Songs I Love 8675309/Jenny by Tommy Tutone
It was 1981, and Doug Treadway fired the serve that would make him our class badminton champion. He strutted with his fist in the air, then began ferociously strumming his racket like a guitar and bellowing out a string of numbers. Even with his puberty-addled voice crackling amidst squeaking tennis shoes, I knew I was hearing something special. It wasn’t long before the radio worked its magic and I fully experienced 8675309/Jenny. I was singing at full volume by the time it had ended.
Even though the subject is creepy (a guy calling a phone number he sees written on a wall in search of a “good time”), Tommy Tutone’s warbling vocals make it seem more like the plot of a teen hanky-panky movie than a song about a lonely man desperate for companionship. It’s a compelling storyline, but the quirky, endearing lyrics are overshadowed by the melody; the mega earworm that twists and turns through the verse, riding on a chunky guitar pattern, then diving straight into the best part of the song. The chorus!
Equal parts brilliant and simple, the chorus consists of “8675309” repeated as a call and response with the 9 stretched out to accommodate a melodic hook. It commands you to sing along. If you ever find yourself at a party with me and this song comes on, I’ll probably loudly proclaim, “this is the best chorus ever, man.” If you wish to disagree, you’d better have an amazing alternative to suggest because I have razor-sharp music nerd skills and I’m not afraid to use them.
The obvious reasons to love this song are many and varied, but I’m further drawn to it because of its ability to function in two unexpected situations.
Exhibit A: the campfire.
We’ve all found ourselves staring into the flames of a bonfire as the sky darkens and the air turns chilly. Acoustic guitar music is as common here as roasting marshmallows. I used to find myself numbly singing along as Kumbaya morphed into Neil Young, wondering what I could bring to the campfire. Enter 8675309. You may not realize it, but you probably know 60% of the words to this song, and if you don’t, the very learnable chorus is always right around the corner. More than once I’ve been elevated from quiet guy no one noticed to life of the party once I managed to get my mitts on the guitar and busted this one out. Even the fireflies like it.
Exhibit B: the music store
Music stores are unofficial showcases for guitar geeks to flaunt their blues licks. Mine are more lavender in color, so when guitar shopping, I’m a little self-conscious. Enter 8675309. The lead line is unusual, simple, and cool. Even with the eyes of the shredders upon me, I can get my brain and hands to cooperate enough to rock it. I’m often met with cheers—usually from a guitarist’s significant other (or mother)—who is elated to hear anything but another squealing Stevie Ray Vaughn riff. It puts the geeks at ease: they know that the blues throne is not being challenged, but it also lets everybody know that this guy (being me) is looking for a new axe.
When 8675309/Jenny was released in 1981, the decade was still feeling its way towards what would become its signature sound. Synth-heavy Euro-pop would soon dominate the airwaves, and it’s great stuff, but it’s always nice to hear some good old American rock and roll, which is exactly what Mr. Tutone gifted the world with this classic power popper. It gives me something that I can hold on to.