Nov 09

BILLY OCEAN – “When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going”

FT + Popular46 comments • 5,205 views

#565, 8th February 1986, video

The intro to “When The Going” is one of pop’s more excruciating: a piggledy pile of drum hits never resolving into a beat while Billy O huffs and puffs “Tough! Tough! T-T-Tough! Huh!”, clearly with no better idea than us of what on earth this is meant to be. A nod to hip-hop? To electro? And then that rubbery bassline comes in and the song relaxes into itself, keen to move on from this regrettable misunderstanding. Though when the “Huh! huh!” stuff comes back in over the outro it still feels hugely out of place.

Apart from that, “When The Going Gets Tough” is a blaring digital take on Motown – not the last we’ll meet in ’86. It’s big and brassy, contemporary too with a sax break that sounds like it jumped off a Huey Lewis record. But “tough”? Not a bit. This is a gentle giant, there’s a pleading in Ocean’s voice which quite undermines his fronting – he’s bouncingly eager to please. Which makes that hoo-hah at the start even sillier, of course.

I keep coming back to the intro because I think it underlines why the track doesn’t really work: Ocean’s adopted home was Britain, and this is one of the eternal dilemmas of commercial British soul (later R&B) – do you play safe and please the crowd, or try and work in the latest American innovations? Do you go tough or tender? Ocean wants it both ways. In a sense it doesn’t matter – Ocean has a voice that sounds good pleading, deep but somehow querulous, with a tear-struck gulping tone. But it makes “When The Going Gets Tough” seem forced, its gung-ho bluster concealing an essential half-heartedness.



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  1. 26
    LondonLee on 10 Nov 2009 #

    I never noticed the ‘Searching’ bassline before, well spotted all. Not that ever I paid that close attention to this before but I thought I would have twigged someone nicking from one of my all-time favourite dance records. But Billy’s no Luther is he, and this is all farting and clanging, every instrument on it sounds processed through some nasty “1980s” machine. It’s the audio equivalent of Billy’s rolled-up jacket sleeves.

    I didn’t mind “Get Out of My Dreams” but this is fairly horrid, though that’s more the fault of the production than Billy (seems like a nice bloke) or the song.

  2. 27
    swanstep on 10 Nov 2009 #

    That Change/Vandross track ‘Searching’ is new to me, but, yep. that does appear to be WTGGTTTGG’s bass-line. Darn. Colonel Abrams’ ‘Trapped’ was, similarly new to me just in the last week or so. Needless to say *that* was very shocking to me: it made me feel a fool for not knowing at the time where Stock Aitken Waterman got so much of the sound they took to the bank.

    I guess this is always the way: experienced critics/writers can always see clearly what’s being strip-mined, roll their eyes at stuff the public falls for, and generally hear things very differently to the person in the street (who, e.g., learns about the Pixies through Nirvana, gets into Elvis through the Smiths, and so on).

  3. 28
    Jungman Jansson on 10 Nov 2009 #

    This time I’m absolutely certain I’ve heard the song before. But I didn’t recognise it. Not so surprising, since I’ve listened to it a few times now and still can’t remember what it sounds like afterwards. (The same goes for the film, actually – I know I’ve seen it, but I can’t remember anything about it).

    It’s not a deeply unpleasant song to listen to, just entirely forgettable. The bassline (nicked or not) is definitely the best thing about it; I agree with just about everyone else there. The title is silly, and it’s not the only attribute that gives a feeling of novelty hit – putting Douglas, Turner and DeVito in the video just adds to that effect.

    SwedenWatch: Yet another #2, with Modern Talking’s “Brother Louie” still parked at the top. #10 on the Tracks chart.

  4. 29
    MikeMCSG on 10 Nov 2009 #

    #28 JJ we got “Brother Louie” later in the year (got to 4 I think) by which time it had become obvious that our firewall against such crap had just crumbled away.

  5. 30
    Rory on 10 Nov 2009 #

    @24 – true indeed, although the irony is that Ocean had lived in the UK most of his life, so you’d expect him to favour the “get outta there” reading. I suppose he was just along for the Hollywood ride.

  6. 31
    Izzy on 10 Nov 2009 #

    This tune will of course return to the top many years hence (actually and horrifically, close to the mid-point between the original and now) in a supremely pointless new guise. I’ve a horrible feeling that by then Popular will have turned into a long slog of ‘will this do?’

  7. 32
    Tom on 10 Nov 2009 #

    Never! Well, OK, there might be the occasional entry which treats latter-day cover versions with only the depth of analaysis they deserve.

  8. 33
    Izzy on 10 Nov 2009 #

    Oops – ‘will this do?’ was of course referring to the records themselves. Obviously the reviews and subsequent repartee could never be less than quicksilver!

  9. 34
    Steve Mannion on 10 Nov 2009 #

    This ‘un sucks but I remain a massive fan of ‘Loverboy’ and its remarkable video.

  10. 35
    Pete on 10 Nov 2009 #

    Jewel Of The Nile is a pretty wretched sequel to a film that never needed a sequel. That said Romancing The Stone is interesting for being one of the first family films that was more successful of video than it was in the cinema. It was a minor hit, but not sequel sized, until video rentals packaged it as an Indy -a-like and loads more people saw it. The Jewel Of The Nile though is pap, and has as its key plot device the confusion between an actual Jewel and a holy man who is known as “The Jewel” – which is such a bad plot device that you expect them to escape via the medium of total eclipse. And it is more than a little racist (and confused about where The Nile is to boot).

  11. 36
    The Leveller on 10 Nov 2009 #

    #34 Yes – loverboy was good, with that weird (sci-fi/horror?) video with the monsters in it. This was irritating soulless rubbish.

  12. 37
    Jimmy the Swede on 10 Nov 2009 #

    # 20 – Kat, whatever Su Pollard yelled at you should have been met by a yelled back “GET ON WITH YOUR WORK, PEGGY!!!” in a sing-song Welsh accent. That would have fixed that fucking end of the pier nonentity!

  13. 38
    Alfred Soto on 11 Nov 2009 #

    A #1 in the U.S. as well

    It didn’t! It peaked at #2 pop.

  14. 39
    TomLane on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Yep, Alfred, you’re right. Should have double checked my Billboard Singles Book. Sorry and thanks.

  15. 40
    Abe Fruman on 11 Nov 2009 #

    2 points off for keeping ‘Borderline’ at Number 2 – so only 3 then.

    Totally meh.

    FWIW, ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’ is an absolutely solid gold wedding classic. Guaranteed to get me up ‘dancing’ and making a fool of myself.

  16. 41
    Dan M on 14 Nov 2009 #

    About that time I was briefly helping to edit a soon-to-be-never-finished documentary in a seedy Hollywood motel-style building, and Madonna was across the courtyard watching a cut of the Borderline video. She asked me and the editor in to watch it and tell her what we thought. I knew her as a singer with one hit so far (I think or thought), and thought she was cute and dressed cool, and it was a great new song. The video was okay, but most videos were just okay in those days. I don’t remember much else. Not much of a story, I know, and has nothing to do with this entry, really, but I’ve rarely had a chance to tell anyone it, and would I love to go back in time and re-live those ten minutes (and thereby improve the story!)

    Romancing the Stone was I guess the kind of movie we all thought we deserved no better than in 1984, and Jewel of the Nile was worse.

  17. 42
    abaffledrepublic on 22 Nov 2009 #

    #7: if you’d spent no more than a week on a kibbutz in 1986 you’d have missed Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s career.

    #31: chin up Izzy! The career of the group who covered this song was a painfully extended slog of ‘will this do’, but there are plenty of peaks to scale before we reach that particular trough, including one of the all-time great pop careers (can’t say who obviously).

  18. 43
    Doctor Casino on 1 Mar 2010 #

    Never heard this before. It’s got its moments but it’s a little too evenly-textured and hence feels more aimless and long than it is. I love “Get Outta My Dreams” though so what do I know? I vote for “Go And Get Stuffed” – that’s hilarious!

  19. 44
    Brooksie on 21 Mar 2010 #

    @ abaffledrepublic # 42: “if you’d spent no more than a week on a kibbutz in 1986 you’d have missed Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s career”

    Sigue Sigue Sputnik had a career?! When did this happen?!

    In the interests of pop accuracy, I have to point out that when people jump from this to ‘Get Outta My Dreams’ in terms of Billy’s big hits, they are inadvertently jumping over the US # 1 ballad (UK # 13) ‘There’ll be Sad Songs to Make You Cry’. This stalled at # 2 in the US, but ‘Sad Songs’ went 1 better. I believe there may have been a US top 10 hit after that, too, though I can’t remember the name.

  20. 45
    Chelovek na lune on 7 Sep 2010 #

    A bit naff and chunky, and no it hasn’t aged well (although, agreed, “Get Outta My Dreams” is inferior.

    Pity that Billy never quite found his niche – “Carribean (or whatever) Queen” towers over everything else he has done, as unforced, flowing, brilliance, which is unselfconsciously enjoyable. So many of the other singles just seem forced, or overproduced, or artificial constructs that haven’t quite gelled, like a poor man’s Alexander O’Neal, which given that Alexander O’neal was a poor man’s Luther Vandross, is not quite right somehow. “Sad Songs” had some life to it, though.

    I make this the first no 1 by a resident (present or former) of the London Borough of Barking (Barking & Dagenham since 1980) since (I think) Kajagoogoo’s miserable 1983 offering (though I’m not 100% certain which side of the boundary with Havering Limahl lived on…) – If Five Star had ever had a number one there would be less uncertaintly. I don’t even think this is better than “Too Shy”. And the next B&Der to go number one was with a novelty track of moderate genius in the spring of 88… Of the three tracks this is placed a lowly third.

  21. 46
    hectorthebat on 12 Jan 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 40
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

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