Sunday, September 28, 2008

Break Out The Pom Poms!

When Toni Basil burst on to the pop charts during 1982, with pom-poms a blazing, few outside of film aficionados and those in showbiz, would have realised she was already a veteran in the entertainment industry, and had actually released her debut single some sixteen years before ‘Mickey’. Few may realise that even today, so it’s time to examine the life and times of one of the 80s most noted ‘one hit wonders’, and reveal one or two titbits behind Toni Basil’s worldwide chart topper ‘Mickey’.

Born Antonia Basilotta in Philadelphia, Toni Basil attended high school in Las Vegas, where, as you might have guessed, she was a member of the cheerleading squad. After high school Basil worked as a go-go dancer (it was the 60s), but soon moved on to working as a choreographer. She worked on 60s TV shows such as ‘Shindig!’, ‘Hullabaloo’ and ‘The T.A.M.I. Show’. In 1964 Basil made her motion picture debut in the Annette Funicello feature ‘Pajama Party’. Two years later she released her debut single ‘28’, penned by one Graham Gouldman (of future Hotlegs/10CC/Wax) fame. Over the next few years Basil appeared regularly in films, usually in minor roles. The most notable of these was as a New Orleans prostitute in a scene with Peter Fonda from the cult classic ‘Easy Rider’ (1969). She also appeared with ‘Easy Rider’ co-stars Jack Nicholson (in ‘Five Easy Pieces) and Dennis Hopper (in ‘The Last Movie’). Her work as a choreographer during the same period included ‘The Cool Ones’ (1967) and the Monkees’ feature ‘Head’ (1968), in which she also appeared as a dancer.

During the 70s Basil worked as a choreographer on the George Lucas film ‘American Graffiti’ (1973) - she choreographed the dancing not the drag racing - worked as choreographer on David Bowie’s 1974 ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour, and struck up a long term association with Better Midler when she started working as a backing singer for the ‘Divine Miss M’ (she also appeared in 1979’s ‘The Rose’). All the while Toni Basil honed her technical skills in film making, working with both 8mm and 16mm formats. In the late 70s she founded the urban dance troupe the Lockers, with whom she maintained a close association over coming years. She also moved into directing/ producing music videos, including later on being at the helm on the breakthrough track for Talking Heads, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (she choreographed David Byrne’s jerky dance moves). Her foray into music video production during the late 70s/early 80s would prove a key ingredient in the next phase of her career.

Around the same time the hugely successful British song writing team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman (Suzi Quatro, Smokie, Sweet and Mud), had penned a bunch of songs for British pop group Racey (see future post), to feature on their 1979 debut album ‘Smash And Grab’. The album yielded a string of hits, including the British and Australian mega-hits ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Lay Your Love On Me’, but the track ‘Kitty’ wasn’t counted among them. The song was then given to Toni Basil, with the lyrics reworked and the title changed from ‘Kitty’ to ‘Mickey’.  Just an aside of the trivia variety - Toni Basil appeared on the sitcom Laverne & Shirley during the shows 1978 season.  Basil played the part of a choreographer named, wait for it....Mickie - I've no idea if it inspired the song title or was just an amazing coincidence.  It was originally included on one of the first music video cassette releases, ‘Word Of Mouth’, a project Toni Basil had creative involvement in at every level. There were actually a number of these produced and released in the late 70s/early 80s, including by artists such as David Bowie, E.L.O., and of course Michael Nesmith’s groundbreaking ‘Elephant Parts’. But unlike other artists Toni Basil’s ‘Word Of Mouth’ was released in that one format only in the U.S.. As MTV hadn’t yet launched there was still a limited profile in America for the whole music video medium, and subsequently ‘Word Of Mouth’ suffered from a lack of its title.

But it was rightly felt that the song ‘Mickey’ in particular had the potential to be a big hit, so elsewhere during 1982, ‘Word Of Mouth’, and more importantly the song ‘Mickey’, were released simultaneously on video and record. By early 1982 the song ‘Mickey’ was more than two years old, and Basil was concerned that it had gone past its use by date, but truly classic pop rarely does. The song would prove to have substantial longevity both on the charts, and in the memories of those who were around at the time. ‘Mickey’ debuted on the British charts first in early ‘82, understandable given that countries strong affinity with the work of song writing team Chinn and Chapman. It climbed to #2 on the British charts and was soon released in other parts of the world.

A major factor in the song becoming a hit was of course the accompanying music video. Given Basil’s background as a one time cheerleader herself, and her professional background as a dancer/choreographer, she had come up with the concept of reworking the original Chinn/Chapman song to include the cheerleading chants, and built the music video around the idea of cheerleading routines. It helped propel ‘Mickey’ to the top of the pile in Australia, where it rallied at #1 for two weeks in mid ‘82, also peaking inside the New Zealand top five at the same time. Given ‘Mickey’s huge sales in other markets, the song came to the attention of Los Angeles radio station KIQQ. Before long it was registering inside the local top 5, and import copies were being shifted faster than they could be shipped in. Just two years earlier the song had been turned down by several American labels, among them Chrysalis, but by mid ‘82 there was no denying it had to be released Stateside. Chrysalis decided to back the single second time around, and by the first week of September 1982, ‘Mickey’ had debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 at #83. It didn’t exactly rocket to the top of the U.S. charts, but with the regular rotation of the music video, and promotional and television appearances by Basil, ‘Mickey’ finally hit the top of the American charts for one week during December ‘82.

Unfortunately the follow up single ‘Nobody’ (UK#52) wasn’t so fine, and consequently failed to blow as many minds as ‘Mickey’. It’s worth mentioning that despite her extensive background in other performance based endeavours, Toni Basil had only ever performed two live shows as a singer prior to the release of ‘Mickey’. She therefore didn’t have the advantage of a strong live fan base to support future record releases. Regardless, on the strength of ‘Mickey’ alone, her album ‘Word Of Mouth’ did eventually sell very well (UK#15/OZ#43/US#22). A little known fact is that several members of Devo (see future post), including the Casale and Mothersbaugh brothers, played on several album tracks, though they didn’t play on ‘Mickey’. ‘Word Of Mouth’ yielded two more singles, but neither ‘Time After Time’ or ‘Shoppin’ From A To Z’ (US#77) made any great impact.

Toni Basil released her self titled sophomore album in late 1983, featuring the singles ‘Over My Head’ (US#81), ‘Suspense’, ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ and ‘Street Beat’, but without the backing of a cheer squad, none made an impact on the mainstream chart field, though ‘Over My Head’ and ‘Street Beat’ both reached the top 5 on the U.S. Dance Chart.

The multi-talented Toni Basil then returned to her other loves of dance choreography and video production. Among her credits during the rest of the 80s were choreographing the music video ‘Beast Of Burden’ by Bette Midler and Mick Jagger (for which Basil received another MTV award nomination), choreographing the video for Tina Turner’s ‘Better Be Good To Me’, and directing/co-producing the music video for Linda Ronstadt’s ‘You Took Advantage Of Me’. Basil also continued to work in film/television and even commercials, occasionally as an actor (including with Thomas Dolby in the 1990 cult classic ‘Rockula’), but mostly as a choreographer. Her film credits over the last twenty five years have included ‘Delirious’, ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, ‘That Thing You Do!’ and ‘Legally Blonde’. Most recently Toni Basil has reunited again with Bette Midler, choreographing Midler’s 2008 Las Vegas show ‘The Showgirl Must Go On’.

In 2003, the music network VH1 ranked ‘Mickey’ at #5 on its list of the 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders. But the artist behind the hit Toni Basil, is anything but a one hit wonder in the field of entertainment, with a multi-faceted career spanning over forty years.

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