Those old American Top 40 shows that air around the country every weekend are history trapped in amber. Every now and then, what we know today, years later, collides hard with what we didn’t know when the shows were new.
I tuned in late to a 1986 show a few weeks ago, so I don’t know precisely how Casey came to answer a question about the artist with the most top-10 singles as a solo act or member of a group—whether it came in from a listener or it was a factoid his researchers scrounged up on their own. The artist with the most was Bing Crosby, with 56. Right behind him was Paul McCartney with 55, although Casey observed that Paul had just scored a top-10 hit recently with “Spies Like Us,” and so he would probably be tying or surpassing Crosby in the future.
That’s what they thought back then. But we know that since “Spies Like Us,” Paul hasn’t returned to the top 10 on the Hot 100, and that given the changes in chart methodology and mass taste, he probably never will.
“Spies Like Us” is an artifact of a weird little pocket of music history. For a couple of years in the middle of the 1980s, the relationship between pop music and the movies was as close as it had ever been, and as close as it was ever going to be. And it wasn’t just films like Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop, which produced multiple hits from their soundtracks: nearly every hit movie between 1984 and 1986 had a big star singing a song, even if the song only played over the closing credits and had nothing to do with the rest of the movie. In the heyday of MTV, such songs provided free advertising for the movies, since the videos frequently featured movie clips.
Spies Like Us stars Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase as bumbling secret agents on a mission in the Soviet Union. Aykroyd and Chase were not the only high-profile people involved with the movie. It was directed by John Landis, who had directed Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and other popular comedies starring Saturday Night Live alumni, and scripted by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who would go on to write other popular films over the next decade, including Gung Ho, City Slickers, Parenthood, and A League of Their Own. It came out in December 1985 and opened at #2 for the week behind Rocky IV. It did fairly well through the holidays before beginning to slide down the box-office list in mid-January—a slide that began about the time its title song reached its chart peak.
I would be interested to know how it was that McCartney came to write and record “Spies Like Us”—if somebody knew somebody who knew Paul, or if John Landis simply rolled out of bed one morning, placed a call, and asked him to. The song was recorded in the fall of 1985 during sessions for the album Press to Play, and it’s got the feel of something that had been in McCartney’s pocket for a while and which he slicked up enough to be presentable. It’s mostly a rhythm track (and a 1980-style electronic percussion track at that), and it doesn’t go anywhere until the last half-minute or so, when it briefly threatens to catch fire into something more than an inconsequential tidbit.
McCartney also appears in the “Spies Like Us” video, which was shot at Abbey Road and directed by Landis. It’s your typical mid-80s movie music video, with a little pre-song scenario to set it up and clips from the film interspersed. It’s a bit jarring to see how young McCartney, Aykroyd, and Chase looked then compared to the way they look now—but many of us get the same sensation every morning at the mirror.