This song has become so obscured by the passage of time that it wasn’t even the first song to come up with I typed “wild wild west” into Spotify. Instead, the first result was Will Smith’s number-one song of the same name, as well as Kool Moe Dee’s song of the same name (which was sampled in the aforementioned Will Smith single). Next down the line, though, was The Escape Club’s smash success from late 1988. But who are The Escape Club? And how deserving of a number-one hit actually was “Wild, Wild West”? In my Every Hot 100 Number-One Single Challenge, these are the important questions.
If we’re being perfectly honest, the little background facts about this group and what is pretty much their only major hit single… well, these are a tad more intriguing than the song itself. The Escape Club are an English band who formed in London in 1983, signed with EMI two years later, and then moved onto Atlantic Records after two more years. It was with this label that they released their debut single, “Wild, Wild West”, which immediately rose up the charts, eventually spending a week at the top spot. They followed it up with another single, “Shake for the Sheik”, but that only made it to #28 on the pop charts. They pretty much just laid low for the rest of the 80s and had one more top ten hit with “I’ll Be There”, before they disbanded in 1992. They hold the unique distinction of being the only British band to chart with a #1 hit in the US without ever charting in their native UK. (Might be useful converting that to your long-term memory the next round of bar trivia…)
Upon the first listen, I found this to be one of the most boring chart-topping hits I’ve come across in this challenge so far. As many music historians have noted, I’m sure, the rhythm pattern is pretty similar to Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ “Pump It Up”, which was a UK top 40 hit ten years earlier. The fact that “Pump It Up” itself took a noticeable amount of inspiration from Bob Dylan’s 1965 song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, the fact that “Wild, Wild West continues on with this trend feels doubly as derivative, almost distractedly so. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the similarities with Costello’s single don’t stop there. Much like “Pump It Up” contains many of artist’s trademark’s of sexual cynicism and dark wit, “Wild, Wild West” pushes its own sexual metaphors alongside the escalating climate of the 80s – specifically, the growing tensions of nuclear war triggered by the Reagan era.
If this sounds like a lot to swallow, try gazing at the tune in relation to whatever else was in high radioplay in its day. As “Wild, Wild West” was rising up the charts, so were a number of singles from a multitude of genres (pop, R&B, rap, adult contemporary, and glam metal especially) that, though diverse in sound, mostly dealt with the tried-and-true themes of love and heartbreak. The most political a song ever got on the charts in 1988 was Bobby McFerrin’s ankle-deep positivity anthem, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. All of the Cold War-themed pop music was mainly situated in 1982 and 1983, so I’m sure it was quite a surprise that The Beach Boys’ ungodly “Kokomo” was knocked from the number-one spot by something a little more subversive than the year’s norm.
In this context, then, this is a pretty cool song. Every member of the band contributes something sharp and flavorful to the sound, certainly something a bit more “alternative” than most pop music of 1988. I do think that its most important attributes come with its lyrics, which are sly and decidedly tongue-in-cheek. Lines like, “Sitting in the back room, waiting for the big boom” and “Ronnie’s got a new gun” may not be the most subtle metaphors, but they do capture these very palpable tensions so effectively. Even though the Iron Curtain was to be lifted the following year, the uncertainty for what the future holds was quite the hanging cloud over 1988. Even the line “Heading for the nineties, living in the eighties” just feels like a very distinctly late-80s line, similar to the anxieties that would reoccur ten years later in the pre-Y2K days. At the same time, though, this shared stress of entering a whole new decade is cleverly hidden underneath a strong bass-driven, power chord-laden chorus, which seems more concerned with the right to “safe sex” and making it with the girl with “wild, wild hair”. This is hardly a flaw, though – it gives the whole track a much needed pump of youthful energy, easy on the ears and definitely fitting for radio.
I should cap this off by noting that the success of the single was undoubtedly influenced by the music video, which received heavy play on MTV. It’s a pretty basic video, featuring mostly shots of the band performing the tune, accompanied by various disembodied limbs tapping, snapping, and playing along. Though also helped by the occasional moments of gunshots and the generally cool look of the lead singer, this is a pretty basic video, even for 80s MTV standards… save for this mildly psychedelic imagery, of course. The crucial element here, though, comes when these floating arms begin to wave the American flag. Even though we know The Escape Club to be a British band, at this moment there is no ambiguity as to which “wild, wild west” they refer to – and they certainly don’t pull back any punches.