’90s No. 1s Revisited: “More Than Words”
The forty-first No. 1 song of the 1990s was “More Than Words” by Extreme. Prior to this release, Extreme wasn’t particularly well known in the mainstream, but to the extent that they were, they were seen as a bit of a poor man’s Red Hot Chili Peppers. (See the single they released right before “More Than Words”: “Get The Funk Out.”) “More Than Words” was their first Billboard Hot 100 entry. It was followed by the No. 4 hit “Hole Hearted,” which we personally preferred to “More Than Words.” They charted twice more, with “Rest In Peace” and the hauntingly excellent “Stop The World,” both good efforts from their follow-up album that got solid play on MTV but stalled on the Hot 100 at Nos. 96 and 95 respectively. They never charted again. Lead singer Gary Cherone later fronted Van Halen for a bit, without scoring any Hot 100 hits, and then returned to Extreme, with whom he still records and tours today.
“More Than Words” was a very unusual single for radio, given that its only instrument is an acoustic guitar. The strumming technique, well-blended two-part harmonies and unconventional song structure all made this an innovative and distinct track. It’s a very nice piece of songwriting, and its popularity helped fuel the success of MTV’s Unplugged series, which featured popular artists in live acoustic performances. (Extreme never did an Unplugged show, incidentally.)
Let’s listen to “More Than Words”:
One of the more fascinating aspects of the 1990s is the way that each year is distinct within the decade, housing hits that seem only to have been possible in that particular year, and “More Than Words” is a good example of this. This song is decidedly more sophisticated than rock in 1990. Compare it to the No. 1 hit “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection” by Nelson less than one year prior. There are some consistent core threads — superior technical guitar-playing ability, duet vocals, themes of love, long straight hair. But there’s a chasm of difference. Absent are the signature ’80s hair-metal theatrics, fashions and innuendo, and in their place we have a straightforward, dialed-down track with a sparse black-and-white performance video. But as we’ll see, this type of song and performance lack the subversiveness to be successful in 1992. So here it is, squarely in the middle of 1991, enjoying success that’s as much a product of timing as of quality.
This was cool music at the time, and it was nice to see the band find an appropriate vehicle for their strengths (because from a hard rock perspective, they’ve always been a bit of a JV team). This song was clean and poppy, but very safely void of electric guitars and synthesizers that by this time were terribly unfashionable in rock music. This music was something of a remedy to a cultural hangover from the 1980s.
Does it hold up? Sure. There’s nothing on this track that dates it at all, and it has an absolutely incredible number of views on YouTube, a sign of enduring popularity. (As of this writing, the tally exceeds 120 million. That’s nothing short of amazing, considering this song is 25 years old.) That said, it’s worth mentioning that this song was played to death in 1991, and for those of us who lived through it, the wounds of overexposure to this song are still healing.
Dopeness: 4 out of 5 Birkenstocks
’90s No. 1s Revisited is a regular feature on “Was It Dope?” where we walk through every No. 1 song of the 1990s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in order, give it another listen, and answer two critical questions: Was it dope? And does it hold up?