1988 Countdown #44: Terence Trent D’Arby, “Wishing Well”

(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)

Adam Curry returns to introduce “Terence Trent D’Arby, with the first number-one hit of his career.” At the time, “first” seemed an entirely reasonable adjective in that sentence, although “last” or “only” would prove just as accurate. Curry continues, “It’s from an album that he claimed was the most brilliant debut from any artist this decade and it was better than the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album.” Ah, the things people used to say to get attention in the British music press.

Curry throws to another clip from the same D’Arby interview we saw before “Sign Your Name” a few hours back at #71. D’Arby is still being filmed in the hallway of an awards show; there’s more people in the background now and he has to speak louder, with an accent more British than American: “The reason that I’m sharp, if I could use that, is because I’ve got rough edges. If I would sand those edges down, I would no longer be sharp, I wouldn’t be cutting.” D’Arby pulls a few braids out of his face; he probably had to do that a lot. “Which is more important?” he asks. “Selling lots and lots of records or being respected as a viable serious artist?”

If D’Arby has an answer, we don’t hear it, because we cut to the video for “Wishing Well,” and see him in black and white, walking through a public park, wearing sunglasses and a big puffy hat. He passes by a beautiful brunette girl sitting on a bench; she looks up at him.

Cut to color footage of a set draped with a large copper cloth. In the foreground is an antique microphone; in the background are three guys in the band, all wearing sunglasses and slapping their instruments in time with the drumbeat. D’Arby slides into the frame as if somebody greased the floor. He overshoots the microphone and sings “Kissing like a bandit, stealing time” as if he’s barely aware of where the mic is. The effect is cool rather than confused. For the next line, he looks into the camera, apparently wanting to emphasize “underneath the sycamore tree” as if it were an important clue in a million-dollar scavenger hunt.

Closeup: the silver sheriff’s star on the left breast pocket of D’Arby’s jacket. D’Arby keeps singing, letting us observe that he appears to be wearing a mock turtleneck.

Back to the park: D’Arby sits down on the same bench as the brunette. She is reading a newspaper; he unfolds one too.

In color on the set: D’Arby shimmying his shoulders, bobbing in time to the music, and attempting to seduce the microphone. On the line “I’m falling in love with you,” he strikes a pose, extending his leg in one of those diagonal postures Bob Fosse loved so much. There’s a quick flash of D’Arby in front of eight black-clad dancers, all striking the same pose. If this were a movie, a vignette like that would be a sign that D’Arby was cracking up under the pressure. In other words: can D’Arby play the Black Swan?

Quick scene in the park, D’Arby is flirting with the brunette, who just wants to read her newspaper–which is the Paris daily, Le Monde. (She might be the same model who played “Frenchie” in the “Sign Your Name” video; at the very least, we can tell D’Arby has a thing for beautiful Frenchwomen. The two videos form a nice diptych of seduction and separation.)

On the set, D’Arby flips his braids around. The semi-coherent lyrics are “A wishing well of crocodile cheers / Sing”–and when he gets to “sing,” he flips his hands up and gives a comic look into the camera, a rare moment where he punctures his own self-importance.

Park: D’Arby keeps macking on the brunette. She purses her lips and looks away, bored. Given that she’s reading a French newspaper, there’s no guarantee she understands anything he’s saying.

Set: D’Arby snaps his fingers up by his cheekbones, as serious and precise as if he were doing open-heart surgery. “Wishing Well” can be precisely carbon-dated by its production, especially the drums and the synthesizers. As a song, it’s a catchy piece of nonsense. But as a single, it’s still a marvel, mostly because of D’Arby’s voice: rough but sweet, capable of sliding elegantly from conversational tones to upper-register squealing.

Park: D’Arby keeps jabbering, and finally, the girl laughs.

Set: D’Arby does a little stuttering dance. When he gets to the “riverboat gambler” line, he mimes the tossing of dice. Overliteral acting out of lyrics: never a good idea.

Black and white: D’Arby has convinced the brunette to leave the park and get a drink with him at a café. We can see now that she’s wearing a leather jacket, and generally, looks tougher than he does. In a fight, the smart money’s on her. To make the cameraman’s life easier, they’re sitting side by side.

“So you want to be a midnight rambler,” D’Arby sings, with twitchy fingertips and a knowing grin. Um, wasn’t the midnight rambler of Stones fame a rapist-murderer? Emphasizing the D’Arby-grows-unhinged subtext, we get another Bob Fosse/Black Swan flash. The camera tracks in for a close-up as D’Arby bobs in time to the music.

Breaking news from black-and-white land! D’Arby is doing very well with the brunette, and has progressed to whispering in her ear and nuzzling her neck.

Back to color. Damn, D’Arby looks skinny. More intense finger-snapping, and then some herky-jerky choreography. It’s mimicked by the backup singers, in sunglasses and white turtlenecks, and it’s sufficiently odd that I wonder if they’re deliberately mocking D’Arby.

Clips of the (interracial, but mostly white) band: the drummer has a minimal kit; the two guitarists and the bassist swivel back and forth in the rhythm of the song. D’Arby reappears to throw his hair back and say “on the beat now, unh,” as if he were a junior James Brown, leading a bunch of white British guys and a drum machine. The white-turtleneck pair make minimal pointing gestures. Okay, they’re definitely taking the piss.

We interrupt this video for a black-and-white news flash: D’Arby has gotten the brunette into bed. He is lying shirtless, reading a book. She has her clothes on and is looking at the same book.

A saxophonist emerges from behind D’Arby, honking away, doubling the bassline. D’Arby responds by pulling out every dance move he knows, pivoting, grabbing, vibrating, leaning, flipping. He kicks the microphone stand away, pulls it back, kicks it behind him, pulls it back one more time, and does a split. D’Arby’s been paying attention to Prince. (And somewhere in England, Roachford is paying attention to D’Arby.)

Meanwhile, in black-and-white, D’Arby and the girl are naked under their bedsheets, kissing each other gently. For those of you keeping score at home, D’Arby got her into bed in under three and a half minutes. Then we switch back to color: D’Arby does another split, just in case you missed the first one.

“Wishing Well” hit #1 on the Billboard singles charts (for one week). You can watch the video here.

posted 18 March 2011 in 1988 and tagged , . 10 comments

10 Comments on 1988 Countdown #44: Terence Trent D’Arby, “Wishing Well”

  1. Chris M. Says:

    As a song, it’s a catchy piece of nonsense. But as a single, it’s still a marvel, mostly because of D’Arby’s voice: rough but sweet, capable of sliding elegantly from conversational tones to upper-register squealing.

    Co-sign. I’ve never been so happy to see a record label payola an act up the charts as I was in ’87–’88 by the long campaign Columbia underwent to break D’Arby in America.

    How do I know there was payola (besides that it was the late ’80s, and Hit Men says so)? I don’t, exactly, but Columbia really labored a long time on D’Arby.

    The album dropped in America in the early fall of ’87, and the first single, “If You Let Me Stay” (also terrific, but pretty deeply out of step with 1987 U.S. Top 40 radio) flopped badly. “Wishing Well” was the Hail Mary second single, and it took the better part of a half-year to scale the Hot 100 — one of the slowest climbs to the top, IIRC, with several moments where the single went backwards or lost its bullet. I have to believe somebody passed somebody cash, coke and hookers to get it to the top.

    Comparatively, “Sign Your Name” was an easier sell — by then Introducing the Hardline was a Top Five album, and the single shot into the pop and R&B Top Five. The fact that “Sign” is the D’Arby song that still gets played in moderate adult-contemporary rotation two decades later (you never hear “Wishing Well” in line at the drugstore) shows it was always the most commercial track on the disc, as ballads usually are. But I still like “Wishing Well” best among the singles. (And I still love the sappy album cut “Let’s Go Forward” best of all — that’s the lost hit on that album.)

  2. azul120 Says:

    Makes sense what you said.

    In one of the more egregrious flubs of the year on the MTV Top 20 Countdown, “Wishing Well” peaked at #10 a few weeks before it would hit #1 on Billboard. As if to make up for that error that summer, “Sign Your Name” rocketed (temporarily ahead the likes of the more steadily rising yet more perennial “Sweet Child of Mine” from G’n’R) to #3, though it lasted about 8 weeks total on the chart, and of course, was seen at #71 here on the Top 100. More importantly though, “Wishing Well” got a bit more of its due here on the year end.

    I do remember seeing this video a few years later on Classic MTV, often a good place to catch less-frequently played oldies while it was around. And of course, as part of his attempted 1993 comeback “Symphony or Damn”, his memorable video for “She Kissed Me”, which was directed by a then new to the scene Michel Gondry and landed a spot on MTV’s Buzz Clips.

    Also, he was among the featured artists on an MTV Ultrasound special on Two Hit Wonders, which was quite good, and to this day I am kicking myself over not recording. I remember something to the effect of his words being misinterpreted. (Uh, right.)

  3. Rob Says:

    I love “If You Let Me Stay.” Heard it (and saw the video) the same day I first saw (and heard) “Faith,” watching MTV in the Ezra Stiles Buttery. That was a good afternoon. Still like that one best of his hits.

    I always think Terence Trendy (as you liked to call him) is ripe for rediscovery. As Chris Rock once said, he’s as talented as Prince and as famous as Andre Cymone. When Danny Gokey sang “Dance Little Sister” on American Idol a couple years ago (Paula picked it out for him) it might’ve been the biggest exposure he’s ever had. And Bruno Mars’s version of “Grenade” at this year’s Grammy’s was a straight up tribute to TTd’A’s version of “Who’s Lovin’ You,” which in retrospect really should have been pimped as a single.

  4. Chris M. Says:

    I love “If You Let Me Stay.” Heard it (and saw the video) the same day I first saw (and heard) “Faith,” watching MTV in the Ezra Stiles Buttery. That was a good afternoon.

    That was a good season! I know this is nostalgia for my high-teenage years talking, but fall of ’87 was one of my favorite periods for pop — a great array of stuff hitting the charts at that moment. Everything from U2 to Exposé to INXS to Pet Shop Boys to New Order to Def Leppard to the Cure. And then George Michael shows up a couple months before Christmas and spreads months of awesomesauce all over everything.

    I remember having mixed feelings about Paula’s “Dance Little Sister” pick on Idol — admiration for her sudden burst of good, even refined taste and annoyance that she was wasting such a good piece of pop-soul on the soulless Gokey.

    Ooh, good call on the D’Arby cover of “Who’s Lovin’ You” — another lost album cut smothered in greatness. As with “If You…” I could see it working as a single in the U.K. but probably not here, not even after “Sign Your Name.” (IIRC correctly the fourth American single after “Sign” was in fact “Dance Little Sister” but it petered out in the Top 30.)

  5. Gavin Says:

    “Who’s Lovin’ You” might still be my favorite track of his–I remember, after some months, discovering he hadn’t written it, and having to revise my opinion of his songwriting talents down a notch or two.

  6. Gavin Says:

    The singles from ITHATTTD:

    “If You Let Me Stay” — #68
    “Wishing Well” — #1
    “Sign Your Name” — #4
    “Dance Little Sister” — #30

  7. Rob Says:

    I also love his version of “Wonderful World,” from the flip side of the “Wishing Well” 12-inch. (I had that last “whoooa baby” as my outgoing answering machine message that winter, back when we all did things like that.)

    If all TTd’A wanted to do was retro soul covers, he could have cleaned up for a few years, based on “Wonderful World” and “Who’s Lovin’ You.” (’88-’92 radio was very big on terrible retro soul covers, from Paul Young’s “Oh Girl” to Bolton’s “Dock of the Bay” and lots of even worse ones I can’t even remember right now.) I think “Who’s Lovin’ You” slays the original.

    Greil Marcus had a great Real Life Top 10 item about how there are two types of people, those who think Sam Cooke’s best song is “Wonderful World” and those who think it’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and why TTd’A’s version was a strong case for the former position. (He also said “Wishing Well” failed for him because it was hard not to notice how many times TTd’A practiced his laugh in the second verse.)

  8. azul120 Says:

    Dance Little Sister was good stuff as well. I believe it reached #14 on MTV.

    And yeah, that was quite the fall of awesome music. Not to mention Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love”.

  9. Maria Says:

    Who is this lady in videos Sign your name and Wishing well??? She is so beautifull, is she a model or actress? Greetings

  10. Barb Says:

    I love Terence Trent old an New I just wish he had as much faith in himself back then as I did , But I understand now why he died to save his life at first I thought it was a cop out because of talented artists that were out prince an MJ, but I wish there had been a collaboration anyway you who’s loving you was awesome that voice sexy, raspy an strong I play it everyday once in the morning an at night along with wishing well Thanks an glad your back

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