Nov 09

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

FT + Popular46 comments • 5,822 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.



  1. 1
    thefatgit on 9 Nov 2009 #

    After the Lord Mayor’s Show….

    This is a movie soundtack #1 isn’t it? Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Lil’ Danny De Vito in…(movie title escapes me)!

  2. 2
    Pete on 9 Nov 2009 #

    Jewel Of The Nile.

    Billy Ocean was the answer to “What is the worlds smallest Ocean” question in a pub quiz I went to once. It was in a round of “trick questions” but even so…

  3. 3
    punctum on 9 Nov 2009 #

    He had a modest run of useful Brit-Motown hits in the mid-seventies, masterminded by the underrated songwriter/producer Ben Findon (who probably owes his underrated status to the fact that he scored his biggest subsequent hits with the Dooleys and then the Nolans), twice hitting number two with “Love Really Hurts Without You” and “Red Light Spells Danger.” Thereafter he settled back behind the scenes as songwriter and session singer, in the latter case most notably as Scott Walker’s alter ego on “Track Three,” released six months before his global comeback with the carefully demographised “Billie Jean” derivé which, depending where you lived, hit as “Caribbean Queen,” “European Queen” or “African Queen.”

    His greatest qualitative triumph came with the theme song to Jewel Of The Nile, a deliberately anachronistic and somewhat racist sub-Indiana Jones romp. Sourcing its basic template from Change’s six-year-old “Searching,” “The Going Gets Tough” bounces along with the wrong sort of bigness and its loveless Reaganite pledges (“I’m gonna put this dream in motion,” “I’m gonna get myself ‘cross the river” – not presumably in the Sam Cooke manner – “Your love’s like a slow train comin'”) make it catchy but unlovable, like shingles.

    Much of the record’s popularity stemmed from the video which featured a white-suited Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito doing the Temptations walk as though they understood it, though Musicians’ Union fury ensured that a sequence of DeVito miming the glutinous sax solo was edited from the British version. It stands as a slightly forlorn monument to an eighties which could not comprehend subtlety, where everything had to be signalled out in cold Fairlight blasts, could only soundtrack the most bombastic of minor films, could imagine that this was a new gold dream whereas it was the polished but rusty old nightmare. And “When The Going Gets Tough” is also a candidate for the least sexy “ooohh”s on any number one.

  4. 4
    Tom on 9 Nov 2009 #

    Thanks for the Billy O summary Marcello: “Love Really Hurts With Like You” is a good wedding stomper.

  5. 5
    Rory on 9 Nov 2009 #

    I always interpreted that title as “when the going gets tough, the tough piss off”, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t what was meant. It always gave it an unintended air of novelty song for me.

    As average as it gets, with a point knocked off for silly mid-80s features: 4.

  6. 6
    Rory on 9 Nov 2009 #

    Six weeks of this at the top of the Australian charts, by the way, starting on 10 March 1986. When the going gets tough, the tough listen to their brother’s a-ha albums.

  7. 7
    Conrad on 9 Nov 2009 #

    Jacket sleeves rolled up-watch: present and correct in video!

    The bass line is absolutely “Searching” by Change.
    (EDIT – I see MC has already mentioned this)

    The cut-up intro was used by Power Station on Get It On and Some Like It Hot to good effect, but not so much here.

    I think it’s kind of the equivalent of the episode-in-30 seconds pre title tease you got on a lot of shows at the time, to hype you up for the song to come, and actually it should work here, because moving from a hip-hop cut-up intro into a rolling groove makes for a good contrast.

    5’s about right. It’s not quite as bad as I remember it. The title always puts me off though – I hate titles that try too hard

    NB I got going to Israel while this was Number 1 for a 4 month stint on a kibbutz. A very enjoyable experience, that sadly meant I missed the entire careers of Sigue Sigue Sputnik…

  8. 8
    Billy Smart on 9 Nov 2009 #

    I quite enjoyed this in the context of Jewel Of The Nile, as I recall. Having sat through a hundred minutes of cheerful stupidity (“sub-Indiana Jones romp”) is precisely right) a cheerfully stupid song wraps up a forgettable experience cathartically. Heard on the 1986 radio it didn’t sound too bad either, chiefly because most of the other hit singles of the day that surrounded it were worse.

    But the continued afterlife of this song is dispiriting – it rarely seems to have gone away and has become a staple of the seventies/eighties disco radio oldies playlist. And it just sounds bumptious, and is the sort of thing that hearty blokey beery men who don’t really think very much find entertaining.

  9. 9
    Billy Smart on 9 Nov 2009 #

    #2 Watch: A week of Madonna’s simply glorious ‘Borderline’, followed by a week of Su Pollard’s rather less welcome ‘Starting Together’

  10. 10
    Glue Factory on 9 Nov 2009 #

    When I was 14, that intro was the nearest I got to hearing a Latin Rascals record (albeit one made with instruments and not by chopping up tape) so I loved it and wished the whole record could be like that. The rest of it’s nice enough, but I’d always wonder what could have been.

    Can’t imagine that 3 minutes of “hoo-harr-harr-harr” would have got to number one though.

  11. 11
    lonepilgrim on 9 Nov 2009 #

    I don’t remember hearing that intro before now – although I’ve never given the song that much attention. Having just done so I don’t think it benefits from much scrutiny – the production is ghastly – replicant soul made somehow worse by Billy’s gung ho performance – and there’s more of this sort of thing to come. The tune is OK in the background – so 4 or 5 for me.

    Michael Douglas also appears in the video for bob dylan’s ‘Things have changed’ which won the Oscar for best song from the soundtrack to ‘Wonder boys’.

    Kathleen Turner was an outstanding actress for a while – particularly in ‘Body Heat’ and ‘Crimes of Passion’ but the Romancing the Stone/Jewel of the Nile movies were lightweight nonsense.

  12. 12
    Billy Smart on 9 Nov 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: Billy thrice performed ‘When The Going Gets Tough’ on Top Of The Pops. the Christmas day edition we’ll consider in the fullness of time;

    30 January 1986. Also in the studio that week were; Talk Talk and Fine Young Cannibals. Gary Davies and Janice Long were the hosts.

    13 February 1986. Also in the studio that week were; Belouis Some, Latin Quarter and Shakin’ Stevens. Gary Davies and Steve Wright were the hosts.

  13. 13
    Erithian on 9 Nov 2009 #

    Commonly known as “Go and Get Stuffed” after an all-too-easy mishearing of the phrase repeated ad nauseam throughout the song. Yes, the title is a clichéd platitude, the intro is a messy amalgam of hip-hop noises and something akin to a revival of “Kung Fu Fighting”, and the ambling bass which I always thought was the redeeming feature of the record, I learn now was a rip-off (I don’t remember the Change track too clearly so I’ll take MC’s word for it). Next to the thoroughly enjoyable “Love Really Hurts…” this is a leaden old stomp, although there were worse examples to come.

    Number 2 Watch: Billy’s four weeks at number one saw four different number twos – the previous and subsequent No 1s plus Madonna’s “Borderline” and – urghh! – “Starting Together” by Su Pollard, the theme from a docusoap called The Marriage sung by the unaccountably popular actress of Hi-De-Hi fame. I could never stand that woman …

  14. 14
    Izzy on 9 Nov 2009 #

    I loved this at the time, but I remember being desperately disappointed by the follow-up ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car’. Nowadays I perceive them as being pretty much the same record, so either my tastes changed, ten-year-old me tired of plastic soul, or else what I was really into was big hits with funny videos from films I never got to see.

    Obviously it’s mostly the last of these, with a little of the first, but it’s interesting to me that I remember the two following on quickly – whereas I now learn that there was a two-year gap and Billy had other, lesser hits in the interim. It seems that to a kid only the big hits count.

  15. 15
    anto on 9 Nov 2009 #

    Another very perceptive review.
    When I was at school this was the sort of song that would have been thought of as a “boys record” because of its daft machismo.
    What intrigues me about it now is that part that goes “oooh-ooh-ooh. Can I touch you. Can I hold you etc “. There we locate a senuousness that hints at Oceans truer instincts.
    I wouldn,t mark it so low. I think it’s a good catchy hit with a cool bassline. Also the sax solo is 1 of the few in eighties pop that is there for sheer fun rather than to signify “sophistication”.
    The inner conflict between boyish escapism and an almost feminine sweetness add to its appeal.

  16. 16
    wichita lineman on 9 Nov 2009 #

    The title, the primal grunting, it was all very Wall Street/red braces to my ears. But I was so much older then. Now I’m quite into the idea of Go And Get Stuffed keeping Superlard off the number one spot.

    WTGGT reminds me of Rod Stewart’s vaguly 60s soul-ish Baby Jane, which I prefer. It’s a mediocre song with one decent section (“can i touch you?” that deserved to be part of a better record. A number 22 smash in Italy – that’s more like it!

    It not only pinches Change’s rubbery bassline from the beautiful Searching but turns it from something dark and unchaste into the theme from failed Neghbours spinoff series, It’s Bouncer.

    A friend of mine was engineer on a Su Pollard recording session around this time. The song had one particularly high note. To steady her nerves (though it’s an admittedly lame excuse), just as she’d hit the note Su would lift up her top. No, she wasn’t wearing a bra. Oh no.

  17. 17
    thefatgit on 9 Nov 2009 #

    I met Su Pollard once during my “boho” phase in 1990. I was going to a buskers party with 4 cans of Tennents Super and an 8th of deisel. We bumped into her at Holland Park tube, and invited her along. She politely declined.

  18. 18
    Mark M on 9 Nov 2009 #

    It’s a grindingly dull record from a rotten, rotten movie. Romancing The Stone was vaguely fun, but Jewel Of The Nile is just really weary, perfunctory and pretty racist to boot. I did, at the time, really enjoy the third, very very different Douglas/Turner/DeVito collaboration, The War Of The Roses, but I haven’t seen since, I don’t think. And on Turner’s career highlights, yes to Body Heat but honestly, Crimes Of Passion is terrible.

  19. 19
    Jeremy on 9 Nov 2009 #

    My 2 cents as a minor synthpop producer:

    I’m sure that sax is an Oberheim synth. I have one and it does a brilliant North-England cornet sound. In fact the bass might be an Oberheim too.

  20. 20
    Kat but logged out innit on 9 Nov 2009 #

    Su Pollard once excitedly yelled at me on Denmark St! I can’t remember the exact context but I definitely didn’t initiate the exchange. She was wearing a polka dotted shirt.

    WTGGTTTGG is rather jolly, isn’t it? I quite like the ‘daaaaar-lin, you’ve got to be…something’ bit. I used to get him mixed up with Billy Joel though.

  21. 21
    swanstep on 9 Nov 2009 #

    I agree with the consensus here. Nothing more than inoffensive. It does seem like the perfect, ‘peppy’ soundtrack for a hellish, David Brent ‘team effectiveness exercise’ or whatever (whereas Phil Collins and Huey Lewis get to soundtrack American Psycho, murders and executions etc.):

  22. 22
    MikeMCSG on 10 Nov 2009 #

    After the false dawn this is much more representative of the rest of the decade and beyond – a fair talent hiring himself out to record a piece of corporate crap for a naff film. Four people wrote this- there’s surely an inverse relationship between the number of writers (not counting when they’re in the same band obviously) and the quality of the song.

    In any case one of the four is the dreaded Darth Vader of pop, Mutt Lange, a man whose mission in life seems to be erasing any trace of the artist’s humanity or personality (including his wife)from their work. He doesn’t quite succeed with Billy but he’s getting there.

    Billy actually played in the same building I work in earlier this year. He looks a lot different now with his greying dreadlocks.

  23. 23
    Tom on 10 Nov 2009 #

    Haha when I saw Mutt Lange on the credits I automatically credited him with all the stuff I LIKED about it! Yes he is the Jerry Bruckenheimer of pop but in small doses…

  24. 24
    swanstep on 10 Nov 2009 #

    @5 Rory. That ‘…, the tough get outta there’ inverse reading of the song title phrase *is* tempting (although not to Americans). US-English is riddled with tempting misreadings to outsdiers like that: my fave is ‘lucked out’, as in ‘Mutt lucked out and got to marry Shania’. That ‘in luck’ meaning is bizarre given that the phrase ‘out of luck’ (meaning, as one would expect, ‘no luck’) is common US usage. Trans-Atlantic and -Pacific peoples divided by a common language, and all that…

  25. 25
    TomLane on 10 Nov 2009 #

    A #1 in the U.S. as well. Once again I find myself going against the grain in these discussions, but the initial 5 is too low. This is a solid 7 just for catchiness alone. By this time Ocean could be counted on for a catchy single to hit the airwaves, and this is one of those times. And he had one more in him before he faded from the charts. His 1988 “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” (another Mutt Lange co-write/production) is better than this one and also went to #1 in the U.S.

  26. 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.

  27. 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).

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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?’

  32. 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.

  33. 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!

  34. 34
    Steve Mannion on 10 Nov 2009 #

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

  35. 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).

  36. 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.

  37. 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!

  38. 38
    Alfred Soto on 11 Nov 2009 #

    A #1 in the U.S. as well

    It didn’t! It peaked at #2 pop.

  39. 39
    TomLane on 11 Nov 2009 #

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

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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).

  43. 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!

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. 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)

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)

If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page