Z has already figured into this column a couple of times. In 1980, David played guitar for Lipps, Inc., who reached #1 with “Funkytown.” In 1986, David radically rearranged Prince’s demo for “Kiss,” a song that was supposed to go to the Revolution side project Mazarati before Prince decided he wanted it back for himself. During the Minneapolis sound’s golden run in the ’80s, David Z was always in the mix. If Fine Young Cannibals couldn’t get Prince, then David Z was the next best thing. (I’m assuming that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were out of the Fine Young Cannibals’ price range, though that would’ve been interesting.)

The group flew to Minneapolis, where they felt like fish out of water, and they recorded three tracks at Prince’s Paisley Park studio, co-producing with David Z. The group had been working on “She Drives Me Crazy” for a while. They weren’t crazy about an earlier version, which had Roland Gift singing in his regular voice. But when Gift re-wrote the song’s lyrics and sang it in a piercing falsetto, they had something. Working with David Z, they meticulously built all the little minimal parts of “She Drives Me Crazy,” spending a particularly long time on recording, sampling, and programming the snare-drum sound. (David goes in depth on the process in this story.) The end result was an irresistible hybrid pop beast.

On “She Drives Me Crazy,” Gift sings about a deeply unhealthy relationship. His narrator is helplessly drawn to the subject of the song, but he also can’t stand her: “I can’t get any rest/ People say I’m obsessed/ Everything you say is lies/ But to me, there’s no surprise.” By the time the song ends, Gift has made peace with the idea of sticking with this person, and he doesn’t really have a good reason: “I won’t make it on my own/ No one likes to be alone.” But nobody really pays attention to the lyrics of “She Drives Me Crazy.” Gift sings it in such a high, feathery voice that his lyrics are hard to make out, and the song’s groove and chorus are so all-consuming that you don’t really hear “She Drives Me Crazy” as a song about toxic-relationship inertia. Instead, it sounds like it’s all about the buzz of infatuation.

All the interlocking parts of “She Drives Me Crazy” work beautifully: The hard-blip keyboard sounds, the buzzsaw guitar riff, the soft synth-drone hums. It probably wasn’t fun to obsessively work on that snare-drum sound, but that snare pops. It sounds like getting your head slammed in a car door. “She Drives Me Crazy” is a pure studio track, so sleek and synthetic that you could never effectively recreate it on live instruments. But it’s also got a simple, direct, old-school pop melody, which Gift delivers with unearthly poise. It sounds classic and futuristic at the same time.

“She Drives Me Crazy” was only a #5 hit in the UK, but I hear it as a product of a truly great period of British pop music. I’ve mentioned this before, but this period was my pop-music awakening moment. I was nine years old and living in London when “She Drives Me Crazy” dropped. My dad was on sabbatical and working on a book, so my family moved to the UK for a year, and I immediately got very into what was happening on Top Of The Pops. (My dad never finished that book, but I’m writing a book about pop music right now, so I guess it all worked out.) Pop music was new to me at the time, so I didn’t know that Fine Young Cannibals and Soul II Soul and Neneh Cherry and S’Express and Bomb The Bass were playing around in the pop sandbox, finding new combinations of old sounds. I just knew that I loved this shit. “She Drives Me Crazy” fit right into that.

In America, “She Drives Me Crazy” started out at alternative and college radio, but it blew up in clubs, and it even made the lower reaches of the R&B chart. MTV got very into the eye-grabbing video, which was built around Gift’s stare and around some mime-looking dancers. The clip came from director Philippe Decouflé, whose only other music video is New Order’s “True Faith.” Decouflé went on to become a big-deal choreographer and, eventually, a director for Cirque Du Soleil. As a kid, I always assumed that “She Drives Me Crazy” was on the Earth Girls Are Easy soundtrack because I thought the dancers were supposed to be the aliens from that movie.

“She Drives Me Crazy” didn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the stuff that was doing well on the American charts in that moment, but it had the same sense of adventurous playfulness that I hear on a lot of 1989’s biggest hits. “She Drives Me Crazy” opens The Raw & The Cooked, and it doesn’t really sound anything like the rest of the album, but it briefly made the Fine Young Cannibals into a very big deal anyway. FYC will appear in this column again.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1989, two different comedians released parodies of “She Drives Me Crazy.” First, “Weird Al” Yankovic spoofed the song on the soundtrack of his movie UHF, changing it into the self-explanatory “She Drives Like Crazy.” Here’s that version:

That same year, Arsenio Hall, who’d just become a hugely popular late-night host, also released an album under the novelty-rap persona Chunky A. This whole project has aged about as badly as work of comedy can age. Here’s Chunky A’s “She Drives Me Crazy” parody “Ho Is Lazy”:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7. Chunky A’s highest-charting single, 1989’s “Owww!,” peaked at #77.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1990, David Steele and Andy Cox produced “I’ll Drive You Crazy,” a B-side for the UK rapper Monie Love. The song used the riff from “She Drives Me Crazy,” and it worked as an answer song. Here it is:

(Monie Love’s highest-charting US single, 1990’s “It’s A Shame (My Sister),” peaked at #26.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kermit The Frog and Miss Piggy’s cameo-packed time-capsule video for their 1994 version of “She Drives Me Crazy”:

(Kermit The Frog’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “Rainbow Connection,” peaked at #25.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Dolly Parton, a person who has been in this column a couple of times, released a bluegrass-adjacent cover of “She Drives Me Crazy” in 2008. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: El Vy, the side project from the National’s Matt Berninger and Menomena’s Brent Knopf, covered “She Drives Me Crazy” in 2015, when they played their very first show at Doug Fir Lounge in Portland. Here’s video of that cover:

(El Vy have never appeared on the Hot 100, but “Coney Island,” Taylor Swift’s 2020 duet with Berninger, peaked at #63.)

THE 10S: Roy Orbison’s simple, graceful heart-ripper “You Got It” — co-written with Orbison’s Traveling Wilburys bandmates Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty, and released as a single a month after Orbison died of a heart attack in December of 1988 — peaked at #9 behind “She Drives Me Crazy.” Every time I hear it, I begin to understand. It’s a 10.

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